The Freedom of Faith: A Christmas Sermon By SIMON CRITCHLEY
The Freedom of Faith: A Christmas Sermon By SIMON CRITCHLEY
"What is it that makes human beings happy? In a word, bread. And here we return to Jesus’ answers to Satan’s desert temptations. In refusing to transform miraculously the stones into loaves, Jesus rejected bread for the sake of freedom, for the bread of heaven. Jesus refuses miracle, mystery and authority in the name of a radical freedom of conscience".
In an essay in The Times’ Sunday Book Review this week the writer Paul Elie asks the intriguing question: Has fiction lost its faith? As we are gathered here today, let us consider one of the most oddly faithful of all fiction writers, Fyodor Dostoevsky. More specifically, I’d like focus pretty intensely on what some consider to be the key moment in his greatest novel — arguably one of the greatest of all time — “The Brothers Karamazov.” (Elie himself notes the 1880 masterpiece as an example of the truly faith-engaged fiction of yore.) I speak in particular of the “Grand Inquisitor” scene, a sort of fiction within a fiction that draws on something powerful from the New Testament — Jesus’s refusal of Satan’s three temptations — and in doing so digs at the meaning of faith, freedom, happiness and the diabolic satisfaction of our desires.
First a little biblical background.
Scene 1 – In which Christ is sorely tempted by Satan
After fasting for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert, Jesus is understandably a little hungry. Satan appears and tempts him. The temptation takes the form of three questions. The first involves food. The Devil says, and I paraphrase, “If you are, as you say, the son of God, then turn these stones in the parched and barren wilderness into loaves of bread. Do this, not so much to feed yourself, starved as you are, but in order to feed those that might follow you, oh Son of God. Turn these stones into loaves and people will follow you like sheep ever after. Perform this miracle and people will happily become your slaves.”
Jesus replies, “Not on bread alone shall man live, but on every word proceeding through the mouth of God.” In other words: “Eat the bread of heaven.” Jesus refuses to perform the miracle that he could easily carry out — he is, after all, God — in the name of what? We will get to that.
Next Jesus is brought up to the roof of the temple in Jerusalem. Satan invites him to throw himself down. For if he is the Son of God, then the armies of angels at his command will save him from smashing his feet against the rocks below. Such a party trick, performed in the crowded hubbub of the holy city, would appear to all to be an awesome mystery that would incite the loyal to devotion. Mystery, by definition, cannot be understood. But Jesus flatly refuses the temptation, saying, “Thou shalt not overtempt the God of thee.”
The third temptation raises the stakes even higher. Satan takes Jesus to an exceedingly high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the inhabited earth. He says to him, “To thee I will give authority and the glory of them, for such is my power and in my power to give. But if you will worship me, then I will give all the power and the glory to you.” Jesus’s reply is just two words in New Testament Greek: “Go, Satan!”
With these words, the Devil evaporates like dew under a desert sun.
Scene 2 – In which Christ denies authority and affirms the freedom of faith
In refusing these three temptations and refuting these three questions, Jesus is denying three potent forces: miracle, mystery and authority. Of course, the three forces are interlinked: the simplest way to get people to follow a leader is by the miraculous guarantee of bread, namely endless economic abundance and wealth. It is the mystery of authority that confirms our trust in it, the idea of an invisible hand or mysterious market forces all of which tend benevolently towards human well being.
What Satan promises Jesus in the last temptation is complete political authority, the dream of a universal state. Namely, that one no longer has to render to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Temporal and eternal power can be unified under one catholic theological and political authority with the avowed aim of assuring universal happiness, harmony and unity.
It sounds great, doesn’t it? So, why does Jesus refuse Satan’s temptations? In John 8, when Jesus is trying to persuade the scribes and Pharisees of his divinity — which proves somewhat difficult — he says that if they have faith in him, then this will be faith in the truth and this truth shall make them free or, better translated, the truth will free (eleutherosei). The first thing that leaps out of this passage is the proximity of faith and truth. Namely, that truth does not consist of the empirical truths of natural science or the propositional truths of logic. It is truth as a kind of troth, a loyalty or fidelity to that which one is betrothed, as in the act of love. The second is the idea that truth, understood as the truth of faith, will free.
The question arises: what is meant by freedom here and is it in the name of such freedom that Jesus refuses Satan’s temptations? Such, of course is the supremely tempting argument of the Grand Inquisitor at the heart of “The Brothers Karamazov.” Truth to tell, it appears to be a rather strange argument, placed as it is in the mouth of the avowed sensualist for whom everything is permitted: Ivan Karamazov. As his younger brother, Alyosha (the purported hero of the book), points out, the argument is apparently in praise of Jesus and not in blame of him.
Scene 3 – Be happy! Why Jesus must burn
Ivan has written a prose poem, set in the 16th century, in Seville, Spain, during the most terrible time of the Inquisition, when heretics were being burnt alive willy-nilly like firebugs. In the poem, after a particularly magnificent auto-da-fé — when almost a hundred heretics were burnt by the Grand Inquisitor, the eminent cardinal, in the presence of the king, the court and its charming ladies — Christ suddenly appears and is recognized at once. People weep for joy, children throw flowers at his feet and a large crowd gathers outside the cathedral. At that moment, the Grand Inquisitor passes by the cathedral and grasps what is happening. His face darkens. Such is his power and the fear he inspires that the crowd suddenly falls silent and parts for him. He orders Jesus arrested and thrown into prison.
Later, the Grand Inquisitor enters the cell and silently watches Jesus from the doorway for a long time. Face-to-face, they retain eye contact throughout. Neither of them flinches. Eventually, the cardinal says, “Tomorrow, I shall condemn thee at the stake as the worst of heretics. And the people who today kissed Thy feet tomorrow at the faintest sign from me will rush to heap up the embers of Thy fire. Knowest Thou that? Yes, maybe Thou knowest it.” He adds, “Why, then, art Thou come to hinder us?” Jesus says nothing.
The Grand Inquisitor’s final question appears paradoxical: how might the reappearance of Jesus interfere with the functioning of the most holy Catholic Church? Does the Church not bear Christ’s name? The answer is fascinating. For the Grand Inquisitor, what Jesus brought into the world was freedom, specifically the freedom of faith: the truth that will free. And this is where we perhaps begin to sympathize with the Grand Inquisitor. He says that for 1500 years, Christians have been wrestling with this freedom. The Grand Inquisitor too, when younger, also went into the desert, lived on roots and locusts, and tried to attain the perfect freedom espoused by Jesus. “But now it is ended and over for good”, he adds, “After fifteen centuries of struggle, the Church has at last vanquished freedom, and has done so to make men happy.”
Scene 4 – Obedience or happiness?Leif Parsons
What is it that makes human beings happy? In a word, bread. And here we return to Jesus’ answers to Satan’s desert temptations. In refusing to transform miraculously the stones into loaves, Jesus rejected bread for the sake of freedom, for the bread of heaven. Jesus refuses miracle, mystery and authority in the name of a radical freedom of conscience. The problem is that this freedom places an excessive burden on human beings. It is too demanding; infinitely demanding, one might say. As Father Mapple, the preacher in the whaleboat pulpit early in Melville’s “Moby Dick” says, “God’s command is a hard command. In order to obey it, we must disobey ourselves.” If the truth shall set you free, then it is a difficult freedom.
The hardness of God’s command, its infinitely demanding character, is the reason why, for the Grand Inquisitor, “Man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature of born.” Give people the miracle of bread, and they will worship you. Remove their freedom with submission to a mystery that passeth all understanding, and they will obey your authority. They will be happy. Lord knows, they may even believe themselves to be free in such happiness.
Freedom as expressed here is not the rigorous freedom of faith, but the multiplication of desires whose rapid satisfaction equals happiness. Freedom is debased and governed by a completely instrumental, means-end rationality. Yet, to what does it lead? In the rich, it leads to the isolation of hard hedonism and spiritual suicide. In the poor, it leads to a grotesque and murderous envy to be like the rich. And — as the hypocritical pièce de resistance — both rich and poor are in the grip of an ideology that claims that human beings are becoming more and more globalized and interconnected, and thereby united into a virtual world community that overcomes distance. But we are not.
Scene 5 – Oh Lord: The Church is in league with the Devil
Back in the prison cell with the ever-silent Jesus, the Grand Inquisitor acknowledges that because of the excessive burden of freedom of conscience, “We have corrected Thy work and founded it on miracle, mystery and authority.” This is why the Grand Inquisitor says, “Why has Thou come to hinder us?”
Then comes the truly revelatory moment in the Grand Inquisitor’s monologue, which Jesus knows already (obviously, because he is God). Knowing that he knows, the cardinal says, “Perhaps it is Thy will to hear it from my lips. Listen, then. We are not working with Thee, but with him – that is our mystery.” The Church is league with the Devil. It sits astride the Beast and raises aloft the cup marked “Mystery.” The Grand Inquisitor is diabolical. This explains why he is so fascinated with the temptations that Jesus faced in the desert. The Church has been seduced by those temptations in Jesus’ name.
The paradox is that the Church accepted those temptations in the hope of finding — as the Grand Inquisitor elegantly puts it — “Some means of uniting all in one unanimous and harmonious ant-heap.” The dream of a universal church, or a universal state, or the unity of all nations, or a cosmopolitan world order founded on perpetual peace, or whatever, is Satan’s most persuasive and dangerous temptation. The freedom proclaimed by Jesus is too demanding and makes people unhappy. We prefer a demonic happiness to an unendurable freedom. All that human beings want is to be saved from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves.
Scene 6 – The kiss and the curse
And so, all will be happy, except those, like the Grand Inquisitor, who guard the mystery and know the secret. They will be unhappy. But it is a price worth paying. The true Christians, by contrast, see themselves as the elect, the 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes who will be the company of saints in the millennium that follows Christ’s second coming. This is why the Grand Inquisitor says, “I turned back and joined the ranks of those who have corrected Thy work. I left the proud and went back to the humble, for the happiness of the humble.” This is why Christ hinders the work of the Church and why he must burn like a heretic.
At this point, the Grand Inquisitor stops speaking. Silence descends. The prisoner Jesus continues to look gently into the old Cardinal’s face, who longs for him to say something, no matter how terrible. Jesus rises, approaches the old man and softly kisses his bloodless lips. The Grand Inquisitor shudders, but the kiss still glows in his heart. He stands and heads for the door, saying to Jesus, “Go, and come no more…Come not at all…never, never!”
Scene 7 – Demonic happiness or unbearable freedom?
Back with the two brothers: Ivan immediately disavows the poem as senseless and naïve. But Alyosha upbraids Ivan, claiming he is an atheist and saying, “How will you live and how will you love with such a hell in your heart.” As Father Zossima — whose recollections and exhortations are intended as a refutation of Ivan in the following chapters of the book — says, “What is hell? I maintain that it is the incapacity to love.” The scene ends with Alyosha softly kissing Ivan on the lips, an act that the latter objects to as plagiarism.
Read previous contributions to this series.
Dostoevsky in no way wants to defend the position that Ivan Karamazov outlines in his poem. But Dostoevsky’s great virtue as a writer is to be so utterly convincing in outlining what he doesn’t believe and so deeply unconvincing in defending what he wants to believe. As Blake said of “Paradise Lost,” Satan gets all the best lines. The story of the Grand Inquisitor places a stark choice in front of us: demonic happiness or unbearable freedom?
And this choice conceals another, deeper one: truth or falsehood? The truth that sets free is not, as we saw, the freedom of inclination and passing desire. It is the freedom of faith. It is the acceptance — submission, even — to a demand that both places a perhaps intolerable burden on the self, but which also energizes a movement of subjective conversion, to begin again. In disobeying ourselves and obeying this hard command, we may put on new selves. Faith hopes for grace.
Scene 8 – In which doubt and faith unite
To be clear, such an experience of faith is not certainty, but is only gained by going into the proverbial desert and undergoing diabolical temptation and radical doubt. On this view, doubt is not the enemy of faith. On the contrary, it is certainty. If faith becomes certainty, then we have become seduced by the temptations of miracle, mystery and authority. We have become diabolical. There are no guarantees in faith. It is defined by an essential insecurity, tempered by doubt and defined by a radical experience of freedom.
This is a noble and, indeed, God-like position. It is also what Jesus demands of us elsewhere in his teaching, in the Sermon on the Mount, when he says, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you or persecute you.” If that wasn’t tough enough, Jesus adds, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your father which is in heaven is perfect.” This is a sublime demand. It is a glorious demand. But it is, finally a ridiculous demand. Inhuman, even. It is the demand to become perfect, God-like. Easy for Jesus to say, as he was God. But somewhat more difficult for us.
Scene 9 – In which the Grand Inquisitor is, finally, defended
So what about us human beings, feeble, imperfect, self-deceived — the weakest reeds in nature? Does not Jesus’ insistence on the rigor and purity of faith seem, if not like pride, then at least haughtiness? The Grand Inquisitor, and the institution of the Church that he represents, accepted Satan’s temptations not out of malice, but out of a genuine love for humanity. This was based on the recognition of our flawed imperfection and need to be happy, which we perhaps deserve.
If the cost of the pure rigor of true faith is the salvation of the happy few, then this condemns the rest of us, in our millions and billions, to a life that is a kind of mockery. The seemingly perverse outcome of Dostoevsky’s parable is that perhaps the Grand Inquisitor is morally justified in choosing a lie over the truth.
The Grand Inquisitor’s dilemma is, finally, tragic: he knows that the truth which sets us free is too demanding for us, and that the lie that grants happiness permits the greatest good of the greatest number. But he also knows that happiness is a deception that leads ineluctably to our damnation. Is the Grand Inquisitor’s lie not a noble one?
Scene 10 – In which the author expresses doubt
To be perfectly (or imperfectly) honest, I don’t know the answer to this question. Which should we choose: diabolical happiness or unendurable freedom? Perhaps we should spend some days and nights fasting in the desert and see what we might do. Admittedly, this is quite a difficult thing to sustain during the holiday period.Happy Holidays!