Realism For Unrealistic Times

In Norway, everyone is familiar with Kristin Lavransdatter, the trilogy that won Sigrid Undset a Nobel prize for literature in 1928. Kristin lives in medieval Norway but is nonetheless one of us. She is headstrong, passionate, and impatient and matures slowly through suffering and hardship. She fights with God until the end of her life—her will against His will. She lives close to nature and life in full. She loves a man who ultimately disappoints her. All women long for a man like Erlend, despite his faults. Undset describes his stature, his good looks, his muscles, his bravery. We fall in love with Erlend. He is manhood, at least physical manhood.

Kristin is womanhood. Her life as woman and mother is depicted in the most realistic way. When I was pregnant with my first child, I suddenly recalled how Kristin understood that she was pregnant: One day in the wood, she felt a sudden movement like that of a fish in water, a faint stirring inside her. It is exactly like that. I remember sitting in the living room, about 20 weeks’ pregnant, but only knowing it theoretically. Then, all of a sudden, such a movement in my womb! The first sign of my child—I’ll never forget that moment.

Undset’s descriptions of Kristin’s labor and childbirth are also true to life. The first birth almost kills her—the pain for hours, the fear of dying, the utter horror of the situation. After a day and a night, when she thinks she is dying, the child is finally born. Her first-born son is described as a lump of bloody flesh.

Women recognize themselves in this description of a normal childbirth. It is horrible, not romantic. It is painful unto death, and it requires your utmost physical and psychological strength. A woman risks her life for another life; she partakes in creation. It is a most profound experience in a woman’s life.

Undset was a realist in every sense of the word. What she writes about human love, about childbirth, about our struggle with God, about the human condition, is real. We find no ornamentations, prudishness, or theoretical considerations—just life itself. In light of modern society’s lack of realism, her refusal to accept anything but realism is precisely why her writings are so relevant today.

Undset and the Church

Like Undset, I converted to Catholicism from an agnostic background as an adult. Like her, I had a long intellectual journey to Christianity and the Church. She was an intellectual but never theoretical. She was learned but had only a limited formal education. Her father, Ingvald Undset, was a professor of Norse history and taught her a lot as a child. She read the sagas avidly and possessed a clear talent for writing. After the early death of her father, Undset had to work to sustain the family and became an office clerk at 17. I often pass Stensgaten in Oslo, where she lived then. It is a gray, nondescript street. Later Undset lived in Industrigaten, near my home, where she had a room. She worked by day and wrote by night. Such was her passion for writing that she stayed up, foregoing much-needed sleep.

In one of her earliest novels, Jenny, Undset describes a journey to Rome. Jenny lives with friends from Norway, all painters. She falls in love, gets married, and has children. But her husband disappoints her. He is not the man of her dreams. This theme recurs in Undset’s writings, and is autobiographical. Undset longed for a real man in the sense of a courageous and virtuous man—a noble man. Such men she found in the sagas, in European literature, but not in her own life. She married, like Jenny, a painter, Hans Svarstad, but the marriage was a failure. Sigrid and Hans parted ways in 1919—the year their third child was born.

This search for true and noble love is also the leitmotif for Kristin Lavransdatter. It is not surprising that her search finally led to Christianity. The search for true love has to be, finally, a supernatural search, although one may find human beings that are capable of such love. They are the men who have acquired the human virtues and perhaps also the supernatural ones. Kristin’s father, Lavrans, is such a man: strong and just—an attractive man because he has the depth and seriousness of a full life of faith. Erlend is attractive physically, humanly, but lacks this depth and maturity.

Kristin never made the error of separating mind and body. The love she offered and sought was a total love, physical as well as mental. She loved Erlend the person: Physical love was an integral part of love itself, of her self-giving to him. Kristin was pregnant before her wedding, but this was almost a natural consequence of loving Erlend fully. She gave herself to him, but he was unable to appreciate it. This was her human tragedy, one that gradually led her to seek and find total love in Christ. But this quest was in no way a harmonious or easy one. She was tormented by her own strong will, by her natural and very human demand that she find such love in a man, that this love be of this world—tangible and physical.

The realism of human love is that its fullness is a love of both body and soul. Prudishness is totally foreign to Undset. She knows human nature. The strength of natural human passion is such that we fight against ourselves for much of our lives, unless we have found the other who fulfills us. Few indeed are those who find such another.

But gradually we may come to discover two things: that human suffering can be borne and can be a means to sanctity and that there is a path, well hidden, to perfect love. This path is Christ and the mystery of divine love. Kristin ends her quest on a pilgrimage to Nidaros to atone for her sins. Her rebelliousness and strong will finally accept God’s primacy, and she abandons herself to him. But it is the end of a long journey of resistance, so much like our own.

This is how human life is, full of passion, of sorrow, of failures. Kristin can only abandon herself when she has put up every struggle against God. What Undset did not find in a man, she found in God: a pure, noble, and generous love. Through her search for a noble man—a real, strong man—she was led to look for the source of such qualities. We find them described in literature; we have an idea of what they are when we are looking for something that is not just pragmatic, not just utilitarian, but something noble.

Catholicism in Norway

Undset was demanding. She did not compromise. She was tough on her surroundings—sarcastic, sharp-tongued, and feared. I don’t think she had any sense of humor whatsoever, a lack I find hard to accept. Men feared her especially much. She was feminine in the traditional sense, being an intellectual, but not an urbanite. She was steeped in the sagas and Norse literature and grounded her beliefs in the long historical period of Norwegian Catholicism. During her time, even in a country where women have always been strong and independent, it was not easy to be an intellectual woman. A Dominican friend of mine, who came as a young priest to Norway, was invited to have dinner with her. He, a sharp Thomist himself, recorded how quick and intelligent she was. There was no small talk at that dinner.

Her sword was the pen, and she wrote masterful polemics. A collection of essays, entitled Katholsk propaganda, was tough on the Protestants and the Norwegian state church, and even more on agnostics and free-thinkers. But at the time, converting to Catholicism was a brave act. She had come to realize, she said, that there was something objective outside of herself. That could only be God. And there was only one Church—the one that Christ Himself founded. In newspaper articles, she attacked the state church and its theologians eloquently and ironically. “Your article reads like a Franciscan sermon,” she once remarked to a fellow writer. That was not a compliment.

Catholics had long experienced tough times in Norway. During the Counter- Reformation, the Jesuits started a seminary in Braunsberg, near Gdansk, to educate Nordic Jesuits, some of whom entered Sweden and Norway secretly. The law on dissenters in Norway and Sweden, which were in union at the time, allowed for Catholicism, but prejudices against Catholics existed. Jesuits were seen as especially dangerous, and in the Norwegian constitution, it said, “Jesuits must not be tolerated and cannot enter the realm.” This paragraph was repealed only in 1956 and caused a major debate in Parliament.

I am the first Catholic politician in the Christian-Democratic party of Norway, and the second Catholic in political office since the Reformation.


Undset wrote two books about converting in Norway—largely, we may assume, autobiograhical: Gymnadenia (1929) and its sequel, Den brennende busk (The Burning Bush, 1930). Paul Selmer, the main character, is unhappily married, leads a petit- bourgeois existence, and is drawn to the Catholic Church through studies and literature. He converts against the will of his family and friends. He is married to the boring and very conventional Bjorg, who is both childish and snobbish. The marriage is a failure. Then he meets his one-time love, Lucy, and realizes that she is the woman of his life. He loves Lucy, and this fact will remain. He is married to a stupid, superficial woman, and also, this fact remains. He despairs over his fate and collapses before the tabernacle in all his human misery. Undset relates how Paul is helped by God in a spiritual experience at St. Olav Church in Oslo. He has a vision of a burning bush, and he understands that this is God’s grace to help him. He accepts and tries to love his fate.

This book by Undset contains similar themes to Kristin Lavransdatter—the depth of human sorrow and passion and the simultaneous search for love that is fulfilling more than what human love can offer. True, in a human person one may find a total love—in the rare case of finding another self, a Seelenfreund (soul mate). But the quest for love goes further, it points to the existence of God. But man is so stubborn that he has to exhaust all human power and willpower before he is ready for the surrender to God. Paul Selmer thinks that God will fit into his plans and his little bourgeois universe. But no, God tries him and seemingly leaves him in a state of human hopelessness before he restores him. Only when Paul realizes that the woman he loves is unattainable and that he must stay married to the awful Bjorg is he ready to make the real choice for Christ.

Undset never underestimated human nature, its rebelliousness and its strength. A life lived to the fullest is a life where none of this is unknown but where one makes a choice and dares to fight a battle. But coupled with this realism based on natural human experience—people of flesh and blood—is Undset’s intellectual approach to Catholicism. She was second to none in argument. The turning point for her, as it was for me, was the realization that God exists outside of us, independently of us and of what we think about Him.

Ontological Realism

Sometimes I feel like calling a press conference and telling the tabloids that my secret is that I am an ontological realist, and that ontological realism is what is most needed in the Western world today. I would love to see a headline such as “Admits to being ontological realist,” or “Says secret to happiness is ontological realism.” This, of course, will never happen.

I was a student of philosophy and what I was seeking was a firm point of reference for being and for ethics. I was happy to discover it in metaphysics, and could never accept modern philosophy’s subjectivism, of which constructivism—that nothing exists objectively outside of your imagination—is the ultimate consequence. It is true, as the critics of metaphysics maintain, that without God there cannot really be a firm metaphysics. The alternative becomes one of finding some ground in intersubjective knowledge, but this knowledge crumbles once one ceases to accept it.

Philosophy’s search can only be a search for truth, and in that search, one cannot shut out the possibility that God exists without undermining the philosophical project itself. I did not understand this as a student, but I knew that I could not accept that metaphysics and epistemology belonged to outdated intellectual history, superseded by modern progress. In Scandinavia, there were no strong metaphysical underpinnings for philosophy and theology after the Reformation, which arose exactly from the struggle between realists and nominalists. Nominalism triumphed, influencing theology, philosophy, and jurisprudence. For instance, legal positivism is the dominant tradition in Scandinavia, with the so-called Uppsala school of Axel Hagerstrom the most pronounced example. Ethics is just emotions, he said, and has nothing to do with law. Hence, the question of justice is totally meaningless.

A radically nominalist position carries with it the danger that God then becomes whom we make Him. Dogma changes with time as it is all man-made. We need God as therapy in a lonely universe. The Church is a man-made institution as well.

Either God is the all-powerful truth that exists objectively, or He is nothing. I do not think that Undset took any interest in philosophy, but she was certainly a realist in the philosophical and theological sense. She pursued a quest for reality, which is the quest for truth. Through her own historical knowledge and knowledge of human nature, she was led on her way. She admired the human virtues and had contempt for human vices and weakness. She probably asked how human virtue was possible, and what its source was. The contemporary Christianity she found in Norway did not satisfy her. She did not want piousness and an unchallenging faith. It had to be true and historical: It was the Church Christ founded or nothing.

It is, of course, not true that the Norwegian church rep-resented subjectivism as such. The strong, solid tradition of solo scriptura has resulted in a Christianity that is firmly based on the word of God and the objective moral theology therein. This lives also today and is just as solid, founded on a traditional lay spirituality and the layman’s movement that constitutes the backbone of Norwegian Christianity. Here we find a real incarnation in terms of an impressive unity of life. The layman’s movement was founded by the preacher Hans Nielsen Hauge, who had a vision that he should go around Norway to “wake” people up to their responsibility to be Christians in their everyday life. Wherever he went, he left traces in the form of a very strong lay Christianity. All over Norway, especially on the coast, there are prayer houses (bedehus; in German, Betenhaus) where people gather several times a week to pray and preach together. Their basis is the Bible, and a very faithful understanding of it. They are really good Christians, putting the word of God into action.

In theological, “high-Church” terms, there is a difference between the nominalist tradition and the politicization of the churches today. The politicization of Christianity is much easier when there is no recognized authority and no Magisterium, let alone no centralized church structure. This type of politicization is pervasive in all churches today, including the Catholic Church, but I believe that it is easier to fight there because of the realist tradition in theology.

Undset’s Relevance

The realism I speak of is not only realism in a philosophical and theological sense. It is also the realism of seeing human nature as it is. Today we cannot even speak about human nature as a given. We live in a time that is extremely nihilistic, where atomistic individuals often relate to no one but themselves. Undset discovered that God exists outside of herself, a discovery that moved her to submit to Him. Until this discovery she certainly had explored human nature profoundly. One can hardly discover God without knowing human nature. We find God through self-knowledge. He is not an abstract idea but our Father.

Today we seem to have lost knowledge of both God and human nature. The human being is self-sufficient and even completely autonomous from others. We have no need of God, and the only aspect of life we do not control is death. We can control its onset through euthanasia and suicide but not death itself. This fact bothers us so much that we try to ignore and suppress it as best we can.

Undset is relevant because she describes life as it really is. Her characters are men and women who live naturally. They are born, they work, they love, they struggle, they die. They seek meaning in life. They may find God. They are thoroughly normal people. The spiritual quest is part of a normal human life.

Recently I went to the funeral of my granduncle. He was a farmer and fisherman in southern Norway, living in the tradition of lay Christianity described previously. It was a moving event. He worked hard to feed his big family, and he spent his free time as an organist in the bedehus of the village. His grandchildren and great-grandchildren put flowers on his coffin. His son bade him farewell, and we all “followed” him to the grave. The word “follow” is used in Norwegian when someone is buried. One accompanies the deceased on his last journey. The priest spoke about the transition from this life: “Your days are numbered. Learn to count your days.” We sang about generations following generations.

The realism contained in this funeral is true to human nature. We live for a short while, we have a task on this earth, then we die and are chaff. A human life is short, and the body dies all the time—a little day by day. How can we live as if death will not come, as if we would live forever even though we know we will die? The way most people live today is thoroughly unrealistic.

It is as if Undset wanted to imprint on us: Life is not what you think it is. You are but one link in a long chain of generations, and your most real experience is to give birth, to father children, to love another person, and most of all, to love God. Reality is to be tempted, to fight, to fail, to get up again. Natural life leads to supernatural life—and human life lived fully leads to the search for God. For instance, Undset’s descriptions of motherhood and its importance are extremely powerful. Motherhood and family are natural institutions, and the experience of being a mother makes it possible for us to know the Holy Family. The natural is the way to the supernatural.

Undset and Feminism

Undset was controversial for her criticism of contemporary feminism as well as for her Catholicism. To her, motherhood was the essence of femininity. Being feminine was not a type of bourgeois passivity but strength: Only by being true to her female nature can a woman be herself and therefore strong. Undset polemicized against the feminists of her time, who were influenced by socialist ideas about the role of the state vis-à-vis the family. The leading ladies of feminism, however, were mostly of a bourgeois background. Katti Anker-Moller, the most famous, advocated that the state should pay mothers to have children. Undset opposed Moller, asking ironically whether motherhood was work. Likewise, she opposed any suggestion that the state should dominate the family and that motherhood should be regarded as on par with paid work. “Any woman can become a mediocre tram conductor, as can any man, but only a woman can become a mother, however mediocre she be,” she wrote.

Characteristically, Undset was much opposed to lenient divorce laws. The point was not to allow for easy divorce but to make people realize that they had to work on their problems: “The Norwegian divorce laws are like a door that is always open. There is a constant draft into the marriage.” Thus, Undset’s view was that lenient divorce laws debase the institution of marriage and allow for temptation to enter. I think that she, the realist, would say that it is perfectly normal to fall in love with someone else, to have problems in a marriage, to be tempted to leave. This is what is to be expected. But it is to be fought, not given in to.

Similarly, her view of sexuality was decidedly unmodern. Sexuality is a wonderful, deep expression of self-giving, is fundamental to love between man and woman, and is something mysterious and secluded. The fact that a child is conceived through this activity makes it divine. She would have hated the trivialization of sex in our time, which kills eroticism completely. In Scandinavia, the demystification of sex has been pronounced; it started already in her time by the insistence on sexual education in schools. She remarked, in her essays entitled Et Kvinnesynspunkt (A Woman’s Point of View, 1922), that the prophets of sexuality as biology robbed sexuality of its meaning and beauty.

In our time, there is no debate more needed than a debate about sexual ethics. To many people, this would appear a contradiction in terms. Indeed, one of the prophets of free sex in Norway was once given a distinction that came with a motto: “Cogito, ergo sum,” which was immediately remade by some wit to be “Coitus, ergo sum.”

The sexual boredom of today has a lot to do with the growth of sexual perversion, as the plain, old heterosexual act between steady partners seems outdated. We live in an “oversexed” time where there is no other meaning of sex than mechanical pleasure, for which one does not even need a partner. How far we are from the beautiful love and erotic attraction that Kristin felt for Erlend. How far we are from the obvious connection between sex and conception, sex and the mysterious possibility of creation. The wonder of the sexual union is lost when sex no longer expresses anything or carries with it the sublime and almost divine aspect of partaking in the making of new life.

Fortunately, Undset did not live to hear of the abortion debate. For her, natural and supernatural human life was centered on the transmission of life by strong men and women, and she resisted any politicization of the family and especially of motherhood. Looking at her large number of books, it strikes me that the two most central themes are human love reaching and struggling toward divine love and motherhood. One can almost see how she moved from a preoccupation with human nature and its passions to the supernatural plane that offers the only resolution of human longing and suffering.

But today we do not at all get the anthropology right. We think that masculinity and femininity are constructed, imagined “roles” that can be learned and unlearned, that sexuality is likewise a construct of society and malleable, and that sexuality has no relation to creation. We debase sexuality and thereby pervert it. Likewise, we think that the family is a nominal, not an essential institution. Here we are back to the damage done by nominalism: There is no essence of things, only their “nomos,” which means “name.” There is no ontological realism, only the names we give things. The things in themselves do not necessarily exist. There is no objective institution called the family, only what we call a family.

If there is no God who exists independently of us, then we must discard God altogether. In such a universe, which is the zeitgeist of Scandinavia and much of the western world today, there logically can be no objective reality for anything else. If the fundamentals are totally relativistic, it is only consistent that all is subjective. Therefore Undset’s religious realism is tied to her realism about human nature. She made a total inventory of human nature first and then logically ended in the Catholic Church once she posed the essential question: “Is there a God outside of my subjective opinion of this matter?”

Conversely, today when God is felt no longer to be needed by most people, the same people do not know what human nature is. Human nature, in its fallen state, is also Godlike. Human life is a struggle between good and evil, to the last day. But today we think that the human being is self- sufficient, master of himself and of the universe. All that we can imagine doing, we do. And we not only do it but claim to have a right to do it. We are probably farther from knowing ourselves than any generation before us. To Christians, life is a gradual improvement in knowing oneself. To those who think we are perfect, this idea is absurd.

Starting Again

Undset gives us a chance to start all over again. She does not speak about God, secularization, theology, and philosophy. Instead, she describes our human nature. We identify with Kristin. We fall in love with Erlend. We admire Lavrans. Why? Because they are real human beings, with passions, sins, failures, greatness, and courage. They show us what human virtue and vice are. We follow Kristin as young girl and mother, we remember the drama of our own birth when we read about her labor, and we gradually understand that the human being seeks happiness and love outside of himself, to be found in the hidden God when we follow her painful pilgrimage to Nidaros.

Today there are few lucky enough to grow up in strong families where they are taught what a virtuous life is. My relative, who was buried recently, was the head of such a family. His sons knew that they must work and pray, that they must help those who have less, that God would come when they least expected it. Theirs has been a life of consistency and unity—none of them is especially gifted or bright, but all of them are sound ethically. To live is to work, to form a family, to live by the word of God. When you die, you should be prepared. Your Lord is expecting you. You come from dust and return to dust.

This outlook is as far from the modern western person as it can be. With our self-centeredness, we need to hear personal testimony, best of all to experience it all ourselves. We can imagine this question posed to Undset: “What does it mean to live a meaningful life?” She would probably point to her books: Read and find out.

My relatives, who were not rich, especially talented, famous, or educated, lead a meaningful life although they have never reflected on it. Neither have they reflected on whether God or the family exists, whether sexuality is socially constructed, or whether they should work for the family and help their neighbors. They have simply lived a natural life imbued with fear of God.

When we forget who God is, we also forget who man is. Undset helps us rediscover human nature because her characters captivate. People do not learn from logic but look for someone with whom to identify. If they find Kristin and Erlend, they are on the way. Undset the intellectual is appealing, but Undset the storyteller is much greater. She is a woman for all seasons.

In the Norwegian national anthem it says: “Ogsa kvinner op at stride, som de yore menn” (“Also women took up arms in battle, as if they were men”). This is not strength; it is easy. Strength is to know yourself as a woman, as a man, as a person, and to recognize that you are a child of God—in short, to dare to live a full life.


  • Janne Haaland-Matlary

    Dame Janne Haaland Matláry (born 1957) is a Norwegian political scientist, writer, and politician. She formerly represented the Christian Democratic Party, but is since 2012 a member of the Conservative Party. She is Professor of international politics at the University of Oslo, and served as State Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs 1997–2000.

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