The Christmas Spirit

It does seem a bit early to begin thinking about Christmas, though the stores and the TV commercials have been all in our faces about gift giving since last Fall. I can remember when the stores would at least wait until after Thanksgiving to set up their Christmas displays. But that was then. Now some of the department stores in our area are already having “pre-Christmas” sales to dump some of the merchandise they don’t want to get stuck with at year’s end while others indicate they will be open on Thanksgiving day to get a jump on the competition. I do realize that this is the time of the year when the businesses that comprise the heart and soul of this great nation make their maximum profits, so if I complain I am beating a dead horse. But I can agree with the brilliant satirist Tom Lehrer when he tells us that the proper spirit of Christmas as practiced in this country is the commercial spirit. In fact, he wrote a song about this season that begins as follows:

Christmas time is here, by golly

Disapproval would be folly.

Deck the halls with hunks of holly

Fill the cup and don’t say when.

Kill the turkey, ducks and chickens

Mix the punch, drag out the dickens.

Even though the prospect sickens

Brother, here we go again!

I suspect that gallons of ink have been wasted reminding us what Christmas is supposed to be about and the words have, for the most part, fallen on deaf ears. So I won’t go there. Instead, I would like to consider a broader issue: the inherent contradiction between the central message of the New Testament and capitalism which has captured our hearts and souls. The latter involves the domination of many by the few in the name of profits, whereas the former stresses the subordination of self for the sake of all in the name of love. The contradiction has fascinated me since I wrote a senior thesis in college on R.H. Tawney’s remarkable book Religion and The Rise of Capitalism. As Tawney was careful to point out, and as Max Weber also argued, Christianity has survived by making innumerable compromises to capitalism: the contradiction has been resolved by Christianity giving up the field almost entirely. What remains in our commodified culture are a few devout followers, empty churches, and remnants of the Christian ethic in the form of the Golden Rule that surfaces most often in moments of crisis — all mere suggestions of the doctrine preached by the founder of Christianity who insisted that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven.

But we don’t like this message and as is so often the case with things we don’t like, we ignore them — like global warming for example. But the fact remains that the religion that so many people claim to follow demands of them sacrifices they are simply unwilling to make, so they have replaced it with a more entertaining, commercial imitation. Christmas as we celebrate it in this country is simply the most graphic symptom of a cultural malady that suggest similarities with ancient Rome: it attests to the undeniable fact that it is not love of our fellow humans that motivates us; it is, as Lehrer tells us, our love of money. Indeed, Tom Lehrer wasn’t the first to point this out. By no means. He was beaten to the punch by the remarkable Alexis De Tocqueville who visited this country in 1831 and noted that  “..[Americans] have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote a novel about a man who truly wanted to follow Christ while living in a secular world in which the message Christ preached had become mere words. The novel was titled The Idiot, and the title says it all: the protagonist simply didn’t fit in and was thought a fool. Anyone who really wanted to follow the teachings of the New Testament would be so regarded in a world where commerce is at the center of our lives and politicians ignore all other issues when running for public office except “jobs and the economy.” Has your life gotten “better” in the last four years?

Business is not an inherently bad thing, but the profit motive that drives so many people in business (with rare exceptions) most assuredly is in conflict with a doctrine that focuses upon charity and love of our fellow humans. It is pointless to claim we are loving those we exploit and make dependent upon us or when we ignore those in need in our attempt to accumulate as much wealth as possible. In the end we must admit that Christianity has been forced to capitulate to capitalism. Any doubts we might have disappear at this time of the year, as Tom Lehrer reminds us:

God rest ye Merry Merchants

May ye make the Yuletide pay!

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Huxley Revisited

My friend Emily January wrote an excellent exposition and commentary on Huxley’s classic novel Brave New World. In commenting on Emily’s blog, I made mention of the extended conversation toward the end of the novel between two of the main protagonists, John (the “savage”) and Mustapha Mond (“The Controller”). The former came lately to the Brave New World from wild and uncivilized America and brought with him the perspective of Shakespeare’s collected works to a world that had lost any desire it may ever have had to read anything. Mustapha Mond runs the show and has a most provocative discussion with the savage about the values and goals of Brave New World in which, the savage insists, “everything is too easy.”

Regarding this novel (which Aldous Huxley, Emily and I all admit is not great literature) I mentioned in two earlier blogs [and here] that a disturbing number of the students I had assigned to read the book in bygone days had no idea whatever what it had to do with them. I will now answer that question: everything.

Our part of the world is rapidly becoming the dystopia Huxley envisioned, though it may differ in certain particulars. But the central issue, as Mond explains to the savage, is that the sole meaning of human life in B.N.W. centers around experiencing pleasure, which we have also come to identify with happiness. As is the case in Mond’s world everything else today has been jettisoned that might stand in the way of our enjoying ourselves. Sex is free with no strings attached. We are not permitted to suffer. We have lost the desire to read. History is bunk (or “irrelevant” as the kids like to say), and if we are sick or sad we can just take a pill….or two. Or we party hardy.

In one of the late chapters the savage asks Mustapha, “Art, science — you seem to have paid a fairly high price for your happiness. Anything else?” Mond replies, “Well, religion, of course…” And the conversation proceeds from there. But let us pause. Have we also sacrificed science to pleasure or happiness? Of course we have. We have done it in two stages: we first reduced science to technology, ignoring the “why” question that is central to theoretical science and focusing exclusively on the “how” question which is key to the technical approach to solving problems, easing pain, and making our lives easier. It’s all about reducing stress and avoiding pain at all costs while we mindlessly pursue diversions that will fill our lives.

We have also replaced religion with “pop” psychology, the analyst’s couch, and the escapist “religion” of the televangelist and the “free” churches. The idea here is to get in touch with our inner selves and to replace the uncomfortable demands of traditional religion — which requires sacrifice and self-denial — with feel-good sessions every week in which parishioners are told that all is well with the world and they should go on doing just what they want in the name of Jesus who loves them no matter what (though we’re not sure about those damned secular humanists).

But we need to think seriously about the elimination of all pain and suffering in our Brave New World. We take it as a given that this is a good thing, but the savage may be right: it’s too easy. We might be much better off if we suffered a bit more, strange to say. Fyodor Dostoevsky, for one, thought suffering made us more human and was the only possible route to real human freedom. If we don’t suffer, we float along on the surface of human experience and never really feel the deprivations and losses that deepen our perspectives and bring us closer to one another and to our common humanity.

Furthermore, as we are now finding out, a society that revels in animal pleasures will never produce a Jane Austen, a George Eliot, a Da Vinci, a Michelangelo, a Shakespeare, a Dostoevsky, a Beethoven, or a Dante. All of these people suffered during their lifetimes and many of their greatest creative inspirations often came as a direct result of some of the darkest moments in their lives. Dante, for example, wrote The Divine Comedy while exiled from Florence where his family was held captive. Mustapha Mond thinks the sacrifice of great art and literature is worth it. The savage disagrees.

In a word, the Brave New World we would create which eliminates pain and suffering is worthy of denizens of an ant-heap (as Dostoevsky would have it) but not human beings. That, it seems to me, was Huxley’s point in writing this novel and the fact that young people could read the novel and wonder what on earth it could have to do with them tells us that they are sadly deluded: the prison bars that Huxley points to and which surround them are invisible to them. These people are amused and easily diverted; that is all they ask of the world in which they live — just as Huxley feared.

Conflicting Beliefs

I wonder of there is any hatred and distrust as deep and pervasive as that between or among various religious sects. It has been said that human history is the history of wars and a great many of them — far too many — are religious wars. The Christians hate the Muslims and the Muslims hate the Christians and — as Tom Lehrer so cleverly pointed out — everyone hates the Jews.

The latest story out of the Middle East is disquieting, to say the least. Religious extremists have attacked the American embassy in Cairo and In Libya the American Ambassador and three diplomats were killed by extremists — all over a movie funded by Morris Sadek, an American Christian, that seeks to show the depth of prejudice in Egypt toward the Christians by the Muslims who dominate the culture in that region of the world. As a recent Yahoo News article points out

 “Protesters in Egypt chanted Sadek’s name because of his support for the film, which presented the Prophet as a bloodthirsty womanizer and religious fake, among other characterizations that deeply offended many Muslims who consider any depiction of the Prophet as blasphemous.

Now I am not an expert in foreign policy, but common sense tells me that a movie depicting the leader of one of the world’s major religions as a “bloodthirsty womanizer and religious fake” is certain to stir up anger and hatred — especially in a region of the world where “America” is something of a dirty word. Of course, that is hard for us to fathom, because we are blinded by our pride and don’t see this country from the perspective of the rest of the world. But it is certainly the case that in the Middle East, at the very least, this country is the embodiment of evil. Obama’s presidency has helped, but as one wag recently pointed out, it will take more than a few speeches to mend the broken fences between this country and the Muslim countries. And Michele Bachmann’s recent crusade against the Muslim Brotherhood certainly won’t help matters a bit.

In any event, the incident in Libya has become a political football as Mitt Romney has leveled untimely criticism at Obama’s foreign policy in the region and the Democrats point out that Romney has a tendency to put his foreign policy foot in his mouth and is not the man to deal with such a volatile situation. Neither side wants to yield as each points fingers and accuses the other of incompetence and inexperience. And while the bodies in Libya are still warm newsmen debate in public which political candidate most “benefits” from the upheaval in the Middle East. Does anyone wonder why this country is held in low esteem by so many people around the world?

In any event, whether it is a political football or merely another chapter in the history of humankind that exhibits our inability to get along with one another, much less to tolerate religious differences, recent events in the Middle East raise red flags and should make us all aware that whichever man is elected to the Presidency in this country, he had better be able to present a formidable front while at the same time showing that he can mend fences and admit that while we don’t do things the way other people do things, they may be right and we may be wrong. That’s something it is difficult for Americans to admit.

Religion Doesn’t Matter

I am not sure what possible difference it makes what religion the president practices — or doesn’t practice (though I confess I am puzzled about Mitt Romney’s religion. What is the Mormon “take” on marriage?  Polygamy is OK but gay marriage is taboo. What’s with that?). But ever since John Kennedy’s Catholicity bothered many and was a bump in the road to his presidency, it seems to be a topic of some interest to voters — or at least the media think it is. A reporter from Yahoo News recently went to Northern Virginia, to a place near Arlington they call “Little Provo,” and interviewed a number of Mormons to see whether Mitt Romney’s religious preferences would make a difference in their voting (Duhhhh!). The story begins as follows:

Some 10,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints live in Northern Virginia, a crucial battleground region in what is expected to be one of the most tightly contested states of the 2012 presidential campaign. Situated next to the nation’s capital, the area is a hub for politically active Mormons in their 20s and 30s. With Mitt Romney on the verge of formally becoming the presidential nominee of the Republican Party, we traveled to Northern Virginia in June to talk to these voters about what that historic moment–the first Mormon to be nominated for president by a major American political party–will mean to them.

Strange to say, there was at least one interviewed who planned to vote for Romney’s opponent. But, as expected, most align themselves foursquare behind their man, for better or worse. None of this seems to me to be terribly important. There is a movement afoot to besmirch members of this Administration for their alleged practice of the religion of Islam. And while I have blogged about that and the force behind it which smells much like decaying McCarthyism, I ask again “what possible difference does it make?” The question is not what religion these people do or do not practice, rather it is whether or not these people can do the job they are called upon to do. And the answer to that question seems to be a reluctant “No” — at least at the top of the pyramid.

Both of the major players in this Fall’s election carry considerable baggage with them into the contest. Barack Obama has been all-too-conciliatory for many, cozying up to Capital and making deals with devilish companies to win accommodations; escalating the war in Afghanistan and ordering drone attacks in crowded civilian centers in the name of “anti-terrorism”; and weakening his stand on the environment, especially of late. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is not forthcoming and has a checkered past with only modest success as Governor of Massachusetts; he also has a questionable connection with Bain Capital and its tendency to outsource while he preaches “job creation” at home. Further, he is regarded by many as aloof and insensitive to the needs of the lower and middle classes — an image that was further sharpened when his wife was interviewed recently on ABC News. In response to a question about her husband’s unwillingness to release his tax records, she is reported to have said: “we’ve given all you people need to know” about the family’s finances. As one of “you people,” I find this offensive.

But the pyramid shows signs of deterioration further down as well.

Our government has broken down and lies scattered in fragments, including partisan politics, lies, deceit, deception, self-promotion, and greed — a great many politicians have their hands out to the all-too-generous corporations who are ready and willing to dole out the treasure that will guarantee them the results that will benefit their bottom line. What the country desperately needs is a Third Party candidate who is tied to no large corporations and who has vision and tenacity while at the same time he or she is unwilling to sacrifice integrity to achieve political success. But such a person could not succeed until or unless constraints are placed on political gift-giving and the hands of special interests are tied and the playing field is made level.

It’s not about religion, folks. It’s about competency. It’s about character and courage. It’s about a person’s willingness to stand up for what is important and ability to put the interests of the country ahead of their own self-interest. This country has produced such people in the past; one hopes that another is out there in the wings waiting for the opportunity to step forth.

Witch Hunt

Some time back when I was younger and wars were Cold a Senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy had the country in a panic because he was convinced that Communists and Russian spies were infiltrating not only the government but also the entertainment and news industries around the country. Rumor has it that he got the number 57 from a ketchup bottle and insisted that there were 57 known Communists in the government (later adding to that number as whim dictated). The witch hunt began, giving birth to the word “McCarthyism” and involving daily coverage on TV; it took months before things were restored to normal and it was determined that it was a tempest in a teapot. McCarthy was censured by the Senate though in the meantime careers were destroyed and hatred and fear were prevalent in the country.

Apparently McCarthy is back in the person of Michele Bachmann, a Representative from Minnesota, who is trying to rouse the rabble over the notion that the Muslims are taking over our government. The Huffington Report recently noted that Rep. Michele Bachmann says the Muslim Brotherhood, the international Islamist movement that recently came to power in Egypt, has made “deep penetration” within the U.S. government, and she wants an investigation of its influence within five federal agencies.

Bachmann’s charges were included in a letter signed by three other Republicans and sent to federal defense, diplomatic, intelligence, and law-enforcement agencies calling for an investigation into this Muslim Brotherhood. There is no talk about what, precisely, the nature of the threat from this group happens to be though the group which recently came to power in Egypt is reputed to seek to unite traditional Islam with modern democracy. Wikipedia tells us, further, that the group is a “model of political activism combined with Islamic charity work.. . .The movement has been criticized by al-Qaeda for its support for democratic elections rather than armed jihad.” One would think these qualities suggest a group this country would seek to befriend, not fear.

Bachmann’s alarm appears to be the rantings of a hysterical women at a particularly difficult time in the history of this country. We face serious and complex problems that need to be addressed by our government. Suspicion and distrust already run deep, as does the chasm between the political parties. It is poor timing, at the very least, to call for an investigation at this time. It’s not clear that there ever is a good time for a witch hunt, but these  are definitely not the times. The country is in debt and the economy is in a recession that some might call a depression (especially those who cannot find any work). An investigation would take time, money, and attention away from real problems in order to conduct a search for a group of people who may or may not pose a threat to this country.

Bachmann was a recent candidate for the Republican nomination, as you will recall. Perhaps she merely wants to call attention to herself once again. It must be difficult after all to be relegated to the shadows after being in the bright lights even for a brief moment. One hardly knows what her motivation might be. But I suspect she is exhibiting a knee-jerk reaction to the word “Muslim,” a religious group that in itself is peace-loving and deeply religious and has no desire to “take down” this country — though there are elements within the group that most assuredly do. We might begin by trying to understand the groups better and see how they differ from one another.

One could say, looking at things from another perspective, that there are Americans who want to turn the rest of the world into a mirror-image of themselves, arm themselves to the teeth, and are willing to resort to any means to achieve that end. I expect we can seem frightening to people in other parts of the world. Much depends on one’s point of view. And we need clarity and dispassionate thought, not emotional rantings. Instead of a witch hunt let’s try to understand one another. How about that, Michele?

In the end, this is sheer hysteria and the call for a witch hunt is not only something we should have learned in the 1950s can tear the country to pieces, it is something that no civilized people should even contemplate.

Political Soft Shoe

It has been interesting to read about the political spin-off from President Obama’s announcement recently that he was in favor of gay marriages. Many a pastor around the country had to calm down enraged parishioners because they find in the Bible what they regard as clear evidence of God’s opposition to such an “unnatural” relationship.

But the spin-off has also affected other Democrats who are running for political office this Fall and they have been showing how adept they are at the old soft-shoe. In a recent Yahoo article Senatorial candidate  Tim Kaine from Virginia apparently supports Obama’s stand on gay marriage, but gets high marks for euphemism in coming out in favor of “equal relationships,” avoiding altogether the mention of the word “marriage.” “The underlying issue is: Should committed couples have the same legal rights and responsibilities? And the answer to that is an unequivocal ‘yes,'” Kaine, the former governor of Virginia now running for Senate, reportedly told the media Tuesday. “I believe in the legal equality of relationships… Just say I’m for relationship equality.”

Let’s ignore for the moment, the candidate’s slick soft shoe. There are two separate issues here, at least. On the one hand, neither the Federal government nor the President can legislate on this issue: they cannot order the states to allow gay marriages. Obama himself made that clear. It is a question of states’ rights and the states in many cases have already spoken — including North Carolina that recently voted overwhelmingly against gay marriage (which should make the Democratic Convention interesting in Charlotte this Fall!). But the second issue is one of the legal rights of married couples. Whether or not one happens to think that men should marry other men or women marry other women, the fact remains that if there is no marriage contract, very often members of these relationships are denied the right of equal treatment. They may not be able to inherit and or have any legal claim to property should there be a separation or death, for instance. In addition, if there are adopted children, the status of the child is in legal doubt, though the evidence suggests that children raised in a same-sex marriage are as healthy and well-adjusted as children raised in heterosexual marriages.

But aside from these technical issues, there is the larger issue of tolerance. The fact that a sitting President took a strong stand on a controversial issue (whatever his motives might have been) is like a breath of fresh air in the stuffy room of contemporary politics where the political dodge and the old soft-shoe are the moves of the day.  As a nation, we pride ourselves on being honest and tolerant. And in many ways we are  — certainly more tolerant about the rights of women than, say,  Middle Eastern countries where women aren’t even allowed to uncover their faces in public or drive a car.

But we have little bragging room, since in issues such as the one before us at the moment we hear considerable outcry surrounding the president’s position on gay marriage and much of it comes from those who pride themselves on being the most devout members of the Christian churches in this country,  We read, for example, that Some churches were silent on the issue. At others, pastors spoke against the president’s decision Wednesday—but kindly of the man himself. A few blasted the president and his decision. A minority spoke in favor of the decision and expressed understanding of the president’s change of heart. I cannot for a moment think that the founder of that particular religion looks on with approval. But then the history of the Christian church in the West is a history of intolerance, including the Inquisition that went on in Spain for several hundred years, and the persecution of witches and other non-believers in this country by the Puritans early on. Perhaps it is time for those who call themselves “Christian” and cannot find anything in their religion about love of their fellow humans to read and take to heart the New Testament. In the meantime, we will continue to admire the politicians in this country who are most adept at the political soft shoe and the ability to say something without actually saying anything. We might at least get some entertainment value for our tax dollars.

Our True Religion

Brace yourselves! Here it comes again: The Super Bowl, once again reminding us what we truly worship in this country. It isn’t football, per se, or even this particular football game, which is merely a pageant. Rather, it is the Almighty Dollar that pulls the strings behind the pageants, professional and collegiate — and, increasingly, high school. Like any true religion, professional sports provides us with a deity, the Almighty Dollar, together with a panoply of saints in the form of the athletes themselves — who disappoint us from time to time, but we worship them just the same. And it’s not a once-a-week thing for an hour, it fills every nook and cranny of our empty lives, giving us something to talk about over coffee or beer during the week, including fantasy games we can play to keep us attuned to what is going on daily.

TV is itself a constant reminder of what really matters to us — not only in form of the games we watch, but also the inspirational shows, like “Fox News” that tells us 24/7 that money is what counts. So when we tire of talking with one another about last weekend’s game, we can commiserate with each other about the sad state of the economy, vowing to vote out the rascals who are taking money out of our pockets. Again, the Almighty Dollar reigns supreme. Our true religion fills our lives the way Christianity filled the lives of the poor Europeans during the middle ages when cathedrals were being built and church was attended every day — sometimes twice a day — by all and sundry. Religion provided the main focus of nearly every life and there were no unbelievers. This still appears to be the case; only the religion has changed.

To focus for a moment on one aspect of our true religion, the game of football itself is great fun to watch and the athleticism of the participants is remarkable and at times unbelievable. But the game has taken on a life of its own and now possesses a power over us that is deeply disturbing. We watch captivated by the sheer brute force exhibited on the field or the TV set. This may indeed be a healthy release of sadistic impulses, as some have suggested. But it does show us at our worst at times as we glory in the violent spectacle that these professional, and semi-professional, athletes put on for us.

But behind it all lurks the specter of filthy lucre: money. Buckets filled with it in the form of TV revenue, profits from memorabilia sales, food sales in the second largest feeding frenzy of the year, the obscene salaries of the players — not to mention the profits garnered by the owners themselves — and the sale of the TV sponsors’ products through the clever ads that we look forward to each year at this time. We tend to get wrapped up in the event itself and forget that this spectacle is being set before us to divert attention away from the fact that what this country worships above all else if the Almighty Dollar. And this deity holds sway each year at this time in all its glory.

It’s not so much that this one game each year sweeps us up in its dazzle and glitz. That’s not a bad thing in itself. We need diversion at times, especially in times of economic woe. But the powers behind the spectacle are insatiable. They influence not only the professional games at all levels, but also the “amateur” games at the collegiate level, bringing about innumerable examples of shame and disgrace (witness Penn State of late, which is only the latest in an extended series of scandals that go back beyond memory). And now, thanks to TV networks like ESPN, the reach of the profit-grabbers is extending to the high schools where games are regularly televised, including “All-America” all-star games sponsored by the armed forces. And we are asked to watch as high school players make the decision which college to attend — an event that is staged to increase dramatic effect as the high school student picks up the hat of his chosen college, to his mother’s chagrin. All are designed to dull our awareness of what is really taking place, as Tocqueville noted in 1831: “..[Americans] have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?” The Super Bowl brings in plenty!

In the end, the game will be played and discussed ad nauseam on TV for weeks and months to come. It will be enjoyed by millions here and abroad. It is well worth watching (yes, I will be watching). But it is also wise to remind ourselves from time to time what it’s all really about, namely, the Almighty Dollar. That is, truly, this country’s ultimate object of worship. The game is just a game.

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?