A Monster, A Fable, The Modern Search for Meaning
A Monster Attacks My Son
A human sized chipmunk once attacked my two year old son. We were eating at Chef Mickey’s in Disney World. Either Chip or Dale snuck up from behind to cover my son’s eyes with their huge paws. Having shocked him, they revealed themselves in the full horror of their costumed semblance of reality. To my son, the six foot chipmunk was as real as anything else; he shrieked in fear, which sent the giant creature running.
(Was I tempted to chase after that creature? Do I regret not doing so? Hell, yes.)
At the age of two, my son believed the world to be thoroughly enchanted. Monsters, miracles, and mysteries were commonplace. If he hurt himself, I could sprinkle invisible “magic healing dust” on his scratch, and he would believe in its restorative powers. If the scratch came from an encounter with a toy, I could delight and distract my son by meting out a punishment for the toy’s transgression. In other words, my son’s belief in my powers of enchantment made me equivalent to a god. As all parents are for an all too brief time.
In our modern vocabulary, to be enchanted or disenchanted has come to mean “pleased” or “displeased.” But I’m writing about another meaning–––enchantment as a belief in miracles and a higher authority that would bring all humanity together under a common faith. The gospels tell us that these are the very same temptations, along with turning stones into bread, that Satan put before a hungry Jesus after he’d spent forty days (origin of Lent) in the mountainous wilderness. Jesus rejected Satan, preferring instead to receive the freely given faith of his followers rather than gaining it from material sustenance or displays of magic or worldly authority.
The Fable of The Grand Inquisitor
In Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” there’s a famous chapter about the temptations of Jesus called The Grand Inquisitor. It is a self-contained story or fable told by the bon vivant brother Dimitri to his religious younger brother Alyosha, a novice in a monastery.
Here’s my attempt at a summary. Full chapter attached at the end.
It’s the height of the inquisition in Spain circa 1500, and the Grand Inquisitor, fresh from burning alive 100 heretics, recognizes Jesus who’s come down from heaven to Spain for a visit. The Inquisitor imprisons Jesus and then proceeds to carry out an epic venting against Jesus for having rejected Satan’s temptations, which, had he accepted them, would have given all of humanity happiness, because the entire flock of human sheep would have found their one true permanent Shepard.
The Inquisitor tells Jesus that:
“There is no more ceaseless or tormenting care for man, as long as he remains free, than to find someone to bow down to as soon as possible.”
So because Jesus rejected Satan’s offer of miracle and worldly authority, for fifteen hundred years, the Inquisitor and the Church has had to invent (i.e., lie about) its own miracles and to pursue at great cost a path toward universal authority. And part of the cost they have paid has been to burn a lot of heretics.
The Inquisitor tells Jesus that all the cruelty of the Inquisition and all the suffering of religious wars past, present, and future is the result of Jesus’ failure in the Wilderness to accept the temptations. Why did Jesus turn them down? According to the Inquisitor, because of Jesus’s reckless, prideful desire that his followers’ faith be given freely plus his mistaken and foolish confidence in mankind’s desire to exercise free will.
That failure has placed a terrible burden on the Church to step in. Because, “nothing is more insupportable to man than freedom.”
By the way, the Inquisitor tells Jesus that in the morning he will burn Jesus alive.
Jesus remains silent throughout the Inquisitor’s harangue, one of the greatest kvetches in all literature. When the Grand Inquisitor has finished, Jesus, who’s been silent all this time, does probably the most annoying thing he could do. He kisses the Inquisitor who then lets Jesus walk out free from the prison cell.
The 21st Century: Are We Happy Now?
When we creatures of the 21st Century say that we crave “meaningful lives,” are we in effect making the Grand Inquisitor’s argument? For unlike a two year old or our ancient forebearers, the world has indeed become disenchanted, at least for many of us. No miracles, no singular higher authority. No ironclad belief, or any belief at all, in an afterlife.
I often tell myself that, among other things, I’m lucky to be living a life of convenience and plenty, a life with plenty of choices and free will, a life of greater resources and science enabling me to live potentially healthier and longer than anyone who came before me. A life with amazing choices of entertainment.
But I think about a random person in the year 1000, a steadfast and complete believer in their religion and their god, a pilgrim traveler to shrines where by touching a sacred relic they could be healed, perhaps physically, but certainly spiritually. A person convinced without doubt that any misery in their earthly life would be compensated by eternity in paradise.
Certainly most people in the year 1000 would be living in what we would consider extreme poverty and precarity. But I wonder whether that long ago person, poor and imperiled as they may be, having no need for a search for meaning, might not have been a great deal happier than I am.
Link to The Grand Inquisitor Chapter below