Arts and Culture

When God Is The Protagonist

by Father Robert Lauder

Third and Last in Series
There are several reasons why, even though it was published more than 25 years ago, Richard Gilman’s “Faith, Sex, Mystery: A Memoir” still seems very relevant to me.
One reason is that in his memoir Gilman describes his outlook before he converted to Catholicism as that of a secular humanist.  My opinion is that secular humanism is the predominant philosophy among American intellectuals, at least the intellectuals who put out the newspapers and magazines, who create the films and plays, who write the bestsellers and who teach at many of our universities and colleges.
Some of the basic tenets of secular humanism are that there is no God or supernatural and no life beyond the grave, that we are the chance products of evolution and that we can construct an ethics without any reference to God.  I think that most secular humanists are either atheists or agnostics.
Another reason, which I have mentioned in an earlier column in this series, is that Gilman’s life reveals the power that literature can have in a person’s life. Gilman identifies Catholic novels as being very influential in moving him toward his eventual conversion to Catholicism. When I read about his interest and even excitement in reading some Catholic novels, I can relate very much to that experience though Gilman was reading them as someone wondering about Catholicism and I was reading them as a Catholic. I observed the same interest and excitement when I persuaded other Catholics to read some Catholic novels. Gilman writes:
“Of all the novels I read during those weeks the most affecting and important to me were Bernanos’s ‘Diary of a Country Priest,’ Mauriac’s ‘The Desert of Love,’ and Greene’s ‘The Heart of the Matter’ and ‘The End of the Affair.’ I’ve read them all again recently. The Bernanos, that grave, lovely tale of  the dying young curate, afflicted with a ‘deep, inexplicable incompetence, a supernatural clumsiness,’ who is devoted to God yet anguished by his impending loss of the world’s beauty, is the only one of them that isn’t concerned in some way with sexual desire and, though I don’t think it’s for that reason, the one that holds up most firmly as literary art… The first time I read these novels what took hold of me was the theme of human love, caught in the trap of religious belief, the idea of sexual hunger in fierce relation to the transcendent, the struggle between erotic desire and the imperious purity of the supernatural. Whereas now, in my nearly total state of unbelief, the religious elements strike me as somewhat forced, in a peculiar way almost irrelevant.”
I can understand Gilman’s initial enthusiastic response to the novels. I can even understand and sympathize with his experience of reading them after he had lost his Catholic faith. However, I cannot agree that the religious elements seem almost irrelevant.  If we take God and the supernatural out of the novels that Gilman mentions there is no story left. I think that the main character in Greene’s “The End of the Affair” and also in “The Power and the Glory” is God. Remove God and the entire meaning of the novel would change.
When “Faith, Sex, Mystery” was published it received a long review in the Sunday New York Times (Jan. 1, 1987).  A large excerpt from the book had appeared in The Times about a year before the book’s publication and in the excerpt Gilman made some of the main points that he would elaborate on in the book. I think the word “nearly” is important in Gilman’s description of his unbelief. I suggest that he was still some kind of believer or he could not have written so intelligently and insightfully about fiction that deals with the Transcendent.
In an interview that appeared around the time that the book was published, Gilman spoke with Ari Goldman of The Times, who points out that near the end of his book Gilman describes himself as “a lapsed Jewish-atheist-Catholic. Fallen from all three, a triple deserter!” Goldman writes the following: “Yet, when pressed about where he stands religiously, he falls back on his adopted faith. ‘I think if I were dying, I would want a priest.’”