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Excerpts from Sherwood Anderson, James Anthony Froude, Balthasar
once again I am writing about belief in God
Sherwood Anderson is perhaps the greatest forgotten American author. William Faulkner said of him: “Sherwood Anderson was the father of all my works — and those of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. We were influenced by him. He showed us the way.” He is responsible for the most significant ‘Midwest Gothic’ fiction, including Dark Laughter and Winesburg, Ohio (and my favourite, Poor White). I’m drawn to him because he writes so beautifully of the concurrent desires to surrender to God and to forget oneself; so liable to become neurotic and navel-gazing, such desires are easily frustrated. As Tony Tanner writes in The Reign of Wonder, Anderson “was a man with Transcendentalist emotions and aspirations; but although he is willing to bow the knee, the upcast eye sees no God.”
In his 1924 autobiography, A Story Teller’s Story, Anderson recalls a moment in which he succumbs to an automatic compulsion to kneel before something higher than himself:
I had suddenly an odd, and to my own seeming, a ridiculous desire to abase myself before something not human and so stepping into the moonlit road, I knelt in the dust, having no God, the gods having been taken from me by the life about me, as a personal God has been taken from all modern men by a force within that man himself does not understand but that is called the intellect, I kept smiling at the figure I cut in my open eyes as I knelt in the road. There was no God in the sky, no God in myself, no conviction in myself that I had the power to believe in a God, and so I merely knelt in the dust in silence and no words came to my lips. Did I worship merely the dust under my feet?
Smiling in chaotic despair, the young Anderson realises the absurdity of worshipping without faith; his wonder is misdirected towards his tangible environment, towards existence without essence, towards dust. Elsewhere, he recalls a thought he had in a more blithe moment in his youth:
Was it grown up to come to the realisation that oneself did not matter, that nothing mattered but a kind of consciousness of the wonder of life outside oneself?
This is the cornerstone of his yearning for God: the Transcendentalist insistence on living in wonder of that which is not merely immanent.
It has been years since I read Anderson. Today I was reminded of him by an excerpt from James Anthony Froude’s 1849 epistolary novel, The Nemesis of Faith. The extracts I have chosen from Anderson and Froude share the broad theme of faith crisis, but approach religious doubt from near-opposite angles. Froude’s protagonist, the priest Markham Sutherland, fears that the Catholic sacraments serve to keep men dependent upon the Church out of anxiety over sin:
If there be any such thing as sin, in proportion to the depth with which men feel it, they will gravitate towards Home.
If it be true that the souls even of holy men are as continually contracting infirmity as their bodies are; if absolution is as constantly necessary for the one as ablution is for the other; as men of cleanly habits of body are more sensitive to the most trifling dirt spot, so men of sensitive consciences are miserable under taints upon a surface which to a vulgar eye seems pure as snow .... add to this the conviction that the priest's voice and hand alone can dispense the purifying stream; and beyond question, where the fountain runs the fullest, thither they will seek to go.
And sin with Newman was real; not a misfortune to be pitied and allowed for; to be talked of gravely in the pulpit, and forgotten when out of it; not a thing to be sentimentally sighed over at the evening tea-party, with complacent feeling that we were pleasing Heaven by calling ourselves children of hell, but in very truth a dreadful monster, a real child of a real devil, so dreadful that at its first appearance among mankind it had convulsed the infinite universe, and that nothing less than a sacrifice, so tremendous that the mind sinks crushed before the contemplation of it, could restore the deranged balance. Unreasonable as it seemed, he really believed this; and, given such an element among us as this, one may well give over hope of finding truth by reasonable analysis and examination of evidence. One must go with what haste one can to the system which best understands this monster sin, which is best provided with remedies and arms against it. To the dry mathematicizing reason, the Catholic, the Anglo-Catholic, the Lutheran, Calvinist, the Socinian, will be equally unacceptable; and the philosopher will somewhat contemptuously decline giving either of them the intellectual advantage. But sin is of faith, not of mathematics. And a real human heart, strong enough and deep enough to see it and feel it in its enormity, will surely choose from among the various religions that one where the sacraments are most numerous and most constant, and absolution is more than a name, and confession is possible without episcopal interdictings.
For myself I fell off; not because I had determined not to follow, but because I had not yet felt this intensity of hunger and of thirst which could drive me to accept the alternative, and consent to so entire an abandonment of myself. I had learnt enough of the reality and awfulness of human life not to play with it; and I shrank before what at least might be a sin against my own soul.
My eyes were opening slowly to see for myself the strangeness of this being of ours. I had flung myself off into space, and seen this little earth ball careering through its depths; this miserable ball, not a sand grain in the huge universe of suns, and yet to which such a strangely mysterious destiny was said to have been attached. I had said to myself, Can it be that God, Almighty God, He, the Creator himself, went down and took the form of one of those miserable insects crawling on its surface, and died Himself to save their souls? I had asked the question. Did ever man ask it honestly, and answer yes? Many men have asked it with a foregone conclusion; but that is not to ask it. I say, did ever man who doubted, find his own heart give him back the Church's answer?
I know not. I answered nothing; but I went down again upon my old earth home; and, with no anxiety for claiming any so high kindred for my race, I felt myself one among them; I felt that they were my brothers, and among them my lot was cast. I could not wish them to be children of heaven; neither could I make away their weaker ones to hell; they were all my fellows; I could feel with them all, and love them all. For me this world was neither so high nor so low as the Church would have it; chequered over with its wild light shadows, I could love it and all the children of it, more dearly, perhaps, because it was not all light. "These many men so beautiful," they should be neither God's children nor the Devil's children, but children of men.
Sutherland is not like Anderson in that he doesn’t want to “consent to so entire an abandonment of myself”; this is what allows his doubts about Catholicism to flower into a wholesale departure from it. He seems to be more serene, or at least equally as able to be serene, with an agnostic worldview which does not attribute divine significance to earthly life. He feels more “among” men when he views them as mortals who will never be sorted into the great binary of the Saved and the Damned. This chimes with his dismissal of Newman on the immediacy of sin. It is a strange dismissal, since it follows a striking and salient description of sin which one might expect to hear from Newman himself. As a fan of Balthasar pointed out to me, this vision of sin recalls a passage from Balthasar’s Mysterium Paschale:
The ‘second death’ is one with sheer sin as such, no longer sin as attaching to a particular human being, sin incarnate in living existences, but abstracted from that individuation, contemplated in its bare reality as such (for sin is a reality!). In this amorphous condition, sin forms what one can call the second ‘chaos’…
Sutherland, in his rather stony realism, sees little merit in a theology which embodies sin as such: “Unreasonable as it seemed, he really believed this.” By contrast, the Transcendentalist feels more “among” his fellow man with a view of the divine suffusing all mankind. Perhaps for Anderson this involved the Emersonian oversoul (“Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of”, to borrow from Steinbeck).
Sutherland’s scaling of the globe as a “little earth ball careering through [space’s] depths” sounds to me like something Neil DeGrasse Tyson would gauchely say about Earth being an insignificant rock flying through space. There is something which regards mankind’s cosmic insignificance with an acceptance which is foreign to me.
All for now! I recommend Anderson and Froude to any who haven’t read them.