1 FEBRUARY 1963, Page 9



Tlie editor of Encounter once told me his journal never receives publishable pieces on religious themes. Now, if one accepts that Encounter portrays preoccupations of lively minds—both of writers and readers—in the social, political and artistic scenes, one can but deduce such persons just aren't interested in religious dispute at all. For thetn the subject is a dead one—except, perhaps, for oddities like the impact of Japanese Zen on the beattiikry of Greenwich Village.

By contrast, there are certainly in our country eminent and committed writers—Mr. Eliot and Mr. Waugh, for instance—to whom religious thinking is a constant actuality. And among non- writers there are countless serious spirits, highly intelligent and contemporary in apprehension, who are obsessed by religious debate in 1963. But between these two groups—of what one Might call secular and clerical thinkers—there seems hardly any contact at all: the attitude of the secular to religious themes is one of cour- teous indifference, and that of the clerical, Positive and sometimes defiant emphasis. And if we survey the wider world beyond intellectual circles we shall find in our nation, I believe, the same phenomenon: one group deeply at- tached to religious thought and practice, and the other, not so much hostile, as deeming religious speculation an irrelevance.

My own theory is that this division is not so real as it appears: in other words, that our countrymen do not consist of a minority of firm believers and a majority of positive atheists or of polite agnostics. I think it is rather that the lay' sector of the community often combines a total disinterest in organised religion (and thus in conventional religious debate) with a way of life governed by concepts which, on ex- amination, do turn out to be religious in essence. May I introduce my faltering hypothesis by two short military anecdotes. In a vast camp where we waited to embark for Normandy in 1944, there was a church tent. On the eve of our confronting what was then thought tO. be a holocaust in which many would meet their ends, we thousands were invited, by loud-hailer, tb this tented chapel, there to pray for life, victory, sal- vation or whatever. I went to look, feeling that, if Englishmen were indeed a Christian people, at this crisis of their lives they would reveal it; but found that, out of this huge assembly poised for their rendezvous with destiny, only three Persons (including the poor padre) had turned up. Second anecdote. Much earlier than this, a good woman arrived one day and stood outside to dining-hall distributing free New Testaments bloody-minded the hungry soldiery. All accepted, save for

for Lance-corporal Machines, who, ?or reasons mostly discreditable, rejected her Kind offer, Afterwards in the barrack-room, my

was was criticised severely and unanimously. v(as this because my comrades thought me guilty simply of a breach of tact? Or because they Were superstitious, and I free from superstition? ar because i had violated a collective inner

instinct of respect for the message in the volume, however much its outer forms—in church parades, for instance—would be denied?

My own deduction is that English men and women, who, on the whole, shun churches and are embarrassed by all outward manifestations of religious life, often do cling fast to a religious vision of some kind. I imagine, for example, that thousands who are totally indifferent to the clergy, or who mock them, would rally to their defence if they were persecuted or oppressed,. And to revert to the army, while padres were generally despised as cheer-leaders of the officer class, and cordial blasphemy constant in daily speech, I cannot imagine anyone getting up and denouncing the Almighty (that is, being posi- tively, seriously blasphemous) without arousing violent resentment,

Some months ago, on a television programme, I heard Mr. W. H. Auden defend a religious attitude to life while also expressing his sus- picion of zany artist who defines this feeling overtly. Of course, if a writer is, so to speak, militantly a believer—as Mauriac, say, or Paul ClaudeI—one is not surprised that this tendency informs his writing. But Mr. Auden's distinction also suggests that a kind of writer may exist who possesses a religious feeling of some kind, but feels the whole subject has been so debased and is so capable of misinterpretation—or who may simply, for artistic reasons, want to hint at it obliquely—that he will seek to define his religious 'message' in apparently non-religious terms.

Reverting to my own case (after all, the only one I really know), I published some years ago a novel called Mr. Love & Justice. Super- ficially, this is a realistic portrait of the worlds of the police and prostitution, and as such it was kindly acclaimed by not very acute reviewers for its factual actuality, But my true intention was to write a morality, or religious allegory. Frankie Love, the professional ponce 'lover,' has no understanding of love, which he mistakes for mere sexuality; but he does have a profound sense of justice, and this very virtue brings about his material, if not spiritual, ruin. Edward Justice, the copper and professional upholder of the law, has no sense of justice, which he equates with power; but he does possess a deep instinct for spiritual (as well as sexual) love, and this, too, encompasses his material destruction. Each man, in his acts, betrays his supposed, con- ventional virtue, and is in turn betrayed into a fall that brings truth and understanding by the real virtue of which he is unaware

The final scene of this novel takes place in a hospital, where both men lie wounded, and where each man finally becomes, as the result of his material fall and inner illumination, identical with the other. (Hence the title Mr. Love & Justice, and not 'Mr. Love & Mr. Justice,' which several benevolent critics said it should have been.) I had hoped this hospital scene would be

read in two ways, on two levels: both as what it is, realistically, and also as an allegory of purgatory. If read in the latter sense, the `nurses,' doctors' and invisible 'specialists' take on another meaning and dimension, I planted clues all over the' place, and particularly in the final paragraph, when the word `God' is used for the first and only time in the whole book.

That everyone (so far as I know) entirely missed the point of my endeavour may prove artistic incompetence, or perhaps that the re- ligious instinct. I thought I possessed was un- convincing; yet it may also be that the kind of person who happens to like what I write (or what he thinks I do) cannot imagine that a `serious' writer, yet one not overtly adhering to any denominational faith, would ever be com- pelled by a religious theme at all.

To try to situate the religious element which I conceive exists in myself and in others of my countrymen (but which the orthodox would doubtless consider not religious at all or, at best, heretical), may I beg indulgence for a further autobiographical fragment.

I was reared by an unbaptised mother, and have myself river been baptised. The only tangential religious instruction I received was at a Presbyterian school, where my admiration for the goodness of many of my teachers was matched by the horror I felt at their theology, once I grew to understand it. I passed through the usual phase of adolescent religiosity and then, after much reading—Marx, Freud and about older rival faiths,. for instance—and con- siderable inquiry among believers of various sects, arrived at a total doubt about historical religions which still remains with me; yet some- thing which I take to be religious also remains.

Before trying to define this, may I please make it clear 1. do not wish to give offence, do not presume to be 'right,' nor do I, of course, wish to=stig-gest I am a 'good' person at all. So: a persguil God, an identifiable devil, miracles (includittg an immaculate conception) and any kind of ')physical after-life are to me not only incredible but paltry concepts. What remains?

On a radio inters iew not long ago with Norman Mailer (who, in contrast to the popular and partly self-created notion of him as a roaring boy and intellectual h'pster, I take in fact to be an almost rabbinical moralist), the conversation turned chiefly on the concept of God. Accord- ing to Mailer, God it: not omnipotent, but de- pendent on us as we on Him. Satan was not thrown down from heaven—he tore himself out of it by the force of his own evil, and God could not prevent this. The whole universe—as each human life—consists of a creative and a destruc- tive force. The meaning of our lives is to add to the positive, and repel the negative. In so far as we do so, we survive eternally in essence. If sufficient of us fail, we help drag the whole cosmos into destruction, and all life, physical and spiritual, comes to its end. This concept (which is no doubt an ancient heresy, refuted by many a skilled theologian— not to mention by atrocious 'religious' wars) has reality for me. It explains a lot of things which, in conventional theology (and despite every twist of sophisticated logic, or the armature of an unquestioning faith), remain otherwise inexplic- able. It explains why God is both omnipotent and powerless, why evil and cruelty must exist as well as good and kindness, and it explains, most pertinently of all, the imperative necessity for a constant personal choice. To act well or ill is no longer a mere matter of individual sal- vation, nor of pleasing God: to act well or ill involves the very existence of God, mankind, the whole firmament.

I think anyone with a feeling of this kind may have a, great awareness, and acceptance, of the laws of life that come directly and obser- vably from nature, and yet will constantly be conscious of an otherness, of a reality both in and outside all our lives, in function of which he also lives even if, by his deeds, he may deny it. This 'otherness' I can best define as a per- petual sensation that life exists in ways the brain and even imagination cannot apprehend—but of which a powerfully intuitive instinct (which I expect is what the orthodox mean by 'soul') is constantly aware despite itself, and by no act of conscious volition. Accompanying this, will be a compelling sensation that the forces of good and of creation, and evil and destruction —impersonal, eternal, locked in perpetual battle —exist in everyone and thing, and even as potent essences in themselves that cannot entirely be identified nor defined by the evidence of their effects on mankind or nature.

Persons who feel all this will not be religious, like the churchman, by any hope of a reward, but simply by necessity: for the invisible life seems as inescapably real to them as does the life their five senses know in nature—and no one expects rewards for recognising natural fact. Nor, for such persons, is this any matter of 'belief' at all. To me, this very word is suspect, since it implies blind effort of a desperate will. I would rather say, not that I 'believe' these thing's, but that after forty-eight years of think- ing, reading and then questioning, then to such as I am, the concept is so real as to impose itself, and thus be beyond belief.


At this point a solicitous churchman may sug- gest to me, 'Dear fellow, if you've got that far, why don't you join us, see how we can enlighten you, correct your errors, and help you to a deeper understanding?'

To this I would first reply by acknowledging that, had churches not survived into our era, much ancient wisdom would have been lost, to me and everyone, for ever. And next avow I have met churchmen and women in my life, and read of others in the past (and not only of the Christian faith) whose lives seem to me so ad- mirable as to shame us all. One may also allow that to plunder some part. of a religious message, while rejecting the rigours that a Church imposes on its faithful, can easily be to want it both ways—to know the truth, but deny the promises' by which it can be fostered and revealed. And then, so far as Christianity goes, the per- sonality revealed by the four Gospels seems to me so wonderful as to be incredible were it not that Christ's deeds and sayings are so coherent and splendid as to compel belief in His histori- cal existence. And I would add that quibbles about the authenticity of the Gospels seem to me, in this essential respect, irrelevant, since the figure they evoke is one of over- whelming moral grandeur. For anyone of in- telligent imagination, to dispute the prime mean- ing of these texts by questioning their historic accuracy is as vain as to seek to eliminate Shakespeare by assailing the authority of the Folios. In each case, whoever wrote the books, the existence of the poet and the teacher cannot be questioned by anyone who reads them.

Having said this—for what, coming from-me, it's worth—I may go on to give some chief reasons why the organised chUrches that arose after Christ's death seem to me repellent. To begin with Jesus, who clearly was a man with enormous power over men and, at one time, followed by fervent multitudes, never killed any- one, nor caused them to be killed (except, of course, for Himself). Among the first acts of the apostles was the terrifying into death by Peter (who had but recently behaved ignobly to his master) of Ananias and of Sapphira, his wife. From that fell moment onwards, the history of Christian churches is largely one of wars, massacres, burnings and inquisitions. As recently as the last century, among the Baganda of East Africa, a ferocious religious war was engineered by Roman Catholics and Protestants who, in Christ's name, tore the 600-year-old civilisation of a once pagan people into shreds whose cruel traces still survive. It is-indeed instructive, from time to time, to see the historical Christian Church through the momentary eyes of someone of another faith; and to those who might say the churches have now laid down their faggots and crusading swords, one may question if this is due to a change of heart, or to a political impotence they have not known for centuries.

Today, in. Africa, Mohammedanism is ad- vancing, and Christian missions in decline. The reason for this is all too clear: I saw it, for in- stance, in Ndola, Northern Rhodesia, when I attended a segregated Anglican service there. To a Mohammedan (though his doctrine seems to me manifestly inferior to the Christian), it is inconceivable that any of the faithful be not admitted to any mosque. Islam may kill, rob and enslave—but human beings will accept cruelty, never utter denial of human identity. So long as segregated churches survive in Christendom, be it in the world's most powerful Christian nation, the United States, or in the continent where Christian missionary zeal is greatest, Africa, it is impossible to take Christendom's professions seriously. And when Christian priests and pastors tell us—or dare to tell their coloured congrega- tions—of the worldly obstacles to practising the human brotherhood they preach, we cannot hear these excuses with respect. I do not think it can be denied that historically, and still in the present, the Christian Church has been, and is, a handmaid of aggressive racial nationalisms that deny common humanity, let alone the pre- cepts of its founder.

The next hateful element in the Christian faith is its denial of our inevitable physical nature. The doctrine of the Fall (not originally, of course, Christian) can be understood in two different ways. It can be seen as a splendid allegory of the emergence of mankind from ancient primitive mindless wisdom into self- awareness and conscious understanding; and by this interpretation, Eve is the undoubted heroine and ancestress of all philosophers, artists, men of science. Or, in orthodox terms, the Fall be- comes the fatal act by which mankind defied God by rejecting His will and Eden. I cannot quite see how, even for him who accepts the Biblical version, this should necessarily result in a fearful denial of the flesh with which nature —and even God in the Bible story—chose to clothe the spirit. Against this denial nature, of which we are irrevocably and gloriously a part, will ever rebel, and we, nature's children, are entirely right to do so too. And if anyone should think love and respect for physical life betray selfish nostalgias of pagan memory, let him con- sider a faith which must surely be allowed its ancient glory—that of the Hindus. In Hindu art, the body is never denied, the physical par- takes of, and becomes, the spiritual. All Christ- ian art until the Renaissance (after which it became, despite its apparent iconography, neo- pagan) is shame and revulsion at our nakedness.

My next impertinence is to rebuke the churches for so much using the weapon of fear, and fearing so much to use the power of love. Don Juan, refusing to be terrorised, defied heaven to the point of hell, and no man who is a man can fail to applaud him. To read the Gos- pels is to understand how little Jesus threatened, and how much He promised. Fear God, which means live in creative awe; fear evil, because it is the only destroyer; but He never said 'Fear Me.' The churches founded in His name, losing the gift of love, preferred fear and behave, when they dare, like bullies.

This seems unjust? Then may we reflect on this: clearly, the Christian Church must warn the faithful what not to do; but equally, and more, it should proclaim its gift, tell resound- ingly the joy it has to offer. Yet what do we hear of this? Open your newspaper, blink at your telly, hear those hortatory, terrifying 'religious' programmes on Radio Luxembourg, listen to declarations of all faiths Catholic and Protestant (which, to non-Christians, seem so identical that the unity both faiths now seek may only really exist in the minds of those who abhor each equally), and again and again it is the shall not, not the shall, we hear about. The Christian concept of existence is a tragic one, as is entirely right since life is tragic, as all great philosophies and faiths have always recognised. But tragedy, if it be really so, im- plies an even more potent sense of the glory that might be did life's conditions not deny it: the true tragic sense is positive, declaring, by its very disasters, the marvellous potential these deny. Of this glory, from the churches, we hear little; of the threat of damnation, all too much.

To this I must add a Christian life should surely be a happy one: not hedonistically so, needless to say, but happy in its assurance of truth and of the promise of the life hereafter. That individual Christians (as, indeed, individual non-believers) have attained to bliss here below, cannot be denied. But in general? Do churches seem places of hosannahs as well as admon- itions? Do Christian lives visibly overflow with generous rapture at their faith and revelation?

Swinging nervously round, I now confront any atheist who might regard my tentative de- scription of a religious instinct denying ortho- doxy with as much scepticism, though for dif- ferent reasons, as the faithful may.

It has, of course, often been observed that the militant atheist is a lost sheep straying from the churches, since how can one fail to mind deeply about something that is a perpetual obsession? It has equally been noticed how strong is the ghostly religious pattern of political orthodoxies. The Marxists, for instance, have their hook (Das (Capital), their prophets (Marx, Lenin. Judas-Trotsky) and their hereafter (Communism, once the State has improbably withered away). And why, one may wonder, does Chairman Khrushchev—in between tedious lay parables—refer so constantly to God, heaven and eternity? Is this a comical rhetorical device, or an irresistible atavism? Even the anarchists, whom f in all other respects regard as the most realistic and attractive of political thinkers--despite, or perhaps because of, present obstacles to their success—do seem to me adherents of what amounts to a religion with- out a God: since to hold, as they do, that man- kind is basically good, if he be not distorted by environment, is a fine act of faith rather than of reason.

But the chief weakness of atheists of ethical ideas seems to me this : in function of what do You declare mankind should be good, or indeed he anything? In function of man himself, who manifestly is, or is not, according to Melina- ."°n? For it does seem to me that, as even anti- religious politicians have recognised, to ask IT" that they act against their natural instinct to fecklessness and indolence, you must ask it in the name of something larger than mankind. The anarchists, steadfast to their rejection of all gods, enjoin men to goodness in the name of their inherent instinct to mutual aid. The Marxists enliven their theology by the most gruesome of contemporary idols in the chemically preserved corpse of Lenin. The revolutionary French invented neo-pagan deities, and modern politicians devise shop-soiled

myths (`the African personality,' the American way of life') in a desperate search for com- pulsive lay religions. But will all these ever be enough? For to persuade men convincingly they should do good, and not do evil, can only be achieved, it seems to me, by an understanding of, and an appeal to, some force larger and more perpetual than any living man or human society.

If the atheist then tells me religious feeling is a refuge from reality (`the opium of the masses'—but what more potent drug has there ever been than enforced political orthodoxy?), or if the psychologist attributes religious instinct to an as yet unanalysed neurosis, I must admit this can be so—and frequently is—yet deny it must be, for this reason. Such religious feeling as I have is far from being any kind of 'con- solation.' To think that the only life we live is in nature, birth to death, seems to me, if one reflects, a comforting reassurance. To feel, without wish- ing it—without welcoming it particularly, but just accepting it reluctantly—that life may be more than body, mind and heart can ever tell us, creates a perpetual unease in which the only comfort is the thought that one accepts this because there seems no sure alternative to doing so.


The tone of these speculations might suggest the writer imagines everyone—churchmen as well as anti-clericals—to be out of step except for his percipient self, I'm sorry about this, but my real intention is to suggest there are, in all classes and age-groups of our society, a great

many in a similar condition of hopeful perplexity to my own: dissatisfied with churches, dissatis- fied with rationalism, and, of course, dissatisfied with themselves.

I think each century, or group of centuries, produces human spirits who, from initial ob- scurity, arise to alter completely mankind's con- ception of itself. After the ages of religious thinkers came the era of prophetic science. A hundred years ago Karl Marx, from an exiled tenement in Dean Street, planted an intellectual bomb under the indifferent world and altered it entirely and for ever. Today, or some time soon, and quite unbeknown to us, some fresh prophet may be preparing an equivalent disturbing re- velation which, in the next century or the next, will rock all the orthodoxies of our own.

I see no prospect of the 'religious revival' that the churches dream of; nor would I personally welcome it, since human progress consists not in `revivals' but in fresh, perilous creations. Yet somewhere, I feel (in Asia? Latin America? Africa? England?), a spirit is now pondering a thought that will turn the world upside down yet once again. That this seer will understand and acknowledge the material world is certain, since our world is henceforward scientific al- ways. That he will also re-make and re-form re- ligious concepts seems to me equally probable. Despite the technological revolution, the age of scientific prophecy is already over; while the orthodox religions, though they survive tena- ciously, no longer, as they used to, re-create them- selves. Something quite else may be coming made of both, and seeming, when it comes, like neither.