Of the earth earthy

I’ve been thinking (on and off) about something slightly puzzling. The people who rebuke militant atheists or Enlightenment fundamentalists or secular dogmatists or deaf scientistic positivists or some other combination of those and similar terms, often murmur something about the importance of religion for art and literature and music. After bumping into one of those murmurs a few days ago, I suddenly noticed a puzzle. It’s this: the one about literature isn’t true. That’s very odd, isn’t it; why isn’t it true?

Of course, there are exceptions; there are some bits of literature that are very goddy; I’m not ignoring Dante and Milton. But – most literature actually isn’t all that goddy – even literature written at times when atheism was a capital crime; even literature written by believers, or at least people who went to church. Literature on the whole seems to be a very, very secular and above all worldly undertaking. That’s very odd, isn’t it?

I’ve noticed this before, actually, but in different contexts and so from different angles. I remember being astonished a couple of decades ago when I first read The Decameron – I was astonished that any medieval book could be so very worldly and so cheerfully lewd. But I should have been more astonished by later people too – I should have wondered about it more.

Think about it. Think about Shakespeare, or Austen, or anyone else you like. They just don’t talk about God and goddy things the way you would think they would if they took the whole thing seriously. Yet Austen, at least, did take it seriously (and Shakespeare may have; no one knows).

Why is that? Why is God tacitly left out? Why is the whole subject mostly bracketed? Why isn’t it central? Why, when they write about human lives and characters and morality and experience, do they mostly talk about all of them in purely human worldly quotidian terms? Why do they have plenty of clergymen and clergymen’s wives and daughters, with so very little searching talk about what the clergymen are actually there for?

I’m really curious about it. I think it’s strange. It’s strange because if the god hypothesis is true, it ought to loom immensely large; if you believe it’s true, it (surely) must loom immensely large in everything you think about life and the world; many producers of literature have believed it’s true; yet they write on the whole as if human life were just what I think it is: human life, period. It’s odd that there isn’t a radical split in poetry and plays and novels written by believers and those written by non-believers – but there isn’t. They ought to inhabit and describe completely different worlds, and yet they don’t. Why is that?

It’s not true of painting, or of music; why is it true of literature?

I have one guess: it’s only a guess. I’ll be interested to know if anyone has others. My guess is that it doesn’t work, and that the reason it doesn’t work is that the God character isn’t around. It’s hidden. We’re supposed to believe it’s there (we’re especially ‘supposed to’ in literature of earlier periods) but we also all know it’s hidden – and because it’s hidden, it’s peculiar and creepy to talk about it – apparently even for believers. That’s interesting. Gravity is hidden too, of course; so are atoms; but it’s not creepy or peculiar to talk about them; but it is creepy and peculiar to talk about God much – much or even at all. I don’t think Austen ever so much as mentions God.

If that’s right, it means that even believers (many, most) don’t really believe God is there in the same natural easy way we all believe in what’s around us. It may even mean that they (or many or some of them) think they do but really don’t.

Strange, isn’t it. Fantasy is fine; magic realism is fine; Harry Potter okay, Wizard of Oz okay, ghosts and witches okay; but God…hmm…not really. Except of course for evangelicals and the Rapture books, but those don’t count, being a recent local product of the Third Great Awakening; the question is why more literature hasn’t been like the Rapture books all along.

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