Heaven, Hell or Norman Mailer
Mailer's final book reimagines God, the devil, heaven, hell and our search for meaning in the world
Who is God? Is he the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful being of Judeo-Christian thought? Or might he be something less ultimate, more vulnerable? Might he even need our help? And if this is true, if we are God’s last chance, what hope is there for the future of the world?
This kind of freewheeling religious speculation isn’t seen much in contemporary American culture, but if anyone can still pose questions like these it’s Norman Mailer, one of the preeminent literary figures of the last half century.
Mailer, who died in November at the age of 84, was a celebrated writer with a taste for big topics and provocative ideas. His first novel, The Naked and the Dead, was an instant classic, a gut-wrenching account of jungle warfare during World War II, based on his own experiences as a soldier in the Pacific. His subsequent nonfiction works, like Armies of the Night, about the 1967 protest march on Washington, helped to create what is now called participatory journalism, in which the author jumps into the middle of the action, helping to shape events even as he shapes his narrative.
I Am The Cosmos
But as Mailer’s career progressed, questions about man’s place in the cosmos and his search for meaning in the world took center stage, and he began to explore aspects of spirituality and metaphysics in his work. 1997’s The Gospel According to the Son was a first-person fictional account of the life of Jesus. 2007’s The Castle in the Forest, a novel about Adolf Hitler’s childhood, was narrated by a demon.
It is therefore no surprise that Mailer’s final book, On God: An Uncommon Conversation, is a collection of interviews on religious topics, including God, the devil, free will, the afterlife, reincarnation, and evolution. The result is a wide-ranging and provocative dialogue—sometimes maddening, but always fascinating—in which Mailer lays out a kind of personal theology, drawing on both Christian and Jewish sources while always giving things his individual, personal stamp.
Mailer’s starting point is his discomfort with received notions about the world. “I confess,” he says, “that I feel no attachment whatsoever to organized religion. I see God, rather, as a Creator, as the greatest artist.When I think of evolution, what stands out most is the drama that went on in God as an artist. Successes were also marred by failures.”
In Mailer’s view, God is neither omniscient nor omnipotent; He does not know the future and cannot control the outcome of the spiritual drama He has set in motion. Rather, he struggles with the world much like a novelist grapples with his manuscript: trying his best to realize his vision, making mistakes and falling short, learning as he goes—surprised by the sudden twists of plot and character that arise as his invention takes on a trajectory of its own.
But if God isn’t in control of the world’s destiny, who is? No one, says Mailer; the fate of the cosmos is up for grabs:
I think it is precisely because the end is unknown that human terror sits at the root of every theology, as it has for millennia. It is so difficult for humans to accept the likelihood that this world is as open and undecipherable, as chaotic, as wayward, as playful, as perverse, as unexpected as, in secret, we fear it is.
Mailer sees this open-ended world as more meaningful than one that is predetermined by an all-powerful, all-knowing deity. Even if there are no clear answers, he contends that “the purpose of life may be to find higher and better questions. Why? Because…we are here as God’s work, here to influence His future as well as ours.”
God Depending on Man
This is the crux of Mailer’s theology: God depends on man, even as man tries to grope his way through a shifting and deceptive spiritual landscape. “It isn’t that we are passive onlookers while God and the Devil wage a war within us. We are the third force and don’t always know which side we are on in any given moment…”
Mailer builds on these ideas in idiosyncratic but interesting ways. He has no interest in traditional Christian views of heaven, which he compares to Club Med, but believes in reincarnation, sees technology as the devil’s greatest invention (because it alienates man from nature), comes out against birth control (for the same reason), and gives the nod to Intelligent Design, the theory that God sometimes intervenes directly in evolutionary processes.
Whether you agree or disagree with Mailer’s positions ultimately matters less than whether you care about the things he cares about: the fate of the world; the role of humanity in shaping history; the moral and spiritual choices we make as individuals. On God will make you think about all of these things in fresh and stimulating ways.