Long before the New Atheists, believers – from Job to Heinrich Heine – were picking fights with the Almighty, says Jonathan Rée
Christian belief suffered a serious setback in the first half of the 19th century, when critics like Ludwig Feuerbach and David Friedrich Strauss suggested that the Bible was a story-book like any other – a multi-authored compilation of fact, fiction, folktale and fantasy, a fabrication on a par with the Iliad, the Aeneid or the Niebelungenlied.
In theory the Christians could have turned the challenge back on their assailants: they could have accepted that their holy books were works of myth-making, while affirming that they told the greatest stories in the world. In practice however the case was not so easy to make. You cannot spin much depth of character or narrative suspense from the conviction that Jesus saves and that all manner of things will be well. Even Charles Dickens was baffled. He was a supreme storyteller, and – though he was not much of a Christian – he wanted his children to know “something about the History of Jesus Christ”. In the late 1840s he wrote The Life of Our Lord and recited it to them at Christmas. “No one ever lived,” he began, “who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong.”
It was a clunky opening sentence by anyone’s standards; and matters only got worse as Dickens ploughed on. “He is now in heaven,” he continued, “where we hope to go, and all to meet each other after we are dead.” Chirpy good cheer in the face of death is not the stuff of great literature, and the author of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield must have known that he had flopped. He gave the manuscript to his children on condition that they would not let anyone copy it or take it out of the house; and in the event it did not sneak into print for almost a hundred years.
If a character born with every perfection is a poor premise for a story, then a God who is almighty, omniscient and eternal is even worse. You can make a case that monotheism was a historical precondition for the rise of modern science, since the idea that the universe is created and controlled by a totally intelligent supreme leader implies a rational order behind the rough and tumble of everyday experience. But if monotheism is a gift for science, it is likely to be poison for the art of narrative. Genesis got off to a bad start, narratologically speaking, with God creating one good thing after another and seeing that each of them was good: the device has the makings of a bedtime soporific rather than a page-turner. God, it would seem, is the death of narrative, and narrative the death of God.
Polytheists are of course spared all these problems. Olympus and Valhalla have always been dens of iniquity, seething with lust, incest, wrangling, agony, rivalry, luxury, deceit, scandal, wrath, violence, torment, murder and despair. Interesting themes, in short: and the Christians – despite their official commitment to endless good cheer – have not always managed to resist them. The story of suffering Jesus would lose a lot of its power without Matthew’s report of the last words on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Was the Messiah getting in touch with his inner Oedipus, one wonders, and imagining that he might have been better off with a different god as his father? On top of that, the doctrine of the Trinity has always looked like a lapse into polytheism, or at least a very serious flirtation.
In any case the God of the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament, as Christians call it) liked to present himself not as the absolute monarch of the universe but as one divine warlord amongst others – Jehovah egging on the Hebrews in their turf wars with other tribal gangs, each led by a god of their own. There are dozens of passages where Jehovah goes into a sulk and rails at his people for deserting him for his rivals. (If you want chapter and verse, try Judges 10:6, where he accuses them of defecting to Baalim or Ashtaroth, or the gods of Syria, Zidon, Moab, Ammon and Philistia.) How can believers be expected to put all their faith in a God who is not a monotheist?
The paradoxes of monotheism may be of limited interest to non-believers, but that need not stop us approaching the literary riches of religious texts with covetous eyes, and perhaps with thieving fingers too. And if you suspect that after so many years there cannot be much more to be discovered, then Navid Kermani’s The Terror of God will make you think again. Kermani is a German historian, philosopher, journalist and theatre director. He was trained as an orientalist in the 1990s, and has published trenchant studies of Muslims in contemporary Germany and Iran, calling for big doses of humility and self-doubt amongst Muslims as well as their critics. He has also brought out a sheaf of essays criticising the idea that the modern West is the immaculate child of a so-called Renaissance and Enlightenment – as if it had a direct connection with ancient Greece and Rome, unsullied by the turbulent languages and cultures of the Middle East.
This summer Kermani, who is still in his early forties, branched out with an ambitious experimental novel – it has already been compared to War and Peace and Ulysses – offering a many-layered portrait of someone just like him, an imaginative inquirer born to Iranian Muslim parents in secular western Germany.
The Terror of God is an important landmark in this extraordinary body of work. It is an exercise in comparative literary history, drawing out a neglected strand in the literature of monotheism, East and West: the figure who, without abandoning religious belief, hurls insults and challenges at a God who seems to be characterised by nothing but malice, incompetence and wild impulsiveness. Jewish and Christian sources are not neglected, but Kermani spends more than 100 pages discussing the 13th-century Persian poet Faridoddin Attar of Nishapur, who specialised in elaborate stories-within-stories combining Muslim piety with ferocious anger against God. Kermani will not convince every reader that Attar is a shining star of world literature, but he makes a good case for seeing him as a master-craftsman in a long tradition of dissing God, or what he calls “counter-theology”.
Attar was of course drawing on patterns he would have known, directly or indirectly, from the Hebrew Bible: not only the furious character of Job, but also Abraham, Moses, Jonah, Jeremiah and the poet of the Psalms – all of whom were inclined to haggle with their maker like a shyster in the souk. Christianity, on the other hand, has its origins in a blaze of optimism, and Christians have always been reluctant to hold their God responsible for evil; but they too had begun to take up the counter-theological tradition by the 14th century, when – according to Kermani at least – the achievements of Attar and other Islamic poets started to seep into Europe through Spain and Italy, leaving their mark on European literature as a whole, most notably in the darker passages of Petrarch, Chaucer, Dante and Shakespeare.
For the past 200 years, mainstream Western thinkers have liked to think of themselves as bold explorers, venturing deep into a god-forsaken wasteland whose existence was not even suspected before the dawn of European modernity. But if Kermani is right, their themes are far from new. When Stendhal said that “God’s only excuse is that he does not exist,” he was only continuing a tradition of angry piety handed down from the Hebrew Bible and medieval Islamic poetry. And the same applies to Heinrich Heine, who returned to religion during his terrible final illness in order to indulge in the pleasures of blasphemy. The vehement atheisms of many other heroes of modernism – of Nietzsche, Mahler and Kafka, or Adorno, Bloch, Beckett, Camus and Sartre – also have their roots, if Kermani is right, in the ancient soil of counter-theology. Kermani will not win the consent of all his readers – he is too wayward and unusual a thinker to seek it – but it is impossible not to admire his range, his energy and his boundless intellectual generosity and inventiveness.
The Terror of God: Attar, Job and the Metaphysical Revolt by Navid Kermani, translated from German by Wieland Hoban, is published by Polity Press