May 23: The Benefactors
Religion is the opiate of the people! said Spencer, not very originally. The task of Religion is to legitimate power. Nothing else. A Deo rex, a rege lex.
God does not exist? asked Eve, a little surprisingly.
It is told, said Arthur, that Euler was once enjoined to prove the existence of God in a public debate with Diderot. When the great moment finally arrived, the former dramatically proposed, '(a+b)/n=x, donc Dieu existe respondez!' Diderot, who knew nothing about mathematics, became so flurried that he left the court blushing.
Proofs of God's existence is an old sport, admitted Lydekker. Just think of Descartes!
I presume, remarked the doctor drily, that our honoured guest has been entrusted with an irrebucable proof in a bar on Fulton Street?
Not exactly. But as I see it is my turn to tell a story, I shall recount a different discussion whose participants were not quite as illustrious as in Arthur's example.
It was held by my old friends Father Luigi and Dr. Macauly. These two people from very different backgrounds purely and simply met in their love for mankind.
Both men had out of the noblest of motives remained in milieus which their competence and intelligence had entitled them to leave long ago. Although they thus morally were birds of a feather their outlooks were necessarily diametrically opposed to one another.
While Father Luigi had a faith in God which some people would call fanatic, Macauly subscribed to a cheery-melancholic materialism which was as if taken out of Ibsen. One would think that these two inseparable friends might have learned to avoid theological discussions. But on the contrary, they seemed to find diversion and edification in them, and held them at every opportunity.
While the Father had never reached further into the mysteries of cuisine than heating up the contents of a tin, the doctor was pretty much of a culinary expert. Also on this point they were opposites.
This did not mean, however, that the Father was not able to appreciate the culinary skills of his friend, who on his part enjoyed treating his not too particular guest with specialities that would not have shamed a chef. It was after such a meal that the old discussion about the existence of the deity and the purpose of his creation was resumed, much as two old bachelors grabble with chess pieces.
'If I enter a garden,' said Father Luigi, well satisfied with the argument that the doctors brandy had imbued in him, 'and see the vegetables planted in ruler-straight rows, the trees pruned, and the paths gritted, I do not doubt that I see the work of a gardener. In the same way you see, Thomas, an orderly world ruled by laws whose infallibility you undoubtedly are more familiar with than I. And yet you deny the existence of a Creator, of an Intellect who made order out of chaos.'
'If you enter a garden,' the doctor cheerfully paraphrased his friend, 'and see weeds everywhere, the trees dead, and the paths overgrown, you quite sensibly conclude that no gardener has set foot here in time immemorial. Quite similarly you see, my friend, a lawless world in which might is right, where the weak are abused and have nothing better to hope for than to be put out of their misery. Despite all this you stubbornly hold that there is an Almighty god who watches over it all.'
Although he had heard it often enough, this argument always hit Father Luigi hard. For like the doctor, he too had seen how true it was. That very same day he had visited a parishioner whose only sin was to be up to his ears in a debt which he had brought on himself in a desperate attempt to support his family.
And yet he had been punished like Job himself. His wife whom he loved more than anything in the world had become terminally ill. Together they had prayed, confident that God would not crush this mans only joy. And yet her life's light had been put out as thoughtlessly as a child crushes an insect.
Even on the night of her death he had been called on to administer extreme unction to an elderly gentleman who died full of days with his pretty young wife by his side and all his children around him. He had not suffered for a single day, and his death was as gentle as a mother sings her child to sleep. And yet he had made his fortune fleecing his neighbour, charging exorbitant interest and extorting sky-high rent for apartments that were so run-down and dirty that even the cockroaches
were ashamed to admit where they lived.
'Look at the world,' the doctor said, driving his scalpel further towards the priest's heart. 'War and hunger, illness and poverty. What being would tolerate such a state of affairs for a single second, had it the power to change it?'
As on so many previous occasions, Father Luigi was in deep thought as he left the doctor that evening. Every word his friend had uttered pounded at his soul like a thumping tooth.
As usual, all the theological arguments about free will and the meaning of suffering stormed the doctor's fortress, but that night it seemed unconquerable. The priest fell exhausted to his knees beside his bed and whispered childishly, 'God our Father, have mercy on your children! Make the world good...'
'Yes?' it thundered from on high. 'What do you want of me, my son?'
'Dear God!' said the priest. 'Please make the world good! I know it is humans that have put it in its present state, since you have created everything good and wisely, but won't you then make mankind good?'
God considered this. 'Actually,' He said at last, 'it was my plan that man should become good through his own efforts. But I have to agree with you, there's not much to suggest that he is able.
Alright then. I will make the world good, because you ask me to.'
At this the Father sprang to his feet again as if he had been twenty years younger. In no time he was dressed and on the street again.
His chest flowed over with this Great Thing that God was about to do now, now after so long, and he had to share it with his friend. The doctor was about to go to bed and was rather surprised to see Luigi again so soon.
He had hardly opened the door before the priest whirled inside and recounted everything in a cracked voice. At this a strange silence fell upon the doctor's sitting room.
In the end the priest asked, 'What is the matter. Now God has answered our prayer?'
The doctor sat down heavily. 'I was only thinking,' said he, 'what it will be like to live without evil. What, for example, will become of the two of us?'
Father Luigi tumbled down into the doctor's armchair like a fluttering bird. 'What do you mean?'
'What I mean,' said the doctor, deep furrows had all of a sudden buried themselves over his friendly eyes, 'is what use is a doctor to a world without disease? Or a confessor to a world without sin?' The priest was about to say something, then fell silent.
'The two of us,' the doctor continued. 'We have fought evil, illness, indifference, apathy, greed, injustice, for so long. What are we to do now?
I don't think I can live without my patients. Without curing the sick.
And what about our own sins? What about our brandy?
What about my nurse, with whom I have a less honourable relationship? Forgive me, my friend, but to me a world that is absolutely good seems on the face of it terribly grey and cheerless, and hardly worth living in.'
Father Luigi did not answer his friend a single word, for he would not have known what to say. For the second time he walked the long way home, if possible even sadder than the first. But then he thought that the doctor was after all a worldly man, and despite the late hour he decided to call on his bishop.
The bishop was a friendly man who always had time for his priests, even at one o'clock in the morning. Fortunately, as the Father knew, the bishop was a night owl and had hardly gone to bed yet.
A second time he recounted what he had asked God to do, and what He had answered, and a second time his tale was followed by a long silence. 'I fear,' said the bishop, whose soft face seemed to have become tight and hard, 'that you have committed a great sin.'
'A sin?' Luigi hiccuped.
'Don't you see,' the bishop softly continued, 'that you have disturbed God's entire plan with the world? You know that man is put on earth to be tested, that God has given him free will so that he may choose good.
'What is goodness worth that is forced? Is a man good because he cannot act in any other way? Don't you see, my son, that by giving man the possibility to choose evil, God has made it possible for mankind to become good?'
Father Luigi hid his face in his hands. 'I have been a fool!' he said.
'What have I done?' The bishop gently put a hand on his shoulder, but the priest looked at him as if he had struck him.
Then he was gone, out of the door, and once again on his way home. 'God our Father!' he shouted within himself, 'listen to me once more.
I cover my mouth and repent in dust and ashes. Do not make the world good, but follow your original plan, which must be the best!'
'Do you really mean this?' said God.
'Of all my heart!' the words burst out of the priest.
'You wish then, that the world shall remain the way it is, evil and corrupt?'
'Yes!' shouted the priest, causing a slumbering meths-drinker to sit up, 'Yes!'
'I'm afraid,' said God, 'that it is too late. My will has already been done. Tomorrow the world will be good!'
That night was the longest night of Father Luigi's life. Every hour seemed like a year with all the thoughts that flew through his head.
Not until just before dawn did he throw himself on his bed exhausted, whence he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. When he awoke, the sun was already high in the sky.
He tumbled giddily out of bed and drew back the curtains. But what he saw was unbelievable.
The whole town was in flames. On the street the usual traffic had stopped. Wrecked vehicles were wedged along the front of the house like beatles trying to find their way out of a shoe box.
Instead wild horsemen charged back and forth in between each other, causing an infernal cacophony as they clashed together. Once in a while a man was run through with a sword, but they would get up and remount with remarkable frequency.
The prize of the tournament was apparently some young girls who had been herded together and tied to lamp posts in groups. Father Luigi redrew the curtains desperately, like a man who cannot believe his eyes and therefore closes them.
Then he returned once again to his bedside, and cried: 'God our Father! Have you seen what is happening? You, who wanted to make the world good! Wild warriors are murdering each other and raping young girls...'
'Yes,' said Allfather Odin and winked amicably at the priest with his one eye. 'Isn't it good ?!'
This text is an extract from the novel "2000".