In her novel, The House Gun, which I have yet to finish, Nadine Gordimer demonstrates with her character, Harald, how religion and secular humanism do not vibe; the latter undermines the former.
Harald, Mister Big Wig exec, holds an ongoing conversation with God, attends mass regularly, and is concerned about the faith of his son, Duncan, who has killed a friend, shot him in the head shortly after finding him on the couch, engaged in bodily banter with his – Duncan’s – girlfriend.
Married to this holy man is Claudia, a doctor and an atheist. She, of course, questions her husband on what it means to sin, and how murder ranks against the others on God’s list of commandments.
It is in probing his conviction with regards to murder that Claudia wrinkles her husband’s confidence, forcing him into paroxysm. He blurts to her, Oh leave me alone, on one occasion, which, according to the narrator, was only a step away from putting on the sheep’s clothing of weakness so as to circumnavigate the crux of his wife’s inquiry into his religion, or rather, cut it short, for he doesn’t shy away from defining his position on murder:
I’m asking you, it happens to interest me, is to kill the only sin we recognize.
It’s the ultimate, isn’t it. Is that what you mean.
No I don’t.
Lies, theft, false witness, betrayal –
Go on. Adultery, blasphemy, you believe in sin. I don’t think I do. I just believe in damage; don’t damage. That’s what [Duncan] was taught, that’s what he knows – knew. So now – is to take life the only sin recognized by people like me? Unbelievers. Not like you.
Of course it’s not. I’ve said: it’s the ultimate. Nothing more terrible.
Before God. She pushes him.
Before God and man.
Harald, the great reader of Dostoevsky and Mann, chooses to include man as a second judge when it comes to the ultimate sin. This is his mistake, or rather, his failed attempt at melding religion with what is referred to now as secular humanism, the study of humanities. And it is this failure that not only weakens his faith, but also makes him an uncompassionate father, almost anti-humanistic.
To continue their conversation, his wife goads:
I thought for believers there is the way out by confession, repentance, forgiveness from Up There.
Not for me.
Oh why? She won’t let him off.
Because there is no recompense for the one whose life is taken. Nothing can come to him. It’s only the one who killed that receives grace.
In this world. What about the next. Harald, you don’t accept your faith.
Not on this issue, no.
So you sin with doubt. Is that only now? Her gaze is explicit.
No, always. You don’t know because it’s never been possible to talk to you about such things.
Sorry about that, all I could do was respect your need for that kind of belief. I couldn’t take up something I’m convinced doesn’t exist. Anyway – you’ve allowed yourself the same latitude I have between what does and what doesn’t count. Even with your God behind you.
Oh leave me alone. I’m a killer because you see people die of lung cancer.
Being defenseless against Claudia’s inquisition, Harald gets defensive. This happens only after condemning his murderous son.
There’s nothing new in this situation: a man of faith who doubts his own faith is exposed mercilessly to the questions of the impervious man without God, the atheist without an inconceivable supreme being to protect from rampant skepticism, to nurse.
In this sense, God – faith – is akin to baggage too cumbersome to always lug around. That is not to say that Harald dropped the baggage. He did what most men of faith do when attacked: pull over to the shoulder, lock the doors, and cower with the baggage embraced, wait for the barrage to pass.
However, it’s not Harald’s denuded faith – wobbly at the knees – that’s of interest; it’s what makes his faith wobbly at the knees, what undermines it.
Going back to his idea, Before God and man, going back to his placement of secular humanism alongside religion, it becomes clear that this is his mistake not overlooked by his aggressor, Claudia.
If he would’ve stuck to God and God alone, Before the eyes of God, then his faith wouldn’t have suffered, but he didn’t, he brought man into the mix: a life in books, in heavy literature, had to sway him at least a little in the direction of the apostate.
By giving him a mind of his own, a mind capable of forming opinions based on disparate sources, a mind not benumbed by God and His Kingdom, a thinking mind, literature poked holes in his faith in such a wholesome way that Harald would sooner meet his death than renounce the colander’s ability to hold water.
Had Harald known the origins of the humanities he would’ve known better. According to Elizabeth Costello’s sister in J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, at first humanistic studies implied the close study of scripture to arrive at Truth, which made Latin indispensable, but when the discipline wasn’t getting anywhere compared to others, scholars in the field decided to expand their purview, enlarging the humanities to include literature. And they also substituted the quest for Truth with truths, minuscule and plural. Viewed in this way, the humanities, in its current form, developed not out of success but impotency, out of its inability to arrive at Truth via scripture: its original aim.
Harald, devout and learned, in mingling the shifty study of humanism with religion, like breeding a mongrel with a purebred, is certain to weaken his strain of faith.