Well, is there? I myself should be very happy to answer with an emphatic negative. Temperamentally, it would suit me well enough to settle for what this world offers, and to write off as wishful thinking, or just the self-importance of the human species, any notion of a divine purpose and a divinity to entertain and execute it. The earth's sounds and smells and colours are very sweet; human love brings golden hours; the mind at work earns delight. I have never wanted a God, or feared a God, or felt under any necessity to invent one. Unfortunately, I am driven to the conclusion that God wants me.
God comes padding after me like a Hound of Heaven. His shadow falls over all my little picnics in the sunshine, chilling the air; draining the viands of their flavour, talk of its sparkle, desire of its zest. God takes a hand as history's compere, turning it into a soap opera, with ham actors, threadbare lines, tawdry props and faded costumes, and a plot which might have been written by Ted Willis himself. God arranges the lighting Spark of Sparksso that all the ravages of time, like parched skin, decaying teeth and rotting flesh, show through the makeup, however lavishly it may be plastered on. Under God's eye, tiny hoarded gloriesa little fame, some money . . . Oh Mr M! how wonderful you are!fall into dust. In the innermost recesses of vanity one is discovered, as in the last sanctuaries of appetite; on the highest hill of complacency, as in the lowest burrow of despair. One shivers as the divine beast of prey gets ready for the final spring; as the shadow lengthens, reducing to infinite triviality all mortal hopes and desires.
There is no escape. Even so, one twists and turns. Perhaps Nietzsche was right when he said that God had died. Progressive theologians with German names seem to think so: Time magazine turned over one of its precious covers to the notion. If God were dead, and eternity had stopped, what a blessed relief to one and all! Then we could set about making a happy world in our own wayhappy in the woods like Mellors and his Lady Chatterley; happiness successfully pursued, along with life and liberty, in accordance with the Philadelphia specification; happy the Wilson way, with only one book to take to the post-officeone book, one happiness; happy in the prospect of that great Red Apocalypse when the State has withered away, and the proletariat reigns for ever more. If only God were D. H. Lawrence, or Franklin D. Roosevelt, or Harold Wilson, or Karl Marx!
Alas, dead or alive, he is still God, and eternity ticks on even though all the clocks have stopped. I agree with Kierkegaard that 'what man naturally loves is finitude' and that involvement through God in infinitude 'kills in him, in the most painful way, everything in which he really finds his life . . . shows him his own wretchedness, keeps him in sleepless unrest, whereas finitude lulls him into enjoyment.' Man, in other words, needs protection against God as tenants do against Rachmanism, or minors against hard liquor.
Where is such protection to be found?
One of the most effective defensive systems against God's incursions has hitherto been organised religion. The various churches have provided a refuge for fugitives from Godhis voice drowned in the chanting, his smell lost in the incense, his purpose obscured and confused in creeds, dogmas, dissertations and other priestly pronunciamentos. In vast cathedrals, as in little conventicles, or just wrapped in Quaker silence, one could get away from God. Plainsong held him at bay, as did revivalist eloquence, hearty hymns and intoned prayers. Confronted with that chanting, moaning, gurgling voice'Dearly beloved brethren, I pray and beseech you . . .' or with that earnest, open, Oxfam face, shining like the morning sun with all the glories flesh is heir to, God could be relied on to make off.
Unfortunately, this defensive system has now proved to be a Maginot Line, easily by-passed by hordes of happiness-pursuers, some in clerical collars and even mitres, joyously bearing a cornucopia of affluence, and scattering along their way birth pills, purple hearts and other goodiesa mighty throng whose trampling feet clear a path as wide as a motorway, along which God can come storming in.
Another defence against God has been utopianism, and the revolutionary fervour that goes therewith. A passion to change the world and make it nearer to the heart's desire automatically excludes God, who represents the principle of changelessness, and confronts each heart's desire with its own nullity. It was confidently believed that a kingdom of heaven on earth could be established, with 'God, Keep Out' notices prominently displayed at the off-limits. In practice, the various versions of this kingdom have one and all proved a failure; utopian hopes washed away in the blood of Stalin's purges, reduced to the dimensions of Mr Wilson's one book, liberated out of existence.
Few any longer believe in the coming to pass of a perfect, or even a Great, society. There never was a less revolutionary climate than now prevails, when almost any status quo, however ramshackle, can standTito's, Franco's, Ulbricht's. Why, tourism today is a more dynamic force than revolution, swaying, as it does, crowns and thrones; Thomas Cook and the American Express, not the Internationale, unite the human race. In Africa, it is true, regimes still totter and fall, but even there the wind of change blows as it listeth. Even when the great day comes, and the white bully-boys are dispossessed to be replaced by black ones, it will be history, not progress, that has spoken.
With the Church no longer a sanctuary, and utopianism extinguished, the fugitive from God has nowhere to turn. Even if, as a last resort, he falls back on stupefying his senses with alcohol or drugs or sex, the relief is but short-lived. Either he will sink without trace for ever into that slough, or, emerging, have to face the inescapable confrontation. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living Godthus Kierkegaard (and also Cromwell) groaned in desperation.
What living God? A being with whom one has a relationship, on the one hand, inconceivably more personal than the most intimate human one, to the point that, as we are told, God has actually counted the hairs of each head; on the other, so remote that in order to establish a valid relationship at all, it is necessary to die, to murder one's own flesh with the utmost ferocity, and batter down one's ego as one might a deadly snake, a cobra which has lifted its hooded head with darting forked tongue, to sting. (I say 'a being' which suggests a person, a spirit, a genie coming out of a bottle, and so is utterly inappropriate. There are no adequate words for any of the great absolutes, like life and death, good and evil, only for trivialities like politics and economics and science. One falls back on the meaningless monosyllable, God, as Hindu sadhus in their spiritual exercises endlessly repeat the equally meaningless monosyllable, Oom.)
What can be said with certainty is that, once the confrontation has been experiencedthe rocky summit climbed, the interminable desert crossedan unimaginably delectable vista presents itself, so vast, so luminous, so enchanting, that the small ecstasies of human love, and the small satisfactions of human achievement, by comparison pale into insignificance. Out of tactical despair comes an overwhelming strategic happiness, enfolded in which one is made aware that every aspect of the universe, from a tiny grain of sand to the light-years which measure its immeasurable dimensions, from the minutes" single living cell to the most complex human organism, are ultimately related, all deserving of reverence and respect; all shining, like glow-worms, with an intrinsic light, and, at the same time, caught in an all-encompassing radiance, like dust in a sunbeam.
This sense of oneness, with the consequent release from the burden of self, I take to be Godsomething which indubitably exists; which not only has not died, but cannot die. Such has been the testimony of those in the past whom I most revere like Christ, St Paul, St Augustine and St Francis, Pascal, Bunyan, Blake, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. To their testimony; with the greatest possible diffidence, I add my own, so hesitant, fitful and inarticulate.
New Statesman, 6 May 1966
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