Reading a 1956 interview with the writer William Faulkner, I gained an insight into religion that I wish to share with readers. In order to set the context for Faulkner’s remarks, I will reproduce a section of the interview and then focus on the part that triggered the new thought in my mind.
INTERVIEWER: Are there any artistic advantages in casting the novel in the form of an allegory, as the Christian allegory you used in A Fable?
FAULKNER: Same advantage the carpenter finds in building square corners in order to build a square house. In A Fable, the Christian allegory was the right allegory to use in that particular story, like an oblong, square corner is the right corner with which to build an oblong, rectangular house.
INTERVIEWER: Does that mean an artist can use Christianity simply as just another tool, as a carpenter would borrow a hammer?
FAULKNER: The carpenter we are speaking of never lacks that hammer. No one is without Christianity, if we agree on what we mean by the word. It is every individual’s individual code of behavior, by means of which he makes himself a better human being than his nature wants to be, if he followed his nature only. Whatever its symbol—cross or crescent or whatever—that symbol is man’s reminder of his duty inside the human race. Its various allegories are the charts against which he measures himself and learns to know what he is. It cannot teach man to be good as the textbook teaches him mathematics. It shows him how to discover himself, evolve for himself a moral code and standard within his capacities and aspirations, by giving him a matchless example of suffering and sacrifice and the promise of hope. Writers have always drawn, and always will draw, upon the allegories of moral consciousness, for the reason that the allegories are matchless—the three men in Moby Dick, who represent the trinity of conscience: knowing nothing, knowing but not caring, knowing and caring. The same trinity is represented in A Fable by the young Jewish pilot officer, who said, “This is terrible. I refuse to accept it, even if I must refuse life to do so”; the old French Quartermaster General, who said, “This is terrible, but we can weep and bear it”; and the English battalion runner, who said, “This is terrible, I’m going to do something about it.”
Faulkner, in effect, defines religion as “every individual’s code of behavior, by means of which he makes himself a better human being than his nature wants to be, if he followed his nature only.” So, in seeking a religion an individual is actually seeking a moral code by means of which he orders his behavior.
Here is what occurred to me at this point: I have a choice of crafting that code of behavior for myself or I can take one off the shelf from amongst the existing religions. The former is difficult, no doubt, but the latter has a bigger downside. The downside in picking a package off the shelf is that along with what I value, I have to accept things that I am unable or unwilling to support. Take Islam, for example. If I were to call myself a Muslim I would have to stand by practices that I find unconvincing or at least outdated – amputation for theft, stoning to death for adultery, valuing a woman’s evidence as half that of a man’s, etc. I have seen enough Muslims being forced to hem and haw and contrive contorted justifications when discussing such aspects of their religion. They are unable to eliminate them from their code of behavior without being thrown out of the Muslim fold by those more faithful or fundamentalist in their beliefs who are unwilling to allow the evolution of the religious code.
This dilemma is obviously not unique to Islam. Every existing religion has something or the other about which a thinking person today might have reservations but is unable to jettison because of the all-or-nothing nature of the package. Jettisoning them would be tantamount to crafting a customized code of behavior for oneself.
As it is, I am unhappy about the fact that one doesn’t even have a choice among the packages. Rather, one is stuck with the package that one inherits at birth which, without much reflection, one begins to believe is the best in the market. So to me, the prospect of moving to an individual code of behavior comes across as very attractive. I can pick and choose what I admire from all the available codes (which could be theological or non-theological) and drop all what I feel I am unable to support without feeling either guilty or silly.
And this is really what Faulkner suggests when he says: Whatever its symbol—cross or crescent or whatever—that symbol is man’s reminder of his duty inside the human race. Its various allegories are the charts against which he measures himself and learns to know what he is. It cannot teach man to be good as the textbook teaches him mathematics. It shows him how to discover himself, evolve for himself a moral code and standard within his capacities and aspirations, by giving him a matchless example of suffering and sacrifice and the promise of hope.
The key is to focus on our duty inside the human race not to get hung up about the symbol. And, with the duty in mind, to continuously evolve and update a moral code and standard within our capacities and aspirations. In this endeavor, the allegories, the exemplary instances of the application of various moral codes, provide the guidance and the inspiration for our own behavior.
What could be more sensible than to take the best from whatever is available and to employ it to make this world a better place for all?
The complete text of the Faulkner interview is accessible here.