Sunday, April 12, 2009

Wood on the distinction between literary and religious belief

"The child of evangelicalism, if he does not believe, inherits nevertheless a suspicion of indifference. He is always evangelical. He rejects the religion he grew up with, but he rejects it religiously. He has buried evangelical belief but he has not buried the evangelical choice, which seems to him the only important dilemma. He respects the logical claustrophobia of Christian commitment, the little cell of belief. This is the only kind of belief that make sense, the revolutionary kind. Nominal belief is insufficiently serious; nominal belief seems almost a blasphemy against atheism."

James Wood in The broken estate, as quoted by John Banville in "The prime of James Wood," New York review of books 55, no. 18 (November 20, 2008): 85n2. He "respects" it, he says, but "the logical claustrophobia of Christian commitment, the little cell of belief"? My first reaction? Evangelicalism, maybe, but surely not the great tradition (also and primordially evangelical). And surely not even every branch of the evangelical Anglicanism in which Wood was raised. (True question mark there.) But on second thought, here is what he must mean by that: "Once religion has revealed itself to you, you are never free. In fiction, by contrast, one is always free to choose not to believe, and this very freedom, this shadow of doubt, is what helps to constitute fiction's reality. Furthermore, even when one is believing fiction, one is 'not quite' believing, one is believing 'as if.' (One can always close the book, go outside, kick a stone.) Fiction asks us to judge its reality; religion asserts its reality. And this is all a way of saying that fiction is a special realm of freedom" (italics mine). Interesting. And probably true, so long as one defines freedom voluntaristically as a kind of power of indifference (cf. the emphasis on choice, above). Whereas, if true freedom is instead a capacity for an appropriate response to the beautiful, the good, and the true, then wouldn't even some fiction (the best, at least) be strictly speaking indubitable? Wouldn't fiction like that, too, be "asserting its reality," if only before "judgment" (a judgment that knows when to concur)? And by the way, no Christianity worth its salt rides roughshod over judgment. The Christian faith both "asserts its reality" and "asks us to judge its reality" to the full extent that we can. So I can't see this as anything but a false choice. And this despite the fact that what Wood seems to be saying is that the reality of fiction, the very best fiction, just is its dubitability. (I'm at a disadvantage here, because I haven't read the books.)
In any case, I like this especially, though for opposite reasons: "Ultimately, this 'break'[, this blurring of 'the distinctions between literary belief and religious belief,'] was good neither for religion nor perhaps for the novel, although it was perhaps a beneficial moment in our progress from superstition. For Christianity, instead of disappearing, merely surrendered its truth-claims, and turned itself into a comforting poetry on the one hand, or an empty moralism on the other. Truth slipped away. (The heirs of Renan and [Matthew] Arnold are everywhere in contemporary Christianity.) And the novel, . . . having founded the religion of itself, relaxed too gently into aestheticism" (85).

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