I'VE CRIBBED the above quotation from Henry Miller, though I believe he in turn lifted it from the lips of some long dead Russian, a Russian that no doubt lived in the midst of that nation's 'Religious Renaissance' of the nineteenth century. Dostoevsky described this period in his diaries and novels, how everybody continuously participated in an ongoing debate about the Big Questions, in markets, street corners and bars, trying to guess at the existence of God and the mystery of suffering. But hasn't the debate been settled, here in the secular Western Europe of the 21st Century? Apparently not - even my bus has joined the debate. The other week it was swaggering around like a teenager boasting that there "probably isn't a God", yet only a few days ago it had experienced an abrupt change of heart and declared conversely that there "definitely is a God". What insecurities must have bristled in that 'probably' - I didn't even know that the number 67 ran all the way to Damascus…
And what about the common reading matter observed on public transport over the last few years? What books have the passengers been scrutinising? One of only two titles, according to my count (excluding that Pope bothering kid's book): The God Delusion and The Da Vinci Code. Bless it, the British public isn't the best read bunch, but these two titles arguably indicate a burgeoning preconception with metaphysical matters.
Were it not for the Romance novels, Bond pastiches, and the ubiquitous Jeremy Clarkson triptych (our national philosophe), in many cases The Da Vinci Code would stand alone on the book shelf of its millions of owners. Numerous friends and acquaintances, not usually disposed to discuss fiction or theology (yet knowing my predilection for both), have approached me with pregnant intent to comment on the thriller's esoteric subtext.
My girlfriend's mother, knowing that my family are Catholic (and assuming that my very haemoglobin sported little papist caps), interrupted my reading one afternoon during a visit to her Tenerife holiday home.
"I've read The Da Vinci Code," she declared, with a Lutheran twinkle visible beneath her blue-tinted contacts.
"Good show Linda. Well done," I responded over the brim of Anna Karenina, wondering why one of her eyebrows seemed to be violently twitching…
"… I believe it!" she finally declared.
"How do you mean mother-in-law - you don't think it's a work of fiction?"
Linda seemed momentarily inconvenienced by my unexpected though innocent enough retort.
"No. I mean what it says about the Church," she continued, shaking off my Jesuitical casuistry, "I believe it."
This is indicative of the general gist of its readers' responses. The book offers them new ways to believe, and reasons for the conspicuous absence of religion in their inner lives. A pity it's gash!
Then there is that other bona fide publishing phenomena of recent times (again excluding children's books): The God Delusion. In a nation that has for many decades treated churches as little more than picturesque and whimsical venues for weddings, the success of Dawkins' polemic (the best-selling work of non-fiction since the Bible, or something), is arguably a bit of a mystery. Atheists wouldn't flock to Waterstones in order to scoop a hardback copy of The Toothfairy Delusion, and as far as I can see the only explanation for the enormous success of Dawkins' tract is that it serves as a palliative to its reader's latent fear and trembling, the atavistic nervousness over the fate of the immortal soul, a trepidation that possibly announced itself only upon a confrontation with the book's bold title. Yet it would seem that the book has done more to irritate those buried nerves than soothe them - according to Amazon, The God Delusion is the cause of a 50% growth in sales on religious and spiritual books, and a 120% increase in sales on the Bible! Atheism never had a more vocal and fervent following than in Holy Russia itself, and so long as it is not silently assumptive, atheism constitutes a vital ingredient in any spiritually introspective culture. For these very reasons I adore Richard Dawkins. He is Nietzsche's fool in the marketplace imploring the peasants that God is Dead. This is a man that believes that humanity can be reinvigorated morally, politically and even artistically if we can return to the apparently abandoned Enlightenment agenda - Halleluiah!
Between our suicide bombers, conspiracy theorists, Rastafarians, Scientologists, militant atheists et al, it can be argued that the contemporary UK is a much richer religious ferment that Dostoevsky's Russia, and far more riven with spiritual conflict than in its own hectic period of Reformation. And I, comfortably savage, terrified by the sky, believing in everything, wish here to comment upon, document, and encourage our English Religious Renaissance.