Our Disenchanted World

My previous blog post, the latest in a series about the Death of God, fell on deaf ears for the most part. I am not surprised given the nature of the topic; it is not a popular one. But, then (while I was a bit disappointed to see the lack of response from the two or three readers I tend to count on) many of the topics I choose to write about are not of the popular variety. I realized some time ago that if I wanted to assure that those who “follow” me continue to do so, or if I were intent to increase the numbers of followers, I should write more cheerful posts. But I must tell it as I see it, and from where I sit there is not much to cheer about these days, though I will continue to look and to laugh whenever possible in order to maintain some semblance of sanity.

In any event, I have spoken about the Death of God, by which I mean the disenchantment of our world. I have asked that in order to better understand our current angst we contrast our world with Western Europe during the  Middle Ages. That was a time when to protect themselves against life’s uncertainties the typical man or woman carried talismans, amulets, charmed stones, magical writings, and almost certainly the “agnus dei” or a crude cross made of wood. He or she memorized prayers and magic spells to suit a variety of circumstances. They did not distinguish between these charms and the icons and prayers in Latin they heard in church — all of which they hoped would alleviate their fears and pain. As Carolly Erickson told us in The Medieval Vision:

“. . .the availability of occult and religious counter-forces prevented a sense of hopelessness, and made possible a certain accommodation between the visible and the invisible worlds. And the Church, while condemning certain (by no means all) occult knowledge, in practice cooperated actively in this  accommodation.”

More to the point, these charms gave those people a sense of certainty in an uncertain world. Typically, medieval men and women spent time each day in Church and most, if not all, of Sunday. They were all-too happy to risk life and limb in building cathedrals despite the fact that those who worked on them, if they survived, rarely ever saw them completed in their brief lifetime. The point is that theirs was an enchanted world of miracles, mystery and authority. These elements provided them with an anchor in a world that otherwise held out only threats of suffering and violent death. Everything meant more than it seemed to as we can see from Dante’s Divine Comedy which has as many layers of meaning as an onion: everything was a symbol of something else. They trusted their eyes less than they did their deeply held convictions about what was real and what was not.

We, on the other hand, have rejected all three, miracle, mystery, and authority. We reject truth and even legitimate authority in the name of personal opinion which we believe to be infallible. We have embraced scientism (please note the spelling. I don’t speak of science, but of the conviction that the scientific way of knowing is the ONLY way of knowing: if a thing cannot be measured, weighed or poured into graduated cylinders it cannot possibly be known) and we have rejected miracles and mystery in the process.

Thus, to return to my main argument, our disenchanted world is considerably less certain, reassuring, and comforting than the medieval world — despite the very real threats and dangers in that world — because we are alone in a labyrinth of our own creation, having rejected anything that might provide comfort and succor. We are too sophisticated to believe in what we cannot see and our intellectual community, at any rate, finds it difficult to discuss theological or religious questions since this is a sure sign of naiveté and heaven knows we don’t want to be thought to be naïve. Better to lose ourselves in literary theory, postmodern gobble-de-gook, alternative facts, political correctness, or, as a last resort in those electronic toys that give us a sense that we are all-powerful when, in fact, we are becoming slaves to those very toys.

We cannot recover the world view of medieval men and women. It is not only impossible, but also almost certainly not to be recommended. But at the same time, it might be wise to open our eyes and look again at our world, accept that there are things in heaven and earth that cannot be known by science and the empirical method, mysteries that lie beneath the surface of what we call “reality.” This is not to deny scientific truth — that would be absurd and something we shall leave to the politicians. It’s to acknowledge the limitations of scientific method and allow for the possibility that there is a great deal we do not know; in order to begin to learn about it we need to put our toys aside, read what has been written by the great minds that have preceded us, talk to one another, and think deeply about what things mean and where we are headed.



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?