Tag Archives: Dostoyevski

The Jefferson Attitude

The New York Times ran an article by historian David Williams about Thomas Jefferson’s more or less Christian attitude and how taking a similar stance might allow the Democratic Party to win over those who find Democrats essentially secular and deaf to the concerns posed by their Christian beliefs.

According to Mr. Williams, Jefferson believed in the teachings of Christ but didn’t accept the “mysticism”, by which Jefferson apparently meant the outrageous claim that Christ was God and as such performed miracles including his return from death, thereby providing evidence for his assertion that believers could achieve eternal life.

Now, I would certainly prefer that Democrats took the teachings of Christ seriously, no matter how they feel about “mysticism”. While I spent some time at a seminary in Tijuana, a very intelligent member of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity told me that part of his admiration for the Mexican poor was that even most of those who didn’t believe in Catholic doctrine, having grown up in a mostly Catholic culture, had learned to be humble and selfless, as Christ would have them be.

Would that we all were humble and selfless, no matter what we believe.

But whether or not this Jeffersonian template, based largely upon the Beatitudes and the admonition to love our neighbors, would win at least some swing votes to Democrats, it’s quite a dangerous course to chart. In fact, I would call it hogwash except, perhaps because of my ties to Christian culture, I would rather play nice.
In defense of my objection, I will call upon Feodor Dostoyevski, widely held to be among the greatest novelists ever.

In the recent work of a far lesser writer (Ken Kuhlken, alias me), we find a precocious thirteen year old discussing a criminal case with his attorney uncle:

“Tommy asked, ‘Well, do you want to hear something Dostoyevski thought about bad guys like Luz? [boss of a Tijuana cartel.]’

“’Read on.’

“Tommy’s source was The Brothers Karamazov, which he opened to a book mark.

“’This is Rakitin, who’s pretty much of a nitwit, talking about Ivan, who is mighty smart: “Did you hear his stupid theory just now: if there’s no immortality of the soul, then there’s no virtue, and everything is lawful?”’”

Dostoyevski devoted much of his art to dramatizing this very question: if we remove God from the equation, why should we act in accord with any moral standard other than the pursuit of our own benefit?

If we take a secular stance and dismiss the possibility of what Jefferson deems mysticism, why should we hold anyone’s well being above our own; why should we sacrifice; why should we try to love better?

Over a hundred years ago, that question drove Dostoyevski’s two most profound and compelling novels. Before his time and ever since, some mighty intelligent writers and thinkers have tried and failed to come up with a convincing answer.

So, regardless of the fact that a long lost girlfriend of mine argued that Christianity would be preferable if blood weren’t one of its abiding themes; and my Unitarian friends would have us consider the teachings of Christ in the same category as those of the Dalai Lama; and many folks I know believe that heaven is a swell concept but hell is simply not Christ-like … regardless of the opinions of those good people, the notion that we can legitimately pick and choose from a historically fixed set of beliefs is a fool’s paradise.

Which brings me to the role of us writers in political, social and spiritual discourse.

Sure, those of us who believe in Christ ought to let our readers know that, like Jefferson, we adhere to the values our Lord set down and hope people follow them whether or not they believe in the “mystical” stuff. But if we believe in that “mystical” stuff, we also ought to insinuate our belief that creation is more than what the Bernards would have us believe.

For a definition of “Bernards,” I once again call upon the precocious Tommy. Jodi, The novel’s narrator, is telling about a drive along Highway 395 in the Sierra Nevada:

“Once when Tommy laughed and I asked what about, he said, ‘Dmitri, one of the brothers, he calls science guys Bernards. Bernard was some knucklehead French writer.’

“’Dmitri calls scientists Bernards?’

“’Not exactly scientists, but guys who think science is the answer to everything.’

“’So, Tommy,’ Mystery [Jodi’s daughter] said, ‘if not science, what is the answer to everything?’”

To find the answer to that last and ultimate question, you’ll need to read the novel.

Thanks for reading, Ken

Get Free

Everybody wants to be free, right?

We read that the truth will set us free.

We’re told Christ came to free us, and that if he sets us free, we are free indeed.

One of the liberties we in the U.S. at least claim to prize is the freedom to speak the truth as we see it. Yet we allow dogmas, editors, critical readers, and the marketplace, to censor us.

The Brothers Karamazov addresses the concept of freedom. In the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter, Dostoyevski sets up a drama in which Christ returns to earth in medieval Europe, gets taken captive by the Inquisition and told by the Inquisitor why he failed: because people don’t really want the freedom he granted.

What people want, the Inquisitor contends, is what Satan, while tempting Christ at the end of his 40-day fast in the desert, offered to help Christ provide them:

Miracle. A show so grand it would stop all questioning.

Mystery. Idols to worship.

Authority. A source of unambiguous, strict rules that everybody must follow, so they won’t feel alone and different.

As writers, we can’t afford to be like the people Satan (in the Inquisitor’s story) describes.

If we hope to leave ourselves open to the spirit that moves us, we need to question everything, beware of idols such as the desire for fame and wealth, and to express our uniqueness.

If we’re Christian writers, redemption can free us from the demons of guilt and shame. If this freedom allows us to shed legalistic inhibitions, fear of risking heresy, and whatever hang-ups are blocking the messages the spirit is ready to give us, I suspect we can create more powerful art than writers who haven’t found the ticket to freedom.

Demons?

Edward Hirsch’s book The Demon and the Angel is devoted to enlightening us, often through the insights of master writers. about the spirit that moves us.

Hirsch reports that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his Journals, “Blessed is the day when the youth discovers that Within and Above are synonyms.”

He informs us that Garcia Lorca referred to the spirit he sought, so that he could ask it to inhabit his poems, as the duende. He believed the duende was associated with the spirit of earth, visible anguish, irrational desire and enthusiasm, and a fascination with death. He held that the duende will not come unless he sees death is possible.

Writers seeking Lorca’s duende ought to heed an admonition of Master Jeong, under whom I studied Tae Kwon Do. “Don’t fight unless you’re willing to die,” he warned us. A writer might translate, “Don’t write unless you are willing to die (or risk everything).”

I’d like to know whether Lorca’s duende is a spirit of creation or of destruction. Czeslaw Milosz might ask the same question. Milosz, who attests that poems are dictated to him by the spirit, concludes his ars poetica “with the hope/that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.”

I’m convinced that both good and evil spirits exist. Hirsch quotes poet Charles Simic (from Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell), “…one needs to believe in angels and demons even in a modern world in order to make sense of it.” And “Making art in America is about saving one’s soul.” I would scratch “in America,” insert “on earth” in its place, and argue that the mythic conflict the Faust legend presents, in which a creative person meets with the temptation to exchange his soul for powers granted by the devil, is a theme present in each of our lives.

Perhaps blues singer Robert Johnson as well as Fredrich Nietzsche, Garcia Lorca, the Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudalaire got inspired by the spirit that granted Faust’s wish. Then the duende could be another name for what Dostoyevski’s Ivan Karamazov calls “the dread spirit.”

In The Brothers Karamazov, Satan is talking to Ivan. “Listen, in dreams and especially in nightmares, from indigestion or anything, a man sometimes sees such artistic visions, such complex and real actuality, even a whole world of events, woven into such a plot, with such unexpected details from the most exalted matters to the last button on a cuff, as I swear Leo Tolstoy could not create.”

Artists can get addicted to such visions. Emerson confessed, “The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget our-selves, to be surprised out of our propriety, and to do something without knowing how or why.”

W.B. Yeats believed spirits need us as much as we need them. He agreed with Irish folk tradition that the spirit may offer us wisdom but only humans can deliver the wisdom. Which implies the same spirit (or spirits) we’re looking to access is looking to access us.

Maybe all artists are possessed.

Peace Etc.

Since I am trying to raise issues most churches appear reluctant to touch, I should explain my motive. It’s not that I think I’m smarter than them or that I hold a grudge against the church. I believe the church has done an extraordinary job of carrying out the great commission to take the gospel worldwide.

Only I’m troubled by the performance of the church as a whole, and of most individual churches, on another task they have the authority and range of influence to tackle, and which the Bible assigns them.

I mean the task of peacemaking.

What I see is a church most often aligned with a culture that seeks its own, largely regardless of the cost to others.

Recently Zoe and I watched the film Divergent. My verdict: well written, well acted, and remarkably similar in theme to “The Grand Inquisitor”, a story included in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

You can find the story in several formats at Project Gutenberg. It’s not an easy read, and since I’ve read it often, I’ll offer a brief guide.

Ivan Karamazov, a skeptic, challenges his saintly brother Alyosha with a tale in which Christ visits Spain during the height of the Inquisition. He performs a few miracles and is arrested.

The Grand Inquisitor sentences Christ to be burned. His crime: condemning people to misery by considering them to be wiser and braver than all but a few actually are.

The Inquisitor argues that humanity wants no part of the freedom Christ offers. Rather, people want bread (freedom from privation); authority (freedom from responsibility); and miracles so blatant they will unify us all (freedom from alienation).

The Inquisitor maintains that Christ’s gift of intellectual and spiritual freedom — which he bestowed upon us when he resisted the temptations offered by the dread and wise spirit in the wilderness — only delivered people into terrifying confusion.

Dostoyevsky was a devoted Christian, yet in his novels, he didn’t play favorites. When assuming the role of a character of any stripe, he advocated for that character. So while the deeper theme of Ivan’s story justifies Christ, its surface argument reveals disturbing truth about humanity.

Ivan is correct in his assertion that few of us prefer to think independently. And no matter our protests to the contrary, most of us are less concerned with goodness than with our own wellbeing. Consequently, if we churchgoers only learn in the abstract to follow the message of Christ, we are in danger of entrapment by those who, like the Grand Inquisitor, have accepted the devil’s bargain.

When the church fails to teach us how to effectively aid and defend the oppressed or impoverished or how to bring our communities and our world closer to peace, many of us turn for answers to those who profit at the expense of the oppressed or impoverished or by promoting and waging war.

When a partner and I owned a used bookstore, a regular customer, a state assemblyman, attended the same church I did. At first, I recommended books from our Christian section. He showed no interest and only chose books about politics and advice about making friends and influencing people.

My point is, if the church (perhaps for sound reasons) won’t teach us how reason from the abstractions it preaches, it leaves many of us vulnerable to being hoodwinked by marketers, swindlers of every persuasion, and politicians and their allies with agendas that overrule integrity.

Who then can teach us to reason and act in accord with the message of Christ and the freedom he gave us?

Maybe storytellers? Artists? Writers.

So let’s get busy.

Church for Writers: Peace Etc.

Since I am trying to raise issues most churches appear reluctant to touch, I should explain my motive. It’s not that I think I’m smarter than them or that I hold a grudge against the church. I believe the church has done an extraordinary job of carrying out the great commission to take the gospel worldwide.

Only I’m troubled by the performance of the church as a whole, and of most individual churches, on another task they have the authority and range of influence to tackle, and which the Bible assigns them.

I mean the task of peacemaking.

What I see is a church most often aligned with a culture that seeks its own, largely regardless of the cost to others.

Recently Zoe and I watched the film Divergent. My verdict: well written, well acted, and remarkably similar in theme to “The Grand Inquisitor”, a story included in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

You can find the story in several formats at Project Gutenberg. It’s not an easy read, and since I’ve read it often, I’ll offer a brief guide.

Ivan Karamazov, a skeptic, challenges his saintly brother Alyosha with a tale in which Christ visits Spain during the height of the Inquisition. He performs a few miracles and is arrested.

The Grand Inquisitor sentences Christ to be burned. His crime: condemning people to misery by considering them to be wiser and braver than all but a few actually are.

The Inquisitor argues that humanity wants no part of the freedom Christ offers. Rather, people want bread (freedom from privation); authority (freedom from responsibility); and miracles so blatant they will unify us all (freedom from alienation).

The Inquisitor maintains that Christ’s gift of intellectual and spiritual freedom — which he bestowed upon us when he resisted the temptations offered by the dread and wise spirit in the wilderness — only delivered people into terrifying confusion.

Dostoyevsky was a devoted Christian, yet in his novels, he didn’t play favorites. When assuming the role of a character of any stripe, he advocated for that character. So while the deeper theme of Ivan’s story justifies Christ, its surface argument reveals disturbing truth about humanity.

Ivan is correct in his assertion that few of us prefer to think independently. And no matter our protests to the contrary, most of us are less concerned with goodness than with our own wellbeing. Consequently, if we churchgoers only learn in the abstract to follow the message of Christ, we are in danger of entrapment by those who, like the Grand Inquisitor, have accepted the devil’s bargain.

When the church fails to teach us how to effectively aid and defend the oppressed or impoverished or how to bring our communities and our world closer to peace, many of us turn for answers to those who profit at the expense of the oppressed or impoverished or by promoting and waging war.

When a partner and I owned a used bookstore, a regular customer, a state assemblyman, attended the same church I did. At first, I recommended books from our Christian section. He showed no interest and only chose books about politics and advice about making friends and influencing people.

My point is, if the church (perhaps for sound reasons) won’t teach us how reason from the abstractions it preaches, it leaves many of us vulnerable to being hoodwinked by marketers, swindlers of every persuasion, and politicians and their allies with agendas that overrule integrity.

Who then can teach us to reason and act in accord with the message of Christ and the freedom he gave us?

Maybe storytellers? Artists? Writers.

So let’s get busy.

A Christmas Carol

When I mention Soren Kierkegaard to people well-educated in the humanities, psychology, or Christian studies, I usually get a response of admiration along with a comment that he is hard to grasp.

Though I let these responses pass without much comment, they are beginning to concern me. As a parent or softball coach, when a kid says something like “But that’s hard,” I try to help her understand that because something is hard doesn’t mean we can’t do it or shouldn’t bother to try. Master Jeong, a Tae Kwon Do ninth-degree black belt, used to give us this admonition: “Practice the move a hundred times. If you can’t do it right, practice a thousand times. If you still can’t do it, practice ten thousand times.” If something is worth doing, hard is no excuse.

A deep understanding of Christ and his message is certainly worth pursuing, and it’s not something of which we humans are incapable.

I love Christmas carols. I was listening to them and wrapping presents, and when Emmylou Harris sang “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given,” I stopped and marveled over the recognition that God would give us such credit for both intelligence and potential for insight as to send a messenger with no hoopla, who would speak in parables and other ways that challenge all our abilities to understand. Such a vote of confidence ought to make us feel honored and driven to prove his confidence justified.

We humans don’t give ourselves enough credit.

Kierkegaard teaches about confidence in others as an expression of love. One way, perhaps the best way, we can learn to love better is to give credit to others for possessing love. Even though we don’t see evidence of it, if we believe God is love and we are made in God’s image and therefore endowed with love, then we can presume it resides in all people and determine to act toward them accordingly.

If we treat others with loving confidence even while we recognize that they, like Charlie Brown’s Lucy, might snatch the football away and leave us to go flying, then we are expressing purity of heart, pleasing God.

The failure to give ourselves credit for our God-given abilities is dangerous.  In Dostoyevski’s masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov, in a section called ” The Grand Inquisitor“, Ivan, one of the brothers, tells Alyosha, his younger brother, a story set in Spain during the Inquisition.

Christ returns to earth and performs healings. Soldiers of the Inquisition arrest and deliver him to the Grand Inquisitor, who sits Christ down and explains the church’s position. He asserts that when the devil tempted Christ in the desert (see Matthew 4), Christ responded incorrectly on account of his belief that people as a whole are capable of choosing and living with freedom. The vast majority, the Inquisitor argues, would rather give up freedom up in exchange for food, security, and a simple dogma upon which to base all decisions.

The Inquisitor believes his judgments are in accord with human nature and so overrule the benefits of the freedom Christ offered us, since only a small minority of humankind would choose freedom.

Brother Alyosha won’t deny the Inquisitor’s assessment of human nature. Neither will I. But I will argue against joining the Inquisitor in his refusal to urge people toward freedom. And I’ll contend that we should do our utmost to challenge people to grow in depth of free, un-coerced, un-simplified understanding.

No matter how hard, how mysterious or confounding an issue may be, we should be willing to tackle it if for no other reason than in gratitude for God’s belief in us.

The importance of accepting such a challenge is multiplied in the case of preachers, artists, parents, coaches, or anyone else in a position to influence. If I could convince the writers of the Perelandra College community to assume one attitude, I would advise them to never consider anything too difficult, for themselves or for their audience. Sure, they may need to work harder to communicate. So be it.

To believe others are capable of more than we can observe in them is a primary quality of love.