Terry Pratchett’s “Nation”: a book about living “veluti si Deus daretur”

At the end of Pratchett’s non-discworld novel “Nation”, he suggests that several things included in the book, such as dodging bullets fired into water, gazing into the heavens through a telescope in broad daylight, and firing cannons made of ice, should not be “tried at home” or “attempted without the help of an adult who knows what they are doing”. But on “Thinking”, he has this to say: “This book contains some. Whether you try it at home is up to you.”

I picked up a copy of this book where you never, never find any Pratchett novels: on a remainder book sale table. I’ve just finished it, and, while not his greatest work, it is one that contains much that might be of interest to readers of this blog, because it is essentially about the relationship between science and religion. In that sense, it fits right in with the debate surrounding the new atheism (“Professor Dawkins” even gets a mention at the end). It is, of course, a work of fiction, but as one reviewer put it

This is a book that truly does encourage its readers, of any age, to question the role of religion and rationalism in their lives, rather than hammering them over the head with a prepackaged point of view, a la the His Dark Materials books or, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Narnia series. It rejects easy solutions to the conflict between the two, and embraces the messiness of human attitudes towards both. The present day coda, in which a character who is quite obviously a blatant authorial insertion speaks directly to the readers’ stand-ins, bemusedly notes the resilience of magical thinking even in our rational age, and leaves it to the readers to decide whether this is a good thing.

The “authorial insertion” at the end has this passage (a bit of a spoiler, but never mind):

‘Everything I know makes me believe Imo [the “God” of the novel] is in the order which is inherent, amazingly, in all things, and in the way the universe opens to our questioning. When I see the shining path over the lagoon, on an evening like this, at the end of a good day, I believe.’

‘In Imo?’, said the girl.

This got a smile. ‘Perhaps. I just believe. You know, in things generally. That works, too. Religion is not an exact science. Sometimes, of course, neither is science.’

That fits with the words of the author himself cited in this review in the Telegraph: “I’m drawn to the stance of the old man in this book, who says that if one doesn’t actually believe, one ought at least to live one’s life believingly!”

There is something in that of Pope Benedict’s “veluti si Deus daretur”:

Does not today’s situation of the world make us think perhaps that he [Kant] might have been right? I would like to express it in a different way: The attempt, carried to the extreme, to manage human affairs disdaining God completely leads us increasingly to the edge of the abyss, to man’s ever greater isolation from reality. We must reverse the axiom of the Enlightenment and say: Even one who does not succeed in finding the way of accepting God, should, nevertheless, seek to live and to direct his life “veluti si Deus daretur,” as if God existed. This is the advice Pascal gave to his friends who did not believe. In this way, no one is limited in his freedom, but all our affairs find the support and criterion of which they are in urgent need.

It also recalls for me the recent “Court of the Gentiles” address of Pope Benedict via video to young people in Paris:

Dear young people, what you can share is not only your experience of life, but also your approach to prayer. Believers and non-believers, as you stand in this court of the Unknown, you are also invited to approach the sacred space, to pass through the magnificent portal of Notre Dame and to enter the cathedral for a moment of prayer. For some of you this will be a prayer to a God you already know by faith, but for others it may be a prayer to the Unknown God. Dear young friends who are non-believers, as you join those who pray in Notre Dame on this day of the Annunciation of the Lord, open your hearts to the sacred texts, let yourselves be challenged by the beauty of the music and, if you truly desire it, let your deepest feelings rise towards the Unknown God.

I am happy to have been able to speak to you this evening for the inauguration of the Court of the Gentiles. I hope you will be able to join me for the other events to which I have invited you, especially the World Youth Day to be held in Madrid this coming summer. The God whom believers learn to know invites you to discover him and to find ever greater life in him. Do not be afraid! As you walk together towards a new world, seek the Absolute, seek God, even if for you he is the Unknown God.

I was going to do a separate post on the “Personal Absolute”, as a way of presenting God to secular young people, but I think you will get what I mean by this post. The first step in opening “non-religious” people to a knowledge of God is surely to encourage them to see that even “if one doesn’t actually believe” there is at least merit in deciding “at least to live one’s life believingly!”

In any case, this is a book about “thinking” and both the atheist and the believer will find its a worthwhile read.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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4 Responses to Terry Pratchett’s “Nation”: a book about living “veluti si Deus daretur”

  1. Peter says:

    I own every Terry Pratchet book I am aware of and, needless to say, am a huge fan. Pratchet constantly pokes fun at things we take for granted and plays the gentle athiest with good humour and good taste. This book is a reflection on belief and disbelief in the face of tragedy and, by his own admission, at least partially a reflection on his personal tragedy. I was fearful that it might be just another athiestic rant but he treated the subject with his usual subtle skill and avoided the temptation to ‘solve’ the problem. Though lacking his usual side-splitting, coffee snorting humour, it is a thought provoking novel. In an interview many years ago Terry Pratchet admitted he often wonders what his life would have been like had he met a ‘decent theologian’ early on. It is hard to imagine him being better, but I can’t help wondering with him.

    • Schütz says:

      Yes, I was thinking of your prayer for the conversion of Terry Pratchett when I wrote this.

      There is humour in the book, of a more gentle nature. One aspect that I liked is that the book does have, as a minor theme, the relationship of Father and Daughter, which I could see mirrored in my own relationship with my children. My favourite part of “Nation” is the following excerpt, which had me chuckling for days:

      “The map. O yes, the map. She’d found it in the big atlas in the library, one wet winter afternoon. In a week she could have drawn it from memory.

      And the name of it was The Great Southern Pelagic Ocean.

      It was half a world of blue sea, but it was stitched together with seams of little dots, tiny dots that her father had called “island chains”. …

      Much later on, she was able to read the names of the groups of islands: “The Bank Holiday Monday Islands”, “All Souls Island”, “The Rogation Sunday Islands”, “the Mothering Sunday Islands”, “The Hogmanay Islands”…it seemed that the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean had been navigated not with a compass and a sextant but with a calendar.

      Her father had said that if you knew where to look you could find Mrs Ethel J. Bundy’s Birthday Island, and loaned her a large magnifying glass. She spent long Sunday afternoons lying on her stomach, minutely examining every necklace of dots, and concluded that Mrs Ethel J. Bundy’s Birthday Island was a Father Joke, ie. not very funny but sort of loveable in its silliness.”

      I read that to my daughters, and they knew exactly what Pratchett meant. The phrase “a Father Joke, not very funny but sort of loveable in its silliness” has become a stock phrase between us!

  2. Stephen K says:

    Yes, David. A good article. I like the way your synopsis goes. I took the opportunity to read the link to Benedict’s “veluti si Deus daretur” lecture, which I also appreciated. It made sense to me. (Indeed, with this article you’ve given me a new perspective on Pope Benedict). I’m an admirer of Kant, by the way, for what I think was his truly ground-breaking ideas, and the way he grappled with the questions of reason and knowledge, for his transcendental idealism..

    You see, I think that’s what needs to be kept in mind whenever one begins to insist on a particular form of truth. Contrary to Richard Dawkins, who criticises the concept of NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria), I think that when we talk faith/belief stuff, we actually do and must involve other forms of understanding and modes of knowing/being. (I’m also supposing, from the gist of Benedict’s lecture, that he is not so much of the opinion that it is impossible to live believingly without a particular belief, but that his focus was on the former as the sine qua non.)

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