Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Updike passes

The New York Times today published an obituary for John Updike, the novelist who opened a window on an important segment of American society during the past half century. It was populated with mainly white folk who struggled to accept the lives they led for the good lives they were. It was an important element in his fiction that many of his characters lived in some degree of fear of the Lord. Updike’s obituary contains this quote: ''I am very prone to accept all that the scientists tell us, the truth of it, the authority of the efforts of all the men and woman (sic) spent trying to understand more about atoms and molecules. But I can't quite make the leap of unfaith, as it were, and say, `This is it. Carpe diem (seize the day), and tough luck.'''

These two sentences tell us a lot us about John Updike’s understanding of the relationship between science and religious beliefs. He senses the dichotomy inherent in holding religious convictions of the sort embodied in his variety of American Protestantism while simultaneously accepting the capacity of science to tell us with full authority more and more about the nature of the natural world. We hear from many quarters that science and religion are not in conflict; one can be simultaneously a believer and fully naturalistic. But Updike knew that when one is pressed it is possible to subscribe to only one authority. If you are into scientific rationalism there is precious little space left for traditional religious faith.

I was disappointed by what I take to be Updike’s belief that fully surrendering to the authority of science means that one is thereby free of certain constraints on behavior, that it would be OK to just cut loose. After all, what have you got to lose? The notion that religion, but not naturalistic thought, can act as a brake on our baser instincts strikes me as pretty hackneyed. It’s something that Rabbit Angstrom might have come up with, but I expected better from his creator. John Updike was a fine writer, but in acceding to the conventional story of religion’s role he missed the chance to explore a deeper and more interesting theme in contemporary life: Slowly but surely the authority of science is usurping that of organized religion.


  1. I can't remember the name of the novel, but Updike wrote a pretty good novel in which the protagonist was a grad. student trying to derive a scientific proof of good (using computers and math). The student ultimately failed and almost drove himself insane trying. It would be interesting to reread to further flesh Updike's view on rendering unto science that which is scientific.

  2. An Updike novel which treats very explicitly the conflict between a rational/scientific outlook and a religious one, in the context of a Presbyterian minister in 1910 who loses his faith and leaves the ministry (failing his family in the process!), is "In the Beauty of the Lilies." Updike seems to be working out his own ambivalent views in the dialogue between the minister and the intelligent and very well-spoken higher church figure who tries to keep him in his ministry.