Read On God: An Uncommon Conversation Online

Authors: Norman Mailer,Michael Lennon

Tags: #General, #Religion, #Christian Theology

On God: An Uncommon Conversation (6 page)

BOOK: On God: An Uncommon Conversation
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Before that, God existed alone in His endless powers. Then suddenly He created something—He gave something away. Weil believed that humans had a role to play because of this power sharing, as did the Devil, who profited immensely by God's creative act. She's saying that God lost by doing this.

God lost, and God gained. In creating us, God acquired knowledge that could not have been obtained otherwise. So it's not just that God lost. That gets us into reverential notions of God again. Ideally, what I'd like to keep is huge respect for the fact that we were created by something or someone marvelous, who is not wholly unlike ourselves. Therefore, we can identify with that God, identify with God's drama as well as our own and thereby feel larger. Not, “Oh, God, oh, God, don't punish me, please!” Or, “God, dear God, please help me!” The reason I've never found Islam the least bit attractive is, you know, the prayer ritual. Kneel down, present your buttocks to the sky, and recognize that you are totally weak before the wrath of God. Well, we're totally weak before anything and everything that is vastly larger than ourselves. If this is what religion consists of—the recognition of being totally weak and that God will take care of us, provided we never cross any one of a thousand carefully laid-out lines of behavior—then I have to believe that existence is knotted up. And of course, the unspoken root of the nightmare in so much of Islam is precisely their present deep-seated fear. “What if we're wrong?” they have to be thinking. “We've been doing it this way for 1,500 years—and now, where are we?” It's like someone who's been married for fifty years saying, “Have I been with the wrong woman all this while?” Conceive of the hate people could have for a church or a marriage if they left it after that many years.


Let me shift our subject. What are the reasons—as far as you can surmise—that a soul is chosen for reincarnation? Does God or His aides choose to extinguish some hideous souls, or must the souls acquiesce, give up, and, in effect, commit eternal suicide, go out of existence?

Let's start with that. I think certain people can lose the desire to keep their soul alive. They've suffered too much, one way or another. The soul is weary.


Gary Gilmore might be one example.

His soul was not too weary. On the contrary, he didn't want his soul to die. He was the exact opposite. He wanted his body to die so his soul wouldn't be extinguished. He felt if he didn't seek the death penalty but stayed in jail for his remaining twenty or thirty years, his soul would expire from the sheer misery of living in jail, the emptiness of it, the ongoing, endless emptiness of living in prison if you'd already used up, as he had, all its few vital possibilities. But there are other people who might say, “Let my soul expire. It doesn't deserve to go on”—which, by the way, is a thought that can also come to the rottennest human alive, a part that says, “You really are a swine; you don't deserve to live any longer. You're much worse than you think you are.” We all have comparable sentiments (in lesser degree) when we arrive at a reckoning with ourselves. But for some, it's terminal. They are drenched in a mortal weariness of their own soul. So certain souls expire; they are ready to.

Generally speaking, however, most souls are probably not willing to die that easily. On the other hand, the soul may not have the vigor to pass through endless reincarnations. If a cat has nine lives, what does a human soul possess? Three lives? It's boundlessly speculative, comically so. But then you are asking, How does God choose? How do God and His aides choose?


Can God execute a soul?

Why not? How not? God can create us, God can end us—which is part of the huge fear people have of God. God can terminate us. Absolutely.

But God hates to give up on an interesting artistic possibility in a human. So let's say He might take very bad people and have them reincarnated. Why? Is it to fill out the picture, to have a certain darkness, a few shadows for a certain corner? That is one of the clerical responses to explain why God tolerates evil. Of course, I would argue with that. I would say God sees wonderful potentialities in awful people. One of the reasons they
so awful was because they had large potentialities that became frustrated early and so turned into their opposites. Concerning this particular soul, therefore, God wants to try again. Or, to the contrary, take the case of someone who is perfectly bland and pleasant, good and decent, yet God is not vitally interested. That soul has done about what it's going to do and is no longer interesting to the Lord's higher purpose. God might then decide, We can only reincarnate him or her in an animal. We have to see if that soul responds to a more arduous life. Or God may decide—not worth repeating: Just as an artist can be ruthless, so can God when it comes to humans with mediocre lives. So reincarnation is, I think, the nexus of judgment.

For example, if someone has an adventurous soul, but physically they were weakened by early childhood illnesses, they might be endowed with more strength next time out. God could send them to stronger parents. But that could also produce larger demands. To justify God's new intention, you might have to become a skilled athlete. Think of what you'd have to endure to get there. Does this soul, interesting at present, have such capacity or not? God is experimenting. God is looking to find out. God, like a parent, learns from what the children accomplish and from where they fail. Why not assume that, with all else, we are also part of an enormous spiritual laboratory?


I'm still having trouble understanding how evolution and reincarnation—which are both part of your scheme—mesh. Did they begin simultaneously? Evolution, with its attempts to make species stronger, better, more durable, fits your scheme well. And reincarnation is often seen as an upward ladder, although souls can often go down as well as up. The idea of reincarnation, after all, is improvement, moral progress. Are both reincarnation and evolution completely controlled by God? Are their purposes intertwined?

I've been saying all along, God does not control our destiny.


No, I understand, but—

God can move in and control our destiny in special cases. But it may not be economic of His energy for a divinity to look to direct every one of us. God may just not be master of such resources. Rather, God learns from us. We learn from God, and God learns from us. This is a family relationship of the deepest sort. The parent can be enriched by the child; the child acquires strength and wit from the parent.

We can't think of God in terms of age, but we can certainly see ourselves in that manner. There are periods where we may get more from God—when we're young, for example. When we're old, we may be obliged to give back more, not necessarily to God but to the way we influence other people, the way we amplify His or Her vision or worsen it. Indeed, there are some things God can learn only from contemplating our direct experience. So God may be with us a good deal of the time. With certain people, I think God and the Devil are there most often. Certain kinds of highly dynamic people, certain kinds—just to take a flier on this—certain kinds of entertainers. They may be full of God and the Devil every moment they are onstage because there's such charisma in them and such lightning changeability. It's so difficult to know if you're dealing then with someone who's good, evil, or exceptional.


You still haven't told me how reincarnation interacts with evolution. What is their relation?

What would it be? We're talking about the macroeconomic and the microeconomic. Reincarnation is micro. My point is, that to the degree that careful attention is given to one particular reincarnation, finally, it's not perfect. There are times when God is better at it than at other times.

It may be that after the double blow of the Holocaust and the atom bomb, reincarnation was mucked up badly. There was just too much to do. One example would be the ugliness of cities that were flattened by the war. The way they were rebuilt may have been necessary, but it certainly was dreadful—by-the-numbers architecture. It may be that people are finally much less interesting today than they were one hundred and two hundred years ago, when they didn't have flush toilets but did live with interesting windows and doors.

Do we have anyone around today who's as wonderful and marvelous and godawful as Baudelaire? No. The modern equivalent would probably be Andy Warhol.


On the Authority of the Senses

You've spoken of the authority of the senses many times, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas or quoting Hemingway. What exactly is this authority based on? What empowers it? If God is your answer, then to complicate the question, can't we say that evil in all cultures has almost always been associated with the flesh and the senses?


My basic premise proposes that there's a different mixture of God and the Devil in every one of us. Some of that variety creates the shape of our character. You'll hear one person say about another, “He's a good guy, he's stand-up, but he sure can be a son of a bitch.” In ourselves and others, we find this constant interplay of good and bad.

If we are going to talk about these matters, I think we would do well to approach them with the confidence that humans have the right to explore anything and everything—at our spiritual peril, but we do have the right. It seems to me—how to put it?—I see no reason for a divinity to put everything into a Book and expect that to be our only guide. He gave us free will. Or She gave us free will. Once again, let's leave gender out of it. If we were given free will, then the Book is the first obstacle to it.


What's the role of the senses?

I would say the senses were given to us by God. If I'm ready to go in for speculations such as these, I would even go so far as to say that mind may have been the contribution of the Devil—or, at least, more so than God. How can I justify such a remark? Animals seem to function extraordinarily well on their instincts and their senses. To a large degree, they have community—ants, bees, all the way up to primates. There is an extraordinary amount of communication we can witness in animals, and they are undeniably superior to us in one manner: They don't go around slaughtering one another in huge numbers. If, by every other mode of moral judgment, we see ourselves as superior, still we know that animals left to themselves are not going to destroy the universe. But we could. So it may be a true question: Did the Devil invent mind? Or is this still God's domain? Or, more likely, does the search for dominance there become the field of battle?

There is no question in my mind that the Devil did enter mind. And, not being the first Creator, did His best to invade the senses as well, to corrupt the senses. But the question is sufficiently complex to assume that the senses are neither wholly God given nor Devil ridden.


But the line you quoted, which has puzzled me for decades, is “Trust the authority of the senses.”

St. Thomas Aquinas said that, and Hemingway, in his way: “If it feels good, it is good.” I've never read Aquinas in depth, but I was taken with the notion that the most formal of the Catholic philosophers had presented this rule of thumb. What I think it means—leave Aquinas out of it—is that we must trust the authority of the senses because that is the closest contact we have to the Creator; however, it is a most treacherous undertaking. As anyone who's ever enjoyed a drink knows, the authority of the senses on a boozy spree is exceptional. You feel so much, see so much—and that's even more true on marijuana. You trust the authority of the senses until, perhaps, they become so intense that God and the Devil seem to be there working with you full-time. We've all had the experience of an extraordinary trip on drink and/or pot, but what I know is that the end result is as often disaster as happiness. I won't pretend that every time you get drunk beyond measure nothing good will happen. It occurred to me at a certain point in my life that I had never, up to that moment, gone to bed with a woman for the first time without being drunk. Since some of the most important experiences of my life occurred that way, I can hardly wish to argue that drink serves the Devil alone. Given the rigors of modern society, it's possible we'd never get anywhere without liquor or pot.


You have me thinking of Blake's line: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

It's implicit in what I just said, but I think I'd be happier if the line had gone: “The road of excess
can lead
to wisdom.” I'm not in favor of excess because I've ruined too much in just that way. Blake did have an apocalyptic mind, which he served manfully, full-time. It's one of the reasons his remarks inspire the highest flights of fancy. But on the other hand, he is seen by our modern spirit as signally impractical.


The other thing you said that gave me pause was how the Devil invades mind. On more than one occasion you have suggested that scientific thinking undercuts metaphoric, intuitive thinking, and I wonder if that is what you see as the invasion of mind by the Devil. Scientific method, logic, linear thinking is opposed to the leaps of intuition in metaphor.

Often. It seems to me our minds work on two disparate systems. One is based on the senses. Metaphor, for example, is almost impossible without being somewhat attuned to nature, to its often subtle shifts of mood. That depends so much on one's senses. But then there is another faculty of mind that can be as cold as the polar cap. Indeed, it is a readiness to repel the senses, distrust them, even calumniate them as powers of distortion. This readiness to free oneself from the senses may be exercised most by the Devil.

Almost everything I dislike in the modern world is super-rational: the corporation, the notion that we can improve upon nature, to tinker with it egregiously, dramatically, extravagantly. Nuclear bombs, as one example, came out of reason. It's not that scientists, filled with an acute sense of their own senses, brought their creative intimations to the atom bomb. On the contrary, it was an abstraction away from the senses, a pure flight of mind that came to the conclusion that it was possible to make the bomb—and then, that it had to be done, not only to defeat Japan but for the furtherance of science itself.


This may be related. I'd like to talk about Thomas's Gospel, where it's made clear that human beings have the obligation to bring forth what is within.

You had better say what this particular Gospel is.


Thomas's Gospel is, of course, not in the Bible but is a suppressed apocrypha, discussed most recently by Elaine Pagels. In her book, Thomas's Gospel states that as human beings, we all have the obligation to “bring forth what is within.” And if we do, it will save us. If you keep in what is in, repress it, whatever it is—it will destroy you.

I used to believe that entirely. I now think it to be generally true but risky. Because what does it mean to bring forth what is within? I work on the notion that there's godliness within us and diabolism as well. So to bring forth what is within you, it is necessary, very often, to send out the worst elements of yourself. Because if they stay within, they can poison you. That is much more complex than saying, “Get it out! Act it out. Be free, man! Liberate yourself.” Because very often what comes out is so bad that it injures others, sometimes dreadfully. You could say that every crime of violence is a way of getting the ugliness in oneself out, acting it out, doing it. You could even advance the argument that there are people who will contain what is ugly within them—and that's their honor. It's a complex matter—often there are people who will sacrifice themselves in order not to injure others. For example, if you act out something dreadful in yourself—if, for example, the need to get falling-in-the-gutter drunk thereby intensifies the miseries of everyone in your family—it is doing nothing good for others. Or excessive gambling. Or beating children. Or entering sexual relations with them. To the degree that certain ugly emotions are acted out, others are injured terribly by your freedom to do so. I could argue that it is often a Devil's urge you are expressing.

You have to ask yourself at a given moment, “Who is speaking within me?”


How do you answer that?

Well, I can give you one story; it's fascinated me for years. At a certain time in my life, I was feeling rocky. My third wife had decided she didn't want to go on with our marriage at a time when I had been hoping, “Maybe this time I can start to build a life.” She was a very interesting woman but easily as difficult as myself. So when she broke it up, I didn't know where I was. And I remember one night, wandering around Brooklyn through some semi-slums—not the hard slums but some of the tougher neighborhoods a mile or two out from my house in Brooklyn—not even knowing what I was looking for, but going out, drinking in a bar, sizing up the bar, going to another bar, looking…this is ironic, but in those days, you actually would go to a bar and look for a woman. I think you still can, but it's been so long now since I did it that I can no longer speak with authority. Anyway, I found no woman. I went into an all-night diner—because I realized I was hungry, not only drunk but hungry—and ordered a doughnut and coffee, finished it. Then a voice spoke to me. I think it's one of the very few times I felt God was speaking to me. Now, of course, one can be dead wrong. I go back to Kierkegaard—just when you think you're being saintly, you're being evil; when you think you're being evil, you might be fulfilling or abetting God's will at that point. In any event, this voice spoke to me and said, “Leave without paying.”

It was a minor sum—twenty-five cents for coffee and a doughnut in those days. I was aghast, because I'd been brought up properly. One thing you didn't do was steal. And never from strangers! How awful! I said, “I can't do it.” And the voice—it was most amused—said, “Go ahead and do it,” quietly, firmly, laughing at me. So I got up, slipped out of the restaurant, and didn't pay the quarter. And I thought about this endlessly. If it was God…as I said, this was the closest I ever came to trusting the authority of my senses. My senses told me this was a divine voice, not a diabolical one. It seemed to me that I was so locked into petty injunctions on how to behave, that on the one hand I wanted to be a wild man, yet I couldn't even steal a cup of coffee. To this day, I think it was God's amusement to say, “You little prig. Just walk out of there. Don't pay for the coffee. They'll survive, and this'll be good for you.”

Now, I've thought about this often because it's a perfect example of how difficult it is for us to know at a given moment whether we're near to God or to Satan, which is why Fundamentalists can drive you up the wall—their sense of certainty is the most misleading element in their lives. It demands, intellectually speaking, spiritually speaking, that one must remain at a fixed level of mediocrity. It's a great irony, because many of them who are good Christians, or Orthodox Jews, are compassionate. I don't know much about Islam, but I'm sure the same is true there. You can have fine people, wonderful people, Fundamentalists full of compassion…can say in passing, If God was ever going to mingle in our affairs, Christ is more than a metaphor. Compassion is probably the finest emotion we humans can have. When tears come to our eyes for the sorrow of someone else, that may be as close as we get to reaching the best element in ourselves. But, there again, it's difficult to know how pure any moment of compassion is. And any false variety of it can be toxic. When it is manufactured by constant adjurations applied to the daily habits of Fundamentalists, compassion can become the opposite of itself, and turn into an instrument for power. “Follow me because I feel compassion for you.”

Speaking crudely, if half the Fundamentalists in the world are truly compassionate, the other half are on an egregious power-trip.


You know, this always stops me. I try to think how you would translate your metaphysics, your cosmology, into an ethical system. It's not just the Fundamentalists. Most religious systems say: “OK, we have the theology, now let us show you how that translates into ethics.” But what you tell me over and over again is, “We can't be sure.” It would be very difficult to construct an ethical system by which to live one's life based on your scheme of beliefs. Have you thought of that?

I accept your point. I do search for an ethic I can believe in. And that is where I go back to trusting the authority of my senses. They can also be—what's the word I'm looking for?—traduced. To the degree that the Devil may affect our senses, they can become a perfect place for Him to get to us. That would be the Devil's aim exactly—to enter our senses, make us feel we are having a godly emotion, when in fact we are being inspired by the Devil.

So I hope I never construct an ethic by offering a few bones. The worst to be said about Fundamentalism is that it reduces people to the reflexes of a good dog. If a good dog is upset, give it a treat.


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