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Posted October 18, 2005

Book: Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement
Author: Rowan Williams
ABC Publishing, Toronto, Canada, pp. 141

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

The trial, conviction, and death of an innocent man 2000 years ago have particular resonance today. Atrocities from around the world shake us nearly every day, and we all experience trials in our own lives too. In this book the new Archbishop of Canterbury looks in depth at the trial of Jesus, using it to teach readers how to face the challenges of life in today’s trying times.

Bringing the biblical accounts of Jesus’ trial vividly to life, Rowan Williams highlights what can be learned about Jesus from each of the four Gospel portraits. Mark shows a mysterious figure revealed as the Son of God. Matthew describes the Wisdom of God tried by foolish men. Luke presents a divine stranger. John speaks of the paradox of divinity submitting to judgement. These illuminating discussions are followed by a reflection on Christian martyrdom and a meditation on tyranny, freedom, and truth. A set of discussion questions and a thought-provoking prayer after each chapter make Christ on Trial an ideal book for study groups.

Throughout the book Williams draws not only from the Bible but also from fiction, drama, and current events, pointing out ways in which society today continues to put Christ on trial. Even more, he argues that all Christians stand with Jesus before a watching world. Though we may not be directly confronted with death, we are nevertheless called daily to respond to the falsehood of such lures as power, influence, and prestige.

An Excerpt from the Book:

No Answer: Jesus and his Judges

Without doubt, the best known trial of Jesus in modern literature remains the chapter in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov entitled “The Grand Inquisitor.” It has become almost a cliche for literary-minded expositors of the Christian faith, but it keeps its power to shock and disturb in a remarkable way — not least because it leaves us with a resolution in the form of a single powerful image, the kind of thing that may make all the difference or none at all. It is the climax of the argument in Book 5 of the novel between the radical Ivan and his younger brother Alyosha, a monastic novice — an argument not so much about whether God exists as about whether belief in God is morally defensible.

In the preceding chapter, Ivan’s catalogue of innocent suffering, specifically the sufferings of abused and tortured children, is probably the most eloquent attack on easy theories of divine justice or divine reparation ever written by a Christian.

A the end of this chapter, Ivan asks his brother whether he could imagine guaranteeing the welfare and stability of the universe at the cost of torturing to death one little girl — ‘to found the edifice on here unavenged tears’ — and Alyosha replies softly’, that he would be unable to do this. But, say Ivan, does faith not require taht we must believe exactly this, that we accept our salvation at the price of unspeakable, gratuitous suffering? Alyosha protests: the edifice is founded not on the terrible contingency of particular outrages but on the one who gives his own innocent blood for the sake of the world. Ivan’s response is the story of the Inquisitor.

Appealing to Jesus as a way out of the unbearable contemplation of the pain of others is, for Ivan, a strategy that fails to engage with what Jesus really is. The Inquisitor chapter continues the prosecution of God, this time using the unique figure who gives his name to the story as an accusing angel. Readers at the time, and many interpreters from Orthodox and Protestant backgrounds, assumed and have continued to assume that the novelist’s target is totalitarian religion, that the chapter is primarily a kind of satire on ideological tyranny. While he is not averse to some facile sneers at Catholicism, however, Dostoyevsky is a good deal more subtle than that, and we have to read this story honestly, as a ‘thought experiment’ pushing as far as it can in pressing a case against Christ.

The case against Jesus

The stage setting is conventional (as many have pointed out, bits of its owe a heavy debt to Verdi’s opera Don Carlos); Christ returns to earth at the time of the Inquisition in sixteenth-century Spain, performs miracles, raises the dead, and is arrested at the Grand Inquisitor’s command. At night, the Inquisitor visits his prisoner’s cell. ‘He approaches him slowly, puts the lamp on the table and says to him: “Is it you? You?”’ What follows is far from conventional. The Inquisitor goes over the temptations of Jesus in the desert, arguing that his refusal of ‘miracle, mystery and authority’ have made him the enemy of real, tangible human happiness. Jesus overestimates what humanity is capable of; he speaks only to the strong, not the weak (a striking reversal of what is often said).

The Inquisitor and his allies, in Church and state, will guarantee the happiness Jesus cannot give, even at the price of lying to the masses. They take on themselves the guilt of deceit because people cannot bear the burden of freedom. ‘Why’, asks the Inquisitor, ‘is the weak soul to blame for being unable to receive gifts so terrible? Surely, you did not come only to the chosen and for the chosen?’ Humanity at large will become happy and guilt-free children; the rulers of humanity suffer in silence. The Inquisitor himself has been fasting in the wilderness. ‘I, too, blessed freedom, with which you have blessed men, and . . .I, too, was preparing to stand among your chosen ones, among the strong and mighty. . .But I woke up and refused to serve madness. . .I went away from the proud and returned to the meek for the happiness of the meek.’

Perhaps, Ivan speculates, spurred by Alyosha’s baffled protests, the Catholic Church has been run for centuries by a secret fellowship of such compassionate atheists, spiritual rulers who love humanity more than God does because they will not insist upon a response of free love. He defends the Inquisitor against his brother’s conventional religious condemnation, because he understands that the Inquisitor is both morally serious and deeply tragic; he surrenders truth for the sake of love. Plato, in his account of the vocation of the rulers in his work The Republic, had long before sketched the paradox of the person who sees the truth and then has to step back from it in order to govern the world in accordance with it, even if this means that his own happiness must be sacrificed. He guarantees justice for all, sees that all have what they need, but has to be unjust to himself, never having his own heart’s desire. Dostoyevsky turns the screw a little more by insisting that the ruler in this parable must actively deny the truth to his subjects, because truth and happiness cannot live together.

Negative vision

The Inquisitor is a wise man, and he describes the devil of Jesus’ temptations as a ‘terrible and wise spirit, the spirit of self destruction and nonexistence.’ It is a disturbing bringing together of what seem opposites. How can wisdom be so connected to nonexistence? What does it mean to say, as Ivan does, that this spirit presents another kind of truth, a truth that Jesus will not confront? Ivan’s Inquisitor implies that the truth of the human condition is bleak: most people are not capable of love without reassurance; all will die; most will suffer. Beneath the surface the pattern is indeed self-destruction and nonexistence. What is needed, therefore, is not the appeal to a barely possible freedom, but order and controlled distraction from the truth. Who could be brave enough for disinterested love in such a climate? The requirement to love and believe without miracle and problem-solving can only spell despair.

Or perhaps, faced with the ‘wisdom’ of this negative vision, people will opt for manifestly self-destructive behavior. William Golding’s Darkness Visible evokes just the impact of this vision in a small girl, Sophy, who is to grow into the pivotal point of destructiveness in the book. ‘She has been told it often enough but now she saw it. You could choose to belong to people . . .Or you could choose what was real and what you knew was real — your own self sitting inside with its own wishes and rules at the mouth of the tunnel.’ Dostoyevsky’s Ivan is challenged by Alyosha as to whether he is going to join the select band of workers for human illusion and happiness, but he replies by repeating his earlier aphorism that ‘all is permitted.’ He will burn himself out by the time he is 30, because he has seen (so he believes) the truth and has no desire to conceal it from himself or from others.

The ending of this trial scene is probably its most famous moment. The Inquisitor waits for a response. ‘The old man wold have liked him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But he suddenly approached the old man and kissed him gently on his bloodless, aged lips.’ The Inquisitor flings open the door and tells his prisoner to go and never return. What happens to him? asks Alyosha, and Ivan replies, ‘The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man sticks to his ideas.; When Ivan, at the end of his final outburst, concludes by saying that Alyosha is bound to repudiate him, his younger brother echoes the prisoner in the story and wordlessly kisses him.

Choosing a response

It is a far more complex story than it seems at first, because it is not about tyranny and freedom but about truth and falsehood, about what humanity is actually like and whether it can bear reality with love. After Ivan’s dreadful indictment of the creation and of the apparent moral economics of a world in which the creator budgets for the torture of children in the name of a general good, there is indeed nothing that can be said in response at that level. Any defense would have to stay within the same discourse of ‘economics’ and try to show what Alyosha rightly refuses to argue, that the world is really worthwhile in spite of the pain and abuse of the innocent.

Dostoyevsky’s reply moves in a quite different direction. Say that Ivan is right; say that the world cannot be ‘justified’ and its creator cannot be defended. We are still left with the question of how we are to live in it, what we bring to it. We can try to conceal the real nature of the world from others out of the Inquisitor’s poignant mixture of pity and the hunger for power; we can elect to live meaninglessly, collaborating, so to speak, with the intrinsic destructiveness of things (like Golding’s Sophy) or simply exploring our sensations (like Ivan). The kiss that the prisoner gives to the Inquisitor is another possibility, however — groundless, if you like, but possible and expression a radical valuation of humanity, dependent upon nothing but love, denying nothing. The Inquisitor’s perspective assumes one central truth: the basic orientation of the world towards death and emptiness. His love for humanity is ultimately a desperate wish to protect it from reality. But what is such a perspective to make of someone who asks for no protection, yet does not react with either despair or violence?

The Inquisitor cannot cope. He wants an answer in his language, even if it is an annihilating sentence, but there is no answer except the affirmation that a kind of love is possible that is greater than this protective but oppressive pity. His world can only struggle to shut this out. If you grant that such a love is really possible, then the rationale of protecting humanity falls away. The tragedy of the Inquisitor is that he cannot bring himself ultimately to kill Jesus. He expels him, but still lets him live, and is haunted from then on by the kiss Jesus gave him. He acknowledges the truth of the perspective and response taht his entire system is designed to ignore, but he cannot include the whole or the heart of human possibility. There is the logic of Alyosha’s kiss for Ivan. It is a way of saying, with the Inquisitor’s prisoner, that Ivan’s story of the world leaves out something fundamental. The kiss no more establishes a defense for God the creator than Jesus’ kiss explains why the Inquisitor is wrong. Say that God is indefensible, that the Inquisitor is right, and it is still possible to see reality and love, however tormented, however restless, angry or heartbroken.

Table of Contents:

1. Mark: Voices at Midnight

2. Matthew: Wisdom in Exile

3. Luke: Knocking on the Window

4. John: Home and Away

5. God’s Spies: Believers on Trial

6. No Answer: Jesus and his Judges