In his 2009 book “Is Faith Delusion?” the distinguished British psychiatrist Andrew Sims, a devout Christian, recalls reading Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s personal account of establishing the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” in post-apartheid South Africa and then, immediately thereafter, reading Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s modern translation of “Beowulf.” (Coincidentally, both Tutu and Heaney are Nobel laureates, the former in 1984, for peace, and the latter in 1995, for literature.)
“Beowulf,” an Old English epic poem probably composed around A.D. 700, is set in Scandinavia just prior to the Viking Age. Tutu’s “No Future without Forgiveness” was published in 1999. They “come from different eras, different worlds,” observes Sims. The relevant difference isn’t, however, merely the lapse of 1,300 years. Christianity brought a radically distinct ethic, far removed from “Beowulf’s” summary of heroic pagan virtue:
“It is always better
to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
that will be his best and only bulwark. …
Endure your troubles today. Bear up
And be the man I expect you to be.”
“And so,” comments Sims on Beowulf’s advice, “the cycle of everlasting revenge and destruction rolls on and on.”
However, the Vikings, whose fiercest warriors hoped to die in battle and be taken to Valhalla where they would feast and brawl in preparation for the great final battle of the Norse gods, find parallels in other heroic-age cultures. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” captures their spirit when his hero nostalgically recalls having “drunk delight of battle with my peers, far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.”
So, too, does R. A. Nicholson’s Edwardian translation of a verse in which a sixth-century pre-Islamic Arabian warrior-poet laments the inadequacy of his tribe:
“For all their numbers, they are good for naught,
My people, against harm however light:
They pardon wrong by evildoers wrought,
Malice with lovingkindness they requite.”
Although Christians have often fallen short of the teachings of Jesus, pagan or truly godless societies have commonly been stunningly brutal. Scholarly estimates of atheistic communism’s murders over the past century, for instance, range from roughly 40.5 million to nearly 260 million.
“We must rid ourselves once and for all,” wrote the Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky in his 1930 book “The Russian Revolution,” “of the Quaker-Papist babble about the sanctity of human life.” (Ten years later, Joseph Stalin, his former revolutionary comrade, had Trotsky tracked to his place of exile in Mexico and assassinated.)
But Marxism merely followed a path blazed for it by the French Revolution’s anti-Catholic and anti-Christian “Reign of Terror.” Citizen Robespierre and his associates, determined to establish a “Cult of Reason,” killed many thousands of innocent people — sometimes cleanly, via the guillotine, but often through disgusting and obscene torture.
In 1983, the great 1970 Nobel Literature laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (d. 2008), fearless chronicler of the crimes of Soviet communism, delivered a lecture sometimes titled “Godlessness: The First Step to the Gulag” see www.pravoslavie.ru/47643.html). The opening lines of that address deserve full quotation:
“More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.
“Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.
“What is more, the events of the Russian Revolution can only be understood now, at the end of the century, against the background of what has since occurred in the rest of the world. What emerges here is a process of universal significance. And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire 20th century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God.”