The next work of fiction to be examined is actually a trilogy written by James Morrow, a science fiction writer from Pennsylvania, about a chain of events that begins with the splashdown of the Corpus Dei in the early 1990s. In 1992, to be precise, a giant male corpse, two miles long, was discovered floating face-up in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa. The Vatican and a handful of other individuals were notified of this by dying angels, who confirmed that it was indeed God. The Vatican secretly contracted to have the SS Carpco Valparaiso, a retired oil supertanker, tow
God's body to a tomb carved by angels into an ice shelf in the Arctic. After resting in this icy cavern for 6 years, an earthquake dislodges the body. The Pope holds a press conference and comes clean, then offers the body to Baptists in the US for 80 million dollars, who tow it to Orlando and build a theme park around it.
At about this time it was determined that God was not brain-dead, but merely comatose. Martin Candle, a hard-working and honest justice of the peace from Pennsylvania, managed to persuade the International Criminal Court to try God for accumulated crimes against humanity. The body was towed to the Hague, but while the defendant was found innocent, Candle went berserk and hacked apart God's life support machine. God, finally dead but legally innocent, began his sea journey back to the Baptists. A few days out of port on the voyage back to Florida, the body began breaking apart, with organs firing into the sky like comets. Finally, the skull vomited God's enormous brain, broke loose of the spinal vertebrae, and launched into space, where it settled into geosynchronous orbit, a grinning skull which had grown to the size of Delaware, and that could be seen in the sky by all in the northern hemisphere, like a lesser moon. After several years the Vatican, which had purchased back from the Baptists legal rights to the bones of God (ever fascinated with relics), began leasing the forehead to multinational corporations for laser ads beamed from satellites. "Coke Is It" radiated from the glowing Cranium Dei.
Morrow is such a good writer that once you have entered the world of these novels, this sort of thing does seem plausible. The full arc of the trilogy is important to keep in mind, but enough of the theological achievement of the trilogy can be captured through a close reading of the story as it unfolds in the first volume, Towing Jehovah, for the purposes of this chapter. This volume carries us as far as the burial of God in the ice tomb - which isn't the end of the story, as my brief summary should have made clear. The heart of this first volume is found in the way the crew of the Valparaiso reacts to the incontrovertible proof of God's death. Morrow sets himself the challenge of hiring to this crew sailors of various religious backgrounds. The captain, Anthony Van Horne, is a Dutch Presbyterian (Morrow's own background), Seamen Leo Zook is a Protestant Fundamentalist and Neil Weisinger a Jew with some rabbinical training, radio engineer Lianne Bliss is a New Age enthusiast, rescued passenger Cassie Fowler is a feminist and ardent atheist, and the Vatican liaison, Fr Thomas Ockham, is a Jesuit theologian and metaphysician, a tenured member of the faculty at Fordham who, along with his colleague and fellow passenger, Sr Miriam, a Carmelite nun, had co-authored a book on theodicy many years earlier.
Given the explosive nature of their cargo, the Vatican has instructed that the crew assembled for this voyage remain small and kept in the dark about their mission until the last possible day. Only the Captain,
Fr Ockham, and Sr Miriam know before they ram the supertanker into it while lost in a fog bank what their cargo will be. When the crew finally sees God's corpse floating face-up in the ocean, they are forced, quite suddenly, to make sense of a world with a dead God. There are a variety of reactions, and they hit in waves. The first wave is characterized by a growing sense of a strange and unprecedented freedom. Neil Weisinger contemplates harpooning his commanding officer as the thought steals over him that God is really gone, or as he says, "No God, no rules, no eyes on us." As more time passes, he slides further into this conviction and tells Fr Ockham, "The cat's away, Tommy. ... I can think any damn thought I want. I can think about picking up a Black and Decker needle gun and drilling my Aunt Sarah's eyes out. I'm free, Tommy."35 Two weeks after their first contact with the corpse, Captain Van Horne notes in his diary that there has been a steep increase in brawls, graffiti, petty thefts, vandalism, rape, and even a murder among his small crew - all relatively individual acts of mayhem. He reports a recent conversation with Fr Ockham:
"The corpse is taking hold," is how Ockham explains our situation. "Not the corpse per se, the idea of the corpse - that's our great enemy, that's the source of this disorder. In the old days," says the padre, "whether you were a believer, a nonbeliever, or a confused agnostic, at some level, conscious or unconscious, you felt God was watching you, and the intuition kept you in check. Now a whole new era is upon us."36
For his own part, Fr Ockham is seeking clarification from Rome. He faxes the College of Cardinals an urgent request for their opinion on this outbreak of lawlessness on the oil tanker - Does it stem metaphysically from the decay of the corpse, as if the battery of the cosmic moral order is running down, or is it a psychological effect now that God's death has lodged itself in the minds of the crew as an empirical fact?
Meanwhile the ship comes to be stranded high and dry on the slopes of a brand new island that has risen fresh from out of the ocean. The body of God breaks free in this upheaval, and drifts back to sea. Most of the crew mutiny and desert the ship on this island. With this commences the second wave of reaction to God's death - communal revolt and a reversion to primitivism. Within days the mutineers are staging gladiatorial games, chasing and massacring one another with a forklift stolen from the ship. They engage in great orgies, eat through the ship's food supply with conspicuous wastefulness, drink like fish, and watch a video of Bob Guccione's pornographic Caligula play on an endless loop. Finally, Thomas and Sr Miriam go looking for the mutineers to seek their help in getting the supertanker back afloat. They locate the deserters by their laughter, by the thick aroma of "semen, tobacco, alcohol, vomit, and pot," and by their "whoops of primitive delight and cries of post-theistic joy." Sighting them from a distance, Fr Ockham says, "It's even worse than we imagined. . . . They've gone over to the gods." To which Sr Miriam replies, "Is this the future, Tom - vigilante vengeance, public executions: Is this the shape of the post-theistic age?"37
There are echoes here of Dostoevsky's Smerdyakov, who reported back to his mentor Ivan what it is he had learned from him: "If there's no everlasting God, there's no such thing as virtue, and there's no need of it."38 Miriam picks up on this, precisely, and both she and Ockham pine in light of these Karamazovian developments for the good sense of Immanuel Kant:
"It's the logic of Ivan Karamazov, isn't it?" said Miriam. "If God doesn't exist, everything is permitted." Thomas replies, "One also thinks of Schopenhauer. Without a Supreme Being, life becomes sterile and meaningless. I hope Kant had it right - I hope people possess some sort of inborn ethical sense. I seem to recall him rhapsodizing somewhere about 'the starry skies above me and the moral law within me.' "
"Critique of Practical Reason," said Miriam. "I agree, Tom. The deserters, all of us, we've got to make Kant's leap of faith - his leap out of faith, I should say. We must get in touch with our congenital consciences. Otherwise we're lost."39
This is the thin shred of hope to which the religious protagonists in the story cling: the conviction that human beings have a congenital conscience that is not dependent upon the existence of God, but respects duty for the sake of duty alone. Miriam and Thomas berate, coax and cajole the mutinous sailors to sober up and recover the Kantian moral law within. It is a futile effort.
Morrow is telling a story here that allows him to experiment in novel form with various death-of-God theologies that were written in the 1960s. At one point in the trilogy, the character of Satan appears and describes God's death as a revelation intended by God himself in these terms: "God willed Himself into a death trance because He thought He'd do His creatures more good that way."40 How so? It is through the character of Thomas Ockham, who, we learn, is familiar with Gabriel Vahanian's The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era41 (an actual book published in 1961), that the point of view of Morrow himself, it seems, comes into focus. Ockham, we learn in the third volume of the trilogy (The Eternal Footman), wrote a book subsequent to this ocean journey reflecting on the meaning of God's suicide entitled Parables for a Post-theistic Age, in which he argues: "God had wanted his corpse to be discovered. After fully apprehending His death, humankind would move beyond its traditional dependence on Him. Homo sapiens would achieve maturity." This is because Jesus, who had taught that "the kingdom of God is within you," had failed to persuade humanity of this essential truth. They were too dense to absorb it, and started a church instead. The two mile-long corpse splashing down into the ocean was God's desperate strategy to convey the message again. Ockham continues,
As the new millennium dawns, may we finally rid ourselves of those grand absolutes, those terrible transcendent truths, in whose name human beings have routinely menaced one another. If the coming era must have a religion, then let it be a religion of everyday miracles and quotidian epiphanies, of short eternities and little myths. In the post-theistic age, let Christianity become merely kindness, salvation transmute into art, truth defer to knowledge, and faith embrace a vibrant doubt.42
Another theologian lurking in the background of Morrow's experiment is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose book Letters and Papers from Prison is quoted in Ockham's book, and specifically Bonhoeffer's key passage about religionless Christianity:
So our coming of age forces us to a true recognition of our situation vis-à-vis God. God is teaching us that we must live as men who can get along very well without Him. [*****] The God Who makes us live in this world without using Him as a working hypothesis is the God before Whom we are ever standing. Before God and with Him we live without God.43
As the trilogy concludes, this idea that the death of God will ultimately result in the maturation of the human race is depicted by the plot development of the final disappearance of the celestial skull, which had plagued everyone (in the northern hemisphere, the only place it was visible) with a visual reminder of what they had lost as long as it orbited the earth. But once it had finally vanished from the sky, it took only ten years for Western civilization to rebuild its infrastructure, and for life to return to a social and moral order that, while it could be depended upon, was not itself dependent upon God. The Kantian conscience finally triumphed. The human inhabitants of earth eventually become full-fledged citizens, and are no longer tourists on their way to someplace else. In the long term, for Morrow, the most reliable basis for the moral life is the stark awareness that there is no God to lean on, and that a livable social order is entirely in human hands, contingent on each decision we make to behave morally.
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