Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Grand Inquisitor

This is Trinity Sunday, so usually I would tackle that most paradoxical and yet rewarding of doctrines. And I might touch upon Dorothy L. Sayers, because my understanding of the Trinity was greatly enhanced by her book, The Mind of the Maker. Sayers, a prodigious writer of detective novels, religious plays, essays on Christianity and translator of Dante's Divine Comedy, drew upon her experience as a creative person in approaching the nature of God. She saw a parallel between the persons of the Triune God and the creative process. Everything a person creates begins with an idea. The artist, engineer, writer, or craftsman then has to realize his idea in some concrete form. Then the form is presented to the world. A truly great work is one in which the idea is great, the execution perfectly captures the idea, and the finished work communicates powerfully with other people. Sayers said the original idea is like God the Father. The realization or incarnation of that idea is like the Son of God. The communication of that perfectly realized work is like the Holy Spirit. 

A work of creation can fail at any point: the idea may not be that great, or the execution is sloppy or flawed, or despite the work having captured the basic idea, it says nothing to the world at large. Hitler did not get into art school because his very precise paintings of buildings were merely that. They were devoid of humanity or creative vision. Whereas the works of Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Christopher Wren, Bach and many others continue to speak to us.            

Today's sermon suggestion is that we look at a piece of literature that still speaks powerfully to those who encounter it: the story of the Grand Inquisitor. It is found in chapter 5 of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, which you probably read in high school. Ivan, who is an atheist, tells his younger brother Alyosha, who is a novice at a monastery, the plot of a poem he is writing. It is a parable about freedom of choice.

The poem takes place in Seville at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. Christ returns to earth, not to bring about the last days but to visit his people. He heals many and raises a little girl from the dead. Everyone recognizes him, including the Grand Inquisitor, fresh from burning a hundred heretics. The Inquisitor arrests Christ and visits him that night in his prison cell.

The Inquisitor tells Christ that he is not welcome here because he turned down Satan's offers during his temptation in the wilderness. Jesus said "No" because by using his powers this way or by accepting earthly authority he would have made accepting him as Lord irresistible and therefore would have made it impossible for men to come to him of their own free will. But people are so weak-willed they cannot come to Christ on their own. So the church has had to do what Jesus refused to. It has offered bread, buying the loyalty of the poor. It has offered miracles and mystery, compelling people to accept whatever it said. It has been taking on the secular power of the kingdoms of this world, so as to force people to accept its rules. And because his appearance could undo all that, the Inquisitor tells Christ that he will be burned at the stake tomorrow. Jesus says nothing but kisses the Inquisitor. The old man, overcome, throws open the cell door, telling Christ to leave and never return.

There are many reasons why this story has stuck in the minds of its readers. There is the rhapsodically written first part, describing Christ walking through the streets of Seville, healing people and their response to him. There is the juxtaposition of Christ, the church's model and ideal, with the Inquisitor, the most perverse office ever created by the church. There is the surprising action of the Inquisitor in arresting Christ and his novel argument for the way the church operates. Then there is Christ's silent response: a kiss. And the Inquisitor's reaction: releasing Jesus but warning him not to come back.

For our purposes I want to confine my comments to the Inquisitor's argument and how Jesus counters that.

I'm not sure that I totally buy the Inquisitor's interpretation of Jesus' temptations, that they were all about our freedom to choose to follow him. To be sure, one of the things Jesus was doing in the desert was preparing for his ministry. And, yes, had he succumbed to any of the temptations, it would have changed that ministry. But unlike the Inquisitor, I can't see that it would be for the better.

First off, the bread. Jesus had been fasting a long time and was really hungry. As I see it, the temptation to turn stones into bread is to use his power for his own benefit. Hey, what good is being God's Son if you can't use that power to meet your own needs? That's reasonable, right? But power tempts. If you have been given power, you come to think you deserve perks as well. If you're special, don't you deserve special treatment? I'm sure that's what is behind the mega-church and TV preachers who live in large mansions and drive limos and own private jets. "Hey, I'm toiling for the Lord. I'm getting him lots of followers. They're giving lots of money to the Lord's work. I deserve a cut." I'm sure that's what's behind a lot of cult leaders coming to think they can have any woman in the group that they want.

Power also means you don't need to suffer what other people have to--waiting in line, economy class on planes, running your own errands, putting up with ordinary people. If Jesus had let himself use his power to avoid suffering hunger, it would have been harder for him to not to use it to avoid suffering the things that would go along with his ministry--like being touched by mobs of people seeking healing, or being interrupted at meals, or being exhausted from all that he had to do and say to spread the message. And if he used his power to avoid suffering hunger, would he have been willing to go through suffering the pain and death of the cross?
Nevertheless, the Inquisitor was right about one thing: more people would have followed Jesus if he was their meal ticket. Jesus did feed multitudes a couple of times and those people were going to forcibly make him king. But when Jesus told them he wanted to feed their souls with his body and blood, they got turned off. Jesus didn't want moochers and hangers on. He wanted people who would stick with him in good times and bad because it was the right thing to do, not because there was something in it for them. Or rather, he didn't want them to follow him because of physical things they could get from him but also from other sources; Jesus wanted them to follow him because of what only he could give: himself. If that isn't enough, nothing else would be.

I bet we could get a lot more people in this church if we gave them all $10 bills. Of course, some other church might start giving out $20s and we'd have a price war. Still, we could attract a lot more people that way. But I doubt we would get more Christians, more people willing to deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow the path of self-sacrificial love that Jesus blazed.

This is not to say we shouldn't have food ministries or ministries that provide other basic needs to those who have been doing without. But we should do these things out of love and to serve Christ when we see him hungry or thirsty or in need of clothing or of nursing back to health or of hospitality or of support when in prison. We shouldn't use these things as bait to get converts.

Next Jesus nixes jumping off the tip of the temple, trusting the angels to arrest his fall. This would not be much of a temptation for me. When I was a kid I never thought of testing my dad's love by jumping off of something high and expecting him to catch me. But it would be a spectacular way to kick off Jesus' ministry. If he did a back flip off the pinnacle of the temple and stuck the landing without shattering his shinbones, he'd be the talk of the town. In this case, the Inquisitor was on the money.

However, Jesus didn't do miracles just to convince people. He did them in response to people's needs. Of the 35 miracles the gospels record Jesus performing, only 9 were not healings or raising the dead. But they included feeding the hungry, some extra large catches of fish, and not letting the storm drown his disciples. Even so, he was reluctant to become the wine supplier to a wedding he attended until his mother put him on the spot. And he flat out refused to show off for skeptics when they asked. When people wanted a miracle as a sign of his authority, Jesus was at pains to point out that he'd rather they evaluated the truth of his words. He wasn't performing a magic show; he was showing them the gracious nature of God. When that required him to jumpstart or speed up the healing process or hasten the end of a storm or stretch a meal beyond what was humanly possible, so be it. But when it required explaining a theological or moral principle, he did that instead.  

But wouldn't ending every argument with a miracle have clinched things? No. People's capacity for rationalization can explain away anything. Thomas Jefferson was so skeptical about anything he couldn't explain that, when he received a report of a meteorite landing by a couple of astronomers, he was quoted as saying, "I would rather believe two Yankee professors would lie than that stones have fallen from the heavens." A recent study shows that if people strongly believe in one side of an issue, the more contrary data you give them, the more they cling to their beliefs. When Jesus' enemies couldn't deny the fact that he was healing people and casting out demons, they said he was doing it with the aid of the prince of demons. That's when Jesus warned them about blaspheming or insulting the Holy Spirit.

Still flashy miracles would have convinced most people and Jesus would have had a larger following. I'm not sure it would have meant much after he went to the cross. The disciples who lived with him for 3 years were discouraged by his execution. People who followed him merely because of some impressive miracle he did, but not because he spoke to their hearts and minds about the need to change and a kingdom based on love, would not hang around once Jesus was in the ground. As with giving everyone bread, more and flashier miracles would have brought Jesus the wrong kind of followers.

Finally, the Inquisitor says Jesus should have taken Satan's offer to receive all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshiping him. The Inquisitor says that the church has essentially made that bargain with the devil. It has gotten temporal power. Taking away people's freedom to choose whether to be Christian or not, according to the Inquisitor, has made them happier. But the fact that he has to burn Christian heretics--the Inquisition didn't officially have power over Jews or Muslims--means that people were not happy with this form of Christianity. The real Grand Inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada, had 300 bodyguards, so he had no illusions that he was making people happy. There wouldn't have been a Reformation if people had been happy with that version of Christianity.   

Ultimately, despite the novelty and boldness of the Inquisitor's argument, he is wrong. People would not be happier with no choice. Too much choice does cause unhappiness, studies show, but so does having no choice of, or control over, what you do. What the Inquisitor is doing is justifying the status quo and his own choices in life. What's ironic is there are still people who think forcing people to be Christians or behave like Christians is a good idea. Luckily the people who drafted the Bill of Rights put separation of church and state in the very first amendment. And they did it to keep the church from being corrupted as the state churches were in Europe.

Jesus didn't come as the holy warrior most Jews expected the messiah to be. He didn't intend to conquer the world by force. Accepting Jesus as one's Lord has to be voluntary just as love has to be voluntary. It only seems like it would be easier if we could make people become Christians. But a team won't work well if some members really don't want to be on it. Bribing people to become Christians doesn't instill genuine loyalty, either. Love is the key ingredient. Love is the best motivator. It works better than bribes or miracles or force. You'd think we'd have learned that by now.

On some level, Ivan, the atheist writer of the poem knows that as well. He has Christ answer the Inquisitor's argument with a kiss. And that makes the old man change his mind about killing him and release him instead. Why does he do so? We are not told. Perhaps he is still human, still compassionate enough, not to kill Love Incarnate. Perhaps he remembered his early love of Jesus before he became disillusioned and pragmatic. Perhaps he recognized that Jesus had demolished his elaborate edifice of clever words with a simple act of love.

Since the Enlightenment we have tried to reduce everything in the universe to hard logic and cold reason. But not everything worthwhile is rational. Hope is not always rational but take away all hope and people die as surely as if you had poisoned them. Faith, trusting someone else, is not strictly rational but destroy someone's faith and you have crippled them. Love…logic has as much luck pinning down love as you would a greased pig but without love, life wouldn't be worth living. And God's love is at the heart of creation, its origin, its motive power, its goal. God is love: the Father loving the Son, loving the Father, in the unity of the Spirit for all eternity. And if we respond to the love of God perfectly realized in Christ and let his Spirit resonate, renew and restore in us the ability to hope and to trust and to love like him, we can enter into the neverending circle of his love. 

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