Third Conversation: ‘Christmas Cards’. Episode 4

Fyodor Mikhailovich didn’t answer my last question, but ran his finger slowly along the shelf, as if checking the titles, stopping next to a rather thick paperback. It was a book that was rather popular at that time, Homo Deus. Picking it out, he scrutinized the back-cover, emitting a kind of ‘Hrrumph’. Returning it to its place, he began pacing slowly up and down, several times pausing rather jerkily, as if to try to catch a wayward thought.

            “Homo Deus. They still believe that, do they? Yes, yes, yes. They can’t say I didn’t warn them, though! Oh yes, it would be wonderful if we were indeed brothers, if we knew true solidarity—and then perhaps we could become as gods and do so in the way that God meant for us. But that’s not how the world is, is it? There are always some people who imagine that they’re closer to being gods than the rest or even that they already are gods or, at least, demi-gods. As for the rest, they don’t know what’s best for them, and so it happens as it has to happen. Either the superior ones have to leave them behind or else they try to drag them along. So far so good. The problem is that because the inferior ones don’t know what’s best for them (or so the superior ones think) they will either have to be compelled or lied to. Usually, there’s bloodshed. It’s not a new story, of course, but the funny thing is that every generation since the tower of Babel thinks it’s new.”

            “But don’t you think it really is different now? Even compared to your time, science can do things that then seemed impossible. We have gone into space, we have split the atom, we can even the shape the basic structures of life. There are so many new powers at our fingertips that perhaps we will at least be able to become supermen, if not gods. All things really are possible now.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich looked at me with some surprise. Very probably, he hadn’t expected me to be quite such a scientific utopian. I was, I admit, playing devil’s advocate. All the same, it really does seem (and in a way that no one in the nineteenth century could have anticipated) that science was in the process of changing not just what we can do but what we are.

            Fyodor Mikhailovich turned his back, lifted the curtain aside and peered out. After a minute or so he let it drop back into place, and, still with his back to me, resumed his speech, only gradually turning to face me.

            “If you really believe that,” he began, “I won’t be able to persuade you otherwise. And, please, don’t think that I was ever against science. I was, after all, an engineer. But whatever new powers science may be able to give to humankind, everything depends on how we—or you—want to use them. You’ve maybe never heard of Nikolai Fedorov’s idea that science would one day be able to help raise the ancestors. Of course, it was a crazy idea, but it seemed to me that there was real humanity in it, the feeling that history’s victims and the ancestors to whom we owe so much should not be left behind. Whatever progress is, it’s only human progress if it embraces all. All. Just wanting to march off to conquer new planets in the same way that you conquered America, Africa, India and the Pacific islands or extending your lifespan until you rival the patriarchs, excluding new generations from coming forth and living their lives of passion and joy—this is not human progress, it’s just the refining of a machine, and a rather lethal machine, if I may say so. It’s the machine that gives you bread today and war tomorrow. It’s power for power’s sake, not for the sake of living, not for the sake of life. And that’s before we even begin to look at how human beings have been dealing with the living world around them, the forest, the rivers, the oceans, the teeming creatures given to us as companions in life. You race into the future and all the while the creatures around you are dying. Just think of the birdsong … how could we ever be happy without that wonderful music to accompany us?”

            “So not onward and upward, then?”

            “Not onward and upward. Let’s go back to your question: what is Christmas?” Not waiting for my answer, he continued: “Christmas is honouring one who was equal to God but emptied himself and appeared in the form of a servant, ready to give up all that divine knowledge, all that divine power, and all that divine glory so as to be with the sufferers in their suffering, to humble himself and be obedient unto death, even death on the cross. I think we touched on that last time. But, I ask you, has the world ever seen such an extraordinary act of renunciation? If you really want to be as gods, that’s the kind of god you have to be—the self-renouncing God, suffering and dying with us. God born in a cave.”

            I supposed this referred to the Orthodox Church’s icon of the Nativity that shows Mary and her infant in a cave rather than the thatched annex typical of Western art. I didn’t really know much about icons, but a couple of our cards that year had used this image. I couldn’t help the odd thought, probably irrelevant, that once, on a holiday in Crete, I’d been shown the cave where, supposedly, Zeus was born. Yes, that was, probably, irrelevant. Interesting, though. Perhaps gods really should be born in caves, out of the depths of the earth … ?

            In any case, as I’d told Fyodor Mikhailovich, I did try to go to Church at Christmas most years. Perhaps it was something in this story of an infinite, almighty, all-knowing God coming down (so to say) and giving all that God-ness up so as to become the most helpless thing in the world, a new-born baby, that touched me. With or without the cave. Whether or not it was true. Whatever truth meant in a case like this. At the same time, I had baulked, as I always do, when he got round to the ‘obedient unto death on the cross’ part.

            “I understand that, Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I began, but was immediately interrupted.

            “You understand it! Congratulations! I wish I did! I don’t understand it, but I rejoice in it!”

            He was right, of course. I didn’t ‘understand’ it, if you want to be strict about the meaning of ‘understand’.

            “I stand corrected. What can I say? I’m moved by it, it speaks to me the way a poem speaks to me. Or something like that.”

            He nodded. Placated. I continued.

            “You see, it’s not Christmas that bothers me. It’s Good Friday. Why does he have to be obedient unto death, why the death on the cross? A few years ago, I almost came back to Christianity at the time when the Alpha course was big. A friend of mine had been very in to it. It seemed warmer, more approachable than the kind of moralistic preaching that I’d heard as a teenager. But when it came to the crunch, they had the same complicated and frankly unbelievable theory about how Jesus had to die on the cross because God had been offended by human sin and the devil had to be paid a ransom to let us go, so Jesus had to die instead of us because he was sinless and only the voluntary death of a sinless human being was enough to placate God and pay off the devil. I mean, I’m probably not putting it quite correctly, but it was along those lines. A weird God, too much sin, too much of the devil, and too much suffering to my mind. It just didn’t make sense. It almost made me want to be a Muslim: ‘Allah says’ and it’s done and that’s all there is to it. And if God is Almighty—why not? It’s a lot simpler, anyway.”

            Apart from a gruff “Hmmm”, Fyodor Mikhailovich seemed almost to ignore this tirade, confession, call it what you will. Once more he looked out of the window, perhaps for even longer than before. When he did speak, there was a tenderness in his voice but also a kind of rigour, you could almost say severity, that I hadn’t noticed before.

            “Yes, yes, yes. I agree. That is, I agree about placating God and paying the devil a ransom. These are the kinds of theories that some of the clergy like to invent so as to keep the flock in their place. But God doesn’t need to be placated. God is love. And the devil has no power over human souls that cannot be broken by love. Do you remember how Zosima defined hell?”

            “The inability to love.” (This was one line from The Brothers Karamazov that had remained with me since the first time I read it.)

            “Exactly so! The moment we begin to love—even when your love is no bigger than an onion—in that same moment the devil has lost all his power over you. But” (he began to sound almost school-masterly) “I can’t entirely agree with you about suffering. Of course, He has to suffer, not because He had to placate God or pay off the devil but because the people He came to, the people He accepted and loved as his brothers (and, of course, sisters) were sufferers. Even the ones who thought they were superior, the supermen who wanted to lead humanity into a new era, even they, behind all their big words, were sufferers, afraid to love life as it was and trying to hide their fears by dreaming up imaginary utopias.” He suddenly stopped and gave a little laugh. “Imagine, I’d never really thought of this before, but the way you put it just now made me think that those theories you described weren’t so very different from Kirillov’s.”

            “Kirillov? The nihilist who thought he could become God by committing suicide and freeing humanity from the fear of death?”

            “The same.”

            “Where’s the similarity?”

            “Don’t you see?  Both believe that what matters most is that salvation is only possible if death can be made into an act of complete and sovereign freedom. I don’t say Christ didn’t freely consent to the cross, but it wasn’t only about freedom. It was about love, and freedom doesn’t mean anything unless it’s directed by love—indeed, freedom without love: that, quite simply, is nihilism. And remember, even on the cross he was love. ‘Father, forgive them’ for those who crucified him, and, to the thief who hung there with him—quite probably a murderer into the bargain—‘Tonight you will be with me in paradise’. And if the other thief had just for a moment stopped shouting and swearing maybe he too would have joined them in paradise.”

            “So all the stuff about paying the price of sin is just superfluous to requirements?”

            “You could put it like that, I suppose. Yes.”

            “And the cross isn’t there to make us feel like guilty sinners but simply a sign of God’s love?”

            “In a way, yes—but …” He shook his head solemnly.


            “I see you’re back on your theme of guilt again! Please note, I didn’t bring it up!”

            “Noted—but it was you who made it central in the words you gave to Markel and Zosima.”

            “And it is central. Just not in the way you think. Yes, we should feel guilty before the cross. We do feel guilty before the cross, ifwhen—we love. It’s not as if the cross washes away your guilt so that you’re then free to love, which, I think, is the view you’re objecting to?” I nodded. “We’re agreed. then. But if you love, if you love Christ, then seeing him nailed to the cross will pierce you to the heart. Then, maybe for the first time, you’ll really know what it is to be guilty.”

            “That doesn’t seem like a good outcome, though. Wouldn’t it be better for love to do away with guilt rather than creating it? I don’t get it.”

            “It’s quite easy, really. It’s just a matter of psychology. Imagine that your house caught fire. Your brother is also in the house at the time. You escape, but he doesn’t. Everyone who’s been in that kind of situation, whether as a result of war, persecution, plague or just some accident, they all feel guilt, as if it they were the ones who should have died—even if it wasn’t their fault and they did all they could to rescue the ones who perished. That’s how it is when you love someone. A part of you always belongs to them and, in such cases, that part remains bound to their terrible fate. It’s a kind of debt you owe them, and that debt is guilt. It has been said that grief is the price we pay for love, but so too is guilt.”

            “OK. I admit that a lot of people do experience that. But isn’t it something they need to get over and leave behind? Isn’t it what people go to their therapist for?”

            “Ha! More psychology again! Of course—I admit—you can use psychology for just about anything and I also admit that there may be cases where people have the most fantastic and mistaken views about being to blame for their brother’s or friend’s death. And, of course, people like that need help. But don’t you see that there is a very fundamental level at which we all need to acknowledge that we are each of us part of the whole network of causes and relationships that are involved in bringing about whatever comes to pass in history and society—including all that goes wrong in it. That doesn’t demean us. It brings us closer.”

            “But that sounds more like a tragic view of life than Christianity?”

            “Does it have to be one or the other? Are you saying that tragedy and Christianity are incompatible? I think I’d turn the argument round and say that Christianity presupposes a tragic view of life. And then—‘tonight you will be with me in paradise’.”

2 thoughts on “Third Conversation: ‘Christmas Cards’. Episode 4

  1. ‘The Orthodox Church’s icon of the Nativity that shows Mary and her infant’ – in Russian, we sometimes say Bogoroditsa or presviataia Bogoroditsa. Apparently, there are over 300 typical depictions of Mary and her infant in the Orthodox icon tradition. Loving the intensity of the questions being raised!


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