Zorba and Religion 070483

I am not sure how often I have read Nikos Kazantzakis’, Zorba the Greek. It is a haunting book with a strange power to ignite and excite in a mixed way. Most of us know the story. An intense, reflective, morally uptight and very cautious young writer meets Zorba. In him the young writer sees the key to celebration, freedom and joyful living. Zorba is a man who is totally spontaneous. He lives freely, loves freely, and sings and dances spontaneously.

No given to ponderousness and reflectiveness, he is also not given to heaviness of spirit or body. He takes life as a child, trustingly, without remorse and declares that the only truly unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit is not to abandon in love (in some less acceptable version of that phrase!). The book haunts me because, measured against Zorba, most of us appear as emotional and psychological cripples, uptight, non-celebrating, very inhibited persons. Moreover recent studies have shown there is a direct co-relation between how autonomous a person is in life and how religious he or she is. The more people are autonomous, the less they are religious, and the more religious they are, the more they are unfree and inhibited. It would seem that religion and freedom are incompatible.

Where does that leave us? Abandon the Gospels for Zorba? Can Zorba challenge us to bring a higher synthesis out of Jesus’ message to celebrate, to abandon more, to be less inhibited and simply to take life and love less reflectively? Does Christian morality, if taken seriously, rob life of its richness and freedom? These questions haunt any reflective Christian. However there comes a point when the haunting must stop and some hard exorcism must take place because the philosophy of Zorba contains a fallacy, that of identifying pre-morality with genuine liberation. It confuses the mind of the child for the mind of the truly free person. That is a very subtle demon. Had it substituted anything else for true freedom its error would have been easier to detect. As it is, the book tortures a genuinely moral mind. Why?

Because it would have us believe that it is easy to celebrate and love and take life. It would have us believe that society’s rules, personal inhibitions and agreed upon standards are not important. In short, it would have us believe that we can live free as the birds, soaring, unencumbered by demands and expectations of others. Unfortunately, anyone who is even remotely moral experiences that this is not so easy, and is quite impossible in fact 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 or respect this: the amoral-immoral (who ignore or flaunt the moral structure) and the pre-moral, the children, who are insufficiently developed to recognize morality.

When a child’s spontaneity and unchecked zest for life pushes her into uninhibited enjoyment, irrespective of the consequences, there are no elements of rape of others (because she is just a child) and we see the selfishness as being cute. What Kazantzakis proposes to us in Zorba the Greek is precisely that – the pre-moral actions of a child: cute, uninhibited, free, happy, but totally irresponsible in an adult. What masquerades as autonomy and celebration is the premoral spontaneity of a child. There is an immense difference between the spontaneous naive freedom of a child, acting happily, unaware of the consequences of its actions, and the true freedom of a moral adult. The latter must be sensitive to a moral and aesthetic structure which, because it respects everyone, induces constant hesitations, agonies, inhibitions, and frustrations in all those trying to love and celebrate. The kingdom of God can only come about when all of us can sit down at the same table and share food and wine, love, hearts, bodies, sexuality and spirit with each other. That coming together is not easy, as the cumulative frustration of mankind (not to mention our own personal frustrations) more than adequately attests to. It requires some elements of Zorba: spontaneity, abandonment, and a child-likeness which permits a simple enjoyment and is not paralyzed by an unhealthy frigidity and neurotic over-reflection. However it also requires a very “unchildish” discipline, respect for all others, chastity, patience and waiting.