Archive for October, 2010


He Is Not Here by George William Rutler

October 29, 2010

Richard John Neuhaus

A homily was delivered by Father George William Rutler at the Mass for the Repose of the Soul of Richard John Neuhaus at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on January 8, 2010. Came across it the other day and it reminded me of the hole in my heart.

The past year has not been abundant with fortune for the world or our nation — which made it precisely a time when one ached for commentary from Richard John Neuhaus. We waited, by an instinct that thought he would reply quickly. But there was an uncharacteristic silence. Gradually we realized through the tutorship of time that all his words in this world had been spoken. We can only surmise what he would have said when engaging the follies and faithlessness of our late culture.

His attentions are different now and, confident of an eternal life beyond all the ups and downs of the present, he can claim the epitaph of another man of letters, Benjamin Franklin, who likened his body to the cover of an old book with contents torn out and “stripped of its lettering and gilding” but which he believed would “appear once more in a new and more elegant edition revised and corrected by the Author.”

In the course of the hot and rancid days of the Constitutional Convention, Franklin wondered whether the half-sun carved on Washington’s chair was rising or setting. Father Neuhaus, believing that Franklin was right when he decided it was rising, did everything in his own generation to keep it high. With a perspective longer than the great Franklin’s, he also remembered that day on the Emmaus road when the sun and hope itself seemed to be declining forever. Christ appeared as the sun himself, and the bewildered men on that road recognized him in the breaking of the bread.

Tonight the risen Christ is offered in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the soul of Richard John Neuhaus, and many gathered here discern Christ more clearly because of how we discerned him in Richard. Christ’s Eucharist is death and resurrection together. Father Neuhaus said to me nonchalantly on the telephone one day: “All of us are dying.” At first I thought he was belaboring the obvious, but soon I learned that it was his way of telling me with crafted delicacy that he had only a few weeks to live. He had already taken the temperature of mortality in his book, As I Lay Dying, in which he said, “I believe that one learns to die, not by philosophizing, but by dying.” In the graceful way he died, he made his own body, stripped of its letters and gilding, an elegant second edition which we should call As I Lay Rising.

It was only a month before his own death that he came to this cathedral in physical pain, and grief no less hard, for the funeral of Cardinal Dulles. The mental and spiritual bond between Cardinal Dulles and Father Neuhaus had a creative power that strengthened the Church. Risking gross simile and exaggeration of parallels in their respective chronicles, the contemplative reserve of Dulles and the social activity of Neuhaus, may remind us of Newman and Manning. But those contrasting Victorians, in sepia daguerreotype, were too great to fit comfortably in one room, while Dulles and Neuhaus, in the vivid color of our living memory, were each other’s strength, and enlarged the space they occupied.

Not far from eternal borders himself, Manning said at the funeral of one he loved more than liked, what we could say of our late friend, and no less of his own friend: “Who could doubt that the great multitude of his personal friends in the first half of his life, and the still greater multitude of those who have been instructed, consoled, and won to God by the unequalled beauty and irresistible persuasion of his writings — who could doubt that they, at such a time as this, would pour out the love and gratitude of their hearts.”

Christ disclosed himself on the Emmaus road only after he had opened the Scriptures and taught, for Christ the Priest is also Christ the Teacher, and it was that economy which made many of those who knew Richard Neuhaus remark that in many ways he opened the Scriptures and made our hearts burn within us with what he said. Such was his skill with words which he never trimmed to fit the folios of the cynics.

He had been nurtured in a tradition that stressed the preacher’s commission to flesh out the Word that was made flesh, that is, to preach the consequences of the Incarnation “heart to heart.” This was an expression congenial to Luther and Melanchthon though the words belong to St. Francis de Sales. Father Neuhaus came to understand, and then broadcast by his life, that what is true in essence could animate both Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Our departed friend said, “I became a Catholic in order to be more fully the Christian I was as a Lutheran and that is what happened.”

He could speak heart to heart, and we are here a year later in consequence of that. Becoming a Catholic was for him not a matter of burning the bridge behind him, Rather, it was a walk across the bridge on which he was first set in baptism. This is not to say that such a walk is without cost, for the bridge that any man of conviction crosses is a toll bridge. Grace is free but not cheap, and we know what it cost our Lord to give it to us.

The Eucharist as the “source and summit” of true devotion became the font and height of each day Father Neuhaus lived. This priestly vision only sharpened his prophetic voice. Among his benefactions to Catholic life in a troubled time was the way he lived a maxim of Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ: “For the word of God is the light of the soul, and the sacrament the bread of life. These also may be called the two tables set on one side and on the other, in the storehouse of the holy Church.”

There is a story which has the attribute of being true, of two colleges in a university of Father Neuhaus’s native Canada. They were of opposite theological opinion , built facing each other. In the chapel of one was inscribed words of the Resurrection angel at the empty tomb, “He is not here.” One day some seminarians, from the more sacramentally ordered school, placed next to the inscription a sign reading: “He is across the street.”

Father Neuhaus was more aware of the full demands of charity, and did nothing like that, but he said in persuasive syntax tactful enough to win friends as deftly as he won debates, that Christ really is there. We must always remember the unfathomable patience and handsome pathos with which our Risen Lord spoke to those men on the Emmaus Road: “Oh how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!”

There it was: correction without condescension, an appeal to the mind in the light of glory passing all understanding, and a zeal for souls that could beguile pedestrians to paradise. The one we last saw a year ago was yoked to that enchantment and daily he stood in the public square asking on behalf of his Lord who in a marvelous agony of grace had asked Philip, “Have I been so long with you and do you still not know me?” Father Neuhaus has bequeathed that public square to all of you who now can do in your own ways what he did in his singular way.

Ein feste burg ist unser Gott. Richard John Neuhaus sang those words before he learned Tantum Ergo. The author was a redactor of King David with his harp (Psalm 18:2): “The Lord is my rock and fortress and my deliverer.” The verses go on: “The body they may kill. God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.” The words are far more ancient than the hymn. St. John had seen it all with his own eyes in his Revelation (11: 7,11): for he says: “And when they shall have finished their testimony, the Beast that ascendeth out of the Bottomless Pit shall make war against them, and shall overcome them, and kill them… And after three days and a half the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them.”


Mozart as a Musician of Life’s Gracious Imbalance — Ralph C. Wood

October 28, 2010

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Karl Barth wrote a small book about Mozart amidst all of his Theological tomes. Ralph Wood gives us some of the precious observations Barth held about the composer.


For the last twenty years of his life, Barth began and ended every day by listening to the work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Barth’s study contained a picture of Mozart that was hung — as Barth always pointed out — at a slightly higher level than Calvin’s. Barth’s aphorisms about Mozart are widely celebrated. Mozart, says Barth, is content to play while Bach is determined to preach.

The angels may perform Bach when they are before the throne of God, Barth speculates, but when gathered unto them-selves it’s always Mozart. “If I ever get to heaven,” Barth declares, “I shall first ask after Mozart, and only then after Augustine and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin and Schleiermacher.” “In relation to Mozart,” Barth observes wickedly, “Bach is merely John the Baptist and Beethoven is Origen, if not the Shepherd of Hermas.”

Barth is no mere lover of Mozart. He hears in Mozart’s work nothing less than a musical witness to. God’s redeemed creation. Mozart’s “singing and sounding,” as Barth calls it, echoes God’s own gracious ordering of the world. It constitutes for Barth a parabolic correspondence to the Gospel so original that it is not discernible in any other genius of culture. Mozart’s “childlike knowledge of the center of things” certainly did not derive from Goethe’s “wide-open eyes for nature, history and [the] arts.” Mozart perceived what the better-read and better-educated fail to see, what the “connoisseurs of the world and men” do not discern.

Not even the church Fathers and Reformers enable Barth to hear what sings forth from Mozart’s “golden sounds and melodies” — namely, “parables of the kingdom revealed in the gospel of God’s free grace.” Without this musical echo of God’s goodness, Barth adds in a remarkable tribute to Mozart, “I could not think of what moves me personally in theology, in politics.”

It is not the fabled “sunny-ness” of Mozart’s music that enabled Barth to understand afresh the motive force of all theological work. It is, instead, Mozart’s avoidance of that deadly balance and coincidence of opposites which characterize much of modem theology and nearly the whole of modern culture. To envision the cosmos as equipoise (vocab: Equipoise is the state of being balanced or in equilibrium, usually connoting something that is a product of counterbalancing) of contraries — light and dark, earth and sky, laughter and weeping, heaven and hell — is finally to discern how they cancel each other.

This binary view of the world ends ultimately in neutrality and indifference, if not in madness and suicide. That the creation is full of great contrariety there is no doubt, but the Gospel is not such a coincidentia oppositorum. For Barth, on the contrary, God’s activity in history is bent on transforming the interplay of life’s light and shadow so as to make the former always take precedence over the latter. Mozart’s music is wondrously redemptive, in Barth’s hearing of it, because it reveals this gracious imbalance at the core of things:

[Mozart]. . . heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even today, what we shall not see until the end of time — the whole context of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. The sweetness is also bitter and cannot therefore cloy. Life does not fear death but knows it well. . . . Mozart saw this light no more than we do, but he heard the whole world of creation enveloped by this light. Hence it was fundamentally in order that he should not hear a middle or neutral note but the positive far more strongly than the negative. He heard the negative only in and with the positive.
Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline

Even in the works of his most radiant keys — in the serenades and divertimenti, in Figaro and Cosi fan’ tutte — Mozart is no sanguine optimist. Yet neither do the darker pieces set in minor modes ever descend to self-pitying melancholy. In the overture and finale of Don Giovanni, in the large and small G Minor Symphonies, in the D Minor Piano Concerto, even in the “Dissonant” Quartet — in none of these, says Barth, is life perceived as a lugubrious dialectic of opposites. They are filled, instead, with a joyous sense of the world’s wondrous imbalance:

The sun shines but does not dazzle the eyes, nor demolish nor scorch. Heaven arches above the earth but does not press upon or crush or swallow it. And so earth remains earth, but without being forced to hold its own against heaven in titanic revolt. In the same way darkness, chaos, death and hell render themselves conspicuous but are not allowed to prevail even for a moment. Mozart makes music, knowing everything from a mysterious center.

What [happens] in this center is…a splendid annulment of balance, a turn in the strength of which the light rises and the shadow winks but does not disappear; happiness outdistances sor row without extinguishing it and the “Yes” rings louder than the still-existing “No.” Notice the reversal of the great dark and little bright experiences of Mozart’s life! “The rays of the sun disperse the night”—that’s what you hear at the end of The Magic Flute. The play may or must still proceed or start from the beginning. But it is a play in which some Height or Depth is winning or has already won. This directs and characterizes it. One will never perceive equilibrium, and for that reason uncertainty or doubt, in Mozart’s music. This is true of his operas as well as of his incidental music. Is not each Kyrie or Miserere, even if it begins at the lowest depth, carried by the trust that the prayer for grace has in fact been answered?
Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Thomas Merton attributes Mozart’s musical mastery to a mystical innocence that instinctively intuited the cosmic harmony. He criticizes Barth for his cerebral denial of this supposed heart-knowledge: “Though you have grown up to become a theologian,” he exhorts Barth, “Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation.”

Merton has missed Barth’s point altogether. Barth finds Mozart’s music wondrously liberating precisely because it contains nothing inwardly mystical, nothing of that romantic Sehnsucht which mystics confuse with transcendent grace. Like Cardinal Newman, Barth believes that “mysticism begins in mist and ends in schism.” What moves Barth is the serene objectivity of Mozart’s music — its unexampled freedom from mere subjectivity.

Nothing in Mozart’s biography, Barth argues, can account for his unsurpassed musical ability to encircle life’s sadness with a deep and abiding joy. “Mozart often laughed,” Barth declares, “but certainly not because there was much for him to laugh about. Rather he laughed (and that is something absolutely different) because he was allowed and able to laugh in spite of all.

It was Mozart’s unsurpassed gift to have been what Barth calls an impersonal instrument of the “sounding universe”  Having listened to a redemptive harmony not of his own making, Mozart was intent on letting his music resound with it.  Hence the virtual absence of any subjective element in Mozart’s work, and hence also the stark divide between the unhappy events of Mozart’s private life and the proverbial gaiety incarnate in his music.

Barth cites Mozart’s own assertion that “the emotions, strong or not, never should be expressed ad nauseam and that music, even in the most horrible situation, never must offend the ears but must please them nevertheless. In other words, music must always remain music.” Nothing less than a deep theological humility can explain, in Barth’s view, Mozart’s splendid self-transcendence over his personal interests:

Mozart’s music, in contrast to that of Bach, has no message and, in contrast to that of Beethoven, involves no personal confession. His music does not give any rules, even less does it reveal the composer himself…Mozart does not wish to say anything at all; he just sings and sounds. So he does not intrude a thing upon the hearer, he does not ask decisions or comments of him, he just lets him alone. You start to enjoy him the moment you allow him to act like that…He does not want to proclaim the praise of God either. However, he does just that: in the very humbleness in which he is, so to speak, nothing more than an instrument himself. In this way he lets us hear what he clearly hears, namely, everything which from God’s creation presses upon him, rises in him, and wants to spring from him.
Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Barth is untroubled by the objection that Mozart did not intend his music, at least not his secular work, to resound with the praise of God’s prevenient grace. That Mozart lived an often miserable life; that he accused Protestants of being unable to comprehend the meaning of Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi; that he was a Freemason of little moral and intellectual distinction — all of this is, for Barth, nothing to the theological point.

On the contrary, it establishes his thesis ever more strongly: Mozart was a man who, however great his personal bondage, became utterly free in his service to Dame Music. Against Ulrich Zwingli’s notion that certain people have a special direct access to God, Barth asserts that “God had a special access to this human being.”


Flannery O’Connor As A Satirist Of The Negative Way – Ralph C. Wood

October 26, 2010
A Comedian In Both The Literary And Religious Senses
The fiction of Flannery O’Connor affords a fitting comic subject for theological analysis. She is a comedian in both the literary and religious senses of the word. The most memorable scenes and lines in her work are nearly all comic. In “Good Country People,” for example, the narrator observes flatly that “Mrs. Hopewell had no bad qualities of her own but she was able to use other people’s in such a constructive way that she never felt the lack.” So wry a judgment serves not only to take us inside the mind of an extraordinarily complacent woman; it also reveals that O’Connor’s humor never exists for its own sake. Her comedy always has. a moral bite. Like a latter-day Swift, she lampoons the vices and follies of our age, especially our self-contentment.

Yet O’Connor is not primarily a moralist seeking to slap the world to its senses and to reform its vagrant ways. Her comic vision is far more theological than it is ethical. She cares more about belief than morality, even while appreciating their necessary relation. The murder and mayhem committed by O’Connor’s protagonists would seem to make them worthier of execution than of salvation. Almost without exception — and to the reader’s immense surprise — the criminals and egotists who populate her fiction are made into reluctant recipients of grace; indeed, they are redeemed. This does not mean that they become paragons of courage and self-sacrifice. O’Connor’s heroes are marked, on the contrary, by their failure more than their success. They are blessedly unable to suffice unto themselves, graciously incapable of denying their redemption. Their secular defeat is thus their religious victory; their human loss is their divine gain.

A Radically Negative Vision Of God’s Activity In The World
The theological key to Flannery O’Connor’s comedy lies in her thoroughly Catholic (and specifically Thomistic) conviction that grace does not destroy but completes and perfects nature. She seeks to recover, amidst the secular absence of God, the divine presence that is sacramentally at work in every living thing. Yet her natural theology is rooted in a radically negative vision of God’s activity in the world. “Grace must wound,” says O’Connor, “before it can heal. It must be dark and divisive before it can be warm and binding.”

The reason for this bleak judgment is not difficult to discern. O’Connor regards the modern age as unprecedented in its apostasy, and therefore as blinded to the positive presence of God’s grace within the human and natural order. A classic natural theology built on our native desire for God is, in O’Connor’s view, no longer possible. Our world is too far gone down the path of self-abandonment to permit anything so hopeful and positive as a traditional Christian humanism. Nothing less than a startled shock of self-recognition can awaken her characters to their desperate condition. They must approach the throne of grace through the rear door of a frustrated self -sufficiency, never through the vestibule of a native desire for God.

Her Catholic Character
The Catholic character of O’Connor’s negative natural theology must not be underestimated. Even in its fallen state, humanity has a magnetic allurement to the grace of God. Modern godlessness cannot extinguish it. Not for her John Calvin’s conviction that, apart from God’s intervening grace, the human heart remains a perpetual factory for the making of idols. O’Connor’s characters remain obsessed with God even in their denial of the Holy. They are imbued with a longing for the Transcendent that, despite their vigorous attempts to rid themselves of it, cannot finally be suppressed. The aim of O’Connor’s fiction is to plumb the depths of contemporary unbelief and to reveal, even there, the human restlessness that only the divine rest can still.

It is this paradox that explains why O’Connor’s work, for all its slam-bang humor, often ceases to be funny in the obvious sense. Her characters confront their inadequacy far too painfully, and face deaths far too gruesome, for ordinary comedy. Yet precisely amidst inward pain and outward death does O’Connor locate a deeper kind of comedy. She is a satirist of the negative way only because she believes that, in our time at least, an anguishing self-knowledge is the prime requisite for recognizing the Gospel of God. Nothing less than this glad grace is what most of her protagonists find. Albeit reluctantly, they come to hear the Voice that will not be silenced, to drink the Water that alone slakes human thirst, to eat the Bread beside which all other food is as stones. If only with their last dying breath, they beseech that Mercy whose asking is already, as Pascal said, a receiving, whose seeking means its finding.

The High Cost of Dying
Readers are sometimes shocked at the grotesque quality of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction. Her dramatis personae include a character who mutilates himself with barbed wire, quicklime, and broken glass; another who steals a wooden leg from a crippled woman and leaves her stranded in a hayloft) and still another who drowns the imbecile child he was commissioned to baptize. Such macabre creations give psychologists a virtual charter for invidious judgments about their creator Even the most generous and sympathetic of readers may rightly wonder about the author of such grotesques. The British novelist and critic Evelyn Waugh is said to have remarked — in the pre-feminist days when such a comment was considered an accolade — that O’Connor’s stories could not have been written by a woman. And yet the woman we meet in O’Connor’s letters is at once gentle and genial. Though crusty in her social and theological opinions, she is the very, opposite of an ogre. Yet there are not two Flannery O’Connors, but one: her life and work constitute, in fact, a remarkable integrity. She practiced in ordinary existence the same comic faith that she envisioned so extraordinarily in her fiction.

O’Connor’s faith is all the more impressive for having been hammered out on the anvil of sickness and confinement. Her angular and unapologetic belief is nicely figured in the response she made to a reader who was angered by O’Connor’s Christian concerns. She wrote O’Connor to object that Jesus would have been forever forgotten had he died at age eighty of athlete’s foot. O’Connor replied to her critic that she was orthodox without knowing it. Jesus did not aim at “a long and happy life” O’Connor implies. He lived preeminently for the accomplishment of his divine mission, even if it meant a passionately brief existence. It is possible to say without sacrilege that so did Flannery O’Connor live.

She agreed with Samuel Johnson that nothing can so wonderfully concentrate the mind as the verdict of death. From age twenty-five until the end came fourteen years later, O’Connor lived with the almost certain knowledge that she would die young The same lupus erythematosus that had killed her father was eventually to kill her. Knowing perhaps that she would not be able to complete her life work in leisurely fashion, she wrote with an especial intensity, making certain that no one mistook the radicality of her vision In this regard at least, O’Connor can be compared to the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, another Catholic writer whose short life issued in a slender but impassioned body of art.

Her Comic Vision Of Reality
O’Connor’s correspondence bears impressive witness to the spiritual struggle that she transmuted into fiction. Her comic vision of reality was the source of her life no less than her art. So discerning and incisive are O’Connor’s letters that they have been compared to Keats’s. Even if such an estimate be extravagant, The Habit of Being must be read in tandem with her fiction in order to comprehend the unity of her art, her faith, and her life. The letters reveal a woman whose devout Christian faith was anything but a crutch that enabled her to limp through life. Against the callow view that Flannery O’Connor became religious after she became ill, her correspondence discloses the opposite: her faith was sorely tested by her long battle with the disease that eventually killed her.

Never does O’Connor roll her eyes heavenward in glib affirmation that her illness is another of God’s “good and perfect” gifts. To one of her last letters she adds this poignant postscript: “Prayers requested. I am sick of being sick.” O’Connor’s struggle with lupus was a destiny so harsh that she could be reconciled to it only partially. Even in acceptance, her voice remains ironic and realistic: “I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing. What you have to measure out, you come to observe closer, or so I tell myself.” The squinted eye and the qualified affirmation point to an unsentimental faith. So great was her revulsion for treacly piety that she went to Lourdes more in dread than in hope. “I am one of those people,” she quips, “who could die for his religion easier than take a bath for it.” Only reluctantly did O’Connor agree to wash in the Lourdes waters and to drink from the common cup shared by les malades. The real miracle of the place, she commented later, is that it does not “bring on epidemics.”

The Most Important Occasion That Life Offers A Christian
O’Connor’s tough-minded faith will not countenance the notion that religion is an easy comfort for the weak and the troubled and the sick. To a skeptic friend inclined so to think, she replies with arresting candor: “There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way…” The idea of costly grace is a theme that runs throughout O’Connor’s work. Belief in God is never something obvious and natural. Her characters are redeemed after much suffering and usually in the face of death. Yet it is not God but themselves that they are finally made to doubt. An anguished self-recognition is always the means of their salvation. Yet this radical turning of the will — away from the self and toward God—is itself enabled by grace. O’Connor agrees with Augustine that faith is a gift rather than an acquisition. Nor is it primarily an emotion, a Lawrentian palpitation of the solar plexus. Only its objective effects are discernible, and they remain an unaccountable mystery: “When I ask myself how I believe, I have no satisfactory answer, no assurance at all, no feeling at all. I can only say… Lord, I believe, help my unbelief. And all I can say about my love of God is, Lord, help me in my lack of it.”

The mystery of faith’s utter givenness enabled O’Connor to regard her disease as a strange blessing. Without it, she came to see, her life might have been a massive act of presumption. Through the confinement that illness forced upon her, she was able to prepare for the death which, in her Catholic view, is the most important occasion that life offers a Christian: “ I have never been anywhere but sick,” she writes to the anonymous “A.” “In a sense sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow. Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing and I think those that don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”

Life Is Providentially Ordered
O’Connor never wavered in her conviction that life is providentially ordered. In an unpublished letter written in 1964 to a Catholic lay volunteer disappointed by her work in South America, O’Connor counsels her to discern God’s will even in the midst of uninviting conditions. She concludes with a testament that is all the more remarkable for having been made in the face of her own suffering and approaching death: “I have never been anywhere in my life that it wasn’t the place I was supposed to be — no matter how it looked at the time.”

Death is a brother to Flannery O’Connor’s imagination, as she liked to say. Yet the reason for this kinship is more than biographical. Death is central to O’Connor’s fiction because she regarded it as the terminus that compels us to fix the shape of our souls — whether we shall keep our lives for our own vain use, or whether we shall give them back in gratitude to God. Our attitude toward death is thus the criterion not only of life beyond the grave, but for our present existence as well: “You do not write the best you can for the sake of art,” she declares, “but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit. Resignation to the will of God does not mean that you stop resisting evil or obstacles, it means that you leave the outcome out of your personal considerations. It is the most concern coupled with the least concern.”

Return To Her Native Georgia
Disease and the prospect of death forced Flannery O’Connor to face an enemy far more insidious than physical disability. The real death sentence was not her illness, she confesses, so much as it was the return to her native Georgia that it required. O’Connor had worked hard to establish her own independent existence as a writer, living first in Iowa and then later in New York and Connecticut. Such liberty of life and work was ended with the news that she would have to come back home. O’Connor admits her deep initial dread: “This is a Return I have faced and when I faced it I was roped and tied and resigned to death, and largely because I thought it would be the end of any creation, any writing, any WORK from me.”

The dread of returning home again springs from a deeper origin than mere rebellion against her small-town Georgia beginnings. On the contrary, her fictional subject matter was to be invariably Southern. She once remarked that, were she to live in Japan and to write about Oriental characters, they would all talk like Gene Talmadge, the Georgia cracker politician and populist hater of all things intellectual. Yet it is evident that O’Connor wanted to write about the South from a critical vantage point beyond it. She desired the cultural stimulus of Northern and urban life. Far more, she wanted to be freed from Southern small-mindedness.

Nowhere is its oppressiveness more evident than in the story called “Good Country People.” There a veritable avalanche of banality and triteness falls upon Hulga Hopewell, a crippled intellectual who lives at home with her mother. With mindless complacency, for instance, Hulga’s mother observes that “It’s very good we aren’t all alike.” A farm woman named Mrs. Freeman replies with a comic adage that exceeds even Mrs. Hopewell’s in its self-satisfaction: “Some people,” she says, “are more alike than others.”

Regina Cline O’Connor
It does not take a shrewd Freudian to discern that much of Flannery O’Connor’s dread of returning home had to do with her mother. There are too many stories about sickly intellectuals living resentfully at home with their parents — usually their mothers — for there to be no autobiographical element in this pattern. Neither is it difficult to establish that Regina Cline O’Connor and her daughter were at the polar antipodes of character types: the mother an affable, outgoing, hard-working widow who operated a dairy farm and purchased herd bulls with equal acumen; the daughter a reflective, inward-turning, book-reading artist whose prime focus was upon the unseen realm of the spirit.

Flannery O’Connor could usually accept this clash of personalities with a droll sense of irony. She liked to say, for example, that her function at her mother’s tea parties was to cover the stain on the sofa. But there were also times when she would burst forth in fury at her mother’s failure to comprehend the daughter’s literary vocation. Once after Mrs. O’Connor had expressed doubt whether Flannery were making the best use of her talents, seeing that so few people could read her books with enjoyment, the writer poured out her wrath to a friend: “This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raising my blood pressure 140 degrees, etc. All I can ever say is, if you have to ask you’ll never understand.”

So splenetic a confession may seem to justify the psychoanalytic view that Flannery O’Connor suffered from an Electra complex – that she hated her mother, that she sought to commit matricide in her fiction, and that her violent depictions of death reveal a deep sexual frustration underlying the entirety of her work.’ O’Connor’s letters lay to permanent rest such reductionist suspicions, but not without acknowledging their partial truth. It is clear that O’Connor’s illness ended whatever hopes she may have had for marriage. When an Atlanta woman complained that there is no “love” in O’Connor’s books, the author candidly agreed. “You can’t write about love when you haven’t had it, least wise the [romantic] kind she’s talking about. I never had any.” “Marriages are always a shock to me,”14 she writes in strange response to a friend who had announced her engagement. This is not to say that O’Connor herself did not desire married love. There is no literary evidence that she was either a determined spinster or a closet lesbian, It was her illness and confinement, not her scorn for men, that left her unmarried. In one of her most affecting letters, O’Connor confesses her early discovery that she was not meant to be an isolé. (Fr: isolated, remote) She traces her need for intimate friendship to her father’s affectionate nature. But whereas he wanted such close relationships and found them, O’Connor confesses, “I wanted them and didn’t.” In this simple but wrenching declaration lies the essential disappointment of Flannery O’Connor’s life.

Great must have been the temptation to both rancor and self-pity No wonder that so many of her characters succumb to it. Yet the enticement O’Connor admits in her fiction is the one she avoided in her life. Unlike her parent-hating Hulga Hopewells and Asbury Foxes, she remained truly devoted to her mother. Nor did her filial piety issue from a mere grudging sense of obligation. O’Connor’s affection for her mother ran all the deeper because she knew that, despite sharing the local view of Flannery’s work as grim and nasty, Mrs. O’Connor supported her daughter without stint. Hence the author’s bemused observation of the mother’s slow progress through The Violent Bear It Away: “All the time she is reading,” writes the daughter, “I know she would like to be in the yard digging. I think the reason I am a short story writer is so my mother can read my work in one sitting.”

Having no notable mastery of the world herself, O’Connor admired her mother’s savoir-faire. When a Catholic visitor to the O’Connor farm joined Flannery for a late-afternoon veneration of the Host, she shared his amusement at Mrs. O’Connor’s parting declaration upon depositing daughter and guest in front of the parish church: “Y’all go pray while I buy the groceries.”’ Nor is the writer put off by her mother’s strictures against a companion who fancied herself a mystic. The friend had stretched herself out upon the cold November ground, staring up at the sky in the hope, she said, of getting a more “sacramental” perspective on the world. Mrs. O’Connor admonished the guest to get up from there in a hurry, lest she catch a death of cold: “Can’t you look at things standing up?” In two days’ time the visitor had indeed fallen ill, prompting Flannery to remark approvingly, “You can’t get ahead of mother.”

This comic affirmation of both her mother and her confinement makes Flannery O’Connor’s personal triumph very impressive. Even when the end was at hand, she resisted all self-pity. She would not countenance the notion that her pain was to be compared with Christ’s. “I haven’t suffered to speak of in my life and I don’t know any more about the redemption than anybody else.” Such humility enabled her to discern humor even in her adversity. Rendered weak and giddy by the loss of blood, and thinking herself to be dying, O’Connor reports that she heard the idiotic lines of a folk song rather than the celestial choruses of Palestrina: “Wooden boxes without topses. They were shoes for Clementine.” A nurse who looked and talked like Ruby Turpin in “Revelation” — life thus imitating art — caused O’Connor to laugh so hard that she could not decide “whether the Lord is giving me a reward or a punishment.” The high cost of dying thus proved to be a strange kind of bargain. Despite her early dread of returning to Milledgeville, convinced that she would be a productive writer only at several removes from home, O’Connor came to pay splendid tribute to her mother and her town: “The best of my writing has been done here.”

A Roman Catholic in the Protestant South
Flannery O’Connor did not conceive of herself as a Catholic writer in the narrow sense. She strove, on the contrary to embody an ecumenical vision in her art. Like C. S. Lewis’ “mere” Christianity. O’Connor’s faith is based on the bedrock beliefs shared by all Christians: the uniqueness of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God and Lord of all reality the radical sinfulness and hopelessness of humanity apart from Christ’s saving grace, the final authority of the Scriptures as testaments to God’s reconciling action in history and the indispensable importance of the church as the body of Christ wherein the Holy Spirit gathers the faithful and summons the world to its redemption.

O’Connor’s grand, all-inclusive Christian vision accounts for the near-absence of overtly Catholic characters and situations in her fiction. Priests and nuns make brief appearances in “The Enduring Chill,” “The Displaced Person,” and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” Only in the last of these stories is the main character a professed Catholic, and her schoolgirl struggle with pride knows no denominational bounds. Unlike a fellow Catholic writer such as J. F Powers, O’Connor never appeals to an “inside” audience who would need to know about rosaries and novenas, monasteries and abbeys, popes and encyclicals.

Though once the most notoriously anti-Catholic region of the country the South served strangely to reinforce O’Connor’s Catholic ecumenism. She was drawn to the Bible Belt for the same reason that H. L. Mencken was repelled by it — because most Southerners still take seriously the God whom the smart secular world has largely dismissed. O’Connor’s affection for the primitive Protestantism of her region runs deep. Her God-drunk, self-ordained, wool-hat prophets are not the objects of her scornful satire, as early reviewers thought; they are figures whose concern with ultimate matters O’Connor profoundly shares. Hazel Motes and Francis Marion Tarwater may be grotesque and reluctant servants of God, but they are servants of God nonetheless.

O’Connor agrees with Gustave Weigel’s judgment that Catholics are doctrinally closer to their bigoted enemies than to their enlightened friends. So close is the kinship between Catholic orthodoxy and Protestant fundamentalism that O’Connor sees the one as the successor to the other. “The day may come,” she prophesies, “when Catholics will be the ones who maintain the spiritual traditions of the South.” Hence the surprising accord between O’Connor’s Catholic Christianity and her Southern Protestant milieu. “The only thing that keeps me from being a regional writer,” she declares in a letter, “is being a Catholic, and the only thing that keeps me from being a Catholic writer (in the small “c” sense) is being a Southerner.”

O’Connor’s regard for her Protestant region is nowhere better  evinced than in her explanation for the prevalence of freaks in Southern fiction. Southern authors write about grotesques, O’Connor notes wryly, because they can still recognize a freak when they see one- Nothing less than an ultimate criterion can enable one to detect fundamental distortions and perversions of human nature. Though the South is surely not a Christ-centered region — witness the Southern treatment of Negroes — O’Connor insists that it is “most certainly Christ-haunted.” Southerners share Hazel Motes’s inability to rid himself of, “the wild ragged figure” of the Nazarene who moves “from tree to tree in the back of his mind…motioning for him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on water and not know it and then suddenly know it and. drown.”

The Summons To Belief
This startling image suggests that the summons to belief is a perilous thing. It alerts us to the danger no less than to the wonder of our deliverance from damnation. The forgiveness of sins engenders a water-walking faith that is able to traverse both the river of despondency and the lake of woe. So great a salvation, as the Book of Hebrews calls it, also creates unprecedented peril: to neglect it is to fall into the abyss of divine abandonment called hell. God’s grace, far from being a thing of easy comfort, puts its recipients at ultimate risk. It is this sense of both divine danger and deliverance that, according to Flannery O’Connor, Southern Protestants have been blessedly unable to escape. Even the Southerner whose faith is uncertain still fears, she says, “that he may have been armed in the image and likeness of God.”

The Intensity Of Her Catholic Vision
O’Connor’s profound affinity for Southern Protestant Christianity no way lessened the intensity of her Catholic vision. We learn from her letters that, throughout her adult life, she attended Mass frequently, said her daily prayers out of the Missal, and read from the theology of Thomas Aquinas for twenty minutes every night before bed. Her deeply sacramental Catholicism made her critical, therefore, of the fierce faith that she otherwise admired. Without the sacraments, she lamented, Southern Protestants have nothing to guide their belief or curb their heresies. What remains is only “a do-it-yourself religion…which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic.” Yet it was finally sympathy and not disdain that O’Connor felt for these untutored and unsacramental cousins in Christ. She wrote to a fellow Catholic that her theological differences with literal-minded Southern Protestants were “on the nature of the church, not on the nature of God or our obligation to him.”

The most significant accord between O’Connor’s Catholic orthodoxy and Southern fundamentalist faith is to be found in their common understanding of the divine activity in its relation to human freedom. They share the mutual conviction that God’s prevenient grace can become efficacious only with our freely willed acceptance of it There is a synergistic union between the divine self-offering and our human acceptance of it: “God rescues us from ourselves, if we want him to.”

Conversion is the name for this all determining decision. For the backwoods prophet or the small-town Protestant preacher, the call to repentance and salvation is addressed primarily to the unconverted. For O’Connor the Catholic, it is the already-baptized Christian who must constantly be converted to absolute reliance on the mercy of God. ‘All voluntary baptisms are a miracles” she writes, “and stop my mouth as much as if I had just seen Lazarus walk out of the tomb.” She explains why: “I suppose it’s because I know that [baptism} had to be given me before the age of reason, or I wouldn’t have used any reason to find it.” Yet the Catholic O’Connor agrees with the revivalist Protestant that grace is far from irresistible, and that the saints persevere only by faith’s constant renewal through drastic decision.

For the Catholic O’Connor no less than for the Protestant evangelist, the inevitability of death provides the inescapable summons to this final choice In their encounter with life’s ultimate limit, her characters are made to discern how their own souls are weighed in the divine balances and their eternal destinies finally fixed. The stakes are not mere1y high; they are absolute. In that last earthly assize (A decree or edict rendered at a session of a court) , O’Connor believes, we return to God the gifts that we have multiplied by faith, thus trusting that he will receive us into his glory or else we admit to having squandered our talent and wasted our substance, thus facing the pain of absolute loss.

In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the murderous Misfit speaks the comic truth when he says (of the self-regarding Grandmother he has just killed) that “she would of been a good woman — if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Had death been perennially present to remind the Grandmother of her total dependence on God, she would have trusted in his grace rather than her own gentility.

The conviction that the ultimate issue of our lives depends on our own reception or rejection of God’s grace is the central premise of Flannery O’Connor’s work. In one of her very last book reviews, she declares that the chief mission of the church is to ensure “salvation for every person who does not refuse it.” More arresting still is her insistence that “man is so free that with his last breath he can say No!” In unison with the entire Catholic tradition, O’Connor affirms that the efficacy of God’s grace depends, in a radical way, upon our own receiving or rejecting of it. Henri de Lubac’s work is a typical example of the synergistic theology which O’Connor espouses:

If God had willed to save us without our own co-operation, Christ’s sacrifice by itself would have sufficed. But does not the very existence of our Savior presuppose a lengthy period of collaboration on man’s part? Moreover, salvation on such terms would not have been worthy of the persons God willed us to be. God did not desire to save mankind as a wreck is salvaged he meant to raise up within it a life, his own life. The law of redemption is here a reproduction of the law of creation: man’s co-operation was always necessary if his exalted destiny was to be reached, and his co-operation is necessary now for his redemption. Christ did not come to take our place — or rather this aspect of substitution refers only to the first stage of his work — but to enable us to raise ourselves through him to God.
Henri de Lubac, Catholicism

For all her stress upon our human cooperation with divine grace, Flannery O’Connor cannot be construed as a Pelagian. Not one of her characters makes an autonomous decision for or against the grace of God — as if the summons to belief were something one could take up or lay aside at one’s own convenience. With Augustine and the central tradition of Western theology she knows that the act of faith is itself enabled by prevenient grace. Indeed, the divine pressure weighs so heavily upon a character like Francis Marion Tarwater (in The Violent Bear It Away) that his will appears to have been coerced. The boy makes a final defiance of God by drowning the imbecile child he had been commissioned to baptize.

Yet even as Tarwater immerses the child in the waters of death, he finds himself — to his surprise and fury — uttering the baptismal formula — against his most fundamental freedom of will, it may seem, he has been made to do the will of God. For O’Connor, this imperious urgency at work on young Tarwater is but the universal presence of God that pervades all of human and natural life. It may encircle but it does not cancel his freedom. Indeed, it is the boy’s deeper and truer will that, in performing the baptism, triumphs over his merely superficial (but still murderous) self-will.

From the classic Catholic tradition of natural theology O’Connor derives her unswerving conviction that humanity is inevitably inclined toward God. Original sin and the Edenic Fall have distorted and perverted, but not extinguished, humanity’s God-hungering and Godthirsting nature. Hence O’Connor’s allegiance to the ancient theology of exitus et reditus—the inexorable procession of all things from God, and their equally ineluctable return to him.

God is at once the Archer and the Target of all creation. The cosmos is the arrow which God flings primordially out of himself and eschatologically back unto himself. The arc of God’s grace describes a gigantic circle wherein the divine goodness encompasses everything. Sin is the free deflection of life’s true trajectory causing the will to turn in upon itself (incurvatus in Se) in hideous parody of the divine circularity. Salvation, by contrast, is to will what God wills. By the grace made available through Christ, we are enjoined to align our lives with the pattern of the universe itself.

To conform the sinful human economy to the graceful heavenly order is to undertake a gradual and disciplined process of obedience and sacrifice. It is a lifelong penance for the individual, and a history-long endeavor for the race. As the creek-preacher says in O’Connor’s story called “The River,” the blood of Jesus is a great Stream “full of pain itself, pain itself, moving toward the Kingdom of Christ, to be washed away, slow, you people, slow as this here old red river water around my feet.” The vain little schoolgirl in ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost” embodies the problem of patient faith more comically: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.”

Divine Grace Must First Manifest Itself Destructively Before Its Recipients Can Respond To It Positively
So to speak is to declare the real difference between Flannery O’Connor’s Catholicism and the Protestantism of the classic Reformers. For both Luther and Calvin, salvation is the divine assurance from which the forgiven sinner lives by grace. For O’Connor, by contrast, it is the goal toward which the struggling soul journeys in fear and trembling. The quandary of salvation gives her stories their real plot interest. One comes to expect that, sooner or later, the protagonists will be laid low by the whammy of grace. Yet their response — embittered like Hulga Hopewell’s, astonished like Ruby Turpin’s, grateful like O. E. Parker’s — is never predictable. The one sure thing is that divine grace must first manifest itself destructively before its recipients can respond to it positively. The fact that God’s mercy shatters before it rebuilds gives Flannery O’Connor a deep affinity with Southern fundamentalist Protestantism; it also causes her to modify classic Catholic thought into her own kind of negative natural theology. More about that in another post.

Baylor University Professor of Theology and Literature, Ralph C. Wood looks at Flannery OConnor and her Catholic faith. A reading selection from his 1988 classic, “The Comedy of Redemption.”


Revelation And The New Testament – Avery Cardinal Dulles

October 25, 2010

Avery Cardinal Dulles

Hebrews 1:1-2
As in other matters, so in the notion of revelation, the New Testament takes up the themes enunciated in the Old Testament, draws them together, and brings them to a higher and unforeseen fulfillment. “All these writings of ancient Israel, both those which are concerned with her past relationship to God and those which dealt with her future one, were seen by Jesus Christ, and certainly by the Apostles and the early Church, as a collection of predictions which pointed to him, the savior of Israel and of the world.” The heart of the New Testament is that the definitive, universal revelation is given to mankind in Jesus, to be authoritatively proclaimed by the Church to all nations until the end of time (Matthew 28:18-20).

The Old Testament affirmation that God spoke to man “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11) was surpassingly fulfilled in the coming of God’s own Son (John 1:17-18). The best summary of the New Testament view of revelation, as related to the Old Testament, is Hebrews 1:1-2: “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”

Revelation Is Communicated Through Jesus
In the Synoptic Gospels, which concentrate on the ministry of Jesus, revelation is chiefly understood as something which Jesus communicates through his preaching and teaching. As a preacher, Jesus, like John the Baptist, heralds the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. He points to his cures and exorcisms as evidences that Satan’s dominion is being overthrown and that God’s rulership is being established. In his capacity as teacher, Jesus gives more detailed and continuous instruction, especially to his chosen disciples. By faith in Jesus, the disciples are initiated into the mystery that will be fully disclosed when the Son of Man appears in glory.

Son vs. Prophet
Is Jesus regarded as a prophet? He is occasionally hailed by this title, and even (with an implied reference to the prediction of the “new Moses” in Deuteronomy 18:18) as the prophet. But the evangelists and apostles do not ascribe this title to Jesus, nor does he himself seem to have been satisfied with it. The designation fails to do justice to the transcendence of his person and of his mission-aspects far better expressed by the term “Son.” In his role as Son he has intimate knowledge of the Father that enables him to be the revealer par excellence: “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew. 11:27).

Jesus as Son is thus the revealer of the Father and his plans. The central theme of the revelation is the arrival of the Kingdom, which is understood as involving all the blessings foretold by the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms. The apostles are the chosen recipients of this revelation, notwithstanding their lack of personal qualifications (Matthew 11:25). They are freely called by Jesus, enlightened by the grace of the Father (Matthew 16:17), instructed by Jesus regarding the true nature of the Kingdom, and appointed to go and preach in his name. Within this general framework, common to all the Synoptics, each evangelist presents the revelation of Jesus with a particular nuance of his own.

Mark has been aptly dubbed by Dibehus and Bultmann the “book of secret epiphanies” For Mark the words and deeds of Jesus have a paradoxical quality. They reveal and yet they conceal. They manifest the messiahship of Jesus in a way that produces, for the most part, only bewilderment and disorientation. The disciples are stupid and obtuse, the parables are confusing, the miracles are uncanny, the more striking of them are to be kept secret until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.

At the climax of the gospel, a Roman centurion who has seen and heard nothing wonderful from Jesus himself except his dying cry proclaims with a sudden burst of faith that Jesus is indeed the Son of God. Later an angel announces that Jesus has arisen from the tomb. But the women to whom the angel brings these tidings say nothing, for they are afraid. And at this point the gospel abruptly ends (for Mark 16 9-16 is a later addition, apparently by another hand). In this disconcerting gospel the revelation brought by Jesus is presented as awesome, haunting, or, to use Rudolf Otto’s term, “numinous.”

Matthew puts the accent not on kerygma but on catechesis Jesus is depicted as the new Moses who promulgates from the Mount the new and perfect law of charity. In the long sermons and moral instructions characteristic of this gospel, revelation appears as a code of behavior for those who enter the Kingdom Written about the time that the rabbis were engaged in codifying the traditions of Judaism at Jamnia, Matthew may be said to offer a kind of anti-rabbinical rabbinism, in which the precepts of the Mosaic law are heightened, universalized, and interiorized. In the face of modem existential interpretations of revelation, the Matthean gospel affords striking evidence that “For some in the primitive Church, if not for all, the penetrating demands of Jesus, no less than the great kerygmatic affirmations-about him, were part of the ‘bright light of the Gospel,’ that is, they were revelatory.”

Luke, as the theologian of history, is concerned with the change of eons that occurred in Christ.
The old era, which leads up to the Baptist, is at an end. Jesus comes, and prays, and the Spirit descends upon him. Driven by the Spirit, he powerfully proclaims that the messianic promises of Isaiah have come to fulfillment in his own, person. More than any other New Testament author, Luke hangs his conception of revelation on a theology of history, with special emphasis on the Holy Spirit as the gift of God in Christ.

Acts is a further development of the Lukan theology of history. Taking for granted that the basic revelation has already been given in Jesus” public and risen life, it shows how the apostles as chosen witnesses (especially Peter and Paul) spread the good news from Jerusalem outward through Judea and Samaria, and far into the Greco-Roman world. This entire operation unfolds under the impetus of the Holy Spirit, who intervenes continually in the life of the infant Church. The visions and ecstasies of the apostles (such as those of Paul and Peter in Acts 9 and 10) may be viewed as a further outpouring of the Pentecostal Spirit, supplementing the previous revelations in the words and deeds of Jesus.

Paul offers a rich and complex doctrine of revelation, which it would take many pages to expound. On the one hand he looks on revelation as something charismatically received through the miraculous action of the Holy Spirit within the apostolic community even after the departure of the risen Lord (dreams and visions, locutions, and glossalalia).

On the other hand he repeatedly insists that the preaching and faith of the Church must be regulated by the gospel, of which he and the other apostles are judges. While he looks on himself as an apostle by reason of the direct revelation he received at Damascus and the mandate he received from the risen Lord to preach to the gentiles, he acknowledges the authority of Peter and the other “pillars” at Jerusalem, and is anxious to maintain solidarity with them (Galatians 2:1-10).

The content of revelation for Paul is, most briefly, the mysterion — that is, the redemptive counsel of God which has hitherto been kept secret. Now at last God has promulgated his astonishing plan — obscurely foretold by the prophets — to offer salvation to all mankind, independently of observance of the Law, through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus. This revelation is something to be proclaimed to all the nations as the glad tidings of salvation. It is God’s word, a word to be accepted in faith and obedience. Far from being a mere body of doctrine, it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).

Although the notion of apostolic tradition (paradosis) already occurs in the earlier Pauline epistles (2 Thessalonians. 2:15; 1 Corinthians 11), the Pastorals particularly stress the concept of revelation as a deposit (paratheke) to be faithfully safeguarded. and handed on (1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 1:12.14). We shall see this notion of the depositum fidei later taken up in the documents of the Church.

John, although he never uses the term apokalyptein except in an Old Testament citation, develops a powerful theology of revelation in terms of his doctrine concerning the Logos, testimony, and enlightenment. In his prologue he identifies Christ the Son of God with the divine Logos, thus giving a new meaning to the term “word of God,” which elsewhere in the New Testament is generally a synonym for the “gospel.”

More strongly than other New Testament authors, John accents the idea of testimony, developing the notion in a juridical sense reminiscent of the law courts. Jesus speaks solemnly of what he knows from direct experience, thanks to his intimate life in the “bosom” of the Father. The Son by his words bears witness to the Father, but the Father by his miraculous deeds bears witness to the Son. The Spirit, when he comes, is to bear witness to the Son, and the disciples too are witnesses, for they have been with Jesus from the beginning (John 15:26-27). Thus the whole process of revelation is a chain of testimony.

The words of Jesus and his mighty works engender faith (John 14:10-12), but for anyone to believe he must first be drawn by the Father (John 6:44). To see Jesus is to see the Father (14:9), for the Father and he are one (John 10:30). The disciples, having seen, heard, and actually touched the “word of life,” are charged with proclaiming his word to others, so that they may have fellowship with the Father and the Son (1 John 1:1-3). Revelation, therefore, does not really differ from the gift of eternal life through the Son.

Another theme of great importance in the Johannine theology of revelation is that of light. Christ is the light that shines on all men, but the majority do not come to him. Many in their wickedness prefer to lurk in the darkness. Those who follow Christ are assured of light and life (John 8:12; 12:46). The Spirit of truth abides with the disciples in order to recall to their minds what Jesus has taught, and to guide them into the fullness of truth by saying what the disciples in Jesus’ lifetime were not prepared to hear (John 14:26; 16: 12ff.).

The Johannine Apocalypse
The Johannine Apocalypse is by definition a revelation (John 1:1), and stands in the apocalyptic tradition of the late Old Testament and of intertestamental times. Using the literary form of a series of visions, the author shows how the victory of Christ assures the faithful believers that they will emerge victorious from persecution, and will enjoy the fullness of revelation in the heavenly Jerusalem, where the Lamb himself will be the radiant source of light (John 21:23). The book describes Christ as the “Word of God” (John 19:13), the “King of kings and Lord of lords” (John 19:16), and “the Alpha and the Omega” (John 22 13) Reaching its climax in a description of the final coming of Christ, the book concludes with the aspiration, “Come, Lord Jesus” (John 22:20)

Epistle to the Hebrews
Finally, the Epistle to the Hebrews furnishes us with yet another inspired theology of revelation. Here the prevailing theme is the unity and difference between the two Testaments, each being a revelation of the God who speaks through his word. The word of God, which reaches its completion in Christ as Son, is living, active, sharper than a two-edged sword, so subtle that it penetrates the fine line between soul and spirit, and is able to discern the most hidden thoughts (Hebrews 4:12-13). On the lips of the preacher, the word of God demands ready and instant obedience. “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion’”( Hebrews 3:7f.).

A General Description Of The New Testament Conception Of Revelation
It is a completely gratuitous disclosure of God’s mind and purposes, salvific in intent. God freely decides to publish the good news of his redemptive will toward all mankind, and raises up “vessels of election” (see Acts 9: 15) to herald the message.

The apostles take the place of the prophets as God’s chief heralds (Matthew. 28:19; Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8; John. 17:20; and so forth).

The revelation is to be proclaimed to all mankind, as is evident from the same texts. To the universality of the gospel there corresponds a universal need on the part of mankind. Although in times past God may have been satisfied with a vague and undetermined kind of worship, which attained God only as one unknown (Acts 17:23.30-31), now the time has come for men to repent and to call upon Jesus as universal Savior (Romans 10:12-18; Romans 16:26; 1 Timothy 2:3-7).

The revelation is final, in the sense that it fulfils the whole economy of the Old Testament and ushers in the last age of the world (Hebrews 1:1-2; Ephesians 1:10). Believing Christians have already received this revelation (Romans 16:25f.; 1 Corinthians 2:10; Ephesians 3:3.5). Yet revelation continues to occur, insofar as we are still living in the last times (1 Corinthians. 14:30; Philemon 4:15; John. 16:13).

So obscure is our apprehension of the divine truth in this life, that it falls far short of the face-to-face vision for which we hope (1 Corinthians. 13:12). In many New Testament texts, therefore, the term “reveal” is used in the future tense, with reference to the consummation of history, including the revelation of the man of sin (2 Thessalonians. 2:3.8) and the return of the Son of Man (Luke. 17:30).

In the “Day of the Lord,” as under-stood by Paul, there will be a revelation of God’s wrath against sinners (Romans 2:5), the salvation of the faithful (Romans 8:19), and the glory of Christ with his saints (Colossians. 3:4; 2 Thessalonians 1:10). In Johannine language, the life which is announced by the witnesses of Christ will not be seen as it truly is until he appears at the end (1 John.3:2).

The revelation is communicated through a combination of words and deeds. Paul and Hebrews accentuate the idea that revelation is a word demanding the obedience of faith. Yet, in the gospels, Christ reveals not only by his preaching and teaching (Mark. 1:14f.; John. 6:63.14:10), but also by his symbolic actions, such as cleansing the Temple, embracing little children, cursing the barren fig tree, and the like.

Many of his miracles, such as the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and the healing of the deaf mute, may be regarded as parables in action. From the point of view of faith, all that Christ did is instructive and revelatory. As Augustine put it in a famous text, “Because Christ himself is the Word of God, the very deed of the Word is a word to us.”

More than this, we may say that in Christ the relation of word and work becomes close to the point of identity. In his character as Logos he is the subsistent Word, the intelligible reflection of the invisible God. In his flesh he is the sacrament of God — the verbun visibile Patris, as Irenaeus would later put it

It is often said that Jesus Christ, as the Incarnate Word, is subsistent revelation This statement has good scriptural support (see 2 Corinthians 4:4-6, Hebrews 1:1-2), but it must be properly understood. He is not revelation for us except insofar as his inner secret becomes manifest through his words and deeds, and through the communication of his Spirit to those who believe. The revelation which he bears actually becomes revelation insofar as he is recognized as Son and Redeemer. In his earthly life, Jesus was supremely docile to the entire tradition of Israel and to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. In his risen life he appears as one who is no longer picking his way, but has arrived at a full and pacific enjoyment of God’s presence

Jesus As Active Agent In Revelation Or The Supreme Recipient
While the New Testament is mainly interested in Jesus as active agent in revelation, it seems biblically correct to look upon him also as the supreme recipient of revelation The Apocalypse (1 1) speaks of “the revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave him” In the baptismal scene at the Jordan, the Synoptics portray Jesus as seeing the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove The message, “Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22, but see Matthew 3:17 for a different version) comes to Jesus himself Mark does not even fear to report limitations on Jesus’ revealed knowledge (Mark 13 32).

Luke seems at one point to attribute to Jesus a mysterious vision of Satan’s fall (Luke. 10:18 as interpreted by J. M. Creed and others). In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus proclaims, “I preach only what the Father has taught me” (John 8:28), a statement which seems to imply that Jesus first receives the message which he is to transmit to others. But there are other passages in the New Testament which have been interpreted as denying that Jesus receives revelation. To reconcile the various texts in the light of a more developed doctrinal teaching is an important task for Christology.

The Role Of Jesus In The General Theory Of Revelation
The role of Jesus is not unimportant for the general theory of revelation. Too often the theory of revelation has taken its start from the transmission of revelation by the Church, without sufficient attention to the question how revelation was originally received. Some authors naïvely say that it was simply “given” to the Church by inspired prophets and the Son of God, without attending to the complex question of how it came into the human mind of these mediators. Once the focus of interest is shifted to the original acquisition of revelation, it becomes possible to relate revealed knowledge more meaningfully to the total religious quest of mankind.

Errors Regarding Revelation
We have surveyed the Old and New Testaments primarily for positive indications of what the Christian can accept as revelation. But it would be possible also to survey the same sources for indications of what revelation is not. Errors regarding revelation are as old as revelation itself. The prophets of Israel had to contend with superstitious divinatory practices and to silence false prophets who pretended to speak in God’s name without having been sent.

 In the New Testament, Paul had to condemn charismatic excesses, which led to disorder and disedification in community worship (1 Corinthians 14). The Pastoral Epistles warn against teachers who would substitute vain and curious speculations for the sobriety of the Christian gospel. The Johannine writings warn the faithful not to be taken in by pseudo-prophets who deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh (1 John 4: 1-2). These heresies, already condemned in the New Testament, have led some scholars to speak of a first-century Christian Gnosticism. Whether or not this term can be justified, it is certain, as we shall see, that Gnosticism became a major heresy in the second century, and thus contributed to the Church’s articulation of its own doctrine concerning revelation.


“Bulverism” by C.S. Lewis

October 22, 2010

C. S. Lewis

“Bulverism” is a term coined by C.S. Lewis to describe the state of public discourse and debate in the 20th century, or, as he also meant to convey by the term, the foundation of 20th century thought. I was quoting from it to a reader who took me to task for my criticism of Andrew Sullivan’s appearance on the Charlie Rose Show last week.

It is a disastrous discovery, as Emerson says somewhere, that we exist. I mean, it is disastrous when instead of merely attending to a rose we are forced to think of ourselves looking at the rose, with a certain type of mind and a certain type of eyes. It is disastrous because, if you are not very careful, the color of the rose gets attributed to our optic nerves and its scent to our noses, and in the end there is no rose left. The professional philosophers have been bothered about this universal black-out for over two hundred years, and the world has not much listened to them. But the same disaster is now occurring on a level we can all understand.

We have recently “discovered that we exist” in two new senses. The Freudians have discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes. The Marxians have discovered that we exist as members of some economic class. In the old days it was supposed that if a thing seemed obviously true to a hundred men, then it was probably true in fact. Nowadays the Freudian will tell you to go and analyze the hundred: you will find that they all think Elizabeth [I] a great queen because they all have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source. And the Marxist will tell you to go and examine the economic interests of the hundred; you will find that they all think freedom a good thing because they are all members of the bourgeoisie whose prosperity is increased by a policy of laissez-faire. Their thoughts are “ideologically tainted” at the source.

Now this is obviously great fun; but it has not always been noticed that there is a bill to pay for it. There are two questions that people who say this kind of thing ought to be asked. The first is, are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, does the taint invalidate the tainted thought – in the sense of making it untrue – or not?

If they say that all thoughts are thus tainted, then, of course, we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology or philosophical idealism. The Freudian and Marxian are in the same boat with all the rest of us, and cannot criticize us from outside. They have sawn off the branch they were sitting on. If, on the other hand, they say that the taint need not invalidate their thinking, then neither need it invalidate ours. In which case they have saved their own branch, but also saved ours along with it.

The only line they can really take is to say that some thoughts are tainted and others are not – which has the advantage (if Freudians and Marxians regard it as an advantage) of being what every sane man has always believed. But if that is so, we must then ask how you find out which are tainted and which are not. It is no earthly use saying that those are tainted which agree with the secret wishes of the thinker. Some of the things I should like to believe must in fact be true; it is impossible to arrange a universe which contradicts everyone’s wishes, in every respect, at every moment.

Suppose I think, after doing my accounts, that I have a large balance at the bank. And suppose you want to find out whether this belief of mine is “wishful thinking.” You can never come to any conclusion by examining my psychological condition. Your only chance of finding out is to sit down and work through the sum yourself. When you have checked my figures, then, and then only, will you know whether I have that balance or not. If you find my arithmetic correct, then no amount of vapouring about my psychological condition can be anything but a waste of time. If you find my arithmetic wrong, then it may be relevant to explain psychologically how I came to be so bad at my arithmetic, and the doctrine of the concealed wish will become relevant – but only after you have yourself done the sum and discovered me to be wrong on purely arithmetical grounds.

It is the same with all thinking and all systems of thought. If you try to find out which are tainted by speculating about the wishes of the thinkers, you are merely making a fool of yourself. You must find out on purely logical grounds which of them do, in fact, break down as arguments. Afterwards, if you like, go on and discover the psychological causes of the error.

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method [Note: This essay was written in 1941.] is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.”

Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

I find the fruits of his discovery almost everywhere. Thus I see my religion dismissed on the grounds that “the comfortable parson had every reason for assuring the nineteenth century worker that poverty would be rewarded in another world.” Well, no doubt he had. On the assumption that Christianity is an error, I can see clearly enough that some people would still have a motive for inculcating it. I see it so easily that I can, of course, play the game the other way round, by saying that “the modern man has every reason for trying to convince himself that there are no eternal sanctions behind the morality he is rejecting.”

For Bulverism is a truly democratic game in the sense that all can play it all day long, and that it give no unfair advantage to the small and offensive minority who reason. But of course it gets us not one inch nearer to deciding whether, as a matter of fact, the Christian religion is true or false. That question remains to be discussed on quite different grounds – a matter of philosophical and historical argument. However it were decided, the improper motives of some people, both for believing it and for disbelieving it, would remain just as they are.

I see Bulverism at work in every political argument. The capitalists must be bad economists because we know why they want capitalism, and equally Communists must be bad economists because we know why they want Communism. Thus, the Bulverists on both sides. In reality, of course, either the doctrines of the capitalists are false, or the doctrines of the Communists, or both; but you can only find out the rights and wrongs by reasoning – never by being rude about your opponent’s psychology.

Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited. And why should reason not be discredited? It would be easy, in answer, to point to the present state of the world, but the real answer is even more immediate. The forces discrediting reason, themselves depend of reasoning. You must reason even to Bulverize. You are trying to prove that all proofs are invalid. If you fail, you fail. If you succeed, then you fail even more – for the proof that all proofs are invalid must be invalid itself.

The alternative then is either sheer self-contradicting idiocy or else some tenacious belief in our power of reasoning, held in the teeth of all the evidence that Bulverists can bring for a “taint” in this or that human reasoner. I am ready to admit, if you like, that this tenacious belief has something transcendental or mystical about it. What then? Would you rather be a lunatic than a mystic?

So we see there is justification for holding on to our belief in Reason. But can this be done without theism? Does “I know” involve that God exists? Everything I know is an inference from sensation (except the present moment). All our knowledge of the universe beyond our immediate experiences depends on inferences from these experiences. If our inferences do not give a genuine insight into reality, then we can know nothing. A theory cannot be accepted if it does not allow our thinking to be a genuine insight, nor if the fact of our knowledge is not explicable in terms of that theory.

But our thoughts can only be accepted as a genuine insight under certain conditions. All beliefs have causes but a distinction must be drawn between (1) ordinary causes and (2) a special kind of cause called “a reason.” Causes are mindless events which can produce other results than belief. Reasons arise from axioms and inferences and affect only beliefs. Bulverism tries to show that the other man has causes and not reasons and that we have reasons and not causes. A belief which can be accounted for entirely in terms of causes is worthless. This principle must not be abandoned when we consider the beliefs which are the basis of others. Our knowledge depends on our certainty about axioms and inferences. If these are the results of causes, then there is no possibility of knowledge. Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.

[The remainder of this essay, which was originally read to the Socratic Club before publication in the Socratic Digest, continues in the form of notes taken down by the Secretary of the Club. This explains why it is not all in the first-person, as is the text-proper.]

One might argue, Mr. Lewis continued, that reason had developed by natural selection, only those methods of thought which had proved useful surviving. But the theory depends on an inference from usefulness to truth, of which the validity would have to be assumed. All attempts to treat thought as a natural event involve the fallacy of excluding the thought of the man making the attempt.

It is admitted that the mind is affected by physical events; a wireless set is influenced by atmospherics, but it does not originate its deliverances – we’d take no notice of it if we thought it did. Natural events we can relate one to another until we can trace them finally to the space-time continuum. But thought has no father but thought. It is conditioned, yes, not caused. My knowledge that I have nerves in inferential.

The same argument applies to our values, which are affected by social factors, but if they are caused by them we cannot know that they are right. One can reject morality as an illusion, but the man who does so often tacitly excepts his own ethical motive: for instance the duty of freeing morality from superstition and of spreading enlightenment.

Neither Will nor Reason is the product of Nature. Therefore either I am self-existent (a belief which no one can accept) or I am a colony of some Thought and Will that are self-derived from a self-existent Reason and Goodness outside ourselves, in fact, a Supernatural.

Mr. Lewis went on to say that it was often objected that the existence of the Supernatural is too important to be discernible only by abstract argument, and thus only by the leisured few. But in all other ages the plain man has accepted the findings of the mystics and the philosophers for his initial belief in the existence of the Supernatural. Today the ordinary man is forced to carry that burden himself. Either mankind has made a ghastly mistake in rejecting authority, or the power or powers ruling his destiny are making a daring experiment, and all are to become sages. A society consisting solely of plain men must end in disaster. If we are to survive we must either believe the seers or scale those heights ourselves.

Evidently, then, something beyond Nature exists. Man is on the border line between the Natural and the Supernatural. Material events cannot produce spiritual activity, but the latter can be responsible for many of our actions in Nature. Will and Reason cannot depend on anything but themselves, but Nature can depend on Will and Reason, or, in other words, God created Nature.

The relation between Nature and Supernature, which is not a relation in space and time, becomes intelligible if the Supernatural made the Natural. We even have an idea of this making, since we know the power of imagination, though we can create nothing new, but can only rearrange our material provided through sense data. It is not inconceivable that the universe was created by an Imagination strong enough to impose phenomena on other minds.

It has been suggested, Mr. Lewis concluded, that our ideas of making and causing are wholly derived from our experience of will. The conclusion usually drawn is that there is no making or causing, only “projection.” But “projection” is itself a form of causing, and it is more reasonable to suppose that Will is the only cause we know, and that therefore Will is the cause of Nature.

A discussion followed. Points arising:

All reasoning assumes the hypothesis that inference is valid. Correct inference is self-evident.
“Relevant” (re evidence) is a rational term.
The universe doesn’t claim to be true: it’s just there.
Knowledge by revelation is more like empirical than rational knowledge.

Question: What is the criterion of truth, if you distinguish between cause and reason?
Mr Lewis: A mountainous country might have several maps made of it, only one of which was a true one; i.e., corresponding with the actual contours. The map drawn by Reason claims to be that true one. I couldn’t get at the universe unless I could trust my reason. If we couldn’t trust inference we could know nothing but our own existence. Physical reality is an inference from sensations.

Question: How can an axiom claim self-evidence any more than an empirical judgment on evidence?

[The essay ends here, leaving this question unrecorded.]


Another Kantian Meditation on Beauty – Roger Scruton

October 21, 2010

Roger Scruton


Roger Scruton is currently Research Professor for the Institute for the Psychological Sciences where he teaches philosophy at their graduate school in both Washington and Oxford.

He is a writer, philosopher and public commentator. He has specialized in aesthetics with particular attention to music and architecture. He engages in contemporary political and cultural debates from the standpoint of a conservative thinker and is well known as a powerful polemicist. He has written widely in the press on political and cultural issues.
From his website

A theory of truth must conform to certain logical platitudes and that these seemingly innocuous platitudes provide the ultimate test of such theories. Here is a list of six that Scruton provides to help narrow his subject and to which he refers to later in the reading selection I have made here.

(i)  Beauty pleases us
(ii)  One thing can be more beautiful than another.
(iii)  Beauty Is always a reason for attending to the thing that possesses it.
(iv)  Beauty is the subject-matter of a judgment: the judgement of taste.
(v)  The judgment of taste is about the beautiful object, not about the subject’s state of mind. In describing an object as beautiful, I am describing it, not me.
(vi)  Nevertheless, there are no second-hand judgments of beauty. There is no way that you can argue me into a judgment that I have not made for myself, nor can I become an expert in beauty, simply by studying what others have said about beautiful objects, and without experiencing and judging for myself.

Earlier essays on Kant and Kantian aesthetics are here and here.

Two Concepts Of Beauty
The judgment of beauty, it emerges, is not merely a statement of preference. It demands an act of attention (there is that pesky “paying attention” again). And it may be expressed in many different ways. Less important than the final verdict is the attempt to show what is right, fitting, worthwhile, attractive or expressive in the object: in other words, to identify the aspect of the thing that claims our attention.

The word ‘beauty’ may very well not figure in our attempts to articulate and to harmonize our tastes. And this suggests a distinction between the judgment of beauty, considered as a justification of taste, and the emphasis on beauty, as a distinctive way of appealing to that judgment. There is no contradiction in saying that Bartok’s score for The Miraculous Mandarin is harsh, rebarbative [vocab: Tending to irritate; repellent), even ugly, and at the same time praising the work as one of the triumphs of early modern music. Its aesthetic virtues are of a different order from those of Fauré’s Pavane, which aims only to be exquisitely beautiful, and succeeds.

Another way of putting the point is to distinguish two concepts of beauty. In one sense ‘beauty’ means aesthetic success, in another sense it means only a certain kind of aesthetic success. There are works of art which we regard as set apart by their pure beauty — works that ‘take our breath away’, like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale or Susanna’s aria in the garden in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.

Such works are sometimes described as ‘ravishing’, meaning that they demand wonder and reverence, and fill us with an untroubled and consoling delight. And because words, in the context of aesthetic judgment, are loose and slippery, we often reserve the term ‘beautiful’ for works of this kind, meaning to lay special emphasis on their kind of enrapturing appeal. Likewise with landscapes and people we encounter the pure and breathtaking examples, which render us speechless, content merely to bathe in their glow. And we praise such things for their ‘sheer’ beauty — implying that, should we attempt to analyze their effect on us, words would fail.

We might even go so far as to say, of certain works of art, that they are too beautiful: that they ravish when they should disturb, or provide dreamy intoxication when what is needed is a gesture of harsh despair. This could be said, I think, of Tennyson’s In Memoriam and maybe of Fauré’s Requiem too — even though both are, in their ways, supreme artistic achievements.

All this suggests that we should he wary of paying too much attention to words, even to the word that defines the subject-matter of this book [Beauty]. What matters, first and foremost, is a certain kind of judgment, for which the technical term ‘aesthetic’ is now in common use. The suggestion that there might be a supreme aesthetic value, for which the term beauty’ should be more properly reserved, is one that we must bear in mind. For the moment, however, it is more important to understand beauty in its general sense, as the subject-matter of aesthetic judgment.

Means, Ends And Contemplation
There is a widespread view, which is less a platitude than a first shot at a theory, which distinguishes the interest in beauty from the interest in getting things done. We appreciate beautiful things not for their utility only, but also for what they are in themselves — or more plausibly, for how they appear in themselves. ‘With the good, the true and the useful,’ wrote Schiller, ‘man is merely in earnest; but with the beautiful he plays.’ When our interest is entirely taken up by a thing, as it appears in our perception, and independently of any use to which it might be put, then do we begin to speak of its beauty.

The thought here gave rise in the eighteenth century to an important distinction between the fine and the useful arts. Useful arts, like architecture, carpet-weaving and carpentry, have a function, and can be judged according to how well they fulfill it. But a functional building or carpet is not, for that reason, beautiful. In referring to architecture as a useful art we are emphasizing another aspect of it — the aspect that lies beyond utility We are implying that a work of architecture can be appreciated not only as a means to some goal, but also as an end in itself, as a thing intrinsically meaningful.

In wrestling with the distinction between the fine and useful arts (les beaux arts et les arts utiles) Enlightenment thinkers made the first steps towards our modern conception of the work of art, as a thing whose value resides in it and not in its purpose. ‘All art is quite useless,’ wrote Oscar Wilde, not wishing to deny, however, that art has very powerful effects, his own drama of Salomé being one lurid instance.

That said, we should recognize that the distinction between aesthetic and utilitarian interests is no more clear than the language used to define it. What exactly is meant by those who say we are interested in a work of art for its own sake, on account of its intrinsic value, as an end in itself? These terms are philosophical technicalities, which indicate no clear contrast between aesthetic interest and the utilitarian approach that is imposed on us by the needs of everyday decision making. Other epochs did not recognize the distinction that we now so frequently make between art and craft.

Our word ‘poetry’ comes from Greek poiēsis, the skill of making things; the Roman artes comprised every kind of practical endeavor. And to take our second platitude about beauty (One thing can be more beautiful than another) seriously is to be skeptical towards the whole idea of the beautiful as a realm apart, untainted by mundane practicalities.

Maybe we shouldn’t be too troubled by that commonsensical skepticism, however. Even if it is not yet clear what is meant by intrinsic value, we have no difficulty in understanding someone who says, of a picture or a piece of music that appeals to him, that he could look at it or listen to it forever, and that it has, for him, no other purpose than itself.

Wanting the Individual
Suppose Rachel points to a peach in a bowl and says ‘I want that peach’. And suppose you hand her another peach from the same bowl and she responds: ‘No, it is that peach I wanted.’ You would be puzzled by this. Surely, any ripe peach would do just as well, if the purpose is to eat it. ‘But that’s just it,’ she says: ‘I don’t want to eat it. I want it, that particular peach. No other peach will do.’ What is it that attracts Rachel to this peach? What explains her claim that it is just this peach and no other that she wants?

One thing that would explain this state of mind is the judgment of beauty: ‘I want that peach because it is so beautiful.’ Wanting something for its beauty is wanting it, not wanting to do something with it. Nor, having obtained the peach, held it, turned it around, studied it from every angle, would it be open to Rachel to say ‘good, that’s it, I’m satisfied’.

If she had wanted it for its beauty then there is no point at which her desire could be satisfied, nor is there any action, process or whatever, following which the desire is over and done with. She can want to inspect the peach for all sorts of reasons, even for no reason at all. But wanting it for its beauty is not wanting to inspect it: it is wanting to contemplate it — and that is something more than a search for information or an expression of appetite. Here is a want without a goal: a desire that cannot be fulfilled since there is nothing that would count as its fulfillment.

Suppose someone now offers Rachel another peach from the bowl, saying ‘Take this, it will do just as well’. Would this not show a failure to understand her motive? She is interested in this: the particular fruit that she finds so beautiful. No substitute can satisfy her interest, since it is an interest in the individual thing, as the thing that it is. If Rachel wants the fruit for some further purpose — to eat it, say, or to throw it at the man who is bothering her — then some other object might have served her purpose. In such a case, her desire is not for the individual peach but for any member of a functionally equivalent class.

The example resembles one given by Wittgenstein in his Lectures on Aesthetics. I sit down to listen to a Mozart quartet; my friend Rachel enters the room, takes out the disk and replaces it with another — say a quartet by Haydn — saying ‘try this, it will do just as well’. Rachel has shown that she does not understand my state of mind. There is no way in which my interest in the Mozart could be satisfied by the Haydn: although of course it can be eclipsed by it.

The point here is not easy to state exactly. I might have chosen the Mozart as therapy, knowing that it had always helped me to relax. The Haydn might be every bit as therapeutic, and in that sense an appropriate substitute for the Mozart. But then it is a substitute as therapy, and not as music. In that sense I could have substituted a warm bath for the Mozart, or a ride out on my horse — equally effective therapies for tension. But the Haydn cannot satisfy my interest in the Mozart, for the simple reason that my interest in the Mozart is an interest in it, for the particular thing that it is, and not for any purpose that it serves.

A Caveat
There is a danger involved in taking the eighteenth-century distinction between the fine and the useful arts too seriously. On one reading it might seem to imply that the utility of something — a building, a tool, a car — must be entirely discounted in any judgment of its beauty. To experience beauty, it might seem to imply, we should concentrate on pure form, detached from utility.

But this ignores the fact that knowledge of function is a vital preliminary to the experience of form. Suppose someone places in your hand an unusual object, which could be a knife, a hoof-pick, a surgeon’s scalpel, an ornament or any one of a number of other things. And suppose that he asks you to pronounce on its beauty. You might reasonably say that, until you know what the thing is supposed to do, you can have no view in the matter. Learning that it is a boot-pull, you might then respond: yes, as boot pulls go, it really is rather beautiful, but how shapeless and clumsy as a knife.

The architect Louis Sullivan went further, arguing that beauty in architecture (and by implication in the other useful arts) arises when form follows function. In other words, we experience beauty when we see how the function of a thing generates and is expressed in its observable features. The slogan ‘form follows function’ thereafter became a kind of manifesto, persuading a whole generation of architects to treat beauty as a by-product of functionality, rather than (what it had been for the Beaux-Arts school against which Sullivan was in rebellion) the defining goal.

There is a deep controversy here, whose contours will become clear only as our arguments unfold. But let us add a caveat to the caveat, by pointing out that, pace Sullivan, when it comes to beautiful architecture function follows form. Beautiful buildings change their uses; merely functional buildings get torn down. Sancta Sophia in Istanbul was built as a church, became a barracks, then a stable, then a mosque and then a museum. The lofts of Lower Manhattan changed from warehouses to apartments to shops and (in some cases) back to warehouses –retaining their charm meanwhile and surviving precisely because of that charm.

Of course knowledge of architectural function is important to the judgment of beauty; but architectural function is bound up with the aesthetic goal: the column is there to add dignity, to support the architrave (, to raise the building high above its own entrance and so to give it a distinguished place in the street, and so on. In other words, when we take beauty seriously, function ceases to be an independent variable, and becomes absorbed into the aesthetic goal. This is another way of emphasizing the impossibility of approaching beauty from a purely instrumental viewpoint. Always there is the demand that we approach beauty for its own sake, as a goal that qualifies and limits whatever other purposes we might have.

Beauty And The Senses
There is an ancient view that beauty is the object of a sensory rather than an intellectual delight, and that the senses must always be involved in appreciating it. Hence, when the philosophy of art became conscious of itself at the beginning of the eighteenth century, it called itself ‘aesthetics’, after the Greek aisthēsis, sensation. When Kant wrote that the beautiful is that which pleases immediately, and without concepts he was providing a rich philosophical embellishment to this tradition of thinking.

Aquinas too seems to have endorsed the idea, defining the beautiful in the first part of the Summa as that which is pleasing to sight (pulchra sunt quae visa placent). However he modifies this statement in the second part, writing that ‘the beautiful relates only to sight and hearing of all the senses, since these are the most cognitive (maxirne cognoscitive) among them’. And this suggests, not only that he did not confine the study of beauty to the sense of sight, but that he was less concerned with the sensory impact of the beautiful than with its intellectual significance — even if it is a significance that can be appreciated only through seeing or hearing.

The issue here might seem to be simple: is the pleasure in beauty a sensory or an intellectual pleasure? But then, what is the difference between the two? The pleasure of a hot bath is sensory; the pleasure of a mathematical puzzle intellectual. But between those two there are a thousand intermediary positions, so that the question of where aesthetic pleasure lies on the spectrum has become one of the most vexed issues in aesthetics. Ruskin, in a famous passage of Modern Painters, distinguished merely sensuous interest, which he called aethesis, from the true interest in art, which he called theoria, after the Greek for contemplation — not wishing, however, to assimilate art to science, or to deny that the senses are intimately involved in the appreciation of beauty. Most thinkers have avoided Ruskin’s linguistic innovation and retained the term aesthesis, recognizing, however, that this does not denote a purely sensory frame of mind.

A beautiful face, a beautiful flower, a beautiful melody, a beautiful colour — all these are indeed objects of a kind of sensory enjoyment, a relishing of the sight or sound of a thing. But what about a beautiful novel, a beautiful sermon, a beautiful theory in physics or a beautiful mathematical proof? If we tie the beauty of a novel too closely to the sound of it, then we must consider a novel in translation to be a completely different work of art from the same novel in its original tongue. And this is surely to deny what is really interesting in the art of the novel — which is the unfolding of a story, the controlled release of information about an imaginary world, and the reflections that accompany the plot and reinforce its significance.

Moreover, if we tie beauty too closely to the senses, we might find ourselves wondering why so many philosophers, from Plato to Hegel, have chosen to exclude the senses of taste, touch and smell from the experience of beauty. Are not wine-buffs and gourmets devoted to their own kind of beauty? Are there not beautiful scents and flavors as well as beautiful sights and sounds? Does not the vast critical literature devoted to the assessment of food and wine suggest a close parallel between the arts of the stomach and the arts of the soul?

Here, very briefly, is how I would respond to those thoughts. In appreciating a story we certainly are more interested in what is being said than in the sensory character of the sounds used to say it. Nevertheless, if stories and novels were simply reducible to the information contained in them, it would be inexplicable that we should be constantly returning to the words, reading over favorite passages, allowing the sentences to percolate through our thoughts, long after we have assimilated the plot. The order in which a story unfolds, the suspense, the balance between narrative and dialogue and between both and commentary — all these are sensory features, in that they depend upon anticipation and release, and the orderly unfolding of a narrative in our perception. To that extent a novel is directed to the senses — but not as an object of sensory delight, like a luxurious chocolate or a fine old wine. Rather as something presented through the senses, to the mind.

Take any short story by Chekhov. It does not matter that the sentences in translation sound nothing like the Russian original. Still they present the same images and events in the same suggestive sequence. Still they imply as much as they say, and withhold as much as they reveal. Still they follow each other with the logic of things observed rather than things summarized. Chekhov’s art captures life as it is lived and distils it into images that contain a drama, as a drop of dew contains the sky. Following such a story we are constructing a world whose interpretation is at every point controlled by the sights and sounds that we imagine.

As for taste and smell, it seems to me that philosophers have been right to set these on the margins of our interest in beauty. Tastes and smells are not capable of the kind of systematic organization that turns sounds into words and tones. We can relish them, but only in a sensual way that barely engages our imagination or our thought. They are, so to speak, insufficiently intellectual to prompt the interest in beauty.

Those are only brief hints towards conclusions that demand far more argument than I can here afford to them. I propose that, rather than emphasize the ‘immediate’, ‘sensory’, ‘intuitive’ character of the experience of beauty, we consider instead the way in which an object comes before us, in the experience of beauty. When we refer to the ‘aesthetic’ nature of our pleasure in beauty it is presentation, rather than sensation, that we have in mind.

Disinterested Interest
Setting those observations side by side with our six platitudes (see beginning of post) we can draw a tentative conclusion, which is that we call something beautiful when we gain pleasure from contemplating it as an individual object, for its own sake, and in its presented form. This is so even of those objects like landscapes and streets which are, properly speaking, not individuals, but unbounded collections of odds and ends. Such complex entities are framed by aesthetic interest, held together, as it were, under a unified and unifying gaze.

It is difficult to date the rise of modern aesthetics precisely. But it is undeniable that the subject took a great step forward with the Characteristics (1711), of the third Earl of Shaftesbury, a pupil of Locke and one of the most influential essayists of the eighteenth century. In that work Shaftesbury explained the peculiar features of the judgment of beauty in terms of the disinterested attitude of the judge. To be interested in beauty is to set all interests aside, so as to attend to the thing itself. Kant (The Critique of Judgment, 1795) took up the point, building from the idea of disinterest a highly charged aesthetic theory.

According to Kant we take an ‘interested’ approach to things or people whenever we use them as means to satisfy one of our interests: for example, when we use a hammer to drive in a nail or a person to carry a message. Animals have only ‘interested’ attitudes: in everything they are driven by their desires, needs and appetites, and treat objects and other animals as instruments to fulfill those things. We, however, make a distinction in our thinking and behavior, between those things that are means to us, and those which are also ends in themselves. Towards some things we take an interest that is not governed by interest but which is, so to speak, entirely devoted to the object.

That way of putting things is controversial, not least because — as in all his writings — Kant is subtly coaxing us towards the endorsement of a system, with far-reaching implications for everything that we think. Nevertheless we can understand what he is getting at through a homely example. Imagine a mother cradling her baby, looking down on it with love and delight. We don’t say that she has an interest that this baby satisfies, as though some other baby might have done just the same job for her.

There is no interest of the mother’s that the baby serves, nor does she have an end to which the baby is a means. The baby itself is her interest — meaning, it is the object of interest for its own sake. If the woman were motivated by an interest that she has — say, an interest in persuading someone to employ her as a baby-minder — then the baby itself would cease to he the full and final focus of her state of mind. Any other baby that enabled her to make the right noises and the right expressions would have done just as well. One sign of a disinterested attitude is that it does not regard its object as one among many possible substitutes. Clearly no other baby would ‘do just as well’ for the mother doting on the creature that she holds in her arms.

Disinterested Pleasure
To be disinterested towards something is not necessarily to be uninterested in it, but to be interested in a certain way
. We often say of people who generously extend their help to others in times of trouble, that they act disinterestedly — meaning that they are not motivated by self-interest or by any interest other than the interest in doing just this, namely helping their neighbors. They have a disinterested interest. How is that possible? Kant’s answer was that it is not possible if all our interests are determined by our desires: for an interest that stems from my desire aims at the fulfillment of that desire, which is an interest of mine. Interests can he disinterested, however, if they are determined by (spring from) reason alone.

From this — already controversial — way of putting it, Kant went on to draw a striking conclusion. There is a certain kind of disinterested interest, he argued, which is an interest of reason: not an interest of mine, but an interest of reason in me. This is how Kant explains the moral motive. When I ask myself not what I want to do, but what I ought to do, then I stand back from myself, and put myself in the position of an impartial judge. The moral motive comes from setting all my interests aside, and addressing the question before me by appealing to reason alone — and that means appealing to considerations that any rational being would be equally able to accept. From that posture of disinterested enquiry we are led inexorably, Kant thought, to the categorical imperative, which tells us to act only on that maxim which we can will as a law for all rational beings.

In another sense, however, the moral motive is interested: the interest of reason is also the determining principle of my will. I am making up my mind to do something, and to do what reason requires — that is what the word ‘ought’ implies. In the case of the judgment of beauty, however, I am purely disinterested, abstracting from practical considerations and attending to the object before me with all desires, interests and goals suspended.

This stringent idea of disinterest seems to jeopardize the first of our platitudes: the connection between beauty and pleasure. When an experience pleases me I have a desire to repeat it, and that desire is an interest of mine. So what could we possibly mean by a disinterested pleasure? How can reason have a pleasure ‘in me’, and whose pleasure is it anyway? Surely we are drawn to beautiful things as we are drawn to other sources of enjoyment, by the pleasure that they bring. Beauty is not the source of disinterested pleasure, hut simply the object of a universal interest: the interest that we have in beauty, and in the pleasure that beauty brings.

We can approach Kant’s thought more sympathetically, however, if we distinguish among pleasures. These are of many kinds, as we can see by comparing the pleasure that comes from a drug, the pleasure taken in a glass of wine, the pleasure that your son has passed his exam and pleasure in a painting or a work of music. When my son tells me he has won the mathematics prize at school I feel pleasure: but my pleasure is an interested pleasure, since it arises from the satisfaction of an interest of mine — my parental interest in my son’s success.

When I read a poem, my pleasure depends upon no interest other than my interest in this, the very object that is before my mind. Of course, other interests feed into my interest in the poem: my interest in military strategy draws me to the Iliad, my interest in gardens to Paradise Lost. But the pleasure in a poem’s beauty is the result of an interest in it, for the very thing that it is.

I may have been obliged to read the poem in order to pass an exam. In such a case I feel pleasure at having read it. Such a pleasure is again an interested pleasure, one that stems from my interest in having read the poem. I am pleased that I have read the poem: the word ‘that’ here playing a critical role in defining the nature of my pleasure. Our language partly reflects this complexity in the concept of pleasure: we distinguish pleasure from, pleasure in, and pleasure that. As Malcolm Budd has expressed it: disinterested pleasure is never pleasure in a fact. Nor — as I argued earlier — is the pleasure in beauty purely sensory, like the pleasure of a warm bath, even though we take pleasure in a warm bath. And it is certainly not like the pleasure that follows a snort of cocaine: which is not pleasure in the cocaine but merely pleasure from it.

Disinterested pleasure is a kind of pleasure in. But it is focused on its object and dependent on thought: it has a specific ‘intentionality’, to use the technical term. Pleasure in a hot bath does not depend upon any thought about the bath, and therefore can never be mistaken. Intentional pleasures, by contrast, are part of the cognitive life: my pleasure in the sight of my son winning the long-jump vanishes when I discover It was not my son but a look-alike who triumphed.

My initial pleasure was a mistake, and such mistakes can run deep, like Lucretia’s mistaken pleasure at the embrace of the man whom she takes to be her husband, but whom she discovers to be the rapist Tarquin.

Intentional pleasures therefore form a fascinating subclass of pleasures. They are fully integrated into the life of the mind. They can be neutralized by argument and amplified by attention. They do not arise, as the pleasures of eating and drinking arise, from pleasurable sensations, but play a vital part in the exercise of our cognitive and emotional powers. The pleasure in beauty is similar, But it is not just intentional: it is contemplative, feeding upon the presented form of its object, and constantly renewing itself from that source.

My pleasure in beauty is therefore like a gift offered to the object, which is in turn a gift offered to me. In this respect it resembles the pleasure that people experience in the company of their friends. Like the pleasure of friendship, the pleasure in beauty is curious: it aims to understand its object, and to value what it finds. Hence it tends towards a judgment of its own validity. And like every rational judgment this one makes implicit appeal to the community of rational beings. That is what Kant meant when he argued that, in the judgment of taste, I am a suitor for agreement’, expressing my judgment not as a private opinion but as a binding verdict that would be agreed to by all rational beings just so long as they did what I am doing, and put their own interests aside.

Kant’s claim is not that the judgment of taste is binding on everyone, but that it is presented as such, by the one who makes it. That is a very striking suggestion, but it is borne out by the platitudes that I earlier rehearsed. When I describe something as beautiful I am describing it, not my feelings towards it — I am making a claim, and that seems to imply that others, if they see things aught, would agree with me. Moreover, the description of something as beautiful has the character of a judgment, a verdict, and one for which I can reasonably be asked for a justification. I may not be able to give any cogent reasons for my judgment; but if I cannot, that is a fact about me, not about the judgment. Maybe someone else, better practiced in the art of criticism, could justify the verdict.

It is a highly controversial question, as I earlier remarked, whether critical reasons are really reasons. Kant’s position was that aesthetic judgments are universal but subjective: they are grounded in the immediate experience of the one who makes them, rather than in any rational argument. Nevertheless, we should not ignore the fact that people are constantly disputing over matters of aesthetic judgment, and constantly trying to achieve some kind of agreement. Aesthetic disagreements are not comfortable disagreements, like disagreements over tastes in food (which are not so much disagreements as differences). When it comes to the built environment, for example, aesthetic disagreements are the subject of fierce litigation and legislative enforcement.

We began from certain platitudes about beauty, and moved towards a theory — that of Kant — which is far from platitudinous, and indeed inherently controversial, with its attempt to define aesthetic judgment and to give it a central role in the life of a rational being. I don’t say that Kant’s theory is right. But it provides an interesting starting point to a subject that remains as controversial today as it was when Kant wrote his third Critique.

And one thing is surely right in Kant’s argument, which is that the experience of beauty, like the judgment in which it issues, is the prerogative of rational beings. Only creatures like us — with language, self-consciousness, practical reason, and moral judgment — can look on the world in this alert and disinterested way, so as to seize on the presented object and take pleasure in it.


The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth — Geoffrey Wainwright

October 20, 2010

Geoffrey Wainwright holds the Cushman chair of Christian Theology at Duke University. This is a review of David Bentley Hart’s seminal work on Christian aesthetics as it appeared several years ago in First Things. As warned at the end, it is a difficult book. I’ve attempted it a couple of times and simply did not have the background to appreciate it. I’m hoping my current readings in aesthetics will help me get over the hump. While Hart often writes for a broad audience, this is really a book for theologians or those in a master’s program. It does less to introduce topics than to comment on them, thus requiring of the reader a level of knowledge that is not necessary for Hart’s other writings. I bought it though so I am damn well going to see my way through it.

Few, if any, other theologians could have written The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. The elegance of its style and the sophistication of its arguments are backed by knowledge of languages ancient and modern, familiarity with secular philosophies of the last third of the twentieth century, and a deep commitment to classic Christianity. Writing in polemic and apologetic mode, David Hart exposes the inconsistencies and inadequacies of a postmodernism that inexplicably continues to fascinate some Christian thinkers. When he turns dogmatic and evangelistic, Hart aims at an account of the faith that — like Jesus himself and his gospel — may prove strangely attractive and peacefully persuasive.

If a nutshell could contain this theological world of a book, it might suffice to put its thesis thus: Modern and soi-disant postmodern philosophies remain trapped in some very ancient antinomies and perennial dialectics that bespeak an ontology of violence; by contrast, the gospel offers an ontology of peace, whereby the unity and diversity of creation are embraced — analogically and participatively, redemptively and eschatologically — in the triune God who is manifested and imparted in historical concreteness in Jesus Christ. Such compression, however, would render banal the subtlety and richness of this remarkable work.

An introduction sketches the book’s key terms and thereby adumbrates its themes, especially the principal pair of beauty and the infinite, which (it is the author’s contention) Christian theology uniquely thinks together. God’s infinity is not formlessness but rather the beauty of a boundless agape, eternally and freely shared within the Trinity. This beauty — this exceeding weight of glory (kabod) — is displayed in the creation, which God brings into being without any “need” to do so. Created beauty — whose human form is Christ — is that in which God delights, made possible by creation’s very distance from God, a distance that can be traversed in utterly gracious gift and freely repeated return. God’s infinity is what allows the incessance of the gift and the endlessly modulated variety of the return.

The first third of the book launches into a critical history of Western philosophy — with its most recent phase of “late modernity” in the foreground — and its recurrent failure to allow itself to be opened up by “the Christian interruption.” Kant and the Romantics are guilty of a gnostic trivialization of the concretely beautiful in favor of the “sublime” as the veil of the unrepresentable. Nearer the present, the Gallic gurus and their own Germanic masters get their comeuppance. For all his passing nods to their occasional insights, he finds Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze, and Levinas massively wrong in their respective accounts of being.

While thus clearing the ground, this first main section also hints at the alternatives that will be offered in the rest of the book. There Hart provides a “minor dogmatics” arranged under the headings of Trinity, creation, salvation, and eschaton. The governing concept is the trinitarian perichoresis: the life of the divine persons is that of eternal mutual self-donation and self-reception, which “unnecessarily” overflows as the act of creation and brings home the creatures in salvation. The author’s debts in the tradition are chiefly to Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus the Confessor from the East, and to Augustine and Bonaventure from the West. On the Western front, a nuanced reading of Anselm introduces some qualification into the Abelardian soteriology that is currently in favor and that (in an Eastern mode) predominates in this book. Not surprisingly, it is Hans Urs von Balthasar who emerges as the most influential theologian among the moderns.

God the Holy Trinity constitutes the aboriginal peace. The Christian understanding of God is as “a perichoresis of love, a dynamic coinherence of the three divine persons, whose life is eternally one of shared regard, delight, fellowship, feasting, and joy.” In the divine and aboriginal ontology, therefore, difference is peaceful, not conflictual, and distance allows communion rather than entailing separation. “Creation is divine glory, told anew, and so its aesthetic variety is nothing but the different modes and degrees with which participated being is imparted.” The dialogical character of God — Father and Son as address and response in the radiance of the Holy Spirit — allows the Christian story to be itself enacted, then told and thought.

Theology is sustained by “the love of beauty” (philokalia). In this perspective, Bach can be deemed “the greatest of Christian theologians”: “[N]o one as compellingly demonstrates that the infinite is beauty and that beauty is infinite. It is in Bach’s music as nowhere else, that the potential boundlessness of thematic development becomes manifest: how a theme can unfold inexorably through difference, while remaining continuous in each moment of repetition, upon a potentially infinite surface of varied repetition.”

Sin and the fall are allotted no special chapter in this dogmatics (perhaps fittingly so, given that the nature of evil is a “privation of good”), but viewed as violence they run as a negative thread throughout the author’s entire argument. As Hart graphically puts it: Christian thought “treats this pervasive violence, inscribed upon being’s fabric, as a palimpsest, obscuring another text that is still written (all created being is ‘written’) but in the style of a letter declaring love.” Sin is a refusal of the invitation to taste and see the goodness of the Lord, a suppression of the divine gift possible only as “a perverse display of will.” It shows itself in the “all but impossible” failure to love God and neighbor.

Salvation comes by and in Christ, whose presence and history affect our entire race. His incarnation repeats the divine gift of creation; his life and death render the perfect human response; his resurrection inaugurates a new world, the true world restored to itself. The Christian claim and gospel is that the peace associated with the beginning and end of things “do[es] not merely stand outside human history, but enter[s] into it decisively in the resurrection of Christ; the peace of God — the shalom of creation and of the day God declares His rule out of Zion — has a real historical shape and presence, a concrete story, one which has entered into human history as a contrary history, the true story God always tells, in which violence has no place but rather stands under judgment as provisional, willful, needless: nonbeing. The Christian tradition is nothing if not the evangel of this eschatological peace offered in the present moment, as the true form of difference and the style of its transmission: the evangel, that is, of the crucified as the Lord of history, in the perpetual power of the Spirit.”

For the human being, subjective entry into the “new” world occurs when one is attracted away from the earthly city, founded (as Augustine knew) upon violence, and one’s hitherto misdirected desires are aroused by the objectively, divinely beautiful. One is thus restored and reshaped according to the image of God now manifest again in Christ. The perfection toward which one strives — St. Paul being interpreted in light of Gregory of Nyssa’s notion of epektasis — is limitless, given the inexhaustibility of the God to be enjoyed.

The positive exposition in the dogmatics is offset by the criticisms made of twentieth-century theologians whose chief indebtedness in intellectual history is to Hegel. Against any move that makes the world and its history constitutive of God, rather than revelatory of Him, Hart insists upon the divine apatheia, the doctrine that the divine nature is beyond suffering and change, the status of which he rescues from that of a contemporary theological swearword.

In a brilliant chapter that sets against Attic tragedy the “trinitarian drama of the cross and empty tomb,” the author castigates Donald MacKinnon and, to a lesser degree Nicholas Lash (Jürgen Moltmann is not dignified with a mention), for offering a suffering deity who in the end is not able to save. The resurrection is not to be considered as the vindication of the crucifixion but rather of the crucified Christ. The divine kenosis (God’s self-emptying) is always simultaneously a plerosis (God’s fullness). Even Balthasar is slyly rebuked for his “Holy Saturday” theology “with its broad rejection of the traditional triumphalistic imagery of hell’s harrowing (a rejection, mercifully, that is progressively moderated in successive volumes of his [Balthasar’s] Theodramatik).”

In concluding the book, Hart returns to the philosophical attack. He effectively deconstructs the deceptively benign hermeneutics of pluralism that is patterned after “the market’s endless fluidity” and has, in fact, its own clandestine master narrative (“the story of no stories”), its own metaphysical assumptions (“the truth of no truths”) that set limits to the claims of other narratives.

In truth, no neutrality is possible. Some other master narratives (Hart does not say which or how) may have features that make them a preparation for the gospel, but they are all there, at any rate in part, to be defeated by the Christian story. At least in the context of Western culture, Nietzsche’s “Antichrist” is the ultimate rival, whose story of violence the Christian story includes and contradictingly surpasses. The “war of the narratives” is a fight to the death that — in the nature of the case and counter to some historic instances — must be conducted by Christians without violence, peacefully. The cost may be martyrdom.

Despite “the Church’s frequent failure to embody the good it proclaims,” the “loveliness of the practice of Christian charity” belongs to evangelical witness. The “motion of charity,” exemplified in the saints, may draw the viewer into “another radiance, another ambit of vision, a different aesthetic of being, in which one finds some measure of liberation from the self and its baser impulses.”

My most substantial hesitation about the book concerns its failure to put a brake on the drive toward universalism that Gregory of Nyssa propels. Hart coyly admits that “Orthodox tradition does not authorize” him to defend Gregory’s “inevitable” universalism. But he himself seems relieved, on his own account, to notice a tendency in Eastern theologians to view hell, if not as (with Gregory) simply “purgation,” then as self-inflicted privation rather than perdition. That, however, may not take seriously enough what Maximus says about the eschatological encounter of all persons with the kingdom of God, either according to grace or apart from grace — which might make hell “the absolute proximity of God’s glory without the interval of the gift.” It is not clear that an account of evil as nonbeing requires that nothing shall in the end be lost.

If it were possible to wish that an already long book should be longer, I might plead for a somewhat thicker description of the “beauty of Christ” beyond the few allusive strokes Hart offers. The transfiguration of Jesus receives no attention, which is odd for an Orthodox writer. The systematician’s characteristic task, of course, differs from that of the exegete, the iconographer, the liturgist, and the hagiographer — yet one could wish for more passages like the biblical encomium on wine, the interpretation of Peter’s tears, and the last-page evocations from the Gospel stories of the risen Lord’s encounters: with Mary Magdalene in the garden, with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and with the seven fishermen at the lakeside.

The book makes dazzling use of the riches of literate English, while shunning the puerile puns of the postmoderns. It is also studded with instances of splendid invective, all of it, of course, grounded in an aboriginal — and leading to an eschatological — peace.

Unless you have a week to spare, don’t — yet — pick up this book. If and when you are ready to devote several days of close study to it, read it and you will be amply rewarded. This magnificent and demanding volume should establish David Bentley Hart, around the world no less than in North America, as one of his generation’s leading theologians.


Beauty: The Sacred, Profanation, Idolatry And Addiction – Roger Scruton

October 19, 2010

Francesco Guardi, Cappricio with Venetian Motifs, 1760

I’ve stitched together some reading selections from Roger Scruton’s wonderful little book, Beauty. By all means get it, it is a splendid read. 

Reason, freedom and self-consciousness are names for a single condition, which is that of a creature who does not merely think; feel and do, but who also has the questions: what to think, what to feel and what to do? These questions compel a unique perspective on the physical world. We look on the world in which we find ourselves from a point of view at its very edge: the point of view where I am. We are both in the world and not of the world, and we try to make sense of this peculiar fact with images of the soul, the psyche, the self or the ‘transcendental subject’. These images do not result from philosophy only: they arise naturally, in the course of a life in which the capacity to justify and criticize our thoughts, beliefs, feelings and actions is the basis of the social order that makes us what we are.

The point of view of the subject is therefore an essential feature of the human condition. And the tension between this point of view and the world of objects is present in many of the distinctive aspects of human life. it is present in our experience of human beauty. And it is equally present in an experience that anthropologists have puzzled over for two centuries or more, and which appears to be a human universal; the experience of the sacred. In every civilization at every period of history people have devoted time and energy to sacred things.

The sacred, like the beautiful, includes every category of object. There are sacred words, sacred gestures, sacred rites, sacred clothes, sacred places, sacred times. Sacred things are not of this world: they are set apart from ordinary reality and cannot be touched or uttered without rites of initiation or the privilege of religious office. To meddle with them without some purifying preparation is to run the risk of sacrilege. It is to desecrate and pollute what is holy, by dragging it down into the sphere of everyday events.

The experiences which focus on the sacred have their parallels in the sense of beauty, and also in sexual desire. Perhaps no sexual experience differentiates human beings from animals more clearly than the experience of jealousy. Animals compete for partners and fight over them. But when victory is established the conflict is over. The jealous lover may or may not fight: but fighting has no bearing on his experience, which is one of deep existential humiliation and dismay.

The beloved has been polluted or desecrated in his eyes, has become in some way obscene, in the way that Desdemona, her innocence notwithstanding, becomes obscene in the eyes of Othello. This phenomenon parallels the sense of desecration that attaches to the misuse of holy things. Something held apart and untouchable has been defiled. The medieval romance of Troilus and Criseyde describes the ‘fall’ of Criseyde, from the status of irreplaceable divinity to that of exchangeable goods. And the experience of Troilus, as described by the medieval romancers (Chaucer included) is one of desecration. That which was most beautiful to him has been spoiled, and his despair is comparable to that expressed in the Lamentations of Jeremiah, over the desecration of the temple in Jerusalem. (Some might object that this is a specifically male experience, in societies where females are destined for marriage and domesticity. However, it seems to me that some equivalent of Troilus’s dismay will be found wherever lovers of either sex make exclusive sexual claims, since these claims are not contractual but existential.)

Sacred things are removed, held apart and untouchable — or touchable only after purifying rites. They owe these features to the presence, in them, of a supernatural power — a spirit which has claimed them as its own. In seeing places, buildings and artifacts as sacred we project on to the material world the experience that we receive from each other, when embodiment becomes a ‘real presence’, and we perceive the other as forbidden to us and untouchable. Human beauty places the transcendental subject before our eyes and within our grasp. It affects us as sacred things affect us, as something that can be more easily profaned than possessed.

The Flight From Beauty
One of Mozart’s most endearing works is the comic opera, Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio; also known as Il Seraglio), which tells the story of Konstanze, shipwrecked and separated from her fiancé Belmonte, and taken to serve In the harem, of the Pasha Selim. After various intrigues, Belmonte rescues her, helped by the clemency of the Pasha, who respects Konstanze’s chastity, declining to take her by force.

This implausible plot permits Mozart to express his Enlightenment conviction that charity is a universal virtue, as real in the Muslim empire of the Turks as in the Christian empire of the enlightened Joseph II (himself hardly Christian). The faithful love of Belmonte and Konstanze inspires the Pasha’s clemency. And, even if Mozart’s innocent vision is without much historical basis, his belief in the reality of disinterested love is everywhere expressed and endorsed by the music. Die Entführung advances a moral idea, and its melodies share the beauty of that idea and persuasively present it to the listener.

In the 2004 production of Die Entführung at the Comic Opera in Berlin, the producer Calixto Bieito decided to set the opera in a Berlin brothel, with Selim as pimp, and Konstanze one of the prostitutes. Even during the most tender music, the stage was littered with couples copulating, and every excuse for violence, with or without a sexual climax, was taken. At one point a prostitute is gratuitously tortured, and her nipples bloodily and realistically severed before she is killed. The words and the music speak of love and compassion, but their message is drowned out by the loudly orchestrated scenes of murder and narcissistic sex that litter the stage.

That is an example of a phenomenon with which we are familiar from every aspect of our contemporary culture. It is not merely that artists, directors, musicians and others connected with the arts are in flight from beauty. There is a desire to spoil beauty, in acts of aesthetic iconoclasm, wherever beauty lies in wait for us, the desire to pre-empt its appeal can intervene, ensuring that its still small voice will not be heard behind the scenes of desecration.

For beauty makes a claim on us: it is a call to renounce our narcissism and look with reverence on the world. (Cf. Iago of Cassio: ‘He hath a daily beauty in his life / Which makes me ugly’, and the soliloquy of Claggart in Britten’s Billy Budd, raging against the beauty that shines its light on his own moral worthlessness.)

I have used the word ‘desecration,’ to desecrate is to spoil what might otherwise be set apart, in the sphere of consecrated things. We can desecrate a church, a mosque, a graveyard, a tomb; and also a holy image, a holy book or a holy ceremony. We can also desecrate a corpse, a cherished image, even a living human being — in so far as these things contain (as they do) a portent of some original ‘apartness’. The fear of desecration is a vital element in all religions. Indeed, that is what the word religio originally meant a cult or ceremony designed to protect some sacred place from sacrilege.

Our need for beauty is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition, as free individuals, seeking our place in a shared and public world. We can wander through this world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves.

The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us. But — and this is again one of the messages of the early modernists — beings like us become at home in the world only by acknowledging our ‘fallen’ condition, as Eliot acknowledged it in The Waste Land. Hence the experience of beauty also points us beyond this world, to a ‘kingdom of ends’ in which our immortal longings and our desire for perfection are finally answered. As Plato and Kant both saw, therefore, the feeling for beauty is proximate to the religious frame of mind, arising from a humble sense of living with imperfections, while aspiring towards the highest unity with the transcendental.

Look at any picture by one of the great landscape painters — Poussin, Guardi, Turner, Corot, Cezanne — and you will see that idea of beauty celebrated and fixed in images. Those painters do not turn a blind eye to suffering, or to the vastness and threateningness of the universe, of which we occupy so small a corner. Far from it. Landscape painters show us death and decay in the very heart of things: the light on their hills is a fading light; the walls of their houses are patched and crumbling like the stucco on the villages of Guardi. But their images point to the joy that lies incipient in decay, and to the eternal that is implied in the transient.

Even in the brutal presentations of thwarted and malicious life that fill the novels of Zola we find, if not the reality of beauty, at least a distant glimpse of it — recorded in the rhythm of the prose, and in the invocations of stillness amid the futile longings which drive the characters to their goals. Realism, in Zola as in Baudelaire and Flaubert, is a kind of disappointed tribute to the ideal. The subject matter is profane; but profane by nature, and not because the writer has chosen to desecrate the few scant beauties that he finds. The art of desecration represents a new departure, and one that we should try to understand, since it lies at the centre of the post-modern experience.

Sacred And Profane
Desecration is a kind of defense against the sacred, an attempt to destroy its claims. In the presence of sacred things our lives are judged and in order to escape that judgment we destroy the thing that seems to accuse us.

According to many philosophers and anthropologists, however, the experience of the sacred is a universal feature of the human condition, and therefore not easily avoided. For the most part our lives are organized by transitory purposes. But few of these purposes are memorable or moving to us, Every now and then we are jolted out of our complacency, and feel ourselves to be in the presence of something vastly more significant than our present interests and desires. We sense the reality of something precious and mysterious, which reaches out to us with a claim that is in some way not of this world.

This happens in the presence of death, and especially the death of someone loved. We look with awe on the human body from which the life has fled. This is no longer a person, but the ‘mortal remains’ of a person. And this thought fills us with a sense of the uncanny. We are reluctant to touch the dead body; we see it as in some way not properly a part of our world, almost a visitor from some other sphere.

This experience is a paradigm of our encounter with the sacred. And it demands from us a kind of ceremonial recognition. The dead body is the object of rituals and acts of purification, designed not lust to send its former occupant happily into the hereafter — for these practices are engaged in even by those who have no belief in the hereafter — but in order to overcome the eeriness, the supernatural quality, of the dead human form. The body is being reclaimed for this world, by the rituals which acknowledge that it also stands apart from it. The rituals, to put it in another way, consecrate the body, purify it of its miasma and restore it to its former status as an embodiment. By the same token, the dead body can be desecrated, when it is displayed to the world as a mere heap of discarded flesh — and this is surely one of the primary acts of desecration, one to which people have been given from time immemorial, as when Achilles drags the body of Hector in triumph around the walls of Troy.

There are other occasions when we are in a similar way startled out of our day-to-day preoccupations. In particular, there is the experience of falling in love. This too is a human universal, and it is an experience of the strangest kind. The face and body of the beloved are imbued with the most intense life. But in one crucial respect they are like the body of someone dead: they seem not to belong in the empirical world. The beloved looks on the lover as Beatrice looked on Dante from a point outside the flow of temporal things. The beloved object demands that we cherish it, that we approach it with an almost ritualistic reverence. And there radiates from those eyes and limbs and words a kind of fullness of spirit that makes everything anew.

The human form is sacred for us because it bears the stamp of our embodiment. The willful desecration of the human form, either through the pornography of sex or the pornography of death and violence, has become, for many people, a kind of compulsion. And this desecration, which spoils the experience of freedom, is also a denial of love. It is an attempt to remake the world as though love were no longer a part of it. And that, surely, is what is the most important characteristic of the post-modern culture, as exemplified in Bieito’s production of Die Entführung: it is a loveless culture, which is afraid of beauty because it is disturbed by love.

Poussin, The Israelites Dancing Around the Golden Calf, in the world and of the world...

The dialectic of the sacred and the profane is a leading theme of the Jewish Bible, in which God is constantly revealing himself in mysteries that emphasize his sacred character, and in which the Jews are constantly tempted to profane him, by worshipping images and idols in his place. Why should God be profaned by idolatry, and why are people tempted by it? Why does God decree the terrible genocidal punishment of the Israelites for what (by modern standards) is the casual peccadillo of dancing before the Golden Calf? Does God have no sense of proportion?

Such questions point us to the peculiarity of sacred things, that they do not admit of substitutes. There are not degrees of profanation, but a single and unified thing that profanation is, which is putting a substitute in place of that for which there are no substitutes — the ‘I am that I am’ that is uniquely itself and which must be worshipped for the thing that it is and not as a means to an end that could be achieved in some other way or through some rival deity.

Idolatry is the paradigm profanation, since it admits into the realm of worship the idea of a currency. You can trade in idols, swap them around, try out new versions, see which one responds best to prayer, and which one strikes the best bargains. And all this is a profanation, since it involves trading that which cannot be traded without ceasing to be, which is the sacred object itself.

The object of worship is to be placed apart, in the world but not of it, to be addressed as the unique thing that it is, in which all the meanings of our lives are somehow summarized and consecrated — ‘robed as destinies’, in Larkin’s words. This is what we mean by calling it sacred. It is a deep question of anthropology why there should be the need for such objects, and a deep question of theology whether that need corresponds to any objectively existing reality. But it is important to see that the posture towards God that is advocated in the Hebrew Bible, although it is to a certain measure an innovation (as is the very idea that he is God, rather than a god), is one that we understand instinctively, even if we cannot give a rationalization of it, or explain why it has such importance in the life of a religious believer.

There are other occasions in which we try to focus on something, to appreciate it for its own sake, as the thing that it is, and in which our attitude, while not one of worship, is nevertheless threatened by the pursuit of substitutes. The most evident example is the one that I have been considering on and off throughout this book — sexual interest, in which the object is idealized, held apart, pursued not as a commodity but for the particular person he or she is. That kind of interest, which is what we mean by erotic love, is at risk — and the principal risk is the appearance, in whatever guise, of a substitute. Jealousy is painful not least because it sees the object of love, once sacred, as now desecrated.

One cure for the pain of desecration is the move towards total profanation: in other words, to wipe out all vestiges of sanctity from the once worshipped object, to make it merely a thing of the world, and not just a thing in the world, something that is nothing over and above the substitutes that can at any time replace it. That is what we see in the spreading addiction to pornography — a profanation that removes the sexual bond entirely from the realm of intrinsic values. It involves wiping out one area in which the idea of the beautiful had taken root, so as to protect ourselves from the possibility of loving it and therefore losing it.

The other area in which this profanation regularly occurs is that of aesthetic judgment. Here too we are dealing with an attitude that tries to single out its object, to appreciate it for its own sake, to regard it as irreplaceable, without substitutes, bearing its meaning inseparably within itself. I don’t say that works of art are sacred things — though many of the greatest works of art started life in that way, including the statues and temples of the Greeks and Romans, and the altarpieces of medieval Europe.

But I do say that they are, or have been, part of the continuing human attempt to idealize and sanctify the objects of experience, and to present images and narratives of our humanity as a thing to live up to, and not merely a thing to live. And this is true even of those works of brutal realism, like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Zola’s Nana, whose power and persuasiveness depend upon the ironical contrast between things as they are and things as people wish them to be. As I suggested, the temptation towards profanation, which manifestly exists in the sexual sphere, exists too in the aesthetic. Works of art become objects of desecration, and the more likely to be targeted, the more claims they make for their own sacred status. (Hence the routine profanation of the Wagner operas by producers enraged by, or estranged from, their presumptuous spiritual claims.)

Anthropological Remarks
Culture emerges from our attempt to settle on standards that will command the consent of people generally, while raising their aspirations towards the goals that make people admirable and lovable. Culture therefore represents an investment over many generations, and imposes enormous and by no means clearly articulated obligations — in particular, the obligation to be other and better than we are, in all the ways that others might appreciate. Manners, morals, religious precepts and ordinary decencies train us in this, and they form the central core of any culture. But they are necessarily concerned with what is common and easily taught.

As I have been at pains to point out, aesthetic judgment is an integral part of these elementary forms of social coordination, and aesthetic judgment leads of its own accord to other and potentially ‘higher’ and more stylized applications. It is constantly pointing away from our ordinary imperfections and failings short, to a world of high ideals. It therefore contains within itself two permanent causes of offence. First it is urging upon us distinctions — of taste, of refinement, of understanding — which cannot fail to remind us that people are not equally interesting, equally admirable, or equally able to understand the world in which they live.

Secondly, because the democratic attitude is invariably in conflict with itself — it being impossible to live as though there are no aesthetic values, while living a real life among human beings — aesthetic judgment begins to be experienced as an affliction. It imposes an intolerable burden, something that we must live up to, a world of ideals and aspirations that is in sharp conflict with the tawdriness of our improvised lives. It is perched like an owl on our shoulders, while we try to hide our pet rodents in our clothes. The temptation is to turn on it and shoo it away.

The desire to desecrate is a desire to turn aesthetic judgment against itself, so that it no longer seems like a judgment of us. This you see all the time in children — the delight in disgusting noises, words, allusions, which helps them to distance themselves from the adult world that judges them, and whose authority they wish to deny. (Hence the appeal of Ronald Dahl) That ordinary refuge of children from the burden of adult judgment is the refuge too of adults from the burden of their culture. By using culture as an instrument of desecration they neutralize its claims: it loses all authority, and becomes a fellow conspirator in the plot against value.

Beauty And Pleasure
The desire for desecration leads to its own kind of pleasure, and you might be tempted to think that this too is an aesthetic pleasure, a new phase of that esthétique du mal extolled by Baudelaire: pleasure in must be distinguished from pleasure that. A distinction must be made between two broad kinds of pleasure in: the sensory and the intentional.

The first proceeds directly from a stimulus, has an excitable form, and can be produced automatically. Such are the pleasures of eating and drinking, which are easily obtained and easily over-indulged and which require no particular cognitive capacities. (Even laboratory rats can achieve such pleasures.)

The other kind of pleasure proceeds from an act of understanding: not a sensory gratification of the subject but a pleasing interest in an object. Such intentional pleasures have a cognitive dimension: they reach out from the self to lay hold of the world, and their primary focus is not the feeling of pleasure itself, but the object that gives rise to it. They are, if you like, objective pleasures, that take in the reality of the thing towards which they are directed. Pleasures of the senses are, by contrast, subjective; they are focused on the experience itself, and how it is for the one who feels it. Between the two kinds of pleasure are a host of intermediate cases — such as the pleasures of the wine connoisseur, which involve a distinctive kind of ‘relishing’, but which do not depend upon interpreting their object in terms of its content or meaning.

Aesthetic pleasure is focused on the presented aspect of its object, and this tempts people to assimilate it to the pure sensory pleasures, like those of eating and drinking. And a similar temptation bedevils the analysis of sex. There is a kind of sexual interest in which sensory pleasure eclipses the inter-personal intentionality and becomes attached to scenes of generalized and impersonal excitement — an image or tableau, to which the subject responds compulsively. This kind of sexual interest can easily reshape itself as an addiction. The temptation is to suppose that this depersonalized and sensory pleasure Is the real goal of sexual desire in all its forms, and that sexual pleasure is a form of subjective pleasure analogous to the pleasures of eating and drinking — a claim explicitly made, for example, by Freud.

Pleasure And Addiction
Cognitive states of mind are seldom addictive, since they depend upon exploration of the world, and the individual encounter with the individual object, whose appeal is outside the subject’s control. Addiction arises when the subject has full control over a pleasure and can produce it at will. It is primarily a matter of sensory pleasure, and involves a kind of short-circuiting of the pleasure network. Addiction is characterized by a loss of the emotional dynamic that would otherwise govern an outward-directed, cognitively creative life. Sex addiction is no different in this respect from drug addiction; and it wars against true sexual interest — interest in the other, the individual object of desire. Why go to all the trouble of mutual recognition and shared arousal, when this short cut is available to the same sensory goal?

Just as there is sex addiction, arising from the decoupling of sexual pleasure from the inter-personal intentionality of desire, so too is there stimulus addiction — the hunger to be shocked, gripped, stirred in whatever way might take us straight to the goal of excitement — which arises from the decoupling of sensory interest from rational thought. The pathology here is familiar to us, and was interestingly caricatured by Aldous Huxley, in his account of the ‘feelies’ — the panoramic shows in Brave New World in which every sense-modality is engaged.

Maybe the Roman games were similar: short cuts to awe, horror and fear which reinforced the ensuing sense of safety, by prompting the visceral relief that it is not but another who has been torn to pieces in the ring. And maybe the 5-second cut which is the stock-in-trade of the B movie and the TV advert operates in a similar way — setting up addictive circuits that keep the eyes glued to the screen.

The contrast that I have been implicitly drawing between the love that venerates and the scorn that desecrates is like the contrast between taste and addiction. Lovers of beauty direct their attention outwards, in search of a meaning and order that brings sense to their lives. Their attitude to the thing they love is imbued with judgment and discrimination. And they measure themselves against it, trying to match its order in their own living sympathies.

Addiction, as the psychologists point out, is a function of easy rewards. The addict is someone who presses again and again on the pleasure switch, whose pleasures by-pass thought and judgment to settle in the realm of need. Art is at war with effect addiction, in which the need for stimulation and routinized excitement has blocked the path to beauty by putting acts of desecration centre stage.

Why this addiction should be so virulent now is an interesting question: whatever the explanation, however, my argument implies that the addiction to effect is the enemy not only of art but also of happiness, and that anybody who cares for the future of humanity should study how to revive the ‘aesthetic education’, as Schiller described it, which has the love of beauty as its goal.


Beauty and Design in Immanuel Kant

October 18, 2010


I studied Bonsai in Japan for fourteen years, learning the practical skills as well as the aesthetics behind this most unique Japanese art. If my road to conversion was first paved by a literary imagination, it was later smoothed and widened by the awareness of a Beauty that is a reality itself. It can take one outside of himself or herself and into a deeper appreciation of the form behind the beauty which ultimately leads us to the LORD God of the cosmos.

I picked up a Roger Scroton book the other day on Beauty and followed a chapter on aesthetics. Kant usually causes me to glaze over but I found another chapter in another Scruton book (A Very Short Introduction to Kant) that led me to the understanding I needed. The following  is convoluted enough but preserves Kant’s fidelity to a supersensible realm that, while inaccessible to concepts, direct us towards a transcendental apprehension of the world.


It is not God’s command that binds us to morality. but morality that points to the possibility of a ‘holy will’. Kant warns against the fanaticism indeed the impiety, of abandoning the guidance of a morally legislative reason in the right conduct of our lives, in order to derive guidance directly from the idea of the Supreme Being.’ Kant’s writings on religion exhibit one of the first attempts at the systematic demystification of theology. He criticizes all forms of anthropomorphism, and expounds, in his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793). a ‘hermeneutical rule’ of ‘moral interpretation’.

All scripture and religious doctrine that conflict with reason must be interpreted allegorically, so as to express moral insights that gain vivacity, rather than validity, from their religious expression. The attempt to make the idea of God intelligible through images, and so to subsume God under the categories of the empirical world, is self-contradictory. If God is a transcendental being, then there is nothing to be said of him from our point of view except that he transcends it.

If he is not a transcendental being, then he no more deserves our respect than any other work of nature. Under the first interpretation we can respect him only because we respect the moral law that points towards his existence. On the second interpretation, we could respect him only as a subject of the moral law that governs his activity.

Kant’s demythologized religion was not uncommon among his contemporaries. He differed, however, in appropriating the images of traditional religion for the veneration of morality. The worship due to God becomes reverence and devotion for the moral law. The faith that transcends belief becomes the certainty of practical reason that surpasses understanding. The object of esteem is not the Supreme Being, but the supreme attribute of rationality. The moral world is described as the ‘realm of grace’, the actual community of rational beings as the ‘mystical body’ in the world of nature and the Kingdom of God to which mortals aspire is transmuted into the Kingdom of Ends that they make real through their self-legislation. It is not surprising to learn from one of Jachmann’s letters that ‘many evangelists went forth [from Kant’s lectures on theology] and preached the gospel of the Kingdom of Reason’.

Nevertheless, Kant accepted the traditional claims of theology. and even tried to resuscitate them under the obscure doctrine of the ‘postulates of practical reason’. Moreover, he felt that one of the traditional arguments for God’s existence, the argument from design, contains a vital clue to the nature of creation. It is in the third Critique, at the end of an account of aesthetic experience, that Kant attempts to reveal his meaning.

The Third Critique
The Critique of Judgment is a disorganized and repetitious work, which gains little from Kant’s struggle to impose on its somewhat diffuse subject matter the structure of the transcendental philosophy. A contemporary who attended Kant’s lectures on aesthetics recorded that ‘the principal thoughts of his Critique of Judgment (were) given as easily, clearly, and entertainingly as can be imagined’. Kant was 71 when he came to write the work, however, and there seems little doubt that his mastery of argument and of the written word was beginning to desert him. Nevertheless, the third Critique is one of the most important works of aesthetics to have been composed in modern times; indeed, it could fairly be said that, were it not for this work, aesthetics would not exist in its modern form. Kant’s most feeble arguments were here used to present some of his most original conclusions.

Kant felt the need to explore in the Critique of Judgment certain questions left over from the first two Critiques. Moreover, he wished to provide for aesthetics its own ‘faculty’, corresponding to understanding and practical reason. The faculty of judgment ‘mediates’ between the other two. It enables us to see the empirical world as conforming to the ends of practical reason, and practical reason as adapted to our knowledge of the empirical world. Kant believed that ‘judgment’ has both a subjective and an objective aspect, and divided his Critique accordingly. The first part, concerned with the subjective experience of ‘purposiveness’ or ‘finality’, is devoted to aesthetic judgment. The second, concerned with the objective ‘finality’ of nature, is devoted to the natural manifestation of design.

The eighteenth century saw the birth of modern aesthetics. Shaftesbury and his followers made penetrating observations on the experience of beauty: Burke presented his famous distinction between the beautiful and the sublime; Batteux in France and Lessing and Winckelmann in Germany attempted to provide universal principles for the classification and judgment of works of art. The Leibnitzians also made their contribution and the modern use of the term ‘aesthetic’ is due to Kant’s mentor A. G. Baumgarten. Nevertheless, no philosopher since Plato had given to aesthetic experience the central role in philosophy that Kant was to give to it. Nor had Kant’s predecessors perceived, as he perceived, that both metaphysics and ethics must remain incomplete without a theory of the aesthetic. Only a rational being can experience beauty; and, without the experience of beauty, the exercise of reason is incomplete. It is only in the aesthetic experience of nature, Kant suggests, that we grasp the relation of our faculties to the world, and so understand both our own limitations, and the possibility of transcending them.

Aesthetic experience intimates to us that our point of view is, after all, only our point of view, and that we are no more creators of nature than we are creators of the point of view from which we observe and act on it. Momentarily we stand outside that point of view, not so as to have knowledge of a transcendent world, but so as to perceive the harmony that exists between our faculties and the objects in relation to which they are employed. At the same time we sense the divine order that makes this harmony possible.

The Problem Of Beauty
Kant’s aesthetics is based on a fundamental problem, which he expresses in many different forms, eventually giving to it the structure of an ‘antinomy’. According to the ‘antinomy of taste’, aesthetic judgment seems to be in conflict with itself: it cannot be at the same time aesthetic (an expression of subjective experience) and also a judgment (claiming universal assent). And yet all rational beings, simply in virtue of their rationality, seem disposed to make these judgments.

On the one hand, they feel pleasure in an object, and this pleasure is immediate, not based in any conceptualization of the object, or in any enquiry into cause, purpose, or constitution. On the other hand, they express their pleasure in the form of a judgment, speaking ‘as if beauty were a quality [Beschaffenheit] of the object,’ thus representing their pleasure as objectively valid. But how can this be so? The pleasure is immediate, based in no reasoning or analysis; so what permits this demand for universal agreement?

However we approach the idea of beauty, we find this paradox emerging. Our attitudes, feelings, and judgments are called aesthetic precisely because of their direct relation to experience. Hence no one can judge the beauty of an object that he has never heard or seen. Scientific judgments, like practical principles, can be received ‘at second hand’. I can take you as my authority for the truths of physics, or for the utility of trains. But I cannot take you as my authority for the merits of Leonardo, or for the beauties of Mozart, if I have seen no work by the one or heard none by the other.

It would seem to follow from this that there can be no rules or principles of aesthetic judgment. ‘A principle of taste would mean a fundamental premise under the condition of which one might subsume the concept of an object, and then, by a syllogism, draw the inference that it is beautiful. That, however, is absolutely impossible. For I must feel the pleasure immediately in the perception of the object, and I cannot be talked into it by any grounds of proof.”

It seems that it is always experience, and never conceptual thought, that gives the right to aesthetic judgment, so that anything that alters the experience of an object alters its aesthetic significance (which is why poetry cannot be translated). As Kant puts it, aesthetic judgment is ‘free from concepts,’ and beauty itself is not a concept. Hence we arrive at the first proposition of the antinomy of taste: ‘The judgment of taste is not based on concepts; for, if it were, it would be open to dispute (decision by means of proofs).’

However, such a conclusion seems to be inconsistent with the fact that aesthetic judgment is a form of judgment. When I describe something as beautiful, I-do not mean merely that it pleases me: I am speaking about it, not about myself and, if challenged, I try to find reasons for my view. I do not explain my feeling, but give grounds for it, by pointing to features of its object. And any search for reasons has the universal character of rationality. I am in effect saying that others, in so far as they are rational, ought to feel just the same delight as I feel. This points to the second proposition of Kant’s antinomy: the judgment of taste is based on concepts; for otherwise… there could be no room even for contention in the matter, or for the claim to the necessary agreement of others.’

The Synthetic A Priori Grounds Of Taste
Kant says that the judgment of beauty is grounded not in concepts but in a feeling of pleasure; at the same time this pleasure is postulated as universally valid, and even ‘necessary’. The aesthetic judgment contains an ‘ought’: others ought to feel as I do, and, to the extent that they do not, either they or I am wrong. It is this that leads us to seek reasons for our judgments. The terms ‘universality’ and ‘necessity’ refer us to the defining properties of the a priori.

It is clear that the postulate that others ought to feel as I do is not derived from experience: it is, on the contrary, a presupposition of aesthetic pleasure. Nor is it analytic. Hence its status must be synthetic a priori. The argument is very slippery. The ‘necessity’ of the judgment of taste has little to do with the necessity of the a priori laws of the understanding, nor does its universality issue in a definite principle. Kant sometimes recognizes this, and speaks of aesthetic pleasure rather than aesthetic judgment as universally valid, and so a priori. Nevertheless, he was convinced that aesthetics raises precisely the same problem as all philosophy. ‘The problem of the critique of judgment…is part of the general problem of transcendental philosophy: How are synthetic a priori judgments possible?’

Kant offers a ‘transcendental deduction’ in answer. It is only fifteen lines long, and wholly inadequate. He lamely says: ‘what makes this deduction so easy is that it is spared the necessity of having to justify the objective reality application] of a concept.’. In fact, however, he argues independently for an a priori component in the judgment of taste, and for the legitimacy of its ‘universal’ postulate.

Objectivity And Contemplation
Kant’s concern is, as always, with objectivity. Aesthetic judgments claim validity. In what way can this claim be upheld? While the objectivity of theoretical judgments required a proof that the world is as the understanding represents it to be, no such proof was necessary for practical reason. It was enough to show that reason constrained each agent towards a set of basic principles. In aesthetic judgment the requirement is weaker still. We are not asked to establish principles that will compel the agreement of every rational being. it is sufficient to show how the thought of universal validity is possible. in aesthetic judgment we are only suitors for agreement.’.

It is not that there are valid rules of taste, but rather that we must think of our pleasure as made valid by its object. People may doubt that aesthetic judgment contains even a claim to objectivity. But that is usually because they fail to consider the aesthetic judgments that really matter to them. When a beloved landscape is vandalized or a beautiful old town laid waste, people feel affronted, wounded, and indignant. They agitate for laws that will prevent such things, form committees to protect what they love, and campaign with all their energies to deter the spoilers. If this does not suggest a claim to objective validity, it is hard to know what does.

Kant distinguishes sensory from contemplative pleasures. The pleasure in the beautiful, although ‘it is ‘immediate’ (arising from no conceptual thought), nevertheless involves a reflective contemplation of its object. the pure judgment of taste ‘combines delight or aversion immediately with the bare contemplation of the object.’… Aesthetic pleasure must therefore be distinguished from the purely sensuous pleasures of food and drink. It can be obtained only through those senses that also permit contemplation (which is to say, through sight and hearing).

This act of contemplation involves attending to the object not as an instance of a universal (or concept), but as the particular thing that it is. The individual object is isolated in aesthetic judgment and considered ‘for its own sake’. But contemplation does not rest with this act of isolation. It embarks on a process of abstraction that exactly parallels the process whereby practical reason arrives at the categorical imperative. Aesthetic judgment abstracts from every ‘interest’ of the observer, who does not regard the object as a means to his ends, but as an end in itself (although not a moral end). The observer’s desires, aims, and ambitions are held in abeyance in the act of contemplation, and the object regarded ‘apart from any interest.’. This act of abstraction is conducted while focusing on the individual object in a ‘singular [einzelne] judgment.’

Hence, unlike the abstraction that generates the categorical imperative, it leads to no universal rule. Nevertheless, it underlies the ‘universality’ of the subsequent judgment. It is this that enables me to ‘play the part of judge in matters of taste.’. Having abstracted from all my interests and desires, I have, in effect, removed from my judgment all reference to the ‘empirical conditions’ that distinguish me, and referred my experience to reason alone, just as I refer the ends of action when acting morally. ‘Since the delight is not based on any inclination of the subject (or on any other deliberate interest)…he can find as reason for his delight, no personal conditions to which his own subjective self might alone be party.’ In which case, it seems, the subject of aesthetic judgment must feel compelled, and also entitled, to legislate his pleasure for all rational beings.

Disinterest is the sign of an ‘interest of reason’, and occurs whenever rational agents set aside their own desires and strive to look on the world as God might look on it, with a view to judgment. This we do when deciding what is right when presiding in a court of law, when assessing a proof, and — strange though it may seem — when contemplating the world of appearances. Disinterested contemplation is a recognition that the object matters — matters so much that our interests have no bearing on our judgment. If you find this thought both strange and persuasive, then you will also recognize the genius of Kant, in making it the central premise of his aesthetics.

Imagination And Freedom
What aspect of rationality is involved in aesthetic contemplation? In the ‘subjective deduction’ of the first Critique), Kant had argued for the central role of imagination in the ‘synthesis’ of concept and intuition. Imagination transforms intuition into datum; we exercise imagination whenever we attribute to our experience a ‘content’ that represents the world. When I see the man outside my window, the concept ‘man’ is present in my perception. This work of impregnating experience with concepts is the work of imagination.

Kant thought that imagination could also be ‘freed from’ concepts (that is, from the rules of the understanding). It is this ‘free play’ of the imagination that characterizes aesthetic judgment. In the free play of imagination, concepts are either wholly indeterminate, or if determinate not applied. An example of the first is the imaginative ‘synthesis’ involved in seeing a set of marks as a pattern. Here there is no determinate concept. There is nothing to a pattern except an experienced order, and no concept applied in the experience apart from that indeterminate idea. An example of the second is the ‘synthesis’ involved in seeing a face in a picture. Here the concept ‘face’ enters the imaginative synthesis, but it is not applied to the object. I do not judge that this, before me, is a face, but only that I have imaginative permission, as it were, so to see it. The second kind of ‘free play’ is at the root of our understanding of artistic representation. Kant was more interested in the first kind, and this led him to a formalistic conception of the beautiful in art.

The free play of the imagination enables me to bring concepts to bear on an experience that is, in itself, ‘free from concepts’. Hence, even though there are no rules of taste, I can still give grounds for my aesthetic judgment. I can give reasons for my pleasure, while focusing on the ‘singularity’ that is its cause.

Harmony And Common Sense
Kant valued art less than nature, and music least among the arts, ‘since it plays merely with sensations.’ Nevertheless the example of music provides a good illustration of Kant’s theory. When I hear music, I hear a certain organization. Something begins, develops, and maintains a unity among its parts. This unity is not indeed there in the notes before me. It is a product of my perception. I hear it only because my imagination, in its ‘free play’, brings my perception under the indeterminate idea of unity. Only beings with imagination (a faculty of reason) can hear musical unity, since only they can carry out this indeterminate synthesis. So the unity is a perception of mine.

But this perception is not arbitrary, since it is compelled by my rational nature. I perceive the organization in my experience as objective. The experience of unity brings pleasure, and this too belongs to the exercise of reason. I suppose the pleasure, like the melody, to be the property of all who are constituted like me. So I represent my pleasure in the music as due to the workings of a ‘common sense,’ which is to say, a disposition that is at once based in experience, and common to all rational beings.

But how is it that the experience of unity is mixed with pleasure? When I hear the formal unity of music, the ground of my experience consists in a kind of compatibility between what I hear and the faculty of imagination through which it is organized. Although the unity has its origin in me, it is attributed to an independent object. In experiencing the unity I also sense a harmony between my rational faculties and the object (the sounds) to which they are applied. This sense of harmony between myself and the world is both the origin of my pleasure and also the ground of its universality.

one who feels pleasure in simple reflection on the form of an object, without having any concept in mind, rightly lays claim to the agreement of everyone, although this judgment is empirical and a singular judgment. For the ground of this pleasure is found in the universal, though subjective, condition of reflective judgments, namely the final harmony of an object . with the mutual relation of the faculties of cognition (imagination and understanding), which are requisite for every empirical cognition.

Form And Purposiveness
It seems, then, that our pleasure in beauty has its origin in a capacity, due to the free play of imagination, first to experience the harmonious working of our own rational faculties, and secondly to project that harmony outwards on to the empirical world. We see in objects the formal unity that we discover in ourselves. This is the origin of our pleasure, and the basis of our ‘common sense’ of beauty. And it is ‘only under the presupposition … of such a common sense that we are able to lay down a judgment of taste.’

Kant distinguishes ‘free’ from ‘dependent’ beauty, the first being perceived wholly without the aid of conceptual thought, the second requiring prior conceptualization of the object. When I perceive a representational picture, or a building, I can have no impression of beauty until I have first brought the object under concepts, referring in one case to the content expressed, in the other to the function performed.

The judgment of such ‘dependent’ beauty is less pure than the judgment of ‘free’ beauty, and would become pure only for the person who had no conception of the meaning or function of what he saw. The purest examples of beauty are therefore ‘free’. Only in the contemplation of such examples are our faculties able to relax entirely from the burdens of common scientific and practical thought, and enter into the free play that is the ground of aesthetic pleasure. Examples of this free beauty abound in nature, but not in art.

The unity that we perceive in the free beauties of nature comes to us purified of all interests: it is a unity that makes reference to no definite purpose. But it reflects back to us an order that has its origin in ourselves, as purposive beings, Hence It bears the Indeterminate marks of purpose. As Kant put it, aesthetic unity displays ‘purposiveness without purpose’. Aesthetic experience, which leads us to see each object as an end in itself, also leads us to a sense of the purposiveness of nature.

The perception of ‘purposiveness’, like the regulative ideas of reason, is not a perception of what is, but a perception ‘as if’. However, it is an inescapable ‘as if’: we must see the world in this way if we are to find our proper place in it, both as knowing and as acting creatures. Aesthetic judgment, which delivers to us the pure experience of design in nature, frees us both for theoretical insight and for the endeavors of the moral life. It also permits the transition from the theoretical to the practical: finding design in nature, we recognize that our own ends might be realized there. Moreover, and again like the ideas of reason, the concept of purposiveness is ‘supersensible’: it is the idea of a transcendental design, the purpose of which we cannot know.

Aesthetic experience is the vehicle of many such ‘aesthetic ideas’. These are ideas of reason that transcend the limits of possible experience, while trying to represent, in ‘sensible’ form, the inexpressible character of the world beyond. There is no true beauty without aesthetic ideas; they are presented to us both by art and by nature. The aesthetic idea imprints on our senses an intimation of a transcendental realm. The poet, even if he deals with empirical phenomena. ‘tries by means of the imagination … to go beyond the limits of experience and to present [these things] to sense with a completeness of which there is no example in nature.’

This is how Kant explains the effect of aesthetic condensation. For example, when Milton expresses the vengeful feelings of Satan, his smoldering words transport us. We feel that we are listening not to this or that, as one might say, ‘contingent’ emotion, but to the very essence of revenge. We seem to transcend the limitations contained in every natural example and to be made aware of something Indescribable that they palely reflect. When Wagner expresses through the music of Tristan the unassuageable longing of erotic love, it is again as though we had risen above our own circumscribed passions and glimpsed a completion to which they aspire. No concept can allow us to rise so far: yet the aesthetic experience, which involves a perpetual striving to pass beyond the limits of our point of view, seems to ‘embody’ what cannot be thought.

Teleology And The Divine
Kant attempts, then, to move from his philosophy of beauty to an account of our relation to the world that will be free of that limitation to our own perspective that he had argued, in the first Critique, to be a necessary condition of self-consciousness. In aesthetic experience we view ourselves in relation to a supersensible (that is, transcendental) reality that lies beyond the reach of thought. We become aware of our own limitations, of the grandeur of the world, and of the inexpressible good order that permits us to know and act on it. Kant has recourse to Burke’s distinction between the beautiful and the sublime. Sometimes, when we sense the harmony between nature and our faculties, we are impressed by the purposiveness and intelligibility of everything that surrounds us. This is the sentiment of beauty. At other times, overcome by the infinite greatness of the world, we renounce the attempt to understand and control it. This is the sentiment of the sublime. In confronting the sublime, the mind is ‘incited to abandon sensibility.’

Kant’s remarks about the sublime are obscure, but they reinforce the interpretation of his aesthetics as a kind of ‘premonition’ of theology. He defines the sublime as ‘that, the mere capacity of thinking which evidences a faculty of mind transcending every standard of taste.’ It is the judgment of the sublime that most engages our moral nature. It thereby points to yet another justification of the ‘universality’ of taste, by showing that, in demanding agreement, we are asking for complicity in a moral sentiment. In judging of the sublime, we demand a universal recognition of the immanence of a supersensible realm. A person who can feel neither the solemnity nor the awesomeness of nature lacks in our eyes the necessary sense of his own limitations. He has not taken that ‘transcendental’ viewpoint on himself from which all true morality springs.

It is from the presentiment of the sublime that Kant seems to extract his faith in a Supreme Being. The second part of the Critique of Judgment is devoted to ‘teleology’: the understanding of the ends of things. Here Kant expresses, in a manner that has proved unsatisfactory to many commentators, his ultimate sympathy for the standpoint of theology. Our sentiments of the sublime and of the beautiful combine to present an inescapable picture of nature as created. In beauty we discover the purposiveness of nature; in the sublime we have intimations of its transcendent origins. In neither case can we translate our sentiments into a reasoned argument: all we know is that we know nothing of the transcendental. But that is not all we feel.

The argument from design is not a theoretical proof, but a moral intimation, made vivid to us by our sentiments towards nature, and realized in our rational acts. It is realized, in the sense that the true end of creation is intimated through our moral actions: but this intimation is of an ideal, not of an actual. world. So we prove the divine teleology in all our moral actions, without being able to show that this teleology is true of the world in which we act. The final end of nature is known to us, not theoretically, but practically. It lies in reverence for the pure practical reason that ‘legislates for itself alone’. When we relate this reverence to our experience of the sublime, we have a sense, however fleeting, of the transcendental.

Thus it is that aesthetic judgment directs us towards the apprehension of a transcendent world, while practical reason gives content to that apprehension, and affirms that this intimation of a perceptiveness vision of things is indeed an intimation of God. This is what Kant tries to convey both in the doctrine of the aesthetic Ideas and In that of the sublime. In each case we are confronted with an ‘employment of the imagination in the interests of mind’s supersensible province’ and a compulsion to ‘think nature itself in its totality as a presentation of something supersensible, without our being able to put this presentation forward as objective.’

The supersensible is the transcendental, it cannot be thought through concepts, and the attempt to think it through ideas’ is fraught with self-contradiction. Yet the ideas of reason — God, freedom, immortality — are resurgent in our consciousness, now under the guise of imperatives of action, now transformed by imagination into sensuous and aesthetic form. We cannot rid ourselves of these ideas. To do so would be to say that our point of view on the world is all that the world consists in, and so to make ourselves into gods.

Practical reason and aesthetic experience humble us. They remind us that the world in its totality, conceived from no finite perspective, is not ours to know. This humility of reason is also the true object of esteem. Only this is to be reverenced in the rational being that he feels and acts as a member of a transcendental realm, while recognizing that he can know only the world of nature. Aesthetic experience and practical reason are two aspects of the moral: and it is through morality that we sense both the transcendence and the immanence of God.


Reading Selections from “Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake” by Ralph C. Wood

October 15, 2010

Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University. This is a First Thing’s article published in 2004 and combines a lot of threads of arguments that I have been posting here. It is the finest restatement I’ve come across of Doestoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov which I read in my middle teens one summer and completely misunderstood. The book possessed me.

In fact, I became a mini-me of Ivan, a wise-ass teen who brutally disappointed an uncle who was concerned for my spiritual growth. One of my acts of contrition during my conversion has been to revisit these events and my reading of Dostoevsky to try and figure out how I could have been so wrong, so unthinking, so thoughtless. It’s been fifty years since these events transpired but regret cuts deeply. In this case, time can actually open wounds. Ivan Karamazov’s mistake was my mistake also.

Freedom And Suffering
It is has become commonplace to regard Ivan Karamazov’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” as a prescient parable glorifying human freedom and defending it against the kind of totalitarian threats it would face in the twentieth century. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s angry atheist delivers an uncanny prophecy of the omnicompetent, freedom-denying state that would arise in his own native Russia.

But concerning the liberty that is the only cure for state-sponsored oppression, Ivan is terribly wrong. The Christ of the Grand Inquisitor advocates an idea of freedom that Dostoevsky considered an abomination. It is linked to Ivan’s critique of God for allowing innocent suffering. For Dostoevsky, the problem of evil and the question of human liberty are profoundly joined: our answer to one quandary determines our answer to the other. Freedom and suffering are interstitial realities, as the Grand Inquisitor understands, even if he understands them wrongly.

Ivan: A Very Russian Atheist
Western readers of The Brothers Karamazov have remained virtually blind to Dostoevsky’s critique of the Grand Inquisitor. The reason, I believe, is that Ivan’s vision of human freedom is so very near to our own secular notion of liberty, and thus to our increasing relegation of the Christian gospel to the private sphere of mere preference. Though he was a student of Western Christianity and culture, Dostoevsky remained fundamentally Russian in his conception of God and the world, of good and evil, of the sacred and the secular. We cannot properly understand his treatment of these matters, therefore, until we grasp his Orthodox reading of them. Thus must we examine his parable of the Grand Inquisitor vis–à–vis the Orthodox doctrine of human freedom as being founded not on autonomous choice but on communal dependence on God.

Ivan Karamazov is no straw atheist. He gives voice to the philosophical problem of evil perhaps more clearly and cogently than any other speaker or actor, any other philosopher or theologian, in the whole of world literature. Yet he is also a very Russian atheist. He thinks with his solar plexus, as D. H. Lawrence might have said. He is passionately intellectual. Ivan does not pose the question of theodicy as a philosophical conundrum, as it is often posed in the West. From Leibniz through Hume, from Alvin Plantinga to J. L. Mackie, the problem of evil has often been cast in bare intellectual terms: how to think through the contradiction that stands between the goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence of God, on the one hand, and the massive misery and undeserved suffering that characterize God’s world, on the other.

In J.B., his dramatic contemporizing of the Job story, Archibald MacLeish puts the intellectual problem of evil tersely but accurately: “If God is good He is not God. If God is God He is not good.” If God is imbued with the charity which He Himself enjoins His creatures to live by, then He must lack the divine power to create and sustain a world in which such charity obtains: He is not God. If, by contrast, God possesses the sovereignty and strength to perform what He wills, then this misery–riddled world must be proof that He is deficient in love itself: He is not good.

Ivan does not make his case against God’s goodness in this intellectualized fashion. He is not a philosophical thinker who abstracts ideas from experience in order to test their logical clarity and coherence. As Albert Camus observed, “Ivan really lives his problems.” They are matters, quite literally, of life and death, of eternal life and eternal death, of ultimate bliss or final misery. Ivan is willing to face the anguish and terror inherent not only in thinking but also in living without God.

As one who knows the truths of the heart, Ivan also knows that reason alone cannot fathom the deepest things. On the contrary, reason can be put to nefarious uses: “Reason is a scoundrel,” he confesses. Ivan is willing, therefore, to live “even . . . against logic.” Yet he is unwilling to live as a mindless vitalist, embracing life without much regard for its meaning and, even less, with a blithe disregard for its injustice. So huge are the world’s moral horrors, Ivan argues, that they undermine any notion of divine order and purpose.

Ivan’s Quandary
Hence Ivan’s truly wrenching quandary: Can he love life without believing that it has ultimate meaning — believing, instead, that it is godless and absurd? Ivan is young and strong. He brims with intellectual curiosity no less than bodily energy. He wants to travel to Europe and to learn its science and its history. As a good romantic, Ivan cites Schiller’s celebrated line about the “sticky little leaves” whose gummy unfolding in spring seems to signal the whole world’s rebirth. They remind Ivan of all that is precious in life, the glories of human love and natural splendor, the inward movement of all things toward life’s energizing center.

God Does Not Satisfy The Requirements Of Ivan’s Logic
There is still an awful lot of centripetal force on our planet, Alyosha. I want to live, and I do live, even if it be against logic. Though I do not believe in the order of things, still the sticky little leaves that come out in the spring are dear to me, the blue sky is dear to me, some people are dear to me, whom one loves sometimes, would you believe it, without even knowing why; some human deeds are dear to me, which one has perhaps long ceased believing in, but still honors with one’s heart, out of old habit.

It is noteworthy that Ivan makes this confession to his young brother Alyosha just after he has broken off relations with Katerina Ivanovna. Ivan feels as free and light as the air. Living in this detached and uncommitted — indeed, this almost angelic — state, Ivan makes qualifications that are altogether as important as his affirmations. Though he wants to drink life to the lees, he confesses that only “some people” and only “some human deeds” are dear to him, and that he loves them only “sometimes.”

Ivan deliberately denies the teaching of Father Zosima, the head of an Orthodox monastery who also stands at the religious center of the novel. Father Zosima insists that love cannot be selective, that it must be at once universal and concrete, that we must not love those who are conveniently remote so much as those who are inconveniently near.

Already, it is evident, the philosophical and the religious arguments are linked. Ivan not only thinks but also lives in autonomous and anti–communal terms. It is precisely the neighbor whom we cannot love, he insists. The neighbor’s objective and objectionable otherness — his bad breath, his foolish face, his ill manners — threaten Ivan’s sovereign selfhood. Of such a neighbor, Ivan complains like an early Jean–Paul Sartre that “he is another and not me.” Despite his eager embrace of the world, therefore, Ivan wants to remain a solitary and transcendent judge over it, a godlike withholder no less than a gracious giver of praise. Others must satisfy his own criteria before he will embrace them. And because God does not satisfy the requirements of Ivan’s logic, he will not believe in God.

Ivan’s Case Against God’s Goodness
Yet Ivan’s logic is not sophomoric. He makes a strenuous case against God’s goodness. He refuses, for example, to cite the many natural calamities — typhoons and tornadoes, floods and droughts, fires and earthquakes and disease — that seem to disclose a ham–fisted Creator. Ivan knows that such cosmic evils might be attributed to a natural process that is divinely ordered. Like Job, he might discover that, while the natural order seems inimical to human happiness, its operations might have their own purposes, not revealing any divine hostility toward human well–being.

But Ivan is not vexed chiefly with natural evils. He cares about moral evils, about the crimes that we human creatures commit. The standard explanation of such moral evils is that they are the unfortunate consequence of human freedom. God’s uncoerced creatures, so the argument runs, are capable of grossly misusing their liberty. If God were to prevent evil human actions, His world would no longer be free.

Ivan subjects the standard free–will defense of the divine goodness to devastating critique. At best, he says, the free perversion of human will explains only the suffering of adults, the grown–ups who are accountable for the evils that they both cause and suffer. They have eaten the apple of knowledge, says Ivan. Because they have followed the demonic temptation to become “as gods,” they deserve their self–wrought misery.

What this standard theodicy cannot account for, Ivan maintains, is the agony of children whose wills are still innocent. That their suffering results from human cruelty more than natural mishap makes it all the more horrible. As Ivan notices, animals rarely torment their prey. Only our human kind derives erotic pleasure from its savagery, becoming virtual voluptuaries of cruelty. In a passage that would have made even the Marquis de Sade tremble, Ivan declares the awful allurement of unprotected innocence. “It is precisely the defenselessness of these creatures that tempts the torturers, the angelic trustfulness of the child, who has nowhere to turn and no one to turn to — that is what enflames the vile blood of the torturer.”

Ivan offers searing examples of such wanton and motiveless malignity. Indeed, he creates a virtual phantasmagoria of suffering from actual instances of human barbarity that he has read about in Russian newspapers: Turkish soldiers cutting babies from their mother’s wombs and throwing them in the air in order to impale them on their bayonets; enlightened parents stuffing their five–year–old daughter’s mouth with excrement and locking her in a freezing privy all night for having wet the bed, while they themselves sleep soundly; Genevan Christians teaching a naive peasant to bless the good God even as the poor dolt is beheaded for thefts and murders that his ostensibly Christian society caused him to commit; a Russian general, offended at an eight–year–old boy for accidentally hurting the paw of the officer’s dog, inciting his wolfhounds to tear the child to pieces; a lady and gentleman flogging their eight–year–old daughter with a birch–rod until she collapses while crying for mercy, “Papa, papa, dear papa.”

Such evils cannot be justified, Ivan argues, either by religious arguments based on history’s beginning or by secular arguments that look to its end. The Edenic exercise of free will is not worth the tears of even one little girl shivering all night in a privy and crying out from her excrement–filled mouth to “dear, kind God” for protection.

Yet neither will Ivan accept the Hegelian–Marxist thesis that the harmonious final outcome of history sublates its present evils. The notion that such savagery reveals the necessary consequences of human freedom or that it contributes to history’s ultimate result is, to Ivan, a moral and religious outrage. Neither is he any more satisfied with the conventional doctrine of hell, which holds that the monsters of torment will themselves be eternally tormented. Hellish punishment for heinous malefactors would not restore their victims, Ivan reminds us. The impaled babies would not be brought back to life nor would their mothers be consoled, the dismembered boy would not live out his years, the weeping girls would not be comforted. Ivan rejects all such theodicies because they belittle innocent suffering and thus commit unforgivable sacrilege against innocent sufferers. With a dramatic metaphor drawn again from Schiller, he refuses to offer his hosanna for such a world: he returns his ticket to such a life.

Ivan’s brief against belief is intellectually unanswerable. Dostoevsky makes no attempt to provide such an answer anywhere in the course of the novel. He concedes that there is no logical justification for the suffering of innocents. Yet this is hardly to say that there are no theological answers to Ivan. It is rather to say that they will be found, if at all, elsewhere than in abstract argument; they will be located in the realm of religion and politics and the everyday requirements of true freedom.

In seeking to embody such answers in living form, Dostoevsky offers the figures of Zosima and Alyosha as his religious counters to Ivan’s atheist revolt. The most notable fact about the monastic elder and his young disciple is that, unlike Ivan, they are not Euclidean men. They believe that, in the most important matters, parallel lines do indeed meet. Things counter can converge because the deepest truths are not univocal but analogical and paradoxical. Theirs is not a three–dimensional block universe but rather a layered cosmos containing multiple orders of being. For Zosima and Alyosha, the material and immaterial worlds are never distant and remote from each other, as in much of Western thought. The created and uncreated realms are deeply intertwined, each participating in the life of the other.

The Iconic Imagination
Ivan remains opaque to this interstitial cosmos that calls for interstitial discernment. Dostoevsky describes it as proniknovenie, an “intuitive seeing through” or a “spiritual penetration.” Such theological sight is the product not of any special intelligence but of the iconic imagination. The icons of Eastern Orthodoxy are produced by a theology of presence rather than one of representation. God’s own splendor is said to radiate through the icon, confronting worshipers with the experience of Uncreated Light.

The icon is not an image that one looks at in order to discern an earthly image of something holy, in an attempt to portray the invisible in visible terms. Nor is it an expression of the artist’s own subjective experience of the sacred. Rather the icon looks out at the beholder. It seeks to open up the eternal realm so that its light might shine forth.

Icons do not seek to embody a discarnate world, but rather to reveal an earthly world that has been rendered transparent by a spiritualization that embraces the entire cosmos. Worshipers are themselves transformed by the invisible light that emanates from the icon, penetrating to the depths of their being and forming their true personhood. At Zosima’s funeral, Alyosha has such a transfiguring experience of this mystical touching of the visible and invisible worlds. It prompts him to repeat the example of his dead master in an iconic gesture of prostration:

Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness. Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly. From the zenith to the horizon the still–dim Milky Way stretched its double strand. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the church gleamed in the sapphire sky. The luxuriant autumn flowers in the flowerbeds near the house had fallen asleep until morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth to be touched by the mystery of the stars. . . . Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, he threw himself to the earth. . . .

It was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over, “touching other worlds.” He wanted to forgive everyone for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything, “as others are asking for me,” rang in his soul.

To Become Immortal Is To Become A Unique And Unrepeatable Person
Ivan is blind to this iconic joining of the earthly and heavenly realms, perhaps because he is also blind to the Orthodox understanding of human personhood. After all, he is a man obsessed with Western ideas. Yet Ivan is not a rationalist, as is often said, but rather a thinker who wants to disjoin his thought from its rightful engagement with God and the world. He lives a dichotomous life.

Ivan’s mind is even more severely perverted than his will. He fails to discern, for example, that the doctrine of immortality concerns not only the life that is transfigured in the world to come, but also the life that is meant to be transformed within this world. To use the language of St. Paul found in 1 Corinthians 15 and that of John’s Gospel contained in the novel’s epigraph, mortality is meant to put on immortality, the dying seed to bring forth much fruit. To become immortal is to become a unique and unrepeatable person who has been perfected in both loving and being loved.

No One Can Truly Love Others As He Loves Himself
Ivan’s contention that no one can truly love others as he loves himself is linked, therefore, to his denial of immortality. Ivan holds, as we have seen, that other persons stand like dense Euclidean clumps to block the path of his own autonomy. So long as we are confined within the realm of mere human possibility, Dostoevsky is agreed with Ivan. He despised the soupy benevolence that pervaded much of nineteenth–century European and American culture. “Those who love men in general,” he often said, “hate men in particular.” Yet he also insisted that Christ’s kenosis — the divine self–emptying hymned in Philippians 2 — can accomplish what is humanly impossible: the emptying of human egoism for the sake of true charity. Through this kenotic love that Zosima and his disciple Alyosha both embody, one actually becomes a person by becoming another self — not an Ego but a Thou, a person who exists only in self–giving solidarity with Christ and thereby with others.

When personhood is measured in this kenotic manner, Alyosha can be seen as a credible character, rather than the ghostly and gossamer creature he is often accused of being. Unlike Ivan, Alyosha does not clip newspaper accounts of suffering children and then offer anti–theological arguments about them; instead, he actually seeks out the insulted and injured, identifying himself with them. He joins faith with practice, thinking with doing, thus answering the problem of evil with deeds rather than reasons — with his whole personhood, not with his mind alone.

A True Icon Of Christ
Through his patient and long–suffering friendships with children, Alyosha helps redeem the pathetic Ilyusha Snegirov, even as he also helps to set the nihilistic Kolya Krassotkin on the path to new life. Alyosha pulls these boys out of their misery only at great cost to himself. Dostoevsky makes clear in the novel’s final scene, when the youths gather to cheer Alyosha as if he were their savior, that he is a true icon of Christ, a man through whom the invisible light of eternity brightly shines. Yet Alyosha deflects all praise away from himself and toward Christ. As the only man who has suffered absolutely everything, says Alyosha, Christ alone has the right to forgive absolutely everything — even the tormentors of children. Yet Alyosha’s mere mention of the “only sinless One” so enrages Ivan that he comes forth with his “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor.”

One Cannot Scorn The Love Of God And Still Love Human Beings: TheLegend of the Grand Inquisitor
Ivan’s parable appears to be an assault on the character of Jesus, when its real target is humanity itself. Though he professes to love “some men,” Ivan can no more give himself to other persons than he can grant the existence of God. For Dostoevsky, the one follows from the other: one cannot scorn the love of God and still love human beings. Ivan ends as a misanthrope, I maintain, because he has a modern secular conception of freedom that is incapable of fulfillment except by monstrous supermen.

The plot of Ivan’s legend is familiar enough, even if its meaning remains quite obscure. The risen Christ returns to earth in fifteenth–century Seville, where he immediately begins to perform miracles. The people hail him as their liberator from the awful autos da fé that the Spanish Inquisition is carrying out. Jesus is quickly arrested by the church authorities and imprisoned in a dimly lit dungeon. There the ninety–year–old Cardinal Grand Inquisitor relentlessly grills the silent Christ.

This ancient church–ogre accuses Jesus of having required men to live by the strength of their strong wills, cruelly ignoring the fact that they are impotent creatures who can live only for the sake of a swinish happiness. The Inquisitor thus upbraids Christ for having rejected the Tempter’s wilderness offerings of bread and power and fame. These, he says, are the satisfying substitutes that human beings crave. They do not want the awful autonomy that Christ allegedly commanded:

Instead of taking over men’s freedom, you increased it still more for them! Did you forget that peace and even death are dearer to man than free choice in the knowledge of good and evil? There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either. And so, instead of a firm foundation for appeasing human conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was unusual, enigmatic, and indefinite, you chose everything that was beyond men’s strength, and thereby acted as if you did not love them at all. . . . You desired the free love of man, that he should follow you freely, seduced and captivated by you. Instead of the firm and 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.

Misunderstanding The Grand Inquisitor’s Conception Of Freedom
It is astonishing that so many readers have taken the Grand Inquisitor’s conception of freedom as if it were Dostoevsky’s own — and also as if it were true. Camus regarded it as an unprecedented statement of the human cry for liberty against all religious restraints. Camus can make such a claim only because, together with Ivan, he embraces the thoroughly secular conception of freedom that has largely prevailed in the modern West, from John Stuart Mill to John Dewey and John Rawls. Ivan’s Inquisitor belongs to their lineage. Liberty, he declares, entails a brave and lonely autonomy, as each individual determines for himself the difference between good and evil. Jesus serves not as the savior who redeems corporate humanity from sin, therefore, but as a moral example to guide solitary and heroic individuals — having himself trod the same lonely path of self–determination.

Michael Sandel has shown what is problematic about this notion of freedom as consisting entirely of unfettered choices. Such choices are prompted by nothing other than the individual subject and his private conscience acting either on persuasive evidence or the arbitrary assertion of will. Just as this modern secular self is not determined by any larger aims or attachments that it has not chosen for itself, neither does it have obligations to any larger communities, except those it autonomously chooses to join. The one moral norm, it follows, is the injunction to respect the dignity of others by not denying them the freedom to exercise their own moral autonomy. Such an understanding of human liberty, argues Sandel, opposes

[A]ny view that regards us as obligated to fulfill ends that we have not chosen — ends given by nature or God, for example, or by our identities as members of families, peoples, cultures, or traditions. Encumbered identities such as these are at odds with the liberal conception of [persons] as free and independent selves, unbound by prior moral ties, capable of choosing our ends for ourselves. This is the conception that finds expression in the ideal of the state as a neutral framework . . . a framework of rights that refuses to choose among competing values and ends. For the liberal self, what matters above all, what is most essential to our personhood, is not the ends we choose but our capacity to choose them.

Liberty As Absolute Autonomy
Dostoevsky repeatedly attacked this modern secular notion of freedom and personhood, dismissing it scornfully as “socialism.” Astounded by the Inquisitor’s similar idea of liberty as absolute autonomy, Alyosha cries out to Ivan: “And who will believe you about freedom? . . . Is that the way to understand it? It’s a far cry from the Orthodox idea.”

It’s also a far cry from the Jewish and Catholic and classical Protestant ideas of freedom. In all four traditions, we are not made into free persons by becoming autonomous selves who have been immunized from all obligations that we have not independently chosen. Our freedom resides rather in becoming communal selves who freely embrace our moral, religious, and political obligations. These responsibilities come to us less by our own choosing than through a thickly webbed network of shared friendships and familial ties, through political practices and religious promises. In a very real sense, such “encumbrances” choose us before we choose them. There is no mythical free and autonomous self that exists apart from these ties. There are only gladly or else miserably bound persons — namely, persons who find their duties and encumbrances to be either gracious or onerous.

Freedom Is Communal Because It Is Religious
Alyosha’s idea of freedom is communal because it is first of all religious. Athanasius of Alexandria articulated it most clearly in the fourth century: “God became man so that man may become God.” The central Orthodox doctrine is called theosis or theopoesis — the divinizing or deifying of humanity. The Eastern Church does not call for believers to imitate Jesus through the exercise of moral choice. It summons them rather to participate in the life of Christ through the transformative power of the liturgy and sacraments of the Church.

To become persons in the true sense is to become what the New Testament calls “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). The modern secular notion of freedom articulated by the Grand Inquisitor is the very definition of slavery. As Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky observes, the Eastern Church regards choice as the mark not of freedom but of fallenness, as a debasement of true liberty, as a loss of the divine likeness: “Our nature being overclouded with sin no longer knows its true good . . . and so the human person is always faced with the necessity of choice; it goes forward gropingly.”

To deliberate autonomously in the face of alternatives, it follows, is not liberty but servitude. True freedom, says Lossky, is revealed in the Christ who freely renounces his own will in order to accomplish the will of his Father. Alyosha is free in precisely this way. Jesus has not abandoned him to his lonely conscience in order to let him solitarily determine good and evil for himself. The self–emptying Christ has freed Alyosha to empty his own ego, to live and act in joyful obedience to God, and thus to be bound in unbreakable solidarity with his father and brothers, with his friends and enemies, and (not least of all) with the miserable children of his neighborhood.

Freedom As Unencumbered Self–Determining Choice
Given the Grand Inquisitor’s anti–Orthodox conception of freedom as unencumbered self–determining choice, it is not surprising that he should have contempt for the average run of men. He despises their dependence, their animal desire for security and comfort. The Inquisitor thus informs Jesus that the Catholic Church has been forced to correct his impossible summons to autonomy. Rome understands, says the Inquisitor, what Christ did not — that men must first be fed before they can be made virtuous. “Make us your slaves,” the Inquisitor’s masses cry out, “but feed us.”

Thus has the cynical church of the Grand Inquisitor replaced Christ’s purported call for unfettered autonomy with its own sheepish substitutes: “miracle, mystery, and authority.” Yet even these sorry placebos will not finally suffice, the Inquisitor insists, for the modern world will confront men with such scientific wonders and terrors that the vast human horde will not be content even with comfort and security. They will finally demand the antheap of personal oblivion, in order that they might be relieved of their freedom. They want only to live in childish self–indulgence:

Freedom, free reason, and science will lead them into such a maze, and confront them with such . . . insoluble mysteries, that some of them, unruly and ferocious, will exterminate themselves; others, unruly but feeble, will exterminate each other; and the remaining third, feeble and wretched, will crawl to our feet and cry out to us: “Yes, you were right, you alone possess his mystery, and we are coming back to you — save us from ourselves.” . . . Yes, we will make them work, but in the hours free from labor we will arrange their lives like a children’s game, with children’s songs, choruses, and innocent dancing.

Inverting The Gospel
Inverting the gospel entirely, the Grand Inquisitor declares that only the Master Managers like himself will suffer. Yet these new secular christs of the omnicompetent state will bear their torment heroically. Knowing their totalitarian paternalism to be a gargantuan lie, they nonetheless retain the courage to feed it to the gullible millions: “For only we, we who keep the mystery, only we shall be unhappy. There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil. Peacefully [these multiplied millions] will die; peacefully will they expire in [Christ’s] name, and beyond the grave they will find only death. But we will keep the secret, and for their own happiness we will entice them with a heavenly and eternal reward.”

The Final Prophecy Of The Grand Inquisitor
This final prophecy of the Grand Inquisitor is perhaps the most frightening augury in the entirety of Dostoevsky’s work. With amazing prescience, he foresees the rise of the totalitarian state that has dominated much of late–modern life, killing more people by violent means than in all of the previous ages combined. This is the era of blood, and ours is the culture of death. That Dostoevsky mistakenly linked our calamity with the Catholic Church, and that he did not foresee its first triumph in his own beloved Russia, hardly invalidates his vision.

On the contrary, Dostoevsky was right to prophesy that, if we begin (as Ivan does) with absolute anti–communal freedom, we will end (again as Ivan does) with absolute anti–communal slavery, whether in its individualist or its totalitarian form. Were Dostoevsky living at this hour, he might well ask whether the American reduction of nearly every aspect of human existence, including religion itself, to either entertainment or commodification constitutes a yet worse kind of herd–existence than the one Ivan describes — a subtler and therefore deadlier attempt to relieve humanity of its suffering and sin, and thus of its real character and interest.

Given Ivan’s horrifying vision of this grim and Christless future, it is not surprising that Alyosha regards Ivan’s “poem” as praising Jesus rather than reviling him. Yet Alyosha does not commend the Christ of the parable because he commands autonomous self–determination as the answer to a totalizing politics of oppression. Rather, the Jesus of Ivan’s legend is to be praised because his silence indicates his patient confidence that evil will eventually undo itself, and that Ivan is to be embraced rather than condemned in his concern for the suffering of innocents.

Ivan had in fact ended his parable by having the silent Savior gently kiss the Inquisitor on “his bloodless, ninety–year–old lips.” Alyosha instantly recognizes that Ivan’s imagination was groping for the profoundest of all truths — that nothing other than God’s self–emptying love can answer bitter unbelief. To bring home the point, Alyosha repeats Christ’s act: he kisses the tormented Ivan. It’s another Russian iconic gesture of humility and submission, and it calls for a recompensing kiss of humble recognition and identification. Ivan will not grant it, for then he, too, would be called to embrace the same kenotic suffering and joy that imbue Alyosha’s entire life. Instead, Ivan dismisses Alyosha’s act as mere plagiarism. Ivan must rid himself of this Christ–like gesture that is the real answer to human agony. It is appropriate, therefore, that the Inquisitor’s final command to the truth–gesturing Christ who kissed him is not Maranatha , but “Go and do not come again . . . do not come at all . . . never, never!”

If God Is Dead, Everything Is Permitted
Alyosha, as Christ’s earthly embodiment, will not depart. Instead, he confronts Ivan with the moral and religious consequence of his atheism. If God is dead, Alyosha famously declares, “everything is permitted.” We must not misread Alyosha here. He does not deny that men can be moral without believing in God. He insists, instead, that such morality has no ultimate basis, that freedom understood as self–construction hovers over an abyss of nihilism, and thus that all godless peoples and cultures await their inexorable plunge into the barbaric void. The first epistle of John defines sin precisely as lawlessness. Ellis Sandoz observes that John of Damascus, the eighth–century Greek theologian, linked this definition of sin to the larger claim that barbarism is the primal heresy: “Every man as independent and a law unto himself after the dictates of his own will.”

Dostoevsky regards individualist autonomy not only as barbaric but also as satanic. Perhaps the chief of Ivan’s demonic deceptions is the widespread acceptance of the Inquisitor’s argument that “miracle, mystery, and authority” are pathetic necessities for weak–willed men. Just as Ivan misreads freedom to mean unencumbered self–determination, so does the Inquisitor pervert the meaning of miracle, mystery, and authority. Nowhere in the novel does God perform miracles by jumping in and out of His creation like a divine factotum who accedes to human petition if it is sufficiently pious. It is exactly such a sentimental and superstitious understanding of miracles — namely, as God’s arbitrary violation of the natural order to heed clamant human request — that Alyosha is required to surrender. Hoping that Zosima’s corpse would be wondrously preserved, giving off the sweet odor of sanctity, Alyosha is horrified when it putrefies prematurely. The saint’s rapidly rotting body demonstrates to Alyosha that God is not a sacred Santa Claus who brings him whatever he wants. In the “Cana in Galilee” chapter, Alyosha learns that miracles do not precede and thus produce faith; rather, they follow faith as the by–product of the transformed life. That Alyosha can kiss the earth and bless the creation despite its rampant suffering, that he can live as a monk in a sex–sodden world, that he can increase men’s joy amidst human misery as Christ increased it by turning water into wedding wine — this, he learns, is the true miracle: the divine possibility that overcomes human impossibility.

Like a brittle Enlightenment philosophe, perhaps a Diderot or a Comte, the Inquisitor also slanders mystery. He reduces it to a cynical mystification, to a new secular priestcraft, a political anesthetizing of the masses with the morphine of heaven. “For only we, we . . . keep the mystery,” he boasts. For him, mystery can be hoarded as a weapon in his arsenal of deceit, as a spiritual poison gas meant to blind true vision and stifle true thought. For Alyosha and all other believers, by contrast, the mysterion enlivens such vision and thought. It’s a word that can also be translated sacrament. The mystery of God is thus not a riddle or a conundrum, not a brain–straining puzzle; it is the one reality that prompts an endless delectation of mind no less than heart and soul. “In the proper religious sense of the term,” writes Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware, “‘mystery’ signifies not only hiddenness but disclosure. . . . A mystery is . . . something revealed for our understanding, but which we never understand exhaustively because it leads into the depth or the darkness of God.”

Perversely, if also consistently, Ivan has the Inquisitor voice a skewed understanding of authority. He regards it as the tyrannical power of the state or the church to suppress individual autonomy. For him, authority can have only the negative meaning of raw coercive force. For Alyosha, again in notable contrast to the Inquisitor, true authority (both human and divine) invites free submission of the will for the sake of the good — submission to the rightly constituted state, to his elder Zosima, to the incarnate Christ, to the merciful God. Free subjection of the will begins in penitence, as when Zosima confesses that all men are sinners and that he is the worst. It ends in the acceptance, even the embrace, of suffering.

Perhaps the novel’s chief irony is that Ivan has turned rightful religious concern for injured innocents into wrongful personal justification of his own hatred and scorn. Claiming to care about the world’s innocent sufferers, Ivan cannot care for the creature who is his own closest kin, his father. In a nightmare interview with the Devil, Ivan is made to recognize his own moral culpability for his father’s death. He had poisoned Smerdyakov’s mind with the demonic gospel that God is dead and that all things are permitted. Acting out what Ivan had intellectually advocated, Smerdyakov has killed old Fyodor in a dreadful demonstration that, in a godless world, absolutely nothing is forbidden. Since Satan is the primal deceiver, it is no wonder that Ivan has been made into his agent. Dostoevsky maintains that demonic perversions of mind are no mere intellectual failings: they issue in demonic perversions of will. Philosophical deicide results in existential parricide. The mental killing of God breaks the deepest of human bonds. It is thus fitting that Ivan the perverted intellectual should end in madness.

Yet Ivan’s final insanity is not to be explained as psychosis alone. In the Orthodox tradition, to deny the presence and reality of God is to be subject to a psychopathic condition. Not sharing the Western doctrine of original sin, the Orthodox hold that every person retains an efficacious awareness of God, even after the Fall. “Just because it is light,” writes Vladimir Lossky, “grace, the source of revelation, cannot remain within us unperceived. We are incapable of not being aware of God, if our nature is in proper spiritual health. Insensibility [to God] in the inner life is an abnormal condition.” Lossky adds, far more darkly, that total unawareness of God “would be nothing other than hell, the final destruction of the person.” It follows that Zosima is not a golden–hearted humanist when he defines hell as “the suffering of being unable to love.” He is describing Ivan’s spiritual condition exactly. Ivan suffers the hellish laceration of the soul that occurs when freedom is exercised negatively — not to engender life but to bring death. “Death for a person,” declares Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas, “means ceasing to love and to be loved, ceasing to be unique and unrepeatable, whereas life for the person means the survival of the uniqueness of its hypostasis [personification], which is affirmed and maintained by love.”

To possess true freedom and personhood through love is, in Dostoevsky’s view, to suffer rightly. It is to accept responsibility, not only for one’s own sin, but also for the sins of others. All theodicies fail if they do not recognize that only the embrace of innocent suffering can answer the infliction of innocent suffering.

One who is willing to suffer for Christ’s sake must be willing, moreover, to suffer fools. Father Zosima exhibits such foolish suffering when, early in the novel, he makes a low bow of humility before the cruel buffoon who is old Fyodor Karamazov. It is an act utterly unlike the abstentions practiced by Nietzsche’s Übermensch. The Overman is akin to a lion who has claws but refrains from using them. He doesn’t show mercy so much as he seeks to humiliate the weaklings of the world with his contemptuous self–restraint. Though having the rightful authority to condemn the despicable old lecher, Zosima gestures forth his solidarity with Fyodor in bowing down before him.

Unlike the Overman, Zosima identifies himself with the wretched creature. He knows that old Fyodor has become a buffoon, in large part, because everyone regards him as a fool. In secret pride and contempt for others, he fulfills their scornful judgment. Zosima refuses such judgment. He humbles himself before the despicable Fyodor, discerning in him the divine image and likeness: a person meant for agapeistic community rather than buffoonish autonomy.

For Dostoevsky, the gospel of suffering in communal love is the only lasting answer to the perennial problem of evil and thus to the perennial question of human freedom. It is a gospel peculiar neither to East nor West because it is centered in the common Christian ground of the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection.



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