Chapter 23

Always bold whenever you walk

 I dress in my dark suit, white shirt and red tie. I have decided to go by car to Oslo. The arrangement at Trefoldighetskirken starts at 19.00. The vicar, Per Arne Dahl, has asked me if I can come one hour earlier, to meet him, philospher Syse and singer Dagsland. We should warm up with talk and smalltalk before our performance.

             I reach Oslo and park the car outside the biggest church of the city, on a parking lot reserved for the church.

             In the 1980’es I had a writing studio in a loft in a building across the street from Trefoldighetskirken. My attic office was a good place to write, except during Easter time. Then the bells of Trefoldighetskirken, the bells of the adjacent St Olav’s Catholic church and the bells of the nearby Swedish church in Oslo, Margarethakyrkan, made a cacophony of sound that made it impossible to concentrate.

             Built in 1858 in the then relatively poor city of Oslo, Trefoldighetskirken was a giant building for its time. I still towers high, its dome visible from all over the city. What kind of a church is it, architectonally?

Since I am no expert on church architecture, let me give the word to a professor of architecture, Thomas Thiis-Evensen. He has made a contribution to a booklet about the chruch published as part of the 150 year celebration. He writes that Trefoldighetskirken is a building with a lot of meaning. Under one roof the curch combines the most important structures of church architecture. I quote Thiis-Evensen, in my translation from Norwegian:

It (Trefoldighetskirken) represents the whole history of Christianity. When the curch was inagurated, its dome was associated with the baptisteriet (I have found no English word for this) in Pisa, the cross form was associated with Byzantine churches, and the details led the thought to the cathedrals of the Gothic epoch. When one also viewed the form of the church as a child of the central churches of Protestantism, we understand that the building appears as a condensed description of the whole span of time of church history from ancient times until today.

Trefoldighetskirken thus is a building which gives us universal and timeless perspectives. A building which as a whole and in its details is a description in stone of ”the eternal truth”.


             Inside this awsome building little I am going to speak, probably as the first atheist speaker in the 150 year old history of Trefoldighetskirken.

             I say to myself: ”Madre mia.”

             I meet up with vicar Dahl. He gives me a parking permit. The church’s parking lot is a tow-away zone, so I’m happy to have a permit.

             We go inside. Even if I had a studio across the street, I have only once been inside the church. That was when I was attending the funeral of songwriter and television star Erik Bye a few years ago. Erik was such a respected and beloved person in Norway that he got a state burial. Present at the ceremony were queen Sonja and king Harald.

             I was then very much impressed with the dome, which is the highest in Norway.

             Now, when I know I am to stand under the dome and speak, it is even more impressive.

             We go to the sacristy. Coffee and chocolate cakes are served. I exchange words with Syse and Dagsland. They seem to be not so nervous as I am. I learn that today is not only Labour Day, but also Ascension Day (”Kristi Himmelfartsdag”).

             Present in the sacristy is Georg Hille, a former bishop of the Hamar bishopric in Central Southern Norway. He tells me he has come to listen. This makes me even more nervous. I am not afraid of bishops, but I feel the pressure of the church community upon me. This community wants me to change my disbelief into belief. I should not forget that the church is a fisherman, fishing for souls.

             Well, then, a former bishop in the crowd.

             Will there be a crowd?

             Let me tell you about what happened in the words of Per Arne Dahl, who wrote about it in his Sunday column in Aftenposten, on May 4th. He opens with a joke, which he also told in the curch:

Two Danish couples were sitting in a sidewalk cafe on Bornholm (a Danish island in the Baltic Sea) discussing faith. The conversation was brisk and honest, and revealed different positions of belief. One of the men concluded: ”It is my reason which hinders me from belief.” His wife immediately replied: ”That really is a small hindrance!”

However, they spoke about faith and values, and many do that nowadays.

Last week it was so filled up at Katarinahjemmet in Oslo that people had to sit on the floor to listen to the debate between Jon Michelet and Hans Fredrik Dahl about faith and the values of life. The nerve of this conversation was the role of reason in faith. Can I believe in something I cannot understand? Can I give myself to a belief if I do not share all aspects of that belief?

The attendance at this evening of debate (at Katarinahjemmet) revealed a need, which our crown princess precisely describes on the cover of her new CD of hymns: ”How often, in today’s society, do we speak about ’the real thing’?” How often do we arrange honest and respectful discussions about faith and existential questions?          

Speaking about the crown princess. She and her husband did not attend the meeting at Trefoldighetskirken on May 1st.

             I did not miss them much. In fact it was a releif to me that they were not present. I felt stiff as a poker, and the presence of royalty wouldn’t have made me feel more easy. Even if I am no admirer of the royal family, I have this almost instinctive respect for royalty, a deference which was planted in me during boyhood and has been impossible to get rid of.

             Speaking about honesty. Per Arne Dahl called his article ”Befriende ærlighet!” ”Ærlighet” translates easily into English; honesty. There is no direct translation for the word ”befriende”. Liberating may do, or relieving.

             I do not know how honest I am when I speak about faith or no faith in a monastery or in a church. I try to be honest, but am I, really? I have to doubt my motives. Have I engaged myself in a flirt with the church because on the bottom of my soul I want this soul to be saved for eternity? Am I a hidden beleiver who wants to come out of the cupboard (”ut av skapet”) ?

             I think I am not, but doubt is within me, or rather outside me, like a shadow.

              Dahl writes that the need for debate about faith and values was the background for the marking of the 150 year jubilee with a conversation between Syse, Dagsland and myself.

             He goes on:

There was a pouring rain, no tendencies of ”beautiful, mild May”. And I came trembling with cold to the church, and doubted  if anybody would come to listen this evening. My doubt proved to be wrong. People came streaming along to the church...The last late-comers padded up to the gallery to find a place to sit amongst hundreds of people of all ages. And all of them got  to experience a honest and respectful dialogue where the debaters showed a genuine interest for their differing beliefs.

Yes, the big church filled up. The church manager, Viggo Gjertsen, told me afterwards that he estimated the crowd to consist of at least  850 persons, perhaps as many as a thousand.


 Author Jon Michelet admitted that he vas far more nervous when meeting this audience than he is when he sends his crime hero Thygesen (Vilhelm Thygesen, the main character in my 11 books of crime fiction) out on new adventures. He described himself as a soft atheist, who has an increasing urge to challenge his doubts about eternal life and the resurrection of the dead.

I think I didn’t use the word soft (”myk”), but the word ”mild”, which translates into mild or gentle.

             Have I gone soft? Am I feeble-minded?  I think I stood my ground at Trefoldighetskirken. It is true that I challenge my atheism, but I told the audience that I am still an atheist, no real doubt about it. I stated quite clearly that a fundamental obstacle for me when it comes to belief is that I cannot believe in eternal life. I didn’t fumble too much with my words.


Michelet was honest and showed self-knowledge, and was met with  friendliness by the responsive audience. The response was caught upon by the quick and sharp philosopher, researcher and Sunday school teacher Henrik Syse: ”Jon, you remind me of a man who at mature age acknowledged the following: Before I was a doubter, but now I am not so sure any longer.”

 And Syse told about the background of  his faith. He spoke about the need for coherence and the need to belong (to the church), and about how Jesus had helped him to meet the fundamental challenges of life, guilt and death.

And between the soft atheist and the beleiving philospoher stood the doubtful song artist Dagsland, who confessed about his faith, his despair about the doings of the church and his defiance, before he responded to the common wish of the two other guys that there be a strong hope by singing his song ”Fast som fjell” (”Firm like a mountain”).

At the end of the evening, the atheist and the Sunday school teacher could choose a hymn to be sung. And, believe it or not, they chose the same: ”Alltid freidig når du går, veier Gud tør kjenne”...

Did I really choose a hymn? Yes, I did, to be polite. I thought ”Alltid freidig” would be allright. My translation of the first line of ”Alltid freidig” goes like this: Always bold whenever you walk, God knows the roads.

             I’ m not sure about the word bold . Perhaps confident is more correct. But bold sounds better to me.

             I think ”Always bold whenever you walk” is a good slogan for both disbeleivers and beleivers. So I did sing at the top of my voice ”Alltid freidig når du går”. When the audience sang about the road that God knows, I did not sing.

              It was a simple solution, and a good compromise. I had been polite, but I did not sing something I do not believe in.

             Per Arne Dahl writes that he felt bold, rather bold, when the evening ended. I think he was bold. Not all Norwegian clergymen would have dared to invite an atheist to church on the occasion of a 150 year jubilee.

             Something special had happened at Trefoldighetskirken.        

After the hymn was sung, there were flowers and hearthy congratulations to the debaters from members of the parish board.Young Mr Hareide, whom I had not seen in the crowd, came forward and said he was very pleased with the evening. Former bishop Hille said something to me. I was too dizzy to get the exact words, but I thought he said that I should take it easy and not think too much about eternal life, but take things as they come. Could a bishop really say something like this?

             Afterwards, when driving home, I had good feelings and bad feelings about the evening.  

       Chapter 22

Chapter 24