“I’m not sinning. If Burton were doing what I am, it would be sin.” Joseph Wayne, the protagonist of John Steinbeck’s novel, To a God Unknown, utters those words. He is referring to his act of venerating a particular tree as sacred. He sees the spirit of his dead father in that tree. His brother, Burton, is a puritanical Christian for whom even the act of sex is a sin if it is indulged in except for the purpose of procreation. Burton thinks that Joseph is committing the serious, pagan sin of worshipping a tree.
Joseph tries to explain away his love for the tree as a mere “game.” But his wife, Elizabeth, understands that it is much more than a game for him. However, she won’t condemn him as a pagan. She knows that her husband is a rare human being who has some peculiar qualities and proclivities.
Rama, her eldest sister-in-law, had already told Elizabeth that individuals like Joseph were “born outside humanity.” Such people are so human as to make others seem unreal. Joseph is compared to a godling with “strength beyond vision of shattering, he has the calm of mountains, and his emotion is as wild as fierce and sharp as the lightning and just as reasonless as far as I can see or know.... I tell you this man is not man, unless he is all men....”
Spiritual belief is the fulfilment of a psychological need. And the need varies from individual to individual. People like Burton want it all very formulaic and they follow the written codes and canons strictly. People like Joseph cannot find satisfaction except in the truths they discover for themselves.
Christianity fails to satisfy Joseph. “To Hell with my soul!” he shouts at Father Angelo when the latter advises him that the soul should be his primary concern. Joseph thinks that the earth and all creatures on it including the trees and plants are his primary concern. He had approached the priest with a request to pray for rains.
Father Angelo knows Joseph well enough to understand that the man is not unlike Jesus in some ways. But Joseph has no message to preach. Nor does he have any desire to be remembered or to be believed in. “Else there might be a new Christ here in the West,” says Father Angelo to himself.
Joseph’s view is that each individual must discover his or her own God. He encounters an old man on the hill who sacrifices an animal every evening. He believes that he is controlling the sunrise and sunset with the help of these sacrifices. But his reason tells him clearly that he cannot control the sun in any way. Yet he needs the belief for his own happiness. Later when Joseph sacrifices a cow in the hope that he could control the rain, he realises that neither can he control the rain nor can the sacrifice bring him any happiness. “His (the old man’s) secret was for him... It won’t work for me,” he concludes.
Burton leaves Joseph unable to absorb the latter’s pagan ways. But Burton has girdled Joseph’s sacred tree before he leaves. The tree dies. Joseph’s life becomes sterile. All the more so, because a series of tragedies strike him. His beloved wife dies in an accident. The drought kills animals and plants on the ranch. His eldest brother, Thomas, leaves the ranch with the remaining cows. Joseph does not listen to his advice to join him. Joseph thinks he is an integral part of the earth. Its sorrows are his own. He perceives mystically that he is the land and that he is the rain. He decides to sacrifice himself for the sake of the earth. He cuts his veins on the wrist.
The rainclouds gather in the sky. “I am the land,” he said, “and I am the rain. The grass will grow out of me in a little while.”
The people of the area dance in the rain. Father Angelo gets ready with his crucifix to go to the people and prevent their pagan fiesta during which “They’ll be taking off their clothes... and they’ll roll in the mud. They’ll be rutting like pigs in the mud.” Soon he puts away the crucifix reasoning that he wouldn’t be able to see the people in the dark. “I’ll preach against them on Sunday. I’ll give everybody a little penance,” he decides. The last sentence in the novel is given to Father Angelo who says, “That man (Joseph) must be very happy now.”
To a God Unknown is a novel that is largely about religious beliefs. It shows beliefs of various types. It shows that for most people belief is a mere given thing which means nothing more than a few rituals and prayers. They don’t mind going back to the ancient rituals when that’s more natural to them.
For a very few individuals like Joseph, belief is beyond institutionalised religions and their canons. They have their own personal understanding of reality. Such understanding transcends the notions of the good and the bad. It is non-judgmental. It is more Christ-like than the Christ of Christianity, more god-like than the gods of most religions.