Religion and the Church

Of considerable interest is the struggle within the Church of Rome during the nineteenth century regarding the notion of the Infallibility of the Pope in matters of faith. The issue was of major importance in the First Vatican Council in 1868 when Pope Pius IX introduced the notion for adoption and it was met with considerable opposition by a number of influential Bishops — led, interestingly enough, by Lord Acton who was not a Bishop and had no vote but who was very active behind the scenes seeking to strengthen the opposition. He was convinced that the doctrine was in direct opposition to the New Testament which is the fundamental text of the Christian religion. Acton eventually failed in what became a heated political battle. Several Bishops who opposed the doctrine were excommunicated by the Pope and the only reason Acton, a devout Catholic, was not, presumably, was because he was a powerful man with powerful friends back in England.

In any event, Dostoevsky, himself a deeply religious man, was vehemently opposed to the doctrine of Infallibility as well — as he was opposed to the Church of Rome in general which he was convinced was established as a Church on Earth that stood in direct opposition to the fundamental Christian doctrine as set forth in the Gospels. Of special interest to Dostoevsky — who mentions this in both The Brothers Karamazov and Demons, two of his five major novels — was the passage in St. Matthew 4: 8-11 recounting the three temptations of Christ (repeated almost Verbatim in Luke 4 1-13), but especially the third temptation:

8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; 9 and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘YOU SHALL WORSHIP THELORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.’” 11 Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.

As Dostoevsky read the three temptations of Christ, which he regarded as divinely inspired (they couldn’t possibly have been invented by humans; they are far too wise) this was a direct admonition from Christ to reject things of this earth and live a life of sacrifice and love. But the Roman Church, according to Dostoevsky, sought earthly power in direct opposition to the words of Christ. In fact, he puts his own convictions in the mouth of his character Shatov in Demons:

“. . .Rome proclaimed a Christ who had succumbed to the third temptation of the devil and, having announced to the whole world that Christ cannot stand on earth without an earthly kingdom, Catholicism thereby proclaimed the Antichrist, thus ruining the whole Western world. “

Lest the reader think that a great author such as Dostoevsky would never put his own words in the mouth of one of his characters, we have the words of the man himself in the pages of his 1877 Diary:

“Roman Catholicism, which has long ago sold Christ for earthly rule; which has compelled mankind to turn away from itself, and which was thus the prime cause of Europe’s materialism and atheism, — that Catholicism has naturally generated socialism.”

Years before the Vatican Council  the Catholic poet Dante had been critical of what he called “The Donation of Constantine” in which the recognition of the Christian Church by the Roman Emperor Constantine lead directly to the earthly power of the Church (and divisiveness within the Church, according to Edward  Gibbon) and the corruption which he pillories in his Inferno — filled as it is with Bishops and Popes, who have succumbed to temptation.

In any event, the issue for both of these thinkers was the embracing on the part of the Church of earthly power. For Dostoevsky this was in direct conflict with the teachings of Christ and an acceptance of the lures of the devil himself. For Dante it was the beginning of a long and terrible period of struggle within the church between the promises of Heaven and the lures of earthly treasure.

What is of interest here is the radical difference, in the minds of these three deeply religious thinkers, Acton, Dante, and Dostoevsky, between the teachings of the New Testament and the doctrines of the Roman Church. We know, as a matter of fact, that when William Tyndale first translated the Bible into English 1526, thereby making the sacred text available to all who could read, the Church sought to confiscate and burn copies of the book.  They saw it as a direct threat to their power and authority in matters of religion, which was already being questioned by Luther who had posted his 95 theses in 1517.

The point is that this struggle allows us to see clearly the rift between religion, properly understood, and religion as embodied in earthly institutions that led to such things as purges, excommunications, and Inquisitions — not to mention the forced denial by Galileo of his mathematical discoveries. And we should also bear in mind the many atrocities committed by Protestant Churches in their attempt to establish themselves as power-brokers in the game of earthly power.

Many who have turned against what they regard as “religion” really have a quarrel with the institutions that have been founded and supported by human beings in the name of what they take to be the true meaning of religion. The two are not the same as these men saw so clearly. They wrote and spoke against this false identification because they saw that what human beings do for the best of reasons, at times, turns out to be antithetical to the very principles and fundamental beliefs of the causes they espouse. We could do worse than to take a page from their book — or their books — and keep this difference in mind.

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Returning God’s Ticket

This post, from 2012, is being reblogged with some modifications because it seems even more appropriate in this year of our Leader, D.T.

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov (which Sigmund Freud regarded as the best novel ever written), the two brothers Ivan and Alyosha meet to discuss the “dossier” that Ivan has put together to prove that God does not exist. It is a collection of brutal stories of human cruelty, capped off by the gruesome story of a landowner who turns his dogs loose on a child in front of his mother because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. As Ivan says after reading the story, “I believe the [man] was later declared incompetent to administer his estates.” These were stories that Dostoevsky himself culled from the newspapers and saved for the purpose of working them into his novel. After the reading, while Alyosha, the devout and saintly brother, sits in stunned silence, Ivan tells him he does not accept a God who would allow such pain and suffering: because of the evil in this world, he “returns his ticket.”

The chapter in which this dialogue takes place is the heart of the novel where Ivan also tells his story of the Grand Inquisitor who observes Christ attracting a crowd and has him arrested. He then tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming back to earth a second time. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation, to take upon itself the burden of freedom that Christ wanted to place on humankind, a species that really only wants “earthly bread” and is quite content with the illusion of freedom.  As the Inquisitor says,

“Know then that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.”

Indeed we have.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply draw logical conclusions to prove that evil is a fiction (as Augustine and others of his ilk attempted to do). In a word, faith is precisely the capacity and willingness to accept the irrational — that which makes no sense. There is no rational response to Ivan Karamazov with his dossier. There is only stunned silence and blind acceptance. That seems to be Dostoevsky’s point — if novels can be said to have a “point.” Father Zosima, in the same novel, has no satisfactory answer to the mother who comes to him and asks why her innocent child had to suffer and die. There is no successful answer. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we moderns cannot do.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment. But it came on the heels of volcanic eruptions, plagues and warfare. If it wasn’t gone when Nietzsche said it was, it surely was by the time of  Great War in which thousands of young men died in the trenches in a war that was marginally insane. Or perhaps it was when the Atom Bomb was dropped and thousands of innocent women and children were killed — collateral damage, they call it — in the Second World War. And we today know about marginal insanity as we sit in fear of what the paranoid, delusional man in the Oval Office (who is assuredly not the answer to our prayers) will do next. Those were, and are, times that truly tested human faith and it has been found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demands sacrifices has become less and less real to growing numbers of people who have turned away from God because they refuse to allow that there are, indeed, times that try mens’ souls. Besides, they have to go and fill the gas tank of their new SUV. Ivan could relate to this attitude, because he, too, returned his ticket. But then he also went mad in the end.

Moira Revisited

A couple of years ago I blogged about one of the more captivating notions to have been passed down to us from the ancient Greeks, the notion of moira. It is usually translated as “fate” or “destiny,” but it meant a great deal more. It suggested to the Greeks that there are laws, both physical and moral, that are binding on all humans (and even the gods). In the play “Iphigenia in Tauris” by Euripides, for example, Athene appears at the end of the drama while Iphigenia is escaping with Orestes from the wicked king Thaos and she tells Thaos to let the pair go in safety. He reluctantly agrees and Athene says “In doing as you must, you learn a law binding on gods as well as upon men.” Now, the “must” here does not suggest physical necessity, but moral necessity.

The Greeks were convinced that there are things humans can do and things they cannot do — such as leap unassisted off a cliff and fly like a bird or give birth to a reindeer. And there are things, many things, that humans ought not to do as well. These proscriptions translate into laws, physical and moral. Both are inviolable. Breach of the laws results in death of either the body or the soul. In the latter case the only hope is that suffering will bring wisdom, which may forestall spiritual death. But not always.

Generally speaking those breaches involved an excess of passion over reason — such as the notion of hubris, which is not pride, as such, but an excess of pride. Reason will aid us in avoiding this excess. Aristotle thought virtue was a mean between extremes, a mean discovered by reason. Courage, for example, is a mean between foolhardiness and cowardliness. The failure to find the measure, to act in a restrained and controlled manner, resulted invariably in tragedy. Reason struggles with passion in its attempt to find the mean between extremes, to act virtuously rather than viciously. This does not mean that human emotion is somehow a bad thing, it means that, in the eyes of the Greeks, it must be controlled. Plato used the image of a charioteer (reason) guiding two powerful emotional horses.

The Greek historian Thucydides wrote a history of the war between Sparta and Athens in order to convince his readers and listeners that Athens lost the war because of an excess of pride. Toward the end of the long war they stupidly risked a battle with the enemy by sending their remaining troops far away from home and reinforcements; they were virtually wiped out. In the discussions preceding the expedition the historian makes clear that the Athenians were not thinking clearly and were swept away by the vision of easy success and great wealth resulting from the taking of spoils from the enemy. It was not to be. The result was inevitable.

All of this is interesting to me because of the fact that the Greeks, despite not being a deeply religious people, struggled with these moral precepts and sought to do the right thing. They regarded moral laws as binding on all alike, rich and poor — and divine. For centuries Western teachers have sought to pass along those lessons to subsequent generations. Writers such as Plutarch wrote the parallel lives of Greeks and Romans in the first century after the birth of Christ. His goal was to teach young readers about true heroism and courage, how to avoid deception and lies and not to violate the laws of moira — though the latter concept was becoming somewhat cloudy by that time. His writings provided guidance for the young for generations to come.

Needless to say, we have lost touch with much of this ancient wisdom. As T.S. Eliot has said, we have forgotten about wisdom in a glut of information. We are also in the process of losing sight of what Martin Luther King called “the moral high ground.” In our conviction that we can make America “great” again, we forget that greatness is due to adherence to moral laws and not about power and about vilifying those who differ from us or who refuse to agree with what we have to say.

Perhaps this helps to explain why, along with civil discourse, we seem to have lost our moral compass: our sense of right and wrong has been taken over by bombast and a lust for power and wealth. In our “commodified culture” where business is our main business and businessmen (even unsuccessful ones)  are elected to high office we find ourselves confused and morally disoriented. Gone completely is any sense that there are laws, both physical and moral, that we must obey: we are convinced we can defy them all.  Gone, it would appear, are the lessons learned painfully by King Thaos.

Foolish Consistency

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said that a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Please note the modifier “foolish.” He did not say that being consistent is foolish or that only a fool would seek to be consistent in his or her thinking. What he is saying is that it is foolish to hang on to a conviction when the evidence clearly points in another direction — as in the case of global warming, for example. Only a fool would insist that global warming is a fiction because he said so yesterday and the day before and damn it he is not going to change his mind, no matter what anyone says. Don’t confuse me with the evidence; my mind is made up!

Strange it is that a foolish consistency in one’s beliefs is regarded in this culture, by a great many people, as a virtue. One hears that Jones is a courageous man because he “stands by his guns,” even though everyone knows he is dead wrong. George McGovern, it was said, lost a presidential race because he changed his mind about his Vice Presidential running mate. Heaven forbid that a person change his mind when the evidence suggests that it requires changing! Yet, surely, it is foolish to hang on to one’s beliefs when there is no longer any solid ground beneath them to give them support. Little minds, indeed.

But we now see on the national front candidates running for president with hoards of followers behind them who claim to be Evangelists, True Believers in the words of Christ who condemned practically everything the leader of that political parade stands for. The leader (who will remain anonymous) says the most frightful things about his fellow humans, casting aspersions left and right, threatening to punch those who disagree with him. He is a known philanderer and a failed businessman who exhibits every one of the Seven Deadly Sins except, perhaps, sloth. And yet his “Christian” followers believe he will turn the country around because “he means business.” They ignore what he says even though it is in direct conflict with their most deeply held religious convictions. Or are they deeply held? Is it possible that those who claim to follow the same Christ who threw the money-changers from the Temple really would rather follow the money changers and see to it that they themselves are financially well off, comfortable in their beliefs — and in their warm, safe houses where “undesirables” are forever denied access at gun point? One must wonder.

It would be foolish indeed to hold on to a set of religious beliefs that are in direct conflict with certain truths — say about the origins of the universe. But it is equally foolish (if not downright hypocritical) to continue to pay lip service to those beliefs while embracing the rantings of a political candidate who is the embodiment of everything that religion condemns. When one’s religious beliefs condemn the very things that man stands for it is indeed a foolish inconsistency to continue to support that man, if not patently illogical. Unless, again, those religious convictions are merely a sham, a facade behind which the “True Believer” hides his own hatred of anyone who differs from him and who might possibly pose a threat, no matter how remote that threat happens to be.

When Christ said “Love thy neighbor” he did not qualify it by defining “neighbor” as those who agree with oneself. The word is meant to include all our neighbors of every color, shape and belief. It is not a foolish consistency to act on that prescription and rid hatred from our hearts and reject those who preach it with a loud and angry voice. Indeed, it makes perfect sense.

Faust And Us

Western humans have been fascinated since at least the latter portion of the thirteenth century by the notion of a man who makes a pact with the devil. The two most famous stories of this pact deal with the marginally fictional character of Faust. I say “marginally fictional” because there were stories going about during the medieval period concerning an actual magician by the name of Dr. Johann Georg Faustus who sold his soul to the devil for personal advantage.

In Christopher Marlowe’s version of Faust, the main character agrees to sell his soul to the devil for pleasure, money and power. In its way, it is a story of a man who succumbs to the temptations offered to Christ in the New Testament. Marlowe’s Faust is very human and, unlike Christ, is unable to resist the temptations, though his struggle generates a tragic story that is extremely well told. Some would say this portends the story of modern man who has succumbed to the same temptations and is therefore doomed to spend eternity in Hell. But most of us are far too sophisticated to listen to such gloomy predictions. Besides, it’s just fiction.

But more interesting, and in its way much more profound, is the story of Goethe’s Faust, a story that Goethe spent 50 years writing and which tells of a pact between the brilliant scholar Faust and Mephistopheles (the devil). Not only is Mephistopheles an intriguing character as Goethe presents him to us, with his humorless, cold, uncaring demeanor, but the character of Faust is fascinating as well. Like Marlowe’s Faust, Goethe’s character is driven and every bit an egoist. Unlike Marlowe’s Faust, however, Goethe’s main character is saved in the end. He is saved because while he initially succumbs to the temptations the devil offers him, seducing a young woman and abandoning her after she has killed their illegitimate child, in the end, after spending years wasting his time in pointless pleasures, he turns his attention outward and finds meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence: he is saved through his works. More to the point, he is saved because he finds satisfaction in doing something he loves that benefits others. He finds himself by losing himself in good works. It’s a thoroughly Christian message, as found in the epistles of St. Paul, but it is one we could all learn from, since we seem to resemble Marlowe’s Faust so much more than we do Goethe’s.

Marlowe’s Faust wants pleasure, money, and power. Goethe’s Faust is simply bored. He wants to discover an activity that is totally absorbing, so much so that his boredom disappears and his delight in the moment is such that he wants it to last forever. He finds that moment in helping the Dutch (presumably) recover their land from the encroaching Oceans — another prescient message for us moderns, should we choose to listen! Goethe’s is the more profound story because, while initially succumbing to the temptations of Mephistopheles, he is able in the end to turn his back on them and find salvation by devoting his life to good works. Marlowe’s Faust simply makes a deal and then wallows in pleasure and debauchery. He struggles in the end, because he realizes what his pact entails; but he is lost.

It is fascinating to think that stories written so long ago can have application today. But human beings don’t really change, and great minds sense the problems that we all face now and in the future. Their stories are timeless. Both Marlowe and Goethe sensed that the modern era would bring with it temptations on an order never before witnessed. Marlowe was convinced humans would succumb; Goethe held out the hope that by imitating Christ humans could save themselves in the end, by working to help other humans who are worse off than they. Christ rejected the temptations of the devil. Goethe’s Faust initially succumbed to them, but realized that these were fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying — that way did NOT lie happiness — and then turned his mind toward the needs of others. The devil was confounded: he thought they had a deal! But Faust escaped from his clutches, not because he was a good Christian (in so many ways he was not), but because in the end he was a good man.

Can We Buy Happiness?

It appears you can buy happiness — especially if you are part of the 1%. A recent story in the Atlantic as summarized by Yahoo explains:

In the modern $1.4-trillion luxury economy, bling is out, and high-priced adventures are in. So says a new report from the consultants at BCG, which explores the lifestyle habits of the world’s wealthy based on interviews with roughly 1,000 affluent individuals. Cartier jewelry, Hermes handbags, and Tourneau watches are being eclipsed by exclusive getaways to the Maldives and helicopter skiing vacations in Alaska (which, in case you’re interested, you can book for about $5,750-a-person, all inclusive). Spending on those sorts of mind-bendingly expensive experiences now accounts for more than half of the luxury market and is growing more than 50 percent faster than sales of luxury goods.

The implications of this report are worth considering. For one thing, if true it gives the lie to ancient wisdom that insists that happiness cannot be bought at any price. Going back as far as the pre-Socratics in the West, the thought was that happiness was a function of inner-peace brought about by contemplation of eternal verities: possessions just divert attention away from what really matters. In the New Testament Christ tells his disciples to rid themselves of earthly possessions and follow him. Eastern wisdom also stresses inner peace as the means to true happiness.

In any event, since the sort of happiness discussed in the above-mentioned study is bought at a very high price, it is restricted to the very few. And it is based on simply asking a sample of the rich if they are happy having fun, which is suspect. The implication here is that the rest of us are doomed to be unhappy. I doubt that. I don’t trust what the rich tell us. I doubt their honesty and their perceptiveness. In fact, I side with the ancient wisdom that finds possessions a diversion from what really matters — such things as family and friends and the peace of mind that comes from a life well lived. I take it that was the point of the story, recounted by Herodotus, of Solon’s exchange with Croesus of Lydia. I cannot persuade myself that those who buy trinkets and take trips are doing anything but diverting their attention away from what really matters. Of course if you are rich enough you can keep doing that until the day you die and you will never know the sacrifice you have made — until on your death-bed you realize that you have been running away from yourself your whole life and worshipping a false god.

The study disagrees, as the article goes on to say that Psychology tells us that purchasing experiences can actually make us more content. In general, it’s better to buy up lots of little experiences — going to a series of concerts, or taking regular classes — than pouring our money into one gigantic splurge. But by shifting their spending away from watches and perfume, the rich may have finally figured out a way to turn their money into peace of mind.

While I suspect any claim that starts with words like “Psychology tells us that…” I dare say that buying “lots of little experiences” might indeed lead to contentment, if not happiness. But, as Aristotle reminds us, it’s a question of moderation. For those who can afford the little pleasures, no doubt contentment will follow. But I doubt that those who must go without even the small pleasures of concerts and classes cannot be happy. I have spoken with people who have visited the rag-tag poor in villages in remote parts of the world who insist that the people there are quite happy, indeed some of the happiest people they had ever met. I’ll never know for certain, but I also doubt that those with immense wealth who can afford to spend their lives taking trips and buying new homes and fast automobiles are truly happy. In the end, it is the kind of person we are that determines whether or not we are happy — regardless of how many “things” we own or concerts we are able to attend.

Buying Elections

As the dust begins to settle on the failed attempts by the Democrats to recall Scott Walker in Wisconsin, it behooves any blogger worth his salt to utter an opinion or two. So here goes. I was asked by a friend if I was surprised by Walker’s win and had to answer that I honestly was not. In many ways it was predictable.

The Republicans are still crowing — if you’re quiet you can hear them. And the Democrats are acting a bit like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis [thank you, Tom Lehrer]. But the fact remains that the Republicans outspent the Democrats 8 to 1 with the Koch machine cranking out most of an estimated $45 million to keep Walker in office and send a message to the Democrats that America really does love its pocketbook above all else. The Hell with teachers and nurses!

The Koch brothers are a big part of what is wrong with this country. Rumors have it that they plan to spend $400 million of their hard-earned money to get Obama out of the White House and keep control of the Congress. They might succeed, of course, because as we all know money talks and after the Citizens United decision the amount of money that will be spent on the upcoming elections could buy a small country — or a large one that’s deep in debt. After all, the family oil business the Koch brothers own rakes in an estimated $100 billion a year! The sky’s the limit!

But note the irony in the fact that people like the Koch brothers will spend millions of dollars to buy politicians who will guarantee that they get to keep most if not all of their wealth in the future. I dare say they see it as an investment. Some of the wealthy 1%, I understand, even buy politicians on both sides of the political aisle. That way they can’t lose.

The interesting question is what on earth the founders would say about the turn of events. So let’s speculate. There are a number of myths rising from the “spiritually certain” about the religious preferences of the founders, insisting that they were all devout Christians. In fact there were some Christians within the group, but most were deists who didn’t attend church or believe in the efficacy of prayer. And they certainly did not want the church (any church) interfering in politics. They knew and hated England which had a state church and they saw the same sort of influence in France and Italy where the Catholic Church was all-powerful. They knew they didn’t want any of that. The recent tie-in between the political right-wing and the spiritually certain would have been bothersome to the founders.

But they were also suspicious of capitalism in its raw forms. A number of the Colonies had restrictions on the unfettered growth of capitalism, such as laws against primogeniture, the passing on of wealth to the first-born son. They saw that as a sure way to aristocracy which they distrusted almost as much as they did the King. Many were still wedded to the comfortable notion of mercantilism, which favored the involvement of the government in the financial affairs of its citizens. These were wise men who, for the most part, knew that humans left to their own wiles would get into a dog-eat-dog fight over wealth and they didn’t want to see that either. People like Jefferson saw the future of this country in terms of an agrarian ideal in which people would remain close to the earth and earn enough money to be content and have whatever they required to live a good life, but no more. “More” was not necessary and it could lead to moral blindness. Initially the founders, especially the Southerners, didn’t even want a Federal bank, though Alexander Hamilton finally persuaded them to go in that direction — as a matter of necessity. And many of the wealthy citizens helped support the young nation (and the revolution) with money out of their own pockets.

The attitude toward money in this country in the eighteenth century was quite different from ours now. For the most part money was seen as a means to an end, simply. There were remnants of a deep-seated medieval distrust of money and what it did to people — ultimately stemming from Christ’s admonitions in the New Testament. Just read Dante’s Inferno and try to figure out how many of those in Hell are there because of their relentless greed. That attitude took centuries to die out, but it is pretty much a thing of the past as, thanks to people like John Calvin, we now think that wealth is a sign of talent, ability and even, perhaps, God’s favor. You cannot have too much. If you do, you can always go out and buy yourself a country — like the Koch brothers.

A Modern Parable

Harry Jones is a happily married man with two kids and a good job. He is an investment counselor and very good at his job. He is living the American dream and doing very well, so well he has a cabin on a lake and an RV he and his family take to Colorado every Summer. He is putting money away for the kids’ college because he knows the costs are rising and despite the fact that his daughter, at least, is sure to get a scholarship she will get married and want a big wedding. So it is a good idea to be ready for whatever the future might bring. He works hard, loves his job, takes his family to church every Sunday and regards himself as a good Christian. By most standards, he is a happy and successful man.

On a business trip Harry happens to pick up the Gideon’s Bible in the table at his bedside in the Motel and starts to read. He has always half-listened to the sermons at Church and thinks he pretty well knows what his religion demands of him. He regards himself as a good man, certainly better than many he knows. The minister is a good one, though he seems more intent on making his flock feel good about themselves than getting them all riled up. Harry likes him for that. But what he is reading sends chills down his spine. He is reading in St. Matthew and he reads what the Lord said about wealth and the blessedness of the poor. This is not sitting at all well with Harry. He is especially put off by the notion that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. And especially disturbing is the passage “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” He has never thought much about heaven, or about death in fact. But he isn’t getting any younger and he certainly doesn’t want to go to “that other place.” He is in a quandary. As he reads on he becomes more and more disturbed by the thought that he has been living a lie. He considers himself a good Christian, but he hasn’t been living the life Christ talked about in the New Testament. There it is right in front of him: “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” That is precisely what he has been trying to do.

He feels like he is caught between a rock and a hard place. He can’t have it both ways — either he gives away all his wealth and follows Christ, as the New Testament teaches, or he continues to pursue the American dream. He loves his job, loves the challenge of finding the right investment and seeing his clients do well. And he has to admit he likes the commissions that come his way. But the purpose of his life to this point has been to “serve Mammon.”  What is he to do?

The Grand Inquisitor

Back before I retired from college teaching, I read some Russian literature with one of my favorite honor students as an independent study. At one point I suggested that she read the fifth chapter of the fifth Book of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, entitled “The Grand Inquisitor. She came back a week later having read the entire book — which is no mean feat as the novel is nearly 800 pages long! It is the last novel Dostoevsky wrote and is generally regarded as the author’s major opus. Freud considered it to be the greatest novel ever written. But that chapter in the Fifth Book does stand alone and was even published at one time as a separate book entirely. It deals with human freedom and what Dostoevsky perceived as Christianity’s rejection of Christ.

“The Grand Inquisitor” focuses on a dialogue between two of the brothers, Alyosha and Ivan, one of whom is saintly, the other of whom is a radical nihilist. The latter is attempting to shatter his brother’s faith in Christ by parading before him a series of episodes that show humans at their very worst. But this particular chapter deals with a parable, “set in Spain, in Seville, in the most horrible time of the Inquisition, when fires blazed every day to the glory of God…”  Christ returns, is discovered by the Grand Inquisitor and put into prison where he is questioned relentlessly about why he would dare to come back again after it has taken the Church 1500 years to undo the good that He did on his first coming. Needless to say, Ivan Karamazov, like Dostoevsky himself, was no friend of the Western Church in any of its forms. But unlike Ivan, Dostoevsky was a devout Christian (he saw no contradiction here), and his answer to Ivan comes in the form of the saintly Father Zosima in the novel — and in the form of Christ who sits silent while the Inquisitor presses Him for answers.

In the course of the monologue, the Inquisitor chastises Christ for bringing humans their freedom — which, he says, they don’t want. What they want, really, is bread and miracles. Further, they delude themselves into thinking they are free when, in fact, they are not. He goes on to say, “Know, then, that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.” What the Church has done in the intervening 1500 years, he maintains, is to take the burden of human freedom upon themselves, with its awful sense of moral responsibility, and given in return what people really want — miracles, mystery, and authority.

In addition to the issue of human freedom, the Inquisitor discusses at length the three temptations of Christ, mentioned by St. Matthew, when Christ rejected all worldly goods and power for spiritual peace. The Inquisitor asks, rhetorically, whether it were possible to imagine a more disturbing confrontation than that between Christ and the devil, “at a time when the future was unknown, but now fifteen centuries later we can see that in these three questions everything was so precisely divined and foretold, and has proved so completely true, that to add to them or subtract anything from them is impossible.” Christ said, “no”! whereas His Church has answered “yes”! As Dante noted long before Dostoevsky, a Christianity that seeks to accommodate the goals of the world is bankrupt and has, in effect, succumbed to the Antichrist.

It is a profound chapter in a brilliant novel. But it has been much misunderstood over the years by readers who refuse to take Dostoevsky at his word. His Inquisitor is the embodiment of the Western social reformer whose goal is to make things as easy for humans as possible and alleviate suffering which, Dostoevsky insists, is what makes us truly human. We are only too eager to make the trade the Inquisitor makes for us. We want bread and miracles, and we do not want real freedom with its burden of suffering and moral culpability.

It is interesting to ask in this time of holier-than-thou chest pounding — of the mixing of religion with politics, when hordes of people professing to be Christian condemn others because they are different, and would persecute those who embrace a different ideology — whether any of them could begin to understand the message that Dostoevsky is convinced is at the heart of the New Testament. Or would they deny that it is there at all?