A LOVE SUPREME

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

58 comments:

daniel hutchinson said...

A brilliant, beautiful essay Jon. I appreciate the reconciliation between Ivan and Alyosha.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Thank you.

Dostoevsky's portrayal of reconciliation is brilliant, beautiful, and very hopeful.

Dostoevsky's influence has been incredible, for his spirituality, philosophy, theology, and psychology. Even very critical folks like Nietzsche and Freud (who were from the same general time period) found Dostoevsky to be brilliant.

Crystal McCoomb said...

agreed. brilliant. I'm still thinking about the last part.

daniel hutchinson said...

In my intellectually omnivorous teenage years, Dostoyevsky was a huge influence. I particularly enjoyed The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, and The Possessed, but never got round to Karamazov.

You should check out The Possessed, for this incredible dialogue about America relating how a character spent his time there lying on the ground and fasting ala the OT prophet Ezekiel.

I foresee there will be a time in my life when I will return to reading Dostoyevsky and others (Kafka comes to mind), and I trust God for the life (livety) to get there again someday. For now, I am simply to focussed on much narrower pursuits, but reading these novels again is something to look forward to. Your blog post has been a tasty vignette in the mean time.

Jason Hesiak said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Hesiak said...

neat post. it warmed my heart :) (seriously).

now...

the erdmanian (from Grand Inquisitor post): 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).

the erdmanian (from previous post): 3. Personally, I don't use the term "heresy" or "orthodoxy." I believe that these terms are ultimately mere artificial, man-made constructions that are usually meant to either a) establish ME as being better than YOU and/or b) establish and maintain the power of religious institutions.

hesmaniak (from previous post): ...do you think this is what John was up to in his letters, going on and on about apostasy and "don't be fooled by bla bla bla..."? what do you make of that? Paul does similar things in his letters, too...? (see prevoius post for the previously requested particular partakation of versation).

and now one additional question: you referred to the terms orthodoxy and heresy as "mere artificial man made...". how do you think of MAKING? is a man made thing inherently not from God? or, is a made thing inherently not "natural"? is a thing that is "natural" more connected to God in some way? or are we talking about a supernatural love anyway? or...is it possible for something "artificial" to participate in God's loving...loving loving?...lol i'm not sure how to say that...i want to make "love" a verb there, but in english a noun belongs in that spot in the sentence. and if it IS possible for artificial, man-made things to participate in God's loving, then what sort of man-made things (obviously, i guess, not "institutions" that use terms like heresy and orthodoxy)? AND...is it possible to have a non-Catholic bent and think that its possible to have a man-made thing that is from God? and what do you think of vico?

ktismatics said...

I see the Hesmaniak has drifted off from Dostoevsky, but since I've not finished the homework assignment for this post yet I can't object too strenuously. I've read about a third of the assigned chapter, as well as your post, Erdmanian, and I wonder about some of your interpretations.

You cite this from the text:

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.

Then you seem to equate the few who are strong enough to live on heavenly bread with the Protestants, and those who need earthly bread with the Catholics. I don't think that's what D. has in mind. I say this in part because he's Russian and would have been thinking about the Orthodox branch of the church rather than the Protestant (though as I said I haven't finished the chapter). But I think Ivan's point is that the few and the strong here are those who can tolerate freedom -- which means the intellectual types who presumably aren't so hungry that they're willing to give up their freedom for something to eat.

Ivan the atheist and Alyosha the monk are both numbered among the strong few who might offer some sort of leadership to the weak and hungry masses. The Inquisitor contends, I think, that freedom can't guarantee food to eat: only miracle or power can do that. D. is living in a Russia populated by millions of starving peasants. Even then the anarchists and proto-communists were agitating for radical change, overthrowing the God-anointed Czar in a people's revolution. But the Inquisitor says it can't work: the freedom of the anarchists won't put bread on the table either. D. was a sort of Christian anarchist who thought it could be done: freedom AND food.

There's also some irony built into this story that Ivan tells. Jesus reveals himself by bringing a child back from the dead -- this is miracle, no? Yet the Inquisitor says that Jesus refused miracle as the basis of his revolution.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ktismatics: There's also some irony built into this story that Ivan tells. Jesus reveals himself by bringing a child back from the dead -- this is miracle, no? Yet the Inquisitor says that Jesus refused miracle as the basis of his revolution.

It is an irony....it's one I didn't catch until my most recent reading. The miracle is what makes Jesus a threat to the G.I. Presumably, Jesus is not performing miracles for the sake of starting a movement; rather, he heals out of compassion for the sick and their family.

There is an interesting parallel in the Gospel of John. In chapter 6, Jesus feeds the five thousand, then this:

14After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, "Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world." 15Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

Jesus withdraws.

Jesus and disciples cross over to the other side by night. The crowd gets in boats and heads out after him. They find him.

Jesus then starts interacting with the crowd.

26Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval."

There is tension in the exchange.

The narrative of John continues over the next few chapters to reveal more discourse. These exchanges gradually become more and more heated. The crowd wants a movement; they are interested in politics. Jesus keeps talking in vague metaphors: bread of life, eat my flesh, drink my blood, streams of living water, light of the world.

Interestingly, Jesus seems to be shooting for freedom toward the end of chapter 8:

36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

The point, I think, is that the miracles always seem to either threaten the religious establishment or to draw crowds of people who want a movement (or some combination of the two).

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ktismatics: The Inquisitor contends, I think, that freedom can't guarantee food to eat: only miracle or power can do that. D. is living in a Russia populated by millions of starving peasants. Even then the anarchists and proto-communists were agitating for radical change, overthrowing the God-anointed Czar in a people's revolution. But the Inquisitor says it can't work: the freedom of the anarchists won't put bread on the table either. D. was a sort of Christian anarchist who thought it could be done: freedom AND food.

I'm not sure that I agree. Freedom AND food????

I actually get the feeling that Dostoevsky presents the G.I. as a legitimate point of view. That is, the G.I. is a character who genuinely cares about the hungry masses.

I don't think the answer for Dostoevsky is freedom AND food. He seems to be suggesting that love transcends both and that love sets us free.....but, then again, that just might leave people hungry....and hence the G.I.'s will always be with us.

I think D. leaves us with a tension and with a choice of several paths, all of which might be legitimate from a particular perspective.

Jonathan Erdman said...

From what I understand about Dostoevsky, he rejected both Protestantism and Catholicism in favor of the Russian Orthodox church. So, I think that is why people interpret the Grand Inquisitor as a polemic against both Protestants and Catholics. In his lectures, Dreyfus believes that
Jesus = Protestant view
Grand Inquisitor = Catholicism
I disagree. I think that the G.I.'s early life represents Protestantism and that his later life represents Catholicism. Jesus represents the Eastern view, which is based on love and community as the key to unlocking freedom. (But again, what people will eat still remains a mystery!)

Jonathan Erdman said...

Jason,

I'm not sure I can entirely get my mind around your question. My earlier point was that the terms "orthodoxy" and "heresy" are man-made. Usually people throw these terms around as though God himself had decided what beliefs should constitute "orthodoxy" and what beliefs should be condemned as "heresy."

I'm of the opinion that God can work through anything: orthodoxy and heresy.....and I like to think that God most especially enjoys working through the latter!

ktismatics said...

Good, I'll keep your thoughts in mind as I finish reading. I don't think citing Scripture is particularly relevant in exegeting Ivan's parable, inasmuch as his picture of Jesus' earthly ministry doesn't square all that well with what the Gospels have to say. And while Jesus might not have had an earthly revolution in mind, surely Ivan did. Part of Ivan's objection is that the freedom Gospel just won't help the masses. The G.I. could just as easily have been a Russian Orthodox tyrant as a Roman Catholic one, since in the Orthodox world the church, the state, and the rich all ruled together with a heavy hand over the masses. I suspect D. made the G.I. Spanish in order to avoid getting arrested again (he'd already spent 5 years in jail and another 5 in Siberian exile for his socialist leanings and agitation against the Czar).

ktismatics said...

That's not to say that D. was socialistic when he wrote Brothers K. I think he leaned toward Alyosha's otherworldly monkishness by then, but the strong arguments of both Ivan and the G.I. point out D's own ambivalence. That's why this is a novel rather than a nonfiction: D. speaks for/through all the characters, not just Alyosha.

Jason Hesiak said...

Erdmanian,

Stated more succinctly...

When John says the following...

From 1 John, Ch. 2: 18Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us. 20But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge. 21I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and because no lie is of the truth. 22Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. 24Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you.

or...

from 1 John, Ch. 4: 1Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

...do you think that he is...

either a) establish [himself or what he represents] as being better than [the 'liars' to whom he refers] and/or b) establish[ing] and maintain[ing]...power...

or do you also/maybe think that John in such situation is...

...discarding absolute freedom but providing humanity's true needs...

???

daniel hutchinson said...

With all due respect, I don't think it matters terribly much what D was thinking at the time of Karamazov, or whether or not he was "speaking" through the characters.

Alyosha, Ivan, the G.I, and Jesus, have a life of their own. The respond to one another in the text and linking them to specific external contexts is not as important to me as feeling my own response, as a reader...

What do you feel at the moment of the kiss?

In my experience, the love of God settles all argument and contention, and that is what the text reflects and produces too.

If anything, D. had reason to show allegiance to no-one and nothing other than the love of his saviour. I don't read an agenda or ideology at work here. Great art, in the main, is above such things anyway.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Daniel,

Ha, ha! Yes, I agree with you! The reader's response is most important......but it is nonetheless interesting to me to speculate on D's intentions!

Jonathan Erdman said...

Jason,

I'm not entirely sure how to take the Epistle of John. He writes in circles!

One thing that seems clear in John's epistles is that love always assumes the primary position.

John 4:
7Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

The problem is, of course.....what if someone doesn't believe that Jesus is "the Christ" (1 John 2) or denies that Jesus has come in the flesh (1 John 4).

It seems to me that the heretics that John was attacking were drawing people away from the love of Christ.

To answer you question directly.....I think that the verses you mention (from chaps. 2 and 4) are a form of institutionalizing the church. It's not really something I'm in favor of (as you can imagine).....but it is interesting that John is trying to maintain the primacy of love. To me, there would be a more loving way of handling "anti-christs" rather than to dismiss them with labels....but I'm not going to judge too harshly, because I wasn't a part of the situation that John is speaking to!

ktismatics said...

You guys really think your response to the text is more important than what the author intended to convey? So Daniel, when I say I think you're little speech is full of shit, it doesn't matter as much what I mean as what you feel when you read it?

ktismatics said...

Sorry: "your little speech," not "you're little speech."

daniel hutchinson said...

Ktismatics, I'm talking about art, literature, a novel - not about what you may say to me now. I don't understand the comparison.

But even in this case, my response would be more important than your intentions, as far as I'm concerned. I wouldn't be offended, because you are entitled to your own opinion. I wouldn't feel agrieved, because I'm not that insecure.

Neither do I sense such insecurity in a great writer like Dostoyevskyy that would make him to censor his characters or straightjacket his story-telling according to intentions, a message, or whatever else you may choose to read behind the text.

Novelists who try to convey a specific message land up sounding second rate. Those that let their works breathe a life of their own are the masters.

The same can be said for other works of art, including music, sculpture, film, etc.

ktismatics said...

Dostoevsky wasn't composing music, or painting a picture, or even writing poetry; he was trying to communicate something. Prose isn't only about beauty; it's also about something like truth, wouldn't you say? On the other hand, a novel isn't a disguised essay or propaganda piece, where the writer is using the fictional premise to drive home some object lesson to his readers (there are exceptions, and Ayn Rand comes to mind).

"I wouldn't feel agrieved, because I'm not that insecure."

So what would you feel? Angry? Sorrowful? Amused? And would your feelings have anything to do with the content of what I had written? And do you think that my content would convey my intentions in any way?

"Neither do I sense such insecurity in a great writer like Dostoyevskyy that would make him to censor his characters or straightjacket his story-telling according to intentions, a message, or whatever else you may choose to read behind the text. Novelists who try to convey a specific message land up sounding second rate. Those that let their works breathe a life of their own are the masters."

Is this a general proclamation, or do you regard it as responsive to what I wrote? Or is it responsive to the feeling you found welling up inside yourself when you read what I wrote?

ktismatics said...

"In my experience, the love of God settles all argument and contention, and that is what the text reflects and produces too."

Is this what every text reflects and produces, or just this particular text by Dostoevsky? Was he trying to convey this message about God's love through his writing to the reader?

"If anything, D. had reason to show allegiance to no-one and nothing other than the love of his saviour. I don't read an agenda or ideology at work here."

Allegiance to the savior isn't an agenda or an ideology? In what way does the text reflect this allegiance? Do you believe that D. intended to show allegiance in the text he produced?

ktismatics said...

"Alyosha, Ivan, the G.I, and Jesus, have a life of their own."

Are you saying that the first three are real people, or that the fourth one is a fictional character?

ktismatics said...

Okay, let's move on, let bygones be bygones, etc. I agree, Daniel, that good literature isn't preaching a particular ideology. I intended to contend that in the Bros. K., Dostoevsky addresses ideological issues that include religion, economics and politics. I also intended to say that D. wasn't using any one of his characters as mouthpiece for his personal position on the issues. Rather, I was suggesting that, since each of the main characters makes a pretty good case for himself, they probably reflect D's own ambivalence about the issues addressed. This last contention is the most debatable one, and one for which I have no real evidence to offer vouchsafing its truth. Let's call it the feeling I get when reading the book.

ktismatics said...

Hey, where'd everybody go?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Well, I'm here......but I'm a Gadamerian, so I can recognize validity on both sides of the hermeneutical argument!

Jonathan Erdman said...

One thing I saw, as well, was that Dostoevsky doesn't seem to set up his characters as straw men. So, for example, the G.I. makes very true observations. Dost. wrote The Brothers later in his life/career, so the G.I. seems to reflect D's pessimistic perspective on human nature. While it is evident that the G.I. doesn't have the "best" solution, it also seems clear that Dost. isn't really presenting a "best solution" to the dilemmas of freedom, human nature, and religion. He is more existential, meaning that D is more interested in capturing the emotional, spiritual, and psychological impact of the problem, rather than peddling a universal solution.

ktismatics said...

Okay, I finished the rest of the chapter. I think we can agree that Ivan prefers Jesus to the Grand Inquisitor. Ivan's Jesus has renounced the big three temptations of miracle, mystery, and authority. He is not someone to worship, does not control individual consciences, does not unify the people collectively. But it should be recognized that the Jesus of the Gospels does link Jesus to miracle, mystery and authority, to worship, conscience, and a united people. This is a demystified Jesus who lives in freedom and uncertainty, love and powerlessness. He is also an isolated solitary figure who can only present himself as an example of what this sort of life looked like in his own case. He's kind of an atheistic Jesus.

But only the few can live the sort of life that Ivan's version of Jesus demonstrated. In the G.I. Ivan contends that the authoritarian tyrant rules because the masses can't handle freedom, that they need someone to dominate them in order to be happy and secure. This I'd say is the elitist's view of oppression: the people get what they want and need.

So what happens at the end of the story? Jesus kisses the G.I. and walks away alone. It's as if Jesus is persuaded by the G.I. not to lead the people, to remain this solitary figure of love and freedom who stands as exemplar only to the elite who choose not to become power mongers like the G.I. But this leaves the masses continually enslaved and oppressed. It's a perplexing dilemma: I can see why Ivan would be depressed when he finishes telling his tale.

I see most of what you contend in your post, Erdman, but I don't see a solution to the problem. I don't see this Jesus as offering forgiveness -- to do so is to rule over man's conscience, a temptation which Jesus resists. And I think the world is not transformed by Jesus' love -- he is a solitary figure of love and freedom who may be an exemplar for like-minded souls but who has no effect whatever on the world at large or on the enslaved masses and their tyrannical masters. So I guess I agree with your last comment, Erdman -- no universal solution is being presented here.

daniel hutchinson said...

"Alyosha, Ivan, the G.I, and Jesus, have a life of their own."

ktismatics said...


Are you saying that the first three are real people, or that the fourth one is a fictional character?

All four characters are fictional, because we are discussing a fictional novel. But this is Dostoyevsky, so as Jon said these are not "straw men". Each character is valid, real, articulate and complex.

Rather, I was suggesting that, since each of the main characters makes a pretty good case for himself, they probably reflect D's own ambivalence about the issues addressed.

I agree with this statement regarding the characters, but don't think Dostoyevsky's ambivalence has anything to do with it: just that he is a great author, who doesn't need his characters to conform to his own subjective position, or for that matter feels that a novel need be about what he thinks or believes. The novel has a life of its own.

This is creativity, bringing something into being, playing with subjective positions, working with contrast, intrique, conflict, and the whole literary creative arsenal.

Truth is a by product of the creative process, and depends on the reader's approach, not the author's intentions. That is my view, backed up I think by the multi-interpretations of the text we are encountering here.

ktismatics said...

"Each character is valid, real, articulate and complex."

But of course none of these says anything other the words put into his mouth by Dostoevsky. There are pomo productions where the characters rebel against the author and try to strike out on their own, but those rebels too were written entirely by the author. Doubtless D. was able to occupy the characters he invented, such that they seemed to speak and act of their own accord, but this is still the result of D's imagination. Kind of like dreaming, where you seem to be watching a performance put on for your benefit, but you're also the writer and director of the show even if you're not consciously aware of doing so.

"don't think Dostoyevsky's ambivalence has anything to do with it"

I acknowledged that this is my subjective reaction to the book. But one must wonder: why does he invent these particular characters who embody these particular issues and conflicts? I have this to offer from an essay by Camus entitled "Absurd Creation: Philosophy and Fiction":

All of Dostoevsky's heroes question themselves as to the meaning of life... In Dostoevsky's novels the question is propounded with such intensity that it can only invite extreme solutions. Existence is illusory or it is eternal. If Dostoevsky were satisfied with this inquiry, he would be a philosopher. But he illustrates the consequences that such intellectual pastimes may have in a man's life, and in this regard he is an artist.

Camus then goes on to talk about D's diary, where in one installment he elaborates on the logic of "logical suicide" provoked by the absurdity of the human condition facing those who lack faith in immortality. Says Camus,

the novels, like the Diary, propound the absurd question. They establish logic unto death, exaltation, "dreadful" freedom, the glory of the tsars become human. All is well, everything is permitted, and nothing is hateful -- these are absurd judgments. But what an amazing creation in which those creatures of fire and ice seem so familiar to us. The passionate world of indifference that rumbles in their hearts does not seem at all monstrous to us. We recognize in it our everyday anxieties. And probably no one so much as Dostoevsky has managed to give the absurd world such familiar and tormenting charms...

Speaking of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky wrote: The chief question that will be pursued throughout this book is the very one from which I have suffered consciously or unconsciously all life long: the existence of God."


So I think it's not too much of a stretch to assert that D. was tormented by the very same issues which he infuses into his cast of fictional characters. It's even possible that D. identifies as much with Ivan's perspective on human absurdity as he does with Alyosha's. Camus continues:

One commentator correctly pointed out that Dostoevsky is on Ivan's side and that the affirmative chapters took three months of effort whereas what he called "the blasphemies" were written in three weeks in a state of excitement. There is not one of his characters who does not have that thorn in the flesh, who does not aggravate it or seek a remedy for it in sensation or immortality.

Camus thinks that D. sells out at the end of the novel, that he "makes his choice against his characters" by having Alyosha, in a leap of faith, affirm the afterlife. Camus says that, while D. poses an absurd problem, this ending keeps The Brothers K from being an absurd work. Rather, it's an "existential" work. (Somewhere in this essay Camus says that he regards Moby Dick as the only truly absurd novel.)

ktismatics said...

"Truth is a by product of the creative process, and depends on the reader's approach, not the author's intentions. That is my view, backed up I think by the multi-interpretations of the text we are encountering here."

Multiple interpreters can generate their own truths (and falsehoods) from their reflections on a text. But the writer writes whatever truths he wants to put forward before anyone else gets to read it. Some of the author's truth is intenional, some of it might be unconscious. But it is the author's truth, whether the reader ever recognizes it or not. How can this not be so?

jhesiak said...

let us love one another

that's in a bill withers song. i like bill withers.

It seems to me that the heretics that John was attacking were drawing people away from the love of Christ.

my understanding is that is supposedly the point of all orthodoxy.

To answer you question directly.....I think that the verses you mention (from chaps. 2 and 4) are a form of institutionalizing the church. It's not really something I'm in favor of (as you can imagine).....but it is interesting that John is trying to maintain the primacy of love. To me, there would be a more loving way of handling "anti-christs" rather than to dismiss them with labels....but I'm not going to judge too harshly, because I wasn't a part of the situation that John is speaking to!

i don't think that for john that was a "label," and i think he was trying to primarily get the message of the love of Christ across to the church, keeping in mind that the "heretics" were trying to bring a different message. and i also don't think that john had the institutionalization of the church in mind...speaking of meeting a text on its own grounds :)...

ktismatics said...

I mean:

Ivan turned suddenly and went his way without looking back. It was just as Dmitri had left Alyosha the day before, though the parting had been very different. The strange resemblance flashed like an arrow through Alyosha’s mind in the distress and dejection of that moment. He waited a little, looking after his brother. He suddenly noticed that Ivan swayed as he walked and that his right shoulder looked lower than his left. He had never noticed it before. But all at once he turned too, and almost ran to the monastery. It was nearly dark, and he felt almost frightened; something new was growing up in him for which he could not account. The wind had risen again as on the previous evening, and the ancient pines murmured gloomily about him when he entered the hermitage copse...

Isn't it clear that, by writing these particular words, D. intends for us to understand that Ivan, a particular character in this novel, has, in the fictional timeframe inside which this part of the story unfolds, just turned suddenly and gone on his way without turning back? I'm not talking about philosophical or allegorical meaning here, but just the ordinary mutual understanding of the language. If, having just read this passage, someone were to say that Ivan got on his bicycle and started riding away, then turned around and looked at his brother and was suddenly turned into a pillar of salt, I wouldn't say that this reader was entitled to his interpretive version of truth. I'd have to say that the reader was wrong, that his understanding of the text was faulty, that he didn't get what D. meant, etc.

ktismatics said...

Speaking of hermeneutics and Jesus as fictional character, Erdman do you remember that post and discussion on Jesus Creed where Scot McKnight was tentatively exploring Hans Frei's reconciliation of Biblical and secular historical timelines? And then a Frei scholar came along, explaining how Frei read the Bible almost as if it was a novel? And how if you're "in Christ" you in effect enter into the narrative of the story, not unlike joining Ivan and Ilyosha and the rest inside the reality of The Brothers K? And how as this heresy started to unfold the whole post suddenly disappeared? "Scroll down, friend," McKnight told me when I emailed him asking about what happened to it. But it was gone, vanished into some parallel universe.

Crystal McCoomb said...

Forgiveness and unconditional love transform; to do so is to be truly free.

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?

The question of truth and how to live within it always creates tension and the desire for understanding of how to reconcile the two extremes. Jesus offers us this forgiveness and unconditional love, but to live within it ourselves is quite another dilemma entirely. If we are unable to live in such a way on our own, we would need the help of Christ for us to accomplish such freedom. Since Christ is also a miracle worker, couldn't he provide bread as well as freedom whenever needed- or peace in the absence of such material things?

I'm still reading the chapter and probably won't finish soon enough, but if I'm following Kt well enough I would have to agree with him that understanding an author's intended meaning is extremely important...otherwise we really are just making things out to say whateever we want them to say. Thereby creating our own interpretations of truth and once again trying to get rid of absolutes!

daniel hutchinson said...

Ktismatics, I find your responses to be very measured, patient and respectful and am very happy that you have responded to my comments in this way. Thank you.

Camus certainly has a very important perspective on literature, incidentally he is one of my favourite authors. Have you read The Plague?

I only hope my comment below can also contribute to this conversation, as your contribution is most stimulating.

One of the differences between literary criticism and literature, is that in criticism the object is always in view; in literature, there is this constant ellipsis between characters, their thoughts and actions, the plot and what we think the author is trying to say.

There is if you will a tension between sense and meaning in all literature, a tension that literary criticism tries to reconcile.

I like how Camus says that D is not a philopsoher, but an artist. I agree. A philosopher tries to cover all the angles, whilst an artist somehow does the opposite, creates new angles maybe?????

I don't write novels, but I appreciate the artistry involved and would contrast writing novels with writing legal judgements, laundry lists, security reports, or other ways of putting words to use that don't question the relationship of words to meaning.

In a novel, an idea leads to an idea, themes develop, characters emerge, and the author has a limited rein on his or her imagination in this regard, that could be reduced to facility with language but I guess it is also about emotional, spiritual, psychological and intellectual facility too.

I can only compare novel-writing to composing art music. The creativity involved in the best of music is not pre-meditated, neither is it programmatic, but each moment suggests the next, the seed of the piece could be in the very first note, and the composer discovers the rest...

What if our point of view is less Dostoyevsky the originator, as Dostoyevsky the discover, the "explorer of the unconscious" (or whatever).

Going back to Jesus. Yes, in this novel the Jesus character is fictional. The real person of Jesus didn't go to Spain during the Inquisition and appear to a (also fictional) Grand Inquisitor. The possibility is astonishing, but as far as we know, it didn't happen and was Dostoyevsky's inspiration (assuming of course he didn't get the idea from someone else).

The factual Jesus, interestingly, never wrote a word down, was not an "author" - but is the "living word".

I was thinking today, what if Jesus wrote books while he was here on earth. Would we worship those words, those books, those artifacts? But more critically, could those words hold the same meaning that his life did?

No, I don't think words can hold meaning, the can only signify. Only human action can be meaningful.

I find it very pertinent to this discussion of truth and literature that Jesus Christ lived a life of meaning and truth to the nth degree, and relied on others to tell the world (first through oral testimony, later through writing of books).

daniel hutchinson said...

Crystal, what if I said that absolute truth cannot be written down?

Yes, Islam in its supreme neo-platonic moment believes there is a Koran "mother-of-the-book" in heaven.

And most often nowadays when people think of the "Word of God" they think of that sqaure black book called the Bible, rather than the "living, active, sharper than any two edged sword" WORD of God (Jesus).

But that is to be expected of a society ruled by the written word.

ktismatics said...

"Ktismatics, I find your responses to be very measured, patient and respectful"

Of course you can't know if that was my intention... But sure, I can be all those things if I make the effort. Actually there was just something about one comment you made that rubbed me the wrong way, and I suspect it had nothing to do with your intentions -- at least not consciously. But yes, I try to practice personal civility even if I voice sharp disagreement with the content of what someone else is asserting. That "piece of shit" remark I made did blur the line I admit, but I derived a certain perverse glee out of saying it.

I agree with most of what you say about fiction versus nonfiction. I believe there's an interplay between spontaneous unconscious discovery and systematic, conscious craftsmanship. The writer is also his own first reader. There's a self-editing that goes on during the original writing too, as the writer finds himself simultaneously composing and listening with a critical ear to how the words sound. Even if the words come out in a torrent, there usually remains the task of editing after the original writing is done. Some writers I suspect even prefer the editing to writing the first draft, the polishing and refining that turns something rough into finished art. Of course there are differences in style and approach: it's hard to know how much editing Dostoevsky did, but from Camus' account some of the writing came out in a passionate burst, some through painstaking struggle.

Mostly I'm pleased that we can talk about The Brothers K as fiction, with all its ambiguity and multiple points of view, rather than as systematic philosophy or theology. Ivan, the fictional character whom Dostoevsky's narrator attributes the invention of the Grand Inquisitor parable -- even Ivan seems to hold ambivalent and inconsistent attitudes regarding his own story about his own fictional Jesus and Inquisitor. To reduce all this complexity to a philosophical thesis propounded by Dostoevsky is to reduce fiction to nonfiction. So we're in fundamental agreement here, Daniel.

"The factual Jesus, interestingly, never wrote a word down, was not an "author" - but is the "living word"."

I'm kind of captivated by the gospel story where Jesus defends the woman caught in adultery -- let he who is without sin throw the first stone etc. While the moralists are throwing accusations at the woman, Jesus is silently writing in the dust on the ground. Don't you wonder what it was he wrote? Of course though he didn't commit himself to permanent writings, his followers did later attribute specific words to him...

ktismatics said...

Crystal, I agree that when someone says or writes something, we can usually understand what they mean by their words. That's what language is for: to arrive at some shared point of orientation toward what's being talked about. Only if we agree on what it is that's being said can we have any real agreement or disagreement about its truth, its relevance, its importance, and how it relates to everything else we think we know.

Crystal McCoomb said...

Thanks Kt. Your insights are helpful.

DHutch,

I might be shooting a little far with bringing up the question of absolutes in a discussion on Dostoevsky. Fiction and nonfiction must be looked at in different lights. I do think Dost probably had something specific in mind when writing his story, although I don't know what he was exactly trying to say. Maybe he was trying to say more than one thing through giving many points of view. Idk.

The character Ivan rejects the world in all its absurdity seems to be struggling with truth and whether or not it is possible to live within that truth- restating E-man's question. Ivan's percieved attitude of daring not to forgive in face of such absurdity is a valid attitude, even if forgivneness is exactly what needs to take place in order to be free- free from bitterness, anger, and inner pain.This kind of forgiveness can not be attained without the love and power of Christ working through us. I know I certainity can't forgive without that kind of power working in my life, and I certainly do not want to be held captive to the kind of acid bittereness brings into a person's life.

Crystal McCoomb said...

In response to other things you said DH,
(Thanks Mel and T for italics know-how. It makes me happy to know to finally do it. HTML tags-who would have thought-not me!:)

(what if I said that absolute truth cannot be written down?...
And most often nowadays when people think of the "Word of God" they think of that sqaure black book called the Bible, rather than the "living, active, sharper than any two edged sword" WORD of God (Jesus).


This seems to go along the same lines as the Grand Inquisitor's failings in how he couldn't appreciate and experience the transformation of humanity through acts of love. I would agree that demonstrative action is most often more powerful than the written word and that Jesus used his demonstrative power to show the greatest love and forgiveness to the world. That what he accomplished is now written down and continues to influence others does make him the most powerful Word- that is if you interpret what he did the same way I do:P

daniel hutchinson said...

I believe there's an interplay between spontaneous unconscious discovery and systematic, conscious craftsmanship. The writer is also his own first reader. There's a self-editing that goes on during the original writing too, as the writer finds himself simultaneously composing and listening with a critical ear to how the words sound.

Very true Ktismatics, and this should not be overlooked. Would you say that the writer/ composer, in their reading/ listening, makes the first decision as to what the work means?

(I'm keeping a dichotomy between literature and music here, because its helping me to understand the issues).

You brought into the discussion Jesus writing in the sand. So we know that he took a decision not to write a book, or a letter, or some other written artifact. Some have speculated that he wrote in the sand all the names of the men and their individual discretions, but I don't know. What do you think?

daniel hutchinson said...

I would agree that demonstrative action is most often more powerful than the written word and that Jesus used his demonstrative power to show the greatest love and forgiveness to the world. That what he accomplished is now written down and continues to influence others does make him the most powerful Word- that is if you interpret what he did the same way.

Well said, Crystal. I suppose I would emphasize that God (Jesus) is still acting, still demonstrating his love and forgiveness, and this is the whole point (...not the memorial text, but the living, active and ongoing intervention of Jesus in our lives. The stone is rolled away; Jesus is alive!)

Crystal, could you be a Christian without the Bible? I ask myself this question. I think the answer could be, should be, and must be "yes". We don't worhip a book, we worship a living Word.

daniel hutchinson said...

Having said this about the Bible, and initially when talking about the "little square black book", I felt a but embarrased and uncomfortable. Was I being disrespectful to the inspired word of God? Then I began to question my own assumptions, about scripture with regard to the Word that we take to mean the Bible when I think it is actually referring to God's agency, God's life giving Word. I hit send anyway, not completely sure.

daniel hutchinson said...

Allegiance to the savior isn't an agenda or an ideology? In what way does the text reflect this allegiance? Do you believe that D. intended to show allegiance in the text he produced?

Ktismatics, you asked me a lot of questions earlier. Forgive me for ignoring a couple.

To answer the two questions above:

1. No, allegiance to Jesus is not an agenda or ideology, it is a decision to follow him. Would you call your decision to contribute to this blog an agenda or ideology? Would you call your decision to marry your wife an agenda or an ideology?

2. Yes, I do think Dostoyevsky reveals his own allegiance to Jesus, at the moment of the kiss, and in the repetition when Alyosha kisses Ivan. I think Dostoyevsky's voice as the author comes through there. It's also an interesting literary device, "literary theft" Ivan calls it!

Crystal McCoomb said...

DHutch-

How do we worship and follow after a living Word without knowing what that Word is saying? Of course we don't worship a book. We worship and follow what the Book tells us about God and our relation to Him.

This is very interesting line of reasoning to me, since I'm planning to go into Bible Translation work.

could you be a Christian without the Bible? I ask myself this question. I think the answer could be, should be, and must be "yes". We don't worhip a book, we worship a living Word.

There are people in the world who are Christians without having a copy of God's word for their own. Not having a Bible for themselves puts them in a very dangerous position considering the facts that those people can't grow in knowledge, can't search out for themselves what is truth, but have to rely on other people's interpretations or their own understandings of what is truth.
God's Word has power on its own. When combined with action it's unstoppable.

What kind of Christian would you be if you didn't know what the Bible said? You really would be following after the Grand Inquisitor-following his "miracle, mystery, and authority,"
instead of the freedom and power (including all of those things of the Inquisitor, but so much better because it is combined with freedom) that comes with the knowledge and love of Christ.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Crystal,

Your comment seems to imply that the Bible is self-interpreting, or that its meaning is plain and obvious to anyone. That's an assertion that I think is false. Historically, the Bible has been interpreted in millions of different ways. What we take to be "biblical truth" is always filtered; it is either filtered through the interpretation of others (who teach us not only what the Bible says but how to "interpret") or it is filtered through our own experiences, framework, and paradigm.....usually there are several filters......so, your question is interesting to me: What kind of Christian would you be if you didn't know what the Bible said?

I don't know if I would be better or worse off. At this particular point in my life, there are a lot of things I was taught as absolute truth that I now doubt. But since these things were taught as "biblical truth," they were immune from criticism. For this reason, I think that this whole idea of absolute/biblical truth is very dangerous: because such "truths" are very rarely plain, evident, or obvious; it is never the Bible itself that we encounter but always our interpretation of it. So there is always a filter, I suppose.

My point is not to degrade the potential transformative power of the Bible; I just want to point out that if interpretation always involves filters, then adding the Bible into the lives of a culture of people is not necessarily a guarantee that they will benefit from it, even if they are sincere believers.

The best illustration of the word comes from James: a mirror. A mirror projects to us a picture of ourselves, but we project ourselves into the mirror...and, most importantly, we are always interpreting what we see.

daniel hutchinson said...

That's an interesting field, Bible translation. Do you mean translating the Bible from the original languages into modern languages? I would be interested to hear more about this.

You see Crystal, I love the scriptures. But I can also have fresh Word from God every day, because he lives inside of me.

"You study the scriptures because you think you will find eternal life, but you don't come to me", Jesus said (John 5:39).

The obvious example of Christians living without the Bible are the first centuries of the faith. how do you think it was for these early Christians? I tend to think of their time as the paradigm of "freedom and power".

Crystal, I think your fear regarding the Christian life without a Bible, that it is dangerous because of a lack of knowledge, is misplaced.

"Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Corinthians 8:1). Knowing God is knowing his love personally, experientally, not knowing Him through a text but through a real encounter.

Jon, what if when you read the Bible, you pray and ask the Holy Spirit for guidance, so that it is not your own interpretation or the interpretation of others that you hear but what the Spirit is saying?

The Bible is a great spiritual resource. However, it does not automatically confer the life of Christ.

"You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving".
(Isaiah 6:9, Matthew 13:14, Acts 28:26)

Therefore, Crystal, I would turn your formula around: Christian action has power on its own - combined with God's Word (active spiritual ingredient, scripture or not) it's unstoppable!

BTW I believe as Christians each of us live a "Bible" - the concept of aletheia. The book of Acts has never been finished...

Crystal McCoomb said...

Daniel-

In regards to my offered formula-I think the Spirit, action, and knowledge all need to be put into play. The early Christians had old testament knowledge and the words of Jesus still ringing in their ears. Jesus wasn't just about action, he had plenty of teaching through words even if he didn't write them down himself. Thinking about the early church bring to mind the beginning of time itself and how God would just come and tell people what to do.
There have been and are plenty of oral communities of people that have functioned for very long periods of time without needing to make up their own forms of writing to communicate. That many of these people are oppressed by disease and war, and taken advantage of by corporate holdouts and commercialism are some of the main reasons to seek out written forms of communication for them, besides making the hope and truth of the gospel known, which I believe has transformative power.

The desired scenario for me in translation work would be to work on a team to translate the Bible from its original languages to languages it has not been translated into yet. There are many different roles involved in Bible translation, besides the actual translation work. I would like to focus on being an initial contact person with bibleless people groups, gathering linguistic data and trying to identify language patterns before the translators came in. I would also like to be involved in literacy work, helping previously only oral language groups develop their own literature and make sure that once the bible is translated into their language they actual know how to read it. But I’m still just only at the very beginning of the process towards those things.
Most importantly the need in the work of bible translation to make sure the message is being understood by the people, in word and application. For instance, it would be very bad to translate “Bread of Life” in those words if the people who are going to read the book have never eaten bread. The need for discipling people in the faith is also vital, or translating the bible into their language isn’t going to matter in the least for lasting transformation in Christ.

Which brings us to Jon,
If it seemed I implied the Bible as self-interpreting and the meaning always being clear, then I was wrong to do so. I do believe in the power of God’s word, and that if God wanted to make everything clear to us and have the Bible do the work of showing people “The Way” on its own- He could make it happen. That He chooses to let people depend on him for guidance and understanding is very humbling and confusing. That He could choose people to try to interpret meaning and share what is in his book with others for the continuation of his kingdom is even more humbling and confusing. That there are plenty of people who try to make up their own meanings about what scripture says and twist it around to say what they want is just bad.
Which comes to Jon's thoughts on filters...
Everyone, no matter who they are or where they come from has a worldview which serves as a filter. Our worldview includes beliefs (what is true?), values (what is best?), behavior (what is done?), and kinship (socialogical, ecomonic, religious, politicial). So I agree about the filters easily. We can’t get away from them, they are so ingrained into who we are that most of the time we don’t even know they’re there, that is until someone comes along from a different worldview background, screws with our vision and we somehow have to make up the difference in what is being perceived on both sides.
And now the grand finale on absolute truth from the site http://www.absolute--truth.com/
Since I didn’t know how to respond.

"Absolute truth" is defined as inflexible reality: fixed, invariable, unalterable facts. For example, it is a fixed, invariable, unalterable fact that there are absolutely no square circles and there are absolutely no round squares.

To argue against something is to establish that a truth exists. You cannot argue against absolute truth unless an absolute truth is the basis of your argument.


The example of philosophy teachers who teach their students that
"No one's opinion is superior to anyone else's. There is no hierarchy of truth or values. Anyone's viewpoint is just as valid as anyone else's viewpoint. We all have our own truth." Then they turn around and grade the papers!

By declaring something is wrong, the relativist is contradicting himself by imposing his morals upon you.

If you catch a relativist in the act of doing something they know is absolutely wrong, and you try to point it out to them, they may respond in anger, "Truth is relative! There's no right and there's no wrong! We should be able to do whatever we want!" If that is a true statement and there is no right and there is no wrong, and everyone should be able to do whatever they want, then why have they become angry? What basis do they have for their anger? You can't be appalled by an injustice, or anything else for that matter, unless an absolute has somehow been violated.

It's OK to be a relativist, as long as the "system" acts in an absolutist way by protecting your "unalienable rights."


I hope that sheds more light on my positions. Feel free to agree, contradict or not respond at all. Whatever.

ktismatics said...

"Would you say that the writer/ composer, in their reading/ listening, makes the first decision as to what the work means?"

Sure. I think the writer has an idea in mind when he starts. But the writing process is iterative: by reading what he has already written so far the writer discovers new meanings that he can elaborate on. Then in editing he can go back to the beginning and work some of those emergent themes more consistently through the entire work. I think the fiction writer would hope that the reader would find new meanings in his work, but that he'd also appreciate for their own sake the meanings that he as writer envisioned as he was writing. That's part of the art and the craft: to let these meanings come forward into the readers' awareness without beating them over the head with it.

I think the writer/composer discovers things in his/her own work that weren't consciously planned. Still, a good musical composition or work of fiction exceeds the meaning that any one reader can find in it, including the writer or composer. Once the work is completed, it has a life of its own and becomes source material for new insights, new truths. To contend that those truths are "in the text" is I think overstating the case. Though the distinction is a blurry one, I think we ought to uphold the difference between interpreting a text and using the text as a source of inspiration for one's own text. So too with (allegedly) non-fictional works like the Bible.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Crystal,

Re: absolute truth

I would tend to agree with your quote: that it seems silly to say that it is absolute true that there is no absolute truth. But to say that this is a full-proof case for absolute truth seems fallacious to me. In fact, I think it's not even a case against relativism, to be honest....it simply means that one cannot claim that it is absolutely true that absolute truth doesn't exist......but honestly, I've never ever encountered anyone who does this. In all of my reading at all levels, I can't recall anyone who engages in such an argument.

I would describe my own attitude (and probably the attitude of many others) toward truth as a severe disinterest in absolute truth. If we take seriously the idea of filters, presuppositions, and frameworks that guide our perceptions/orientations, then things become less a matter of getting at "absolutes" and more a matter of understanding the filters/presuppositions/frameworks themselves.

Also, I disagree with this quoted statement: You can't be appalled by an injustice, or anything else for that matter, unless an absolute has somehow been violated.

What if one is appalled simply because an injustice violates their own sense of justice? Even is someone does not affirm "absolute justice" (whatever that means), does that mean they cannot be extremely concerned about injustices they witness in the world? This goes back to our discussion on Dostoevsky: about whether ultimate philosophical questions sometimes distract us from the most important thing, which is having a heart of compassion. I don't think that one's view of absolute truth need have any bearing on how they respond when they see a bloodied stranger in need on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho (Luke 10).

Jonathan Erdman said...

Also, one more comment on truth, since it is an issue that I have been thinking through very seriously for the last several years.

Just because one is disinterested in absolute truth, doesn't mean that one cannot still have truth as a central point of pursuit and/or investigation. Truth, for me, is like many other abstract concepts like justice or goodness or sin or beauty. All of these are critically important to live passionately for and to think deeply about; however, it really is quite difficult to nail down an "absolute" definition. To do so is problematic. It seems better to allow these concepts a bit of breathing room, to perhaps allow them to be fluid and just beyond our ability to fully understand them....in fact, to some degree it seems degrading to suggest that they can be grasped.

I prefer the idea that truth/goodness/evil/beauty/etc. is relative, because it means that they impact our world and can change and transform. When we remove truth into some absolute formula, we tend to lose the ability to understand life itself, and instead we live in reference to absolutes rather than in reference to each other and the complexities of individual cases.

ktismatics said...

Erdman, what would you say is the relationship between truth and knowledge?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Honestly, I don't know that I have a position on the relationship between truth and knowledge. The Modern epistemological interest was to investigate how knowledge related to truth.....but the nature of truth itself was kind of assumed....I tend to be an externalist (see the link, below).

The standard point of departure for the Modern debate on the relation of knowledge to truth is to say that knowledge is justified true belief (JTB), a form of Internalism.

Crystal McCoomb said...

Jon,

What is your interpretation/ definition of absolute freedom then?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Crystal,

I tend to think that absolute freedom would be the most difficult of all to define.....but the things I said above about truth/goodness/evil/etc. would also apply equally to freedom.

The website you cited from seemed to imply that people who question "absolute truth" only do so in order to have a license to do whatever they want. That's not my intention (at least consciously).....also, that knife cuts both ways. People who preach the loudest about preserving "absolute truth" can just as easily be using "absolute truth" as a banner that endorses what they want to do. In other words, whether one is a relativist or an absolutist, one can still use that belief as an excuse to indulge one's "flesh."

Jonathan Erdman said...

K: The issue to me is this: does the church moves in this direction only internally, as a kind of socialistic economy where the admission ticket is having been born again? Or does the church regard itself as exemplar or forerunner of how people might work together in the world?

I tend to prefer the latter. I tend to think that the distinctions that characterize the institutional church (saint/sinner, believer/non-believer, church/world) should be blurred. At this point, I tend to favor an inclusive approach. I think the general movement in the Bible reflects this: God first works only with a specific race, killing off some of the others, and then in the NT "there is no distinction" between Jew and Gentile, male and female, etc. So, the redemptive movement in Scripture is for more inclusiveness.

ktismatics said...

It looks like your reply jumped from Pay-as-you-go back to G.I. Anyhow, I'm glad to hear your reply, and I agree with your reading of increasing inclusiveness especially in Paul.