Friday 7 November 2008

Miracle, Mystery and Authority

Dostoyevsky has the famous and telling scene in 'The Grand Inquisitor', part of The Brothers Karamazov (1880), where, at the time of The Inquisition, Christ is in a dungeon in Seville as people are being burnt to the glory of God every day. Christ gets recognised because of the radiance of his compassion, but, imprisoned, he is visited by the Grand Inquisitor and is told that people want bread and security, not freedom.

The Grand Inquisitor sounds like members of the British government today as they plan to monitor all telephone and Internet use (emails, websites visisted) into a huge database.

The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that the people cannot understand and even fear the gift of freedom. People surrendered their freedom to the Church, which tells them how to live and act, and it burns heretics. People are weak, sinful, worthless and rebellious, and so cannot be free. The craving of each person for a community of worship makes them miserable: to hand the gift over to what they can worship absolutely, because keeping freedom of conscience is a torture.

The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that he judges people too highly, as if they would freely embrace him, when instead they must be led by miracle, mystery and authority. The Grand Inquisitor says to Christ that he rejected all three. As such he was hindering the work of the Church that was correcting Christ and telling people to follow mystery.

This of course is very Russian: and we see today that liberty in Russia is associated with the wild east days of Yeltsin and those who got rich quick alongside gangland crime, who now seem to own football clubs and large yachts for visiting politicians, to leave a Russian population happier now that a President dodges around a made constitution to become Prime Minister and stay in control. Thank goodness George W. Bush will go: who remains, despite everything, a follower of democracy and who willingly states that he will hand power over as effectively as possible to someone who fought his whole campaign based on the utter disaster of George W. Bush.

The words of Dostoyevsky are also important at this time of the year when we remember the dead of war, particularly the First World War and ninety years since the Armistice.

There are a number of themes in the local In Depth church group that, for the time being, I am leading by presentation of material. One theme is Germany, as a producer of some of the most enlightened nineteenth century theologians among its many state universities. This was the time when persecuted Jews from Russia would try many a means to get into Prussia, in which life was then secure and progressive. Yet at around the same time (from the unification of Germany in 1870) Volkish thought was on the rise, an irrational organic system based on rejection of liberty and democracy, and all for German mystery, authority and the uniqueness of the German character (its miracle). It was intensely anti Jewish.

At the end of the First World War, the exhausted German army faced the potential of endless American soldiers coming to the front, and in one of those chaos theory tipping points, a mutiny in the navy, when sent out for one final attack on the British Navy, had a catastrophic impact into the army and throughout German society. German society had picked up the revolutionary ideas in Russia, and therefore it mutinied and the oppressive elite of Germany collapsed, and the Armistice and Treaty of Versailles achieved conditions over Germany that would not have been achieved through a simple ending to the war.

Thus Volkish thought was a platform for Nazism, and Hitler connected the socialist impact on the 1918 collapse of Germany to his hatred of the Jews. And, for the drubbing in the railway carriage, Hitler took the defeated French back there, and neutralised France altogether, while he went mainly after the supposed sub-humans of Eastern Europe as well as restoration of German lands. For all this Germany and allies had to be attacked back and defeated, and the ideology that had bubbled up from before Wagner (the composer) had to be taken from the Germans via pictures of the mass killing of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and disabled. However, the future also had to be one of economic expansion and actual liberty and democracy - in the West at least - in order to remove the history of resentment.

It was against this Volkish and Nazi thought, and against the failure of resistance by open liberal theology, that the wartime and after German and American theologians produced various schemes of closed hermeneutic circles when it came to preserving the position of Christ and of Christianity against Germanic religion: Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, even Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich. They were quite different from the open hermeneutics of Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Harnack and Troeltsch - historical and cultural theologians who were confident about the future and part of the progressive movement of Christianity (and indeed progressive Judaism).

It is fascinating to see how today's Christian conservatives, peddlars of authority, miracle and (over-explained) mystery, have little good to say about the supposed neo-Calvinist Karl Barth. The anti-liberal is not biblical enough (!) in the terms of today's increasingly ignorant selective literalism. Bonhoeffer puzzles many in leading towards a secular Christianity, and Bultmann and Tillich puzzle too, in that they are too liberal for some and not liberal enough for others.

There is just a sense at the moment that the Conservative Christian forces have at last peaked. There is retreat in their camp. This may be premature, and maybe a little too based on their weaker political impact and political sectarianism. The point, though, has always been made by the sociologist of religion and secularisation man Steve Bruce that they simply do not carry the political impact you would expect. They raise lots of money and even fund satellite stations with a host of comical over-eating preachers, but it is all towards little result in the grand scheme of things. These forces are now attacking the Anglican Communion, but they will probably fail in contradiction there too, though the damage may be longer lasting in terms of greater fragmentation of a once unique Catholic and Reformed Communion and in dividing its constituent parts.

One can always hope that, after a century of mass movements that were defeated or collapsed, there is a longer lasting movement for liberty. Maybe. We have to get through some pretty difficult economics first, though we may just have the right man in the White House for four years at least. We also have to get past a British government that long ago misunderstood liberty, and in following a South East Asian 'Work-will-set-you-free' model has set up nothing less than a surveillance society that it wants to complete via cameras, instant recognition systems and databases which means we can be free in the UK so long as we don't budge an inch.

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