At length the train arrived at Crowborough station and a rather bored Timothy Byrne alighted from the empty second-class compartment, in which he had sat cross-legged for most of the journey, and slowly made his way towards the ticket barrier. Only a handful of other people had got off the train with him and he wondered, as he passed through the exit, whether there might not be another person bound for Rothermore House among their number.
Once outside the station he quickly engaged the services of a waiting taxi, and presently found himself being driven through a series of narrow country lanes in the general direction of Rothermore House. It was almost four o'clock and he hoped that his arrival there wouldn't be too early; though he had no way of telling from the invitation at exactly what time the viscount would be expecting his other guests to arrive. Perhaps most of them were already there? He mentally shuddered at the thought of it and sought distraction from that prospect by scanning the surrounding fauna-and-flora of the passing countryside. He never liked being the last or nearly last guest to arrive anywhere.
"Been out this way before, mate?" the cabby asked, addressing his passenger via the driving mirror.
"No," Timothy replied, a bit startled by this unexpected intrusion into his sordid reflections.
"Nearly there now," said the cabby, who speedily steered the taxi round a couple of sharp bends and then brought it to a gradual halt a hundred or so yards along a relatively straight road, which appeared to lead nowhere. On one side, a view of trees and hills. On the other side, a tall gateway presented its black steel bars to their attention. It was slightly ajar, and stood between high brick walls lined with trees and bushes.
"I'll take you up the driveway if you'd like," the cabby offered, half-turning round in his seat.
"Is it a long one?" Timothy asked.
"At least a coupla hundred yards," the cabby informed him.
Having got out of the taxi to push the gate open, the cabby returned to his seat and restarted the engine, which had in the meantime spluttered out. "You're the second geezer I've driven up here today," he revealed, as they got under way again.
"Oh, really?" responded Timothy, who hadn't expected to be informed of that fact! "Perhaps I won't be the last," he commented.
"Perhaps not, mate."
The taxi reached the end of the driveway and there, suddenly, the expanse of Rothermore House loomed menacingly ahead, no more than seventy yards away. One had the feeling, curiously, of coming out of a jungle and into the open again.
"I'm afraid this is as far as I can go, mate," the cabby informed him on a slightly apologetic note, as unexpected as it was strange.
Timothy felt like saying: "That's quite far enough," since he had no wish to be driven right up to the large front doors of such an imposing house in a bright red Cortina, but simply nodded his head and got out. Then he paid the driver and, reciprocating his New Year wishes, stood back to allow the taxi to turn around in the narrow space provided and speed back down the driveway.
So this was it! He stood
a moment stock-still, staring across the wide expanse of front garden which
framed the large house. He hadn't been
far wrong in his conjectures as to what the place would look like, for it did
indeed possess fluted pilasters surmounted by Corinthian capitals. But where he had imagined a central pediment
there was a balustrade, upon which a couple of weighty-looking sculptural urns
were standing, and this balustrade extended along the entire length of the
façade, reminding one, in a way, of crenellated battlements. Thus a two-storey house, with twelve
vertically-elongated windows on each story - six to either side of the
aediculated entrance. Where had he seen
a building like this before? Yes, of course! A book on English architecture in the local
library's reference division had shown him a photograph of
Realizing that he couldn't very well continue to stand out in the cold and gaze up at the building as though he had nothing better to do, he forced himself on towards his objective. The crunching of his steps on the gravel path which led through the English garden made him feel rather self-conscious and exposed to view as he neared the large front entrance, and he carefully avoided looking at the windows from fear of seeing someone behind them. The house seemed to tower above him like some fearful monster the nearer he got to it, making him feel rather dwarfed as well as self-conscious. He was almost wishing he hadn't accepted Joseph Handon's invitation, as he climbed the steps leading to the framed entrance. Almost, but not quite! For he was determined to brave this experience out until the end and learn what he could from it. And he was learning fast, because now, halted just in front of the door, he realized that there was a world of difference between looking at photos of country houses and actually standing in front of one! The former he could tolerate, the latter.... He shuddered with apprehension and pressed the bell. Now he was irrevocably committed.
In less than a minute it was answered by a manservant, who, on receiving his name, politely ushered him inside. Once there, he took off his leather jacket and handed it, together with woollen scarf, to the man. He hoped that his sartorial appearance would pass muster here, since he wasn't in the habit of dressing more conservatively, having burnt his last bridges, so to speak, of conventional attire several years before. His black denims and green sweatshirt were presentable enough, he thought, and his new white leather sneakers with black stripes sufficiently clean, in spite of the dust kicked up while crossing the gravel path. All in all, pretty typical of him these days, and not something he had any desire to change, given his long-standing aversion to suits and ties and other sartorial manifestations of a more conventional, not to say bourgeois, lifestyle.
"Now, sir, if you'd just care to follow me," said the elderly servant, once he had deposited Timothy's jacket and scarf in a cloakroom to one side of the entrance hall. Smilingly, he led the way across the intervening space to a pair of double doors which, on reaching, he threw open with a polished gesture, to reveal one of the longest and largest rooms Timothy had ever beheld. Having announced his name for the benefit of its occupants, the manservant ushered him in with formal politeness and then gently but firmly closed the doors behind him, leaving the young writer to his fate. Never before had he felt as self-conscious as now, what with the sight of those already gathered there. He might as well have been standing in the nude before a roomful of nubile females, as standing in his usual informal clothes just inside the doors of this immense room!
But help was at hand in the form of Lord Handon himself, who beamed an encouraging smile at him while swiftly approaching across the bright blue carpet which covered the greater part of the floor. "So glad you could come," he announced, extending a welcoming hand; though the six or seven yards he had to walk seemed to take an eternity for Timothy, who gratefully clasped the outstretched hand when it finally arrived. "I trust you had a pleasant journey?"
"Yes, quite pleasant," the writer responded, blushing slightly.
"I'm a bit out-of-the-way here, and wouldn't like to think that you'd got lost en route from the station," Lord Handon remarked.
"Oh, no trouble in that respect," Timothy averred.
"Good! Well, allow me to introduce you to the others," said the viscount and, taking his latest guest in tow, he led the way towards the centre of the room, where a small group of people were seated in a semicircle in front of a roaring open fire. There was hardly time for Timothy to get more than an inkling of the extent and variety of his surroundings, as he bashfully accompanied the grey-haired peer back across the carpet. Besides, he couldn't very well begin investigating the room's contents as though he were in a museum. It was obligatory to ignore them, as though stepping into such an ornately-furnished and expensively-decorated room was a commonplace affair, unworthy of more than a passing curiosity. The only thing that mattered was the series of introductions which were about to befall him. It was impossible to concentrate on anything else. "Allow me first of all to present you to my wife, Pamela," the host obliged, extending his arm in the direction of a medium-built lady with high cheekbones and a long nose who was seated nearest the fire. She at once rose from her amply-cushioned armchair and held out a dainty hand for Timothy to shake.
"Delighted to meet you, Mr Byrne," she said, smiling primly.
"And here is my youngest daughter, Geraldine," rejoined Lord Handon, leading his new guest's attention to the occupant of the next armchair, who duly stood up and offered him a similar hand, albeit in a more tentative manner. She was wearing a straight purple dress with black stockings, and had fine dark-brown hair which was tied-up in a bun on the crown of her head. She couldn't have been more than eighteen or nineteen.
"Unfortunately, my eldest daughter is celebrating New Year's Eve elsewhere," Lord Handon explained, for the benefit of his guest, "so you'll have to forego the pleasure of meeting her."
Scarcely had the writer shaken hands with Geraldine than he was
whisked-on to the occupant of the third armchair from the fire, who happened to
be an artist by name of
"And here," Lord Handon announced, leading the way past an empty armchair to one occupied by a coloured girl of slender build, "is a highly-talented young opera singer by name of Sarah Field, whom you may well have heard of or even heard sing."
"Indeed I have," Timothy admitted, extending a nervous hand for its sixth shaking.
"Pleased to meet you," said the singer, with a polite smile in due attendance. Her brown eyes sparkled gaily from the reflection, in part, of the electric lights which issued from an overhead chandelier. She was tastefully attired in a dark-green minidress with pale stockings, and wore her smooth dark hair combed back into a single plait which stretched a third of the way down her back. Her lips were enhanced with pink lipstick, and pink was the preferred colour of her eye make-up. She was about the same height as Timothy - a little short of tall.
"And, finally, before the strain of encountering so many new faces proves too much for you, here's Miss Sheila Johnston, that excellent concert pianist of Scotch origin, whose graceful tone and touch gladden the heart," Lord Handon smilingly revealed.
Miss Johnston held out a firm muscular-looking hand for Timothy to shake and lowered her large blue eyes while he shook it. She was blushing from the compliments of her host and smiled involuntary appreciation of his flattery. Timothy she hardly seemed conscious of and the handshake was uncomfortably one-sided.
"Good, that just about takes care of everyone," Lord Handon commented, simultaneously giving the writer a congratulatory slap on the back, or so it seemed to the latter. "But for a couple of people yet to arrive, we're all here," he added, before drawing Timothy's flagging attention to the vacant armchair in between Nigel Townley and Sarah Field, and motioning him to sit down, which he thankfully did, though not without a certain self-consciousness at actually taking his place there amongst the other guests. "Since we've all had a glass or two of port this afternoon, I should be delighted if you'd join us in that respect," the host declared, beaming brightly.
"Very well," said Timothy, politely putting aside his natural aversion to such drinks.
"One port here!" Lord Handon requested in an extraordinarily loud tone-of-voice, bringing his butler, who stood at a discreet remove from the armchairs, into action.
To his astonishment, Timothy found the port being served up to him on a silver platter by the officiating servant - a slight, balding man with long grey whiskers and a sober mien, who bent down to facilitate service.
"Would anyone else care for another?" the host asked, casting around the arc of his guests. "No? Very well. That's all thank you, Madley."
The old servant straightened up and withdrew to the drinks cabinet across the far side of the room, where he noisily deposited the platter before taking up his customary stance, like a sentry on duty, unobtrusive and remote. It appeared that he would have to stay there, attentive and waiting, until his next summons, which, to Timothy's way of thinking, seemed rather strange.
Hardly had the young newcomer got over the experience of being served port on a silver platter than he found himself being questioned by Lady Handon as to the nature of his work. "My husband tells me you're a religious writer," she remarked, fixing a pair of beady eyes directly upon him.
"Yes, that's basically so," he admitted.
"And quite a revolutionary one too, I hear?" Lady Handon added.
"Yes, I suppose so," Timothy confirmed, nodding vaguely.
Lord Handon smiled acquiescently and confessed to only having read one of Timothy's books so far, and that the latest. Yet it had made quite an impression on him, and he was now interested to discover whether its author had made any progress beyond that point in the meantime.
"Yes, do tell us what you're currently writing," Lady Handon seconded. "Are you a deist, a theist, an atheist, or what?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, I'm an atheist, insofar as I reject the assumption of an existent deity in the Universe and the attendant concept of Divine Creation," Timothy blushingly confessed.
"You do?" Lady Handon responded, on a note of subdued alarm. "And, pray tell me, why's that?"
"Because I believe that the Universe is fundamentally of diabolic origin and that evolution is essentially a struggle, as it were, from the Devil to God," the writer averred.
One or two brows were raised in tacit incredulity with the reception of this unconventional statement. Young Geraldine even found it slightly amusing and smiled faintly.
"In what way diabolic?" Lady Handon wanted to know.
"Diabolic insofar as it was brought about by the formation of stars and their myriad explosions," Timothy answered her. "To my mind, there's nothing more infernal and hypernegative than the stars, and, taken together, they signify the Devil for me, purely and simply."
"This is certainly beyond what you wrote in 'Religious Evolution'," Lord Handon observed, before his wife could say anything further. "You never mentioned that there."
"No, and I believe I've made more progress in my religious thinking these past three or four months, since its publication, than in the whole of the preceding twelve months," Timothy confessed.
There came a murmur or two from some of the other guests and, once again, Lady Handon interposed with further curiosity. "You say the stars should be equated with the Devil, but what, pray, do you equate with God?" she asked. "After all, you've just told us that you don't believe in Him."
"Quite so, I don't." At which point Timothy sighed softly and took a sip of the port which, until then, had remained untouched. "What I do believe, however, is that man is entrusted with the responsibility of creating God, that human evolution is essentially nothing less than a development for bringing God to fruition in the Universe, and thus of establishing God as the climax to it."
Lady Handon raised her brows and cast her husband a correspondingly puzzled look. She had never heard anything of the sort and couldn't very well disguise the fact. "But how?" she asked, in an almost petulant sort of way.
"Increasingly, in the future, through the widespread practice of Transcendental Meditation and the cultivation, in consequence, of superconscious mind - in other words, the spirit," Timothy revealed.
"Transcendental Meditation?" Geraldine repeated, still vaguely amused.
"Yes, though not in a passive sense, reminiscent of Buddhist practices, but in a dynamically post-Christian sense which stresses the difference between God and the world, between, for want of a better term, the Holy Spirit and human spirit. One mustn't think that because one is meditating one is tuning-in, as it were, to God, since, as I've just contended, God is in the making, not already there. All one would be doing, in reality, is tuning-in to one's own spirit. But one's own spirit shouldn't be confused with the Holy Spirit, with God per se, since it's contaminated by the flesh, the senses, and therefore isn't transcendent. It is simply human spirit. Therefore Brahman and Atman are not, strictly speaking, one and the same. There is no tat tvam asi, or 'thou art that', contrary to Oriental assumptions. Rather, the Holy Spirit is that which, as God, will arise out of man in due course, when he has evolved to a point where his spirit has expanded and developed to such an extent ... that it becomes transcendent, and thereupon abandons the flesh to literally establish God in the Universe. And once God has been established there, He will shine inwardly for ever - eternally. So man is the medium through which the future culmination of the Universe strives to realize itself and attain to its blissful goal. Man is the maker of God, not vice versa. For the maker of men, animals, plants, etc., would appear to have been the Devil, or stars, and so one would be quite mistaken, in my view, to speak of a divine origin to life or to equate God with the world. 'Out of evil cometh good', and out of the world will come God ... as pure spirit."
Lady Handon had become well-nigh flabbergasted and now turned somewhat pale in the face. "Do you seriously mean to suggest that nature is evil?" she exclaimed, her beady eyes more concentrated, seemingly, than ever.
"I most certainly do, insofar as it's under sensual dominion in subconscious stupor," Timothy retorted. "Quite the opposite of the Holy Spirit, which would be a completely spiritual essence in superconscious bliss."
Lawrence Gowling, who had listened patiently to the conversation thus far, suddenly felt a need to challenge Timothy on the nature of God. After all, hadn't Pascal stressed the impossibility of our having absolute knowledge of Him, and wasn't it therefore presumptuous of Timothy Byrne to presume he knew better?
The young writer smiled sympathetically and took another sip of port. "One should beware of taking everything thought by great men of the past too seriously," he remarked. "For their views are often proved fallacious in the course of time. But no, I'm not presuming absolute knowledge of God and, in that respect, I'm in complete accordance with Pascal. However, the fact that God is a spirit would be hard to refute, since, by definition, God is the highest we can conceive of, and there's nothing higher than pure spirit. But that's only relative knowledge. I can say, for instance, that God will emerge in the Universe following transcendence, but I cannot tell you for certain what His exact scale will be, nor how brightly He will shine, nor how intense will be the bliss that results from His spiritual constitution. I cannot tell you what it would be like to actually be in the holy light of pure spirit, for the simple reason that I'm a man, with a body and impure spirit, not God. I can only speculate and say, rather theoretically, that the experience of ultimate being would be higher and greater than anything one could ever hope to know in the becoming ... as man. I cannot have any absolute, eternal knowledge of it. Only, at best, a diluted, temporal, transient knowledge, such as is compatible with my earthly condition."
"Yet, presumably, this holy light of pure spirit, or whatever, would be a pretty large entity," Lord Handon commented, turning a mildly inquisitive face towards his religious guest.
"Quite possibly, though we cannot have any idea of exactly how large," Timothy rejoined. "We can, however, speculate that it would be compounded of the transcendent spirit of the entire population at the climax of evolution, and quite probably the entire population of human-equivalent life forms throughout the Universe, so that the sum total of superconscious mind gathered together there in absolute unity would be way beyond our comprehension. A phenomenal cohesion of pure spirit."
"What a staggering thought!" cried Nigel Townley, offering his fellow first-time guest an expression of bewilderment.
"Yes, and this phenomenal cohesion of pure spirit would presumably constitute the One which has arisen from the Many," Sarah Field suggested, warming to Timothy's thesis.
"Precisely," the writer confirmed. "Thus the converging universe to the Omega Point, which Teilhard de Chardin often speaks about in his fascinating books, would indeed be a fact of spiritual evolution. Willy-nilly, the Diabolic Many are giving way to the Divine One."
Lady Handon frowned bitterly and snorted defiantly. "I really cannot reconcile myself to your attitude towards the stars and nature," she said. "Why, is one to see the Devil in the sun every time one looks up at it on a fine day?"
Geraldine tittered in frivolous response to this sceptical if not rhetorical question, and that prompted an otherwise circumspect Sheila Johnston to do likewise. Even Lord Handon permitted an indulgent smile to cross his formerly impassive face.
"You might find it less picturesque if you were transported to Venus, where the surface temperature is reputed to be somewhere in the region of eight-hundred degrees Fahrenheit (800°F) and you'd be in for an extremely roasting time," Timothy replied, endeavouring not to flinch before Lady Handon's stern gaze. "And, of course, the closer you went to the sun, the hotter the temperature would get, so that you'd have a less complacent notion of it. Even here on earth there are places, like the Sahara, where the sun's heat is too intense to be ignored, and one would consequently be more inclined to equate it with Hell than Heaven. The fact of the sun's infernal heat would leave one in no doubt as to its evil essence, which is only relatively less apparent here because we're at a comparatively safe remove from it in the middle of an English winter. Appearances can beguile, but anyone who went too close to the sun would soon find it the source of excruciating agony - quite the reverse of the Holy Spirit which, when it ultimately emerges, will be the scene of ineffable bliss. So there is all the difference in the Universe between the unholy light of primal damnation and the holy spirit of ultimate salvation. Fortunately or unfortunately, however, the former is eventually destined to collapse, leaving the Universe to its ultimate perfection in pure transcendence."
Lord Handon smiled defensively. "One would think that the Universe is still quite an imperfect place, judging by the vast numbers of primal stars currently in existence," he said.
"Indeed," Timothy agreed, nodding. "And it will continue to know imperfection until such time as the last star collapses and fades away in so many thousands-of-millions-of-years' time. Only when the Universe is solely the Holy Spirit will it be perfect. In the meantime, it will remain under the Devil's influence to some extent, even with the initial emergence of transcendent spirit."
"You mean, with the climax of human evolution?" Gowling suggested.
"Either that or with the climax of human-equivalent evolution on some other planet or planets elsewhere in the Universe," Timothy smilingly rejoined. "After all, we can't be sure that we're the only relatively-advanced species of life in the Universe, can we? And if there are others, then they must be a part of a converging universe to the Omega Point as well."
"What makes you so sure that some other species, more advanced than us, hasn't already established transcendent spirit somewhere in the Universe?" Lady Handon asked, offering fresh opposition to the young writer.
"Well, frankly, I just can't believe that any other civilization elsewhere in the Universe could possibly have evolved to that level when we still have such a deplorably long way to go here," Timothy replied. "It's too fantastic. The theory of a converging universe would seem to suggest that, willy-nilly, all its higher life forms must converge together en masse and roughly apace, rather than at great evolutionary intervals. Now the fact, moreover, that we haven't yet encountered any alien civilizations, not having explored too deeply into space, suggests that evolution still has a long way to go before an extensive convergence becomes manifest in the Universe. Consequently, judging from the absence of any superior alien visitors to earth thus far, we needn't expect other civilizations to be greatly ahead of us. In all probability they'll either be a little behind us, approximately on our own level, or a little ahead - assuming, for the sake of argument, that any such alien civilizations, and hence alternative life-forms, do actually exist. Yet I'd be extremely surprised to learn of an alien civilization which had already established the beginnings of God, so to speak, in the Universe, when it would seem that we on earth still have such a deplorably long way to go. Somehow I can't help but assume that any truly-advanced, superior 'people' would already have made themselves extensively known throughout the Universe by dint of their spiritual sophistication. Accordingly, I remain unflinchingly an atheist, but an atheist with this difference: I'm all in favour of our doing what we can either to establish God as the Holy Spirit in the Universe in the future or, if some other civilization beats us to it, at least contribute to its growth by linking our spirit with the sum total of transcendent spirit already there. Thus I'm in the quite unique position of being an atheist who's in favour of God. No small distinction!"
Lady Handon snorted contemptuously and sought distraction in the flickering flames of the large open fire to her left. She wasn't at all resigned to the writer's beliefs, nor to his apparent facetiousness concerning them! But Lord Handon had a different response.
"Yes, you're probably onto something there," he at length opined, a reflective expression on his darkly clean-shaven face. "The notion of a diabolic origin and of a divine consummation to the Universe does, I must say, possess a certain logical appeal. After all, when one recalls that this planet was once populated by fearsome dinosaurs and other loathsome monsters, and that volcanoes were erupting all over the damn place, it would seem more logical to ascribe such a creation to the Devil than to God. Life on earth must have been a real hell for the earliest men, mustn't it?"
"To be sure, and only very gradually did it become less so, as man evolved away from nature and thus grew less evil himself," Timothy averred. "For a long time man was little better than the beasts, since more given, like them, to sensual indulgences. But gradually, with the development of civilization, he became less sensual and more spiritual, grew closer to God. Yet even the most spiritual men are partly of diabolic origin, insofar as they're of the flesh. All they can do is aspire towards God, not actually be God. For God and nature, which includes the flesh, are two very different things, and should never be equated!"
Lady Handon frowned sullenly at Timothy, while Geraldine drew attention to the difference between his standpoint and those who equated God with nature. Apparently, the pantheists were quite mistaken, then?
"To my mind they're really unconscious devil-worshippers," the writer asserted confidently. "Anyone who equates God with creation rather than consummation must inevitably make the same mistake. For nature is an entirely sensual phenomenon, and anyone who thinks he sees God in it must be imagining things. If, on rare occasions, it appears transfigured, shines, as it were, with a spiritual glow - as it apparently did for Wordsworth on occasion - one can assume that the mind of the beholder has experienced an inrush of spirit and projected this internal transformation onto nature, thus giving rise to the delusion that it's nature itself which shines with 'something far more deeply interfused', or whatever the quotation is. For, in reality, nature can never be anything other than its own subconscious self."
"Accordingly, writers like Aldous Huxley were somewhat mistaken to equate it with God?" Lord Handon suggested.
"Indeed," Timothy opined. "Although unquestionably a brilliant man, Huxley fell too much under the influence of Oriental mysticism, with its complacency in nature. He couldn't properly distinguish between the One and the Many, but was all-too-disposed to see the Many in the One rather than as the basis out of which the One would eventually emerge. He could never have equated the stars with the Devil, still less regarded nature as the Devil's creation. To him, it was all part of the One, and the One was compounded of the creative force behind nature, or the Ground, the natural realm itself, including the human, and the Clear Light of the Void."
"Which, presumably, is approximately equivalent to the Holy Trinity?" Lord Handon conjectured.
"To be sure," Timothy conceded. "But this, I believe, is where traditional religion, both Eastern and Western, slips up. For, in reality, there's no such unity but, rather, a continuum of evolution from the Diabolic Alpha to the Divine Omega via man. The One is the consummation of this evolution, not a combination of 'Three in One', like the Christian cynosure of the Holy Trinity. To my mind, the Creator, or the Ground, is symbolic of the Many, whereas the Holy Spirit, or Clear Light, symbolizes of the One. And, in between, we have Jesus Christ, or some such Eastern equivalent like the Buddha, who represents the human aspiration towards God, towards Oneness. He is a son of the Many, as it were, aspiring towards the One."
"A son of the Devil?" Lord Handon queried, on a note of slightly scandalized concern.
"Inasmuch as we're all sons or daughters of nature and are thus fleshy, worldly, natural," Timothy calmly responded.
"Yet Christ is represented as a supernatural being in scripture," Lady Handon objected.
"From a theological standpoint, that is absolutely correct," the writer admitted, blushing slightly under pressure of her fierce gaze. "But, not being an orthodox Christian, I don't personally take Christ's divinity too seriously. To me, there's only one true divinity, and that is the pure spirit which should emerge out of man's spirit at the culmination of evolution. I reject all other concepts of the supernatural, including the ghostly. And that's why I'm an atheist, not a believer in divinities which are presumed to exist already."
"Then what, pray, of the resurrection of Christ?" Lady Handon imperiously pressed him.
"I regard that as an excellent symbol, or metaphor, for man's future destiny in spiritual transcendence," Timothy declared. "Don't think I'm knocking Christianity, I'm not. If you must know, I regard it as the greatest of the traditional, or 'axial', faiths ... to cite a term coined, I believe, by the philosopher Lewis Mumford. But I also believe that, so far as the more advanced industrial nations are concerned, it has seen its best days and is gradually being superseded by a transcendental attitude to God, an attitude which should constitute the final stage of our religious evolution. Christianity has brought us to transcendentalism, but transcendentalism will take us to God - of that I have no doubt!"
"Let's hope you're right," said Nigel Townley sympathetically.
"Yes," agreed Geraldine, to the consternation of her mother, who briefly cast her a sharp look of reproof. "And presumably this transcendentalism to which you allude, Mr Byrne, should not be confounded with Oriental mysticism, but is largely a Western affair?"
"It stems from the artificial influence of the modern city, which, in cutting us off from nature to a greater extent than ever before, has made the cultivation of a predominantly spiritual approach to God possible." No sooner had Timothy said this, however, than he realized that he was speaking to a person who, together with her parents, spent most of her time in the country and therefore wasn't in a position to appreciate it properly. But, since he had already spoken at some length about his religious beliefs anyway, there seemed little point in his refusing to continue just because Geraldine wasn't likely to appreciate it. And so, with fresh resolve, he went on: "One might say that it's post-Christian, insofar as we're led to concentrate our religious devotion on the Third rather than Second so-called 'Person' of the Trinity, and so work towards actually bringing about the birth of the Holy Spirit in the Universe. Accordingly we're not indulging in Buddhism or Hinduism or Mohammedanism or any other traditional religion, but in something which is the logical outcome of them all, since a further instance of the converging universe from the Many to the One. Instead, therefore, of a number of so-called world religions, the future will contain just one, a true world, or global, religion, and, being transcendental, it will prove acceptable to everyone. Indeed, religion is hardly the word! For we won't be dealing with creeds or dogmas or rites or prayers or any of the other formulae of traditional religious observance. Yet inasmuch as religion has to do with the cultivation of spirit, then a religion of sorts is what it will assuredly be, and meditation, as a method of directly cultivating the spirit, will apply to it. But its objective will be to establish God, whereas traditional religion assumes that God already exists, which, in my opinion, just isn't true. All that actually exists is the Devil, viz. the stars, and the Devil's creations, viz. nature, the beasts, and man. For me, the Creator, which traditional religion upholds, is symbolic of the stars and is thus diabolic, not divine! 'Our Father who art in Heaven'.... No, rather 'Our Father who art in Hell' ..."
Lady Handon huffed indignantly and cast her guest another withering look. "Really, Mr Byrne, how can you say such a scandalous thing!" she exclaimed.
"Because I believe it's true," the latter explained. "After all, we're living in an age which is in the process of transvaluating all values, to cite Nietzsche, and this is simply a further instance of such a transvaluation, whereby the Father becomes synonymous with the Devil, in order that the term 'God' may solely be applied to the Holy Spirit, and all ambivalence and open-society relativity accordingly be overcome. In reality, the concept of the Blessed Trinity is a myth. For the Father is decidedly cursed, whereas Christ, like all men who have attained to a civilized stage of evolution, is somewhere in-between - in other words both cursed and blessed, as his dual role as banisher and redeemer at the Last Judgement adequately attests, whether or not one actually believes in such a judgement. So the Father is really the Devil in disguise, an anthropomorphic metaphor for the creative-and-sustaining force behind the world. Now what is that if not the sun and other such stars in the Universe? As I've said before, if evolution is a journey from the Diabolic Alpha to the Divine Omega, from the Devil to God, then one can hardly regard the creative and sustaining force as God. On the contrary, God is, only the Devil does."
"All this is indeed rather revolutionary, isn't it?" Lady Handon observed disapprovingly. "And also rather blasphemous, I might add."
"Blasphemous?" Timothy queried.
"Well, you do speak of the Father as cursed, don't you?" Lady Handon rejoined. "And your interpretation of the Lord's Prayer would suggest that you identify 'Our Father' with the Father instead of with Christ, even granted the rather ambivalent terminology involved, which may well lead some people to unthinkingly identify the Lord's Prayer with the Creator, and thus with anything but the god of Christian humanity."
"That's all too true, and one has to accept that Western civilization is anything but clear-cut in its allegiance to Christ," averred Timothy, who was pleasantly surprised to find himself at last agreeing with Lady Handon on something. "Yet my use of the word 'cursed' in relation to the Father is only on the understanding that the Father, or the Creator, stands as a symbol for the sum-total of flaming stars in the Universe.... Besides, as an atheist, I would be incapable of blasphemy. For God is something I regard as in the making, not an already-existent fact. We have to develop our spirit until, by transcending the flesh, it becomes pure spirit and thereby establishes the light of God in the Universe. At present, the Holy Spirit simply isn't there to be blasphemed, only the Devil. And I don't see how one can be accused of blaspheming that!"
"I wasn't accusing you of blaspheming the Devil," the hostess sternly countered. "Simply of blaspheming God by regarding Him as cursed."
"Correction," said Timothy. "I was regarding the Father as cursed, since He is symbolic of the stars for me. And the stars ... well, I could hardly be expected to regard them, in all their infernal heat, as blessed, could I? Quite the reverse. Only the Holy Spirit will be truly blessed, and I can assure you that I'd be the last person on earth to blaspheme that - assuming one could. No, the age of blasphemy, so to speak, is by and large a thing of the past, and let's be sincerely grateful for the fact! For we are gradually coming to realize that the Universe, or at least the world, is becoming increasingly peopled by men who, having turned their backs on the Diabolic Alpha in light of a more evolved status, aspire towards the Divine Omega, not by men who imagine they can come into direct contact with the Divine Omega, or that alpha and omega are really one and the same! One can of course come into a more profound, expansive contact with one's spirit if one bothers to cultivate it. But that's quite a different proposition, I should think, from actually being in the Holy Spirit as pure transcendence. One's own spirit is, at the best of times, only potentially divine. For it's all the time surrounded by the flesh or, rather, the brain. Only those whose spirits develop to a point, in the distant future, of literally becoming transcendent ... will know what it means to have direct contact with the Divine Omega. For they will actually be God."
Lady Handon permitted herself a sharply cynical laugh, in spite of the gravity of the subject. "Are we therefore to suppose, dear boy, that the spirits of these future people of your perverse imaginings will somehow break out of the body, or wherever it is that spirit reposes, and soar heavenwards, like comets or rockets?" she cried, casting Timothy an equally sharp look of quizzical scepticism.
In spite of his convictions her guest was unable to prevent himself from blushing at what seemed like a cynically rhetorical question, especially since Geraldine and one or two of the others were manifestly amused by it. "It may seem odd," he admitted, after due deliberation, "but you could well be right in supposing something of the kind. After all, how else could spirit become transcendent if not by breaking free of the brain and gravitating towards some point in the Universe congenial to itself?"
Lady Handon huffed disdainfully. "And from whereabouts in the brain would this ... transcendent spirit emerge?" she wanted to know.
"Presumably from that part of the psyche known as the superconscious, in which it had been cultivated," Timothy averred.
"What, leaving a hole in the skull behind?" Lady Handon conjectured cynically.
Lord Handon flashed his wife a reproving glance, but said nothing.
"Not necessarily," Timothy responded, remaining calm. "Though it might cause the brain to blow apart, since it would be an incredibly powerful globe of spirit - more powerful than virtually anything of which we can now conceive."
Lady Handon smiled self-indulgently. She was endeavouring to imagine what thousands of small globes of spirit simultaneously converging upon a central axis in the Universe would look like. Some kind of vast fireworks display in reverse was the nearest she could get to it. "And, presumably, when all the transcendent spirit in the Universe had converged upon a central axis, God would be complete, would He?" she frowningly concluded.
Timothy nodded his head in wary confirmation. "But not until then," he opined. "Which is another reason why one can assume that, properly speaking, God doesn't at present exist. For even if, by some remote chance, an alien civilization much more advanced than ours had established transcendent spirit somewhere in the Universe, such spirit would only amount to a tiny fraction of the potential sum-total of pure transcendence which the evolving Universe was capable of producing. In other words, it would merely constitute the beginnings of God, not the Divine Omega in its entirety, grown to full maturity, so to speak, through the spiritual assimilation of the total transcendence of every advanced civilization. However, I incline to doubt that even one alien civilization elsewhere in the Universe has already attained to definitive salvation, and thus entered the heavenly Beyond."
Lady Handon coughed superciliously and turned her beady eyes back towards the fire, as though to seek refuge in a more congenial element - one necessarily closer to the Diabolic Alpha.
"But what happens to our spirit when we die?" the host asked, taking over the reins of sceptical interrogation from his fire-struck wife. "I mean if, as you would doubtless agree, transcendent spirit is eternal, why shouldn't our mundane spirit also be eternal and thus, as has been traditionally believed, capable of surviving bodily death? Surely if spirit is eternal, it must continue to exist following death?"
"I rather doubt that," answered Timothy in an almost commiserating tone-of-voice. "For it seems to me that spirit only has a right to eternity if it has been extensively cultivated and is thereby able to escape the body, not otherwise being strong enough to survive it. Now since we haven't yet evolved to a stage of extensively cultivating the spirit, having too many bodily obligations to attend to, it would seem that it is destined to perish - mine, yours, everyone's. We none of us seem to have got to a point where spirit is strong enough for eternity."
"Not even the saints and spiritually elect?" Lord Handon queried, his eyebrows slightly arched in sceptical response.
"I doubt it," Timothy opined. "After all, they mostly lived in an age which was at a lower stage of evolution than ours, an age in which men were closer to nature and had more contact with natural things generally. And, as far as I know, they all died - like everyone else. Now it has been assumed that, at death, the spirit passes into the heavenly Beyond. But I incline to the view that, even in the case of the more spiritually earnest individuals, it simply expires and thereby succumbs to that nothingness the other side of life. For if the spirit ever were to leave for the Beyond, it seems to me that the point of death would be the last time at which it could do so, since it's weaker then than at any other time and therefore unlikely to gather sufficient energy together to be able to precipitate itself into Eternity. No, I incline to the view that, at death, the spirit simply expires. If one is ever qualified to transcend the body, it would be at a point in time when the spirit was most energetic, not when it was on the point of languishing irrevocably into death. One would, I imagine, be in one's spiritual prime, fully conscious and determined to attain to the Beyond, which isn't, however, the narrow personalized heaven of Christian man but, rather, the climax of evolution in which, by completely transcending the body, man ceases to be human and becomes divine. That is my belief anyway, and you can accept or reject it, as you please. I'm not trying to convert anyone here to my religious position, simply endeavouring to offer what I consider to be a valid reinterpretation and extension of Christian belief in suitably contemporary terms. For we've now got to the stage, as a society, where it's possible to look upon spiritual evolution not with the eyes of faith, like our Christian forebears, but with the eyes of scientific knowledge. The age of faith is, fortunately or unfortunately, a thing of the past, rendered necessary in its time by the egocentric stage of evolution to which dualistic man had progressed. Now that we're in the post-egocentric or transcendental stage of evolution, however, we can regard spiritual issues with a transpersonally factual eye and thereby aspire to objective truth. We needn't consider ourselves particularly unfortunate on that account."
There was a rustle of clothing and a few embarrassed coughs from amongst the recipients of Timothy's informal lecture, followed by an uneasy silence in which baffled or sceptical looks were exchanged. Only Nigel Townley on the writer's left and Sarah Field on his right conveyed an impression of having been impressed by it, since they gently smiled in his direction and regarded him with respectful eyes. However, the host and hostess appeared somewhat disconcerted, especially the latter, whose eyes smouldered with resentment in the shadow of the flickering flames. But nothing further was said or asked to provoke Timothy into continuing an exposition of his current religious freethinking. And so, before long, the conversation turned elsewhere, giving some of the other guests an opportunity to reveal their deeper selves, however right or wrong those selves might happen to be!