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Sunday, November 28, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Great Unknown -- Robert Clark Explores The Question, `Is There A God?'

Seattle Times Book Editor

------------------------------- "My Grandfather's House: A Genealogy of Doubt and Faith" by Robert Clark Picador, $24 -------------------------------

Seattle's Robert Clark likes to take on The Big Questions. His first novel, the exquisitely written "In the Deep Midwinter," wrestled with the issue of abortion in 1950s St. Paul, Minn. "Mr. White's Confession," which won the Edgar award last year for best mystery novel, has a police officer in 1939 St. Paul struggling with his conscience (and an exceedingly creepy adversary) during his investigation of two murders.

Now, in a book that is part philosophical tract, part history lesson and part memoir, Clark has attempted an answer to The Question that, for many of us, has become such a burden that we have set it aside in the press of just trying to get through the day, the week, the decade and the century: Is there a God? Does he love us? Is he even paying attention? The answers Clark found are explicated in "My Grandfather's House: A Genealogy of Doubt and Faith," an intellectually bracing and emotionally satisfying (if at times exasperating) book.

Clark's God is of the Christian variety. He lets you know right off the bat that, after years of searching, doubt and despair, he converted to Catholicism in 1997. Seattle Archbishop Thomas Murphy, who would be dead two months later from cancer, presided over his confirmation.

But, Clark writes: "This book is specifically not an account of how I was converted - of how my life has been transformed by this change, of how `I once was lost and now am found,' as though my transit of that experience marked the beginning and end of the journey."

There's not a whiff of proselytizing here, though there is some pointed commentary on the late-20th-century tendency to approach the question of God with an agnostical shrug and an ironical "whatever." Irony's "affinities are with what is not, with lack, privation and nonbeing. . . . Irony, as a world view, empties the world and finally itself of meaning and being," he writes.

In "My Grandfather's House," Clark interweaves his own search for God with that of his ancestors. Apparently both the Clarks and the Griggs (his mother's surname) kept splendid records. The author finds forebears way back to the 1500s in varying stages of religious devotion, despair and torment.

After a brief visitation with St. Augustine, the Christian philosopher of the A.D. 400s, he proceeds to The Great Divorce, the bitter dispute between England's Henry VIII and the Catholic church that helped split the world into Protestants and Catholics. It was Christianity at its worst - religion subsumed into politics, its devotees driven to torture and execution of heretics (in those days, one could land on the wrong side of the saint-heretic fence with alarming speed). Some ancestors were executed for their beliefs. Others aided the executioner. After all that, Henry VIII died "with a foot in each faith:" ensuring a Protestant succession, but demanding Catholic last rites.

The fallout from this religious war was the creation of Protestant sects that clashed with Henry's Church of England. More Clarks, of the Puritan ilk, sailed to America in search of the right to worship as they chose (and the right to exclude those who didn't toe the party line). It was an oddly comfortless faith (the Puritans, for a time, banished Christmas!): Clark writes that "the recipe for gaining God's love was to presume his indifference, while loving - and necessarily fearing - him all the while."

As Christianity split into ever more diverse sects, 19th-century Americans cast ever wider nets looking for meaning. Clark proceeds to perhaps the most ambitious and least fettered seekers of all - the 19th-century New England Unitarians, Transcendentalists and their ilk. (He feels a distinct affinity for this group - writing of his religious addlement as a young man, he notes that " . . . As perhaps they are for most adolescents, the hungers I felt for beauty, for love, for sex, and for God were interdependent, interconnected, and almost indistinguishable from one another.")

Clark devotes more than a third of his book to this group. It is fascinating, if sometimes frustrating, reading (the list of historical characters is lengthy enough to have warranted an index). James Clarke, a prominent Unitarian minister and a Clark ancestor, is one. Margaret Fuller, a 19th-century writer whose search for meaning ended in tragedy, is another. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau and Henry Adams play roles in the piece. Their attachments, rivalries and arguments make for fascinating reading.

But why devote so much space to them? Clark sees ongoing parallels between their search and that of his own generation. His description of his own make-it-up spirituality in the late 1960s - a bit of Herman Hesse, a dash of Alan Watts - will resonate with boomers: "I wanted a little of this and a little of that - Zen, LSD, backpacking, throwing pots, taking thirty-five-millimeter pictures, and growing zucchini - to add up to everything."

There was never a more well-intentioned group than the Transcendentalist-Unitarian-abolitionist-women's rights crowd, but in Clark's estimation, their search ended in a dead end. The attempt to define one's religion however one chose ended with the bleak agnosticism (if not atheism) of Henry Adams - when anything goes, you can end up going nowhere.

It is here that Clark picks up the threads of his own story, and ties them up in the most moving part of the book, explaining the forces that compelled him to conversion and a faith that still wrestles, every day, with doubt: "Doubt does not negate faith, but affirms its difficulty, its arduousness, the toll of ache and fatigues it takes on the heart and the mind," he writes. "Faith is not much different from work or love, from which life also grants us no rest.'

"My Grandfather's House" won't do for those who have given up on the idea of God, or for someone looking for an easy read. It requires some concentration. (Clark parses differing apprehensions of God that may have non-Christians scratching their heads - Augustinian pessimism vs. Thomist optimism, for example).

But for those not sure what to make of the God question, Clark has given us a rock-solid place, in this commercially manic Christmas season, to start. Though we may find a different resolution from his, his search parallels our own: how to gain peace, where to find faith, and what to pass on to our children, who will face the same age-old questions in the new millennium.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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