Category Archives: Books

Agent Running in the Field

 

When you read a book by John le Carré you turn your life over to a master for as long as it take to read the book. Actually it is for longer than that, because the experience stays with you a long time.

John le Carré’s Agent Running in the Field  is the story of a secret agent in his homeland of England who at the age of 45 or so has already reached his best by date. This was Interesting, because the author was  nearly 90 when he wrote this book  had not yet passed that date. Not nearly.

I am a great admirer of the novels of John le Carré and recently read his second last novel.  I know there will be no more because now the writer has passed away. What a pity.  The seemingly inexhaustible supply of outstanding espionage novels is about to crash to a halt.  This novel is a dandy.

The English agent has an interesting relationship with a Russian spy.  Even though it is the age of Putin, when money is all and ethics have slowly soured into hopeless  gruel, the Russian spy surprisingly turns on England for ideological reasons.  Another English spy can’t believe this is possible.  An Englishmen who was so puritanically ethical that he would turn to Putin “who wouldn’t know an ethic if it bit him in the arse.”  How is that possible? As le Carré says, it’s “a funny sort of Puritanism.” Indeed.

The English agent sees England as falling into what Russia used to be.  Everything is lashed together and nothing works. The traitor in these circumstances is a “secret monk in search of an absolute, even if it involves absolute betrayal.”

It’s really a deep pleasure to read a book by an old master in the field. I strongly recommend this book.

 

 

A religious quest: Inspired by Ridd; Continued by Neufeld

 

Before I commenced my religious quest, I did a google search of Professor Ridd and to my surprise tracked down an archive at the Winnipeg headquarters of the United Church of Canada where Ridd had been a theologian and sure enough I found a list of his class notes and outlines. It was amazing luck that they were there. Sadly, during the time of Covid-19 as I write, the archive is closed, but when it reopens I intend to beg permission to see the materials. I would love to see his lecture notes on the various books I would like to read. I am convinced they would reveal insights into them. But I will have to wait for those notes and this quest cannot wait any longer.

 

I have decided to start the quest. I picked my first book, Moby Dick. I was sure it must be one of the books he taught. However, both of my friends who took the course with Professor Ridd  said they did not recall that this is one of the books in the course. I doesn’t matter, I concluded. I read the book about 40 years after I graduated from Law School and could read books I wanted to read just for pleasure.  I remembered the book as being magnificent. One of the best novels ever written, but, frankly, in 40 years I forgot a lot. After all, I am quite capable of forgetting what book I read last month! And I used to have a very good memory.

 

I also I remember a promise I made myself last year. I said, I would re-read an old classic every year. At least one classic every year. Maybe more. Last year as part of that project I read Albert Camus’ The Plague. Moby Dick could serve both purposes—it is a classic of English literature, and as I recall, contained a wealth of material for my religious quest. It was as they say a win/win situation.

 

I dived into Moby Dick. Then, to my further amazement, I learned that McNally Robinson Booksellers was opening up their Community Classroom series and guess what? Lara Rae was offering to discuss Moby Dick and the classes were offered online and at no cost, thanks to support from the Manitoba government cultural program this year. With so many cultural event centres close, the government wanted to encourage some venues to deliver online learning. It was a perfect storm of knowledge opening up.

 

It took me a long time to read the first book. Moby Dick is 500 pages long and I read it intensively. I read only a few pages every day. I made notes. I went back and forth through the text. I meandered through the text. It was great fun. It took me about a month of intense reading to complete the book. I would say it was my greatest reading experience of my life.  I will tell you some of the things I learned as I commenced my quest.

I hope you will accompany me on this voyage of discovery. That is what Moby Dick was for me. A voyage of discovery.

An Ark in the Pacific

The odd group of occupants on the boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the book Life of Pi were like a small world.  In fact, Pi thinks of it as an ark. I don’t want to tell you everything that happens. You should read this excellent book. The story-telling is wondrous and perhaps, as one of the characters said, “it can make you believe in God.”

Pi was a student who studied Religious Studies (perhaps with Carl Ridd?) and zoology.  Could be he lived part of the time in Canada. Pi was particularly enamoured of the three-toed sloth, “because its demeanour—calm, quiet, introspective—did something to soothe my shattered self.” The sloth does little other than sleep. Pi said it survived by keeping out of harm’s way, where no predator would notice it. It lives a peaceful, vegetarian life, “in perfect harmony with its environment, with ‘A good-natured smile forever on its lips.’  ”

Pi admitted that sometimes he got his majors mixed up:

“A number of my fellow religious-studies students—muddled agnostics who didn’t know which way was up, who were in the thrall of reason, that fool’s gold for the bright—reminded me of the three-toed sloth; and the three-toed sloth, such a beautiful example of the miracle of life, reminded me of God.”

The sloth spent most of its life hanging from a tree, but knew better than the students which way was up.

Life on the little lifeboat is not idyllic. In a way the book describes a religious journey or pilgrimage, but it was a rough voyage and there was much misery among the human and animal passengers. The religious quest is never smooth nor easy. A perfect place for religion to flourish in other words. As Pi said,

“High calls low and low calls high. I tell you, if you were in such dire straits as I was, you too would elevate your thoughts. The lower you are, the higher your mind will want to soar. It was natural that, bereft, and desperate as I was, in the throes of unremitting suffering, I should turn to God.”

 

But the world on the boat is not always a wonder. In fact, at times, it seems like God has abandoned the travellers on the boat. Sometimes, it looks more like a journey to hell than heaven.  Nature, so often identified with the divine, is also brutal and ugly.  In one scene, the hyena was eating the zebra while it was still alive, but the hyena kept sliding inside the big gaping wound.  “The zebra was being eaten from the inside. It protested with diminishing vigour. Blood started coming out its nostrils. Once or twice, it raised its head straight up, as if appealing to heaven—the abomination of the moment was perfectly expressed.” But there was no successful appeal to heaven. It was an abomination instead.

Yet Pi still believes in God. In fact, he believes in more than one. He says, “disbelief is a poorly armed foot soldier.”

Later, during a lightning storm in which the small boat is surrounded by  booming thunder,  Pi tells Richard Parker, the 450-pound Royal Bengal Tiger, “Stop your trembling. This is a miracle. This is an outbreak of divinity.”

Isn’t that what we are looking for on our quest? Is it all around us?

Next, I want to talk about another sea voyage that is clearly a quest for God. It is a very different voyage. It ends up in a very different place.  That book, of course, is Moby Dick.

 

 

 

Life of Pi

 

Moby Dick was the first book I chose and read in my new spiritual journey, but I have decided to talk first about a book I read just a few years ago, long after Professor Ridd was gone. I think it sets the stage well for what I want to do. I will get to Moby Dick soon. I promise.

 

The first book I want to talk about on this religious quest was written after Ridd died. The book is Life of Pi by Yann Martel and it won the Man Booker Prize. This was a book like no other. It is a marvellous book and a pretty good movie was made of it.

The books starts off in Canada where we meet a young writer Pi Patel. It is an odd name.  His real name was Piscine Molitor Patel. He was named after a swimming pool in France. In Canada he got in trouble with his name. As so often, kids tend to twist names to tease their peers. For example, when I was young my name, in German, was Hans Erich.  My mother had a rule. When she called me I had to come home. If I said I did not hear her, she refused to accept that excuse. If I did not hear her, I was too far away. If I heard her and did not come home, I was disobedient. Also bad. This was a lose/lose situation. Either way I was in trouble. But my mother had a very loud voice. I could hear her from a great distance away. Unfortunately, so could my friends.  They twisted my second name into Earache. I was called that for a few years and no doubt suffered extreme psychological damage. I hated that name. Mainly because my friends  teased me unmercifully.

 

It was the same with Piscine Molitor Patel. His friends twisted that into ‘Pissing Patel.’  That was not cool. So, one day, he told everyone to call him Pi for short. It was a name based on the symbol Pi. He adopted the symbol (the Greek letter, π) That was more like it. It was a very cool name.

 

In a way that was his start on a religious journey. A religious quest I would call it. The family lived in India the home where many important religions were born. India is probably the most religious country in the world. It is saturated with religion. No doubt more religious quests have begun or ended in India than any other country in the world.

Pi was raised as Hindu in his family. That was because his family was Hindu. Parents tend to do that. Just like I was raised a Christian. Inevitably, most children enter into a religion because they have been inculcated to do so by their parents. That happens in all religions

Yet at age 12, Pi was introduced to Christianity. Sort of like Christ as a young boy became a Christian (so to speak) at the age of 12.

Later Pi was also introduced to Islam. Now he knew 3 religions. What was he to do? He did something very interesting. He decided all he wanted to do was “love God.” That was when his real religious quest began in earnest. How could he do that with 3 different religions? Well, Pi found a way.

Pi’s  mother did not have strong religious views. She thought that was all right. His father was more interested in money than he was interested in religion. He tried to persuade Pi to become a secular humanist. A rationalist one might call it.

 

Pi’s family owned a private zoo. What an exotic family. The zoo had a Bengal tiger that was called Richard Parker. He became a major character in the book. When Pi was 16 years old his father decided to move his family to Canada together with his animals. They were a major asset. They booked passage on a Japanese freighter, but during a storm the ship foundered and sank. As the ship sank, Pi was tossed into a lifeboat. His family drowned. But he was joined by others. A zebra soon joined Pi in the boat and later an orangutan. A spotted hyena also was discovered on board and it killed the zebra.  Later it killed the orangutan. joined them.  Richard Parker the Bengal tiger emerges from under a tarpaulin and then things got really interesting. As you might imagine.

How could such a strange menagerie of critters together with 3 different religions manage of this strange quest to love God?

I hope your curiosity is piqued. I will tell you more on the next post.

Women Talking

 

Miriam Toews is one of Canada’s finest writers and she comes from Steinbach, my home town. I read this book after I had already heard a lot of criticism about it. Most of that criticism came from Steinbachers. Some felt that Miriam Toews was not true to Mennonite colonies. They weren’t like that some said. Others didn’t like her approach. The book was largely about women talking with each other. The women had been subjected to horrific abuse by the Mennonite men in the colony and were meeting to discuss what to do about it.

 

My view is entirely different. I loved this book. To use the approach of Northrop Frye in the book The Educated Imagination, the book is not about abuse in a Mennonite colony. It is much more than that. It is a book about women talking about their own exploitation by men and what, if anything they should do about it. It is a book about rebellion from exploitation. And I don’t think there are many more important things than that. In Aristotle’s sense it is a vital and fundamental universal theme. And I think Toews was very true to that theme. For me, she made it come alive. And that is what great books do. They make it real. Even if it did not really happen. It was still real.

 

Many things were interesting in that book. The women wanted to have the freedom to think. Again a universal theme of vital significance. Did not every child in every home and in every country want exactly that? We all want to think and must escape from the domination of our family, our church, our clique, or our friends. We all want to break free and that is never easy to do.

I remember years ago I was at the Red River Exhibition in Winnipeg. There was a circus-style show involving a trainer and some chimpanzees. During the show the trainer made a mistake in improperly chaining the chimp to his place on stage. The chimp took one look around and made a burst for freedom. It might have been entirely irrational. What was the chimp going to do in Winnipeg? But that burst for freedom was glorious. The chimp took off and the trainer ran after him. From the stage we saw them a city block away. The show was over. But the bolt for freedom was real and it lasted in my mind forever.

In the novel, the women challenge the patriarchy. Around the world women are doing that. One of the women says, “We are not revolutionaries. We are simple women. We are mothers. We are grandmothers.” Yes. But they are rebels! They are talkers. And they are thinkers.

In this novel some of the women talked about making a bolt for freedom. Should they or shouldn’t they? I found it fascinating. I think this is one of Toews’ best novels ever. I think it is a great novel. Read it and think.

Dad, God, and Me: Religion without Limits

 

 

 

Ralph Friesen has written a fine book called Dad, God, and Me. Let me say at the outset that in reviewing this book I am not neutral. The author Ralph Friesen has been a friend of mine for many years. We grew up in the same town, Steinbach, and curled together from time to time.  In fact I was a little bit younger than he was, and I and my friends considered him and his friend Patrick Friesen intellectual leaders of our generation. But I realized after reading this book that our experiences growing up in this town were very different.

 

Ralph’s upbringing as the son of a Kleine Gemeinde conservative Mennonite Church, was very different from my experience, the son of much more moderate Christians. My parents were much more liberal in the religion they doled out. I would say that Ralph’s life was soaked with evangelical religion. To me Ralph paints a picture of parents with a shockingly totalitarian view of Steinbach in which children were nearly suffocated with religion. In other words, it was religion that invaded all of life. Frankly, I found even the much more liberal theology of my parent’s  church too stifling for my taste. More conservative members of our community considered it barely religion at all. I can’t imagine how I would I would have survived his upbringing.

 

The religion of the Kleine Gemeinde (little congregation) was, to echo of phrase of Albert Camus, religion without limits, making it as unpalatable as politics without limits. I thank Ralph for giving me a peek into his world. It was a fascinating look. Now I know how lucky I was not to be raised in that environment.

Not that Ralph’s family was not loving. They were certainly loving. The parents, the father in particular, just wanted to determine everything about his son’s faith. Nothing else would do. As Bob Dylan said, the parents were “Making you feel that you gotta be just like them.” Every book, every piece of music, every sporting event, every relationship was viewed through an evangelical lens. Nothing was off limits. That is what religion without limits is all about.

Before his father got saved or born again, thanks in part to an itinerant evangelical minister, Ralph’s father enjoyed life outside the church. In particular he loved movies. The theatre in Steinbach was driven out of town as some Mennonites, like the Kleine Gemeinde became ever more evangelical. I remember as a youth how sad I was at that. I loved going to movies and my parents did not discourage me from doing that. I remember one day I had gone to see the movie Heidi about a young Swiss girl. I loved the film. It was a joyful experience. But when I walked home all alone on a Friday night I was approached by 2 old crones who stopped me and asked me what I was doing out this late on a Friday night. I exuberantly told them about his wonderful movie I had just seen. The women were shocked. This was awful. Did I not realize I was bound for hell if I did things like that? I was totally mystified. What could be wrong with seeing a film about Heidi. I could not understand. In time I did of course but to a young lad this was a scary experience. These were the evangelicals of our town.

As Ralph explains in the book,

“The Mennonites mistrusted the arts, and all individual creativity, as belonging to the sinful world, distracting the Christian from the serious worship of God. Dad fell into line with that view after his conversion. If he was to express himself creatively, he would contain that expression within religious boundaries, as in composing sermons, or leading choirs, or signing hymns.”

 

Does that not sound totalitarian? Religion intended to dominate all of life. Some Mennonites, thank goodness, saw things differently. But to the Kleine Gemeinde religion was that absolute. It was everything.

Ralph describes that milieu with precision, but with compassion. He clearly loves his family, but did not allow them to choke him. Ralph, unlike most Mennonite youth in such circumstances managed to bolt for freedom.

I would suggest that no matter whether you are a Mennonite or not, Christian or not, you can enjoy this book. It is well worth the trip.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved

 

 

Toni Morrison returned to the subject of self-hatred and racism in her profound novel about slavery—Beloved. This is surely one of the classic novels of the twentieth century. It is also one of the most shocking novels you will ever read.

I want to give a warning here as I will spoil the ending for those who want to read it. I find that unavoidable. In that book a mother—Sethe—escaped from slavery with her two daughters Denver and Beloved. But when the slavers who were tracking them found them, Sethe did the unthinkable—she tried to kill her daughters. She took Beloved to the shed and cut her throat with a saw to save her from slavery, by killing her. Here is Morrison’s incredibly powerful description of that scene:

“Denver thought she understood the connection between her mother and Beloved: Sethe was trying to make up for the handsaw; Beloved was making her pay for it…Sethe’s greatest fear was the same one Denver had in the beginning—that Beloved might leave. That before Seth could make her understand what it meant—what it took to drag the teeth of that saw under the little chin; to feel the baby blood pump like oil in her hands; to hold her face so her head would stay on; to squeeze her so she could absorb, still, the death spasms that shot through that adored body, plump and sweet with life—Beloved might leave. Leave before Sethe could make her realize that worse than that—far worse—was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty her all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing—the part of her that was clean. No undreamable dream about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; whether the bubbling-hot girls in the colored-school fire set by patriots included her daughter; whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter’s private parts, soiled the daughter’s thighs and threw her daughter out the wagon. She might have to work the slaughterhouse yard, but not her daughter.”

These are things that a system of racism can accomplish. No individual acts of racism could do this.

The Bluest Eye: The terrifying Logic of Racism

 

In the Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, Pecola’s mother and father, the products of a racist society that created people without self-worth, had epic fights. They were poor and black. Yet those fights, “relieved the tiresomeness of poverty, gave grandeur to their dead rooms.” As a result her mother—Mrs. Breedlove—what a name—and Cholly her husband had an incredible relationship. They started out loving each other, but over time that love curdled into something contaminated. Yet, they needed each other. “If Cholly had stopped drinking, she would have never forgiven Jesus. She needed Cholly’s sins desperately. The lower he sank, the wilder and more irresponsible he became, the more splendid she and her task became. In the name of Jesus.

         Yet Cholly needed Mrs. Breedlove just as much. They were not complete without each other. “No less did Cholly need her. She was one of the few things abhorrent to him that he could touch and therefore hurt. He poured out on her the sum of all his inarticulate fury and aborted desires. Hating her, he could leave himself intact.”

That is what the impotent black man in America was reduced to. He could not fight back against his powerful white oppressors. He had to accept the domination and the hurt because as Toni Morrison said, there was nothing he could do about it. The only thing he could do was turn on those who were less powerful than him. Even though he loved them—his wife and his daughter—he could only try to quench his abject self-hatred by hurting those he loved the most.

Half-remembered injustices that were “humiliations, defeats, and emasculations… could stir him into flights of depravity that surprised himself—but only himself. Somehow he could not astound. He could only be astounded.”

When Cholly was young he loved Darlene a lovely young black girl. One day they were having sex—loving sex—when they were interrupted by a group of young white men bent on harm. They forced them to continue the sex as they watched shining flashlights onto the bodies of the disgraced couple. As a result, Cholly came to hate Darlene instead of the white boys. That is the terrifying logic of racism. The victim comes to hate himself and those he loves the most, instead of the lethal white predators. Morrison described that process this way,

“Sullen, irritable, he cultivated his hatred of Darlene. Never did he once consider directing his hatred toward the hunters. Such an emotion would have destroyed him. They were big, white, armed, men. He was small, black, and helpless. His subconscious knew what his mind did not guess—that hating them would have consumed him, burned him up, like a piece of soft coal, leaving only flakes of ash and a question mark of smoke. He was, in time, to discover the hatred of white men—but not now. Not in impotence, but later, when the hatred could find sweet expression. For now, he hated the one who had created the situation, the one who bore witness to his failure, his impotence. The one whom he had not been able to protect, to spare, to cover from the round moon glow of the flashlight.”

 

What Toni Morrison, like James Baldwin before her, realized, and so many of us, like me in particular have not realized, is the astonishing visceral power of impotent rage. It is helpless before overwhelming power so it turns on itself and those the victim loves the most. It is irrational of course, but that does not matter. Somehow, in some twisted pathological logic, it is better to hurt those you love than do nothing but accept the injustice.

In Canada we are often told, by the comfortable privileged, that the “aboriginal problem” is exactly that—an aboriginal problem. Most violence against aboriginals is inflicted by other aboriginals. It is entirely their fault. That may be, but that changes nothing! That is exactly the deadly awfulness of racism. It can impel the victim to turn on himself or herself and turn on others, even more vulnerable, loved ones, in a cruel metamorphism that bespeaks generations of abuse and imposed self-hatred. The vulnerable ones are then attacked from all sides. There is no refuge, no safe haven. Racism is much more powerful and much more awful than I ever imagined. It is thanks to writers like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin that I have come to realize that. Thanks.

White Fragility

 

 

After the recent incident in Minneapolis where a white police officer killed a black by kneeling on his neck for nearly 9 minutes even though he was lying on his back with his handcuffed behind him and he was clearly having great difficulty breathing. That incident has energized  and enraged people around the world including Canada.

I was already thinking about the issue of racism because I had recently read a fascinating book called White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for White People to Talk About Racism, written by Robin DiAngelo. The book was given to me for Christmas by my half-indigenous daughter-in-law. I wonder what she was trying to tell me?   But I have learned a lot from that book. I recommend that everyone read it. It is worth the read. I also heard DiAngelo on PBS’s Amanpour & Company.

I have never met anyone who admits to being a racist. None. There may be some out there who admit that they are racists, but they would be extremely rare. That does not mean, of course, that there are no racists. There are many.

No one likes being called a racist. It is generally considered one of the worst things you can say about someone, even people who are clearly racists.

Even many progressive or liberal thinking people however are racists. They just don’t know it. That does not mean they are racists about everything. It does mean that they exhibit racism. They express racism.

When white people are questioned about racism, even without a deliberate accusation of racism, people are very quick to respond viscerally ‘I am not a racist.’ The problem is things are not that simple. Robin DiAngelo, in her  book,  argues that there is an unconscious bias even among the most progressive of white people, including herself.

What does she mean by the expression ‘white fragility’? She puts it this way, “The expression ‘white fragility’ is meant to capture how little it takes to set white people off into defensiveness. For many white people the mere suggestion that whiteness has meaning is enough to cause us to erupt in defensiveness.” Many white people object to any such generalizations. “Individualism is a really precious ideology for white people and we don’t like to be generalized about.”

DiAngelo responds to such objections a sociologist. She is comfortable about generalizing about people. Social life is observable in patterned ways. But, she adds, “I am also a member of a social group and we all have to be willing to grapple with collective messages we are all receiving because we live in a shared culture.”

She is a professor of sociology but she came to her current beliefs through experience. She got a job in the 1990s as a diversity trainer. She felt confident she could lead discussion on such topics because of course, she was above racism. After all, as she said, “I was a vegetarian how could I be a racist?” Yet she exhibited all the classic liberal symptoms of racism and when she worked with people of colour some of them challenged her. And those challenges were uncomfortable. She had to learn to handle accusations of racism openly and with grace and honesty. That was not easy at first.

Until then, when she was in her thirties, she had never had her racial world-view challenged. She did not believe she had a racial world-view. As a white person she saw herself as “just human.” As she said, “Most white people have an unracialized identity.”

When she went to workplaces they were overwhelming filled with white people who were mandated to have such discussions. As a result she was met with deep hostility. After all none of them were racists. At one company seminar where there were 40 people and 38 of them were white, one white man pounded the table screaming that white people can’t get jobs. According to DiAngelo this position is a kind of delusion. As some people have said, ‘when you are used to 100% 98% feels oppressive.’

DiAngelo tries in her book to explain why whites feel uncomfortable about discussing race with non-whites. It is worth thinking about. I intend to blog more about what I learned from reading her book and others, as well as some personal experiences.  All of us should think about racism. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Maybe, especially if it’s uncomfortable.

Religion in the time of Plague (or Pandemic)

Some last thoughts on The Plague by Albert Camus. In that novel Camus  challenges the religious approach to suffering. Suffering is of course a fundamental problem for anyone who believes in an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God. How can there be such a God if there is suffering?

In the novel a Catholic priest Father Paneloux tries to approach the problem. He did that in response to a horrendously painful death of a young child from the plague. He set himself a difficult task. He said that there was a fact that we should under all circumstances take into consideration. We should always bear in mind that “Appearances notwithstanding, all trials, however cruel, worked together for good to the Christian. And, indeed, what a Christian should always seek in his hour of trial was to discern that good, in what it consisted, and how best to turn it to account.” We should not try to explain the plague; we should try to learn what it can teach us.

Paneloux acknowledged that “nothing is more important on earth than a child’s suffering.” He also refused to take ‘the easy way’ out of the dilemma. In his second sermon to the people,

“He, Father Paneloux refused to have recourse to simple devices enabling him to scale that wall. Thus he might easily have assured them that the child’s sufferings would be compensated for by an eternity of bliss awaiting him. But how could he give that assurance when to tell the truth, he knew nothing about it? For who could dare to assert that eternal happiness can compensate for a single moment’s human suffering? He who asserted that, would not be a true Christian, a follower of the Master who knew all the pangs of suffering in his body and his soul. No, he, Father Paneloux would keep faith with that great symbol of all suffering, the tortured body on the Cross: he would stand fast, his back to the wall, and face honestly the terrible problem of a child’s agony. And he would say to those who listened to his words to-day: ‘My brothers, a time of testing has come for us all. We must believe everything or deny everything. And who, I ask amongst you would dare to deny everything?”

The priest considered this “the All or Nothing”, “the greatest of all virtues.” Father Paneloux did not want to dodge the question. He wanted to face it head on. He did not want to sleep-walk through this question. Again a real (though fictional child) in the novel faced that terrible suffering. Could he not do the same?

While on the one hand religious thinkers for millennia have seen suffering as a way towards spiritual enlightenment, others have seen suffering as the greatest spiritual challenge. Perhaps there is no inconsistency there. Perhaps that is the point. Father Paneloux is certainly not trying to get around the problem. He wants to go through it. Paneloux knew, “religion in a time of plague could not be the religion of every day.” Paneloux also concluded, “The suffering of children were our bread of affliction, but without this bread our souls would die of spiritual hunger.”

This meant that Father Paneloux had to have  “a total acceptance” of that child’s suffering. This entailed that “since it was God’s will, we too should will it.” As Collin Wilson in Problematic Rebel said, we have to say yes to it all. So Paneloux says “believe everything so, as not to be forced into denying everything.” What a terrible choice, but he took it. “The Christian should yield himself fully to the divine will, even though it passed his understanding.” Paneloux would not allow a half-measure from the Christian. It was not good enough to say, ‘This I understand but that I cannot accept.” That was just a sorry attempt to weasel out of the piercing dilemma.

Paneloux’s position is certainly a courageous one. He said “we should go forward, groping our way through the darkness, stumbling perhaps at whiles, and try to do what good lay in our power.” Once again like Tarrou and like Camus himself, we must be satisfied with the small good. We need not concern ourselves with the grand design. That is above our pay grade. Do what good we can. That’s all. We need not be or even try to be saints.

Yet this is a very tough position.

“There is no island of escape in time of plague. No, there was no middle course. We could accept the dilemma; and chose either to hate God or to love God. And who would dare to hate Him?…’the love of God is a hard love. It demands total self-surrender, disdain of our human personality. And yet it alone can reconcile us to suffering and the deaths of children, it alone can justify them since we cannot understand them, and we can only make God’s will ours.”

But of course this was not Camus’s position, or at least Rieux, the narrator. Like Dostoevsky in that other classic, Brothers Karamazov, he could not accept a world that required a child to suffer, He was not prepared to “justify” the suffering of a child. He would even dare to hate God if necessary. How bold is that? Who could be that brave?