The intemperate, even violent tone in recent criticisms of faith is quite striking. Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens: They seem an agitated crew, quick to caricature, quick to denounce, quick to slash away at what they take to be the delusions and conceits of faith. And the phenomenon is not strictly literary. All of us know a friend or acquaintance who has surprised us in a dark moment of anger, making cutting comments about the life of faith. There is no way around it. There is something about faith that agitates unbelief.
The great poet Lord Byron knew the complicated power that faith has over unbelief. He built his play Cain, a dramatization of the Cain and Abel story, around the effect of piety on doubt; and, in his version of the original murder and first death, Byron gives us insight into the present crop of crusading unbelievers.
The play opens with a scene of piety. The entire family of Adam and Eve gather to offer prayers of thanksgiving to God. But Cain cannot join. The curse of mortality oppresses him. He cannot give thanks for the good gifts of life because he knows himself doomed to die. Furthermore, Cain’s rightful sense that death is wrong stiffens his resolve. Yes, original sin merits punishment, but Cain asks: “What had I done in this? I was unborn.” Again, yes, God might command and prohibit, but why did God perversely plant a tree that would tempt, and why at the very center of the garden where it would attract attention? Still again they say God is all-powerful and perfectly good, but Cain observes, “I judge but by the fruitsand they are bitterwhich I must feed on for a fault not mine.”
Doubting God’s justice and goodness, Cain would seem a sure candidate for alliance with Lucifer, the original rebel. But it is not so. In the longest scenes of the play, Byron portrays Lucifer engaging Cain in conversation, first on earth and then in the shadowy realms of hell itself. At every turn, Lucifer encourages Cain’s unbelief and tempts him with the promise of bittersweet happiness: He can achieve immortality by embracing and affirming death as the proper and true end for human beings. “Fall down and worship me, thy Lord,” exhorts Lucifer. In other words, accept human mortality and dissolution into dust as a law of life, and you will be at peace with your circumstances. It is an ancient counsel familiar to Lucretius and other materialist philosophers, and it is very much in the air these days.
But Cain will no more worship Lucifer down below than he will offer prayers to the glory of God on high. He loves existence too much to embrace and affirm death. In this sense, Cain is a modern humanist after the fashion of Albert Camusor perhaps it is more accurate to say that Camus was a humanist in the way that Byron was. He resists the lure of death, but he cannot believe in God and the promise of eternal life. “I will bend to neither,” Cain pledges. He wants to remain neutral, loyal to life alone.
Can it be so? The Bible as a whole consistently speaks against any lasting middle position between a saving faith and a damning unbelief. To be sure, theologians can theorize about the fullness of time that God gives for us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling; but, as St. Augustine observes in his City of God, there are only two cities, one earthly and doomed to perdition, and the other heavenly and redeemed by God. Much like the gospel accounts of Satan’s temptation of Jesus, Bryon has Lucifer give voice to the orthodox theological judgment, meant to corrupt rather than edify. He observes in his cold, matter-of-fact way, “He who bows not to him has bowed to me!”
Lucifer’s pronouncement is the turning point. A long scene in hell follows, but the drama is largely at an emotional standstill (which is very likely why it was a failure on the stage). Cain swings more widely between a despairing hatred of his own mortality and a love of the beauty of existence, but the upshot remains the samehe remains uncommitted.
In the climactic scene, Abel approaches Cain. The younger brother has prepared a sacrifice to the Almighty and wishes his older brother to join him. He sees his brother agitated by dark thoughts and wants to share with him the peace that comes from an affirmation of God’s providential love. Furthermore, Abel is all deference. He has built two altars, and he wants Cain to take precedence before God as the firstborn. Cain resists this idea, but soon enough Abel’s sweet piety coaxes him to cooperate in the joint offering to God.
It is in the smoke that surrounds the altars of sacrifice that Cain himself becomes inflamed with anger. Cain offers a diffident prayer to Godsomething like a contemporary Unitarian-Universalist appeal to God, whomever he or she may beto accompany his sacrifice. When the sign from God indicates that the sacrifice has been rejected, Abel does not gloat or distance himself from Cain. Instead, Abel is all solicitude. He pleads with Cain to offer another, more fitting sacrifice. Yet the ambivalent Cain has now become steely and determined. “I will build no altars,” he announces, “nor suffer any.”
Byron is, I think, quite perceptive as he depicts Cain hurtling toward murder. The piety he tolerated in his brother now enrages him. The sacrificial ritual he had so half-heartedly performed now disgusts him. Cain’s hand is being forced by the reality of his brother’s faith, and the decision is clear. “Give way!” he screams as he pushes toward Abel’s altar to destroy it and all the perversions of it represents, “This bloody record shall not stand in the sun to shame creation.” Unbelief will notand, as Byron suggests, cannotstand at ease.
Nor will or can faith. Abel does not allow Cain to desecrate the altar. He stands to bar the way. “If thou lov’st thyself,” warn Cain, “stand back.” Of course, Abel is a man of true faith. He precisely does not love himself. “I love God far more,” he confesses, “than life.” These words of faith, at once simple and fundamental, enflame Cain all the more. “Then take thy life unto God,” Cain replies, “since he loves lives,” and, taking up a flaming brand, Cain strikes his brother down.
Christians should seek to enlist as many as possible in the cause of humanity. It is one of the central principles of Catholic theology that grace perfects rather than destroys nature. Faith fulfills rather than subverts reason. For this reason, the Catholic tradition (like most other Christian traditions) has never formulated sharp antagonisms between Christ and culture, between church and world, between revealed truths and the truths accessible by natural reason, or between men and women of goodwill and believers in Christ. As the Second Vatican Council made clear, we don’t all need to be believers in order to share and support a humane social order.
And yet what is possible in theory often remains painfully remote in life. As Byron recognized, modern humanism can easily become cruelly jealous of the modest claims it stakes upon the noble but fragile human condition. To believe in something moreit can so easily seem a betrayal. And because the reality of faith cannot help but ignite a desire for God in others, it is not hard to see why our present-day crusaders against belief take up their rhetorical bludgeons. They fear the contagion of piety. To defend the finite goods of this world against the perceived assaults of holiness, they turn the earthly city into a fortress and drive out anyone they perceive as disloyal to its this-worldly principles.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and associate professor of theology at Creighton University.
Cain by Lord Byron