Chapter 4
Advocatus Diaboli

It is easy to over-dramatize things, especially when writing of oneself, and if I have given the impression that I was in a state of unceasing intellectual and spiritual turmoil during the years which followed the war I have misled you. Most of the time I was happy enough. My paintings were exhibited fairly regularly in two of the Cork Street galleries and got good enough reviews; I fell in love with the Byzantines, with Giotto, Modigliani and Matisse; I fell almost equally in love with old-fashioned roses, irises and laced pinks; it was blissful watching our daughters grow up, taking them to Bexhill for holidays, and eventually to a small local school; I rediscovered French literature and devoured the works of Proust, Gide, Stendhal, Alfred de Vigny, Erekmann-Chatrian and others; I took some photographs of churches in Norfolk and in Kent for John Betjeman; and so I could go on. nevertheless, where atheism had been fine, agnosticism was not. I was unable to tolerate the intellectual vacuum left by the abdication of my old gods. Since science had proved capable of producing both the radioactive shambles of Hiroshima and the equally radioactive isotopes needed for medical research with far from admirable impartiality, I could no longer treat it as the potential saviour of humanity, as I had tended to do before the war; like the god Siva it was both life-giver and destroyer, a god to be feared rather than to be trusted or worshipped. Humanism, in the form in which I had known it, had been based upon the belief that once human beings had the courage to take command of their own fate and command their own destiny, they would build a better and better society, so predicted by Winwood Reade and Karl Marx in their different ways; and as I have already said, as far as I was concerned Buchenwald and Dachau had made that particular belief look so silly that only a lunatic would ever again seriously entertain it. I had never been very interested in politics, and it seemed to me that anyone who thought that the world would be put to rights by politicians must be very bankrupt of hope, especially since the socialist dream had been turned into a nightmare before our eyes as the various Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and elsewhere slaughtered their political opponents apparently without a qualm and Soviet tanks rolled into East Germany, Hungary and later Czechoslovakia. And worst of all, my corpses would not lie down.

Then one day my sister, who did not live far away, asked my wife and me to dinner. Before the remains of the meal had been cleared from the table a group of people arrived for a planned evening of discussion, and we found ourselves trapped into taking part. Amongst the newcomers was a man named Douglas Hill, who was a Cambridge double-first and a priest, while the others were all church-goers. My sister knew perfectly well that I would not have dreamed of attending such a gathering if asked to do so, but knew equally well that I would never refuse an invitation to share a bottle of good claret; and so I found myself seduced into the role of advocatus diaboli, arguing the atheist cause and nobly backed by my wife, amongst a bunch of supporters of the village church. To our great surprise we thoroughly enjoyed the evening, and it was even more surprising to discover that the other members of the group obviously enjoyed having a couple of atheists in their midst and found our arguments against Christianity both stimulating and interesting, so much so indeed that they did their best to persuade us to come again. They were so friendly and open-minded, so unconcerned to convert us, and so unlike what I had always imagined a bunch of local church people to be, that we agreed to return for more in about a fortnight's time. From then on we became regular attenders at the meetings of this group.

Douglas Hill was a shock to me. I had not come across his like before, having always imagined that most priests conformed to the conventional image of a clergyman so beloved of the writers of comic plays and TV commercials: a faintly idiotic, plum-in-the-mouth, bumbling ass, who blushed if you said 'bother' and spent his time drinking tea with idiotic old ladies. A few clergy are indeed like that but not many, and Douglas was a very different kind of man; urbane, highly intelligent and with a splendid sense of humour, he managed to be both gentle and impressive at the same time, and though he had some fairly obvious faults and limitations I did not discover them until much later. The first thing I learned from him was how little the version of the Christian faith which had filtered through to me at school and elsewhere corresponded to what he said it was. Instead of a heavy emphasis upon stoicism, self-discipline, solemnity and a strict adherence to a legalistic code of restrictive moral precepts, together with much talk of will-power, uprightness, character, stiff upper lips and avoidance of sin, Douglas talked of grace, forgiveness, freedom, love, community and hope; and at the same time he opened up what was for me an entirely new approach to mythology, imagery and symbolism. It was like discovering a new world; I felt much the same as I had when I first 'discovered' Russian literature and when the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Gorky and the others stretched out before me like a new and splendid continent waiting to be explored, and I was fascinated without in any way being changed in my basic atheistic convictions. Furiously enough, however, Douglas made one remark which had a most memorable effect upon me, even though it was apparently rather irrational and out of character: indeed, at odds with his usual intellectual integrity. I don't remember the exact context, but I think that I must have been extolling the virtues of atheism and atheists when Douglas turned to me and said, 'Yes I know, but I'd rather be wrong with the angels than right with the atheists.' He said it with an entirely friendly smile and even a kind of self-depreciatory gloss, rather as one might say, 'Oh, yes, I know how marvellous Beethoven is, but I'm afraid I don't like him.' But despite all this, I was shocked into silence, and it was not until some time later that I began to understand what he meant.

For there were two ways of defining 'rightness' and 'wrongness', truth and error, and so far I had come across only one of them. For the Greek mind, the scientific mind and all minds made or pressed into a similar mould, truth is something to be sought intellectually and, when discovered, defined and expressed in a proposition; thus 'being right' is assenting to that proposition. This is a perfectly valid and indeed very important way of envisaging truth,
and it has had an enormous influence upon the way in which everyone in Western civilization thinks, upon their outlook on the world, and upon their lives; but it is not the only way of envisaging truth. For minds formed in a Hebraic rather than a Greek mould, truth is not so much something to be sought intellectually as something to be lived; something to be.
'I am the way, the truth, and the life,' said Jesus the Jew, and for Christians at their best it has been more important to lead a fully authentic human life, to be true, than to subscribe to a correct intellectual proposition about the truth, or about anything else for that matter.
Conversely, Christians at their worst have anathematized each other, fought each other, and burnt each other in passionate defence of their own particular doctrinal propositions about what they have chosen to call Christian truth. When Douglas Hill said to me that preferred to be wrong with the angels than right with the atheists, he was identifying himself in a slightly provocative way with the Hebraic idea of truth at the expense of Greek propositionalism, though of all men he knew perfectly well the value and importance of a rational approach both to intellectual problems and to life itself; in fact, at times he could become quite fierce in defence of those doctrinal propositions about which he felt strongly and considered important.

The impact of Douglas Hill and his group of Christians on both my wife and me was enormous, sending me back to my books in order to fortify and renew my unbelief. Thus there began another long process of internal argument, during which a good deal of my previous ignorance and misapprehension slowly crumbled away until even some of my anti-Christian prejudice began to disappear; but I still fought a rearguard action against the idea that perhaps my atheism might have been mistaken, and that all those dreary schoolmasters and other tediously pious types whom I had so much enjoyed shocking whenever possible might have been right after all. I was not as sure of the grounds of my atheism as I had once been, but I was so determined as I had ever been not to believe in God if I could help it, let alone become a Christian

But then, after many months, I woke up one morning to discover that something had happened in my head; a very slight shift in the angle at which I viewed things had somehow taken place, and the fact that this had happened in my sleep entirely without my volition paralysed me with dismay. It was a moment like that in early childhood when I had picked that memorable purple and white pansy, and like that other time on the train in the Kentish suburbs when the world had become transparent and as charged with meaning as a Beethoven quartet, and I knew that I could do nothing about it. I remember that pattern of morning sunlight on the white painted window-frame opposite my bed and on the low uneven ceiling above it, and the faint small of musk roses and grass coming in from the garden outside as I discovered that I could no longer argue against Christian belief - or anyway
the heart of it - but knew that it held some sort of truth, though almost literally God knew what. I knew that I believed almost nothing, but I knew too that I believed something, and I was appalled. I wanted to run away from myself, from the room, the house, the country, and hide somewhere where I could pretend that nothing had happened. I tried to persuade myself that I was still comfortably, blissfully, serenely and surely atheist; but it was no good. Eventually, I got up in the hope that if I immersed myself in activity - painting, gardening, anything - the feeling would go away, and life would return to normal; but of course it didn't. I am not sure whether I told my wife about it or not; something a little similar had happened to her some time earlier, but I don't think I dared tell even her, and certainly I kept it a secret from everyone else as if I had contracted syphilis. But as one slowly gets one's breath back after a shock, so as time passed I began to get my mental breath back, and my horror at what had happened began very slowly to fade away. But it was a long time before I felt normal again.






























Antony Cyprian Bridge