Missing God and Fearing Death

Nothing To Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes (250 pp)


“I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him” is the striking opening sentence of the most intriguing book I read last year. Julian Barnes is one of Britain’s leading novelists – he won the Man Booker prize in 2011 and has had three other novels shortlisted for the award – but this is a personal memoir and meditation on the twin themes of God and mortality. And despite the seriousness of the subject, it is wonderfully entertaining.

I suspect that most of us push the awareness of death to the back of our consciousness, but for Julian Barnes it has been with him on a daily basis since he was a teenager. “Over the decades,” he writes, “my fear of death has become an essential part of me.” And he describes the acute attacks when, in the middle of the night, he finds himself “pitch-forked” into wakefulness, beating the pillow and “shouting ‘Oh no Oh No OH NO’ in an endless wail.”

Having rejected the “attenuated belief” of his family background, he is aware that, with no God and no Heaven, death is “on the agenda in quite a different way.” The heart of the issue for him is the fear of blank extinction. While his rationalistic older brother (an academic philosopher with whom he is in debate) is quite content with that prospect, Julian Barnes can imagine all sorts of things that would be better than “utter obliteration” – an eternal life talking to the great philosophers and novelists, for instance, or a second go at life in which you get the chance to correct the mistakes of the first. His brother says it would be irrational to fear extinction, to which Barnes responds:  “IRRATIONAL? It’s the most rational thing in the world – how can reason not detest and fear the end of reason?”

Having rejected the bland acceptance of mortality, he also rejects the so-called consolations atheists offer. He refers to Richard Dawkins’ view that we are the lucky ones because the vast majority of potential people never even get born – and finds this no consolation, rather a disconsolation, because it emphasizes our staggering uniqueness which makes it even harder to shrug our shoulders at mortality. To the argument that your children ‘carry you on’ after your death, he responds: “What happens when you reach the first generation born after you are dead, the one with no possible memory of you, and for whom you were mere folklore? Will you be carried on by them, and will they know that is what they are doing?”

Two of the appealing things about Julian Barnes are his candour and humility. He sees atheism as ‘aristocratic’ and Bertrand Russell as the embodiment of that sort of pride. Having called himself an atheist in his youth, he now sees himself as an agnostic because he has more awareness of human ignorance and asks, “How can we be sure that we know enough to know?”

He is very candid about missing God:

“The God I don’t believe in yet miss is naturally the Christian God of Western Europe and       non-fundamentalist America. I don’t miss Allah or Buddha, any more than I miss Odin       or Zeus. And I miss the New Testament God rather than the Old Testament one. I miss         the God that inspired Italian painting and French stained glass, German music and                 English chapter houses, and those tumble-down heaps of stone on Celtic headlands             which were once symbolic beacons in the darkness and storm.” (pp 117-118)

Why does he miss God? Part of it is aesthetic. There is a loss of wonder when confronted by the natural world: “If what is out there comes from nothing, if all is unrolling mechanically according to a programme laid down by nobody, and if our perceptions of it are mere moments of biochemical activity, the mere snap and crackle of a few synapses, then what does this sense of wonder amount to?” (p 71) He also realizes how much more great religious art and music would mean if he could see it as true. But that is only the beginning. Behind it is something deeper: “Religion used to offer consolation for the travails of life, and reward at the end of it for the faithful. But above and beyond these treats, it gave human life a sense of context, and therefore seriousness.” (p 57)

Yet sadly, despite the sense of loss, Barnes never seems to have seriously investigated faith or considered the evidence for God. Instead of engaging with the issue, he simply settles for a default position of agnosticism. And his few believing friends don’t seem to have served him well. At one point he mentions asking a Catholic friend why he believes and getting the response, ‘I believe because I want to believe’, which Julian Barnes understandably finds less than helpful.

Although seemingly unwilling to explore faith as a personal option, Julian Barnes has a sure sense of what it should be like. He writes: “Agnostics and atheists observing religion from the sideline tend to be unimpressed by milksop creeds. What’s the point of faith unless you and it are serious – seriously serious – unless your religion fills, directs, stains and sustains your life?” (p 81)

His attack on subjective re-inventions of faith is also very much to the point. To those who say something like, “I don’t go to church, but I have my own personal idea of God”, he responds: “You may have your own personal idea of God, but does God have His own personal idea of you? Because that’s what matters …. The notion of redefining the deity into something that works for you is grotesque.” (p 45)

Julian Barnes is dealing with two of the greatest questions of human existence – God and mortality – and, while the extent of his engagement with the first is disappointing, he leaves the reader with much to ponder about the second. Unlike a friend who said to him, “I know that everybody else is going to die, but I never think I am going to die”, Barnes lives deeply with the awareness of his mortality. And his book is an engaging, lively and human response to that reality. We live in a society that pushes away the awareness of death. (I’m frequently struck in pastoral situations by how often death takes people by surprise.) In its honesty and candour this book is (to use the author’s own phrase) a significant “wake-up call to mortality.”

Castle Hill Musings


My Book of the Year (2016)

Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years, Carl Sandburg (762 pp)abraham-lincoln

A biography of Lincoln has been on my “must read” list for some time, especially since seeing the superb movie Lincoln in which Daniel Day Lewis made the man live again for our generation. Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) was a renowned American poet and the only person who has won the Pulitzer Prize for both poetry and history. The latter was for his monumental six volume biography of Lincoln which he later distilled into this one volume version which I read last year. It is a wonderfully rich, fascinating and absorbing read.

Because Lincoln’s Presidency coincided almost exactly with the American Civil War (1861-1865), which erupted a month after his inauguration and ended a week before his assassination, any biography of his life will be infused with the fascination and drama of that great conflict. Lincoln was the central figure in the most momentous events in nineteenth century America – the abolition of slavery and the struggle to hold the “United” States together as one nation. But what is here even more striking than the epoch-making events is the character of the man.

After Lincoln’s assassination, Leo Tolstoy expressed the view that in “moral power and greatness of character” he dwarfed all other national heroes and statesmen. A contemporary Supreme Court Justice said of him, “He grew wiser and broader and stronger as difficulties thickened and perils multiplied, till the end found him the wonder in our history.”

He came from humble beginnings (“Log cabin to Whitehouse”) and was mostly self-educated. He was marked by his humility and his empathy with ordinary people; his droll sense of humour and fund of folksy stories that were often used to clinch an argument or disarm an opponent; his ability to hold a group of competitive egos together and his uncommon wisdom in steering a political course in the most perilous of times; his moral vision and resolute commitment to both maintaining the Union and abolishing slavery. But, above all, I was struck by these qualities:

Generosity of spirit.  This stood out in Lincoln’s response to the extraordinary abuse and invective poured upon him by political enemies and critical journalists. He was called ape, gorilla, monster, tyrant and worse, yet never retaliated or showed any rancour. There was something truly Christ-like in his refusal to return evil for evil and in his readiness to advance the careers of some who had criticised him harshly. During the election campaign of 1864 Harper’s Weekly commented that “The personal character of the President is the rock upon which the Opposition is wrecked. It dashes against him, hissing and venomous, but falls back again baffled.”

His magnanimity shone in his refusal to adopt a punitive policy towards the South. Robert E. Lee, the Southern General, said that in surrendering his rebel forces he “kept in mind President Lincoln’s benignity, and surrendered as much to the latter’s goodness as to Grant’s artillery.” The famous words of his second inaugural address express the spirit of the man: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in: to bind up the nation’s wounds …”

Long-suffering and laughter.  Lincoln not only endured the enormous demands of the Presidency (including opening the White House to a daily stream of supplicants, office-seekers, and people in need). He was called to lead a bitterly divided nation, and was plunged almost immediately into the anguish of a civil war that lasted four years and claimed the lives of over 600,000 soldiers – more than the combined American losses in World War 1 and 2. It is no wonder that many observers commented on the deep sadness in his eyes. But they also noted the sudden transformations to lightness and mirth. He was deeply acquainted with grief, and yet Sandburg devotes half a chapter to Lincoln’s humour and concludes that no other President had come to be so identified “with a relish for the comic.” Several joke books of Lincoln’s stories were published giving the “impression of a plain neighbourly, somewhat droll man, nobody’s fool, at home to common folks.”

A man of faith.  In a number of ways Lincoln’s beliefs departed from Christian orthodoxy, but he was undoubtedly a man of genuine faith with a deep sense of dependence on God in all the crises of his time. He knew the Scriptures intimately and, although never formally belonging to a denomination, was a regular church attender. His Presidency was marked by his repeatedly calling the nation to thanksgiving or prayer for God’s aid in times of national need. He said, “I have felt His hand upon me in great trials and submitted to His guidance, and I trust that as He shall further open the way I will be ready to walk therein, relying on His help and trusting in His goodness and wisdom.” Sandburg detects “a distinct trend towards a deeper religious note, a piety more assured of itself” as Lincoln’s Presidency unfolded.

And Today? I’m writing this on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, and it’s painful to consider the gulf in character between these two men. How has the nation of Lincoln come to elect a man so singularly lacking in character? A key factor has to be that today the electorate doesn’t value personal character as highly as it once did. The magazine First Things recently reported that public polling in the States shows that white evangelicals “now regard personal character as less relevant for public leadership.” How can that be?

Clearly many Christians have become so issue-centred (around things like abortion and the make-up of the Supreme Court) that they have lost sight of this reality – when it comes to leadership, personal character is the number one issue.