Tuesday, December 31, 2013
God, the father and son: an end to certainty.
How old is a child before he knows his father is not omniscient? How old is he before he knows that the village priest is an empty vessel? The latter is easy to answer. It came to me when I asked, during choir practice, “Who made God?” The answer was pat, as I remember. Perhaps I embroidering it by suggesting that Canon Tillard had a look of smug, priestly insincerity as he stared down at me and said, “God made himself.” Even if he said it in all piety, it did have an extraordinary effect upon me. The vaulted Romansque Anglican church, given to Latin mass, white surplices and incense swinging, reverberated with his words. Its stones’ echoing hollowness amplified what seemed to me to be the absurdity of his reply. Even in science fiction, as promoted in the Eagle comic, the most fiendish of aliens did not make themselves out of nothing. Something could not come out of nothing. Whatever laws of reality I held dear in my head at the time were so confounded by his reply that I abandoned the choir and Christianity. I was eleven.
Around the same age I was selected to represent Shadforth C of E primary school in a road safety competition with another school. My team (the only three pupils in the top age bracket, about to take the 11+) spent a week or two swotting up the Highway Code. My father offered to test me. When it came to the sequence that traffic lights go through, he stopped me and said I was wrong. I showed him the Highway Code. He said that it was a mistake in the text and illustrations. He had driven for decades and the sequence was different. He rehearsed me to remember it. Needless to say I was asked that very question. I can still remember the conflict as I struggled with the book’s authority and my father’s. He was in the audience of course. I opted for his version. I was wrong and as a result received three out of four marks for my answer.
It marked the beginning of the end of his omnipotence. Where once I had believed everything he said with an almost fierce fervour, doubt now lurked in my childhood Eden, in all its snakiness. It was the underpinning of my skepticism regarding all forms of certainty in later years, even, ultimately, feeding into my PhD on observation methods in qualitative research. But I don’t want this to sound like retributive carping against my father. He was a fine father in many, many ways. But he was a product of Edwardian England, the army, subservience to the establishment, fair play, the importance of rules and undisputed male dominance within the home. Suddenly seeing him as flawed helped me to be aware that that all people have their weaknesses. I am sure he suffered terribly that evening in the school, sitting among his fellow villagers.
Loss of pride for a man of his generation was even greater then than today. The unimpeachable justice of the father was integral to his sense of identity.