‘Barren, Silent, Godless’: or, how Cormac McCarthy and Bonhoeffer Find God in a World Without God

In his essay for The Cambridge Companion to Cormac McCarthy entitled ‘The Quest for God in the Road’, Allen Josephs spends a good deal of time tracing out the textual evidence for and against the presence of God in The Road (TR). There’s no shortage of passages that suggest just such a deus absconditus (and McCarthy here goes further than mere absence: there is a sense that if God is in fact absent he has purposefully left the world alone or abandoned the world, a line of thought that is explored in the metalcore band Zao’s album The Funeral of God), but I want to suggest that TR isn’t occupied so much with the absence of God but rather with a very specific and concrete form of the presence of God. This presence-absence is a major theme in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings (especially his later prison writings) and there is a good deal of overlap between McCarthy and Bonhoeffer on this topic.


In a very real sense the world of TR is godless – in fact, one might think of TR as the outworking of an unsettling line from one of McCarthy’s earlier works, Outer Dark: ‘Ive seen the meanness of man till I wondered why God ain’t just put out the sun and gone away’ (p.92). Perhaps this a possible answer the enigma of the disaster in TR, never explicitly stated as either man-made or God made. Given, however, the textual case that can be made for The Boy in TR as fulfilling a kind of Christ-figure role, there is clearly not a total absence of divinity: perhaps we can infer, rather, that the absence is an absence of a certain kind of divinity: perhaps we could call this a ‘general’ kind of divinity or presence contrasted with the much more concrete presence of divinity in The Boy. Numerous passages highlight the Christlike-ness of The Boy, and at times it appears that the presence of God isn’t confined so much to The Boy but inheres in the bond of love shared between The Man and the Boy (one wonders if it wouldn’t be a stretch to call this an Augustinian viewpoint). The point of all this, then, is that the kind of divinity TR takes to  be absent is, as noted above, a general kind of divinity, a divinity or presence of God where God is generally ‘available’, as it were (perhaps we might even call this kind of divinity ‘natural’ divinity, with natural theology in mind).


Bonhoeffer is concerned to reject just this kind of general divinity, it seems: this is perhaps most clearly seen in his prison writings. In the prison writings Bonhoeffer is keen to stress a kind of ‘weakness’ of God: that is, God lets himself be pushed out of the world. This has to be carefully qualified, however: it is in this absence of God in which God is made most known in Christ.  Christ alone is where God is revealed: there is no other place in which divinity is seen as such, and divinity as such is seen in this very weakness and absence:


The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us…before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. (‘Letters and Papers from Prison’, pp. 360-361)


One would be hard-pressed to find an image more befitting the concepts of ‘weak’ and ‘powerless’ than an emaciated young boy wandering on the road. This perhaps makes more explicit the idea of divinity in weakness: there is surely nothing typically ‘divine’ in the boy at first glance, and yet glimpses may still be seen. Some are more obvious – multiple scenes bathe the boy in light (cf. p 277), and the text of TR at one point even references the Old Testament tabernacle:


He’d stop and lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he would raises his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle. (p. 273)
In his Gifford Lectures published as The Face of God, Roger Scruton connects the idea of ‘shining’ to the idea of ‘subjectivity’, which he then connects to the idea of sacrifice. The face of God and the presence of God, argues Scruton, is revealed ‘in all that suffers and renounces for another’s sake’ (p. 177). It is during moments of supreme sacrifice that we come face to face with God, ‘who is present too in those places where sorrow has left its mark or ‘prayer has been made valid’’(p. 177). It’s quite easy to see the sacrifice of the Man, but is there a similar sacrifice on the part of the Boy? After all, the man dies – surely that is the supreme sacrifice, since the Man is the ultimately responsible party between himself and the Boy. Is the Man, however, ultimately the responsible one? At one point during an argument, the Boy declares that he is the one ‘who has to worry about everything’. While the Man dies, it’s not really anything of a surprise and he was far from being in the prime of his life. Perhaps the sacrifice of the Boy – who has to worry about everything, who has to carry the fire – is the greater sacrifice. If God is revealed in all that suffers and renounces for another’s sake, then it may be that God is revealed more concretely in the Boy than the Man.


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