One Christmas not so long ago my oldest daughter gave me two books; a New King James Bible and The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.
It’s not every day that you get such a delicious slice of the ideological spectrum plunked down in front of you in such concentrated form. I haven’t dug deep enough to know specifically how Lovecraft regarded the Bible but his disdain for “the bland God of the Baptists,” organized religion and meddlesome religionists seeking to inflict their holy torment upon the world at large is well known.
Not that I looked at my Christmas presents as cosmic combatants. I was happy with the Bible because it’s my favorite book for all the reasons you would expect from an evangelical Christian as well as a few you might not. I especially like the King James even without thee and thou. And Lovecraft is one of my favorite writers. But the contrast is hard to miss, especially in these excruciatingly polarized times.
One of the tools in the kit of atheists and agnostics is the observation that the sheer scale of existence argues against a personal God capable or desirous of engaging in any kind of relationship with the inconceivably small, insignificant thing known as Man. It is arrogant, the argument goes, to believe that humanity is in any way special enough to attract the attention of a being even marginally superior, much less as grand as the omnipotent God of the Bible. Lovecraft’s horror and fantasy give eloquent expression to this view, eloquent being the operative word. As any devoted reader knows Lovecraft’s outlook was primarily poetic. Like any writer preoccupied with churning out enough material to pay the bills he sometimes resorted to formula but his best work remains unmatched for clarity and audacity of vision, originality of concept and poetic imagination. While his universe may be devoid of meaning in a religious sense it is nevertheless a terrifying and beautiful place, inspiring exactly the kind of awe one might expect from a tiny thing contemplating a mysterious, limitless thing.
The cosmos may be indifferent but Lovecraft was not, his well known protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. Indifferent people don’t stay awake at night thinking their way through the Cthulhu mythos or contemplating non-Euclidean geometry. They don’t devote themselves to writing these things down for others to read and leave them as a continually unraveling legacy. Lovecraft never believed himself to be small or insignificant. He was unique. He saw things differently. His thoughts mattered enough to merit the extremely hard work of writing and publication. In other words, he recognized that something significant transcended his own material existence.
That something significant can’t be explained away by materialistic philosophy no matter how much that philosophy may bend its own rules to accommodate observed reality. It can’t be shown to arise from chemical reactions or quantum interactions. Strict materialism can’t explain the very real connection between a middle aged, 21st century conservative Christian and a visionary atheist whose explicit disdain for the faith of said Christian is well documented. Nor can it explain how such a connection could even be established across the abyss of time and death, barriers far more formidable than mere parsecs of expanding space.
At this point the practically minded reader may say, “Um, writing, yo. Remember that? Information encoded in little marks to be decoded later on. Like you’re doing now. That’s how we cross time and culture and all that stuff.”
Thank you for making my point. Scribbles of ink and arrangements of pixels are exactly as meaningless as Lovecraft’s universe. When arranged by materialistically explainable humans they are merely a step along a trail of Lovecraft style indifferent forces. And yet we all take it for granted that they somehow transmit the critical intangibles that distinguish us from the rest of the material world, things like knowledge, wisdom, passion, imaginative creation, love, hope and so on.
They do that because that’s what we created them to do. No scientific investigation of a blob of ink can possibly reveal its purpose or function if conducted in isolation from the beings that determined its purpose in the first place. They, the created things do not contain meaning in and of themselves; we, the creators do. The truth about them can only be found outside the objects themselves. We created writing and invested it with meaning for the purpose of establishing relationships between the separate members of our kind. My distance from Lovecraft and the scale of our separation are no barriers at all.
What about the significant something being communicated? What was the man on about and why should anybody care?
I’ve already mentioned his poetic outlook. I’m a sucker for the acknowledgement of mystery and the skill of certain writers to evoke genuine wonder and awe. At his best Lovecraft was supreme in this regard. I don’t want to take up space with examples; look him up and read them yourself.
His preeminence as a master of horror belies the fact that none of his creations are supernatural in any conventional sense. While many function outside our frame of reference they still exist within an all-encompassing materialistic cosmology. This makes them more terrifying than beings originating in a separate, “spiritual” realm. I don’t know if this approach is unique but it is ingenious, compelling and above all, imaginative.
Finally, while his characters almost inevitably get smacked down by the indifferent universe the point is often tragedy rather than the bland nihilism of post modernism. His characters are often obsessive, never passive. They are after something. When they don’t get it and instead get something typically Lovecraftian our reaction registers high on an emotional scale, usually at the horror end. We don’t throw up our hands and say, “Well, that’s the universe for you. What’re ya gonna do?” Personally, I think there’s a great deal of autobiography, probably more than the author himself might admit.
There is one more thing to consider. Nothing the man wrote was true. There is no elder race or high priest named Cthulhu. There is no Miskatonic University or Necronomicon. No Kadath. No Celephais. He made it all up out of thin air.
But we all see it, don’t we? We all experience the extraordinary thing he imagined, both in common terms and in our own individual way. We all recoil or identify, shudder at What the Moon Brings, feel the wind aboard The White Ship, wonder at the mystery of The Strange High House in the Mist. Lovecraft created a thing like nothing else, stuffed it full of human stuff and articulated it in such a way that his unique, imaginative creation resonates and replicates in the imaginations of an ever growing pool of readers. Nothing in the known world can accomplish this but human consciousness. Nothing but the human mind can even conceptualize creativity and imagination, much less engage them as naturally as breathing. And there is nothing in the natural world to suggest that such a capacity does or can arise from the indifferent physical interactions of material substances. It is a reflection of a divine capacity, possessed only by beings made in the image of the Creator.
Lovecraft was blissfully unaware that the very act of imaginative creation at which he excelled is one of the strongest evidences of the existence of the God he denied.
Oh yeah; that scale thing? Don’t sweat it. Serious people remember that God is by definition omniscient (he knows everything) omnipresent (present in all space, all time and all eternity beyond space and time; even in your living room) and omnipotent (he can do anything he darn well pleases.) Scale is meaningless to such a being; kind is what matters. He states explicitly that he has made us in his image, like him in certain key aspects for the purpose of relating to him.
I learned that in Sunday school when I was around six or seven. Subsequent discovery of quasars and exoplanets have not diminished God or moved him to another neighborhood. They have not dislodged my conviction that the universe is a glorious creation, constructed and set in motion by a glorious Being. They have merely expanded our awareness of places for him to go about his divine business doing the things that continually demonstrate his power and creativity. You know, just like my other Christmas present says.