Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. [Luke 4:1-2]

What’s going on here in Christ’s temptation?  More than we can ever ask or imagine, I’m sure, but since I’m doing theology right now, my thoughts run to the temptations encountered there.  One job for theology is to explain, and herein lies a temptation, because there follows quickly on the heels of explanation the temptation to cast aside any mystery or paradox that gets in our way.

Indeed this is one of the temptations embodied in Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the wilderness.  In saying ‘no’ to the devil, Jesus refused to purge his existence of paradox. The Grand Inquisitor[1] was right in his accusation: Jesus is guilty-

…guilty of refusing the chance he had to make his divinity clear enough for all to see.  The Grand Inquistor performed at Chekhov International Theater FestivalMight we ask, along with the Grand Inquisitor, “Jesus, why did you not turn the stones into bread?  You could have fed the world.  You could have eliminated suffering. You could have solved the problem of pain.”  No.  “Jesus, why did you not take the glory and power which are rightfully yours? You could have brought justice and ended war for all time.”  No.  “Jesus, why did you not soar through the sky with the angels, for all to plainly see that you are divine?”  A third time, no.  “Jesus, you’ve left us in misery and doubt and paradox, and you are the greatest paradox of all.”

“The god has made his appearance as a teacher.  He has taken the form of a servant…   …this is not an idea that has arisen in any human heart.”

 – Johannes Climacus[2]

No indeed, this is not the way we would have invented god from our own hearts.  We can never explain this type of God.  He is the God who chose not to arise as a thought in human hearts.

It strikes me that this is exactly the temptation Christ faced in the desert-to reveal his divinity in such a way that the ambiguity and paradox would be wiped away.  Turn these stones into bread; i.e. eliminate suffering, both yours and all people’s.  Bow down and worship me; i.e., abort the Father’s intent to give his people true freedom to accept him or deny him.  Cast yourself down from the steeple top; i.e., make your heavenly identity crystal clear in a spectacle so that all can see and believe.  Had Jesus succumbed to Satan’s gambit and accepted any of these three opportunities, he could indeed have rescued us from the distress of ambiguity and paradox.  Why, Jesus, did you leave yourself a mystery to us?  Why did you leave behind a paradox that drives us in philosophical quests?  Couldn’t you see the impeccable logic of the Grand Inquisitor?  Then you could truly have saved us from that which nags incessantly at our souls-the despair of doubting and wondering how you could possibly be the one who was sent into the world to dwell with us, and die with us, and live among us.

… no philosophy (for it is only for thought), no mythology (for it is only for the imagination), no historical knowledge (which is for memory) has ever had this idea…[3]     – Climacus

[1] “The Grand Inquisitor”, a short story within a chapter of Dostoyevski’s The Brothers Karamazov, is the most famous allegorical literary treatment of the temptation of Christ.[2] Philosophical Fragments, written by Søren Kierkegaard under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, translated by Howard V. Hong, (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1962).[3] Fragments, 109.


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