i have perhaps forgotten
how, always (from
these hurrying cruditities
of blood and flesh) Love
coins His most gradual gesture,
and whittles life to eternity.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s magnum opus, The Brother Karamazov, he offers one of the most compelling imaginings of who Christ is through a startling, doubt-filled lens, in the chapter: The Grand Inquisitor. Written from the perspective of the atheist brother, Ivan, to convince his pious brother, Alyosha, to renounce his faith, Dostoevsky parallels his own atheism and subsequent conversion. The chapter introduces the Christ figure re-entering history in the 16th century, and prompt arrest by The Grand Inquisitor, who informs him he cannot be allowed to perform his works among the people. The Inquisitor shares his disdain for Christ’s rejecting the three temptations Satan offered in the wilderness, and explains that the Church has accepted them in his place; for they are, in his mind, the only remedy to the problem of freedom and evil. The Christ figure is silent as The Inquisitor demands answers to the reality of horrific suffering in the world (detailed stories which Dostoevsky found inspiration for in newspaper reports of real events). These problems, resulting from humanity’s freedom, have wearied The Inquisitor and his companions, they have gladly–with the Devil’s help–built a society that relinquishes freedom, a necessary prerequisite for loving and worshiping God truly, and exchanged it for a compulsive religion. The result: everyone has bread to eat, yes, but only through involuntary, loveless obedience. As we know, “man cannot live on bread alone,” and this is precisely what the Christ figure illuminates with his presence. The Inquisitor finds the Christ figure’s intrusion upon their efforts to be irksome, he berates him, bursting with the lynchpin question, “why have you come to interfere with us?” In the face of the Inquisitor’s anger, the Christ figure mirrors the composure of the Lamb led to slaughter before Pilate: he is silent. He attempts no apologetic, works no miracle, offers no defense. He simply, and with gravity, kisses The Inquisitor on the cheek. And in a marvelous spin, this story that was woven in an attempt to dissuade Alyosha from his faith in God, is turned into its own apologetic as he responds to his brother’s raging against God, by kissing him on the cheek in the same manner. Alyosha responds to Ivan’s manifesto of doubt with a triumph of forgiveness, faith, and love.
In response to the harshness of the world, the realities of the present, the sufferings of our hearts, and the questions we cannot find the answer to, Christ does not give us tidy answers, a detailed list for every ethic we face, or a fixed up world. He doesn’t answer the world’s ills on our terms. He doesn’t turn the stones to bread to solve world hunger, or bow to the prince of the world to escape death; he presents himself as the Bread, and he dies to defeat the prince of darkness. His answer to everything is as simple and complex as a kiss, he gives Himself: Emmanuel, God with us, extended in inexplicable, abundant love.
Just as his answer to the world of problems he entered was not an expected one, neither is his love the expected fare we’ve become accustomed to. We tend to think of love in the terms John Steinbeck describes in his semi-autobiographical novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, “There’s an awful lot of inactive kindness which is nothing but laziness not wanting any trouble, confusion, or effort,” to bookend his thoughts Steinbeck writes, “no one wants advice, only corroboration.” The existential discontent that so marked Steinbeck is summed up largely in these words, and this is perhaps the discontent we all feel. We think we want to be left alone, merely corroborated in our chosen path, and yet we find only emptiness there. We are disillusioned by a world stained with love that is so tolerant it cannot distinguish between vice or virtue, so accepting that it is cold, distant, and inactive. The Grand Inquisitor answers this discontent with a compulsive religion, divorcing freedom and relationship from worship, and creating, perhaps an ordered society, but a godless one–still without love. Christ stands in sharp contrast to both our discontent and compulsion. His love is not tolerance: so accepting it is distant, nor is it compulsive: involuntary and cold. He loves us as we are, yes, he loves our bleached bones still wrapped in grave-clothes, but then he calls us up and out of the tomb. His love is heartbreaking, in the sense that it breaks our stone hearts to replace them with hearts of flesh freed from vice and compulsion. Christ’s love is marked by his interference. He doesn’t leave us alone in our guilt, our vice, our death…he transforms us.
This interfering Christ is not content to be held at arm’s length as some merely theoretical answer to our problems. Nor does he ask for manacled obedience to merely a law or religious order, instead he wants our very hearts, freely given. The compulsive religion is nothing compared to the demands of free obedience motivated by love. Love leaves nothing untouched: it is intimacy, knowledge, submission, all flowing from the very core of who we are, it is delight. Yet often our hearts are the very last things we want to offer. We foolishly try to cling to remnants of our grave shroud. Thankfully, he is undeterred, he keeps interfering.
We tend to posture ourselves as The Inquisitor, or Ivan, we heap our doubts and our sin before God and ask why he does not simply make it all go away, and in his grandest gesture he gives us the greatest gift, he interferes, and his interference is like a kiss freely given: death on our behalf, certain resurrection, and a deep intimacy with the One for whom our hearts truly long. He loves, for he is Love.
In all the little here and now things, the moments that catch up into a lifetime, Love is making us fit for eternity. He interferes with our hidden selves, our pride and self-importance, to love us into humility and submission. He interferes in our relationships, our bitterness and selfishness, to love us into forgiveness and other-mindedness. He interferes in our affections, our lusts and ambitions, to love us into holiness and kingdom aims. He interferes in our past, exposing our sin and guilt, and loves us into repentance and freedom. He interferes in our present, our anxiety and apathy, to love us into faith and discipline. He interferes in our future, our certain death and these flesh and bone bodies that are so brittle, and loves us into eternity.