I give kudos to a double-threat literary critic, one of those scholars of literature who are also masters of creative writing.
James Wood is a case in point. A Harvard Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism and author of scholarly books about literature (most recently How Fiction Works), Wood is also the author of one novel to date: The Book Against God.
And it is quite a treat. Wood has the superb knowingness that betrays a keen mind. He is a writer’s writer. Indeed, Wood can write with the best of them. Here’s a meditation on cooking: “Half the pleasure is in disobeying all the rules of the recipes and refusing to measure anything as precisely as instructed. I threw around clouds of herbs and roughly upended the newly opened wine bottle into the casserole so that I could hear that delicious steady choking noise as expensive wine blunders in tides into the pot.” Wood’s novel is just such a juicy, delectable stew.
Many of the book’s central ideas circle around heretical views on religion. But contrary to its title, the book is not a straightforward piece of literary God-hatred (what I have termed misotheism). Instead, the protagonist, Tom Bunting, is at once an anti-theist when he identifies himself as a “rebel… against inherited religion”; he’s a plain atheist when he affirms that “I don’t believe that a God exists who created the world we live in”; and he’s an agnostic when he says,“I simply repeat that either God doesn’t exist, or if he exists He is not a creator worthy of worship, love, or even comprehension.”
This “doubting Tom” is a veritable smorgasboard of religious dissent, and part of the book’s interest, for me, lies in the fact that he essentially fails to resolve his conflicting stances vis-à-vis God and religion. One reason for this is that he thinks he is alone in his hatred of God. But, as I’ve written, there is in fact a more or less secret strain of God-hating in Western literature and philosophy.
Substituting Hate for Love
At one point, he does shoulder open the gate leading into misotheism, properly speaking, and in the process he reveals the intellectual underpinnings of God-hatred. Throughout the narrative, Tom is working on a project also titled “The Book Against God” (this book-within-the-book motif is a fairly conventional metafictional device). And although intended as a refutation of the existence of God, the project veers off in the direction of real antagonism:
“Kierkegaard is an awful prig”—so begins one theological meditation, and we know right away that we’re not in the Kansas of normative religious discourse. After laying out Kierkegaard’s principal argument (that we are more loved by God than we will ever be able to love God, hence that we are in God’s eternal debt), Tom makes an interesting, and to my knowledge unique, move: “Doesn’t Kierkegaard’s ‘love’ sound rather like hate?” he asks. And then follows a powerful misotheistic argument:
Couldn’t we substitute “hate” for every use of “love” in Kierkegaard’s (or Weil’s) work, and get a more accurate picture of the world? God hates us more than we can hate Him, and we do not deserve that hate, and therefore against God we are always in the wrong… Well, that’s our relationship with God in brief, isn’t it?… We are ‘lucky’ that God is angry with us, ‘lucky’ that He made us, and even when we have not behaved badly in the vineyard and have done nothing bad at all, we should still bow and scrape, and murmur, like my father’s poor parishioners going down on their knees, “My mistake, my mistake, I am lucky that You are angry with me”—all because Adam, who was anyway created by this hateful tyrant and might not have wanted to be created, this poor Adam, ate the luckless apple. Oh when will humans murder this devilish concept of God?”
This is now a full-fledged instance of rational misotheism—that is, a hatred of God born of subversive theological speculation, not just emotion. But this anger toward God doesn’t fit with the atheism Tom professes elsewhere: “I don’t believe that a God exists who created the world we live in.” Why hate a God who doesn’t exist?
This raises the question (and it is a crucial one) of whether labels such as atheist or Unitarian or Catholic or misotheist really capture a religious identity as an essence: something stable that defines the whole person. Or, alternatively, is it really possible to shuttle between different religious or anti-religious positions without abandoning the notion of identity altogether or doing away with (theo-)logical consistency?
I believe that fiction has the unique ability to put our noses squarely on such big questions, and that it does so in a way that seems merely the by-product of a story rather than its declared purpose. Indeed, works of literature like The Book Against God are uniquely positioned to get us involved in the conundrums of human belief and to make us ask critical and deeply relevant questions about matters of spirituality, faith, the mind, behavior, and values.
In the next Devil’s Bookmark, I will tackle the question posed above: whether labels such as atheist, anti-theist, or misotheist are stable or meaningful at all.