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Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Grand Inquisitor

Today we discuss The Grand Inquisitor, one of the most widely-discussed chapters of Dostoevsky's masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. We left two of the brothers, Ivan the Atheist and Alyosha the naive, aspiring young monk, in a dialog on evil: why is there suffering and terror? What has God to do with it all? If there is a reason for evil and a final "harmony" at the end of all things, is it really worth it? Ivan says no. He tells Alyosha that although he does not reject God, he rejects God's world. He "returns to the ticket":

"It's not that I don't accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket."
"That is rebellion," Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.
"Rebellion? I don't like hearing such a word from you," Ivan said with feeling. "One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live.
"Tell me straight out, I call on you--answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature...would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth."
"No, I would not agree," Alyosha said softly.

Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov explores the turbulent lives of a dysfunctional family: a "wicked," "baboon" of a father and the three sons that he neglected. The main characters of the novel struggle to come to grips with their inner demons and the darkness they find within themselves and in world. To be a Karamazov is to have a thirst and a lust for life; it is to have a fantastic capacity for both good and evil.

At the end of the Rebellion chapter, Alyosha is at a loss. Ivan has presented his rejection of God's world. And who can blame him? Ivan doesn't find there to be any hope for forgiveness and reconciliation. The world is evil; the world is absurd. In the face of it all, it is best not to forgive. Who has the right to forgive? And so, Alyosha responds:

"You asked just now if there is in the whole world a being who could and would have the right to forgive. But there is such a being, and he can forgive everything, forgive all and for all, because he himself gave his innocent blood for all and for everything. You've forgotten about him...."
"Ah, yes, the 'only sinless One' and his blood! No, I have not forgotten about him; on the contrary, I've been wondering all the while why you hadn't brought him up for so long, because in discussions your people usually trot him out first thing." (p. 246 of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation)

Ivan then tells a story of the Grand Inquisitor. It is difficult on a first reading to see the connection between the prior chapter on Rebellion and this story of the Grand Inquisitor. After hearing the story, Alyosha himself is confused, "But...that's absurd!" he cried, blushing. "Your poem praises Jesus, it doesn't revile him...as you meant it to."

Why does Ivan launch into this narrative (or "poem" as he calls it)? We will return to this dilemma later.


The Grand Inquisitor: walking through the narrative

The story of the Grand Inquisitor is set in Spain during the Inquisition. Jesus has returned to earth.

"He appeared quietly, inconspicuously, but, strange to say, everyone recognized him. This could be one of the best passages in the poem, I mean, why it is exactly that they recognize him. People are drawn to him by an invincible force, they flock to him, surround him, follow him. He passes silently among them with a quiet smile of infinite compassion. The sun of love shines in his heart, rays of Light, Enlightenment, and Power stream from his eyes and, pouring over the people, shake their hearts with responding love." (p. 249)

People are drawn by his "invisible force," and eventually a little coffin with a little girl is brought to Jesus. Jesus raises the girl from the dead.

Enter the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor.

"He is an old man, almost ninety, tall and straight, with a gaunt face and sunken eyes, from which a glitter still shines like a fiery spark....And such is his power, so tamed, submissive, and tremblingly obedient to his will are the people, that the crowd immediately parts." (p. 249)

Jesus is arrested and the Grand Inquisitor comes to his cell. Jesus never says a word, but the Grand Inquisitor has something he needs to express, something to say.

The Grand Inquisitor has a complaint against freedom: humanity cannot handle the radical freedom that Jesus offered.

"You want to go into the world, and you are going empty-handed, with some promise of freedom, which they in their simplicity and innate lawlessness cannot even comprehend, which they dread and fear--for nothing has ever been more insufferable for man and for human society than freedom." (p. 252)

For the Grand Inquisitor, this empty hand of freedom is not what humanity needs. The masses of humanity do not want freedom, they are "weak, eternally depraved, and eternally ignoble." (p. 253) Jesus rejected the bread offered to him in the wilderness, and this may be fine for the strong, for those who can handle freedom, but it is not enough for the weak masses of humanity. They need something real. They need a miracle worker; they need bread.

"And if in the name of heavenly bread thousands and tens of thousands will follow you, what will become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who sill not be strong enough to forgo earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly." (p. 253)

The Grand Inquisitor weaves a grand theology based on the three temptations that Christ faced in the wilderness. The three temptations that Jesus rejects represent three powers: miracle, mystery, and authority. That which Jesus rejects are what the whole of humanity needs. Perhaps the few, the elite, can do without them, but the Grand Inquisitor's desire is to provide the great masses of human beings with happiness.

To be happy, human beings need their physical needs met. This is bread. But there is more. Humanity has a moral sense, a conscience.

"Give man bread and he will bow down to you, for there is nothing more indisputable than bread. But if at the same time someone else takes over his conscience--oh, then he will even throw down your bread and follow him who has seduced his conscience." (p. 254)

The mystery that the Grand Inquisitor gives to humanity is the appeasement of their conscience. Human beings cannot handle absolute freedom.

"There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either." (p. 254)

This is where freedom and law come into conflict, and for me it is one of the most intriguing portions of this chapter. The Grand Inquisitor says to Jesus,

"You desired the free love of man, that he should follow you freely, seduced and captivated by you. Instead of the firm ancient law, man had henceforth to decide for himself, with a free heart, what is good and what is evil, having only your image before him as a guide." (p. 255)

For the Grand Inquisitor, law replaces freedom. It sets the boundaries within which people can do right or wrong. The freedom that the Grand Inquisitor attributes to Jesus is a freedom based on being "seduced and captivated" by Jesus with only his image as a guide.

The Grand Inquisitor charges Jesus with overestimating humanity:

"You overestimated mankind, for, of course, they are slaves, though they were created rebels....Respecting him less, you would have demanded less of him, and that would be closer to love, for his burden would be lighter. He is weak and mean." (p. 256)

The three powers, miracle, mystery, and authority, all work together: "There are three powers, the only powers on earth capable of conquering and holding captive forever the conscience of these feeble rebels, for their own happiness--these powers are miracle, mystery, and authority." (p. 255)

The third power, authority, is the unifying force: "A means for uniting everyone at last into a common, concordant, and incontestable anthill--for the need for universal union is the third and last torment of men. Mankind in its entirety has always yearned to arrange things so that they must be universal." (p. 257)

Miracle, mystery, and authority is the answer for the happiness of humanity. Jesus has his "chosen ones," the few and the proud. But what of the rest? "You are proud of your chosen ones, but you have only your chosen ones, while we will pacify all." (p. 258)

And then comes the intriguing twist: the Grand Inquisitor was once of the so-called "chosen ones."

"I am not afraid of you. Know that I, too, was in the wilderness, and I, too, ate locusts and roots; that I, too, blessed freedom, with which you have blessed mankind, and I, too, was preparing to enter the number of your chosen ones, the number of the strong and mighty, with a thirst 'that the number be complete.' But I awoke and did not want to serve madness. I returned and joined the host of those who have corrected your deed. I left the proud and returned to the humble, for the happiness of the humble."

So, we find the shocking revelation that it was for the love of the "weak" masses of humanity that the Grand Inquisitor rejected the freedom of the "chosen ones."

Ivan's story ends with the Grand Inquisitor declaring that the next morning Jesus will be burned as a heretic.

"Suddenly he approaches the old man in silence and gently kisses him on his bloodless, ninety-year-old lips. That is the whole answer. The old man shudders....'Go and do not come again...do not come at all...never, never!'" (p. 262)

Ivan and Alyosha continue to discuss Ivan's beliefs and his approach to God. Ivan believes that "everything is permitted," and this creates a tension.

"But now I see that in your heart, too, there is no room for me, my dear hermit," Ivan says to Alyosha with unexpected feeling. "The formula 'everything is permitted,' I will not renounce, and what then? Will you renounce me for that? Will you?"
Alyosha stood up, went over to him in silence, and gently kissed him on the lips.
"Literary theft!" Ivan cried, suddenly going into some kind of rapture. (p. 263)


Interpreting The Grand Inquisitor

I interpret Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor chapter as primarily a commentary on freedom, love, and human nature. The Grand Inquisitor is correct: the masses of humanity cannot handle the kind of radical freedom that Jesus suggested--the kind of freedom that is "seduced and captivated" by Jesus and has only his image as a guide. At their core, human beings will reject this absolute freedom. They need more; they need miracle, mystery, and authority.

The Grand Inquisitor embodies two perspectives on how to approach this tension between freedom and human nature; actually he lives out these two perspectives. He first embraces absolute freedom and seeks to become one of the chosen ones. The result of this choice is isolation from human kind. But the Grand Inquisitor finds that this approach to freedom is something that people will not respond to in masses. People don't want it and can't even comprehend it. To continue to live his life out in absolute freedom is to be an island to himself and to isolate himself from humanity. He would be free and one of the elite, but he wants to lead "the weak" masses to happiness. Hence, he changes course to a second approach.

The second approach is to call on the powers of miracle, mystery, and authority--to unite human beings under the power of a religion that provides for people's physical needs, gives them laws to govern their consciences, and will punish and/or ostracize anyone who diverges from the institution. This approach grants human beings comfort, security, and happiness.

These two perspectives also represent the two dominant Christian sects: Protestantism and Catholicism. Dostoevsky is presenting something of a caricature of these approaches to Christianity: a focus on individual purity with a small group of "chosen ones" (Protestantism) or a power structure that seeks to unify all people under one institution, discarding absolute freedom but providing humanity's true needs (Catholicism).

I think Dostoevsky is rejecting these two caricatures in favor of something far more simple. I think he endorses the idea of absolute freedom, but places it in the context of the chaos of the world. So, absolute freedom expresses itself in unconditional love as it interacts with "the weak" masses. Rather than unite the world under an institution or pursue personal freedom at the cost of the masses, Dostoevsky offers us a gentle kiss on bloodless lips.

In other words, the freedom and love offered by Christ is something that cannot be institutionalized, captured in creeds, or even understood, but it must be demonstrated in the world and for the world. That is, the only thing that counts is "faith expressing itself through love," as Paul says in Galatians 5.

Dostoevsky's vision is for a world that is transformed by love through the touch of love. Freedom and love cannot be captured through the institution but must be transfered by demonstration. The Grand Inquisitor, then, is not necessarily "wrong," he has just failed to appreciate and experience that the true transformation of humanity occurs by acts of love. This is what truly sets people free.


The Grand Inquisitor and the problem of evil

My last move is to situation The Grand Inquisitor as a response to the Rebellion chapter. Ivan's rebellion is to reject God's world, and by implication he rejects God as well. The world contains absurd and incomprehensible evil. This absurdity is compounded exponentially when God is introduced in the picture: it is the age-old question of how a loving God could allow such a world.

In such a wicked and chaotic world, those who suffer dare not forgive; they do not have the right to forgive. Alyosha introduces Jesus: the sinless one can forgive, he has the right.

I think that Ivan's answer to Alyosha is brilliant, and it proves Dostoevsky's overall theme of the chapter and of the book (see above). In an absurd world of chaotic evil, only an absurd love will transform. Absurdity is answered by absurdity. It need not make sense because the evil we encounter cannot be rationally comprehended.

Ivan never states that Jesus does not have the "right" to forgive, so it seems as though he stands by his point: we dare not forgive. But even Ivan recognizes that there is power when one kisses the bloodless lips of another. Forgiveness and unconditional love transform; to do so is to be truly free. It cannot be understood, but this is the whole point.

The "whole answer," as Ivan puts it, is to be set free through forgiveness and love. Jesus never says a word to the Grand Inquisitor; he allows him to express his frustration. The only thing Jesus does is express love through his kiss. This leaves the reader to decide if such love and forgiveness is possible or even desirable. Should such freedom be pursued? Can such transformation occur? Dostoevsky's text itself seems to be an attempt to illustrate how absolute freedom might be expressed and pursued and to leave for the reader the question of whether an absurd love can truly overcome an absurd world--whether love can inspire "the weak" to be transformed and "the chosen ones" to engage and demonstrate absolute freedom.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Countdown to Dostoevsky

Once again we are counting down to more Dostoevsky discussion.

We will be discussion The Grand Inquisitor chapter. You can click on the link to take you to the text. Like all novels, it's best to read the chapter in the context of the whole book. However, this particular section is very readable and thought-provoking even when it stands on its own.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What is God's relation to evil?

Break out those musty, dusty old systematic theology texts, kids. We're going to do some old school theologizing.

Our discussion on Dostoevsky's Rebellion chapter has stirred a good deal of discussion on God's relation to evil. We will return to Dostoevsky and the Grand Inquisitor soon, but in the meantime I would like to explore three different theological approaches to evil. Specifically, we are exploring how these different theological perspectives view God's relationship to evil.

Let's begin with Calvinism. And who better to represent Calvinism than...well....John Calvin?

For Calvin, God's sovereignty over creation means that nothing happens apart from his will. All things that happen are decreed and have been determined by God's will. There are some moderate forms of Calvinism that distinguish between what God "determines" and what God "permits." According to these more moderate Calvinists, God determines good but merely permits evil. In this way, they seek to create distance between God and evil, thereby creating no confusion regarding the goodness of God. Not so for John Calvin, the original Calvinist.

In the Institutes I.18.1, Calvin explicitly rejects a distinction between what God determines and what he permits: "The distinction was devised between doing and permitting because to many this difficulty seemed inexplicable, that Satan and all the impious are so under God's hand and power that he directs their malice to whatever end seems good to him....Whatever men or Satan himself may instigate, God nevertheless holds the key, so that he turns their efforts to carry out his judgments. God wills that the false King Ahab be deceived; the devil offers his services to this end; he is sent, with a definite command, to be a lying spirit in the mouth of all the prophets [I Kings 22:20, 22]....It would be ridiculous for the Judge only to permit what he wills to be done, and not also to decree it and to command its execution by his ministers."

Calvin cites many passages that he believes demonstrates that God is an active participant, not merely passively granting permission to evil doers. The primary citation here is Acts 2:23 and 4:28: "The Jews intended to destroy Christ; Pilate and his soldiers complied with their mad desire; yet in solemn prayer the disciples confess that all the impious ones had done nothing except what 'the hand and plan' of God had decreed." (I.18.1)

Following his citations, Calvin summarizes: "From these it is more than evident that they babble and talk absurdly who, in place of God's providence, substitute bare permission as if God sat in a watchtower awaiting chance events, and his judgments thus depended upon human will." (I.18.1)

For Calvin, there will be no talk of assigning evil to the human will. It is God's providential work all the way down: the good, the bad, and the ugly are all ultimately the result of God's providence.

Evil does not exist because of free choices; rather, evil is God's will. This God accomplishes, in part, by working "inwardly in men's minds." (I.18.2) God "blinds men's minds (Isa. 29:14), smites them with dizziness (cf. Deut. 28:28; Zech. 12:4), makes them drunk with the spirit of drowsiness (Isa. 29:10), casts madness u pon them (Rom. 1:28), hardens their hearts (Ex. 14:17 and passim)." (I.18.2)

Even the work of Satan is under God's control: "I confess, indeed, that it is often by means of Satan's intervention that God acts in the wicked, but in such a way that Satan performs his part by God's impulsion and advances as far as he is allowed." (I.18.2)

Calvin goes on to cite I Sam. 16:14, Ezek. 14:9, and Rom. 1:28, 29, and then concludes: "To sum up, since God's will is said to be the cause of all things, I have made his providence the determinative principle for all human plans and works." (I.18.2)

It is at this point that Calvin responds to two possible objections. First, if God wills both good and evil, it would seem as though God had two wills, two divided wills. Calvin begins by citing I Sam. 2:25 ("Eli's sons did not obey their father because God willed to slay them"), Ps. 115:3 ("God, who resides in heaven, does whatever he pleases"), Isa. 45:7 ("he creates light and darkness, that he forms good and bad"), Amos 3:6 ("nothing evil happens that he himself has not done"), and Deut. 19:5 ("he who is killed by a chance slip of the ax has been divinely given over to the striker's hand"). (I.18.3)

Having cited more references, Calvin concludes that God's will is not divided but "one and simple." It is merely "our mental incapacity" that fails to grasp "how in divers ways it wills and does not will something to take place." Here Calvin cites Augustine who notes that God can will something that human beings cannot (and should not) will. "For through the bad wills of evil men God fulfills what he righteously wills." The (somewhat perplexing) conclusion of the matter is that "nothing is done without God's will, not even that which is against his will." (I.18.3)

The next objection that Calvin takes issue with is that if God governs the plans and intentions of the ungodly, then he is the author of all wickedness and human beings do not deserve to be damned for actions that God has willed. Calvin points out that human beings are rightly judged because they do their evil out of their own evil desires and the sin that is within them. (I.18.4)

But what if all of this just doesn't sit well?

"But if some people find difficulty in what we are now saying--namely, that there is no agreement between God and man, where man does by God's just impulsion what he ought not to do--let them recall what the same Augustine points out in another passage: 'Who does not tremble at these judgments, where God works even in evil men's hearts whatever he wills, yet renders to them according to their desserts?'" (I.18.4) We ought not reject the truth because of "squeamishness," nor should we deny "clear Scriptural proofs" because it exceeds our "mental capacity." (I.18.4) For Calvin, this is one of the "mysteries" of God that we should not question simply because we cannot understand it.

Any passages that speak of God changing his mind or leaving the future open (see Open Theism, below) should be considered a product of God dumbing himself down so that we can understand him. It is as though God "lisps" to us: "as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to 'lisp' in speaking to us." When God describes himself in human terms, "such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness." (I.13.1)

Brief Evaluation
Calvinism takes into account the many biblical suggestions that God determines all things, even evil.
Calvin cannot accurately take account of passages that describe God's openness to change, the openness of the world, and the seeming absurdity of the world. (See Open Theism, below)
Calvinism seems to be confused--if God determines evil, how is God himself not evil? Or at least less than perfectly good? Despite Calvin's protests to the contrary, it is hard to see how God does not become a terrifying, determining force for good or evil.
Also, it seems a bit unreasonable that Calvin dismisses contradictory elements in his theology by simply appealing to "the mystery of God" or to the feeble intelligence of human beings.
Links of Interest:
John Drury's short summary on Calvin's view of providence (from this section of the Institutes.
John Murray's "Calvin on the Sovereignty of God"
Wikipedia article on Calvinism

Open Theism
Of all of the systematic approaches to God's relation to evil, Open Theism does the most to distance God from evil and affirm his absolute goodness. There is no confusion: God is good and has nothing to do with evil. As an expression of his love, God grants humanity the freedom to choose evil. As such, evil is completely the result of free choice.

Open Theists are incompatiblists: for a choice to be truly free, it cannot be determined in advance. To be a free choice, the choice must be able to legitimately go either way. This means that one cannot either determine or even know what a choice is in advance. For example, suppose I go to your home tomorrow night for ice cream. You offer me my choice of my two favorite flavors: mint chocolate chip and moose tracks. If I am to freely choose between mint or moose tracks, my choice cannot be pre-determined. For an Open Theist it is almost true by definition that if my choice is determined in advance, then it cannot be truly free.

So, God grants humanity freedom of choice. God does not pre-ordain evil, but evil exists because human beings have used their freedom to choose evil. God is not the author of evil. God is good. On the Open Theism account, God is actively engaged to destroy the works of evil, and he in no way wills that such evil should occur.

Open Theists see in Scripture an openness in the future. Not only this, but because the future is open, it is unknowable. God is thus a participant (albeit quite a superior one!) in the openness of the world. God, in fact, demonstrates openness himself, as he responds to the choices of human beings. God deals with humanity most fundamentally out of love, and it is only through freedom that love can be most fully expressed.

A few of the Scriptures that imply an open universe and an open God are: Gen 6:6 (God repented that he had made humanity), 1 Sam 15:11 (God regrets that Saul became king), Jeremiah 18:8 (God repents of the evil he had determined to inflict), Jonah 3:4, 10 (Out of his mercy and compassion, God changes his mind and does not destroy Ninevah), and Isaiah 38:1, 5; 2 Kings 20:1, 5 (cf. 1 Chronicles 32:24) where Hezekiah plead with God and God changes his mind in regards to Hezekiah's plight.

Open Theism is presented as a more livable theology. Open Theists argue that often the traditional theological formulations of doctrine develop a tension between belief and lifestyle. For example, a Christian will believe that the future is closed and determined, and yet he or she will be expected to pray for a certain outcome to take place. This begs the question of why one should pray at all if the future is determined.

Brief Evaluation
God is not the author of evil.
God's goodness is preserved, without question or contradiction with other assertions of God's "providence."
God both grants freedom to human beings and also absolutely opposes evil: as such there is no need to even suggest that God "permits" evil; he categorically stands against it and fights with all who wish to eradicate it.
Open Theism has a difficult time accounting for the many portions of Scripture that suggest that God providentially controls all things, even evil.

Notable advocates: John Sanders, Greg Boyd, and Clark Pinnock.

Links of Interest:
Here is my lengthy Introduction to Open Theism paper.
Open Theism in a Nutshell is a summary of the above research.


Molinism is a rather complex theology developed by the 14th century Spanish Jesuit priest Luis Molina. It attempts to hold together God's providential control (Calvinism) and human free will (Open Theism). Molinism does this by suggesting that God has middle knowledge.

Middle knowledge is God’s knowledge of the free choices that we humans would make if we were put into a given situation. Let's say that I am determined to vote this fall in the Presidential election. Ergo, I go to the ballot box and have a decision to vote for McCain, Obama, or some obscure Independent or Libertarian candidate. Given God's extensive knowledge of me and his thorough knowledge of these circumstances, God knows the candidate for whom I will cast my vote. (In this case, probably Obama....given what I know about myself, anyway!)

God possesses a seemingly infinite array of knowledge of an infinite number of different scenarios. Since each choice we make might be different in a different situation, there are a wide variety of different scenarios that God knows. Together all these choices come within a seemingly infinite number of possible worlds. God knows how I will vote in all of these myriad possible worlds.

According to Molinism, God freely chose one of these possible worlds out of a seemingly infinite possible number of choices. God knew just what would happen and what we would freely choose in this world. So, God freely chose to create this world out of all of his possibilities.

So.....how does Molinism explain God's relation to evil?

God predestined and foreknew all evil that would happen in the sense that God created a world in which all possible free choices were known by him in advance. In this way, the Molinist would claim to have the best of all worlds (pun intended) by preserving human freedom and God's providential control over all things. I can make a free decision to vote for Obama in the fall election, and God can also claim that this decision was not out of his control.

Thus, when people murder, cheat, abuse children, or otherwise inflict evil on others, they do so as a free person, not as though they were somehow controlled or even permitted by God. On the other hand, this world of free choices is exactly that which God intended.

Matthew 11:23 seems to be one biblical example of middle knowledge. Here we have Jesus saying that if certain miracles had been performed in Sodom, then Sodom would still be standing "to this day," suggesting that the people of Sodom would have repented. This seems to indicate that Jesus knew what the free choice of individuals would have been if circumstances were different. To me, this is a rather powerful suggestion: that people would have changed the course of their lives if Jesus would have performed the same miracles that he performed in Capernaum.

Brief Evaluation
Molinism seeks to preserve God's control over all things in the universe (per certain Scripture references) and human freedom. If successful, it would explain the compatibility of two theological concepts that have seemed contradictory.
Molinism may be open to charges from both sides: God still chose to create a wretched world, and it is questionable as to whether human beings are truly free.
One common objection is the "grounding objection": can an action truly be "free" if it is known ahead of time?

Notable Advocates: Luis Molina, William Lane Craig, Alfred Freddoso.

Links of Interest:
This link lists several of William Lane Craig's writings on Divine Omniscience:
Alfred Freddoso: http://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/papers/molinism.htm
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Middle Knowledge:
Molinism dot com: http://molinism.com/

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Defined by misery

In light of the spirited discussion on the prior Rebellion post, I thought I would post a Matrix clip that might be of relevance.

The part that is of interest is at the beginning when Smith speculates on misery and suffering. They could not program a perfect world where people are happy and free from misery. "Some believe that we lacked the programming language to describe a perfect world," Smith says, but Smith has a different theory. Smith believes that "human beings define themselves through misery."

I've got a few questions. They are short and sweet, but loaded.

First: Could God have "programed" a perfect world? Some might argue that he did program a perfect world and that humans screwed it up. I tend not to agree. I think that if God is omniscient (all knowing), then he would have known that if the tree of the knowledge of good and evil were available, then humanity would partake of the wisdom of its fruit. So, I think it is reasonable to say that God created a world where suffering and misery were inevitable.

Second question....Is it possible to return to a time when we are free from misery? What happens if we restore the Garden of Eden? Is it possible that we can define our reality through something other than misery? (And maybe we already do, at least in some way.)

Personally, I'm dubious that such a return to Eden could ever occur. It seems to me that one of the most fundamental elements of our world is chaos. But nonetheless, what if we could restore something of a paradise on earth? Or at least get close? What about God? Would we need God? And if we didn't need God, then would God disappear? I say this because I think that it seems generally true that the less people need God, the less of a real presence he seems to have. I think this is true even of very religious communities here in the U.S. Even among the very religious, God still seems rather absent from the scene, and it seems to me as though our churches are more like services of remembrances of a time when we really did need God. Kind of like placing roses on a gravestone.

Those are just a few of my thoughts, stirred by Smith's speculation that "human beings define their reality through misery."

Sunday, September 07, 2008


"It's not that I don't accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket."
"That is rebellion," Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.
"Rebellion? I don't like hearing such a word from you," Ivan said with feeling. "One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live.
"Tell me straight out, I call on you--answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature...would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? Tell me the truth."
"No, I would not agree," Alyosha said softly.

Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov explores the turbulent lives of a dysfunctional family: a "wicked," "baboon" of a father and the three sons that he neglected. The main characters of the novel struggle to come to grips with their inner demons and the darkness they find within them and in world. To be a Karamazov is to have a thirst and a lust for life; it is to have a fantastic capacity for both good and evil.

The three brothers are united at their father's residence after being separated for most of their lives. They have been completely neglected and ignored by their father and have had to exist on the charity of relatives and benefactors.

For the purposes of my current posts, we are picking up at Book Five chapter 3 and 4, which is somewhere in the middle of the book, right before the crucial twist in the plot--the murder of the old man Karamazov. The title of chapter 4 is "Rebellion."

We find two of the brothers, Ivan and Alyosha, engaged in a discussion. They have met in part through chance and partly by intention. They are both young men; Ivan is 23 and four years older than Alyosha. Ivan is a philosopher and an atheist; Alyosha has been living at the local monastery under the tutelage and care of the very popular and pious Elder Zosima.

Ivan and Alyosha have been curious about each other, but this is the first time they have sat down for a discussion. Ivan is the intellectual; Alyosha is the naive monk-to-be. They quickly settle into a conversation about Ivan's "essence," says Ivan, "that is, what sort of man I am, what I believe in, and what I hope for." (p. 235 of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation).

The first thing Ivan asserts is that he has a desire to live, at least for the time being, even if life is a "devilish chaos,"

"If I did not believe in life, if I were to lose faith in the woman I love, if I were to lose faith in the order of things, even if I were to become convinced, on the contrary, that everything is a disorderly, damned, and perhaps devilish chaos, if I were struck even by all the horrors of human disillusionment--still I would want to live, and as long as I have bent to this cup, I will not tear myself from it until I've drunk it all! However, by the age of thirty, I will probably drop the cup, even if I haven't emptied it, and walk away...." (p. 230)

Ivan does not believe "in the order of things," and yet he expresses his love for that which is simple in life: "the sticky little leaves that come out in the spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me." (p. 230)

Alyosha says, "I think that everyone should love life before everything else in the world."
"Love life more than its meaning?"
"Half your work is done and acquired, Ivan: you love life. Now you need only apply yourself to the second half, and you are saved."
"You're already saving me, though maybe I wasn't perishing. And what does this second half consist of?"
"Resurrecting your dead, who may never have died. Now give me some tea. I'm glad we're talking, Ivan." (p. 231)

Over fish soup and tea, the brothers begin attending to "everlasting" and "universal" questions: "Some people need one thing, but we green youths need another, we need first of all to resolve the everlasting questions, that is what concerns us." (p. 233)

What are such questions?

"Is there a God, is there immortality? And those who do not believe in God, well, they will talk about socialism and anarchism, about transforming the whole of mankind according to a new order, but it's the same damned thing, the questions are all the same, only from the other end." (p. 234)

So, the discussion turns to belief in God.

Ivan says, "I long ago decided not to think about whether man created God or God created man." (p. 235)

Interestingly enough, for Ivan the atheist, the existence of God is a lofty, heavenly matter. The answer to the question could go either way, it seems. And the answer is irrelevant, anyway. Ivan is a human being; he is of this world, and as such, the question seems to lack significance. And yet throughout his dialog with Alyosha, Ivan invests a good deal of passion and energy into the discussion of such "eternal" questions. It is one of several existential contradictions that Ivan displays: he feels strongly about something, then disavows its importance; or he suggests that something is irrelevant and then later the same matter becomes crucial. I will return to this later. For now, I simply note that it seems to be a part of Ivan's argument strategy, but more than this, it is also a part of the struggle to existentially reconcile features of the world, itself, that conflict.

Ivan is of "an earthly mind," but he then goes on to suggest that we might as well grant that God exists. Whether God exists or not doesn't matter in terms of what occurs in this world.

Ivan has nothing against God, per se, he just rejects God's world.

"I have a Euclidean mind, an earthly mind, and therefore it is not for us to resolve things that are not of this world. And I advise you never to think about it, Alyosha my friend, and most especially about whether God exists or not. All such questions are completely unsuitable to a mind created with a concept of only three dimensions. And so, I accept God, not only willingly, but moreover I also accept his wisdom and his purpose, which are completely unknown to us; I believe in order, in the meaning of life, I believe in eternal harmony, in which we are all supposed to merge, I believe in the Word for whom the universe is yearning, and who himself was 'with God,' who himself is God, and so on, and so on and so forth, to infinity....And now imagine that in the final outcome I do not accept this world of God's, I do not admit it at all, though I know it exists. It's not God that I do not accept, you understand, it is this world of God's created by God, that I do not accept and cannot agree to accept. With one reservation: I have a childlike conviction that the sufferings will be healed and smoothed over, that the whole offensive comedy of human contradictions will disappear like a pitiful mirage, a vile concoction of man's Euclidean mind, feeble and puny as an atom, and that ultimately, at the world's finale, in the moment of eternal harmony, there will occur and be revealed something so precious that it will suffice for all hearts, to allay all indignation, to redeem all human villainy, all bloodshed; it will suffice not only to make forgiveness possible, but also to justify everything that has happened with men--let this, let all of this come true and be revealed, but I do not accept it and do not want to accept it! Let the parallel lines even meet before my own eyes: I shall look and say, yes, they meet, and still I will not accept it. That is my essence Alyosha, that is my thesis." (p. 235)

Chapter 3 concludes with Alyosha asking Ivan to explain why he does not accept the world.

Chapter 4, "Rebellion," opens with a discussion of love: we could love, Ivan says, if not for the face of a person. The love of Christ, for example, is impossible on earth, for "we are not gods":

"Beggars, especially noble beggars, should never show themselves in the street; they should ask for alms through the newspapers. It's still possible to love one's neighbor abstractly, and even occasionally from a distance, but hardly ever up close." (p. 237)

I found the above particularly humorous, especially in light of the tendency for Americans to give to abstract organizations (or churches) so as to be able to give to the needy without the hassle of having to engage the needy face to face.

"But enough of that," says Ivan. He means to speak of the suffering of humanity, and more specifically, of the suffering of children. This is the point in the text where things become quite intense. Ivan speaks in detail of the suffering of the children.

"People speak sometimes about the 'animal' cruelty of man, but that is terribly unjust and offensive to animals, no animal could ever be so cruel as man, so artfully, so artistically cruel."

Ivan goes on to describe several forms and instances of cruelty to children, he then makes some rather bizarre (but telling) observations:

"I know for certain that there are floggers who get more excited with every stroke, to the point of sensuality, literal sensuality, more and more, progressively, with each new stroke. They flog for one minute, they flog for five minutes, they flog for ten minutes--longer, harder, faster, sharper. The child is crying, the child finally cannot cry, she has no breath left....You see, once again I positively maintain that this peculiar quality exists in much of mankind--this love of torturing children, but only children....It is precisely the defenselessness of these creatures that tempts the torturers, the angelic trustfulness of the child....There is, of course, a beast hidden in every man, a beast of rage, a beast of sensual inflammability at the cries of the tormented victim, an unrestrained beast let off the chain, a beast of diseases acquired in debauchery." (p. 241, cf. 584)

Ivan's description of the sadist is telling, not so much for its universal implications but more for what it tells us about Ivan himself. How does Ivan know about the feelings of those who enjoy torturing children? His knowledge seems too precise to have been extracted third-hand. Further, there is other evidence in the novel to suggest that Ivan has sadistic impulses and desires. Now, I don't think this takes away from Ivan's current argument and complaint. On the contrary, it seems to intensify his struggle, because Ivan is sincere about the absurdity of the suffering of children. Ivan becomes representative of the essence of our human-ness: he is both disturbed and stimulated by his depravity.

Ivan turns to a tale of parents who abused their little girl, even forcing their little child to eat her own excrement: "Can you understand such nonsense, my friend and my brother, my godly and humble novice, can you understand why this nonsense is needed and created? Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such a price? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to 'dear God.' I'm not talking about the suffering of grown-ups, they ate the apple and to hell with them, let the devil take them all, but these little ones!" (p. 242)

Ivan then tells a little servant boy whose master had him attacked and ripped up by dogs because the boy had injured the paw of one of his master's favorite hounds. Ivan's response to this is a very important part of his commentary on the world:

"I tell you, novice, that absurdities are all too necessary on earth. The world stands on absurdities, and without them perhaps nothing at all would happen." (p. 243)

The above might just be the most fundamental element to Ivan's existential complaint: In an absurd world, who knows how to respond? Or to feel? Or to think? The underlying absurdity of the world resists a uniform or systematic approach.

Ivan discusses how the idea of freedom and responsibility ties in to his discussion:

"I can understand nothing of why it's all arranged as it is. So people themselves are to blame: they were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven, knowing that they would become unhappy--so why pity them....What do I care that none are to blame and that I know it--I need retribution, otherwise I will destroy myself. And retribution not somewhere and sometime in infinity, but here and now, on earth, so that I see it myself....I want to be there when everyone suddenly finds out what it was all for. All religions of the world are based on this desire, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I going to do with them? That is the question I cannot resolve....Listen: if everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children got to do with it?....Why do they get thrown on the pile, to manure someone's future harmony with themselves?" (p. 244)

Clearly the lack of harmony disturbs Ivan, and wants to be there "when everyone suddenly finds out what it was all for"; but there is something in Ivan that also resists any talk of harmony. The existence of the suffering of children resists harmonization: we long for harmony and yet our sense of justice and harmony also cringes at the idea that any future "resolution" will in fact resolve such absurdity. Is the suffering of the children merely manure for "someone's future harmony?" So, the absurdity of the world stirs up contradictory feelings and approaches to the world: we want harmony (as Ivan clearly does) and we do not want harmony, as Ivan states:

"I do not, finally, want the mother to embrace the tormentor who let his dogs tear her son to pieces! She dare not forgive him!....she has no right to forgive the suffering of her child...

"I don't want harmony, for love of mankind I don't want it. I want to remain with unrequited suffering. I'd rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. Besides, they have put too high a price on harmony; we can't afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It's not that I don't accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.
"That is rebellion," Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.
"Rebellion? I don't like hearing such a word from you," Ivan said with feeling. "One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live."

It is at this point that Ivan asks Alyosha if he would agree to be the architect of a plan to make everyone in the world happy at the expense of torturing only one child. Would he agree? "No, I would not agree," Alyosha said softly.

Thus concludes Ivan's "rebellion."

Concluding Thoughts and Comments

Living in Absurdity and Contradiction

As promised, more thoughts on Ivan's wavering. Ivan's comment about the absurdity in the world is important: "I tell you, novice, that absurdities are all too necessary on earth. The world stands on absurdities, and without them perhaps nothing at all would happen." (p. 243)

In a world that "stands on absurdities," our responses to the world can be equally absurd and even contradictory, as in Ivan's case: he wants harmony because he loves harmony; but he does not want harmony for the sake of those who have suffered. Yearning for harmony and forcing harmony on an absurd world risks trivializng the suffering and injustice of the world. At one point, Ivan tells a story of Richard, a poor sap who was born into poverty and stole. "The savage began earning money as a day laborer in Geneva, spent his earnings on drink, lived like a monster, and ended by killing some old man and robbing him." Richard was arrested and put to death for his crimes. Yet before his death he was surrounded by the religious and the philanthropic. They convinced him he was a wretch and converted him. "And so, covered with the kisses of his brothers, brother Richard is dragged up onto the scaffold, laid down on the guillotine, and his head is whacked off in brotherly fashion, forasmuch as grace has descended upon him, too." (p. 240)

On the other hand, Ivan does not want harmony. Does killing Brother Richard, for example, restore harmony and justice? Will any future damnation "redeem" the suffering of the children? Throughout this narrative, Ivan is existentially divided: he wants vengeance but he does not want more suffering. He says he needs "retribution" (p. 244) and yet questions, "can they be redeemed by being avenged" (p. 245)

For Ivan, as for all of humanity, there is are existential dilemmas and even contradictions when faced with suffering and injustice, and this is particularly true of those who make appeals to God or some ultimate resolution/harmony....which leads to my next query.

Suffering and Evil: Is God the Point?

I think that this text (these two chapters, in particular) takes a fascinating approach to the issues of existence, meaning, and a higher Being (or purpose). For one thing, I take away the idea that reference to an Ultimate Being (God) or to an ultimate purpose seem to only complicate things. If there is no God, then there is merely an absurd world. If there is merely an absurd, godless world, then we human beings are free to pursue the betterment of humanity without worry about resolving the infamous Problem of Evil; namely, the problem of reconciling the existence of evil (the suffering children) with a God who is (allegedly) all-loving, all-good, and all-powerful.

So, if I understand Ivan's "argument" correctly, then I agree: reference to the ultimate, "eternal" questions can sometimes only muddy the waters and make things more complicated than they need be. I say, that those who feel the urgency to create a better world and alleviate the suffering in the world should do so, ultimate questions be damned (so to speak). Those whose tender hearts break over evil already live in the light of transformation. Why do they need to ask the Ultimate Questions? In fact, in The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha fits the description of just such a person: he simply lives to change and transform the lives of others by his love for them and his sincere and sacrificial goodness.

The transformation of Ivan, on the other hand, are questionable. Ivan is the philosopher, the one who plunges into the depths of eternal query. Now, I do believe that Ivan has a sincere existential and emotional pain when he thinks of suffering. How could he not? He was abandoned by his father. Ivan has lived through a childhood of neglect and abuse. But for all of Ivan's philosophical queries and emotional concerns, what does he actually do to alleviate the suffering of the world? Ivan's love for life consists primarily of enjoying the "sticky little leaves" and the blue sky. He states at the beginning his belief in the impossibility of looking into the face of others and truly loving them. Ivan is complaining as a spectator of life, not as someone passionate about bringing an end to suffering.

In spite of the immense weight of these questions, Ivan displays strikingly little true change. I do not think this is an attack by Dostoevsky on Ivan's atheism.....perhaps it was meant to be, but that's not necessarily how I take it; rather, I find it as an attack on anyone who presumes that a particular worldview can effect true transformative change. The Elder Zosima (Alyosha's mentor), for example, is revered by all but at the end of his life questions his decision to live a life cloistered in the monastery, and he actually sends Alyosha out into the world for transformative change. Hence, in my opinion, the novel does not seem particularly hostile to atheism or overly generous to religion: it is philosophical reflection that seems to take the hit.

Now, I for one, do not discourage pondering more deeply into the deeper questions of life. But philosophical reflection is not transformation, and the two are not necessarily connected. Having a "correct view" of truth (or doctrine) does not bring one closer to love; conversely, having an "incorrect view" (or even no view at all) does not mean that a person does not understand love "in the inner parts."

Eternal questions for the philosopher and theologian can, in fact, turn out to be substitutes for actual change and distractions from the task of transformation. The Rebellion text leaves me questioning whether there is ever a place for raising such questions. Have arguments for and against the existence of God merely distracted humanity from the real work of transformation?

Returning the Ticket and being there

Ivan's language is intriguing and quite telling: he wants to "return the ticket." It is as though life for Ivan is a theatrical performance that he can choose to watch or choose to not watch. The point that I think is implied in the Rebellion narrative and in the whole of The Brothers novel is profound: we cannot choose to be mere spectator's. As human beings we are born always and already embedded in the world. What makes us human is our interconnectedness with the earth and with each other. As such, "returning the ticket" does not really seem to be an option. The questions we face concern how we will choose to engage our interconnectedness.

References and Further Reading
1) There is a good set of mp3 lectures by Hubert Dreyfus from U of C Berkeley called Existentialism in Literature. There are several good lectures on The Brothers Karamazov. It is from these Dreyfus lectures that several of my conjectures spun off of; particularly, Dreyfus makes the convincing case for Ivan's latent sadistic tendencies.
2) The Problem of Evil from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
3) For those interested in existentialism, in general, there is a good article on Existentialism from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Countdown to Dostoevsky

Preliminary discussion on The Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov. Discussion will commence with the chapters that precede Ivan's Grand Inquisitor narrative.