The Little Onion

In a previous post I discussed the philosophical problems with belief in an afterlife, and ended with a parable from Dostoevsky about an old woman and an onion. I was asked what I thought would have happened if she hadn’t kicked out, shaking off the hangers-on, and whether it would conflict with traditional notions of afterlife reward and punishment.

I think the first thing to say is that in the Christian tradition we can never talk about simply ‘my’ salvation – it is always our salvation – so the old woman was wrong to think that she could be justified in kicking the others off – she is not the one to decide how God might work with that one good action of hers – or rather if she does set herself up as the arbiter of that she will be sinning – and equally our bad actions have consequences that we cannot foresee. I think this can be seen in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘forgive us our sins and deliver us from evil’, and I think this is a key part of what Father Zosima means when he says of man:

“But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. […] Only then will our hearts be moved to a love that is infinite, universal, and knows no satiety.” (The Brothers Karamazov 4.1.2)

Certainly this was also Von Balthasar’s view. It is our salvation not my salvation – it is also our sin, not other’s sin – which is a temptation we all know well, to point the finger of blame – in fact Zosima goes further even than this:

“make yourself responsible for all the sins of men […] by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.” (6.3.g)

If we do not take seriously Christ’s injunction to “judge not, lest ye be judged, for as ye mete out, in the same measure it will be meted to you” and keep constant vigil on our thoughts, we will end up cooperating with evil. It is not enough just to follow the laws. This interconnectedness of all humans on the moral level is taught by all the great saints and mystics, as well as by Christ himself.

What does this mean then for the old woman? She could have brought people out of hell with her one little onion. The fact that she did not remain still and started selfishly kicking indicates that if you spend a lifetime nourishing mean-spirited habits, those habits will eat into any spark of goodness and grace that you have offered in your life, such that, whilst that single act of generosity would be enough to save not just one but many, it would be overcome by the darkness of habitual sin – such is the gravity of accumulated vice – or karma as it is known in the East.

Looking in more depth at the kicking out at the hangers on – I think this act of violence was as Rowan Williams says “the determination to distinguish dimensions in the other that exceed what is chosen and granted”.

Because the giving of the one small onion, even in its finitude and apparent paltriness as a moral action, nonetheless reflected the absolute gratuity of the universe as gift, it was strong enough to pull out many when received back as gift from the angel.

But the old habitual ‘instrumental mentality’ takes over, and as soon as the old woman makes the decision about what can or cannot be granted to the other, the fragility of that same gift in relation to freedom is revealed.

To end with some more from Rowan Williams:

“Because all of them [the issues that arise in Dostoevsky’s fiction] are in one way or another grounded in the question of what we owe to each other, they are all of them connected to the problem of lack of depth [what Charles Taylor calls the ‘buffered self’] and the instrumental mentality which flows from this. Owing something to another is a recognition that what my relation with that other properly involves cannot be reduced to what I decide, to what I choose to “grant” to the other. And the inexpressible or inexhaustible hinterland of the other is precisely what exceeds my choice and has no need of my license.

For Dostoevsky one of the characteristic motives in planned violence, individual or political, is the determination to extinguish dimensions in the other that exceed what is chosen and granted. And the contemporary cultural scene is one which strongly suggests that there is more than one style of violence directed against these rebel dimensions in humanity: to take the most obvious example, the global economy works on the assumption that local solidarities and patterns of shared meaning are all accidental to the fundamental practice of human beings in the world, which is the unrestricted exchange of commodity and currency. All particulars are levelled or assimilated to each other on the principle that everything has an exchange value that can be clearly determined. And the principle is applied equally to objects and to practices and skills: hence it becomes possible to quantify quite strictly the value of activities that were formerly regarded as given meaning by their intrinsic human worthwhileness, and surrounded accordingly by informal cultures and disciplines. The point at which the activity of nursing the sick can be expressed in terms of a producer supplying a customer is the point at which the culture of nursing the sick begins to disappear. It is replaced by contractual negotiations of power between the two interests represented, producer or supplier and consumer: whose will is going to be secured and protected? What do I need to concede in negotiation so as to secure the maximum amount of liberty for my future choices? And when such contracts cease to be satisfactory, there is no relation left; the other has ceased to be properly instrumental to my will and can be safely discarded.”

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