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Can Religion Make you Free? A Sermon on Diabolical Happiness

Par Simon Critchley
Publié par Clifford Armion le 15/02/2013

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"What is it that makes human beings happy? In a word, ((bread)). And here we return to Jesus’ answers to the Devil’s desert temptations. In refusing to transform miraculously the stones into loaves, Jesus rejected bread for the sake of freedom, for the bread of heaven."

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Simon Critchley (born February 27, 1960) is an English philosopher currently teaching at The New School. He works in continental philosophy. Critchley argues that philosophy commences in disappointment, either religious or political. These two axes may be said largely to inform his published work: religious disappointment raises the question of meaning and has to, as he sees it, deal with the problem of nihilism; political disappointment provokes the question of justice and raises the need for a coherent ethics.


‘Christianity calls upon all men to renounce this world, yet by all odds the most Mammonish part of this world – Europe and America – are owned by none but professed Christian nations, who glory in the owning.’

Melville, Pierre, or The Ambiguities

After fasting for forty days and forty nights in the desert, Jesus is understandably a little hungry. The Devil appears and tempts him. The temptation takes the form of questioning, three questions to be precise. The first question involves food. The Devil says, and I paraphrase somewhat, ‘If you are, as you say, the son of God, then turn these stones in the parched and barren wilderness into loaves of bread. Do this, not so much to feed yourself, starved as you are, but in order to feed those that might follow you, oh Son of God. Turn these stones into loaves and people will follow you like sheep ever after. Feed people first, then ask them to be virtuous. Food first, then ethics. Perform this miracle and people will happily become your slaves’.

Jesus replies, ‘Not on bread alone shall man live, but on every word proceeding through the mouth of God’. In other words: ‘eat the bread of heaven’. Jesus refuses to perform the miracle that he could easily carry out – he is, after all, God – in the name of what? We will get to that.

The Devil has two further questions, which appear in a different order in Matthew and Luke. Jesus is brought up to Jerusalem and set upon the roof of the temple. Satan invites him to thrown himself down. For if he is the Son of God, then the armies of angels at his command will save him from smashing his feet against the rocks below. Such a party trick, performed in the crowded hubbub of the holy city, would appear to all to be an awesome mystery that would incite the loyal to devotion. Mystery, by definition, cannot be understood. But Jesus flatly refuses the temptation, saying, ‘Thou shalt not overtempt the God of thee’.

The third and final temptation raises the stakes even higher. The Devil takes Jesus to an exceedingly high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the inhabited earth. He says to him, ‘To thee I will give authority and the glory of them, for such is my power and in my power to give. But if you will worship me, then I will give all the power and the glory to you’. Jesus’ reply is just two words in New Testament Greek: ‘Go, Satan!’

With these words, the Devil evaporates like dew under a desert sun.

In refusing these three temptations and refuting these three questions, Jesus is denying three potent forces: miracle, mystery and authority. Of course, the three forces are interlinked: the simplest way to get people to follow a leader is by the miraculous guarantee of bread, namely endless economic abundance and wealth. Make us your slaves if you wish, just feed us heartily. It is the mystery of authority that confirms our trust in it, the idea of an invisible hand or mysterious market forces all of which tend benevolently towards human well-being. What the Devil promises Jesus in the last temptation is complete political authority, the dream of a universal state. Namely, that one no longer has to render to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Temporal and eternal power can be unified under one catholic theological and political authority with the avowed aim of assuring universal happiness, harmony and unity.

It sounds great, doesn’t it? So, why does Jesus refuse the Devil’s temptations? In John 8, when Jesus is trying to persuade the scribes and Pharisees of his divinity – which proves somewhat difficult – he says that if they have faith in him, then this will be faith in the truth and this truth shall make you free or, better translated, the truth will free. The first thing that leaps out of this passage is the proximity, identity perhaps, of faith and truth. Namely, that truth is not the empirical truths of natural science or the propositional truths of logic. It is an understanding of truth as a kind of troth, as a loyalty or fidelity to that which one is betrothed. Such would be an experience of truth that occurs with the event of love. The second thing that jumps out is the idea that truth, understood as the truth of faith, will free, eleutherosei.

The question arises: what is meant by freedom here and is it in the name of such freedom that Jesus refuses the Devil’s temptations? Such, of course is the supremely tempting argument of the Grand Inquisitor at the heart of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Truth to tell, it appears to be a rather strange argument, placed as it is in the mouth of the avowed sensualist for whom everything is permitted: Ivan Karamazov. As his younger brother, Alyosha (the purported hero of the book), points out, the argument is apparently in praise of Jesus and not in blame of him.
Ivan has written a prose poem, set in the sixteenth century, in Seville, Spain, during the most terrible time of the Inquisition, when heretics were being burnt alive willy-nilly like firebugs. One day, after a particularly magnificent auto-da-fé, when almost a hundred heretics were burnt by the Grand Inquisitor, the eminent Cardinal, in the presence of the King, the court and its charming ladies, Christ suddenly appears. What is immediately odd is that Jesus is recognized at once, people begin to weep for joy, children throw flowers at his feet, and a large crowd gathers outside the cathedral. At that precise moment, the Grand Inquisitor passes by the cathedral and immediately grasps what is happening. His face darkens. Such is his power and the fear he inspires, that the crowd suddenly falls silent and parts for him. He orders that Jesus is arrested and thrown into prison.

Some time later, the Grand Inquisitor enters the cell and silently watches Jesus from the doorway for the longest time. Face-to-face, they retain eye contact throughout. Neither of them flinches. Eventually, the Cardinal says, ‘Tomorrow, I shall condemn thee at the stake as the worst of heretics. And the people who today kissed Thy feet tomorrow at the faintest sign from me will rush to heap up the embers of Thy fire. Knowest Thou that? Yes, maybe Thou knowest it’. He adds, ‘Why, then, art Thou come to hinder us?’ Jesus says nothing.

The Grand Inquisitor’s final question appears paradoxical: how might the reappearance of Jesus interfere with the functioning of the most hold Catholic Church? Does the Church not bear Christ’s name? The answer is fascinating. For the Grand Inquisitor, what Jesus brought into the world was freedom, specifically the freedom of faith: the truth that will free. And this is where we perhaps begin to sympathize with the Grand Inquisitor. He says that for fifteen hundred years, Christians have been wrestling with this freedom. The Grand Inquisitor too, when younger, also went into the desert, lived on roots and locusts, and tried to attain the perfect freedom espoused by Jesus. ‘But now it is ended and over for good’, he adds, ‘After fifteen centuries of struggle, the Church has at last vanquished freedom, and has done so to make men happy’.

What is it that makes human beings happy? In a word, bread. And here we return to Jesus’ answers to the Devil’s desert temptations. In refusing to transform miraculously the stones into loaves, Jesus rejected bread for the sake of freedom, for the bread of heaven. Jesus refuses miracle, mystery and authority in the name of a radical freedom of conscience. The problem is that this freedom places an excessive burden on human beings. It is too demanding; infinitely demanding, one might say. As Father Mapple, the preacher in the whaleboat pulpit early in Melville’s Moby Dick says (a role played with terrifying power by Orson Welles in John Huston’s 1956 movie adaptation), ‘God’s command is a hard command. In order to obey it, we must disobey ourselves’. If the truth shall set you free, then it is a difficult freedom - perhaps unendurable.

The hardness of God’s command, its infinitely demanding character, is the reason why, for the Grand Inquisitor, ‘Man is tormented by no great anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature of born’. Give people the miracle of bread, and they will worship you. Remove their freedom with submission to a mystery that passeth all understanding, and they will obey your authority. They will be happy. Lord knows, they may even believe themselves to be free in such happiness.

Freedom here comes to be understood not as the rigorous freedom of faith, but as the multiplication of desires whose rapid succession equals happiness. Freedom is debased and governed by a completely instrumental, means-end rationality. Yet, to what does the multiplication of desires lead? In the rich, it leads to the isolation of hard hedonism and spiritual suicide. In the poor, it leads to a grotesque and murderous envy to be like the rich. And – as the hypocritical pièce de resistance – both rich and poor are in the grip of an ideology that claims that human beings are becoming more and more globalized and interconnected, and thereby united into a virtual world community that overcomes distance. But we are not. All that unites us is what divides us each from each: the rampant growth of a utilitarian vision of freedom, the endless multiplication of banal desires. The only thing that binds us together is our mutual isolation.

Back in the prison cell with the ever-silent Jesus, the Grand Inquisitor acknowledges that because of the excessive burden of freedom of conscience, ‘We have corrected Thy work and founded it on miracle, mystery and authority’. This is why the Grand Inquisitor says, ‘Why has Thou come to hinder us?’

Then comes the truly revelatory moment in the Grand Inquisitor’s monologue, which Jesus knows already (obviously, because he is God). Knowing that he knows, the Cardinal says, ‘Perhaps it is Thy will to hear it from my lips. Listen, then. We are not working with Thee, but with him – that is our mystery’. The Church is league with the Devil. It sits astride the Beast and raises aloft the cup marked ‘Mystery’. The Grand Inquisitor is diabolical. This explains why he is so fascinated with the temptations that Jesus faced in the desert. The Church has been seduced by those temptations in Jesus’ name.

The paradox is that the Church accepted those temptations in the hope of finding – as the Grand Inquisitor elegantly puts it – ‘Some means of uniting all in one unanimous and harmonious ant-heap’. The dream of a universal church, or a universal state, or the unity of all nations, or a cosmopolitan world order founded on perpetual peace, or whatever, is the Devil’s most persuasive and dangerous temptation. The freedom proclaimed by Jesus is too demanding and makes people unhappy. We prefer a demonic happiness to an unendurable freedom. All that human beings want is to be saved from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves.

And so, all will be happy, except those, like the Grand Inquisitor, who guard the mystery and know the secret. They will be unhappy. But it is a price worth paying. The true Christians, by contrast, see themselves as the elect, the 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes who will be the company of saints in the millennium that follows Christ’s second coming. This is why the Grand Inquisitor says, ‘I turned back and joined the ranks of those who have corrected Thy work. I left the proud and went back to the humble, for the happiness of the humble’. This is why Christ hinders the work of the Church and why he must burn like a heretic.

At this point, the Grand Inquisitor stops speaking. Silence descends. The prisoner Jesus continues to look gently into the old Cardinal’s face, who longs for him to say something, no matter how terrible. Jesus rises, approaches the old man and softly kisses his bloodless lips. The Grand Inquisitor shudders, but the kiss still glows in his heart. He stands and heads for the door, saying to Jesus, ‘Go, and come no more…Come not at all…never, never!’

Back with the two brothers Karamazov, Ivan immediately disavows the poem as senseless and naïve. But Alyosha upbraids Ivan, claiming he is an atheist and saying, ‘How will you live and how will you love with such a hell in your heart’. As Father Zossima – whose recollections and exhortations are intended as a refutation of Ivan in the following chapters of the book – says, ‘What is hell? I maintain that it is the incapacity to love’. The scene ends with Alyosha softly kissing Ivan on the lips, an act that the latter objects to as plagiarism.

To be clear, Dostoevsky in no way wants to defend the position that Ivan Karamazov outlines in his poem. Ivan is, as he readily admits elsewhere, a bug, even if he is a believing bug. But Dostoevsky’s great virtue as a writer is to be so utterly convincing in outlining what he doesn’t believe and so deeply unconvincing in defending what he wants to believe. As Blake said of Milton, the Devil gets all the best lines. The story of the Grand Inquisitor places a stark choice in front of us: demonic happiness or unbearable freedom? And this choice conceals another, deeper one: truth or falsehood? The truth that sets free is not, as we saw, the instrumental freedom of inclination and passing desire. It is the freedom of faith. It is the acceptance – submission, even – to a demand that both places a perhaps intolerable burden on the self, but which also energizes a movement of subjective conversion, to begin again. In disobeying ourselves and obeying this hard command, we may put on new selves. Faith hopes for grace. To be clear, such an experience of faith is not certainty, but is only gained by going into the desert and undergoing diabolical temptation and radical doubt. On this view, the enemy of faith is not doubt. On the contrary, it is certainty. If faith becomes certainty, then we have become seduced by the temptations of miracle, mystery and authority. We have become diabolical. There are no guarantees in faith. It is defined by an essential insecurity, tempered by doubt and defined by a radical experience of freedom.

This is a noble and, indeed, God-like position. It is also what Jesus demands of us elsewhere in his teaching, in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you or persecute you’. If that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus adds, ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your father which is in heaven is perfect’. This is a sublime demand.  It is a glorious demand. But it is, finally a ridiculous demand. Inhuman, even. It is the demand to become perfect, God-like. Easy for Jesus to say, as he was God. But somewhat more difficult for us.

So, what about we humans? What about feeble, humble, imperfect and self-deceived creatures like us, the weakest reeds in nature? Does not Jesus’ insistence on the rigor and purity of faith seem, if not like pride, then at least haughtiness? The Grand Inquisitor, and the institution of the Church that he represents, accepted the Devil’s temptations not out of malice, but out of a genuine love for humanity. This was based on the recognition of our flawed imperfection and need to be happy. Maybe we even deserve happiness.

If the cost of the pure rigor of true faith is the salvation of the happy few, the 144,000 elect or whatever, then this condemns the rest of us, in our millions and billions, to a life that is a kind of mockery. The seemingly perverse outcome of Dostoevsky’s parable is that perhaps the Grand Inquisitor is morally justified in choosing a lie over the truth. The Grand Inquisitor’s dilemma is, finally, tragic: he knows that the truth which sets us free is too demanding for imperfect, human creatures like us. Whereas the lie that grants happiness permits the greatest good of the greatest number.  But he also knows that happiness is a deception that leads ineluctably to our damnation. Is the Grand Inquisitor’s lie not a noble one?

To be perfectly (or imperfectly) honest, I don’t know. Which should we choose: diabolical happiness or unendurable freedom? Perhaps we should spend some days and nights fasting in the desert and see what we might do.

Cette ressource a été publiée dans le cadre de la première saison du festival "Mode d'emploi", organisé par la Villa Gillet, qui s'est déroulé en novembre et décembre 2012.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Simon Critchley, "Can Religion Make you Free? A Sermon on Diabolical Happiness", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2013. Consulté le 24/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/can-religion-make-you-free-a-sermon-on-diabolical-happiness

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