Wednesday, June 8, 2011

God is Not Great and the Religion of Art

Just as politics fall outside the purview of this blog, so do questions of religion.  Your correspondent has definite opinions in the matter, and, ultimately, all questions of religion fall into the realm of opinion.  Mine may not be particularly more or less relevant than yours, and are quite beside the point in the bargain.

However, I should confess (such an apropos locution when discussing religion) that Art has always provided the comfort and solace for me usually supplied by monotheistic faith.  My “religious conversion” occurred during a reading of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray in my early boyhood. 

In the heavily scented and mysterious 11th Chapter, Wilde details the various forms taken by Dorian’s aestheticism.  While much of it was heavily ornamented puffery, I was struck by this passage:  “But it appeared to Dorian Gray that the true nature of the senses had never been understood, and that they had remained savage and animal merely because the world had sought to starve them into submission or to kill them by pain, instead of aiming at making them elements of a new spirituality, of which a fine instinct for beauty was to be the dominant characteristic.”

That phrase – “a new spirituality, of which a fine instinct for beauty was to be the dominant characteristic” – has haunted me for decades.  I have been trying to define my spirituality along the same lines ever since.

These thoughts came back to me as I read God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens.  It would be a difficult thing indeed to find two more disparate individuals that Wilde and Hitchens.  Wilde was a consummate artist while still being one of the great comedians of the language.  He never drew his sword to draw blood, but, more as a bodkin with which to point for ironic effect.  Hitchens, on the other hand, is a very public intellectual who delights in the fight.  In fact, I believe that Hitchens produces his best work when he is angriest, and longs to bloody his boxing gloves before hanging them up.

Wilde laughs; Hitchens lunges.  Both are remarkable minds.

Imagine, then, my surprise, when I saw the lesson of Wilde in God is Not Great.  In this masterful refutation of religious thinking, dogma and tradition, Hitchens cheerfully enumerates the spiritual consolations he finds more satisfying than religion: “It does not matter to me whether Homer was one person or many, or whether Shakespeare was a secret Catholic or a closet agnostic.  I should not feel my own world destroyed if the greatest writer about love and tragedy and comedy and morals was finally revealed to have been the Earl of Oxford all along, though I must add that sole authorship is important to me and I would be saddened and diminished to learn that Bacon had been the man.  Shakespeare has much more moral salience than the Talmud or the Koran or any account of the fearful squabbles of Iron Age tribes.  But there is a great deal to be learned and appreciated from the scrutiny of religion, and one often finds oneself standing atop the shoulders of distinguished writers and thinkers who were certainly one’s intellectual and sometimes even one’s moral superiors.  Many of them, in their own time, had ripped away the disguise of idolatry and paganism, and even risked martyrdom for the sake of disputes with their own coreligionists.  However, a moment in history has now arrived when even a pygmy such as myself can claim to know more – through no merit of his own – and to see that the final ripping of the whole disguise is overdue.  Between them, the sciences of textual criticism, archaeology, physics, and molecular biology have shown religious myths to be false and man-made and have also succeeded in evolving better and more enlightened explanations.  The loss of faith can be compensated by the newer and finer wonders that we have before us, as well as by immersion in the near-miraculous works of Homer and Shakespeare and Milton and Tolstoy and Proust, all of which was also “man-made” (though one sometimes wonders, as in the case of Mozart).  I can say this as one whose own secular faith has been shaken and discarded, not without pain.”

This is fine stuff.  Finer still is his dismissal of religious texts in favor of Art: “We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books.  Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and – since there is no other metaphor – also the soul.”

On other hands, these assertions could become arch, or, worse, strident.  Into these pits Hitchens never falls.  Wilde, also in Dorian Gray, wrote: “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book.  Books are well written or badly written.  That is all.”

God is Not Great is very well written, indeed.  Hitchens is a lucid stylist with a clear and reasoned line of argument.  There are moments where his pleas for a New Age of Enlightenment inspire the reader to be more attuned to human achievement and more skeptical of anti-human dogma.  This is an important book.

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