Embodying Truth: Incarnation, The Brothers Karamazov, and "A Temple of the Holy Ghost
by William Scruggs
Many read the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor and find darkness and hopelessness in their representations of deep suffering and misshapen bodies. This negative reality that they present in the physical, however, is the source of their hope. For each of these writers, material reality offers the potential for pointing people to truth and alleviating suffering. In fact, this process of embodying reality in the physical realm becomes the central task for a writer, who must “make everything, even an ultimate concern, as solid, as concrete as possible” (O’Connor, Mystery and Manner 155). This concern for the embodiment of the ultimate reflects an incarnational element to fiction, whereby writers might embody their convictions. In both The Brothers Karamazov and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” Dostoevsky and O’Connor raise an incarnational understanding of truth as the most effective approach for embracing complex realities and motivating healing responses to human suffering.
To explore the way that incarnation functions in these two works, it is necessary to begin by establishing a framework for understanding incarnation. Following this interpretive frame, it is clear that we must consider the way that these writers understand reality in both its visible and invisible forms. Only at this point, having considered the way that these writers present complex approaches to reality, can we begin to explore the ways that O’Connor and Dostoevsky understand incarnation as an important element in engaging truth.
Incarnation and Truth
While religious truths may be seen as superstitious in modern circles, reason is a core feature of religions generally, and Christianity in particular. In a consideration of the Christian doctrine of incarnation, it becomes clear that to speak about incarnation means more than to merely talk about the embodiment of God as an abstract human. Instead, incarnation as most traditionally understood requires making a much deeper theological claim that insists the underlying principles and forces of creation are embodied in a single human life. Perhaps the clearest presentation of incarnation in the New Testament occurs in the prologue of John’s gospel, which opens “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:1-14 NRSV). While this statement clearly asserts that Jesus, the incarnated one, is God, it also affirms a much deeper aspect of his identity. Many read the second phrase in verse 1 as a reference to the Hebrew conception of Woman Wisdom, who is depicted in Proverbs as the first object of creation and who remains with God in the process of creation (Proverbs 8:22-31). Here, John’s incarnational theology clearly points to embodiment as a key piece, maybe even the fundamental reality, that underlies the material world.
In addition to the embodiment of the Hebrew conception of Wisdom, John’s use of the Word reflects a view that sees the incarnation as the embodiment of reality. The Greek word that sits behind the English translation is logos, a loaded philosophical term. In Ancient Greek philosophy logos refers to the source of creation and the hidden truth within it, so John’s understanding of incarnation suggests less of a descent from Heaven and more of a springing up of the created world’s essential truths. The early-church theologian, Athanasius, will help establish a framework for thinking about the implications of such an incarnational view.
Athanasius begins his theology of incarnation in Eden, where God implanted truth into creation through each uttered word. He asserts that God, in creating, “not only made [it] out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them [God’s] own life by the grace of the Word”(Athanasius 30). By this view, logos is originally embodied as a common part of creation. He notes, however, that this reality, which once characterized the nature of creation, is no longer true. This movement away from a created order in which truth was embodied in all of creation comes as a result of humanity’s corruption. This departure from the imbedded truth of creation clearly parallels the fall from Eden, but in Athanasius’s analysis the fall does not stem from humanity’s access to knowledge, as many contemporary and popular interpretations of the Yahwistic narrative claim. Instead, the corruption of the imbedded truth stems from flawed philosophies. Athanasius directs his criticism at the Epicureans for denying inherent meaning, at the Platonists for rejecting Creatio ex Nihilo, and the Gnostics for maintaining dualism (26-30). While these specific criticisms indicate a distinctly apologetic aim on the part of Athanasius, they do suggest that incarnation is critically connected to truth and that the mortality and suffering that flow from humanity’s fall from Eden stem from humanity’s rejection of the truth embodied in creation.
Athanasius understands the incarnation of logos in Christ in relation to this movement out of Eden. The incarnation, as described in the Johannine prologue, is the solution to the “death and corruption…[and] process of destruction” that stemmed from humanity’s rejection of God’s Word as reflected in creation (Athanasius 31). For Athanasius, God cannot simply overturn the destructive consequences of humanity’s rejection of truth, since that would require rejecting God’s own eternal word. Instead, God is embodied as human so that humanity might rediscover the transcendent through the identity of the incarnated one, who, by experiencing death and maintaining power over it, created an alternative path of resurrection for humanity (Athanasius 31-37). In addition to this element of resurrection, which stems from the eternal word transcending life’s borders at death, Athanasius discusses Jesus as a model for truth.
It is not enough for God to overcome the effects of death, but the incarnated one acts as a teacher. In the incarnation, Wisdom, which has been abstracted, becomes tangible. It is possible, once again, to see God, the logos underlying reality, in the face of human beings. In this moment, Jesus serves as a model for reclaiming the image of God in which each individual was created (Athanasius 43). That Jesus “stayed in His body and let Himself be seen in it, doing acts and giving signs” that pointed to God’s identity reveals the need of embodiment in communicating truth (Athanasius 44). In fact, it is only embodiment that might allow humanity to return to its original status as images of truth in a place that did not know suffering. This presentation of incarnation, in which the Christ the Incarnate teaches, shows the importance of the incarnation beyond the sacrifice of the crucifixion. Incarnation includes living in the material world as necessary for establishing truth in it.
Many might challenge the apologetic nature of Athanasius’s analysis of the incarnation and desire a deeper consideration of his connection between God and truth. These are important criticisms of Athanasius’s work, but exploring these stands outside of the scope of this essay. Instead, Athanasius serves as an early influence in the development of the theme, in both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions from which O’Connor and Dostoevsky write. This brief exploration of Athanasius’s understandings of incarnation, then, points to a few necessary areas of consideration in the works of Dostoevsky and O’Connor. Our exploration must consider each writer’s understanding of nature with an eye toward essential realities that undergird existential realities. Additionally, it is critical to understand their perspectives on suffering before exploring its relationship to embodiment. Thus, the following exploration of incarnation in The Brothers Karamazov and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” begins with an analysis of each writer’s presentation of reality, which will be followed by an exploration of the presence of embodied truth in their works, before a final consideration of how they understand the relationship between embodiment and reality.
A Complex Reality
Like Athanasius’s creation, the worlds of O’Connor and Dostoevsky are composed of sense and meaning. In The Brothers Karamazov and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” their characters navigate this dynamic, depicting divergent frameworks for interpreting reality. Dostoevsky establishes the far ends of this sense-meaning spectrum through Fyodor and Father Ferrapont. After exploring these poles as Dostoevsky imagines them, we will consider the three central interpretive frameworks given by Dostoevsky and O’Connor: sense, reason, and faith.
Suffering characterizes the fundamental reality of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. This suffering seems to function as a presupposition in Dostoevsky’s worldview, as this negative reality is already present in the narrator’s first descriptions of Fyodor’s “dark and tragic death.” It continues through much of the novel, particularly in the ways that Fyodor’s actions diminish the lives of his three sons (7). Dostoevsky presents two extremes as responses to this suffering reality: immersion and escape.
Fyodor models immersion into the sensory world. Fyodor’s identity, as a sensualist, centers on his elevation of the existential reality as ultimate. From this attitude follows Fyodor’s central concern of satisfying his senses. This concern extends beyond a healthy pursuit of pleasure to one that hurts others in order to satisfy the self’s sensual longings. This cruelty is not limited to Fyodor establishing “a regular harem in his house and gave himself to the most unbridled drinking,” a lifestyle that made him absent from his son’s lives, but it extends to offering Mitya handouts with the exploitive purpose of eliminating his inheritance so that his son “might even be in debt to him” (Dostoevsky 9, 12). The elevation of his self can be seen even more clearly during the meeting between the brothers, Zosima, and other monks, in which he claims he is “a natural-born buffoon,” but also compares himself to the great philosopher Diderot for his doubt of God (Dostoevsky 41). In his buffoonery, he is unconcerned with the well-being of those who surround him, even pushing Alyosha to the verge of tears (Dostoevsky 42). This disposition stems from his high degree of sensualism and the corresponding rejection of an essentialist understanding of the world. Rejecting intrinsic meaning, Fyodor understands the world in a highly egotistical way. It exists primarily for his pleasure and entertainment. Embracing sense without meaning furthers the suffering of those who surround him.
While Fyodor responds to existential reality by rejecting essential meaning and elevating his own satisfaction above others’ well-being, Father Ferrapont models an opposite response to suffering. He seeks escape from it by elevating spirit and rejecting sense. Father Ferrapont’s identity is grounded in his asceticism and in his status as “the great faster and keeper of silence” (Dostoevsky 166). In an attempt to remove himself from the suffering and cruelty of the world, Ferrapont cuts himself away from it. His relationship with reality centers on a dualist perspective, by which the Father separates body and spirit. In this construction, the Father elevates the essential and the spiritual to such a degree that he rejects the material until it affects his survival, a stance that is clear as he insists, “I can do without their bread, I don’t need it at all, I can go to the forest and live on mushrooms and berries, but they can’t do without their bread here, that’s why they’re in bondage to the devil” (Dostoevsky 168). For Father Ferrapont, any satisfaction of bodily needs beyond what is necessary for sustaining life detracts from the possibility of experiencing the divine truth that transcends the material. This truth, however, is highly abstracted. It is disconnected from the reality he would encounter in his daily life. Even more, the path towards experiencing such a dualistic truth is once again highly egoistic. Because it is isolated, Ferrapont’s pure spiritualism is ultimately unable to respond to suffering, contributing to realities surprisingly similar to Fyodor’s sensualism.
Within these poles, the three brothers Karamazov respond in divergent ways that indicate a bridge between these two extremes. For our purposes, we will begin with Dmitri Karamazov, who largely reflects the sensualism of his father. Mitya, however, finds himself caught in a struggle between his sensual longings and a desire to maintain nobility. This internal conflict presents itself in the garden scene with Mitya and Alyosha, where he discusses his love for Gruschenka despite his engagement with Katya. In this dilemma, Mitya laments the loss of virtue, honor, and honesty that occurred at the start of his affair. This lament of sensual pleasure marks Mitya as different from his father. While Fyodor unabashedly embraces the world of sense, Mitya regrets his own similar pursuits, an attitude evident in his self-flagellation for spending Katya’s three thousand roubles to pay for a trip to Mokroye with Gruschenka (Dostoevsky 118-19). The simple fact that he laments his actions reflects a belief in certain essential truths grounded in honor and nobility, which force him to show a certain degree of concern for the well-being of others. Despite his conflict with virtue, Mitya continues to obey his sensual longings. His immersion in a world more sensuous than meaningful is destabilizing, stoking the conflict that drives him to destruction.
At the risk of too great a jump, O’Connor, in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” also questions the place of sense as the primary mode of engagement with the world. Here, O’Connor reflects on the sensualism of two teenage girls, whose identities center on their obsession with appearance, a feature marked by their readiness to remove their “uniforms and put on red skirts and loud blouses” (O’Connor, “Temple” 236). They seek to transcend the group, trading signs of membership for clothes that accent their individuality. These changes relate to their own sexuality, as they “put on lipstick and their Sunday shoes and walked around in the high heels all over the house, always passing the long mirror in the hall slowly to get a look at their legs” (O’Connor, “Temple” 236). This elevation of their own sexuality, however, does not create the negative outcomes that Fyodor’s sensualism does but just creates in them a degree of shallowness that prevents them from seeing more deeply than the boys they would have though about had they gone to regular school. Joanne and Susan’s egocentric worldview does not necessarily leads to deeper suffering but it fails to adequately engage with their reality. Though they seek separate identities from the institutions that define them, the elevation of sense above meaning creates only a veneer of uniqueness.
To consider the possibilities of rational frameworks for reality, Dostoevsky looks to the middle brother Ivan. Like Mitya, Ivan is also a sensualist, but this aspect of his character is downplayed. Instead, his status as an intellectual is his primary identity marker. Ivan’s intellectual response to the world is seen most notably before he offers his story of the Grand Inquisitor. In this scene, he declares to Alyosha that having seen the suffering that plagues the innocent of this world, “I hasten to return my ticket” (Dostoevsky 245). This statement is not an intellectual position concerning the arguments for the existence of God; rather, it is a rejection of the claim that God is both good and powerful amid the reality of suffering. Instead of placing hope in a God who permits such cruelty, Ivan opts for a decidedly humanistic approach to the suffering of the world. He denounces the ideas of “higher harmony” and an underlying goodness that goes unseen, but he chooses to “remain with unrequited suffering” (Dostoevsky 245). Here, Ivan does not reject essential truth but perceives God as fundamentally opposed to it. While many see this rejection as nihilistic, it is deeply engrained in the Orthodox apocryphal tradition, whereby one issues “a plea for an explanation for the ways of God” (Holland 70). In fact, this plea indicates Ivan’s sense of love and goodness as essential realities. And the human potential for manifesting these demands rejecting a God who embraces suffering. Ivan’s intellectual perspective responds to suffering by elevating reason as the motor of human progress.
Similarly, O’Connor questions the possibilities of purely intellectual approaches to truth. This critique comes in the depiction of a girl who is dominantly portrayed as intelligent, at least in relationship to her cousins, who she sees as “practically morons and [is] glad to think that they were only second cousins and she couldn’t have inherited any of their stupidity” (O’Connor, “Temple” 236). The child’s sense of intelligence, although certainly present, is called into question because of this relationship, and it especially calls into question the nature of the child’s character. In many ways, the child’s positive attribute of intelligence is connected to her meanness, as she constantly berates others for their stupidity. Christina Lake attributes this attitude and sense of intelligence to the child’s perceived “genderlessness in this environment so charged with female sexuality” (133). Her lack of body, or rather her ability to abstract her identity from her body, lies at the root of her mean intelligence. This feature of the child’s intelligence becomes most obvious when the cook asks, “How come you be so ugly sometime?” (O’Connor, “Temple” 242). And she insists that she “would still be smarter than some” (O’Connor, “Temple” 242). But this conversation precedes her recognition of her own pride, and this great sin prevents her from sainthood. In fact, her own intelligence does not even compete with the experience of the teenagers, a fact made clear in her incomprehension of sexuality as she explains that baby rabbits come from the mother who “spit[s] them out of its mouth…six of them.” (O’Connor, “Temple” 246). In this moment, it is clear that the child’s imagination and understanding of abstraction, although important, are not sufficient for understanding reality in its fullness.
Finally, we may consider the way that O’Connor presents religion as an approach to understanding reality. Once again, this approach to understanding reality fails to hold, even in both Protestant and Catholic traditions. The title of this short story, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” comes from the teaching of Sister Perpetua, who tells the girls at the convent that if a “young man should… ‘behave in an ungentlemanly manner with them in the back of an automobile’… they were to say, ‘Stop sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost’” (O’Connor, “Temple” 238). While it becomes clear later in the story that this teaching is true, the Sister’s presentation of this valuable theological idea cannot be taken seriously. Joanne and Susan spend the weekend “calling each other Temple One and Temple Two, shaking with laughter.” (O’Connor, “Temple” 236). Here, it is obvious that the nun presents an understanding of truth that does not affect those around her. Instead, it becomes a joke. Not only is this religious truth unable to be understood by those who see physical experience as important, but also religious truth is rejected by those who most value reason and intelligence. This second failure emerges in the child’s disparaging remarks concerning the Pentecostal boys, Wendell and Cory. She describes them as “s[itting] like monkeys, [with] their knees on a level with their shoulders and their arms hanging down between” (O’Connor, “Temple” 240). This description clearly shows the inability of these boys to understand truth, even religious truth, which becomes clear when they observe the girls chanting in Latin and think that they “must be Jew singing” (O’Connor, “Temple” 241). Their Pentecostalism, or religious experience, separates them from the experiences of others, thereby limiting their understanding of truth to include only those claims that their particular community asserts without wrestling with perspectives that challenge their own.
Returning now to The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha models a religious response to suffering that most closely reflects Father Ferrapont’s asceticism. He enters the monastery as “an ideal way out for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness towards the light of love” (Dostoevsky 18). Alyosha, then, has a tendency to separate himself from the world of suffering, but his separation differs from Father Ferrapont’s because he does not condemn the world for its cruelty. Instead, he “would simply retire quietly when it was unbearable to watch, yet without the least expression of contempt or condemnation of anyone at all,” showing that he does, in fact, love the physical world even if he does not fully pursue its pleasures like his family (Dostoevsky 119). But Alyosha’s development in the novel centers on overcoming this need to separate himself from the world, which begins with Zosima’s request that he leave the monastery (Dostoevsky 76-77). This movement culminates in a moment of mystical union that follows the death of Zosima. Here, Alyosha
“threw himself to the earth. He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it.… Three days later he left the monastery, which was also in accordance with the words of his late elder, who had bidden him to ‘sojourn in the world.’” (Dostoevsky 362-63)
This movement outside of the world reflects a religiosity that rejects Ferrapont’s dualism and attempts, instead, to enter into the world as a way of responding to suffering, as Zosima models in his care for women outside of the monastery (Dostoevsky 46-49).
These three forms of navigating sense and meaning show the difficulty of understanding reality through simple sensualism, rationalism, or religions. But the discomfort of these characters initiates movement to more unified interpretations. Anna Berman suggests that each one of the three brothers Karamazov moves toward active love in light of Christ. And in this dynamic, incarnation comes to be understood in a considerably deeper way (274-76). First, it becomes clear that incarnated love is actualized only after considerable wrestling with the conflicting elements of experience. Each brother must struggle between purity and impurity, selfishness and nobility, reason and religion. Even more importantly, this recognition of the way that each brother practices an active form of love reveals that incarnation does not end suffering. In fact, it increases for the incarnated one, as such an action requires participation in suffering. Incarnation, then, is incredibly sacrificial because it means that those who choose to actively model the loving reality that undergirds the world take on immense suffering as a necessary part of relieving the suffering of the community that surrounds them.
For Dostoevsky, not all responses to suffering are created equal, and it is obvious that Ivan and Alyosha represent the most viable approaches to mitigating suffering. In “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor,” intellectual and religious approaches to truth are presented as the most effective possibilities for responding to the suffering of the world. Ivan reflects a secular approach to the problem of suffering, and he begins from a negative view of humanity, whereby “people themselves are to blame: they were given paradise, they wanted freedom, and stole fire from heaven, knowing that they would become unhappy” (Dostoevsky 244). So Ivan advocates a response that limits humankind’s ability to inflict greater suffering, which is manifested in his story through the character of the inquisitor who celebrates the church’s separation from the teachings of Jesus in order to benevolently rule over humanity. Alyosha rejects this depiction of the church and its elevation of benevolent authority over freedom, and he insists that the “poem praises Jesus” for the way that it shows Jesus healing the sick and restoring the suffering (Dostoevsky 260, 249). In these conversations, Dostoevsky presents the central problem that threads through the novel. Berman insists that this climax points directly to the conflict between the hierarchical model of paternal relationships and the egalitarian model of brotherly relationships (264). The brothers agree that suffering needs to be alleviated, but they disagree about which response is most affective. Ivan proposes a model that seeks to solve the root of suffering, but in doing so, he affirms another system of inequality that likely leads to oppression. Alyosha, on the other hand, prioritizes meeting the needs of people as they exist as a more effective response, even if it does not solve the root cause of suffering. In this way, both religious and secular approaches to ending suffering fall short. It may seem, then, that Dostoevsky sees both models as equally good and equally flawed, but it becomes clear that the incarnational love of Christ presents the greatest response to suffering when Christ kisses the inquisitor. It “is the whole answer” to the question that plagues Ivan (Dostoevsky 262). In this moment, Christ cements the human possibility for incarnational brotherly love, an act that Alyosha follows by kissing Ivan (Dostoevsky 263). This kiss moves the inquisitor to free Christ, revealing the power of an egalitarian, incarnational love over a hierarchical, socially imposed love (Berman 269).
All of these approaches to understanding reality and responding to suffering are clearly incomplete. Religious truth, in its worst forms, escapes the physical world, so it is unable to reflect adequately the fullness of reality. Secular approaches fail as well. In its highest form, as depicted by O’Connor, sensualism fails to move past individual fascination with one’s own appearance and pleasure, a state that automatically removes any substantial possibility of encountering truth beyond the physical realm. At its worst, in the hands of Dostoevsky, sensualism devolves into nihilism, where satisfaction of one’s own pleasure is the only meaningful standard. Such an egoistic response is unbounded by concern for others, so it actively contributes to the suffering if necessary for pleasure. It is not just the full elevation of the body that fails to hold truth but also secular intellectual approaches. These may recognize the way that sensualist pursuits contribute to suffering, but they also reject the truths that ground an objective reality. In this denial, rationalism attempts to establish objective truths while also insisting on their nonexistence. This attempt leads to neurosis, at least in the case of Ivan (Dostoevsky 634-35). Not only does this intellectual approach lead to dysfunction, but also it elevates the human, particularly those who also value secular reasoning. It denigrates the other to a point in which slavery may become socially acceptable, and it ultimately denies the potential of hope for progress (Holland 72). Both Dostoevsky and O’Connor see the way that reality is too complex for a single approach to truth to effectively understand the world. Instead, they seek an approach that might hold by embracing, rather than rejecting, both the existential and essential forms of reality. This combination of body and spirit emerges in the incarnation.
Embodiment and Suffering
To explore the way that our authors use the incarnation as a form of effectively representing reality and responding to suffering, we will begin with O’Connor’s treatment of the body’s relationship to reality before considering Dostoevsky’s representation of action as the only effective response to suffering.
For O’Connor, the body is particularly important. As we have seen, the suggestion that people are essentially temples of the Holy Ghost is ridiculed until an encounter with a grotesque body. The child, at the fair, is restricted from certain tents, cut off from segments of reality due to their adult content and social perspective that might challenge a child’s innocence. One of these tents contained an intersex person, so the child cannot see what is inside, but the teenagers describe the scene:
“the freak went from one side to the other, talking first to the men and then to the women… say[ing] to the men, ‘I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way’… and finally the freak left the men and came over onto the women’s side and said the same thing.” (O’Connor, “Temple” 245)
The child does not understand the scene, unsure of how this person could be both man and woman without having two heads, but this person comes to signify the divine to her. As she reflects on the scene, she remembers the person declaring, “God done this to me and I praise Him,” and then imagines that the freak says, “I am a temple of the Holy Ghost,” a message which is taken seriously for the first time (O’Connor, “Temple” 246). As she participates in the Eucharist the following day, the monstrance, the ritual tool for showing Christ’s blessing of the meal, merges into the tent, and it becomes clear that the intersex freak is the incarnate one who calls humanity to deeper understandings of reality (O’Connor “Temple” 248). John Sykes Jr. asserts that O’Connor uses the grotesque body to show “the twist in human nature that most readers ignore, and… reveal the urges toward the good that are camouflaged from the secularized eye” (Sykes 43). This understanding of the grotesque is, however, inconsistent with its manifestation in the story. The freak does not point to grace in others by denying it in themself. Rather the freak’s “inner coherence” points to a fullness that society is unable to grasp, and this inner fullness offers grace (O’ Connor, Mystery and Manner 40). This connection between grace and the deformed body makes considerable sense given that O’Connor, as Catholic, connects grace to the mangled body of the crucified Christ.
This incarnational form clearly points to an understanding that attempts to hold together extreme social constructions of truth. In a literal sense, the incarnational freak transcends the gender binary, pointing to the fundamental shortcomings of such social binaries. But even further, the nature of the freak’s incarnation suggests the way that spiritual encounter transcends divisions such as gender. This transcendence does not negate the boundaries but points to deeper mysteries that render these categories transient (Lake 133-137). We might, however, look beyond this literal reading regarding gender to find in this incarnation a possibility for transcending other dichotomies, namely purity and impurity. If the freak embodies the fullness of experience, then they naturally points to a profound purity, one that “comes either with experience or with Grace.” (O’Connor, Habit 126). So their quality, which causes society to cast them out, is the source of its incarnational and spiritual status. The freak, clearly, points to a grotesque manifestation of the body, evident in the title “freak.” In particular, O’Connor suggests the potential for embodiment to hold together what seem to be diametrically opposed concepts. In this transcendence, the body, even its impurity or grotesqueness, becomes a vehicle for extending grace. Thus, the incarnational body becomes clearly connected to the ability to hold the spectrum of reality in its palm, even in the places where it seems that certain aspects of reality should be rejected.
This incarnation, however, is completely rejected by society, as evidenced by the intersex person’s status as freak and the judgment that their body is too obscene for children. And yet their body becomes the source of grace and conversion for the child. Earlier in the story, the child would choose “to be a saint because that was the occupation that included everything you could know; and yet she knew that she would never be a saint” because she cannot imagine giving up her meanness. So she decides to “be a martyr if they killed her quick.” (O’Connor, “Temple” 243). But the encounter with the imagined freak moves her to a moment of conversion, where she asks God to “Hep me not to be so mean … Hep me not to give her so much sass. Hep me not to talk like I do.” (O’Connor, “Temple” 247). In this moment, it is clear that the incarnate one’s ability to transcend social constructions of truth provides the vehicle for a person to enter into and experience the truth in a way that leads her into a life that is more productive than negative and that is characterized by concern and love for all creation (Lake 138). In this presentation of the transcendent body, O’Connor brings out the first implication of incarnation as the embodiment of the truth that leads people to a more complete understanding of reality.
Similarly, Dostoevsky presents a religious middle that holds together each approach to truth through an incarnational reality that centers on action. This sense of incarnation stems from depictions of both Zosima and Alyosha in situations that recall Christ. The first incarnational depiction comes as Zosima interacts with the suffering women outside of the monastery. In this scene, which reflects Christ’s relationships with women, Zosima offers comfort to women mourning their lost children, offers hope to a woman who suspects her son has died, and offers strength and healing to a young girl who suffers in sickness (Dostoevsky 48-54). This embodied form of healing and offering hope in redemption stems from his religious conviction in the ultimate truth of life’s power over death. Zosima presents an embodied form of truth, which in its incarnation has the power to decrease the suffering of those who surround him. Similarly, Alyosha models a biblical manifestation of the incarnation in mystical union that follows Zosima’s funeral. It might seem that this incarnational model is passed down in a vertical fashion from student to teacher, but the teaching actually comes because of their connection as brothers, given the way that Alyosha reminds Zosima of his dead brother (Berman 272). This moment reflects John’s presentation of incarnation in John 1. This scene points to Alyosha’s movement away from the safety of the monastery, a place that seems separate from the fallenness of the surrounding world, into the world as a redeeming presence to his family. In this union Alyosha feels led
“to forgive everyone and for everything, and to ask forgiveness, oh, not for himself! but for all and for everything…as this heavenly vault descended into his soul. Some sort of idea as it were, was coming to reign in his mind.” (Dostoevsky 362-63)
So, Alyosha receives the transcendent idea, which leads him to enter into the world as a forgiving, and ultimately redeeming, force. In this scene, Dostoevsky indicates clearly that it is only through embodied forms of truth that suffering may be alleviated. Even though suffering cannot be ended, incarnational truth provides the means by which humanity might alleviate suffering.
Finally, we might consider the way that society, including institutional religion, opposes incarnational truth and chooses divisive approaches to truth. In this way, it becomes clear that incarnation serves as a source of resistance. In “The Grand Inquisitor,” Ivan expressly shows the way that the church’s hierarchal structure denies active incarnational realities for the sake of order (Dostoevsky 251). O’Connor identifies a similar opposition when southern pastors have the fair shut down due to the presence of the intersex person who transcends their constructed binary (“Temple” 248). One would expect the church to be the place where incarnation is valued most, where it is preserved. At least, that is the message that the church claims for itself, but in each of these writers, it becomes clear that incarnation is not reserved for one group. It transcends such social boundaries. In this moment, incarnation develops a pluralistic quality, by which embodiment of an essential reality and its consequences are the ultimate test of a philosophical system. In these critiques of religion’s rejection of incarnation, both O’Connor and Dostoevsky warn against groups that claim to possess the truth in full. Instead, they advocate for openness, in which encounter with the reality of incarnation leads people to offer its corresponding redemption to all people.
Many would challenge this suggestion that incarnation takes on a pluralistic quality in these texts. In fact, O’Connor, herself, would argue that such an understanding goes beyond any credible claim. She writes, “It is not logical to the Catholic to believe that Christ teaches many visible forms all teaching contrary doctrine…For us the one visible Church pronounces these matters infallibly” (O’Connor, Spiritual Writings 78). This criticism prevents such a pluralist reading that, although not intrinsically relativistic, may merge rather easily into a form of relativism. In light of this criticism, it becomes clear that this conception of incarnation is not necessarily pluralistic. Rather, it requires humility to receive the mystery that exists in physical bodies. So, those in power, whether preachers in the Protestant South or inquisitors in Catholic Spain, are less inclined to experience the mystery of incarnation. As O’Connor and Dostoevsky claim, people who maintain an intellectual and doctrinal honesty to see existence in its fullness may embrace this embodiment of the ultimate mystery of creation, which transcends the constructions of those who hold power.
In O’Connor’s and Dostoevsky’s treatment of the incarnation, it becomes clear that revelation comes through experiencing the negative parts of the material world, areas riddled with suffering and places deemed too grotesque for human interaction. In this ability to enter and encounter the suffering of the world, both writers see the potential for human embrace of incarnational truth to alleviate suffering. Both writers move past the explicitly apologetic nature of Athanasius’s treatise and suggest that experience with the embodied forms of divinity does not expressly correspond to membership in any one philosophical school or religious tradition, but follows from humble service to the world. This aspect of the incarnation stems from both writers’ recognition that the complexities of creation challenge any intellectual or religious constructions imposed on it. Participation, not just analysis, is required. Further exploration of this theme would benefit from sustained attention to the underlying values that each writer sees in creation. In this way, we might see how, and not just that, these bodies touch truth.
Athanasius. The Incarnation of the Word of God. New York: Macmillan, 1954. Print.
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Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov: A Novel in Four Parts with Epilogue. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990. Print.
Holland, Kate. “Novelizing Religious Experience: The Generic Relationship of ‘The Brothers
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