November 11, 2011 / Perspective
In this interview, James Alison speaks with us about his work on the issue of sexuality and how he attempts to create a dialogical space around this topic in his Catholic context.
The first time I read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, I was too swept away with its hot-blooded madness to grasp what the deuce Bulgakov intended with his novel.
When I returned for a second reading, my pietistic judgments of the violence and debauchery obscured the experience. But the book was a gift from a close friend whose mind I admired, and my third attempt resurrected the novel for me when I, in the heat of the late summer of 2007, finished reading it in the context of what has frequently been labeled both as America’s most literate and most un-churched city.
Actually, it was at a summer lecture in Town Hall when many of the pieces in Bulgakov’s masterpiece finally congealed and became graspable within my own particular context. I went to hear Steven Pinker, renowned evolutionary psychologist and cognitive scientist whose work on language and cognition seeks to debunk the myths about the mind. Among many other things, Pinker believes that all of human behavior—such as morality and free will—is traceable to the firing of neurons and synapses in the brain. In a 2002 interview with Reason Magazine, Pinker posited:
Neuroscience is showing that all aspects of mental life—every emotion, every thought pattern, every memory—can be tied to the physiological activity or structure of the brain. Cognitive science has shown that feats that were formerly thought to be doable by mental stuff alone can be duplicated by machines, that motives and goals can be understood in terms of feedback and cybernetic mechanisms, and that thinking can be understood as a kind of computation . . . . So intelligence, which formerly seemed miraculous—something that mere matter could not possibly accomplish or explain—can now be understood as a kind of computation process.
As Pinker spoke, the highly educated, mostly white, and apparently well-off crowd of Seattleites laughed at his every intonation.
At home, I reviewed the notes I had scribbled down during the lecture in order to shake the disappointed feeling that I had returned with my bucket only half-full—my intellect tingled, but my conscience sat with twiddled thumbs, bored out of its wits, an unanticipated result after hearing from this linguistic hero! It dawned on me that much of Pinker’s talk had felt to me like a vacuous space into which was flicked little pieces of drywall or plaster filler. That is, there seemed to have been nothing I could take home and apply in a lasting, meaningful, or colorful manner. The lecture was filled to the brim with pithy linguistic theories and riddles that were just smart enough to make a listener feel intelligent and superior. But lasting meaning? Missing in action.
I wondered: is this is what we’ve come to expect, consume, and recognize: drywall and plaster? Empty half-truth.
I reflected on this. This enlightened crowd, and this highly enlightened speaker, know a lot of things about a lot of subjects. But this type of “enlightenment,” one which seeks to describe all that exists only as what is empirically verifiable and explicable, removes from the dialogue a valuable sense of mystery, of something deep that exists beyond our reason and physical knowing.
Eliminating mystery from our cultural vocabulary allows us only to talk about half of what is real—the observable half. The other elements of our lives, hearts, world, spirit, and community become unspeakable and therefore also unrecognizable, for an idea is only actively meaningful inasmuch as it can be expressed and shared (through language, music, art, for example).
The amputation of mystery from our language and conversations leaves a vacuum, a notable void, and our words of science and reason—which should rightly be used in tandem to enhance and to challenge fruitfully the discourse of those mysterious and unknowable things—are left instead trying to fill a space that science has neither the capacity nor the purpose to fill. Using science to describe the spiritual realm is like “dancing about architecture.” Such attempts (known as “scientism”) to inhabit the sphere of mystery and wonder with fact and logic, result in empty, plaster words.
At this point in my reflections, a poem by Wendell Berry struck my brain like a bell in some little lobal section where reason isn’t always straightforward:
… When the strong have perfected their triumph
over the weak, great symphonies will still
by played in the concert halls and on the radio
to console the forgetful and the undisturbed; the doors
will still stand open at the art museums,
rewarding the oppressed for their oppression; poets
will still intone fluently their songs
of themselves, to reward the fearful for their fear. Oh,
the lofty artists of sound, of shape and color,
of words, will still accept proudly their jobs
in universities, their prizes, grants, and awards.
On the day that ugliness is perfected in rubble
and blood, beauty and the love of beauty will
still be praised by those well paid to praise it. . .
. . .When those in power by owning all the words
have made them mean nothing, let silence
speak for us.
Modern people such as us will continue to speak and to express and to describe, even when we’ve removed half of our ability (or willingness) to speak and express and describe what we experience. This is what Berry talks about. In this case, we should rather remain silent so that we might hopefully regain the ability to recognize the un-empirical truths that may then quietly venture out to reveal themselves to us, if we are humble and attentive.
Humble attention is precisely what is both needed and sorely lacking for the majority of characters in Bulgakov’s novel, which opens benignly enough on a park bench near the water one hot evening as two prominent Muscovite writers argue about the best method for articulating Jesus’ nonexistence—taken as a matter of indisputable fact by both men, and by Moscow’s public in general. As the more intelligent writer condescendingly bestows his pontifications to the other, the Devil appears to them both.
The Devil! The Devil comes to Moscow!
Satan appears as the shabby, somewhat lewd and conversationally unorthodox Professor Woland, expert in black magic who is—not surprisingly—delighted to find the city filled with atheists who deny the existence of God. But even the Devil seems shocked and upset to find that the result of this godless self-sufficiency is that Moscow’s populace also cannot recognize his identity, though throughout the novel, he makes no attempt to conceal it, scattering the darkest of devilish acts across the whole of unsuspecting, unbelieving, unrecognizing Moscow.
All hell breaks loose from this point on. The Devil Professor turns the city upside down. No one recognizes him. The city that Bulgakov criticizes heavy-handedly is so wrapped up in its self-created image of scholarship, reason, jazz, and elaborate atheist theologies (or is it a-theologies?) that its citizens cannot recognize something that comes from outside of these boundaries, even if it is the Fury of Hell himself.
Indeed, the only characters who surmise Woland’s true identity are eventually checked in as patients of the psychiatric clinic. In a world that not only doesn’t believe in Jesus and God, but also disbelieves in the Devil, any contrary profession must be considered insane.
And thus, violence and disorder spread through the city and all the time its citizens can’t name what is happening. What happened to our palatable reason—our plaster and drywall? Give us something that makes swallowable sense or nothing at all.
Nowhere is this desire for the certainty of reason more obvious in the novel than in the Black Magic Exposé that Woland enacts as an exclusive, one-day-only performance.
The audience expects that Woland will reveal the secret slights of hand behind his magic, only to find, in a clever trick of irony, that what is ultimately exposed is rather the Muscovites’ attachment to certainty and their stubborn inability to appreciate miracle. This chaotic scene, wherein the Professor unhappily gives the people what they ask for (money falling from the air, an exchange of new, fashionable clothes to all the women), results in financial scandal and indecent exposure when those seemingly real treasures vanish in the streets outside the theatre after the show, along with the elusive professor Woland. This scene uncovers the ultimate uncertainty of tangible, material reality.
In the midst of the outrageous hubbub, Woland questions whether Man can reasonably expect to be in control and certain about anything:
If there is no God, then, the question is who is in control of man’s life and the whole order of things on earth? . . . . In order to be in control, you have to have a definite plan for at least a reasonable period of time. So how, may I ask, can man be in control if he can’t even draw up a plan for a ridiculously short period of time, say a thousand years, and is moreover unable to ensure his own safety for even the next day? . . . . Yes, man is mortal, but that isn’t so bad. What’s bad is that sometimes he’s unexpectedly mortal, that’s the rub!
Clearly, in Bulgakov’s topsy-turvy narrative, no one is less in control than those who think they have it all figured out—these unfortunate characters are met with beheadings, transfigurations, unreasonable instantaneous transportations, frauds, scams, disappearances, beatings, jailings, and the quite-popular admittance to the insane asylum. Woland seems intent to disrupt every notion of order.
Yet in a strange paradox of the novel, all of the Devil’s attempts to stir up evil and disbelief somehow have the opposite effect, creating instead magic, beauty, and redemption. The reader, if she is a spiritual person, is left to wonder about her own certainty that it is in fact the Devil who has appeared in Moscow, or whether it is some kind of mischievous manifestation of God—a sheep in wolf’s clothing in a pen whose shepherds don’t believe in the existence of sheep or wolves—who delights in turning all of our notions on their head. Or, alternatively, is Bulgakov remarking upon the ability of the divine ultimately to fashion hope and goodness from disbelief and evil? God only knows!
There is, in the novel, one character whose complete awareness to the present allows her to immediately ascertain and recognize Satan. The novel’s heroine, Margarita, is a woman focused unwaveringly on her single quest to be reunited with The Master, her lover, whose story about Pontius Pilate we receive in chunks throughout the book. She, unlike anyone else in the book, believes adamantly in the power and wonder of love, the power of something real beyond what is observable, and when she meets Woland, she knows who and what he is, and accepts—without hesitation—his offer to her to be reunited with The Master.
Anyone else, not recognizing the Devil, would have found this Faustian offer ludicrous and unacceptable (or straightjacket-worthy)—a fool’s hope—but Margarita seizes the gift, knowing that at such a moment when the promise of happiness is offered, only a fool would question the existence of the extended hands. What matters is only this unreasonable gift, and the active belief that one can—as if by magic—accept it. This is what makes Margarita the most powerful and clear-eyed character in the entire hot-blooded mess that inhabits the novel. She alone accepts the mystery of the evil (or good?) deity because she is the only character not bound to the limits of the explicable.
And I wonder if it wasn’t some devilish slight of Fate when, just after I finished reading The Master and Margarita, and just after I’d heard Pinker’s scientific sermon, I sat one warm summer evening on a bench overlooking the water, as my atheist boyfriend told me that our ten-day relationship was over, because he just couldn’t date someone who believed in God.
Astonished and slightly confused, since we hadn’t yet discussed our theological beliefs in much depth, I looked at the sky twinkling above—us a pair of specks on a bench—and at the hundreds of dancing reflections in the water, all moving in random which-ways, every moment changing and every moment only to exist in that exact state for once in all eternity—and I asked him: “Why is it that you think I believe in God?” (I tried to scan my memory of the past two weeks—had I unwittingly worn my WWJD underwear or hummed “Jesus Loves Me” when washing the dishes?)
He answered: “I know you believe in God because you practice gratitude.”
What the hell?!
This may have been the most notable breakup I’ve had, if only because it produced the opposite effect than what might have been expected. I found the statement not only to be an enormous—if inadvertent—compliment, but also it was exhilarating, incredible.
He’s right. He’s right! The Devil take me if I am not grateful for this air that fills my lungs, for the water that feeds my body, for this opportunity to exist as a speck on a bench in late summer in the middle of a vast universe. The Devil take me if I don’t grab hold of this gift with both hands, all the while yelling “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” to the un-explained hands that have given it to me—Devil or Divine, mischief-maker or do-gooder—why quarrel about their existence? What’s important is that they exist to offer this beauty around me, and also that I exist—for some reason, maybe even for no reason that exists within reason, and God, am I grateful.
I don’t think my new ex-boyfriend had anticipated this reaction. I was smiling and full of life, ready to hop onto a flying pig or ride a hand-basket off to God-knows-where. I was so astonished by his admission that gratitude and faith went hand in hand, and that he could, in one fell swoop, refuse to take hold of both. How could he willingly give up that acceptance of something wonderful, just because he couldn’t understand the where-from or why of it? He didn’t seem able to recognize what was behind the incredible folly or madness or divinity or devilishness or magic—call it what you will—that was in me. Or maybe I should rather say that I was in It.
I was Bulgakov’s Margarita, naked and supremely grateful and happy, and he was the fully-clothed cynic, wanting something more but only seeing the ideas that confine themselves to the narrow bridge of reason stretching out like a splinter into our universe.
Then I felt sorry for him, and for all the characters in Bulgakov’s book, whose philosophical müesli consists only of the flakes of truth which can logically be defined, without the fruit and honey of wonder. I can only hope that there is a gentle redemption for the cynics too, as there seems to be eventually in Bulgakov’s novel, and that disorder is somehow mysteriously transformed into beauty at the very end. I am so incredibly grateful for flavors that are ineffable, for the incarnational chewiness of miracle, and experiences that escape definition. They drive me to silently view our universe in awe and gratitude, for the wholeness of all that exists—known and unknown—and to accept and embrace that gift as it carries me—where?—only God knows!
 Ronald Bailey and Nick Gillespie “Biology vs. the Blank Slate: Interview with Steven Pinker.” Reason Magazine, October 2002.
 I don’t mean to say that Steven Pinker isn’t brilliant. He is brilliant and his work is incredible, and he doesn’t need my endorsement here that he is brilliant. I would advise others to read him, his work on language acquisition and the mind and to form their own opinions. These reactions, however, are from my gut feelings after his lecture, which is a more visceral experience and something quite different from reading about ideas in a book, and which has to do as well with the experience of hearing him in the crowd at Town Hall.
 Wendell Berry. Given Poems, VII (Berkeley: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005) 128.
 Michael Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. (New York: Vintage Press, 1938) 8-9.
Becky Crook currently lives in Berlin, Germany. She occasionally teaches English as a second language, works as an independent editor, and continues to improve her German. She writes poetry and short stories (in English), and her essay, “Reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita while Dating an Atheist in Seattle” is featured in our new book, “God is Dead” and I Don't Feel So Good Myself: Theological Engagments with the New Atheism.