A number of years ago I had a short but intellectually stimulating conversation with a young graduate student who happened to be attending the university across the street from my office. Although he was pursuing an advanced degree in English literature, the longer we talked the more it became apparent to me that his true calling in life was not the study of literature but that of religion. As the two of us sat there sharing our views on religion, (or more accurately as I struggled to keep up with him !), somehow we began discussing the great English writer John Milton. With his heterodox views of the soul and other tenants of faith clashing somewhat with the official views held by the Church of his day, the bright young grad student, probably said it best when described Milton as a “sect of one.”
Therefore, as I worked my way through On God: An Uncommon Conversation by Norman Mailer and Michael Lennon and began to learn about Mailer’s particular religious worldview, the more I started to see him as a latter-day Milton. While many of his personal beliefs could be seen as representing those held by a wide spectrum of religious communities, to the best of my knowledge this diverse and perhaps contradictory collection of beliefs were held by just one man, that being the late writer himself. Eclectic in nature, but at the same time unique and personal, Mailer’s beliefs are brought forth and articulated for all to read in On God: An Uncommon Conversation, his last book before he died in late 2007.
Taking the form of an extended interview conducted by Mailer scholar and English professor Michael Lennon, On God serves nicely as Mailer’s vehicle to casually but authoritatively expound on his particular religious beliefs. Surprisingly eclectic, as a result of Mailer’s long conversation with Lennon one can detect in his belief system elements of gnosticism, Eastern concepts such as karma and reincarnation, mysticism, Manichaeism, ancient Judaism and even some post-modern outlooks concerning the nature of evil and theodicy.
In Mailer’s universe God is not all-powerful and all-knowing. The Devil exists and much like the Adversary in the book of Job, is an active participant in our universe. There probably isn’t an afterlife, if for no other reason because most if not all people in the world are neither 100 per cent good or bad, making eternal damnation or heaven undeserved and unpractical for any of us. However, Mailer is open to the concept of reincarnation, but also doubts a God of limited abilities can adequately coordinate the massive and nearly instantaneous migration of souls, as would have been needed during the darker periods of the twentieth century like the Holocaust. Being a writer and therefore an artist, he’s also open to something akin to Intelligent Design, while also being a bit deistic in his outlook. Lastly, even as a Jew he sees no problem with Jesus possibly being God’s son.
Even though I did have to take a break from time to time while reading Mailer’s book, I’m pretty sure I liked it. Not only did it make me revisit the various religious concept he discussed in the book, it’s made me want to read more books by the late American literary icon. For years his books Armies of the Night and The Presidential Papers have been sitting unread on my bookshelf. Maybe it’s high time I read them.