April 13, 2005


Spiritual Parasites: Couldn't evil be explained by choice? (Bruce Thornton, 4/04/05, VDH Private Papers)

To Christian thinkers, for example, such acts [as the MN school shooting], while horrific, are not literally "senseless." They make perfect sense given humanity's fallen condition, our subjection to the forces of appetite and passion. Yet despite those restraints we are still created free, and aided by the grace of Christ, we are free and able to choose God or to choose ourselves. When we choose ourselves, we make of ourselves a god and worship our own lusts and pleasures, including the lust for power. And what greater power is there for a human than the power to kill?

Nor need there always be material or rational causes for killing. As Dostoevsky understood, we need no reason to choose evil other than the mere fact that it exists as a choice, and making that choice affirms our freedom and displays our power. As Dmitri Karamazov says, there is war between God and Satan and the battleground is the human heart, where every day we must choose either to worship God or to worship ourselves and thus aspire to be god. Such choices are part of the mystery of human good and evil, as inexplicable by a material science as are unconditional love and self-sacrifice and redemption.

Yet religion and theology are dismissed by our official wisdom as mere superstition and irrational obfuscation. Good, evil, free will—didn't Marx and Darwin and Freud, that modernist trinity, teach us that those are all illusions, that our precious selves are mere material bubbles floating on vast oceans of economics, genes, evolutionary selection, environment, or unconscious forces? The determinists have carried the day and have, as Hamlet put it, torn the heart out of our mystery, leaving us all diminished.

The greater problem, however, is that our whole civilization is predicated on ideals created by those who assumed that spiritual reality indeed exists, that there is a God who created the world and made us to be a certain way. That is, we humans aren't just material things in the world, but transcendent souls that have value because they are created by God in His image and imprinted with a moral order not dependent on a material environment or physical force. Even the Deists among the American founders believed in a natural law created and given to us by God, a law our political structures must reflect and harmonize with. Freedom is the gift of "Nature and Nature's God," not the consequence of evolution or genes, the accidental result of random material forces. So too with human rights—they are universal goods for all humans because they are expressions of our souls, not our bodies; gifts of God, not boons bestowed by other flawed men.

This disconnect between our political institutions and morality created by a spiritual tradition, and our belief that science can provide an alternative guide to action based on the assumptions that all causes are material, explains the muddle most of us find ourselves in when addressing difficult questions such as abortion or the Schiavo case. For if we are just material things in a material world, without freedom or responsibility, without transcendent value and rights just because we are humans created by God, then on what basis do we build morality other than a utilitarian calculation that subordinates the individual to some material good? Why not strangle a baby, then, to create utopia? Why not slaughter six million to create paradise for many millions more?

We modern Westerners are what the Spanish poet Miguel de Unamuno called "spiritual parasites," living off that rich spiritual tradition and the values and institutions it created, even as we discount those same spiritual values and look rather to the high priests of materialist determinism to make sense of our world.

But is anyone truly satisfied with the chatter of the determinists?

Perhaps the differences over Saul Bellow--the way academics and intellectuals revered him and the public ignored him--just boils down to whether you still believe in the spiritual reality or are as confused a spiritual parasite as he was?

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 13, 2005 12:00 AM


Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2005 1:28 AM

You like him, right?

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 1:45 AM

One exception...The Adventures of Augie March supposedly sold well.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 13, 2005 2:28 AM

The very idea that Saul Bellow might be a spiritual parasite is most interesting.

And most telling.

(As for me, I'm all for creative misprision; but should the misprision proves embarrasing---or insulting---is it really the author who is insulted?)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at April 13, 2005 2:33 AM

Bellow wrote primarily about second generation immigrants. Transitional characters ... dangling characters, if you will. He was not, of course, the first American novelist to have done this, but he was a master of his craft.

As a vocal supporter of immigration, oj, you can't be as tone-deaf on this issue as you posture on this blog. You know perfectly well that second generation immigrants have one foot (their roots and parent-figures) in the old culture and the other foot (their social realities and aspirations) in the new culture. I'll be damned if this precarious situation doesn't often lead to internal conflicts, including mixed feelings about the parent-figures. And, yes, let's stipulate that adult conceptions of god are highly derivative of childhood perceptions of authority-figures, most importantly parent-figures.

Given that we are a nation of immigrants, this transition story is inescapably part of the Great American Narrative. In this new century, we will see this narrative spun by some fine Asian-American, Hispanic-American, and American Indian writers. Surely you anticipate this, eh?

Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2005 2:51 AM

He was Canadian.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 7:17 AM


It was a Book of the Month Club selection when that meant something.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 7:19 AM

I must have read books by some other Saul Bellow.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at April 13, 2005 11:14 AM

Just because intellectuals like something doesn't make it bad.

And just because something is popular doesn't make it good.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 13, 2005 11:21 AM


Half right.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 11:31 AM

No, in very very rare instances intellectuals like something of value.

I'll add that I think you exaggerate the extant to which said intellectuals thought Bellow a great writer. Fawning obits -- and Martin Amis -- aside, many of the literati in particular disliked him.

(Did I mention that Ravelstein is a great novel?)

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 13, 2005 12:19 PM


Name one thing.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 12:21 PM

"He was Canadian."

Literally true, but basically silly. Bellow's parents were first generation Russian-Jewish immigrants who moved in 1913 to Canada, where Bellow was born in 1915. The family moved to Chicago in 1924. Second generation syndrome plus.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2005 12:32 PM


Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 12:35 PM

I read Ravelstein. It was the only Bellow book that I read. It was okay, but it was filled with errors about popular culture that suggested to me either poor editing, or that Bellow didn't know much about America.

Posted by: Brandon at April 13, 2005 12:52 PM

Beyond his narrow intellectual circle...

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 12:59 PM

Playing literalist today, are we?

Bellow's parents were shaped by a foreign culture, while he was shaped by both the remnants of that culture and his own experience growing up American. Thus, the dangling.

His father, by the way, has been described as "violent" by many, and as a "gangster" by some. Bellow was very close to ... and unsuccessfully protective of ... his mother, who died when he was 17. Icing on the cake: he had a near-death experience when he was 8.

Early experiences seem to shape the contents of the innate "god file" in the human brain. Culturally-atypical experiences seem to produce culturally-atypical conceptions of god.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2005 2:46 PM

Yes, so a rather stock formula for atheism, but not much of interest for the reader.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 2:51 PM


Worth pointing out, though, that Bellow's Marxism waned and he defended America from the likes of Gunter Grass in his later years.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 13, 2005 4:21 PM


Not exactly setting the bar high, are you?

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 4:25 PM

Bellow soured on Marxism during WW2 when he realized what was wrong with it. Then he became one of the anti-communists. From the 1960s onward he has been assailing the academy for its insularity and rampant faddism (he authored the preface to Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind). While you may not like his writing, OJ, he really is the type of author for you.

Posted by: David at April 13, 2005 4:33 PM

Except that he's self-absorbed and unreadable. Even Roth at last started lighting into the Left. Where's Bellow's American Pastoral?

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 4:46 PM

You just relate to Roth's AP because its geographic arc is almost precisely your own, oj. And Bellow regularly discredited the left. He just wasn't overt or pure enough about his conversion for fellow neo-cons (fellow second-generation Russian/Jewish/American ex-socialists) like Podhoretz the Elder.

The "stock formula" does not apply just to atheists, by the way. Those holding the god-concept of a perfect patriarch, for example, might usefully ask themselves why it is, precisely, that they are blind to the sins of the father.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2005 5:42 PM


For Nobel literature laureates? No.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 13, 2005 5:44 PM

No one thinks their father perfect, only their mother.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 5:45 PM

My dad's perfect.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 13, 2005 6:23 PM


Hardly a recommendation.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 6:30 PM

An exception to the stock formula, then, or a mystery? The Holy Trinity is mystical enough w/o grafting on The Holy Mother. Care to elaborate?

Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2005 6:32 PM

The question isn't whether you note your father's flaws but whether you're mature enough to get past them. Even Christ felt let down by His Father. It passed.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 6:38 PM

So I misread you? I thought you said everyone thinks their mother perfect. Did not compute unless one puts females on a purity pedestal.

And the ease with which one moves beyond the imperfections of the father is a function of many variables, not just "maturity". (Unless, of course, that's how one defines maturity.)

Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2005 6:46 PM

Yes, He never doubted Mary's love.

What else is maturity but accepting responsibility for onself and the imperfection of all.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 7:21 PM


Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 13, 2005 7:32 PM

I'll buy your working definition of maturity. But you know it don't come easy. Harder for some than others, and the reasons can be legion.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2005 7:36 PM

Sure. But why read someone who hasn't grown up?

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 7:57 PM

You may be moving the goalposts here by implicitly redefining "maturity" to mean "coming home to Jesus." Now that, I won't buy.

As for Bellow, his artistry was gorgeous and his characters-in-constant-quest appealling on several levels. The quest is the holy grail and questions are the answer. The antithesis is a smug complacency.

Speaking of less-than-fully-mature writers, you prefer the perennially adolescent Kesey. Our man Randall may or may not be a savior figure, but he is undeniably a subversive revolutionary. Like Kesey himself and his hero Kerouac.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2005 8:26 PM

Not to Jesus, but to the realization of one's own relative lack of importance. Bellow never got there.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 8:37 PM

In his private life, Bellow did act like a man convinced of his own godliness. Every bit consistent with the father hypothesis. That failing need not reflect poorly on his work, though, any more than Kesey's eternal magic bus tour reflected on his. Both were fine writers.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2005 9:42 PM


Well, recommending parents to people is the ultimate pointless exercise, so I won't try it...But what's wrong with having an unusually good parent?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 13, 2005 10:15 PM

Kesey wrote one good book that was the opposite of the rest of what he was saying--an utterly orthodox Christ narrative.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 10:24 PM

Outsider/savior narrative, like Blazing Saddles.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 14, 2005 12:32 AM