Angels and Inquisitors

David Horowitz's new book shares a profound meditation on mortality and faith.

Reprinted from

A Point in Time by David Horowitz.
Regnery Publishing (August 29, 2011).
Price US$24.95, 128 pages.

One popular comedian argues that it must be dreadful to spend eternity in heaven. No matter how wonderful it might be at first, eventually you’re bound to get used to it and end up bored to death. By the same reasoning, one would shrug off the torments of hell over time, and the experience would be the same as heaven. Truth told, Dante’s account of the saints contemplating the Godhead in the “Paradiso” section of Dante’s Divine Comedy always bored me, without having to wait for too much of eternity to tick by.

This paradox came to mind reading David Horowitz’s new book, A Point In Time. For a quarter of a century, Horowitz has told unpleasant truths about the political left where he spent the first half of his career before turning conservative some 30 years ago. Horowitz surpasses himself in this new essay, though, by telling unpleasant truths about the human condition. What begins as a personal meditation on mortality on the model of Marcus Aurelius shifts into a rough-and-tumble confrontation with faith.

Horowitz has been wrestling with human adversaries all his life, and now, like Jacob, he has wrestled with angels. Jacob bested the divine being (Esau’s guardian angel, in rabbinic commentary) but got a dislocated hip for his trouble. Horowitz does not quite pin the matter down, but he does give Fyodor Dostoevsky’s guardian angel a black eye.

This undertaking took courage, for the Russian novelist’s “Grand Inquisitor” parable is a favorite of good people who agree with Horowitz on most of the practical issues. Dostoevsky’s discursion at the end of The Brothers Karamazov is everywhere cited as an exemplary defense of faith against materialism, by reduction ad absurdum. (I count more than 100 references over the years to this parable in articles published in the religious monthly First Things.) The Inquisitor famously denounces the returning Christ for refusing Satan’s dare to make bread from stones, admonishing him that the religion of bread – communism – will displace the religion of eternal life.

It is easy to attack the fallacies of one’s enemies, but much harder to take on one’s friends. Dostoevsky is a hero of faith to many good people; Horowitz exposes the great writer’s faith as inadequate, even twisted. The author of The Brothers Karamazovgave lip service to life after death, but poured his passion into an earthly paradise. Although Dostoevsky exposed the horror behind the socialist utopia, he conjured another earthly dystopia. As Horowitz writes:

Dostoevsky had written in his notebooks: “I want the full kingdom of Christ.” He had then crossed out the words “I want” and put in their place: “I believe in the full kingdom of Christ.” And then: “I believe that this kingdom will be accomplished, and it will be with us in Russia.” Other nations lived only for themselves but Russia was different, he believed; it was a nation that lived for Christ. “Now that the time has come,” Russia would take the lead in establishing the kingdom of God, “becoming the servant of all for the sake of universal reconciliation … [and] ,,, the ultimate unifying of humanity.”

Dostoevsky, Horowitz concludes, “had become his own Inquisitor incarnate,” a nominal Christian who eschews the Kingdom of Heaven for earthly rewards. It turns out that the writer did not find the prospect of contemplating the Godhead through eternity especially satisfying, and preferred to bring heaven down to Earth.

It is even worse than that, for Dostoevsky’s apocalyptic vision required a Satanic enemy, which turned out be the Jews, as usual. Horowitz writes:

Every quest for a redemption in this life faces a necessary enemy in the opponents of its promised future. So it was with Dostoevsky’s quest for a universal harmony in Christ, whose path was blocked by a people who were by nature insular and self-centered, as Dostoevsky viewed them – Jews. “The Yid and is bank are now reigning over everything,” he confided to his notebooks, “over Europe, education, civilization, socialism.” The Jew “will use [his bank] to uproot Christianity and destroy civilization.”

Like every would-be redeemer, Dostoevsky viewed the apocalypse as imminent: “The Jews’ … reign is drawing nigh! Coming soon is the complete triumph of ideas before which feelings of love for humanity, the longing for truth, Christian feelings … must give way.”

The communist movement to which Horowitz’s parents adhered until the 1956 Nikita Khrushchev revelation of Joseph Stalin’s crimes, he observes, was Gnostic: it espoused a knowledge which if wielded by an elite, the proletarian vanguard, would solve all the problems of the world. Dostoevsky, I might add, abhorred Gnosticism in its Marxist guise, but clung ferociously to another form of idolatry, the worship of one’s nation.

Men who have no faith in the Absolute Other, the God of the Bible, will worship themselves – either their brains, in the form of Gnosticism, or their bones, through tribalism. The tenacity of the Soviet empire derived from a devilish combination of both: the Marxist claim to universal salvation wedded to Russian nationalism.

To go straight to the intellectual core of Horowitz’s book I diminishes attenuate its full impact. He embeds a sophisticated theological argument in a personal memoir, of family, homes, horses and dogs, in such a way that the matter of morality looms up as an existential question, rather than as an intellectual construct. It is affecting prose; Horowitz is trying to show us, rather than merely tell us, the presentiment. He leaves the reader hanging with the terrible question: What are our lives, and what are they worth?

Now that Russian communism is dead and Russian nationalism is dying, the Russians as a people have no answer to the existential question. When people do not know why they should live, they do not bring children into the world. Russia is dying of disappointment: at a constant fertility rate, Russia’s population will fall from 142 million today to only 66 million at the end of the century.

What Horowitz says of Dostoevsky applies to all of the European nations. The leaders of France and Spain, the principle antagonists in the horrible Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, each believed with solemn fervor that their nation was chosen by God for his works, such that any act in furtherance of raison d’etat, no matter how abominable, was sacred ipso facto.

And Germany (where the news always arrives late) discovered its sacred mission to propagate its culture in 1914, and fell victim afterwards to the hideous delusion of its racial superiority. The terrible thing is that Dostoevsky was a typical European. Not just Russia, but all of Europe is dying of disappointment. So are many Muslim nations, notably Iran and Turkey, as I recount in my bookHow Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too).

As Horowitz observes, Jews appear less concerned with Christians with the particulars of the afterlife. Some elaboration of this would have been welcome. Eternal life and the resurrection of the dead are fundaments of Judaism, but we strive to bringing eternity into our daily lives than envision the particulars of the World to Come.

Other peoples do the same thing, whether they admit it or not. From the Jews, Franz Rosenzweig remarked, the nations of the world first heard of eternal life, but they sought to be eternal in their own Gentile skins, and tried to appropriate the Jewish concept of election to their own tribe. Adolf Hitler’s “master race” perverts the concept of chosen people (as does Dostoevsky’s notion of Russia as the “unique God-bearing nation”). This had catastrophic results.

America’s founders also envisioned a new chosen people in a new promised land – Lincoln’s “almost-chosen people”, and (as Eric Nelson reports in his 2010 book The Hebrew Republic) drew extensively on post-biblical rabbinic sources as well as the Hebrew Scriptures. What distinguishes America from the failed nations of Europe is the absence of ethnicity: because we are founded on a proposition rather than a race, language or common history, America is immune to the tribal idolatry that ruined Europe.

There are some things we cannot think about without projecting our own limitations. That is true of the vision of an eternity in static contemplation, as well as the displacement of messianic hopes onto a supposed earthly paradise. We cannot imagine a conversation with God.

We cannot imagine eternity without reference to our own perception of time, any more than we can imagine time at the moment of the Big Bang. And we cannot build a paradise on earth without magnifying our own imperfections, as Dostoevsky’s example illustrates. We cannot live in the World to Come because we do not know what it is like. And if we try to force fallible humans to live in an earthly paradise, ultimately we shall have to kill them all for their failings.

Horowitz is still wrestling. He informs us that he is not a believer. Where God is concerned, Horowitz is a tough customer. He does not want easy comfort or cheap grace. But his religious sensibility is so keen that people of faith will find his book of use – not offensive, but disturbing in a productive way. And that is what makes him such a perceptive writer on mortality.

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