Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Devil in Jutland (iii)


             He labored over his great work for seven years, and was nearing its completion.  It was a fine, early spring day.  After some light snow, the sun had come out from beneath a layer of dense, grey clouds, and the sky cleared to a crystalline blue.  The cottage stove burned hot.  Soren opened the door and then the windows.  He stood on the threshold and inhaled the cool air: there was a tincture of warmth in it, a harbinger of spring’s new life.   
             As he stood inhaling the air as if drinking cool well a man walked up the path, crunching briskly through the melting snow.  He was dressed in a dark suit and wore a black, bowler hat.  The monochrome of his clothes was offset by a brilliant, red beard, which was bushy, yet neatly trimmed and accentuated with large mustaches that jutted from the sides of his face like the horns of a totemic mask.  He had a simple walking stick.  As he came closer, Soren noted that it was elaborately carved with abstract patterns, like tattoos on a Maori’s face.  Behind the man’s civilized clothes he gave the impression of rude primitiveness, as if a Lap or some race of Nordic forest dwellers had recently been clothed in civilized regalia.  He stopped in front of Soren Christensen and offered his hand.  Soren fully expected that the man had come to inquire about his theological work.  He was not mistaken.
            “Soren Christensen?” the man asked in a husky tone, accented, but Soren could not tell from where.  Soren nodded and took his hand, which was as large as Soren’s, if not bigger, and firm.  Soren indicated that indeed, he was the man.
            “I am Devon Wormwood.  I’m Australian.  I’ve been touring through Denmark and I was in your area.  I’ve read all your works with keen interest and thought if it was not imposing, I’d come by and ask you a few questions.”
            “Please, come in,” Soren gestured and the two men entered the cottage.  The room was so warm the windows were steamed.  “I’m afraid it’s quite hot.  The morning was cold, but now that the sun has come out, and spring is here, apparently.”  Soren motioned to the man to take a seat.  “You may want to remove your coat, Mr. Wormwood.  The cottage is poorly ventilated.
            “Oh, I quite like the heat,” Wormwood smiled graciously.  “My office is poorly ventilated as well, and can get beastly hot.”
            “Your Danish is excellent, Mr. Wormwood.  I speak English, German and French.  Most of my visitors from abroad prefer to speak in one of those languages.  So few people speak our tongue.  We are a small nation.  For most, it is not worth the effort to learn.”
            “Oh,” Wormwood raised a hand, “in my line of work I have the opportunity to learn a number of languages, and knowing them proves most useful.”
            “And what line of work is that, may I ask?”
            “Acquisitions,” Wormwood answered with a broad smile.  Soren waited for Wormwood to answer in greater detail, and when he did not, he politely moved on.
            “You said you were from Australia?  I did not recognize the accent.”
            “Yes,” Wormwood answered exuberantly, “we lovingly call it the ‘Land Down Under’.”
            “Of course,” Soren smiled, “I’ve met a few of your countrymen.  Very congenial people.”
            “Indeed,” Wormwood frowned mockingly, “that is the face we turn to the world.  But we can be quite ferocious at times.  We have an entire world to conquer and one doesn’t perform such tasks with niceties.”
            “I have no doubt,” Soren said as he straightened in his chair, feeling, for the first time, mildly uncomfortable. “In a hostile land one must often be hostile in turn.  But ultimately civilization will win.  A war of all against all cannot always exist.”
            “Oh, I disagree,” Wormwood leaned forward, resting his hand on his walking stick.  “The entire world exists in such a state.  We teeter on the edge of anarchy at every moment.  That the world has not been plunged into chaos yet is just luck.  Death, chaos, they swirl around us, ready to pounce.  If they have not, it is simply because we exist in an intermezzo of relative peace.  Eventually, the law of the club will return.”
            “Well,” Soren smiled patiently, “if it is as you say, and you have read my work, you are very well aware that I ascribe to the very opposite opinion.”  Wormwood laughed softy at the answer.
            “Yes.  A colleague of yours, a professor from Heidelberg, called your philosophy the latest incarnation of Panglossism.  I must say,” Wormwood chuckled, “I have always found Voltaire’s characterization of Leibniz’s work as unfair – the distinguished Voltaire renders Leibniz into a mere straw man; I must say, I find the opinion of your learned colleague regarding your work in a similar vein: far too one dimensional, even misguided, if I may.”
            “Well, thank you,” Soren answered flatly but graciously.
            “Regardless,” Wormwood continued with a curious smile, “there are essential problems.  Of course, your theological speculations about God are towering and majestic.  They are beautiful creations.  I must confess they quite unmanned me; at times I was weeping.  I must muster some strength and even courage to critique them.  But there is the unsettling biographical element to contend with…”
            “Biographical?” asked Soren Christensen as he folded his hands across his chest.
            “Yes, the biography of God as we begin in Genesis and conclude in Revelation.  God changed.  There is a progression.  Your God is immaculate and removed from the world and unchanging; that other God is fully engaged, even distracted by his creation -- almost tragically distracted.  I don’t see the correspondence between your God and this other God.”
            When Soren was sure Wormwood was finished, he began to explain his position.  It was an exposition that was nearly identical to the one he gave to all “critical” visitors who asked similar questions.  Wormwood listened patiently.
            “You see, there is where we differ,” Wormwood said energetically. “I take a rather literal view of the Scriptures.  I don’t see them as the starting point of speculations about God.  They are the beginning and ending word about God, and unerringly so.  And then there is Jesus.  His world is ruled by Satan, and by demons… death and disease are caused by sin, and he defeats them; he is the armed agent of the Father, sent to cleanse the world of Satan and evil and prepare for the Kingdom of God.”
            Soren, again, said the words he always did when presented with this line of criticism.  When he finished, Wormwood said nothing.  He simply smiled broadly and stood up, offering his hand.
            “Well, thank you for your time.  You are as interesting in person as you are in the pages of your books.  What you say is compelling, but I’m not sure that the woman with the flow of blood, Jarius’ daughter, and Lazarus would wholeheartedly agree.  Good day, sir,” and Devon Wormwood left the cottage and strolled casually into the warm, spring light, twirling his walking stick playfully.

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