Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Your Own Personal Jesus

I love Noam Chomsky, but even he has his blind spots. Literature and certain areas of philosophy are among them. Which is okay, I don't read him for his insights in those areas.

In one of the columns collected in Making the Future (City Lights, 2012) Chomsky cites the famous episode of Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor from Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. It is a great novel -- I read all of Dostoevsky's fiction about a decade ago, and he really was an amazing writer, but not as an advocate of social justice and mercy. (The novel translated as The Possessed or Demons, about Russian anarchists / nihilists in the Tsarist era, is the one time Dostoevsky failed to recognize the humanity of his villains.)

The Grand Inquisitor's Tale takes up most of a chapter in The Brothers Karamazov, as a "poem" or parable told to naive young Alyosha by his dissolute, cynical older brother Ivan. In context it's hard to pin down its meaning, but many people have found it fascinating and it has been reprinted separately for classroom use. I'm going to quote it from an online excerpt of the nineteenth-century translation by Constance Garnett, which looks like the same translation Chomsky quotes.

Briefly, Ivan Karamazov begins with a rhapsody to the age of faith and miracles, alas long gone alas. Then he tells how Jesus made a day trip to the Spanish city of Seville "in the most terrible time of the Inquisition". Although he's traveling incognito, everyone recognizes him, perhaps because he begins to heal the sick, raise the dead, and make the little girls go out of their heads, 'cause he's the One. The Grand Inquisitor, "an old man, almost ninety, tall and erect, with a withered face and sunken eyes, in which there is still a gleam of light," passes by, sees what's happening, and orders the guards to take Jesus into custody. He then interrogates Jesus in his cell.
"'Is it Thou? Thou?' but receiving no answer, he adds at once. 'Don't answer, be silent. What canst Thou say, indeed? I know too well what Thou wouldst say. And Thou hast no right to add anything to what Thou hadst said of old. Why, then, art Thou come to hinder us? For Thou hast come to hinder us, and Thou knowest that. But dost thou know what will be to-morrow? I know not who Thou art and care not to know whether it is Thou or only a semblance of Him, but to-morrow I shall condemn Thee and burn Thee at the stake as the worst of heretics. And the very people who have to-day kissed Thy feet, to-morrow at the faintest sign from me will rush to heap up the embers of Thy fire. Knowest Thou that? Yes, maybe Thou knowest it,' he added with thoughtful penetration, never for a moment taking his eyes off the Prisoner."
Ivan explains to the rather slow Alyosha,
He claims it as a merit for himself and his Church that at last they have vanquished freedom and have done so to make men happy. 'For now' (he is speaking of the Inquisition, of course) 'for the first time it has become possible to think of the happiness of men. Man was created a rebel; and how can rebels be happy? Thou wast warned,' he says to Him. 'Thou hast had no lack of admonitions and warnings, but Thou didst not listen to those warnings; Thou didst reject the only way by which men might be made happy. But, fortunately, departing Thou didst hand on the work to us. Thou hast promised, Thou hast established by Thy word, Thou hast given to us the right to bind and to unbind, and now, of course, Thou canst not think of taking it away. Why, then, hast Thou come to hinder us?'"
The old man then delivers a sermon on the stories of Jesus' temptation by Satan in the desert. Jesus, you'll remember, refused to turn stones into bread to ease his own hunger after forty days of fasting. Why? According to the Grand Inquisitor, "... Thou wouldst not deprive man of freedom and didst reject the offer, thinking, what is that freedom worth if obedience is bought with bread? Thou didst reply that man lives not by bread alone." This is odd, since according to the gospels Jesus did miraculously multiply loaves and fishes into meals for the multitude. (It's also not terribly logical, because while people don't live "by bread alone," they do also need food, "bread and roses" as workers put it a century ago; and having one doesn't exclude the other.)

Then he speaks of Jesus on the cross, tempted by mockers to prove his power by coming down from it.
Thou didst not come down, for again Thou wouldst not enslave man by a miracle, and didst crave faith given freely, not based on miracle. Thou didst crave for free love and not the base raptures of the slave before the might that has overawed him for ever. But Thou didst think too highly of men therein, for they are slaves, of course, though rebellious by nature.
This is odd too, because while Jesus did die on the cross, he was raised miraculously from the dead on the third day. His resurrection was proof of his divine status and of his power. The reason Jesus didn't save himself from the cross, according to the gospels' story, is that doing so would have spoiled or at least pre-empted the miracle, a miracle that was as much God's will as the crucifixion itself. Throughout the gospels, Jesus does miracles to make his disciples and the crowds "marvel," to fill them with fear, and to prove that he is the Messiah, except that he keeps telling people who figure that out to keep it secret: the more they tell on him, the more he tells them to shut up. Not too surprisingly, it doesn't work.

The sermon concludes with the Grand Inquisitor repeating his intention to burn Jesus at the stake. But:
When the Inquisitor ceased speaking he waited some time for his Prisoner to answer him. His silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it, and said to Him: 'Go, and come no more... come not at all, never, never!' And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away.
Whenever I read this passage, I can't help picturing the Inquisitor as Elmer Fudd, and the Prisoner as Bugs Bunny, throwing back his hood at last to reveal himself, and placing a big smackeroo on Elmer's scandalized lips. But that's because I'm wicked; the fires of Hell await me. Still, that vision adds something to the characters' motivation, don't you think? Ivan begins the story by telling Alyosha that Jesus' visit to Seville is just an interlude, not the Second Coming with its attendant last judgment of all humanity; so the Prisoner might also have said, "I'll be back."

If we follow the Inquisitor's logic to its conclusion, then, Jesus did intend to "enslave man by a miracle," and had no interest in real human freedom. According to the gospel of Matthew, after all, the risen Jesus told his disciples, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth" (28.16, NASB). And remember that when Jesus made his appearance in Seville, he started doing miracles. So how does the Grand Inquisitor conclude that Jesus rejected the use of miracles because it would cause people to follow him out of slavish servility? Either he's wrong about the purpose of miracles, or he misunderstands Jesus' intentions. He never sorts that out, nor has anyone I've encountered who loved this tale. They take the Inquisitor at his word: Jesus wanted men to be free, but they prefer to be slaves, and the Church wickedly gives them what they want.

(In context, the story appears to be intended as a smear of the Roman Catholic Church, not of Christian churches generally. Dostoevsky was a devout Orthodox Christian himself; I don't know if he thought that the Russian Orthodox Church was devoted to enslaving humanity, but I doubt it.)

Chomsky uses the story as an allegory of Liberation Theology against Rome, and against US collaboration in the violent suppression of independence in Catholic Latin America. The occasion of his column was the twentieth anniversary of the massacre, on 16 November 1989, of six Jesuits, along with their housekeeper and their daughter, in by US-trained and armed goons in El Salvador, "fresh from renewed training at the JFK Special Warfare School in Fort Bragg, North Carolina" (178). That crime certainly deserves commemoration, and the US role more attention than Americans want to give it. But like everyone I've encountered who was fascinated by the tale, Chomsky seems to have misunderstood it, by making it simpler than it really is.

In particular Chomsky wants to contrast the Grand Inquisitor's "mercy" in releasing Jesus with the lack of mercy of the Jesuits' American-backed assassins; in context, I'd say that the Inquisitor's decision seems more motivated by fear than by mercy, but I admit it's ambiguous. It's revealing, though, that even a vocal atheist and critic of Biblical religion like Chomsky turns out to have his own personal Jesus who -- surprise! -- shares Chomsky's values.