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Tuesday, September 28 2004 19:00
The following poem, entitled “If There Is No God,” appeared in the New Yorker of August 30, 2004. It bears the copyright 2003 by Czeslaw Milosz and is reprinted with the permission of the Wylie Agency Inc.

This five-line poem was translated from the Polish by Milosz and Robert Haas.  

If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to man.
He is still his brother’s keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden his brother,
By saying there is no God.

Czeslaw Milosz, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980, died on August 14, 2004 at the age of 93. Born in Lithuania of Polish-speaking parents, he grew up in Poland, living through the horrors of both world wars. In 1960 he became a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and was there in the era of student protest. In the latter stages of his life he returned to Poland, remaining there until his death.

In addition to his fame as a poet, Milosz acquired a reputation as a philosopher. For him, as Robert Taylor pointed out in a 1994 article for the Boston Globe, “the struggle between religious faith and nihilism characterizes our tormented century.” This struggle, reaching horrific outcomes in the 20th century, provided constant stimulus for Milosz’ reflection.

The poem quoted here is notable for its subtle irony. Though it envisions a situation in which God’s existence is denied, it suggests that belief in that existence is vital to human beings.

In the second line, the poet rejects the argument that many believers use to support their faith. Contrary to their claim about faith in God being necessary to prevent complete license for people to do anything, he affirms that even in a Godless world one would be constrained to respect human beings and the limits built into our lives.

Echoing a phrase from the Hebrew Bible, Milosz goes on to call each person “his brother’s keeper.” In the Book of Genesis, Cain murders his brother Abel and when the Lord asks where the murdered brother is, Cain replies with the question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” That is exactly what a brother must be, the Bible teaches, and Milosz endorses that teaching.

In the final two lines, the poet offers a delicious twist of conventional thinking. Part of being his brother’s keeper, Milosz suggests, is respecting that brother’s belief in God. To tell someone that God does not exist would be to violate a basic value in his life. Ultimately, it would cause him deep sadness, to say the least.

I find this brief poem, originally written in a language foreign to me, a succinct statement that reverberates beyond itself. At one and the same time, it is intellectually subtle and emotionally stirring. It speaks too obliquely to qualify as a statement of faith, yet these few words are suggestive of faith’s importance in the life of humankind.

Milosz was in a position to see that the last century marked the worst imaginable outcomes of atheistic ideologies; unfortunately, our current century shows the results of a misbegotten faith that leads to fanaticism.

Belief in God is a human value that does support human decency. But such faith can all too easily be used to violate the most basic human rights. The atrocities witnessed daily in Iraq and elsewhere give morbid testimony of what havoc religious zeal can unleash on the world.

Taking part in the funeral of a woman of faith this week has given me a renewed sense of the difference religious faith makes in the life of a human being. One such virtue was cited by a friend who spoke at the liturgy. “She saw what was truly loveable in us,” said that witness.

At its best, faith does provide this kind of vision. It can free us to notice things that otherwise remain off limits. The insight lent by authentic faith opens human hearts to depths not usually accessible.

As a poet, Milosz almost surely did not see himself as a spokesman for belief in God. And yet, given all the horrors that he lived through in his long life, he does give voice in only five lines to values that remain essential to human dignity.

Richard Griffin