Wednesday, October 16, 2013

God, Faith, and Onions

I finished reading The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, considered one of the best novels of all time. Several months ago I finished an equally thick book, American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. It has won the Hugo and Nebula awards.

Dostoevsky is a favorite writer of Pope Francis. The Brothers Karamazov was cited in a recent New York Times article as an example of literature that teaches readers to better understand human nature. Gaiman is a contemporary fantasy writer, and American Gods is considered his masterpiece so far. People either love it, or they hate it.

The Brothers Karamazov is a family drama about a man and his three sons. The father is murdered, and the eldest son is accused of the murder.

Father Karamazov is a reprehensible drunk and womanizer who married two woman and raped another, fathering four sons. The women died of neglect, and his children only survived because maternal relatives rescued them. He does have a way with money, but has no intention of sharing it with his sons.
As a girl I loved the character of Alyosha, the youngest brother who leaves the monastery to serve the needs of his troubled family. He knows he shares his family's tumultuous character and does not hold himself above them.

Some of the most beautiful language in the book surrounds Alyosha's mystic transformation when he grapples with his faith. His spiritual father, Father Zossima, has died but his sainthood is questioned when the corpse begins to smell.

Alyosha's faith crisis leads him to Grushenka, who had been seduced as a girl, abandoned by her family, and taken as a mistress of an older rich man who teaches her the money lending business. She had planned to corrupt the high minded young monk. Alyosha calls her sister, an act that begins her redemption. She tells him an old Russian folk tale about sufferers in Hell crying for release. They are asked what one good deed they had ever done. A woman says she once gave an onion to a starving person. The angel holds the onion to the woman, who grasps it and is raised from her torment. Grushenka tells Alyosha he has held to her an onion and has saved her.

From this they both experience a new found self-identity and faith. Alyosha returns to the monastery and in prayer vigil over Father Zossima has a dream. He wakes and runs outdoors:

 "...his soul, overflowing with rapture, yearned for freedom, space, openness. The vault of heaven, full of soft shining stars, stretched vast and fathomless above him. The Milky Way ran in two pale streams from the zenith to the horizon. The fresh, motionless, still night enfolded the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the cathedral gleamed out against the sapphire sky. The gorgeous autumn flowers, in the beds round the house, were slumbering till morning. The silence of the earth seemed to melt into the silence of the heavens. The mystery of earth was one with the mystery of the stars..."

Alyosha throws himself to the earth in sobbing and rapture, an ecstasy from experiencing "threads from all those innumerable worlds of God, linking his soul to them, and it was trembling all over "in contact with other worlds." He longed to forgive every one and for everything and to beg forgiveness. Oh, not for himself, but for all men, for all and everything." 

Father Zossima had told Alyosha his place is in the world, helping his brothers. Alyosha leaves the sanctuary of the monastery and puts on European dress to find his true calling.
Ivan is Alyosha's elder brother. Their mother turned to a fervent faith in her despair over her husband's treatment. Ivan is a nihilist, influenced by European thought of the time, and believes that 'everything is lawful'. Ivan and Katrina, Dimitri's fiance, fall in love. But she is too proud to admit it, and sticks to Dimitri even when he rejects her for Grushenka. Her 'love' for Dimitri is only pride, for when she had offered her body for his financial help to aid her father, he gave her the money without exacting the payment of her virginity.

Ivan's 'poem' The Grand Inquisitor, told to Alyosha, is the most famous scene in the book. Here is Sir John Gielgud as the Inquisitor  performing the scene: The message is that mankind does not want freedom or free will, but only to be fed, and so God/Jesus Christ chose a path to failure. Ivan grapples with his complicity in his father's murder, and lapses into brain fever, conversing with the Devil. 
Dimitri is the oldest brother whose military career has been curtailed by his proliferate life and anger management problems. He shares his father's appetites, yet holds a high sense of honor. After his mother's death he is rescued by the family servant Grigory who takes care of him until his mother's cousin takes him in. Dimitri only meets his father again when he comes of age and returns to claim his mother's inheritance. He meets his father's business partner Gruskenka and falls in lust for her. But his father offers Dimitri's inheritance to Grushenka if she comes to his bed. Gruskenka toys with them both, holding on to a girl's fantasy of her seducer returning like a white knight to rescue her. An epic battle begins.
The last brother, Smerdykov, is an illegitimate son fathered on the village idiot and brought into the household by the childless servant Grigory. He has epilepsy, as did Dostoevsky. He tries to gain Ivan's approval, and covertly suggests a plan to kill their father and steal the money set aside for Grushenka's favors. 

The father is murdered, and all evidence points to Dimitri who had publicly raged his hate against his father. His brothers and the two women who loved him waffle over their belief in his innocence...except Alyosha who totally believes Dimitri could not have murdered his own father.
The book is about the trial and outcome. It is about the inner souls of these brothers. It is about women who prefer self-laceration to love. It is about faith and God and the church. It is about big ideas.

One of the street boys tells Alyosha, "God is only a hypothesis, but...I admit that He is needed...for the order of the universe and all that...and that if there were no God he would have to be invented." Alyosha chides that he has only repeating what he has heard. 

"Come, you want obedience and mysticism, " the boy answers, "You must admit that the Christian religion, for instance, had only been of use to the rich and powerful to keep the lower classes in slavery." 

"You know, Kolya, you will be very unhappy in your life," Alyosha warns.
If the Grand Inquisitor believes humans create their own preferred gods, Neil Gaiman's book asks what happens to gods when people no longer believe in them.
File:American gods.jpg

The main character, Shadow, is an ex-con with nothing left to lose when he agrees to be chauffeur to the god Odin, who is trying to organize the Old Gods from Europe and Native America for an epic battle against Mr. Town and the New Age Gods.

"Religions are, by definition, metaphors after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, someone who loves you--even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business, or marriage thrives, prospers and triumphs over all opposition. Religions are places to stand and look and act, vantage points from which to view the world...So, none of this is happening." So says the authorial voice before the battle.

But Shadow thinks, "People believe...It's what people do. They believe. And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. people imagine, and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen."

Odin asks Shadow to undergo a self sacrificial ritual after his death, where he is hung on the World Tree. Shadow learns that his whole life was orchestrated for this purpose. He was born and raised to be the sacrificial son for the father's resurrection.
These books move us to consider what we believe individually and corporately as a country or a religious community. What gods do we worship, and keep alive by that worship? The new mythologies change--Nihilism and Science to Psychology to Consumerism. Have the old gods died? And what is faith, what people want, a temporary and changeable commodity? Is Free Will a stumbling block that eclipses God? Or do we yearn for certainties and blind faith as a retreat from the horrors of our choices?
Father Zossima sends Alyosha down from the mountaintop communion with God into the world. The novel ends with a rallying cry that we may become the most degraded of people, but that one moment of true love for another can be our salvation.

All we need is to give one onion.

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