Jesus Christ: Extreme Humility

I love Hart’s take-down of the concept of theodicy in The Doors of the Sea.  Here’s a particularly good selection discussing one of the greatest challenges to faith (hint: it’s not science, but suffering and death).  Good preparation to preaching on Doubting Thomas tomorrow.

What makes Ivan’s argument [in The Brothers Karamazov] so novel and disturbing is not that he simply accuses God of failing to save the innocent; in fact, he grants that in some sense God still will “save” them, in part by rescuing their suffering from sheer “absurdity” and showing what part it had in accomplishing the final beatitude of all creatures.  Rather, Ivan rejects salvation itself, insofar as he understands it, and on moral grounds.  He rejects anything that would involve such a rescue–anything that would make the suffering of children meaningful or necessary.  he grants that one day eternal harmony will be established, and we will discover how it necessitated the torments endured by children.  Perhaps mothers will forgive the murderers of their children, and the serf child, his mother, and their master will be reconciled, and all will praise God’s justice, and all evils will be accounted for.  Or perhaps the damnation of the wicked will somehow balance the score (though how then there can be that final harmony, when the suffering of the victims has already happened and the suffering of their persecutors will persist eternally, Ivan cannot guess).  But still, Ivan wants neither harmony nor the knowledge of ultimate truth at such a cost: “for love of man I reject it”; even ultimate truth “is not worth the tears of that one tortured child.”  Nor, indeed, does he want forgiveness: the mother of that murdered child must not forgive her child’s murderer, even if the child himself can forgive.  And so, not denying that there is a God or a divine design in all things, he simply chooses (respectfully) to return his ticket of entrance to God’s Kingdom.  After all, Ivan asks, if you could bring about a universal and final beatitude for all beings by torturing one small creature to death, would you think the price acceptable?

I am convinced that Ivan’s discourse–which he continues, as hardly needs to be said, by reciting his “poem” about “The Grand Inquisitor”–constitutes the only challenge to a confidence in divine goodness that should give Christians serious cause for deep and difficult reflection.  Those Christian readers who have found it easy to ignore or dispense with the case that Dostoyevsky constructs for Ivan have not, I submit, fully comprehended that case (or, alternatively, have comprehended it, but adhere to so degenerate a version of Christian doctrine that they can no longer be said to understand the God revealed in Christ).  The reason for this (which it is so vital that one should understand) is that, at base, Ivan’s is a profoundly and almost prophetically Christian argument.  In part this is true because, even in the way Ivan frames his arraignment of the divine purposes in history, there are already foreshadowings of a deeper Christian riposte to the argument.  Ivan’s ability to imagine a genuinely moral revolt against God’s creative and redemptive order has a kind of nocturnal grandeur about it, a Promethean or Romantic or Gnostic audacity that dares to imagine some spark dwelling in the human soul that is higher and purer than the God who governs this world: and, in that very way, his argument carries within itself an echo of the gospel’s vertiginous annunciation of our freedom from the “elements” of the world and from the power of the law.  Indeed, the tale of the Grand Inquisitor is in some ways a curious hymn of adoration to Christ as the one who is himself the truest “rebel,” entering human history with a divine disregard for its internal economies, disrupting it in fact at the deepest level by sowing freedom with almost profligate abandon among creatures who–with very few exceptions–are incapable of receiving it.

But these are only adumbrations and presentiments of a proper response to Ivan’s manifesto.  A fuller answer is woven throughout the hundreds of pages of the novel that follow.  Some critics doubt that any satisfactory answer is given at all (though I think them mistaken); but even those who believe that an answer is given have on many occaisons still failed to appreciate (it seems to me) how radical that answer is, principally because they have not appreciated how radical the question is either.  Whatever the case, for the Christian, Ivan’s argument–taken simply in itself–provides a kind of spiritual hygiene: it is a solvent of the semi-Hegelian theology of the liberal Protestantism of the late nineteenth century, which succeeded in confusing eschatological hope with progressive social and scientific optimism, and a solvent as well as of the obdurate fatalism of the theistic determinist, and of the confidence of rational theodicy, and–in general–of the habitual and unthinking retreat of most Christians to a kind of indeterminate deism.  And this, again, marks it as a Christian argument, even if Christian sub contrario, because in disabusing believers of facile certitude in the justness of all things, it forces them back toward the more complicated, “subversive,” and magnificent theology of the gospel.  Ivan’s rage against explanation arises from a Christian conscience, and so–even if Ivan cannot acknowledge it–its inner mystery is an empty tomb, which has shattered the heart of nature and history alike (as we understand them) and fashioned them anew.

This is why Ivan’s indignation and anguish have profundity that Voltaire’s cannot.  Voltaire’s poem, again, is no great challenge to Christian faith, because it inveighs against the ethical deist’s God of cosmic balance (and where have his temples been erected?).  But Ivan’s rebellion is something altogether different.  Voltaire sees only the terrible truth that the history of suffering and death is not morally intelligible.  Dostoyevsky sees–and this bespeaks both his moral genius and his irreducibly Christian view of reality–that it would be far more terrible if it were. (Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?, Pg. 40-44)