On April 1, 1970, the English atheist Bertrand Russell shuffled through the pearly gates into the presence of the God whose existence he had spent a lifetime denying. Most of history’s greatest thinkers were clustered here and there around the heavenly court, just as Raphael had pictured them, carrying on the eternal dialektike about what is really real. Spotting the arrival of his onetime Cambridge fellow, Ludwig Wittgenstein broke off the conversation he had been having with Iris Murdoch and shouted to his colleagues, “It’s Bertie!” All fell silent and turned to watch as the 97-year-old philosopher approached the divine throne, fully expecting that he would finally humble himself and admit to having been wrong about what he now saw to be the truth. But it did not happen. When challenged by the Godhead to explain why he had played the fool for so long, Russell simply retorted, “You didn’t give us enough evidence!”
“Touché!” Voltaire shouted from the circle of onetime agnostics he had been regaling all morning with witty aphorisms. Still smarting from the centuries-long probation he had been made to endure in the company of Jeremy Bentham and other atheistic piranha still in purgatory, he welcomed the chance to prick the divine ego for having made it so difficult to find any sign of transcendence in human history.
“And what kind of evidence might have been enough?” the Godhead asked, trying to humor what he knew to be the Cambridge scholar’s rather simplistic, scientistic mind-set.
“Well, a little order in your universe might have helped,” Russell barked. “Dropping us humans onto such a desolate, wobbly and generally uninhabitable block of atoms didn’t do much for your reputation as an Intelligent Designer!”
“So, what would you have wanted me to do, construct a perfectly predictable world and refrain, as Albert Einstein claimed I had, from rolling the dice? I would’ve thought you’d have had a keener appreciation for a little chaos and chance-play in the world about you!”
Out the corner of his eye, Russell caught a glimpse of Augustine winking to Thomas Aquinas. Grinning sheepishly, the Cambridge don continued: “Well, it’s nice to know you enjoyed gambling, but you hadn’t forgotten, had you, that a lot of human lives were at stake? For all that we mere mortals could tell, whatever game you were playing was doomed to failure from the start, and we’d all find ourselves in a cemetery of dead stars. Might not a few better clues from you about where your imagination was taking us have helped stem such a tide of pessimism?”
“I tried. Ever read that book I wrote about how my son was sent to draw the whole of the universe back up into the glory of his own resurrected body?”
“Yeah, I read it,” Russell replied. “First as a kid and then once again, years later when I already had one foot in the grave. But I could not make any more sense of it the second time than I had the first. It did not seem to match any evidence I had come across in my years of scientific research and philosophical speculation.”
“That, my dear professor, may have been your problem! Had you put your scientific instruments aside for a moment and, instead of gawking and thinking so much, tried to catch an intuitive glimpse of my evolving universe from the inside out, you might not have missed so much of the evidence that was there for all to see or hear.”
“I was a scientist and a logician, not a poet! What did you expect?” Russell protested.
“Pythagoras was a scientist, and he didn’t have trouble hearing the music of the spheres! Nor did Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who appreciated empirical observation but complained about the ‘hollowness of scientific abstractions’ and posited a ‘poetic world’ that could not be ‘verified’ by scientific reasoning.”
Upon hearing the Godhead refer to one of their own kind, a cheer went up from a crowd of Romantic thinkers congregated nearby around the mellifluous Goethe. He had been lecturing them on how the “delicate empiricism” of a “spiritualized science” investigates “that which can be investigated,” but “quietly reveres that which cannot be investigated.”
“Did you hear that?” the Godhead asked Russell. “Wasn’t that what your friend Ludwig also had in mind when he warned you that the existence of the universe is not so much a ‘brute fact’ as it is an imponderable ‘mystery’ that must be ‘passed over in silence’?”
“Probably so. All that brilliant gray matter of his seemed to turn to mush in the end.”
Wittgenstein, just starting to take a harp lesson from one of the angels, overheard the slur from his onetime mentor, but showed no sign of pique.
“I guess you thought my apostle Paul had gone mad, too, when he started waxing poetic about the difference between material and spiritual bodies?” said the Godhead.
“You got that right! All that mumbling about ‘star differing from star’! Democritus was more to my taste.”
“Is that why you embraced the Epicurean way of life?” the Godhead inquired, while feigning an accusatory grimace.
“I took my pleasures,” Russell conceded, “but I wasn’t on an ego-trip, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“Lighten up, Bertrand! I was just joshing. You wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t taken some notice of all the good work you did fighting for nuclear disarmament and other pacifist goals.”
“Trust you also noticed my efforts to help people find meaning in their lives by engaging themselves in projects bigger than their own egos?”
“I did, and I would have given you much more credit for it had you not always insisted upon uncoupling such altruistic behavior from any worshiping of me.”
“Thought you had long since died and that it was time to get along without you.”
“Fair enough, if you were only thinking of yourself; but did you need to share such bad news with the masses?”
“Nietzsche thought so!” Russell exclaimed. “As did Sigmund Freud and his followers, all of whom thought it was time to stop offering their fellow humans false consolation.”
“Well, my blessing on them! I know they meant well. But did it never dawn on any of you that, as my good servants Carl Jung and Unamuno frequently pointed out, there are a lot of people in the world who cannot cope with a reality unbuffered by their trust in me as their provident father?”
“So, we should have left them wallowing in their wishful thinking?”
“Bertie, my boy, you forget that I’m actually here. Freud was half-blind. But yes, even if I were but a figment of their imagination, you would have done the masses much better had you left them secure in their beliefs. Nietzsche did them no favor and, inadvertently, probably inclined many of his fellow countrymen to sell their souls to the Nazi thugs who butchered my chosen people.”
“You blame Nietzsche for that? What about all those Christians and other religious people in Germany, and around the world, who did nothing to help the Jews escape the tyranny of Hitler? What about the pope? Did his or their belief in you make them any more compassionate? And what about yourself? Where were you when your supposedly chosen people needed you most? Can you blame them now, after Auschwitz, for chiming in with Nietzsche’s declaration of your death? And speaking of Nietzsche, where is he? Is he here yet?”
“Not yet,” the Godhead replied ruefully. “He’s been a hard nut to crack.”
“Where were you when your people needed you most?”
“I was there, in Auschwitz, Buchenwald and every one of those horrible death camps. And I dare say, contrary to Rabbi Rubenstein’s understandable disbelief, many Jews did find in their conviction of my presence the strength to die with dignity and, in the tradition of all my suffering servants, gave up their lives as sacrificial lambs for the rest of mankind. Look around you and you’ll see many of them now basking in their glory. Just as I had gone down into Egypt with their father Jacob and brought him back up, so I went down with them and have now brought them up to their eternal reward.”
“Could you not have spared them all that suffering in the first place by keeping your creatures under better control?” Russell pressed. “How can you claim to be the lord of history when the forces of evil always seem to have the last word? That book you wrote says you actually hardened the Pharaoh’s heart. Did you harden Hitler’s heart too? And what about Caligula, Genghis Khan, Stalin, Pol Pot and the other tyrants who have terrorized their human subjects? Were they merely instruments of your divine wrath, and if so, how were we supposed to believe that you are a God of love?”
“What they did, they did by their own choice. I set all my human creatures free and gave everyone grace enough to overcome their brutish instincts. It has surprised and disappointed me, too, that so many of them have relapsed into their jungle pasts. My heart goes out to their victims. But I would have to say I am pleased so far with the outcome.”
“That’s easy for you to say, sitting up here on high, far removed from the daily vicissitudes of human affairs. Spend a day or two in old Calcutta, Istanbul or Mexico City and you might wish for another universal flood.”
“Have you forgotten? I did come down. Kenosis is my middle name. Remember how they crucified my son? Remember his heart-rending cry of despair from the cross? How better could I have answered you rebels? What more could I have done to acquit myself of the evil you impute to me?”
“Did you have to take the children with you?”
“Those your church likes to call the Holy Innocents? Wasn’t Dostoyevsky’s character, Ivan Karamazov, justified in putting you on trial for conditioning the arrival of your son on such a loss of innocent lives?”
“That was not my doing; the birth of my son was an act of unconditional love. That King Herod’s inability to tolerate my presence drove him into such a savage frenzy of killing was no fault of mine or of my son. Read my book again and you’ll see that Jesus loved children and warned that anyone abusing them would be better off being thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck.”
“You might want to remind your clergy of that.”
“I will—and not only them, but your fellow professors as well.”
“So, may I stay?”
“Without a doubt!”
“What does that mean?”