I loved this book! It puzzles me deeply why some Christians didn't like it. Perhaps a statement such as "Christ is both fully divine and fully human" can sometimes sound fine to people as an idea, but we don't want to think through what that means in actuality. We still want to think of Christ as 100% divine and maybe 10, maybe 20% human. Heaven forbid that he be actually, you know, human
I was raised Catholic, but was in my high school religious exploration phase, and was actually Buddhist at the time I encountered this book and Kazantzakis' other masterpiece Zorba the Greek. This book had the effect of pulling me back towards Christianity, a pull I still feel today, because it opened up to me a deep connection with the character of Christ. And because Kazantzakis' struggles with Buddhism resonated with me, his theme of being torn between a life of contemplation and renunciation on the one hand, and one of action, usefulness, and industry on the other. This is also the central choice Jesus makes in the book. Should he be a man or should he become the Christ? Is life's meaning in the doing, in daily accomplishments, politics, struggles, successes? Or is it to be found in ideas, pure thought and ideals, spiritual contemplation, and renunciation?
This question of Kazantzakis which runs throughout his work, came to him in the context of the Greek civil war, to which some of dearest friends were giving their lives at the time he wrote. I can see the young man he was then, someone not much older than I at the time of my high school searchings, and torn between choices for his own life.
Paradoxically Jesus' ultimate choice, though an act of renunciation on the surface, caused the profoundest transformation of the universe possible, became the most important action anyone ever did. So thought and action through Christ become one choice.
I have a friend, Katharina, who feels that if she were Mary, if she were Jesus' mother, she would have wanted him to grow up to be a happy, normal, married, steady carpenter. That would be her wish for her son and for the whole universe. That worries me, and I can't get it out of my mind. You mean, you'd rather there have been no Christ in the history of the universe? So your son could have a normal life? Isn't his surpassing joy now in triumph not worth the cost? All of our joy and our salvation? No. Marriage, kids, mastery of his craft, daily bread, plain happiness, is what she would wish for her son. And I mean, who can look at The Pieta and not understand in some way that wish? What heartbreak could ever surpass that of this lone woman cradling the torn body of her first and favorite son?
So the dichotomy resonated with me in high school. At the time Buddhism seemed to call me into a life of contemplation and renunciation, and Christianity into full engagement with an active life. That may simply have been my misunderstanding of Buddhism, since Matthieu Ricard seems to feel empowered by his religion to establish clinics and schools all over the Himilayas. In fact, I'm just realizing this instant that both religions actually call us to both halves of the central question, both to the truest ideals and the most active of actual lives. At the time, though, it seemed very different.
To finish the story, in high school I eventually settled on Science and Atheism as my religion. It remained so until the latter half of my third decade, in which I was called back to Christianity, specifically this time to the Mormons (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). Mormons don't have any great literature to their credit yet, at least not that I've found, I may be slandering someone by this statement. But the restored gospel itself has all the greatness required, and Kazantzakis' view matches the real and living person of Christ I find in it more closely than any other depiction of the paradoxical divine and human man.
It may just be that my fundamental way of understanding the world is through literature, and this novel speaks to me of the living Christ more clearly than sutras or scriptures can.