Can literature, like religion, bring us transcendental truths? James Wood believes so:
If you look at a novel like To the Lighthouse—one of my favorite of all books—it asks exactly the same question Psalm 90 asks: What will endure of us? What will last after we’re gone? Psalm 90 says, in effect, nothing, because we give it all up to God: “A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday.” The modern novelist—who can’t rest assured of cosmic governance—looks around in a more secular way and says, What will survive of us? Not houses. If left alone, they begin to fall apart very quickly. Perhaps children, except that they can be killed off in the First World War or die in childbirth, as happens in the middle of To the Lighthouse. Probably not works of art either, unless they’re very great works of art, like Shakespeare’s plays. So the answer is a very bleak one—without consolation, without transcendent truth of any kind. But remember that Chekhov said the writer’s job is not to provide the answers, but to ask the right questions.Yet he argues a great deal separates literature from religion:
One difference is that religious answers are absolute and—in their way—consoling, but awesome. Literature cannot offer this final answer or final command. I’m really interested in that. In the Gospels, Jesus’ command is to revolutionize your life. That command is absolute and life-changing and soul-shattering. If you don’t follow it, your eternal soul may be at risk. What is the command of literature? There is a command, I think, but it has much less authority. It’s about persuasion, it’s about asking you to put your trust or faith in something you know has been invented. At any moment, you can put the book down, walk away and refuse to continue believing in the invented reality you’ve just been inhabiting.