I am not sure how often I have read Zorba the Greek. It is a haunting book with a strange power to ignite.
Most of us know the story. An intense, reflective, morally uptight, cautious young writer meets Zorba. In him, the young writer sees celebration, freedom, and zest personified. Zorba is a man given to total spontaneity, all heart. He lives freely, loves freely, and simply bursts into dance whenever the occasion calls for it.
Zorba takes life as a child, trusting, without hesitation, and he declares that the only unforgivable sin is to not abandon yourself in love when asked (in some less philosophical version of that statement).
The book haunts because, measured against Zorba, most of us appear as emotionally crippled, uptight, non-celebrating, very inhibited persons. Moreover, recent studies have shown that there is a certain co-relation between how autonomous a person is and how religious he or she is. Simply put, the more autonomous a person is the less religious he or she is. The reverse is also true, the more religious a person is the more unfree and inhibited is he or she. At least so it would appear.
Where does that leave us? Are religion and real freedom incompatible? Does religion make us uptight? Should we abandon the gospel for Zorba? Does Christian morality, taken seriously, rob life of spontaneity, richness, and freedom?
These questions can torture the mind. Yet there is a point where the torture must give way to a certain exorcism. What is at issue here is a certain fallacy that, if left unexamined, wreaks much emotional havoc. What is the fallacy? The identification of pre-morality with genuine liberation, the identification of the mind of a child with the mind of a truly free person.
Zorba is presented to us as the paradigm of freedom. But what this would have us believe is that it is easy to celebrate and love and take life. It would have us believe that society’s rules, personal inhibitions, feelings of guilt, and agreed upon standards are of minimal consequence. In short, it would have us believe that we can live free as the birds, soaring, unencumbered by the demands and expectations of others.
Unfortunately, anyone who is even remotely moral knows that it is not so easy, and is in fact quite impossible because as we try to share our lives in love and celebration without exploiting and raping each other, we run into an emotional, psychological, moral, sexual, and spiritual complexity that makes the studies of a brain surgeon look like elementary arithmetic. Only two types of persons do not know and respect this: the amoral-immoral, who ignore or flaunt the moral structure; and the pre-moral, children, who are insufficiently developed to recognize morality.
When a child’s spontaneity and unchecked zest for life push her into uninhibited enjoyment, irrespective of consequence, there is no element of rape present because she is just a child and we see the selfishness as being cute.
The ideal that is presented in Zorba the Greek is precisely that, the pre-moral, actions of a child – cute, inhibited, happy, but irresponsible. What masquerades as autonomy and celebration is largely pre-moral spontaneity and there is an immense difference between this and true adult freedom because the latter must be sensitive to a moral and aesthetic structure which, when respected, induces constant hesitation, agony, inhibition, and frustration. Loving is not a simple business.
The Kingdom of God can only come about when all of us can sit down at the same table and share food, wine, love, hearts, bodies, sex, and spirit with each other. That coming together is not easy, as the cumulative frustration of humankind more than adequately attest to.
Zorba was on to something: That coming together does require much spontaneity, abandonment, and the child-like giving and receiving of life which permits a simple enjoyment that is not paralysed by an unhealthy frigidity and neurotic over-reflection.
However, it also requires a very unchildlike discipline – wide respect, chastity, patience, and waiting. The moral order is as intricate and complex as the central nervous system and brain structure within the human being. In loving we must tread sensitively – considerably more so than did Zorba.