The philosopher and historian of ideas, John Gray, is the type of atheist Christians can read with profit. Unlike many contemporary atheists who write about the human condition, Gray is under no delusion that humanity can do well or better without God. His exposé of the human propensity to violence, illusion, narcissism and misplaced optimism is relentless. He conveys a sense of life that is as bleak as Good Friday. His most recent books, including The Soul of the Marionette, can be read as a kind of emptying spiritual meditation. Accounts of individual paranoia, cannibalistic civilisations, and human folly take the sensitive reader to the despair of Jesus crying from the cross of God’s desertion. For Gray, this wretched, blind, vulnerable state of being is not the exception but the rule. He offers a reminder of why believers believe: they feel death’s presence too.
He is interesting to read as well. His awareness of lesser known novelists and thinkers is impressive. For example, the Scottish philosopher David Hume is often cited for his attack on theism. The human mind does not really know the causes of things even when seemingly proven, he argued, be those causes presumed mechanical or providential. There is an unbridgeable gap between what we perceive and what happens. But I, for one, had not heard of Hume’s contemporary, the clergyman Joseph Glanvill. Glanvill took such radical scepticism seriously too but, instead of turning it against religion and science, deployed it in favour of religion. The ways of God in nature are not our ways, he felt Christianity affirms. Providence is unsearchable; we can never know. But that humility is precisely the wisdom born of faith.
In fact, Gray often shows more sympathy for theism than atheism. He argues that, at their best, religions such as Christianity recognise that humanity faces problems that, of itself, it cannot surmount. Conversely, modern secularism is built on myths of anthropocentric progress. Science and politics alike sell us faith in reason or technology as ways out of human ills and evil.
Actually, it seems to me that Christians today are at risk of buying into such myths too. Church authorities confuse God’s mission in the world with a plan for their church designed to halt numerical decline. Or they feel that Christianity requires them to seek global solutions to intractable issues such as immigration or poverty. The Christian task is at once much simpler and more demanding: it is to show compassion to those who are cursed by political, social and religious systems. That’s harder than nurturing fantasies such problems can be solved – the whole of history shows they can’t – because it leads in one direction: to the cross.
Gray can critique Christianity too. He is clear about the damage and suffering followers of Jesus have inflicted on others when they mistakenly assume confessing their creed equals knowledge of truth, a truth that must then be forced on others. In particular, the universal claims of Christianity have been a licence for universal savagery, Gray writes, citing Giacomo Leopardi. This intolerance, which amongst Christian leaders today tends to be limited to homophobia or misogyny presumably because they no longer command armies, has transferred to secular leaders. They bomb from drones or practice secret torture in the name of spreading universal freedom. (If you think that’s a bit hard on presidents and prime ministers, Gray helpfully reminds us that around a quarter of the world’s prisoners are held in America and that the state of Louisiana imprisons more of its population per capita than any other country on the planet.)
And yet, Gray can at times adopt a dogmatic tone himself. One small example that I notice: he regularly misrepresents the figure of Socrates, arguing in this book that the ancient Greek philosopher never doubted that the world was rational. I find this bemusing: Socrates turned reason against itself to expose its stress points and limitations. How else can you explain why so many of Plato’s dialogues end inconclusively? His message is not, try harder; but rather, no matter how hard you try, reason will not lead you to the good life. Socrates is, to my mind, a friend of Gray, not an enemy.
Christians otherwise sympathetic to him will also feel that, at times, Gray misunderstands faith. For example, I would argue that the theistic impulse is not for freedom from choice, as he proposes in one passage. Rather, phrases expressing “God’s service as perfect freedom” refer to the liberation of choosing to discern God’s spirit rather than following one’s own. True freedom is a question of attention rather than will.
Similarly, I suspect he is not quite right when he presents mystical traditions as taking freedom to be an inner condition in which normal anxious consciousness has been transcended. Rather, it’s a condition in which normal consciousness has become aware of another consciousness that is “closer to me than I am to myself”, to paraphrase Saint Augustine. That awareness slowly transforms to the point at which the individual lives out of this other life, known as God. It’s the unexpected new life on the other side of dying to oneself that presents itself on Easter Sunday.
But then that is the difference between nihilism and theism. Gray’s view is strictly tragic: it’s best hope is a negative capability, following Keats, that does not cling to false certainties. Christianity is ultimately a divine comedy, in the ancient sense used of Dante’s epic poem: though we must travel through hell, that is the way to heaven. It is often hard to distinguish between that hope and Gray’s dark vision.