Holy Masquerade
Olov Hartman

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Holy Masquerade

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Holy Masquerade
Helig Maskerad
translated by Karl A. Olsson

Copyright © 1950 by Norlim Förlag AB
English translation copyright © 1963 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Esto Mihi:
The ministers call that adiaphora; it is supposed to mean “indifferent things.” But how indifferent they are would soon appear if I permitted myself to dance at a wedding in the area, or if we served wine to the church council. Adiaphora are the things that the old women in the parish determine. It is enslavement unto death to pious tradition.



Sometimes he talks as if one ought not to take the dogmas too literally. I want to know what he takes literally. The marsh of ambiguity should have some kind of bottom, if not a moral at least an intellectual one.

[...] From the very beginning I have been irritated by the professional superciliousness of the ministers in the area of religion. Ask an innocent question and you are answered by a pat on the back. Once during a ministerial session I asked if they really believed that Jesus went up into heaven and was sitting somewhere up there in the blue. I sensed the irritation among the smoking brothers as they talked about being anchored in the heavenly and eternal and such stuff in order to close the ministerial ranks as soon as possible and to continue the theological merry-go-round where Latin terms and other refinements whirl around in a dance by themselves while all of reality dances in the other direction.




It is not certain that Albert had made a prior calculation and had decided ahead of time to avoid the hazardous subject. I think he does these things unconsciously. But this means that he does them with his heart. He feels heat and veers in the opposite direction. He has promised not to be an offense to anyone — and he must think of his career.
“If you neglect your statistics, you may get a rebuke from some bureaucrat in Stockholm. If the negligence is repeated, it may even go so far that the rebuke is repeated by the diocesan chapter, and that shame you cannot bear. But if you do not prepare these people for death who later appear in your obituary statistics, you will not be criticized, for this does not appear in any columns and is not noticeable in any statistic. Such matters are only recorded in heaven and will be known only on the Day of Judgment. And for that you don’t give a farthing, Albert. It doesn’t concern you. Hence, the only sensible conclusion is that you believe in the Central Statistical Bureau, but you do not believe in the Last Judgment.”



To provoke ordinary worldlings may have its perils. But to provoke the pious is like sticking your hand in a hornet’s nest. And when there is occasion to talk about brotherly love there is usually a “point of view” or an “office” that must not be offended. It would be interesting to know where the Christianity is to be found that makes people conciliatory and peaceful. Last Wednesday Albert had said that if all men became Christians even wars would cease. Indeed! It is possible to be tolerant to the point of dishonesty. But when it is a question of protecting an old feud or even a temporary irritation, then the points of view turn red and white and one’s convictions stick out like long stingers.
Instead of penance he made a detour. Instead of plunging into the truth in all humility, he did the opposite — he floated on top of it. What was hidden under the friendly surface was ignored. It would remain hidden. There would be no decision and no reconciliation.

I began to understand that the worst thing for a skeptic is not faith but self-evidence. It is terrible to doubt when there is no real faith to doubt in but merely beautiful words.




Grace — the grace about which Albert preaches now and then but in his application changes to an eternal smoothing over — this grace cannot be an invention of our glands, for the God who tucks His great starry blanket about us and spreads the heavens over us in a sibling bed with quislings and queens — this God our instincts have never lacked. He is too unreasonable or anti-reasonable to be a construction of our intellect. I confess this: there is a temptation in this — a temptation to believe because it is contrary to all reason.

But I cannot believe. I do not have the strength. I stand on my own shore and see faith like a continent on the other side. It is not my country. I live in time and space and common sense and in a land where you get nothing gratis.


There is a possibility that consistency is pharisaic, not inconsistency. For soon I think that all is possible. His ambivalence, his fear to take a position, can be a kind of honesty. Perhaps it is all the other masks, the other “truths” that hinder him from choosing one. He would consider it hypocrisy, for the others are he also. Instead, he is seeking for some sort of collective rule for them all.

In reality, “person” means “mask.” I learned that in theology; when one talks about three persons in God, he is talking about three masks that God puts on when He shows Himself to us.

If right and truth are not objective but only masks that you wear because you happen to like them, how can you blame the diplomat? If one day truth is dissolved in me — which I sometimes fear — it would be dishonest to deny it. Then it is more honest to deal with each situation in terms of its practical consequences, and deplore that it could possibly lead to the crucifixion of Christ. Even though I did not need to wash my hands and place the blame on someone else. It is possible to assume responsibility even though you don’t believe in any eternal laws and thrones of judgment to be answerable to.
I reminded him that the church as a religious concept is one thing; the church that engages in parish politics and carries on intrigues in pastoral elections is something else again. In fact, this is a sort of madness. The church suffers of schizophrenia. [...] Or it could be called bigamy. The church has one love at the altar and another at the telephone.



Cogito, ergo sum — no, dubito, ergo sum. I was outside the drama of the church. I doubted in Christ. I was also outside the masquerade. I had no mask. I was only will and thought. I could have believed my senses — that possibility existed, but I chose the other. I myself chose it. It was just at the intersection, at the crossroads between faith and doubt, that I became outside all masquerades, a naked doubt before the ikon. If this is insanity, then the insanity is closer to the truth than the drama in the church and the spectacle outside the church.

I have submitted to this in order to find clarity. I want to disperse all doubts that my reckoning with myself must be taken seriously, that it is more than a sick idea. Let us admit that in certain cases insanity can carry with it clarity in matters a healthy person cannot penetrate, anesthetized as he is by health’s preoccupation with incidentals. But if you have a suspicion that you are not truly sane, a strong faith is needed to set your own conviction against the whole world’s massive and sound thinking.

The doctor looked at me with a wary look that I know so well from priests who want to provide pastoral care. The look resembles a collection bag on a stick — it hangs there in its emptiness and waits to be shown confidence.

I asked him instead how he could call it moralism to try to be consistent with the truth. And he said that I could call it what I wanted to. But he for his own part could not in this connection escape thinking about the preacher from his childhood who condemned all novels because they were not true. The preacher himself had never read a book that depicted anything other than what was real or had actually happened. He was the kind of preacher who had learned that every word in the Bible was true in the same sense as an axiom from Pythagoras, and if a single word was in error, the whole Bible was humbug. It was in the same spirit that I had rejected the faith. The spirit of the puritan.

But I pointed out that no novelist presents his book as though it were a photograph of something that truly exists or has happened. It is in this area where the ministers cheat: they pretend that what they call religious truth is something more than the red and green dreams. That these truths are realities in time and space. They talk as if they had proved that God exists. They fool people into believing that they are dealing with reality and they do this by pretending that no reasonable person has ever doubted or has had reason to doubt the existence of God.

I shall see if I am not stronger than the Christian element within me. Doubt must conquer faith so long as the realities are on the side of doubt. For when I have elected doubt it is for the sake of truth and reality. I have chosen to keep my eyes open instead of closing them as the confessor of the inner life does when he prays. And now I know that it is not out of sickness that I have chosen this. It is to be myself.

text checked (see note) June 2021

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