By Charles Matthews

Friday, May 27, 2011

41. The Modern Tradition, edited by Richard Ellmann and Charles Feidelson Jr., pp. 890-912

Faith: Christianity and Christendom (F.M. Dostoevsky); Deified Man (William Blake, Friedrich Nietzsche) 

F.M. Dostoevsky: Christ and the Grand Inquisitor

This great parable, interpolated into The Brothers Karamazov (1880), sets forth alternatives delineated in the introduction: "spiritual freedom or enslavement to the things of this world, religion or the disappearance of religion in a specious substitute." 

Christ has returned to Earth in the fifteenth century and has appeared "in Spain, in Seville, in the most terrible time of the Inquisition. So the Grand Inquisitor, "almost ninety, with a withered face and sunken eyes, in which there is still a gleam of light," has him arrested and goes to his cell to interrogate him. The Inquisitor accused Christ of returning "to hinder us," and assures him that he will be burned at the stake for doing so. Among other concerns of the Inquisitor is that by returning, Christ will be adding to the scriptural teachings, which challenges the authority of the Church. As Ivan, who is telling the story, explains to Alyosha, "it is the most fundamental feature of Roman Catholicism, in my opinion at least," that "'All has been given by Thee to the Pope ... and all, therefore, is still in the Pope's hands, and there is no need for Thee to come now at all.'" 

But most of all, by returning, Christ threatens to remind humankind of its freedom. It is the Church's desire to keep them faithful, to prevent them from challenging its authority. As the Inquisitor puts it, "For fifteen centuries we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good.... to-day, people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet." 

The Inquisitor goes on to remind Christ of the three temptations offered him by Satan in the wilderness, "For in those three questions the whole subsequent history of mankind is, as it were, brought together into one whole, and foretold, and in them are united all the unsolved historical contradictions of human nature." 

The first temptation was for Christ to earn the undying loyalty of all humankind by turning stones into bread, thereby causing humanity to give up the "promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand, which they fear and dread -- for nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom." But because Christ refused this temptation, the Church was able to step in: 
Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever-sinful and ignoble race of man? ... No, we care for the weak, too. They are sinful and rebellious, but in the end they too will become obedient. They will marvel at us and look on us as gods, because we are ready to endure the freedom which they have found so dreadful and to rule over them.... We shall deceive them again, for we will not let Thee come to us again. That deception will be our suffering, for we shall be forced to lie.
Humankind, says the Inquisitor, wants to worship something: "so long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship. But man seeks to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men would agree at once to worship it." This craving for a common object of worship for all humankind is the cause of a deadly discontent: "For the sake of common worship they've slain each other with the sword." 

So by rejecting the first temptation, Christ gave up the opportunity to unite humanity. "For the secret of man's being is not only to live but to have something to live for. Without a stable conception of the object of life, man would not consent to go on living, and would rather destroy himself than remain on earth, though he had bread in abundance." Christ's choice has caused humanity to suffer, the Inquisitor argues. 

The second temptation was to demonstrate his divinity by leaping from the high place and being rescued by the angels. As the Inquisitor points out, "There are three powers, three powers alone, able to conquer and hold captive for ever the conscience of these impotent rebels for their happiness -- those forces are miracle, mystery and authority." Of course, the Inquisitor observes, Christ knew if he had yielded to the temptation, "in taking one step, in making one movement to cast Thyself down, Thou wouldst be tempting God and have lost all Thy faith in Him, and would have been dashed to pieces against that earth which Thou didst come to save." 

So Satan was pretty tricky in offering this temptation, not only because he knew Christ couldn't yield to it, but also because he knew that "man seeks not so much God as the miraculous. And as man cannot bear to be without the miraculous, he will create new miracles of his own for himself, and will worship deeds of sorcery and witchcraft." 

Then the Inquisitor appeals to Christ's awareness of the failure of his teachings: "fifteen centuries have passed" and "man is weaker and baser by nature than Thou hast believed him!... by showing him so much respect, Thou didst, as it were, cease to feel for him, for Thou didst ask far too much from him." And so the Church has stepped in to correct Christ's mistake: "we have corrected Thy work and have founded it upon miracle, mystery and authority. And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep, and that the terrible gift that had brought them such suffering was, at last, lifted from their hearts." 

And then the Inquisitor reveals what has been implicit all along: that the Church has been working with Satan, having accepted the third temptation -- worldly power -- that Christ rejected.
Perhaps it is Thy will to hear it from my lips. Listen, then. We are not working with Thee but with him -- that is our mystery. It's long -- eight centuries -- since we have been on his side and not on Thine. Just eight centuries ago we to from him what Thou didst reject with scorn, that last gift he offered thee, showing Thee all the kingdoms of the earth. We took from him Rome and the sword of Caesar, and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth, though hitherto we have not been able to complete our work.
The Inquisitor is astonished that Christ rejected the offer: "Thou wouldst have accomplished all that man seeks on earth -- that is, someone to worship, someone to keep his conscience, and some means of uniting all in one unanimous and harmonious ant-heat, for the craving for universal unity is the third and last anguish of men." He foresees the reaction to the challenges of post-Enlightenment modernity: 
Freedom, free thought and science will lead them into such straits and will bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries, that some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves; others, rebellious but weak, will destroy one another, while the rest, weak and unhappy, will crawl fawning to our feet and white to us: "Yes, you were right, you alone possess His mystery, and we come back to you, save us from ourselves!"
Cynically, the Inquisitor observes that the Church "will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves" and that "they will die, peacefully they will expire in Thy name, and beyond the grave they will find nothing but death. But we shall keep the secret, and for their happiness we shall allure them with the reward of heaven and eternity." 

Alyosha is shocked by the implications of Ivan's story, but Ivan insists that the Inquisitor had followed the teachings of Christ "and made frenzied efforts to subdue his flesh to make himself free and perfect." But it was his love of humanity, Ivan says, that opened the Inquisitor's eyes, "and he saw that it is no great moral blessedness to attain perfection and freedom, if at the same time one gains the conviction that millions of God's creatures have been created as a mockery, that they will never be capable of using their freedom." 

"Your inquisitor does not believe in God, that's his secret!" Alyosha retorts. And Ivan admits the point. But that, he explains, is the Inquisitor's tragedy. Having recognized it, the Inquisitor chooses "the guarding of the mystery ... from the weak and the unhappy, so as to make them happy." 

And so he ends his parable with Christ, who has been silent through all the Inquisitor's harangue, kissing the Inquisitor "on his bloodless aged lips." The Inquisitor lets his prisoner go, and "The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea." 

William Blake: God in Man

In these selections from "There Is No Natural Religion" (1788), "All Religions Are One" (1788) and "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" (1790-93), Blake elevates imagination, as manifested in poetry and visionary prophecy, both of which were his forte, as divine revelation, setting imagination against science and reason. E.g., "If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, & stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again." 

Nature in itself is not a path to revelation, for humankind is bound by the limitations of its senses. Only imagination allows us to glimpse infinity, and "He who sees the Infinite in all things, sees God. He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only." As for the pathway to revelation, "All deities reside in the human breast." Christ himself, Blake contends, was human, for he mocked the limitations on human freedom set down in Hebraic law: "did he not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbath's God? ... turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery?" He insists, "no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules." 

Friedrich Nietzsche: The Death of God and the Antichrist  

Not content to be merely anti-clerical, in The Gay Science (1883) and The Antichrist (1895), Nietzsche explicitly rejected Christianity for its encouragement of human weakness. God is dead, proclaims Nietzsche's "madman" and the churches are God's "tombs and sepulchres." Zarathustra proclaims that this death prepares the way for the Superman, toward whom humankind will evolve if not fettered by a preoccupation with divinity: "everything shall be transformed into the humanly-conceivable, the humanly-evident, the humanly-palpable! You should follow your own senses to the end!" 

Humankind can't be "at home" in "the incomprehensible" or "the irrational," and should cease the "evil and misanthropic ... teaching about the one and the perfect and the unmoved and the sufficient and the intransitory." Instead, "the best images and parables should speak of time and becoming: they should be a eulogy and a justification of all transitoriness." The "creative will" should prevail, for "Creation ... is the great redemption from suffering, and life's easement." Belief in the gods frustrates creation -- "for what would there be to create if gods -- existed!"

Above all, humankind must reject weakness, and embrace "Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself." And that means rejecting Christianity as "more harmful than any vice."
Christianity has sided with all that is weak and base, with all failures; it has made an ideal of whatever contradicts the instinct of the strong life to preserve itself; it has corrupted the reason even of those strongest in spirit by teaching men to consider the supreme values of the spirit as something sinful, as something that leads into error -- as temptations.
Christian "pity" is nihilistic. It "negates life and renders it more deserving of negation." The Christian world view is a "world of pure fiction" that "is vastly inferior to the world of dreams insofar as the latter mirrors reality, whereas the former falsifies, devalues, and negates reality" by setting up nature as the opposite of or antagonistic to "God." 

To imagine god as good is "contrary to everything desirable. The evil god is needed no less than the good god: after all, we do not owe our own existence to tolerance and humanitarianism." The Judeo-Christian god is born of oppression: 
To be sure, when a people is perishing, when it feels how its faith in the future and its hope of freedom are waning irrevocably, when submission begins to appear to it as the prime necessity and it becomes aware of the virtues of the subjugated as the conditions of self-preservation, then its god has to change too. Now he becomes a sneak, timid and modest; he counsels "peace of soul," hate-no-more, forbearance, even "love" of friend and enemy.... Formerly, he represented a people, the strength of a people, everything aggressive and power-thirsty in the soul of a people; now he is merely the good god.
In Nietzsche's view, this reflects a decline in "the will to power" and therefore decadence. 
The Christian conception of God -- God as god of the sick, God as a spider, God as spirit -- is one of the most corrupt conceptions of the divine ever attained on earth. It may even represent the low-water mark in the descending development of divine types.... God as the declaration of war against life, against nature, against the will to live! God -- the formula for every slander against "this world," for every lie about the "beyond"! God -- the deification of nothingness, the will to nothingness pronounced holy! 

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