That people believe what they want to believe, was among the discoveries of my adolescence. Reading obituaries of Robert Conquest (1917–2015; died Monday), the shock of this discovery comes back. I was then both an Atheist and a Cold Warrior. This insight into human nature and denature appeared to buttress both of these convictions: for it seemed to me that the Communist Party and the Christian Religion were products of blind faith, perpetuated by people who “wanted to believe,” and therefore believed what they wanted.
Much was once said about the Alice-in-Wonderland parody of the Roman Church that the Communist Party offered. Immortal Christ founded the one, infallible Marx the other. Officially-recognized “apostles” followed from each (Peter, Paul, John, in one case; Lenin, Stalin, Mao, in the other). The Party like the Church is a bureaucracy, under a hierarchy to be obeyed without thought or hesitation. Each has a form of “confession,” and all the other “sacraments” can be paired. Advancement requires strict fidelity to doctrine. Both institutions hunt “heresies” and canonize “saints.” They thrive on persecution. The utopia of perfect Scientific Socialism is a destination like Heaven. And so on: I haven’t the energy to redraw the whole chart.
That the Communist faith is “materialist,” and that of the Church “spiritual,” makes the parody more amusing. One might also say that Satan is a parody of Our Lord. In logic, however, a parody does not constitute a refutation.
Briefly in passing, my own later discovery that the Christian Religion is true, did not at first exhilarate me. Not in the least, with my pride invested. It made me feel quite the fool, and I flinched at the prospect of telling old friends — especially the Christian ones — that I had been so wrong, when I had been so smug about it. I could not possibly have “wanted to believe” what I now found myself believing: that Jesus Christ had “really happened”; that His claims were valid in the terms presented, and truthfully recorded; that the whole history of the Christian Religion (I certainly wasn’t a Catholic yet) followed, however implausibly, from those scandalous facts. Somehow, I would have to cope with this embarrassing revelation.
Well, I found myself comprehensively wrong on the subject of Christianity. History has absolved me, however, on the subject of Communism.
It has absolved Robert Conquest even more. His grand works of historical investigation — The Great Terror (1968), documenting the incredible extent of Stalin’s purges; and, The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), surveying the catastrophic effects of his collectivization — were books of remarkable ambition; of bold conception and real consequence. Other writers had (often at the cost of their careers) reported upon Soviet failings. But they had done so in ways modest enough to be ignored, or dismissed by the fashionable Left as “biased.” The broad, massive, systematic nature of Conquest’s researches was something new. It cracked even the faith of many diehard Communists. The history he told fit together; it was all meticulously sourced; it was overwhelming. There was, as it rose on the horizon, too much to deny.
Yet others could still simply block it out. For people believe what they want to believe, and may resolutely look away from what they do not want to see, or even chute the cocksure laugh, in the face of the mounting tsunami of evidence that finally washes them away.
Conquest was also a light or minor poet, and verse translator, of skill, talent, and integrity. He moved, privately, more in literary than in political circles. His closest friends were such as Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin; another was Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
He was no ideologue, and judging by the way he burned through wives, not a moralist either. Outwardly, in the tiny glimpse I had of him, he was not passionate or irascible. Inwardly, he was surely “driven.” But I would count him as a detached artist, working in a rather unusual modern genre: the author of elaborately proven epics of debunkment.
It was not Conquest, incidentally, but Amis who proposed that the revision of The Great Terror, published after the Berlin Wall fell, should be re-entitled, I Told You So, You Fucking Fools. But Conquest was content with, A Reassessment. He presented his facts emotionlessly. This magnified his impact, as historian. When he had a provocation to offer, that he was entirely unable to resist, he would put it safely into verse form, so that it wouldn’t be noticed.
Questions of what really happened, in history whether ancient or modern (and “all history is modern history,” as Wallace Stevens said), can never be ignored. We cannot build a mighty edifice upon a squalid lie. It will collapse.
From the beginning, the Christian Apostles (and apologists) earnestly insisted the events they recounted had happened in fact, unenhanced by imagination. They were not, by character, storytelling men. The consistency of their testimony, to death, was part of what convinced me nearly forty years ago that they were actually telling the truth. Since, my experience as a journalist has reinforced my judgement: that these narratives have the ring of truth, in the main, as in so many small details.
The Epistle today, on this Feast of the Transfiguration, is from an encyclical by our first Pope (II Peter 1: 16–19). Saint Peter expressly denies that he, or by extension any other Apostle, is a fabulist, a “cunning deviser” of useful and convenient tales. He adamantly insists that he witnessed the Transfiguration himself, along with many others then still alive. Peter, like Paul, puts everything on the line. If he is lying, Christianity is not just an inspiring story, parts of which might possibly be true. For in that case, the whole thing is a lie, a fraud, an imposture, and not one part of it can be trusted.
Peter is meeker in the way he puts this; Paul is more forceful; but all the Apostles said the same — that they were there, that they saw things with their own eyes. That Christ is Risen.
So that, either they are telling the truth, or all are shameless liars — and too, ingenious liars, with a curiously inhuman ability to stick to the same pre-arranged story, over decades and over thousands of miles in their evangelical wanderings; and under torture, and to the death. This is hard, irrefragable stuff: a plain either/or, leaving no room for wiggle. You confront the alternatives.
Or, you look away, and steep your life in bullshit.
The Christian who thinks he can take what he wants from the Gospels, and leave the rest — that he can believe what he wants to believe — is deluding himself. He has banked his soul on the proposition that the Apostles were dishonest, calculating men; that the foundation of the Church lies in the same squishy muck as the foundation of the Communist Party, and every other humanly-contrived institution; that its long survival can be attributed only to luck. That, necessarily, Christ is a lie, a cheap lie designed to sucker and manipulate the masses. Certainly this is the Marxist view.
But for my part, I just can’t believe it. For as far as I can see into history, no conspiracy on that scale has ever been pulled off, nor could be. If it happened it would have been a miracle in itself — a demonic miracle. In which case, all the Saints are in Hell.