Is God Dead or Just Packing His Bags

Like the Book of Job, the novels of James Morrow and Franco Ferrucci depict a God who is ordinarily credited with creation and with maintaining the order of the cosmos, but who suddenly does something wildly out of character - either he packs his bags and gradually puts out the lights in preparation to depart to another universe, or he plunges into the ocean in a dramatic suicide. And, again like the Book of Job, these books detail how individuals representing different strains of faith respond to this theological surprise. After they have said their peace, God gets the last word (still following the Jobian paradigm), via his autobiographical confession of failure and disappointment in the Book of Ferrucci, and via the devil's disclosure in the Book of Morrow that "God willed Himself into a death trance because He thought He'd do His creatures more good that way." God's exiting word in both cases is offered as a new revelation.

The other literary work hovering in the background of these God novels is The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov's poem of the Grand Inquisitor is revisited several times in Ferrucci's story - the most poignant rendition taking place between God, who plays Jesus' role of advocating the importance of freedom for humanity to come to grips with itself, and Jesus, who, ironically, plays the Grand Inquisitor's role of advocating a freedom-denying security which keeps us from slitting each other's throats. God didn't want to be worshipped and he wanted humanity to outgrow its childish dependence on his approval.44 Ferrucci is on God's side in this confrontation; he joins in God's epicurean commitment to be free to satisfy one's desires (albeit moderated, disciplined desires), without the imposition of external laws, and to use one's life to attain honest self-awareness, unencumbered by otherworldly dreams. In Morrow's world, it is a different element of Ivan's anger with God that drives the plot, namely his suggestion to Alyosha and Smerdyakov that if there is no God, all things are permitted. Morrow pushes this in the direction of an optimistic existentialism, telling a story that passes through bloody anarchy and moral confusion on its way to a humane and honest world in which the grand absolutes of theistic religion have given way to a mature and benevolent post-theistic humanism.

So, we have Ferrucci's epicurean God who seeks to maximize his sensual pleasure in existence without allowing his passions to overreach to the point of causing others pain, and then attempts to teach us to do the same; and we have Morrow's existentialist God who commits the ultimate act of sacrifice in order that we may come to terms with the gravity of our own actions. H. Richard Niebuhr made note in 1957 that these very philosophies are transitional faiths, holding patterns between radical monotheism and a diffused polytheism. He wrote: "Epicureanism and existentialism look like ghostly survivals of faith among men who, forsaken by the gods, continue to hold on to life."45 This intermediary position is hard to maintain for long, or, at least, for many generations. By default human beings gravitate toward polytheism, by which Niebuhr means selves who grasp at multiple, unintegrated centers of meaning, a grasping that allows us "partial loyalty to many interests."46 In polytheism, we desire a multitude of genuine goods, but have no means of deciding between them short of which one, at the moment, seems to be working or stirs the strongest emotions.

A Niebuhrian skepticism about what Ferrucci and Morrow have achieved is in order. In their rejection of the necessity of some kind of theistic grounding for the moral life, both of them actually usher us to the threshold of polytheism. Intended as humanity's coming of age stories, these stories regress instead. Their humanism is awfully trusting in human beings coming hardwired into the world with functioning and resilient consciences. Both authors and the worlds they conjure up are unfairly suspicious of actual moral laws and the sensation of guilt that is associated with morality. Nor do they sufficiently trust the older myths to do their work in teaching the moral law and in inculcating the sense of guilt that will make the moral law self-enforcing.

For a different grasp of these matters, consider a third novel.

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