Nihilism & Theology (D. Bentley Hart)
“So much of what we imagine to be the testimony of reason or the clear and unequivocal evidence of our senses is really only an interpretive reflex, determined by mental habits impressed in us by an intellectual and cultural history.” — David Bentley Hart, _The Reason for God_, 293.
 
So true. This is what I am constantly trying to get my undergraduate students to see. Before they can even be open to theology and religion (Christian or otherwise), they first must question their “ordinary” modes modes of understanding. They must first become skeptics. They must first become nihilists.
This is why Socrates was such a gadly, attempting to “corrupt the youth,” to get the young, future politicians of Athens to question authority, to question their assumptions, to question to the status quo.
 
This is why John Milbank says that “theology is a hair’s breadth from nihilism.”
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Mystical Ecstasy & Alyosha’s Mini-arc

I am grateful to be the recipient of a world-class education in the history of Western thought at the University of Dallas’ Institute of Philosophic Studies, where I was initiated headlong into many of the great classical texts of the Western canon, many of which I had never before read, including Hesiod’s Theogony, Dante’s Comedia, and Hobbes’ Leviathan, just to name a few.

The final class in this sequence of core courses is “Hegel, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky,” in which we read (among other texts) The Brothers Karamazov. Or, were supposed to have read.

I confess publicly, and for the first time, that I simply did not (have time to) read this very long tome that semester. Such is the life of a full-time priest, working in a city 90 miles away from his academic institution, to which he was commuting (during the period of his coursework) on average twice per week.

The guilt from such an omission was almost unbearable, and it is a miracle that I got through that course (one of three grad courses I was taking at the time). Which might be why I firmly resolved to make The Brothers Karamazov the first major text I would read, once I had successfully gotten both coursework and comprehensive exams under my belt. Hence, I am reading it now, and what a stimulating read it is!

One feature of the text to which my attention has been drawn is the structure of Book Seven, entitled, “Alyosha.” Breifly, I summarize this structure, this narrative arc of character development, as follows:

  • §1, “Odor of putrefaction.” Here, Alyosha stumbles spiritually at the scandalon of religious scorn and hypocritical gloating on the part of a certain religious faction. Basically, there is a party of monks at Alyosha’s monastery who despise the holy starets, Father Zosima (Alyosha’s beloved mentor and father in the faith), and who longs for his downfall and ruination. Of course the members of this faction, led by one Father Therapon, have their religious justifications. But it is this religious scorn, and not the absence of a certain hoped-for miracle (the lack of deterioration of the now deceased Father Zosima’s remains) which causes Alyosha to spiral downward into a tailspin of spiritual and emotional blackness.
  • §2, “Here’s an opportunity.” Enter Rakitin, that “careerist seminarian” who embodies the worst kind of sanctimonious, fraudulent bigotry. Rakitin stumbles upon Alyosha just as the former has been laid low emotionally, and is literally lying on the ground near a tree, trying to get his head screwed back on straight, attempting to recover from the emotional blow dealt by those who have been publicly denigrating Zosima, in light of his death and decomposition. Rakitin skillfully takes advantage of Alyosha, tempting him to “act out” and give in to his incipient anger and woundedness. First, Rakitin tempts Alyosha with food (sausage), then drink (vodka), then sex (the intriguing and beautiful prostitute Grushenka). Alyosha, in a state of weakness, gives in to his seducer Rakitin.
  • §3, “A spring onion.” In the rooms of Grushenka, who seems to be deeply taken and captivated by the youngest of the three Karamazov brothers Alyosha (who is pretty much the same age as the seductress), the narrator employs the image of a spring onion to symbolize the wonderful effects of love for the other. Grushenka narrates a Russian fable involving the giving of an onion from one person to another, and how this small act of kindness can save a person from Hell. Grushenka, who knows full well that she is a grave sinner who stands guilty before God and man, testifies that she knows the joy of giving a spring onion to someone in need. Alyosha, who up to this point has been tight-lipped and awkward in Grushenka’s room, immediately recognizes her humility and this spiritual seed of life to which she has born witness. And it is just this, this brilliant flash of grace flowing from the heart and lips of this humble sinner, this shard of love born of true poverty of spirit, which revives the stricken Alyosha, acting as a sort of “smelling salt” which quickens him to return to his true spiritual nature. Finally, his head is screwed back on straight, and he has now come to his senses.
  • §4, “Cana of Galilee.” Now that Alyosha has been restored to his true self by the (unintended) ministrations of Grushenka, he is now liberated truly to enjoy God and life. Returning to the monastery, he encounters the saintly Father Païsy, who continues to read the Gospels over Father Zosima’s open coffin, as he has been doing for hours and hours. Slowly Alyosha falls into a peaceful sleep and experiences a vivid dream about Jesus and Mary at the wedding of Cana, even as the words of John 2 proceed from the mouth of the venerable monk. Alyosha, asleep before the remains of his loving mentor even while remaining on his knees, is now awash in the mystical, peaceful vision of Christ he is now experiencing. Eventually he awakes, and the lines which follow are among the most arresting I have ever read:

[Alyosha’s] soul, brimming with ecstasy, was yearning for freedom, for wide open spaces. Overhead, stretching into infinity, was the heavenly dome, full of silent, shimmering stars. From the zenith to the horizon stretched the forked outlines of the faintly visible Milky Way. A cool, silent, motionless night had enveloped the earth. The white towers and gilded cupolas of the monastery church gleaned in the sapphire light. The splendid autumn flowers in the bed around the house were dormant for the night. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens. The mystery of the earth appeared to reach out to the starts. Alyosha stood gazing. Suddenly he fell to the ground, as though stunned.

He did not know why he was embracing the earth. He could not explain to himself why it was that he wanted to kiss it with such abandon. To kiss the whole of it, and yet he kept kissing it as he wept and sobbed, drenching it with his tears, and passionately swearing to love it, to love it forever and ever. ‘Drench the earth with the tears of thy joy, and love these thy tears….’ These words echoed in his soul. What was he weeping about? Oh, in the ecstasy he was weeping even for those stars which shone upon him from infinity, ‘and he was not ashamed of his passion.’ It was as though the threads of all God’s countless worlds had converged in his soul, and it quivered upon contact with these distant worlds. He wished to forgive everyone for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself but for others. ‘They would then ask forgiveness for me,’ were the words that echoed in his mind. But with each passing moment, he became distantly, almost palpably aware, that something as firm and immutable as the vault of heaven was entering his soul. An idea seemed to be taking possession of his mind, and it would be for his whole life and for eternity. He fell to the ground a weak adolescent, but when he rose to his feet he was a hardened warrior for life, and he recognized this in a flash of ecstasy. And never, never in his whole life, would Alyosha be able to forget this moment. ‘Someone visited my soul on that occasion,’ he would repeat later, firmly believing his own words.

Three days later he left the monastery, in accordance with the instruction of his deceased starets, to ‘go out into the world.’

What to make of this trajectory, culminating in these haunting words of mystical ecstasy? I can think of six things.

  1. This book, in the context of Dostoevsky’s larger story, is a wonderful example of how the Gospel of Jesus Christ, makes us more fully human. To quote St. Irenaeus, “The Glory of God is the human being, fully alive.” Christians are / ought-to-be more fully alive than anyone else, and this vignette points to that fact.
  2. Alyosha, when faced with fierce temptations, did not give in. Why did he not give in? Only because he was rescued by love, the love of the sinful prostitute Grushenka. Still, what would have happened had he slept with her? Would he have experienced the joy of hearing the Gospel flow from the lips of Fr. Païsy? I doubt it. There is something about not ruining the story which makes for spiritual elation, once the temptations have subsided.
  3. Suffering leads to ecstasy, and this ecstasy involves the passions. This vignette is an “argument” for privileging the passions over reason, even while admitting the necessity of the latter.
  4. I find it interesting that, in Dostoevsky’s rendition of Alyosha’s experience here, we find an emphasis on the whole: the cosmic dimensions of salvific reality. God is way bigger than we normally realize. So is Christ. So is the cosmos.
  5. Alyosha’s mystical experience leads to and includes gospel reconciliation. We find him deeply impacted by the idea of forgiveness, which I think is probably the primary theme of this entire book.
  6. This kind of experience, which entails a movement from adolescence to adulthood, leads to full maturity in Christ (see Eph 4:13).

All in all, this is a riveting chunk of text, one that will stay with me (I dare say) for the rest of my life!

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Reason & Desire in Dostoevsky
When I read / assess a thinker, I’m always asking the question: does he or she  privilege reason, or does he or she privilege thumos / desire? (I am thinking here of the tripartite schemas of the human soul, according to Aristotle and Plato.)
For example, I’m pretty convinced now that while Thomas privileges reason, Bonaventure privileges desire.
Reading _the Brothers Karamazov_, it is pretty clear that Dostoevsky privileges desire.
For example, consider the comments from the narrator on Alyosha, who, having just left the monastery in despair, is struggling with the way certain religious figures in the monastery are gloating over the “premature” putrefaction of Father Zosima’s remains:
… I am glad my young hero did not turn out to be too rational at such a moment, since there will always be plenty of opportunity for an intelligent person to employ his intellect, but if love did not hold sway in his heart at such an exceptional moment, would it ever do so? – Part III, Bk. 7, §2, “Here’s an opportunity.”
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