MORRIS WESTS new novel, Proteus , (coming from Morrow in February) treats one of the most controversial and headline-making a mixture of religio-philosophy and mass market shoot-em-up. Proteus is the name of a worldwide secret counterterrorist agency, headed up by a man who, with millions and millions of dollars and moral righteousness at his disposal, has decided to be judge and jury (like wicked old Fury) and develop the ultimate biological weapons to fight internationl terrorism.

West is extremely well known as the author of bestsellers, among them: The Shoes of the Fisherman, The Devil's Advocate, The Ambassador, Daughter of Silence . In all of these novels the reader was required to wrestle with the central issue of pragmatism versus morality, and to possess at least a mustardseed of faith in a Creator.

In person, the Australian-born West is tall, rotund and orotund; enough benignity shines from behind his glasses to give on-the-spot absolution. Not merely words roll off his tongue, but complete paragraphs, including dependent clasuses and footnotes. (It would be a pleasure only to listen to him if it weren't for that flat Aussie accent.) I attack him immediately, on the grounds that he has raised a series of indefensible positions in Proteus , by saying it's possible for the good guys to be wearing the black hats and by having the good guys be the ones who are developing a secret army of what are, basieally, philosopher kings.

"Proteus is a novel," West replies, wetting down two tea bags, "about the irretrievable positions to which man commists himself. Which is precisely the situation that is induced by training people to terror. There is the object --c rush the infamous thing. Go kill it. Wipe it out.

"If man is purely an accident out of chaos, and his endeavor is to improve his condition on a totally crazy and unreasonable planet, then there is no sanction other than force which can be applied to his endeavors. You get back to the position of Voltaire that, unless God exists, you have to invent him. And it is precisely this position which I wanted to bring people's attention to in my book -- that there is no salvation for man from the bloody, pragmatic terror of today's politics.

"Terror produces counterterror; the cylce completes itself, as we have seen in Iran. Repression produces violent reaction; violent reaction produces repression. This is the terribly, terrible dilemma of modern man. That, unless forgiveness is possible, unless you can say there is no point to a life filled with vendetta, you are ultimately corrupted."

Forgiveness? Is the man suggesting forgiveness for Hitler, for the French acts against the Lagerians? Ours against the East Asians? For the rulers of repressive societies which torture political dissidents with ancient and modern technology?

"Forgiveness is imperative," West insists. "Unfortunately, there is no way to forget. You only have to say, 'Stop. Begin again.' The act of forgiveness is not an act of patting people's heads; it's simply admitting that there is no way we can continue this destructive cycle. Whatever was yesterday, there must be a new tomorrow. The pragmatic man says: the totality is behind me, but there must be one issue which can be seminal, if I am bring it off." My head spins as I contemplate what world issue I might have an effect on.

"The successful terrorist is a statesman; the unsuccessful one is a criminal. The prime minister of Israel was the man who blew up the King David Hotel. He became a hero for it, but he could equally have been hanged. And it is precisely because of this that one has to reexamine the nature of spiritual and philosophical belief in whatever framework they exist." (It occurs to me for the zillionth time that Socrates postualted that if man understood the right thing to do, he could never choose the wrong thing, and for that alone I would have fed the old man the hemlock myself, with a spoon. But I let Mr. West continue.)

"In the Christian theology, which as you know is the whole accretion of the Greeks, the Arabs, everybody else -- 2,000 years old -- and is even more detailed and even more closely reasoned for and aginst than the Talmud, the one thing which no one could escape was the notion -- an artifical notion -- of 'the just war.' Thou shalt not kill' -- clear commandment. But what about the footpad who attacks me in the street? The nation that marches across my borders? Do I then have the right to kill? That's a just war, and you have to decide that in your own conscience, and that's the issue.

"So, in this time, the fact that we are still alive is because of the threat of an ultimate terror -- the discipline of fear."

Where, then, lies man's salvation, since it is unlikely that he can move freely outside the framework of today's outside the framework of today's politics? "In some concept of him as a being with a spirituality that transoends his animal status. Ther is no way out of that. Which brings me to my other point: that we allcarry around with us a bag of unexamined credos, and this unexamined life is what comes under pressure when we are faced with decisions of life and death."

Well, of course, most of us do not decide the fate of nations, and examine our grocery bills more carefully than our souls, but try telling a novelist that, particularly one who expects to be on the side of the angels at Armageddon.