"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Our Need For Miracle, Mystery, And Authority–So Much For Free Will

Ivan Karamazov in the Grand Inquisitor sections of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, challenges the returned Christ for having betrayed mankind.  In rejecting Satan’s temptation in the desert to make bread from stone to satisfy his hunger, Jesus replies that man cannot live by bread alone, but “on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).  He further rejects the Devil’s offers for great wealth and power for the Kingdom of God knows no such needs.

Ivan  admonishes Christ for suggesting that man should use his free will to reject, as he did, the temptations of evil, and to choose righteousness and the way of the Lord.  Nonsense, says Ivan.  Man only wants miracle, mystery, and authority.  He wants to witness the changing of water into wine, the curing of lepers and the restoration of sight to the blind.  He wants the mystery of the ceremony, the transubstantiation of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood, chants, incense, sacrifice, and incantation.  And he wants to be ruled and to be freed from the impossibility of choosing between right and wrong, to be guided along the path to redemption and salvation, and to purified from sin. 
Thou didst desire man's free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. But didst Thou not know that he would at last reject even Thy image and Thy truth, if he is weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? They will cry aloud at last that the truth is not in Thee, for they could not have been left in greater confusion and suffering than Thou hast caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable problems.
'So that, in truth, Thou didst Thyself lay the foundation for the destruction of Thy kingdom, and no one is more to blame for it. Yet what was offered Thee? There are three powers, three powers alone, able to conquer and to hold captive for ever the conscience of these impotent rebels for their happiness those forces are miracle, mystery and authority.
Ivan goes on to say that instead of relieving man from hunger, want, and penury, he offered only the promise of salvation.  Not salvation itself, a place in paradise, and eternal joy; but only the possibility of it.  In so doing he enabled the rise of the Church – a venal, exploitative, and arrogant institution concerned only with increasing its own power and treasury.

Worst of all, Christ through his promises, condemned innocent children to lives of brutal punishment and abuse.   Too young to even know what free will is and dependent on their parents for guidance and protection, they are unprepared and totally vulnerable to the worst of human nature.

Dostoevsky was writing about religious morality and the foundations of Christian faith, but his observations about miracle, mystery, and authority are universal.  Most people prefer authority and discipline to independence and the expression of individual will.  Most are seduced by the miraculous and the mysterious, and prefer to live in a world of undisciplined faith rather than sort through the spiritual, moral, and ethical issues they face.

Pope John Paul II was openly scornful of those Protestant evangelical religions which preach an immediate, unmediated, miraculous encounter with Jesus Christ as the only path to salvation.  Such subjective, irrational, and melodramatic conversions are tantamount to heresy and rejection of Augustine, Aquinas, Clement, and Irenaeus.  The way to salvation is indeed faith, but only through the logical and rational search for Christ and a profound understanding of his divinity can one finally attain it.

John Paul’s words have fallen on deaf ears and even those more accessible sermons of Pope Francis reinforcing the traditional Catholic belief in the same unity of body, mind, and spirit found in Jesus Christ have been ignored.  Protestants and Catholics alike continue to prefer ceremony, epiphany, and the miracle of conversion. 

This embrace of the miraculous and mysterious is as secular as it is religious.  The campaigns of environmentalists to slow climate change, to stop the pollution of wetlands, and rivers, and to halt corporate destruction of forests and open land have as much to do with mystery as they do to science.  Mother Earth is not simply a colloquial term for the planet, but a mystical invocation of Gaia, the sensate, interactive, spiritual nature of the world.  

Those who oppose abortion rely not so much on philosophical principle – the inception of life and its sanctity and the immorality of termination – but on the ‘mystery of life’.  One moment there is nothing – a physical and spiritual empty space – and in the next there is life; and in nine months a thinking, feeling, intelligent being brought into the world.   There can be nothing more elegant than the mystery of creation, pro-life advocates claim. 

Those more classically trained point to the first five verses of the Gospel of John, the most sophisticated, complex, yet simple statement of origins and beginnings in any secular or religious text.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Even greater than the mystery of life is the mystery of creation.  Something out of nothing, yet with the eternal presence of the Word which has always existed before and after creation.

Conspiracy theories are borne from the same desire for mystery and miracles.  It is simply impossible, say many, that we are alone in the universe.  Given its infinitude, its absolute immensity, there must be races other than human in our galaxy and beyond.  And given this infinity of time and space, they cannot possibly resemble us.  The must be either grotesque or sublimely beautiful.  Intelligent beyond any human intellect or as brutally aggressive and territorial as the worst of Earth’s despots. 

Children dream of other worlds, adults wonder what it must be like to live in Outer Space.  Hollywood produces film after film about other worlds, and the mystery of the alien other.  The otherworldly visitors in Cocoon, Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T are benign and friendly.  Those in It Came From Outer Space, Alien, and War of the Worlds are certainly not.


No quantum theory, statistical probability, or intriguing discoveries of an expanding or contracting universe, the existence of gravitational waves, or the proof of Einstein’s theorems can possibly replace the miracle and mystery of an infinite universe filled with an infinite variety of life.

Logic – a subset of free will – is of little use or satisfaction when it comes to probing the mysteries of life and the universe.  Better not to bother at all rather than founder on the rocks.

Which then leaves authority which needs little explanation.  We are a race of joiners, associates, and communalists.  We not only espouse mysterious causes and principles, we feel the need to join like-minded others who are equally passionate, equally taken by the immensity and intrigue of the mystery, and equally faithful to its promise.

The abuse that Ivan Karamazov observed in the Church is common to all hierarchical, influential institutions.  Whether religious, secular; public or private; voluntary or compulsory, these administrative structures are the defining architecture of our lives.  We would be lost without them.  We need their dicta, rules and regulations, and operating principles.

Free will? The evidence for is paltry and the evidence against compelling.  It is hard to believe that free will of any consequence exists given the evidence for genetic and environmental determinism, the overwhelming witness of a predictable, repetitive, cyclical history, and the similarity of all human behavior.

Which is probably why miracle, mystery, and authority have been the mantra of all civilizations before and after Dostoevsky and Jesus Christ.

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