First Thoughts on Reading “The Last Temptation of Christ”

I’ll start out by saying that I think there is room for a novel which explores the opening of the awareness of Jesus of Nazareth that He was truly the Son of God, begotten of the Father and not made. Various thinkers have noted: to grow up to be truly man, Jesus of Nazareth would have had to be sheltered from the divinity of His own Person. I think it’s better to say: as He developed as a true man, Jesus of Nazareth would have become aware of God and thus aware of His own identity in a manner parallel to the development of His moral nature. Our basic moral characters develop during the first seven years or so of our lives and our abilities to reason abstractly develop over the course of our adolescence.

I’m writing this when I’ve only read 200 of 500 pages. So far, I find The Last Temptation of Christ to be a little bit of a miss but very interesting and not all that disturbing to my orthodox Christian sensibilities. Nikos Kazantzakis took on a question worthy of a mighty writer:

What was it like for Jesus of Nazareth to become aware that He is God?

The stakes are high: protecting not God Who needs not our protection but rather protecting our orthodox view of Jesus Christ as true God and true man and also protecting the orthodox view that it is possible for man to become divine by imitation, not inherently but rather by means of an ongoing gift which comes to those infused with the very stuff of Christ Himself.

The point I wish to make now is that the Calvinistic and Lutheran belief that sin, perhaps even total depravity, is metaphysically necessary in any creature, in any human being, leaves no room for God Himself to take on a human nature free of sin. While God might have shielded Jesus of Nazareth from actual commission of sinful acts, that Jesus would have been inherently a sinful man.

Sin isn’t metaphysically necessary nor is it even defined in metaphysical terms but rather in contextual terms where the context is a particular phase of God’s Creation, a world. Creatures have desires which are necessary for survival and for reproduction, but those desires can be developed in good and moral directions. This teaching of the Catholic Church, perhaps reaching some sort of culmination in the thoughts of John Paul II, is at odds with the modern viewpoint that places desires ahead of the intentions which can be met by proper disciplined forms of those desires. The physical and emotional pleasures of sexuality are now considered to be ends rather than means to help us take on the difficult duties of parenthood and of particular roles in the formation of human communities.

The idea that all creatures are inherently depraved, that sin is a metaphysical necessity, would tell us that no man could be perfect and thus God could not take on human flesh without surrendering His perfection. On the other hand, if Jesus Christ is truly man as well as being truly God, then it is possibly, however unlikely, that other men could even achieve a state of sinlessness in this life and certain that God would help resurrected men to achieve a state of sinlessness on the other side of the grave.

Kazantzakis makes a claim similar to Calvinism in the way he tells the story of Jesus becoming aware of His own divinity, though he avoids some of the worst consequences by the very earthiness which he falsely thinks to be in conflict with holiness. The author of “Zorba the Greek” assumes it to be natural for a man to be an earthy peasant powered by love of women, song and dance, good food and good drink. Holiness must be gained by painful ascetic practices and a constant battle against the self. He seems to feel the Gospels distort matters by presenting Jesus of Nazareth as a man who could enjoy the pleasures of the world while being quite able to give up those which were not appropriate to the life He was to give to the Father. On the other hand, unlike consistent Calvinists and Lutherans, he seems to think the battle for holiness can be won — a true man, even God Incarnate, is depraved in his natural self but that natural self can be beaten into a better form.

Kazantzakis presents us with a cast of characters who struggle nonstop against feelings of lust. Jesus is ascending to an awareness of His own divinity by way of nail-studded belts which He uses in merciless episodes of self-flagellation and by positively seeking humiliation and degradation. He is fighting His desires to settle down to a peaceful life; in modern terms: a nice, middle-class life in a suburban ranch-house where man and wife, two children, and a friendly dog live in contentment.

In this lies one of Kazantzakis’ most profound insights: sometimes and perhaps often, the greatest danger of lust is that it might drive us into a life of complacency, of cowardly niceness. But there is not only the example of Jesus in the Gospels but also the example of others in human history who could discipline their passions, even to give up some natural human activities, for the good of God or their fellow-men. Some can love God and be at peace with Creation and its Creator without falling into states of complacency or indifference and without having to engage in constant painful battles with lust.

Against Kazantzakis, the Gospels present Jesus of Nazareth as being in such a peaceful state when He first enters public life. His mother is sometimes presented as being in such a state, though there are hints of agitation because of her concern for her Son and her doubts about His identity. A recognition of Mary’s doubts is no lack of respect for her but rather a realization that she couldn’t have even formed the ideas we attribute to her. The Gospels indicate that Jesus Himself used phrases like “I and the Father are one” rather than “I am God”. That second claim would have been gibberish at the time however rational and orthodox it might seem to a post-Resurrection Christian. To say “I am God” would have been the same as saying “I am the Father”. The Gospels tell us that Jesus Christ made the claim of divinity and they also tell us that St. Peter and St. Thomas acknowledged the claim, but it took centuries for proper language to emerge and a fuller understanding wasn’t possible until that language existed. It seems certain to me that even most of those who had known Jesus would have heard St. Thomas’ exclamation, “My God and my Lord” as “My god and my lord”. Not Doubting Thomas but rather Pagan Thomas. It wasn’t a simple matter of inventing words but rather a matter of allowing old words to be used in new ways, of developing new words and concepts, and also of developing the context, most importantly — the Mass.

Many Christian thinkers, theologians and clergymen, read Karl Barth with great approval as that dour Calvinist pushes God away from His own Creation with great fervor and then condemn Kazantzakis for exploring the way in which Jesus of Nazareth grew as a true man becoming aware of His divinity in processes which very likely ran parallel to His discovery of Himself as a man while He was passing through adolescence. In this, I fear the neo-orthodox, along with their more liberal Calvinist brethren, show their basic sympathy for a Unitarian form of paganism.

We know too much about human nature and its development over childhood and adolescence to avoid dangerous questions about Jesus of Nazareth. Kazantzakis asked the right question for our age: what was it like for Jesus of Nazareth to come to full, conscious realization that He was God? This question is not forced by our scientific knowledge. Rather does that knowledge open up new possibilities for deeper understandings of human nature and, thus, new possibilities for deeper understandings of the Incarnation of the Son of God. Kazantzakis went wrong in a few ways — in my opinion, one of those ways being his belief that Jesus’ self-awareness would have come upon Him in the form of a brutal attack by God. He ignores the possibility, more consistent with the Bible, that the young Jesus would have felt Himself in a profound communion with God though not able to formulate the meaning of this communion because His brain hadn’t yet developed its capacity for abstract reasoning — which develops during adolescence. Even when abstract reasoning came, He would have been short words and concepts for His human brain to deal with His feelings of that profound and disturbing truth of His divinity. True man, His awareness of His own true identity would have moved along with the development of His human nature.

We must respect the true manhood as well as the true divinity of Jesus Christ if we are to remain true Christians.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Christianity, Modern culture, Moral issues, philosophy, Religion, The nature of sin

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