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The space between

I just finished reading David Plantes old (1991) novel, The Accident, having also delved a few days ago into Jens Peter Jacobsens older (1880) Danish novel, Niels Lyhne. Plantes short book takes place in Leuven in the days when it was still known as Louvain. Its central character is an American undergraduate spending a year abroad, uncomfortable in the Catholic atmosphere of the city because he is, he says, an atheist. In much the way, sincere and yet posturing, that many a young person tried it on in those days. Today its not so clear that anyone cares enough to be so clear about it. And of course the unnamed young man isn't really clear at all. Which is where the story gets interesting. In contrast to the conventionally religious Tom, he doesnt go to mass but he seems occasionally to pray. And his biggest argument with Tom is about the conventionality of belief. A real God, he suggests, would be much stronger. Shades of Elie Wiesels famous comment in Night that there rose in my heart a prayer to that God in whom I no longer believed." And the young Niels in Jacobsens novel seems to be an atheist malgr lui, or at least one who would find the blanket rejection of religion that is the calling card of the new atheism to be simply boring.When you put these two together with more accessible works like Dostoevskys The Brothers Karamazov and Rilkes charming Stories of God, it seems clear that fiction about belief and unbelief is interesting when it focuses on the space between the two. I suppose this is because good fiction thrives on ambiguity. Theres nothing so dull as a believer without doubts or an atheist withoutdare I say ita soul. Imperfection makes a person interesting. Thats why I always used to sit among the smokers in the bad old days when airlines allowed it (and gave you free food); you were simply more likely to meet someone worth talking to. The whisky priest or the lieutenant or Scobie would never show up in the no-smoking section.

There is now a word for this in-betweenness. Anatheism, a coinage of the Irish philosopher Richard Kearney in a book of the same name, is the return to God after God, which put that ways sounds like it leans a bit more towards belief than unbelief. But he also describes it as that which follows in the wake of our letting go of God, which might just push it back into the middle again. Of course, this kind of word-play has been around at least since Meister Eckhart who wrote of denying God for Gods sake. What we dont seem to have here is pure nihilism, again perhaps because it is just too dull to hold the readers attention. The interesting atheist feels the pull of belief, and the interesting theist deals, surely, with doubt on a daily basis. Which theist would argue if s/he wants to be considered interesting?Plantes Accident reads like a French novel, not only because it is set in a Francophone culture and is about the same lengthshortof many of the works of Bernanos or Mauriac. Somehow the French seem to have the lock on serious works that explore the space between belief and unbelief, even if they have a little trouble injecting any humor. Even Greene was deeply influence by these two, and Plante also owes them a lot. So whats wrong with the Anglo-Saxon here? Has Anglophone literature failed to match the French in this regard because it just never took God seriously enough to doubt? Or just because it wouldnt take itself too seriously? What do you think?

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So whats wrong with the Anglo-Saxon here? Has Anglophone literature failed to match the French in this regard because it just never took God seriously enough to doubt? Or just because it wouldnt take itself too seriously? What do you think?

Anglo-Saxon writers do that in essays and in books on politics and philosophy, don't they? Perhaps there's something about the French mind that isn't particularly fond of story lines and character development. Or maybe it's just in contemporary French novelists' minds, not necessarily French readers' minds. Just because ninety-five percent of contemporary American composers make dissonant and arrhythmic music doesn't mean that ninety-five percent of the American musical audience likes it.

Maybe it's the influence of Shakespeare. Sure, he's the greatest modern playwright, but it seems to me he does lack one thing -- consideration of the question of God. Dostoievsky he was not. Yes, scholars are saying these days he was a Catholic, but does that mean just a cultural Catholic? Hamlet does ponder the question of his own existence, but not in a religious context. He does wonder about life after death, but this is not an essentially religious question. God is conspicuously absent from the 'To be or not to be" soliloquy, I think. Had Hamlet/Shakespeare given up on God already -- offstage? Given his influence in England (the schools there are still required by law to teach him, or so I've read), maybe, because Shakespeare didn't consider the question, the British authors generally don't feel the necessity to wrestle with it either, not publicly anyway. (Then there's Dawkins, . . .) (And Terry Eagleton . . .)

My vague sense from reading just a smattering of modern French fiction is that it's generally a lot more introspective than its American or English cousins. Sometimes, that can be entertaining, as with, for example, Andr Maurois, and at other times it can be horribly sterile and boring, as with Marguerite Duras. Purely personal tastes and opinions, of course. On the other hand, back before modern, we have the wonderful mile Zola. Perhaps what I experience as sterility and navel gazing is at least partly a product of early- and mid-century European nihilism and communism, which, it's my sense, see everything through bitter and angry ideological filters.

I can get into that "in-between place" just by reflecting on life and Scripture and I am a Catholic priest. I walk through the street carrying a little girl who died of dysentery and a thousand people follow me and I go to the house but can't put the burden down. Then I stumble out of the house and above the city is a great statue of Cristo Rey touched by a dazzling white streak of sun against a black sky. A miracle? A sign of hope. No, I just got mad and got on the wrong bus and took a tour of the slums with little kids with death on their faces and a barrio where guys in black Mercedes and Cadillacs are buying little girls. Who is this God? In his weakness? In his decision not to intervene with lightning bolts. In his choice to leave the little ones to pray, suffer, and die?I have to say it is the cross that does it for me...it leads me to a mystery where God does not give the answer but simply becomes one of the least and most loss as if to say I went down there with you and I won't let you go. But I still rage for revenge and justice. Well, I am an old man now and I am looking forward to seeing what it was all about. Sometimes God seems as close to me as the other side of a piece of paper or closer, but I still don't understand. Came to see that faith also means loyalty and so I am loyal and will be. But I wish it was the God Wiesell longed for and how all this really looks in the eyes of the maker of galaxies and black holes.

In contrast to the conventionally religious Tom, he doesnt go to mass but he seems occasionally to pray. And his biggest argument with Tom is about the conventionality of belief. A real God, he suggests, would be much stronger. Shades of Elie Wiesels famous comment in Night that there rose in my heart a prayer to that God in whom I no longer believed.

Such ego! To be so confused and yet so confident that he matters at all. Very modern - me, me, me - superior to all those "conventional" existences - I the artist, the sensitive one, the only one truly longing for enlightenment. Foof.

"... it leads me to a mystery where God does not give the answer but simply becomes one of the least and most loss as if to say I went down there with you and I wont let you go."What a wonderful line! While most Americans have not experienced the horrorscapes described by Fr. Taylor, I think those of us faced with life's more mundane sorrows--the difficult illness of a parent, the death of a child, the loss of a livlihood--know that there are no answers, only that Presence of Christ on the cross holding us all up. That's all we get in this life, and part of maturing in the faith is the ability to see how precious it is.

Perhaps we should give up trying to define God. It just leads to bad novels and to good minds wasted on the study of philosophy and theology.

Philosophers and especially theologians are not in the business, not any more, of defining God. More commonly, they explore the space between belief and unbelief, which is exactly where the good novels go. Bad novels tend to be didactic, whether for God or against. Just look at how Flannery O'Connor dismisses a certain kind of Catholic novel in some of her essays.

I'm reading Dame Rose Macaulay's "The Towers of Trebizond," which explores those spaces. It's ostensibly a travelogue about her trip to Turkey, but she ruminates with unpitying precision about the state of her soul, especially re her affair with a married man. Macaulay came back to the C of E late in life, but this reflection on her youthful sins deserves more notice. One wishes the author of the dreadful "Eat, Pray, Love" had read Dame Rose.

What's the difference between "the space between belief and unbelief" and "the human condition"? Aren't they much the same thing - a space in which God is either absent or present mainly as a punching bag?For example, taking perhaps my favorite novel, La peste, God's not there at all, as I recall (it's time for another reading). Instead, you have the tragedy of life and man's moral obligation to follow his conscience into hell, so to speak. Deep enough, but no God.

I'm afraid I'm just too stupid to understand whatever's got David Smith's bile ducts working overtime about this particular topic.

Can't the difference between French and Anglo literature (British/American...lets leave the Irish out of this one) reflect something of the difference between Continental and Analytic philosophy?And I am afraid our consumer society has abandoned meaningful searches for prefabricated BS. "The Secret", "Eat, Pray, Love", "The Alchemist" even "Life of Pi". It seems society at large has the same tastes in literature as most 15 year old girls.

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About the Author

Paul Lakeland is the Aloysius P. Kelley, SJ, Professor of Catholic Studies at Fairfield University.