Me and my God
John Mortimer, right, talks to Paul Goodman about his faith
"BUT since I said that to the Bishop of Durham, I've come to the conclusion," said John Mortimer, "that I am a Christian."
This, at last, was it; I had my scoop. As the headlines printed themselves out before my eyes — " f plead guilty before God', says agnostic barrister", "Date with Paradise no longer postponed" and " 'I worship my creator', claims Rumpole's" — visions of fortune and fame engulfed me.
Firstly, to break the sensational news to the diary columns; next, the religious press; finally, perhaps, a feature article for one of the nationals. Who could tell where I might go from here? The prospect of a glittering career in Wapping or the Isle of Dogs shimmered tantalisingly before my eyes . . .
"Except, of course," Mr Mortimer continued, "that I don't believe in God." A pause. "So I'm a non-God believing Christian . . . that's what I am. And that's a kind of step onwards."
Ah. Manfully, I steeled myself — as my illusions disintegrated, in a kind of kaleidoscopic chaos, before my eyes — to ask the next question. A pity; the conversion of John Mortimer would indeed have been news.
The well-known agnostic barrister, dramatist, author, and journalist had, only ten minutes or so earlier, welcomed me to his newly-purchased Notting Hill flat, and poured me a welcome cup of tea — as well as an even more welcome glass of wine — before settling on a nearby sofa like a portly swan.
In his gifted way, Mr Mortimer is also the author of two fine books of interviews ("I don't use a tape-recorder," he cheerfully confessed. "1
make it all up afterwards"); the
subjects of which have included Archbishop Runcie, Cardinal Hume, and the Bishop of Durham. He told the latter that he sometimes wished that he was a Christian; it was when I asked him why this was so that he had produced his seemingly astonishing answer.
"But how can you be a Christian," I said, doggedly pursuing my theme, "if you don't believe in God?"
"Well," said John Mortimer, shifting in his seat (his voice, by the way, lowers curiously — almost as if in reverence — when the conversation turns to God; otherwise, it alternates somewhere between a high
drawl and wheezy, surreptitious laughter), "Well, I'm part of
a Christian civilisation . . .
a historical Christian tradition. I write within a Christian . . ."
(a long pause) ". . ethic, anyway, with Christian references. And the whole
culture which has formed me is a Christian culture. So therefore I've come to the conclusion that whether we believe in God or not we're" — and then a slight hesitation — "we're Christians, that's what I would say. But I can't take God . . ." His voice trailed away. "That's where I am, at this moment."
But hadn't he ever, I asked, had any experience that might perhaps have been one of God? John Mortimer paused, in reflection.
"Well, the image I have of God is so unlikeable that if he existed — I mean, I would not be at all on his side. I can't believe in God as a judge, because I don't like judges very much (laughter — from both of us), and I've never been able to accept the idea of an omnipotent God who allows Jews to be gassed and children to be murdered and so on . . .
I can't. And I know what the answer to that is" — his voice, which had spiralled downwards, soared upwards from the depths — "which is that it's all God allowing everybody free will so that they can perform monstrous acts of cruelty upon each other. So that's" — and again the voice shrank into itself — "where I am with God."
The most that he will admit to is "a sort of pantheism . . .
I think Wordsworth is the nearest I can get". But John Mortimer — almost despite himself — admits to an intense fascination with God (the death of Christ, he says, "stands for something beautiful and important"), and what might be called, in an old-fashioned phrase, the things of God.
The repetitions — "that's where I'm at . . . that's where I am . . that's the point which I can't get at" — are those of a traveller, strongly driven to or by a point at which he might eventually arrive. And art, he argues, "is very, very closely allied to religion because it's mystery . . . and also it is an attempt to impose some sort of order and coherence on an anarchic universe . . . which is what religion is, I guess".
Did he still believe, I asked, that life is as he had once written absurd?
"That wasn't really original . . . that's what Camus said, of course. I mean, it's not absurd just as a type of joke but . . . we place such importance on something which is so short, poised between two eternities. But the gesture we can make in that little brief time can be very important."
"In what way?"
"Because it can be rather wonderful and noble." (More laughter).
"And that matters?"
"Yes." "So yours is a cheerful sort of absurdity?"
"Oh yes . . . I think of death with great horror and dismay. But in all my temptations toward religion immortality has never played any part. I don't feel tempted by immortality."