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The Great Bus Mystery

The Great Bus Mystery
Richard Dawkins

I was hoofing it down Regent Street, admiring the Christmas decorations, when I saw the bus. One of those bendy buses that mayors keep threatening with the old heave-ho. As it drove by, I looked up and got the message square in the monocle. You could have knocked me down with the proverbial. Another of the blighters nearly did knock me down as I set a course for the Dregs Club, where it was my purpose to inhale a festive snifter, and I saw the same thing on the side. There are some pretty deep thinkers to be found at the Dregs as my regular readers know, but none of them could make a dent on the vexed question of the buses when I bowled it their way. Not even Swotty Postlethwaite, the club’s tame intellectual. So I decided to put my trust in a higher power.

“Jarvis”, I sang out, as I latchkeyed self into the old headquarters, shedding hat and stick on my way through the hall to consult the oracle. “I say Jarvis, what about these buses?”

“Sir?”

“You know, Jarvis, the buses, the ‘What is this that roareth thus?’ brigade, the bendy buses, the conveyances with the kink amidships. What’s going on, Jarvis? What price the bendy bus campaign?”

“Well sir, I understand that, while flexibility is often considered a virtue, these particular omnibuses have not given uniform satisfaction. Mayor Johnson . . .”

“Never mind Mayor Johnson, Jarvis. Consign Boris to the back burner and bend the bean to the buses. I’m not referring to their bendiness per se, if that is the right expression.”

“Perfectly correct, sir. The Latin phrase might be literally construed . . .”

“That’ll do for the Latin phrase Jarvis. Never mind their bendiness. Fix the attention on the slogan on the side. The orange and pink apparition that flashes by before you have a chance to read it properly. Something like ‘There’s no bally God, so put a sock in it and have a gargle with the lads.’ That was the gist of it, anyway, although I may have foozled the fine print.”

“Oh yes sir, I am familiar with the admonition: ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

“That’s the baby, Jarvis. Probably no God. What’s it all about? Isn’t there a God, Jarvis?”

“Well, sir, some would say it depends upon what you mean. All things which follow from the absolute nature of any attribute of God must always exist and be infinite, or, in other words, are eternal and infinite through the said attribute. Spinoza.”

“Thank you Jarvis, I don’t mind if I do. Not one I’ve heard of, but anything from your shaker, Jarvis, always hits the s. and reaches the parts other cocktails can’t. I’ll have a large Spinoza, shaken not stirred.”

“No sir, my allusion was to the philosopher Spinoza, the father of pantheism, although some prefer to speak of panentheism.”

“Oh that Spinoza, yes, I remember he was a friend of yours. Seen much of him lately?”

“No sir, I was not present in the seventeenth century. Spinoza was a great favourite of Einstein, sir.”

“Einstein, Jarvis? You mean the one with the hair and no socks?”

“Yes, sir, arguably the greatest physicist of all time.”

“Well, Jarvis, you can’t do better than that. Did Einstein believe in God?”

“Not in the conventional sense of a personal God, sir, he was most emphatic on the point. Einstein believed in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”

“Gosh Jarvis, bit of a googly there, but I think I get your drift. God’s just another word for the great outdoors, so we’re wasting our time lobbing prayers and worship in his general direction, what?”

“Precisely, sir.”

“If, indeed, he has a general direction”, I added moodily, for I can spot a deep paradox as well as the next man, ask anyone at the Dregs. “But Jarvis”, I resumed, struck by a disturbing thought. “Does this mean I was also wasting my time when I won that prize for scripture knowledge at school? The one and only time I elicited so much as a murmur of praise from that prince of stinkers, the Rev Aubrey Upcock? The high spot of my academic career, and it turns out to have been a dud, a washout, scrapped at the starting gate?”

“Not entirely, sir. Parts of holy writ have great poetic merit, especially in the English translation known as the King James, or Authorized version of 1611. The cadences of the Book of Ecclesiastes and some of the prophets have seldom been surpassed, sir.”

“You’ve said a mouthful there, Jarvis. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher. Who was the preacher, by the way, Jarvis?”

“That is not known, sir, but informed opinion agrees that he was wise. Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth. He also evinced a haunting melancholy, sir. When the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets. The New Testament too, sir, is not without its admirers. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son . . .”

“Funny you should mention that, Jarvis. The passage was the very one I raised with the Rev Aubrey, and it provoked a goodish bit of throat-clearing and shuffling of the trotters.”

“Indeed, sir. What was the precise nature of the late headmaster’s discomfort?”

“All that stuff about dying for our sins, redemption and atonement, Jarvis. All that ‘and with his stripes we are healed’ carry-on. Being, in a modest way, no stranger to stripes admininistered by old Upcock, I put it to him straight. ‘When I’ve performed some misdemeanour ‘ – or malfeasance, Jarvis?”

“Either might be preferred, sir, depending on the gravity of the offence.”

“So, as I was saying, when I was caught perpetrating some malfeasance or misdemeanour, I expected the swift retribution to land fairly and squarely on the Woofter trouser seat, not some other poor sap’s innocent derrière if you get my meaning, Jarvis?”

“Certainly, sir. The principle of the scapegoat has always been of dubious ethical and jurisprudential validity. Modern penal theory casts doubt on the very idea of retribution, even where it is the malefactor himself who is punished. It is correspondingly harder to justify vicarious punishment of an innocent substitute. I am pleased to hear that you received proper chastisement, sir.”

“Quite, Jarvis.”

“I am so sorry sir, I did not intend . . .”

“Enough, Jarvis. This is not dudgeon. Umbrage has not been taken. We Woofters know when to move swiftly on. There’s more, Jarvis. I hadn’t finished my train of thought. Where was I?”

“Your disquisition had just touched upon the injustice of vicarious punishment, sir.”

“Yes, Jarvis, you put it very well. Injustice is right. Injustice hits the coconut with a crack that resounds around the shires. And it gets worse. Now, follow me like a puma here, Jarvis. Jesus was God, am I right?”

“According to the Trinitarian doctrine promulgated by the early Church Fathers, sir, Jesus was the second person of the Triune God.”

“Just as I thought, Jarvis. So God – the same God who made the world and was kitted out with enough nous to dive in and leave Einstein gasping at the shallow end, God the all-powerful and all-knowing creator of everything that opens and shuts, this paragon above the collarbone, this fount of wisdom and power – couldn’t think of a better way to forgive our sins than to turn himself over to the gendarmerie and have himself served up on toast. Jarvis, answer me this. If God wanted to forgive us, why didn’t he just forgive us? Why the torture, Jarvis? Whence the whips and scorpions, the nails and the agony? Why not just forgive us? Try that on your Victrola, Jarvis.”

“Really sir, you surpass yourself. That is most eloquently put. And if I might take the liberty, sir, you could even have gone further. According to many highly esteemed passages of traditional theological writing, the primary sin for which Jesus was atoning was the Original Sin of Adam.”

“Dash it, Jarvis, you’re right. I remember making the point with some vim and élan. In fact, I rather think that may have been what tipped the scales in my favour and handed me the jackpot in that scripture knowledge fixture. But do go on, Jarvis, you interest me strangely. What was Adam’s sin? Something pretty fruity, I imagine. Something calculated to shake hell’s foundations?”

“Tradition has it that he was apprehended eating an apple, sir.”

“Scrumping, Jarvis? That was it? That was the sin that Jesus had to redeem – or atone according to choice? I’ve heard of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but a crucifixion for a scrumping? Jarvis you’ve been at the cooking sherry. You are not serious, of course?”

“Genesis does not specify the precise species of the purloined comestible, sir, but tradition has long held it to have been an apple. The point is academic, however, since modern science tells us that Adam did not in fact exist, and therefore was presumably in no position to sin.”

“Jarvis, this takes the chocolate digestive, not to say the mottled oyster. It was bad enough that Jesus was tortured to atone for the sins of lots of other fellows. It got worse when you told me it was only one other fellow. It got worse still when that one fellow’s sin turned out to be nothing worse than half-inching a D’Arcy Spice. And now you tell me the blighter never existed in the first place. Jarvis, I am not known for my size in hats, but even I can see that this is completely doolally.”

“I would not have ventured to use the epithet myself, sir, but there is much in what you say. Perhaps in mitigation I should mention that modern theologians regard the story of Adam, and his sin, as symbolic rather than literal.”

“Symbolic, Jarvis? Symbolic? But the whips weren’t symbolic. The nails in the cross weren’t symbolic. If, Jarvis, when I was bending over that chair in the Rev Aubrey’s study, I had protested that my misdemeanour, or malfeasance if you prefer, had been merely symbolic, what do you think he would have said?”

“I can readily imagine that a pedagogue of his experience would have treated such a defensive plea with a generous measure of scepticism, sir.”

“Indeed you are right, Jarvis, Upcock was a tough bimbo. I can still feel the twinges in damp weather. But perhaps I didn’t quite skewer the point, or nub, in re the symbolism?”

“Well, sir, some might consider you a trifle hasty in your judgment. A theologian would probably aver that Adam’s symbolic sin was not so very negligible, since what it symbolised was all the sins of mankind, including those yet to be committed.”

“Jarvis, this is pure apple sauce. ‘Yet to be committed?’ Let me ask you to cast your mind back, yet again Jarvis, to that doom-laden scene in the beak’s study. Suppose I had said, from my vantage point doubled up over the armchair, ‘Headmaster, when you have administered the statutory six of the juiciest, may I respectfully request another six in consideration of all the other misdemeanours, or peccadilloes, which I may or may not decide to commit at any time into the indefinite future. Oh, and make that all future misdemeanours committed not just by me but by any of my pals.’ Jarvis, it doesn’t add up. It doesn’t float the boat or ring the bell.”

“I hope you will not take it as a liberty, sir, if I say that I am inclined to agree with you. And now, if you will excuse me, sir, I would like to resume decorating the room with holly and mistletoe, in preparation for the annual yuletide festivities.”

“Decorate if you insist, Jarvis, but I must say I hardly see the point any more. I expect the next thing you’ll tell me is that Jesus wasn’t really born in Bethlehem, and there never was a stable or shepherds or wise men following a star in the East.”

“Oh no sir, informed scholars from the nineteenth century onwards have dismissed those as legends, often invented to fulfill Old Testament prophecies. Charming legends but without historical verisimilitude.”

“I feared as much. Well, come on Jarvis, out with it. Do you believe in God?”

“No sir. Oh, I should have mentioned it before sir, but Mrs Gregstead telephoned.”

I paled beneath the t. “Aunt Augusta? She isn’t coming here?”

“She did intimate some such intention, sir. I gathered that she proposes to prevail upon you to accompany her to church on Christmas day. She took the view that it might improve you, although she expressed a doubt that anything could. I rather fancy that is her footstep on the stairs now. If I might make the suggestion, sir . . .”

“Anything, Jarvis, and be quick about it.”

“I have unlocked the fire escape door in readiness, sir.”

“Jarvis, you were wrong. There is a God.”

“Thank you very much, sir. I endeavour to give satisfaction.”

TAGGED: BOOKS, RICHARD DAWKINS


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