Paul Johnson

No wise man, and no great artist, leaves God out

No wise man, and no great artist, leaves God out

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I can perfectly well understand why someone should be an agnostic. But to be an atheist — to deny flatly and without qualification the existence of God — is to me wholly unsympathetic. The depth of folly, indeed, and not without malice to us all. It makes little sense in reason. For if it is difficult, even strictly speaking impossible, to ‘prove’ the existence of God, in the sense in which we prove a theorem in geometry or the second law of thermodynamics, it is much more difficult to prove that he does not exist. More seriously, atheism necessarily demeans humanity. The point was powerfully made by Francis Bacon: ‘They that deny a God destroy man’s nobility; for certainly man is of kin to the beasts, by his body; and, if he be not kin to God, by his spirit, he is a base and ignoble creature.’ To be an atheist is to take a low view of human life. It is not surprising that among the small but extremely noisy group of atheists that exist today, most take the view that modern science shows no essential difference in purpose or significance between Homo sapiens and a chunk of rock or a puff of dust — all are subject to the same inexorable laws of futility.

It is frightening to think what will become of our progeny if, in the not-too-distant future — say about mid-century — these destructive notions get a grip on a large part of the human race and become the received wisdom, as their protagonists strongly desire and are doing all in their power to achieve. I fear a world not just where respect and reverence for God has disappeared, but where all trace of his image has vanished from human minds, and more important, hearts. What kind of terrible creatures will we become? It is not as though the world is standing still, leaving time for reflection. It is racing ahead, piling on the wealth and the technology. According to Forbes magazine, in the five years since terrorists blew up the World Trade Center, an act which they hoped would fatally damage the US economy, it has actually grown by 30 per cent, adding $3 trillion to America’s gross domestic product. That increase alone is bigger than the entire GDP of China, the new giant. The world as a whole grew even faster, by $15 trillion a year. These rates of growth may well accelerate. While the human race thus adds to its riches and knowledge and abilities to create and destroy, what if the last moral restraints on our power, our respect and fear of a being greater than ourselves, should finally go? The giant gorillas would then all be out of their cages. Or rather, as the German Jesuit Karl Rahner put it, we would become merely ‘a race of fantastically clever animals, and our ultimate fate would be too horrible to contemplate’.

We need the idea of God, not so much as an emollient or placebo for life’s harshness, but in a much more fundamental sense. We know that humanity has huge physical potential. We demonstrate it daily until the mind reels with the startling march of progress. But progress to what? All of us also feel strongly that we have moral potential too, if only we could make our hearts work warmly as easily as we get our machines to function. We know there is good in us, as well as evil. But to bring out that good we need leadership and example. We need to admire goodness in its purest form so that we can elevate ourselves above our clayey roots. We do feel, in some deep sense, that we were created in a divine image, and can by anxious striving realise our elevated destiny. What is so wonderful about God is that, though omnipotent, he is also incorruptible. His limitless power does not corrupt, as our puny imitation of it does. There is no dark side of the coin there. We have set before us an example of how power can be used with grace and benevolence, and so, how we, in our small way, can bring into balance our physical achievements and our hopelessly lagging moral restraints.

The will is there in humans. Most of us are anxious to be good. I have been reading an arresting and beautiful book by the historian Eamon Duffy, Marking the Hours: English People and their Prayers, 1240–1570, published by Yale. This shows not merely the professionally produced books people used to pray, but the annotations and pleas they added in their own crabbed hands, which Duffy has painstakingly deciphered. These prayerful souls were ordinary people, literate of course, and including one leading spirit in the person of St Thomas More, whose sorrowful marginalia while shut up in the Tower awaiting execution are also reproduced. More’s prayers are inexpressibly moving, but they form merely part of a whole in which large numbers of often simple and ill-educated folk earnestly, even passionately, sought to better themselves and live the good and prayerful life, in imitation of and in supplication to God. Thanks to this book, one can reach back over 400 years or more into the secret chambers of human hearts doing their best to raise themselves into decency. Such insights are truly edifying. There is so much virtue in the human race if only we know where to find it and bring it to light.

I never mind an agnostic, except a cynical and scoffing one. I respect a man like David Hume, who advocated scepticism because he thought that the religion of his youth in Scotland was simply unworthy of mankind and, instead of raising the human spirit, vulgarised and coarsened it. His motive was to clarify the mind and purge it of superstition. He was far too sensible to seek to drive the idea of God out of human consciousness. He reserved judgment and, by implication, admitted he did not know about causation or the ultimate things, as a wise man who cannot bring himself to believe easily should do. I view a quite different thinker like Immanuel Kant in the same light. Horribly aware of ‘the crooked timbers of humanity’, as he called them, from which ‘no straight thing’ can ever be made, he nevertheless recognised that a providential longing for straightness was part of man’s character, and linked to a goodness outside himself, towards which he strove. This is the very reverse of atheism.

If there is beauty in the world, and degrees of beauty, as we all perceive, there is surely a supreme beauty, an argument St Thomas Aquinas deployed. I have noticed, again and again, that few artists of any kind, and especially the great artists, are without some sense of God. Like sailors, who, ‘have seen the wonders of the deep’, they cannot be atheists. They may believe simply but profoundly, like J.S. Bach, whose trust in God pervades all his musical writing, or like that noble soul Anton Bruckner who, notwithstanding the elaborate musical tapestries he wove, was simplicity itself, and inscribed on his last symphony, ‘To Almighty God’. Or they may be sophisticated and complex artists like van Eyck, whose ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ is a finely mysterious exercise in the elaborate details of 15thcentury Christianity. Indeed, they may be as shadowy in their confessional material as Shakespeare. The precise nature of his rel-igious beliefs has been the subject of much confident scholarship recently, but to my mind it remains hidden still, and deliberately so. He knew he was a magician, and subject to the supreme magician, but beyond that all was hints. He preferred to cast himself as Prospero, enigmatic and Janus-faced; and of course Prospero himself was a mere actor, playing a carefully crafted part. But no true artist leaves God out of the equation, even if he cannot solve it.