Norman Mailer: Theologian, of Sorts

The novelist quarreled with anyone who provoked him, including God.

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Norman Mailer—before he died, almost implausibly, last weekend—fought with any individual or group that provoked him. And since that included just about everybody at one time or another, it's probably not surprising that he also quarreled, at least somewhat respectfully, with God.

Mailer's idea of God would not have fit most traditional conceptions of the Supreme Being, but the author definitely came to believe that God existed. In the introduction to one of his last books, On God: An Uncommon Conversation, a dialogue between the author and his friend and literary executor, Michael Lennon, Mailer owned up to an abiding obsession: "I have spent the last 50 years trying to contemplate the nature of God."

Why only 50? Well, Mailer explained, because he'd spent the first 30 or so years as a proud, card-carrying atheist. Finally, though, the novelist's concern with making sense of human motivation—and its offspring, morality—led him to the somewhat surprised realization that he believed in God. Mailer's subsequent survey of theological literature left him largely dissatisfied. Particularly off-putting to him were those arguments that conveyed "the unstated but dictatorial injunction to have faith." No one could enjoin Mailer to do anything. So Mailer exercised what he believed was his "right" to believe in the God that he could best imagine: "an imperfect, existential God doing the best He (or She) could manage against all the odds of an existence that not even He, our Creator, entirely controlled." This God was more artist than lawgiver, a being who evolved in relation to the creatures he created—and who was locked into a struggle with the Devil (who Mailer believed was also a divinity).

Obviously, few fundamentalists would embrace Mailer's theology. Mailer, for his part, thought that all forms of fundamentalism—and Islam, in general, because of its emphasis on submission—thwarted God's purpose in creating humans as thinking creatures.

"So long as people are incapable of pursuing a thought to where it leads, they can't begin to carry out God's notions," Mailer said. "The irony is that by subscribing (they think) to God's will, they become desensitized to the sensitivities of divine will. They wall themselves out. They cannot work with God's will even if they long to."

Yet Mailer was anything if predictable. While more or less rejecting most supernatural aspects of traditional theology, he thought it plausible that Jesus "may well be God's son, a physical and spiritual entity whom God decided was necessary for humanity." Mailer was also in accord with some orthodox believers in his approval of intelligent design: "Because we find nothing elsewhere that works like anything on earth—all the fineness of detail we have here—I see that precisely as an argument for intelligent design," he told Lennon. "I will repeat that it is far more difficult to comprehend the complexity of our existence if God does not exist—because then we are back to the monkeys writing Hamlet, and that is hard to believe."

For the most part, though, Mailer's theological musings bore the same speculative character as his fictional ones, including those in his novel about Jesus, The Gospel According to the Son. Now that he has shuffled off this mortal coil—though shuffle would seem far too tranquil a verb for anything Mailer did—he may be able to test one or two of them.

"God is experimenting," Mailer said, exploring the possibility of reincarnation. "God is looking to find out. God, like a parent, learns from what the children accomplish and from where they fail. Why not assume that, with all else, we are also part of an enormous spiritual laboratory?"