The mystery novelist P. D. James is often described as a Christian, but a Daily Telegraph profile says of her:

On that delicate subject [death], James breezily says, she doesn’t know whether there is an afterlife or not. ‘But no doubt I’ll find out one way or the other.’ Though she is an Anglican, she thinks the continuation of the genes through children is as good a form of immortality as any. Unsentimental thing that she is, she has told her family that, if it comes to it, she wants to be put out of her misery, perhaps in one of those Swiss clinics we read about.

James is, the profile shows, a thoroughly decent, thoughtful, and very charming person, the sort of person you’d welcome as a neighbor or even as a mentor or model. She’s a poster girl for the kind of urbane, skeptical, unflappable, worldly-wise Englishness beloved of Anglophiles. You can’t help but feel that the world is a better place for having P. D. James in it.

And yet part of that Englishness is a kind of religion whose appeal I don’t understand. It’s partly the agnosticism about the next world — I want a bit more definite knowledge than that in exchange for my Sunday mornings — but more the loss of the participation in the Divine life of which the promise of life eternal is a part.

Reading the profile after Mass today, it seemed to me that she gave up what is most entrancing about the Christian Faith, that promise from Love Himself of an ever-deepening knowledge of reality, which is to say Himself, with His promise to transform me to conform to it and to Him as part of His creation of a new heavens and a new earth. The fun is that things get realer. God clears the fog.

But this urbane English religion — this kind of high agnosticism — seems to move in the opposition direction. The fog thickens rather than clears.

Is it simply what religion reduces to when it becomes thoroughly enculturated? Or is it a spirituality some people find sufficient for whatever reasons, upbringing or personality or taste or intellectual conviction? Or is it something one sees at that age  (James is almost 90), after a well-lived life, satisfied that “I’ve had my innings”? Or all three, or something else?

Maybe the difference is just that some of us are drinking bitter and talking about football down the pub while others are drinking the driest of sherries and discussing Virginia Woolf up at the manor. But I don’t think so. I don’t think anyone would come to this high agnosticism from the other end, from unbelief, and that’s a kind of test.

Articles by David Mills

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