Read an Excerpt
A woman who recently started to read my books has asked me if I am a Christian. Strange how hard a question this is. If I say that I am not, the entire social fabric of my upbringing, of my parents’ and grandparents’ teachings and instructions, and the world and church in which I came to manhood, would make me a liar. But if I say I am a Christian, and a practicing Catholic, it very well might elicit a preconceived notion of what that means, which in itself is giving into a convenient falsehood.
So I could say that I am a Christian but not like those other Christians, or that I am a Catholic but not like some of those other Catholics. So already, I have hedged my bets and placed a stiff tariff on my own answer in order to be polite. It would be judging others, as I was afraid this very nice young woman would judge me. It would be judging in order not to be judged, to not willingly disclose who I am. Something like Saint Peter. (That, I suppose, is where our similarities end.)
But then I should not be so frightened of her question. And I should try to answer it this way:
“Do I believe in God? Far more now than when I was 20, far more than when I was 35, and I hope not as much as when I am 70.”
“And have you done serious wrong?”
“I have done serious wrong many times — but God, I’m afraid, had nothing to do with it.”
In our own time, in the century just ended, no one denied God’s existence more than Joseph Stalin. To my mind, the Soviet dictator is far more than anyone else the key, the lesson, for people to ponder when they doubt the existence of God.
State-enforced atheism existed in the Soviet Union for years. In fact, God was the last thing Stalin ever needed, until God was the last thing he had.
After Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, Stalin opened the churches, knowing his army fought not only on their stomach. The political survivor knew the only way to save Russia was through the faith of its people. That no matter the square blocks of bleak buildings that came to be known after his own name, he could not erase their faith in a Being greater than himself. So cynicism won the day.
But to be fair to Stalin, it was only a stop-gap, a little glitch in his overall testimony against Christ himself. He had many more battles to wage against Christ. Still, in 1941 it was a wise decision. And completely self-interested. That is what is so brilliant about it. Church became his own vehicle to ride out the madness, while planes of the Luftwaffe bombed and strafed his people.
The churches were opened to save Mother Russia. Who wouldn’t do that? But then again, what choice did he himself have?
Stalin did quite well at coming to terms with his own peculiar brand of nihilism early in life — cynicism propelled him past every one of his comrades — yet what is important here is that he could never elude the presence of Something else. This Something plagued him from the time he was a boy. This was to become his greatest personal struggle. In a way, he took the entire Soviet Union into his confidence about his need to create nothing out of something. And it is fascinating to witness, for in so many respects it defines who we are as well. It tells us enough about our own dialogue with Something to make us thank Stalin, in a way, for showing us what not to question. For this Something was a painful presence to him, and it led him into areas of the human conscience where no man should dare go.
If we rely upon myth for just a second, he truly was like one of the great angels who in torment questioned the power and the grace of what could flick him like a gnat, yet he continued to believe in his own indispensability. In moments he almost confided in it like an older brother. The country was bled to death because of it. And still this Something persisted.
Stalin fought these doubts about the nothing of nothing all of his life. The entire Soviet Union was a testimony to his great battle against this Something.
Without the blink of an eye, Uncle Joe signed orders to have men he had dined with executed because nothing meant nothing. But still, what was behind it all? And more to the point, why do we need Nothing? Why do we seek it? What good will it do us?
How much better off will we be if we find it?
Nothing begets nothing. “Our nada who art in nada,” as Ernest Hemingway reminds us.
Hemingway, of course, believed in humanity. But humanity, as a stable of man’s divinity, still rankled Stalin. Stalin became ruthlessly proficient at deploring humanity, and tried his best to excise it from the common bones of the proletariat. His professed love of them was godlike except for one thing — forgiveness. Every man, woman, and child was under his thumb, and it was a big thumb. And every deficiency had something to do with the soul.
People who decry the crimes of Stalin tout the idea and even deity of his arch-enemy Trotsky, who Stalin managed to kill, the assassin arriving in Mexico with a Canadian passport. But if Stalin was the brutal arm of revolution, Trotsky was its cerebral death mask. Both by 1921 were mass murderers.
What both needed to rid Russia of was never called humanity. It was called treason, or counter-revolution, the kulaks, bourgeois, or priestly hypocrisy. It had dozens of names. By the end of the reign of Beria, Stalin’s number one executioner, maybe thousands. But looking deep into the soul, what Stalin hated all had to do with gentleness and humanity. It was even a snit at the possibility that people were stupid enough to believe him. As if to say, How dare the peasants be so gullible as to think this revolution had anything to do with them? That, in fact, was why his second wife, the one he loved, Nadia, shot herself. She was the real proletariat of the household.
A friend once said to me that the Eastern theatre was where the real war took place and the Battle of Britain was a sideshow. Yet, in some way, I have come to realize it was all a sideshow. Something much greater was going on. And that the battles we engage in as humans are a constant sideshow.
There is always something else far more important at stake. The human soul, in some ways like good helium, expands to whatever environment it has. Or conversely sinks into whatever ditch it is offered. That’s where the real battles are waged — and waged continually.
Stalin’s war was fought against the very presence of God. Goebbels might have said that Hitler was too great a man to be compared to Christ, but we think of Stalin as the man who needed to obliterate him.
It was a lonely war — against God. That is what makes Stalin fascinating to us. Like Satan in Paradise Lost, beating his wings as he flies through the great caverns toward the hopeful decimation of earth, a heroic figure. Yet at the last, faced with another pagan of equal force — an enemy at the gates so monstrous it was as if they were twins — he called on God to help his soldiers fight, granting them to call on Him. The great patriotic war was really the great holy war. And after allowing prayer and Communion, he then tossed God away again.
To eradicate God was not to make men equal — this is what many of us always pretend or are deluded by. The wisdom of those who have come to the conclusion that there is nothing but themselves have in the end usually little generosity to spare the masses. Even in the tavern talk of certain friends of the seventies, the new world, where we were all equal, where women were as capable as men of denouncing humanity (which was considered grave intelligence), there was always the idea that some would have to be eradicated, or left on the sidelines, or at least see our point of view. The secret we failed to grasp was that the only way we seemed able to have someone equal to ourselves was to diminish anyone who disagreed with us.
The great misconception of Stalin or anyone else is that equality finally rids one of the need for faith.
The French Revolution’s Reign of Terror in all its frantic bloodletting shows us that man never considered men (or women) equal, just as the war against God in the 1930s and 1940s in Russia was done in the end to make Stalin God.
I wrote in one of my novels that Stalin, Koba the Dread, would never have stopped until there was no one left on the face of the earth but himself. He could never have been happy until this happened. Happy, of course, is relative. This internecine gorge and flicking off of the human substance was hellish in its design. The idea of human character was to be smashed to atoms, and the revolution was to end with Stalin as sole proprietor of the world. He threw his entire country into chambers in hell and watched as they writhed, like men on racks, trying to behold him. Letters from those dying men and women poured forth, begging for mercy, for exile, and for one more glimpse of his face.
They had made a choice and it was deliberate. At the last moment they knew they had killed easily and humorously for the man about to kill them easily and humorously. Suddenly they knew how intricately hell worked. But even if he had managed to eradicate all those other humans he would have been left entirely on his own, with that something he still spoke to. That something he refused to call God. Because that’s what it was all about.
Stalin’s final moments have been revealed to us by his daughter Svetlana and by his doctors and confidants. Suddenly at the end (or, just perhaps, the beginning), a look of terror and rage crossed over his face. He was looking up toward the far ceiling, and he lifted himself up and shook his fist at Something. It seemed that his seventy-four years of life on this “scrap of earth,” as Tolstoy called it, had not really prepared him for what was about to come.
However, as always, none of us knows.
Beria confidently prepared the state funeral, assuming the reign of terror would continue under his direction. But he was arrested, tied and gagged, put up on a hook, and, while trying to scream, shot in the forehead without the least mercy.
On Khrushchev’s orders.
After his wife congratulated him on becoming Supreme Soviet, Khrushchev simply said, “I am up to my armpits in blood.”
That is, he knew how it had all worked.
I mention this at the start of this little book because, to me, nothing proves the existence of God more. And in a way it provides a few answers. One, how easy man slides when he wishes to deny God. And two, how close Stalin and Beria are to us. They are archetypal figures for our recent global history — they were supreme. And evil, if evil can ever be fully described. Yet when you read their cant and posture, their sniggering, they are our neighbours and ourselves at our lowest moments.
When I read about these leaders and their subordinates — the pettiness toward those out of favour, the forced morality of those who hold reign, the obsequiousness of those wanting favour — they come very close to us. Even Stalin’s brutality is only that of a man frightened of losing.
Where do you say, Could we ever see this in ourselves? One only has to look at the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. It is a movie made in 1992 that deals with the cutthroat world of real estate in Arizona. The great line, when Jack Lemmon is refused a cup of coffee, “Coffee’s for closers only, ” is a line that could be used by any one of Stalin’s subordinates. Al Pacino’s character trying to con his mark into counting four days as only three, and almost succeeding, is much like the notion of lying to change the order of the universe. And Jack Lemmon, at the end, begging Kevin Spacey to take twenty-five hundred dollars that he has stolen as a bribe shows that they had become, in spite of themselves, a nest of vipers. And yet we still in some way have compassion for them because we see them in ourselves.
That is most of this behaviour can be seen on a daily basis — vying for attention and resenting and manipulating. For it wasn’t the great things that brought them to where they were, but the small day-to-day mendacities. Stalin forcing Khrushchev to step-dance at the dacha at two in the morning is somehow, in a strange way, proof of the demonic. And reverses Talleyrand’s assertion about Napoleon’s terrible mistake in killing a political rival: That it wasn’t a crime but a blunder to the mirror opposite; it wasn’t a blunder but a crime.
Banal? Absolutely. Trite? Of course. Apocalyptic? Certainly.
The banality of evil, Hannah Arendt suggested when looking upon Adolf Eichmann.
“She was talking not about us as being evil, but only the supreme characters,” an acquaintance of mine said.
People do believe that evil is always about the big deeds. And sainthood is almost always pious and absurd, with the accent on “absurd,” and most often caricatured or lampooned, with the accent on “lampooned.” As a general rule, this trivializing of religious edicts on good and bad is considered just because of some unknown personal injury that we manufacture continually within the hubris of moral relativism.
There are reasons for this, which the church is in some way responsible, for it browbeat us too much. It is of course what Stalin himself would consider as true. If anything, he was party to the big deeds — absolutely. Yet we might reflect that he punished all the little ones — even killed the parents of a girl who dared have her picture taken with him.
For the most part, we accept our opinion about ourselves, and not only believe it, but on a daily basis seem to prove it out. And by this, I mean, that it might be Stalin who is evil, not us.
To think about evil on a day-to-day basis is to question our own motives in certain things where we too would act like those seeking favour with demigods. Still and all, this is why I chose Stalin to start this book.
Nor am I at all asking us to look upon ourselves as evil! I am asking, however, to entertain the idea that evil does exist, and is not exclusive to the German or Russian, or the English or Dutch. Or the American or Pakistani, either.
For if we do not want to compare ourselves to those hopeless people, Stalin’s forlorn subordinates, then it is best we do not consider our flaws as being such as would consolidate us to them in any way whatsoever.
“Oh it is the same, but only to a degree,” my friends might say.
But I say, as Mortimer Adler does, that the degree does not negate the similarity — only a difference in kind can do this — and our actions, compared to millions before us, are not at all a difference in kind, but only a difference to a degree. And this is fatal when we try to dismiss it as being unimportant in a matter of faith or God.
But why did I decide to write this book in the first place? It will only get me in trouble with friends who think I am already far too conservative for my own good. And why would one want to think about it? Not thinking about it gets us along just fine. In fact much of what people on the left believe I believe as well. And much of what they desire I desire also. But I feel they cannot achieve these things without faith. And I believe most of them upon reflection realize this. Nor am I saying the left does not have faith — that would be profoundly stupid. But I will say there is a secular trend today to keep faith as far away from us as possible.
Most of the people I know do not consider a study of faith or believing in God to be very important. We have put those notions to rest, or at least recognize that they are safely beyond us now. And in many ways I do not blame them — for it is a quagmire.
Still most of us, myself included, have a little faith left. It clings to our deepest hopes, just a tad. But that is okay. For any degree of faith, any at all, tells us in so many ways that it is false not to think of faith as relevant. Faith tells us that the quagmire we are in has nothing to do with faith. Even bad religions have nothing to do with faith.
Then what does faith provide that helps us to make a start on achieving what we say we want to achieve? Anything? Well, maybe just one thing.
Faith allows us peace only from the active, complicit role of wrongful injury. That does not allow us much, it seems. Very little. But still, that is just about the only thing it promises. And I might add this: that guarantee is a good thing, even if we have to work at it on a daily basis. And even if we see many who give up faith and become complicit in wrongful injury. So my contention is that those of us who want to maim or kill in the name of faith have in fact given it up, and put their faith, even for a limited time, in their own hubris or in mimicking the hubris of others they admire.
That is, if we start by actually admitting that faith can help us overcome ourselves enough not to injure others — then faith can provide everything else, by and by. We couldn’t slaughter a million men, could we? Well, Strelnikov, the poor character in Doctor Zhivago, thought he could not either, until he realized that he had to give up notions of fairness (and faith — even faith — in what he once believed he was doing) or be crucified.
In fact, this is the place where I might say the Gospel hints at the same thing — that is, the choice given to us at birth. Hardly any of us have opted for the second option. And there are many ways to be crucified. All of us have faced some of these ways, and if you are like me, most of us have balked.
So we make up reasons why we don’t need to have faith. We have continuous self-explanations as to why our faith no longer matters. But if faith does not matter, no matter if we are conservative or liberal, our ideas and ideals (which in many respects are the same) cannot be achieved. If they could be achieved without faith, they would have been by now. We continually make the same mistakes, hoping for different results.
But if by chance faith does matter, then we might see it in startling ways. A man with his children in a small wagon moving through a battlefield seems more important to the vastness of space and time than the dragoons fighting the rearguard action.
Still, I suppose it is very hard to convince those who are fighting.
I believe that the main thing any of us has fought over throughout our history is God or the lack of God, or the reasons why God agrees with us instead of them. But, as the man with the children in his wagon might show, that is not at all God’s fault.
I decided to write this book because over the last number of years I realized I did not agree with the faithful (or at least all they said), so much as disagree with the unfaithful (or those who say they do not have faith). That is, sooner or later one has to answer those who make it a point of saying that you and most of those you love are wrong. What I believe cannot of course be proven, but there are some things that my life allows me to believe, and nothing anyone has ever said has done anything to change this. For instance, there is a scene from my life that I have held on to, even in my despair. My mother, years and years ago, was at the cottage alone with the children. She had made a fire and roasted marshmallows with us, on a Tuesday night. Then she put what she thought were the cold coals outside, behind the house. At eleven o’clock she went to bed. At eleven o’clock my father, in another town, woke, and suddenly decided to get dressed and drive to see us. That is something he almost never did that late. This is a very simple story — a complete coincidence, I know — like the ones we hear about, of knockings and portents. Yet his decision saved the life of his family. And it is that simple. We were allowed by Something beyond ourselves to live. And if we had not been, then it was willed or allowed that we were not. Why? Because we had absolutely no choice ourselves. Coincidences, as G.K. Chesterton tells us, are spiritual puns.
Faith, I know, is pretty simple, and that is why it is considered at times simple-minded. But it is not. Nothing anyone has yet argued has convinced me that what intellectuals consider simple-minded is not the clarity required for the sublime.
Some years ago a CBC commentator suggested to a Nobel Prize laureate that we ourselves had become God, or godlike, because everything was now possible, and we could reasonably assume we were superior to the silly superstition and blind ego that caused the church to maintain that the sun revolved about the earth. (This idea that the church had not progressed implies that God Himself had not passed basic geometry and did not know what Galileo did. It also implies rather smugly that our ideas are now much superior to the humanity that created Michelangelo and Leonardo, or for that matter, Galileo himself.)
The commentator believed he had said it to a receptive guest, a physicist.
Yet the commentator was surprised to discover that the physicist actually disagreed with him. With a good deal of humility not shared by his host, he said that he never felt that this was the case, that he believed in the existence of God, and that, for him, science actually proved it.
How? Well, for one thing, not a molecule in the universe seemed to him out of place, as random as that place appeared. That the astral belt prevented us from being decimated, as much as our peculiar distance from the sun. That the degree to which the world turned on its axis provided us with life, no scientist could ever imagine or impart without a greater design. That, in fact, if there was a degree of change in anything, the whole place would fall flat on its face. And since the commentator at the CBC had not himself ordered this, and, what is more, would never understand it, then just perhaps he might not consider himself God. “We are we, and God is God,” the gentleman said.
Hilarious? Probably. Refutable?
Well, you can refute a televangelist who believes his grandfather walked with the brachiosaurus, but a physicist who has given his life to the prospect that the universe might have soluble equations that has an intelligence as great as the cosmos we wallow in is a different kettle.
But there is another more subtle and less admitted strand here, because it is less admirable. The commentator was in certain respects giving into the standards, as changeable as they were, of the Soviet dictator himself — that we have the power to become God. (Stalin believed, a month before his death, exactly what his doctors told him: he would live at least 150 years.)
And this coincides with the views of some of our modern novelists and thinkers. That is, that our intellect invented God and not the other way around.
It is an egalitarian idea to believe that no one who wishes equality would ever admit God exists. God, throughout the centuries, persecutes. Well it is my belief that though life can be terrible it is not because God ever persecutes us. He persecutes no-one. And in fact there is as much persecution among our egalitarians as among anyone else.
But I am in a strange position as a writer.
God never fares at all well in work beyond the latter part of the nineteenth century, except perhaps for Solzhenitsyn whose work is looked upon with great skepticism now. Or in books that actually define and delineate the greater agony of the human spirit, like Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano — as great and as funny as most books written, even those books that are considered funny first.
Lowry at one point writes that man’s tragedy is in that place once known as the soul. Here, Lowry is not giving the soul up, not at all, he is lamenting that the world has. But this is as far as most writers, even those I much admire like Lowry, are willing to take it. My point here is not to say one has to promote religion in order to create, my point is that so many artists now believe that the mention of God harms their creation, and that the dismissal or disrespect of that which is associated with God enlivens it. In the last three years I have read five novels by students of mine in which mocking irreverence is shown toward religious people (most often but not always Catholic). They think this is somehow revolutionary and inspired — rather than old hat and insipid.
In point of fact, it would be far more acceptable for some to hear they were like Joe Stalin, than for anyone to say that they were like an Anglican minister or, God forbid, a Catholic priest.
Still, why do some think (or, in fact, demand) there is no God? One reason is that because the universe is so incomprehensible to us, we cannot imagine how it could be organized with Intellect. So therefore to some of us, it is not organized with Intellect, and we use our intellect, which we fully admit is limited, to verify this lack of causality. But where did our own intellect come from? Nothing — which is the atheist’s belief. Yet he is the first to ascribe to the tenet that there is no intelligent design to the universe because, of course, nothing can come out of nothing.
From the Hardcover edition.