I want to speak to you today about what I regard as the one vital question of our time. This, put very simply, is: Is God in charge of our affairs, or are we? A great, and growing, body of opinion, some of it ecclesiastical, much of it in worldly terms
powerful and influential, takes the view that we are now in charge. Whereas formerly it was considered man's highest aim to understand God's purpose for him, and his highest achievement to fulfil that purpose, now we are urged to dispense with God altogether, and assume control ourselves of the world, the universe and our own collective and individual destiny. God, we are toldif he ever existedhas died; as a concept, he is not needed any more. We know enough now about our environment and circumstances, have sufficient control over them, to take over. Our apprenticeship is served; mankind has come of age, and the time has come for us to assume command of ourselves and our world in our own right.
Let me say at once that I regard this notion as nonsensical, and, if persisted in, as likely to have disastrous consequences. The image of man puffed up to imagine himself a god occurs frequently in legend and literature and history. Even in the Garden of Eden the serpent tells Eve that if she eats' of the Forbidden Tree she and Adam shall be as gods. The Roman emperors in their folly insisted on being worshipped as deities; and in our own time a whole succession of squalid dictators have arisen claiming an authority beyond reason, and even beyond sense. Far from becoming gods, Eve's disobedience led to her and Adam's expulsion from the Garden of Edenshe in sorrow to bring forth children, he to till the ground from whence he was taken. The deified Roman emperors are remembered, if at all, not as deities but as figures of absurdity and fantasy in the pages of Gibbon, and we have watched our contemporary dictators go one after the other to their unspeakable and ignominious ends. Was it not Icarus who thought to fly into the sky on his wings of wax and feathers, only to have them melted as he approached the sun, so that he fell like a plummet into the sea? Not even Christ would allow the disciples to call him good, because there is none good but one, that is, God, and at Lystra when the priests of Jupiter wanted to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas, they rent their clothes and said: Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God.
None of these instances is likely to deflate the pretensions of a twentieth-century scientific mind, with its extraordinary blend of knowledge, dogmatic arrogance and infantile credulity, though one may note with a certain pleasure that even so ardent an upholder of men like gods as Dr Edmund Leach has lately been voicing a certain anxiety about the human take-over. 'Unless,' he writes, 'we teach those of the next generation that they can afford to be atheists only if they assume the moral responsibilities of God, the prospects for the human race are decidedly bleak.' Bleak indeed !
Science has seemingly achieved so much. We can travel with the speed of light, we shall soon be visiting the moon and exploring the Milky Way. We can send our words, and even our smiles, flying through the air to be picked up ten thousand miles away; we can turn back rivers, plant out deserts, and abundantly and effortlessly satisfy every human requirement, from potato crisps to skyscrapers, from royal jelly to giant computers. All this has happened in one lifetime. Is it surprising, then, that those who have brought it about should see themselves, not as mere mortal men, but as very gods? That they should take on the functions of a god, claiming the right to decide whose life is worth protracting, and whose should be cut short, who is to be allowed to reproduce, and who should be sterilised; reaching with their drugs and psychiatric techniques into the mind, the psyche, and shaping it to suit their purposes; re-sorting the genes, replacing worn out, derelict organs with new ones freshly taken from living flesh, fancying, perhaps, that in the end even mortality will be abolishedas an old vintage car can be kept on the road indefinitely by constantly putting in new sparking plugs, dynamos, carburettors, as the old ones wear out; even re-defining the moment of death to suit their convenience so that we are to be considered dead when Dr Christian Barnard says we are?
Is it not wonderful? And, of course, that is only a beginning. Writers like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell have imagined the sort of scientific utopia which is coming to pass, but already their nightmare fancies are hopelessly out of date. A vast, airconditioned, neon-lighted, glass-and-chromium broiler-house begins to take shape, in which geneticists select the best stocks to fertilise, and watch over the developing embryo to ensure that all possibilities of error and distortion are eliminated.
Where is the need for God in such a set-up? Or even for a moral law? When man is thus able to shape and control his environment and being, then surely he may be relied on to create his own earthly paradise and live happily ever after in It.
But can he? It's precisely here that the doubt arises. Let us take a quick, cool look at the world these men like gods have so far succeeded in bringing to pass. It's a world of violence and destruction unparalleled in human history. Who can estimate the lives that have been lost and uprooted in the ferocious conflicts of our time; the buildings, the treasures of art and learning which have been wantonly destroyed; the misery and privations, the degradation of standards of truth and humanity which have accompanied these upheavals. And what about our present situation? Is it worthy of men like godswith one part of the world glutted and surfeited with an excess of everything they need, or can be persuaded to need, and the rest of the world getting hungrier and hungrier, more and more deprived of their basic necessities? With vast resources of wealth and ret search devoted to making ever more potent engines of destruction, while in Asia and Africa and Latin America what we call in our Orwellian Newspeak the under-developed peoples of the world lack the very minimal medical requirements and personnel? I could go on and on. I tell you in all seriousness that in my opinion posterity will find the utmost difficulty in believing that people belonging to a technologically developed civilisation like ours could possibly have tolerated such a situation in the world; still less that their affairs were in the hands of men like gods. Men like apes, they'll prefer to believe, and even that will seem rather hard on the apes.
Let's imagine some future historian looking back across thousands of years at us and our fantasies, follies and credulities. What will he make of it all, I wonder, seeing us imprisoned in a fantasy of our own making; in a dream, like Caliban's, full of sounds and sweet airs, so that when we wake (if we ever do) we cry to sleep again? A dream presented in innumerable ways and guisesin the written and the spoken word, in sound and vision and colour; above all, of course, on television; that mysterious image of ourselves, that gigantic exercise in narcissism, piped into our homes; first two-dimensional in black and white, then (as one of the American networks put it) in 'living colour'whatever that may mean. The grass, I should explain, is not green enough for television, nor, for that matter, is the blood red enough. They both need reinforcement. Greener than green, redder than reda dream indeed. I noted down some words of Machiavelli which seemed to me very much to the point: 'For the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are often more influenced by things that seem than by those that are.' The same notion is expressed by Blake in one of those couplets of his so packed with meaning, so luminous, that you can go on contemplating them to the end of your life without ever exhausting their significance:
They ever must believe a lie
Who see with, not through, the eye.
He might have had television in mind; the camera is the most potent instrument for seeing with the eye that's ever been devised, and just think of the liesthe lies upon lies upon lies that it's been able to induce belief in!
Looked back at across the centuries, it will all seem even more hilariously comical than it does today, though I imagine our historian being somewhat at a loss to understand what lay behind our plunge into sheer fantasy which his researches revealed. They can't really have believed, he'll say to himself, that this notion of Progress they bandied about meant anything. That happiness lay along the motorways, and wellbeing in a rising Gross National Product. That birth pills, easy divorce and abortion made for happy families, and sex and barbiturates for quiet nights. There must, he'll conclude, be some other explanation; a civilisation must have been possessed by a death-wish which so assiduously and ingeniously sought its own extinctionphysically, by devoting so much of its wealth, knowledge and skills to creating the means to blow itself and all mankind to smithereens; economically, by developing a consumer economy whereby more and more wants have to be artificially created and stimulated in order to take up an endlessly expanding production; morally, by abolishing the moral order altogether and pursuing the will-o'-the-wisp of happiness through satiety; spiritually, by abolishing God himself and setting up man as the arbiter of his own destiny. A big laugh there for our historian, I should guess, as, looking back, he notes how our generation of men proved the least like gods, the least capable of coping with the complexities and dilemmas of their time, of any that had ever existed on earth.
Am I then concerned to say that there is no possibility of deliverance from this world of fantasy that we have created? Is the endlessly repeated message of the mediathat money and sex are the only pursuits in life, violence its only excitement, and success its only fulfilmentirresistible? Are the only available escape-routes all cur-de-sacs ? There is a remarkable passage in Pasternak's Dr Zhivago in which the hero reflects that in a Communist society freedom only exists in concentration campsin other words, that the only way to be free is to be imprisoned. The same notion is to be found at the very heart of the Christian religionthat the only way to live is to die. There is a way of deliverance, after all, but it lies in the exactly opposite direction to the one so dazzlingly sign-posted by the media out of the ego, not into it, heads lifted up from the trough instead of buried in it, the arc lights pale and ineffectual in the bright light of everlasting truth.
This is the Way Bunyan's Pilgrim took from the Wicket Gate to Mount Sion, the Way that opened up for St Paul after the Damascus Road. It is, of course, open to everyone at all times and in all circumstances. I think of St Augustine watching from his diocese at Hippo in North Africa, first the fall of Rome (and, incidentally, there were plenty of enlightened people then to contend that Alaric was a fine fellow, and that hope lay in a dialogue with him), and then the barbarians moving towards Hippo itself. It looked like an end, but really, as we know, it was a beginning.
The Way begins where for Christ himself its mortal part endedat the cross. There alone, with all our earthly defences down and our earthly pretensions relinquished, we can confront the true circumstances of our being; there alone grasp the triviality of these seemingly so majestic achievements of ours, like going to the moon, unravelling our genes, fitting one another with each other's hearts, livers and kidneys. There, contemplating God in the likeness of man, we may understand how foolish and inept is man when he sees himself in the likeness of God.