They began to talk about Christianity. It was as if the subject was in the air.
Niels spoke fervently but rather superficially against Christianity.
Hjerrild was tired of retracing the threads of conversations that were old for him, and he said suddenly, without any real connection to the preceding: "Be careful, Mr. Lyhne; Christianity has power. It's stupid to quarrel with the ruling truth by agitating for the truth of the crown prince."
"Stupid or not, that's not a consideration."
"Don't say that so lightly. It was not my intention to tell you the obvious thing, that in material respects it is stupid; it is stupid in terms of ideas, it is stupid and even more than that. Be careful; if it isn't unavoidably necessary for your temperament, then don't bind yourself too strongly to that right now. As a poet you have so many other interests."
"I probably don't understand you, but I can't treat myself like an organ grinder who takes out a less popular tune and puts a different one in, one that everybody is going around whistling."
"You can't? There are those who can. But you could say: we don't play that tune. Usually you can do a lot more in that way than you think. People aren't that consistent. When you keep on energetically using your right arm, an excess of blood rushes to it, and it increases in size at the cost of the other limbs, while the legs that you use only when necessary grow rather thin, all by themselves. Do you get the picture? Look at the way most, and also probably the best, intellectual forces here in Denmark have turned exclusively toward political freedom. Look at that and let it be a lesson to you. Believe me, there is a redeeming joy for a person in fighting for an idea that is popular, while it is so demoralizing to belong to the losing minority which life, in the course that it takes, proves wrong, point by point and step by step. It could not be any different, for it is so bitterly discouraging to see that what you are convinced, from the innermost silence of your soul, is true and right, to see this truth ridiculed and struck in the face by even the lowliest believer in the victorious army, to hear it slandered with obscene names, and then not be able to do anything, nothing but love it even more faithfully, kneel before it in your heart with even deeper reverence. And to see its beautiful countenance just as radiantly beautiful, just as full of the sublime and the immortal light, no matter how much dust is whirled at its white forehead, or how close a poisonous fog thickens around its halo. It is bitterly discouraging, it cannot be avoided - your soul will be hurt by this, for it's so easy to hate so that your heart grows so weary, to call up the cold shadows of contempt around you, and, apathetic with pain, let the world pass by. Of course, if you have it in you, if instead of choosing the easier way, instead of taking yourself out of all connection with the whole, you can stand erect and with all your talents alert, all your sympathies awake, you can receive the many-thorned lashes as they fall, lash after lash, and still keep your bloody head from drooping, as you listen for the dull sounds prophesying change in your time, and search for the faint, distant gleam which is a day - a time - perhaps; if you have that in you! But do not try it, Lyhne. Think what such a man's life would be like, if he is to do his utmost. Unable to speak without boos and hisses foaming up in the footsteps of his speech. To have all his words distorted, besmirched, twisted out of joint, twined into cunning snares, thrown at his feet, and then before he had even gathered them up out of the dirt, and untangled them from one another, suddenly to discover that the whole world is deaf. And then to start all over again from another point, with the same results, over and over. And then perhaps the most painful of all, to see himself misunderstood and scorned by noble men and women, whom he, in spite of his different beliefs, regards with admiration and respect. And that's the way it has to be, it cannot be any different. The opposition cannot expect to be attached for what it actually is and wants, but for what those in power want to believe it is and intends. And besides, power used upon the weak and misuse of power: how can they be two different things? And certainly no one will demand that those in power ought to make themselves weak in order to fight with equal weapons against the opposition. But that is why the struggle of the opposition is so painful, so agonizing. And do you really think, Lyhne, that a man can fight that battle, with all those vulture beaks sunk into him, without the invincible, blind enthusiasm that is fanaticism? And how in the world can he be fanatical about something negative? Fanatical about idea that there is no God! - and without fanaticism, no victory. Hush, listen!"
They stopped outside a high--ceilinged apartment on the ground floor where the blinds were pulled up on one of the windows, and through the open ventilation window a song reached them, borne by the clear voices of women and children:
A child is born in Bethlehem,
For Jerusalem rejoices.
They walked on in silence. The melody, or rather the notes from the piano, followed them down the quiet street.
"Did you hear," said Hjerrild, "did you hear the excitement in that old Hebraic cry of victory? And those two Jewish city names! Jerusalem, it was not merely symbolic: the whole city - Copenhagen, Denmark. It was us, the Christian people among the people."
"There is no God, and the human being is His prophet!" said Niels bitterly, but also with despair.
"Yes, that's right!" ridiculed Hjerrild. A little later he added: "But atheism is so boundlessly pedestrian, and its goal, in the long run, is nothing less that a disillusioned humanity. Belief in a ruling, judgmental God, that is the last great illusion of humanity, and what then, when that is gone? Then people will be wiser; but richer, happier? I can't see it."
"But don't you see," exclaimed Niels, "that the day humanity can freely cry: there is no God, on that day a new heaven and a new earth will be created as if by magic. Only then will heaven become the free, infinite place instead of a threatening, watchful eye. Only then will the earth belong to us and we to the earth, when the dim world of salvation and condemnation out there has burst like a bubble. The earth will be our proper fatherland, the home of our heart where we do not dwell as foreign guests for a paltry time but for all our days. And what intensity it will give life when everything must be contained in life and nothing is placed outside of it. That enormous stream of love, which now rises up toward that God who is believed in, will bend back over the earth when heaven is empty, with loving steps toward all the beautiful, human traits and talents with which we have empowered and adorned God in order to make God worthy of our love. Goodness, justice, wisdom, who can name them all? Don't you realize what nobility would spread over humanity if people could live their lives freely and meet their deaths without fear of hell or hope of heaven, but fearing themselves and with hope for themselves? How our conscience would grow, and what stability it would bring if passive remorse and humility could no longer atone for anything, and no forgiveness was possible except to use goodness to redeem the evil you committed with evil."
"You must have amazing faith in humanity: atheism will make greater demands on people than Christianity does."
"Of course; but where will you find all those strong individuals you will need to put together your atheistic humanity?"
"Little by little, atheism itself will teach them; not this generation or the next one or the next one after that - they will not be able to bear atheism, I realize that, but in every generation there will always be a few who will honestly fight for a life in it and a death in it, and over the course of time they will acquire a number of spiritual ancestors whom their descendants can look back on with pride and gain strength by observing them. In the beginning the conditions will make things the most difficult, most will fall in the struggle, and those who are victorious will win only with tattered banners, for their innermost marrow will still be steeped in tradition, and because there is so much else in a human being than just the brain that must be convinced: blood and nerves, hopes and longings, yes, and if thee are dreams they must be convinced too. But it doesn't matter, someday it will come, and the few will be the many."
"Do you think so? I'm searching for a name; couldn't you call it 'pietistic atheism'?"
"All true atheism..." began Niels, but Hjerrild quickly interupted him.
"Of course!" he said. "Of course; by all means let us have only a single gate, one single eye of a needle for all the camels in the kingdom of the earth!"
- Jens Peter Jacobsen, Niels Lyhne