Conversation Three: ‘Christmas Cards’. Episode 6

Nevertheless, that didn’t seem to solve the problem. The world we inhabit is this world, here and now, ‘on this bank and shoal of time’, as the eponymous hero of the Scottish play put it. Even if there is an alternative view, a ‘heavenly’ view, so to speak, how is that going to make a difference? I was sure Fyodor Mikhailovich had more to say and pressed him further.

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I began, “that’s powerful stuff, but if the only Christ we’re able to know here on earth is the suffering Christ, this not only makes Christianity into a tragic view of life, it also makes it ineffective. I mean, this isn’t a Christ who can help us, it’s a Christ who needs our help—just to stay alive. He’s become too weak, which, I have to say, is what a lot of critics have complained about in relation to your story of the Grand Inquisitor …”

            “Not my story—Ivan Karamazov’s story.”

            “Very well. Ivan Karamazov’s story, but, either way, the Christ who appears in that story and comes back to Seville in the middle of the Spanish Inquisition seems very weak, almost bloodless. Jesus denounced the Pharisees and tax-collectors and drove the profiteers out of the Temple with a whip, but your Christ—Ivan Karamazov’s Christ—just stands silently in front of the Inquisitor and listens without saying anything to his long, rambling, self-justifying speech. He doesn’t say or do anything.”

            “Yet we are told that Christ himself remained silent before his accusers.”

            “But he did break his silence in the end. He told Pilate that his Kingdom wasn’t of this world.”

            “And mine kisses the Inquisitor on the lips. Isn’t that ‘doing’ something?”

            “I suppose that it shows that he loves and accepts the Inquisitor despite the fact that he’s busy destroying the whole idea that Christ represented on earth. But that’s part of the problem: shouldn’t he be confronting him with his betrayal, speaking truth to power, rather than just standing there, silently?  That’s why your critics say he’s too weak:  a suffering Christ who loves—but doesn’t save. Maybe even can’t save. But if Christ is to be any use to us, doesn’t he have to be ‘strong to save’ as one of our hymns puts it?”

            I knew that the figure of Christ was very precious to Dostoevsky and, reading these words now, I’m rather appalled that I could have so brutally attacked the idea of Christ that appears in his novels. Probably what I actually said was not quite so sharp as I’ve put it here, but the point was, I think, unambiguous. Nevertheless, Fyodor Mikhailovich appeared unperturbed, though he grew increasingly thoughtful as I spoke.

            “Come,” he said, “let’s sit down and finish that beer. This needs careful consideration”

            We sat down as he suggested and I was relieved to take another mouthful of beer, losing myself for a moment in the bitter-sweet taste and getting a respite from big issues that were in danger of getting a little too big.

            “Now, think carefully,” Fyodor Mikhailovich began, after putting his glass back down. “We agreed that what connects us to Christ is and can only be love. Christ isn’t the answer to our problems—not the problems of politics, not the problems of psychology. He is love. But the only way you can communicate love is: love. I don’t see any other way. Yes, he could have turned stones into bread and made himself universally popular; he could have performed spectacular miracles and made himself an object of worship; and he could have called upon his legions of angels and taken control of the nations of the world. But if he’d done those things, if he’d compelled people’s love or tricked them into loving him, then it wouldn’t have been love. The Roman Emperors used bread and circuses to keep the loyalty of the crowd, but they never even pretended to rule through love—let alone freedom. And, just to be clear, although I shocked you by saying that love was even more important and even more basic than freedom, it has to be freely given and freely received. There can’t be any compulsion or deceit.”

            I thought for a moment.

            “I like all this,” I said. “I can understand … OK, not ‘understand’ … and I’m drawn to the kind of Christ you’re talking about, but it seems to me that this is not only a very human but even a humanistic Christ. In other words, I don’t see why we should regard him as essentially different from any of the other great reformers or teachers of humanity. Perhaps the way in which his life embodied his teaching and the fact that love is ultimately more attractive than knowledge or duty might make us rank him above some of the others, but that doesn’t make him God. Yet that’s the point, isn’t it?”

            “Yes, yes, yes, that’s the point. That’s why Renan and none of the others who’ve tried to portray him as simply a historical figure never get close to understanding him.”

            “But what does it mean to say that he’s God?”

            As so often, Fyodor Mikhailovich seemed not to answer my question directly but to start off on a new subject.

            “Have you ever met, have you ever read about, anyone who could really unconditionally love another person?”

            “I don’t know. I’ve certainly met people who were capable of loving deeply.”

            “But unconditionally?”

            “I’m not sure that I even know what that would mean.”

            “I’m not surprised. It’s impossible.”

            “Impossible? But why?”

            “Because everyone of us is an ‘I’ and being an ‘I’ necessarily limits us in relation to others. Overcoming that limitation is more than the work of a lifetime and it is only in the perspective of eternity that we really see ourselves for what we are in our infinite connection to the whole and, in the whole, to all those other ‘I’s. Only at that point can we give up our identification with just this little ‘I’ and rejoice equally in every possible manifestation of the whole. Only at that point does egoism cease.”

            “And Christ?”

            “Precisely because he is Christ from all eternity means that even in the limitations of human flesh he is not limited by his own ‘I’ and can be equally loving to all. The rest of us can only shed this ‘I’ through a long, slow, process … perhaps even an eternal process lasting until the end of time or even beyond time. This life is only a beginning, but Christ opened the way and showed us the end, the goal that is set before us. And, again, that’s why historians can never grasp him because they are always bound to think of him as some kind of ego-centred personality, whether that’s the Strauss’s mythical Christ, Renan’s noble sentimentalist, Lev Nikolaevich’s moral teacher, or the revolutionary insurgent who became popular in the twentieth century. All of these maybe grasped part of the truth—that Christ put the good of humanity before his own individual ego—but none of them show how he was able to do this. There’s the miracle.”

            “But why’s it a miracle? Isn’t it possible to become enlightened through meditation, without any miracles, like the Buddha?”

            “That’s a comfortable modern Western view of the Buddha, to be sure,” smiled Fyodor Mikhailovich, “but don’t the Buddhists themselves say that he could only achieve that because of all he’d learned and what he’d become through his previous incarnations. He didn’t start his last incarnation as a tabula rasa. But this is not a competition between religions. This is about how you find love, how you become capable of love, and you become capable of love through experiencing it—and if you’re to become capable of unconditional love then it’s only by experiencing unconditional love.”

            “I see.” I saw (I think). But maybe I wasn’t yet persuaded. As if sensing my doubts, Fyodor Mikhailovich held up an admonitory finger.

            “Do you? I wonder. In any case, let me just say that although you described ‘my’ Christ as weak and powerless, he is neither weak nor powerless in the eyes of those who recognize Him for who He is. Even in the story of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’, the common people immediately recognize and love Him when He first appears in Seville—and because they recognize and love Him he is able to heal them and raise their dead. The Inquisitor himself recognizes Him but he doesn’t love Him. For him, therefore, Christ becomes just one more helpless prisoner to feed the flames of his magnificent Auto da Fé.”

            “So I must love Him before I can know Him and see Him for who He is?”

            “Exactly so.” Fyodor Mikhailovich smiled and folded his hands together in his lap, as if he had finished saying what he had to say and was waiting for me to make the next move.  As if he was expecting something from me. Surely not a confession of faith? If that was what he wanted, the most I’d manage would be like the person in the gospels who called out ‘I believe. Help my unbelief.’ But my unbelief needed a lot more help before I could even begin to talk about belief.

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