The Element In Man For Which Moralism Cannot Account

Some germane thoughts from the late Jaroslav Pelikan, taken from the “Dostoevsky: The Holy and […]

David Zahl / 5.14.13

Some germane thoughts from the late Jaroslav Pelikan, taken from the “Dostoevsky: The Holy and the Good” chapter of Fools for Christ, ht CB:

crime_and_punishment_1Wherever Christianity is viewed as a quiet submission to traditional patterns of conduct and an acceptance of social convention, there will be no appreciation of the atheism of Ivan Karamazov. His atheism begins to mean something when it becomes clear that the Christian gospel is a religious denunciation of religion–religion being understood as man’s attempt to relate himself constructively to the Holy. Traditional moralism and conventional piety have often put the objects of their search alongside God and have in that sense been guilty of idolatry. Atheism refuses to believe in the divinity of any traditional morality, and in this it is correct, more correct than some of the external Christianity that opposes it in the name of Christ. No distinction between right and wrong will avail me anything when I am faced by the awesome and fascinating presence of the Holy. Obedience to law and loyalty to social convention fall harmless to the ground before His glance…

Dostoevsky’s study of human nature made him see a demonic element in man for which moralism could not account. Like few men before him, Dostoevsky learned to know the subtle means which the demonic employs in asserting itself with the hope of achieving divinity. The temptation “You will be like God” can come in the opportunity to violate moral law, as it did to Raskolnikov. It can also come in the guise of piety and morality, and it is in this latter form that the demonic is most seductive. Then it employs the sanctions of conventional morality for the accomplishment of its demonic ends. The ultimate and most profound critique of the identification of the Holy and the Good comes in the realization that the demonic in man transcends the moral sense and the ethical consciousness. Therefore, relation to the Holy is far more than accepting of living up to a moral code. As a matter of fact, accepting and living up to a code can be and often is the device by which the demonic ego defends its autonomy against the claims which the Holy lays upon it… God is more than the validation of our moral consciousness.


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