A dangerous and paradoxically true discussion occurs in The Brothers Karamazov, between Aloysha and Ivan. Forgive my extensive quotation of Ivan as an introduction to my smattering of thoughts…
“What do I care that none are to blame and that I know it — I need retribution, otherwise I will destroy myself. And retribution not somewhere and sometime in infinity, but here and now, on earth, so that I see it myself. I have believed, and I want to see for myself, and if I am dead by that time, let them resurrect me, because it will be too unfair if it all takes place without me. Is it possible that I’ve suffered so that I, together with my evil deeds and sufferings, should be manure for someone’s future harmony? I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion, and the murdered man rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly finds out what it was all for. All religions in the world are based on this desire, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I going to do with them? That is the question I cannot resolve. For the hundredth time I repeat: there are hosts of questions, but I’ve taken only the children, because here what I need to say is irrefutably clear. Listen: if everyone must suffer, in order to buy eternal harmony with their suffering, pray tell me what have children got to do with it? It’s quite incomprehensible why they should have to suffer, and why they should buy harmony with their suffering. Why do they get thrown on the pile, to manure someone’s future harmony with themselves? I understand solidarity in sin among men; solidarity in retribution I also understand; but what solidarity in sin do little children have? And if it is really true that they, too, are in solidarity with their fathers in all the fathers’ evildoings, that truth certainly is not of this world and is incomprehensible to me. Some joker will say, perhaps, that in any case the child will grow up and have time to sin, but there’s this boy who didn’t grow up but was torn apart by dogs at the age of eight. Oh, Alyosha, I’m not blaspheming! I do understand how the universe will tremble when all in heaven and under the earth merge in one voice of praise, and all that lives and has lived cries out: ‘Just art thou, O Lord, for thy ways are revealed!’ Oh, yes, when the mother and the torturer whose hounds tore her son to pieces embrace each other, and all three cry out with tears: ‘Just art thou, O Lord,’ then of course the crown of knowledge will have come and everything will be explained. But there is the hitch: that is what I cannot accept. And while I am on earth, I hasten to take my own measures. You see, Alyosha, it may well be that if I live until that moment, or rise again in order to see it, I myself will perhaps cry out with all the rest, looking at the mother embracing her child’s tormentor: ‘Just art thou, O Lord!’ but I do not want to cry out with them. While there’s still time, I hasten to defend myself against it, and therefore I absolutely renounce all higher harmony. It is not worth one little tear of even that one tormented child who beat her chest with her little fist and prayed to ‘dear God’ in a stinking outhouse with her unredeemed tears! Not worth it, because her tears remained unredeemed. They must be redeemed, otherwise there can be no harmony. But how, how will you redeem them? Is it possible? Can they be redeemed by being avenged? But what do I care if they are avenged, what do I care if the tormentors are in hell, what can hell set right here, if these ones have already been tormented? And where is the harmony, if there is hell? I want to forgive, and I want to embrace, I don’t want more suffering. And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price. I do not, finally, want the mother to embrace the tormentor who let his dogs tear her son to pieces! She dare not forgive him! Let her forgive him for herself, if she wants to, let her forgive the tormentor her immeasurable maternal suffering; but she has no right to forgive the suffering of her child who was torn to pieces, she dare not forgive the tormentor, even if the child himself were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, then where is the harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who could and would have the right to forgive? I don’t want harmony, for the love of mankind I don’t want it. I want to remain with unrequited suffering. I’d rather remain with my unrequited suffering and my unquenched indignation, even if I am wrong. Besides, they have put too high a price on harmony; we can’t afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.”
“That is rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down.
“Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly. “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature – that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance- and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”
There is a sense in which the journey of Christian spirituality can eventually cross such thoughts – and we all must, when combating a materialistic modern humanism. “Will you stand with the people or will you stand with God?” I have wondered, even in the confessional. Justice and morality are often atrocious things for us to behold. What if Charles Manson makes it to heaven? The existence of eternal salvation can be troubling, when you consider some of the evils of this earth. But what if our most loved family member doesn’t make it? The existence of hell is disturbing when you realize many supposed evils are simple misunderstandings – and eternal torture isn’t something that even the worst of us deserve. The pain of this world is very easy to construe against a God that seems not to understand what it is to be human. Who cares about the cliché “Jesus is the key, having come to suffer with us”? – We are still here suffering and in return we are given silence.
And unexpected death is even worse than justice or mercy. Must the world be this way, God? We live our joyous and miserable lives only to have it all taken away for some greater unseen good – and we are left in the deep quiet to figure it all out in a maze of truth, untruth, mistake, flaws, riddles and puzzles? Can beauty be found in death? Can our short-sightedness at the goodness brought about in some redemptive twist be cured by reflection alone? Is Job’s anger the answer, or is Hosea’s despair? Is any other reaction even possible? How can we be expected not to construe this as your apparent indifference toward men?
What, then, of morality? Yet again Dosteovsky speaks from the novel:
I am sorry that I cannot say anything more comforting, for active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving of one’s own life, provided it does not take too long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science. But I predict that even in that very moment when you see with horror that despite all your efforts, you not only have not come nearer your goal but seem to have gotten farther from it, at that very moment – I predict this to you – you will suddenly reach your goal and will clearly behold over you the wonder-working power of the Lord, who all the while has been loving you, and all the while has been mysteriously guiding you.
Look back at the moralizing of the Old Testament prophets and you will see a tiny minority of righteous people in this historical frame of reference. Look around today at those who approve of wickedness for the sake of their own comfort or the self-serving “love” of friends. Very few have the ability to resist evil when cloaked in propaganda or as a group action – and even fewer still can see it through the actions and decisions of people who they love who choose incorrectly. If rebellion is inevitable for most people, should we despair at the practicability of the biblical message?
In some respects, my relationships are a testament to these thoughts. There is a very real effect of standing up for unpopular moral truths, and most often it occurs in the sacrifice of relationships of those who refuse to agree – not because the demands are unreasonable or incorrect, but because comfort prevents it. No one likes a naysayer or gadfly. The truth is a terrible cross to bear when love is not simply “being nice,” but standing for something greater, pushing others to be better, and working to speak out against injustice, both personal and social.
The problem is in the framing of what evil is – which is why the dominant humanism will never understand it. What is often seen as “hate” or even “evil” in the public square occurs when a moral truism is twisted against our teleology. God is not against us – and despite our flaws, I am deeply convinced most of us or all of us will be redeemed by the Nazarene. But we can most assuredly be against ourselves or God, which only ends in self-harm, rot, or complacency. Love truly is a terrible thing in practice.
There is no conclusion to be made. This life is a mystery to me as much as to the Brothers K. Dwell in it.