Satan’s Temptations in Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (Caleb Upton)

PT and Culture

Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his masterpiece ‘The Grand Inquisitor’, as well as Lev Tolstoy in his The Gospel in Brief, both comment on, recapitulate, and in some manner ‘translate’, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13) with varying interesting results. Let us compare Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and the Gospel accounts together to see how this story serves not only as Dostoyevsky saw them . . . nor only as Tolstoy saw them . . . but also as a profound critique of our current economic geopolitical situation, and pointing to our way out of the systems that enslave us.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his masterpiece ‘The Grand Inquisitor‘, as well as Lev Tolstoy in his The Gospel in Brief, both comment on, recapitulate, and in some manner ‘translate’, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13) with varying interesting results. Let us compare Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and the Gospel accounts together to see how this story serves not only as Dostoyevsky saw them, as the ‘but three human phrases’ in which ‘the entire future history of the world and mankind’ was enveloped, nor only as Tolstoy saw them, as part of ‘the only doctrine which gives a meaning to life’, but also as a profound critique of our current economic geopolitical situation, and pointing to our way out of the systems that enslave us. Of the first temptation, of that changing the stones into bread, Dostoyevsky in his portrayal of the Inquisitor’s understanding of the temptations, anticipates by almost a hundred years John Howard Yoder, who argues in The Politics of Jesus  that the temptations of Satan to Jesus were not temptations to sin, but rather temptations to differing options of how to be a Messiah/King. Satan is not attempting to get Jesus to sin or prove that he is the Son of God, but rather to influence Jesus’ entire missional program as the Messiah from the beginning. Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor understands that the temptation Satan was offering Jesus in the wilderness, was not to satisfy Jesus’ own hunger alone- no, the temptation was to use the promise of material prosperity to enslave people. Tolstoy misses this entire schema, ironically, because he was reading the narrative in the ascetic manner, most likely the same manner that the established Russian Orthodox church of his period did- as a narrative about the primacy of spirit over flesh for individual conscience. In Tolstoy’s reading, Satan is tempting Jesus to do a magic trick to prove that he is the Son of God, and, with Tolstoy’s typical antipathy for the miraculous, Jesus refuses to perform it because his spirit has no need for material bread. But the Gospel account does not show the disregard Tolstoy has for the material—as a dear friend used to say at breakfast, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but it helps’. But what of this idea that people could be enslaved by the promise of material prosperity? Dostoyevsky puts into the mouth of his Inquisitor the words, speaking to Jesus, “…mankind will proclaim with the lips of its wisdom and science that there is no crime and consequently no sin either, but only the hungry. ‘Feed them, and then ask virtue of them!'” He further elaborates that the Catholic-esque state would be willing to be the paternal father-like character to the hungry and feed them, for the price of their freedom, and that this state, in the figure of the Inquisitor, will care for the weak, unlike Jesus, whose commands they viewed as only for the strong. Yes, they will be slave masters, but benevolent ones, who at the end of the day actually love those whom they enslaved. Dostoyevsky anticipated the rise of the totalitarian states of the 20th century with remarkable foresight, but rather than denounce the ‘welfare state’ against the liberty of free-market capitalism, the task is to point out that the temptation story in the wilderness is not about the temptation of Jesus to achieve utopia, as if the Messiah really had an inner struggle with whether he wanted people to be fed or not,[1] but of using ‘prosperity’ as the dangling carrot in front of the masses to persuade one to follow him. It is for this exact reason that the general trend, historically, has been that those colonial powers who desired to convert their subjugated peoples to the Christian faith were actually the most counter-productive in their aims of subjugation- they did not promise them material prosperity alone, and therefore the subjugated were not concerned merely to obtain the ‘white-man’s’ wealth, but believed themselves to have direct access to the divine. Dana L. Robert argues, in her summation of this colonial history, that,

“Christian missions pioneered Western learning in the non-Western world… Mission schools promoted literacy in both European languages and vernaculars, and they spread Western ideals of democratic governance, individual rights, and the educability of women and girls. Despite their limitations, missions through education provided local leadership with the tools it needed to challenge foreign oppression.”[2]

They did not merely want ‘bread’ but ‘every word that comes from the mouth of God’. Many, like Matthew Parris once did, say that while they applaud the morally good works and benefits of missionaries around the world in building hospitals, schools, and whatnot, they do not believe that Africa or any other impoverished country needs the ‘religion’, the ‘faith’, that these proselytizers are trying to sell to the masses. But, as Parris and other atheists may have surely discovered, Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted. And I’m afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.[3]   Furthermore, Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor and the Satan figure in the Gospels both imply the same accusation against Christ—that he is too heartless—and the same boast of themselves—that they are the ones who ‘really’ care, as opposed to those who merely want to enslave people with ‘religion’. Those that accuse the Christian faith of such and such atrocity here or there will almost never forget to leave out the fact that their humanitarian organizations, while likewise helping people, do not suffer them to believe ridiculous things. The problem occurs then as to what constitutes ‘help’. G.K. Chesterton in his essay ‘The Orthodox Barber’, begins by stating- “Those thinkers who cannot believe in any gods often assert that the love of humanity would be in itself sufficient for them; and so, perhaps, it would, if they had it.” For our purposes it suffices to point out from this that we should not assume that ‘secularists/humanists’ and  ‘religious’ people share the same definition of ‘love’, or ‘help’. For many of the former, love is mostly equivalent to generosity of material need and toleration of the cultural difference of the other, whereas for the later quite often love is the desire to transform the other, for the purposes of the overall betterment of them. Alas, it would seem that both of these impulses are beset by a central contradiction in the colonial mind-set of separation versus homogenization. For some of the former, the separation is in part advanced by the narrative of how pure the ‘savage’s’ culture is in comparison to the decadence of the ‘west’, and by this narrative the colonized are kept separate from fully enjoying the life, both materially and else wise, of the colonizer. For some of the second-group, the ‘religious’, the desire is to homogenize the colonized so they may become, in the words of the Gospel of Matthew, ‘twice as much a child of hell as [they] are’ (23:15), though under the guise of love and transformation, while an indigenous culture is destroyed. While affirming that there is no escaping the difficultly of the second half of the dilemma, namely the destruction that comes with homogenization, it does appear to be the case that homogenization may have a certain ‘kick-back’ effect of creating a group of equals from the colonized that choose to rebel as equals against the colonizers, that the method of the separation of the dominated colonized does not have. Consider the case of two Hip-Hop artists, namely, Soulja Boy and Immortal Technique. Soulja Boy in 2008 was heavily criticized for saying, “Shout out to the slave masters! Without them we’d still be in Africa. We wouldn’t be here to get this ice and tattoos.” His cry is mimicked by the cry of the masses given by Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor, ‘Enslave us if you will, but feed us.’ Soulja Boy was separated, and kept separate by the promise of material prosperity, ‘Sure’ white supremacist institutions would say, ‘he is not free, he’s an idiot, but at least he’s a happy idiot. We got him out of poverty, we took him from ashy to classy!’ Whereas an artist like Immortal Technique in his song, Civil War, raps, “And white execs that love to see us in that position/ They reflect the stereotypes of America’s vision/ They want us dancing, cooning and hollering/ Only respect us for playing sports and modelling/ More than racism: it’s stay in your place-ism/ More people are trapped in practical blackface-ism”. ‘Stay in your place-ism’ is a potent phrase for the colonial method of separation described earlier. What is more interesting is that in some sense Immortal Technique is himself the product of political science courses at Baruch College in New York City after spending sometime in prison. He was separated, and then there was the attempt to homogenize through higher education, but in the process, his higher education led to his rebellion against the very systems of the prison-industrial complex and corporate sponsored education out of which he came. Dostoyevsky’s depiction of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, then, is a profound insight into the nature of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels in its character as a resistance of the use of the promise of material prosperity to enslave people. Such a promise is essentially now the new neo-colonial method used by global institutions and corporations to lure the formerly colonized nations into a relationship that effectively still keeps them separated and dominated. For all the talk of how much material development will be brought about, it is still only a promise based upon the enslavement of international monetary standards, debt payment, and much-else. When Jesus says, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”, he is quoting the tradition of his Hebrew ancestors from the Book of Deuteronomy, where the admonishment is to an enslaved people to remind them not to forget the God of freedom that lead them out of slavery and into prosperity, by the very means of the quieting of their consciences brought about by that same material prosperity. The God of the Hebrews understands that the promise of material prosperity is one of the most effect means by which a formerly enslaved people can become once again slaves and slave masters themselves. If the rest of the world has any hope of coming into new relationships of equality, freedom, and justice, they will need more than the mere benefits of western prosperity, they will need the same transformation of conscience the western world itself needs, brought by every word that comes from the mouth of God. The figure of Dostoyevsky’s Inquisitor though notes that ‘if at the same time someone takes mastery of his conscience without your knowledge—oh, then he will even throw down your bread and follow the one who seduces his conscience. In that you were right.’ It is in the further temptations of Satan where we see how Jesus resists the ways our world enslaves our consciences, and chooses another path for his Kingdom.   Caleb Upton received his Masters of Theology in Biblical Studies at the University of Edinburgh in 2014, his dissertation for which focused on postcolonial and feminist exegesis of passages from the Apocalypse of John. He blogs at calebdupton.wordpress.com. ———— [1] Astute readers will note that Jesus several times in the Gospels performs the very miracle of multiplying food to feed hungry people. [2] Robert, Dana L. “Shifting Southward: Global Christianity Since 1945.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 24, no. 2 (April 2000): 50–58. [3] Parris, Matthew. “Matthew Parris: As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God – Times Online.” Blog Re-post. RichardDawkins.net, January 7, 2009. http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/3502-matthew-parris-as-an-atheist-i-truly-believe-africa-needs-god.

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