The Master Builder

This month for the Great Books reading project, we plunge head first into the modern before cycling back around to the ancient Greeks once again with the new year. Our first, comparatively short, reading is Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder.” This was my first read of this particular play and, in fact, of anything by Ibsen.

In many ways, “The Master Builder” reminded me a great deal of the works of Kafka. As in many of Kafka’s novels, “The Master Builder” presents us with an allegory of original sin as well as a modern take on the possibility (or not) of salvation from it. The eponymous primary protagonist is in some sense guilty of, yet not directly responsible for, the destruction of his family’s home and the deaths of his two young children. That event, which precedes the events of the play by more than a decade, has entirely shaped the course of his life since its occurrence.

Spurred on by a young lady, Hilda, who plays the dual role of muse and temptress, the Master Builder, Solness, seeks to build a “castle in the air.” The final result of this is his all too preventable death. It seems to me that there are two possible interpretations here. Either he did indeed find his “castle in the air,” and so salvation from the original sin, through an escape from this life or his attempt to gain a “castle in the air” was a great failure.

While the ambiguity is undoubtedly an intentional feature of the play, one could probably easily answer this question by appealing to Ibsen’s biography. I believe it is best, however, to let a text speak for itself and in this case I tend toward the latter interpretation as the more likely of the two. It is not only the more typically modern approach to the subject, but, more importantly, it seems to better fit the nature of the play itself. Solness’s attempts to climb higher than his constitution allows for brings to mind the story of the Tower of Babel. Solness, like the builders of the tower, is attempting to reach the “castle in the sky” through his own effort and on his own impetus; in other words, he wants to climb to heaven without God, as other features of the play make clear. The result in both cases is that Tower, and Builder, must fall.

Book Review: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Given the importance and widely acknowledged greatness of this book, I would like here, in lieu of a “review” in the traditional sense of the term, to offer instead a few thoughts and comments toward a possible interpretation.

There is a great deal of Christian religious symbolism that runs throughout the book. There is, for example, the wonderfully succinct statement of the shortest chapter of the book, and perhaps the shortest meaningful chapter in all of English-language literature: “My mother is a fish.” The words of a child; simple, yet poignant and bursting with possibilities. What Faulkner has done in this single simple sentence is to turn the symbol of a fish, the ichthys of Christianity, a traditional symbol of the resurrected Christ, into a symbol of the finality of death, of the eternal absence of return. His mother is a fish because, like a fish, her eyes are lifeless, she has been gutted (metaphorically, in the case of the mother), and, of course, she flops around in the water when her casket falls into the river as they attempt to ford it.

It is in this Christian symbolism, I believe, that we can begin to arrive at a possible interpretation of the ostensible insanity of Darl. Darl is not insane in actuality, but is perceived as insane by the others because of his failure to conform to their expectations. He is different. He sees through things, he knows things, and he understands things. He is the only one of the members of the family that sees into the inner worlds of those around him, that is not entirely preoccupied with his own concerns. Dewey Dell even imagines that she has a conversation with him that takes place entirely in the realm of the mind. He penetrates her thoughts, he surpasses her objectivity.

And because he surpasses subjectivity he is frightening to the others. The rest of the family prefers their private obsessions. They do not want to be known. For this reason they have him taken away. They want to be away from his presence and the insight he has into each of them.

If all of this holds, Darl may be seen as a Christ-figure. He behaves in ways that do not meet other’s expectations and so makes them uncomfortable. He understands them perhaps better than they understand themselves, again making them uncomfortable. And he attempts to save them through a means which they do not understand and will not accept. In the end, they send him away because they want so badly to be out of his presence. There are, however, something (quite modern) fundamental differences between Darl and the usual Christ-figure. He is not killed and there is no resurrection; there is, therefore, no redemption.

Jesus Christ (Introduction to Western Civilization 5.2)

Through all that they experienced, the Jews continued to hope for a messiah. They believed that the messiah would be sent by God to set things right. He would finally put an end to all of the suffering of the Jewish people and would bring about a time of justice for all people. The Jews believed he would bring salvation, rescue from sin and its consequences. In about 30 AD, a man named Jesus, from a small town in Judea, began to preach to the people that he was that messiah.

The Gospels are the four books of the New Testament in the Bible that tell the story of the life of Jesus. The Gospels claim that Jesus’s mother, Mary, was a virgin who was visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she had been chosen to be the mother of the messiah. She gave birth nine months later in a cave in the village of Bethlehem. There, she and her new child were visited by shepherds who had been told of the birth of the messiah by angels. They were also visited by men called magi, who were priests from Persia. The magi had followed a star in the sky to the spot where Jesus was born.

When they arrived in Judea, the magi went to the king, a man named Herod, who ruled on behalf of the Romans. They asked him where they would find the messiah who had been born. Herod was a jealous and angry man. He lied to the magi and told them he too wanted to worship the new messiah. If they found out where the child had been born, he said, they should come and tell him. The magi eventually did find out where Jesus was born and visited Jesus and his mother. They gave them gifts and worshiped the child. They had a bad feeling about Herod, though, so they returned home without telling him where the child was. Because he did not know which child it was, Herod ordered his soldiers to kill every baby boy born recently in his kingdom. Mary and Jesus, along with Mary’s husband Joseph, fled into Egypt until the death of Herod a few years later. The birth of Jesus is celebrated every year on December 25 by Christians around the world.

The Gospels do not say much about what life was like for Jesus and his family when they returned to Judea. One interesting story about his childhood records an event that happened when Jesus was 12 years old. He visited the temple in Jerusalem along with his family to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover. On the way home to Nazareth from Jerusalem, Joseph and Mary realized that Jesus was missing. They went back to Jerusalem and searched all over for him. They finally found him in the temple, discussing the Bible with Jewish religious leaders there, asking and answering questions as if he were a wise man, even though he was a young boy!

Most of the story told in the Gospels tells of the events in Jesus’s life after he turned 30 years old. It was then that Jesus began to travel all around Judea, preaching the message that he was the messiah. He said that now was the time to repent of past sins and to begin to live a more just and merciful life. He said that God wanted people to love him and to love each other.

The Gospels also record that everywhere he went he healed the diseases of sick people. According to the Gospels, Jesus performed many miracles, including giving sight to blind men, making deaf people able to hear, allowing paralyzed people to walk again, and even raising his friend Lazarus from the dead.

All of this activity attracted the attention of people who did not like what Jesus was saying and doing. The Jewish priests thought that Jesus’s claim to be the Son of God was blasphemy. They said that he was making it sound like he was equal to God. The Roman authorities also had a problem with Jesus’s teachings. They knew that the Jews believed the messiah would free the Jewish people and let them have their own kingdom again. To the Romans, Jesus’s claims that he was the messiah sounded like treason. They believed he would try to stir up the Jews to rebel against Roman rule.

Jesus had many followers, but he chose 12 men, called apostles, to follow him wherever he went and help him spread his message. On the night when the Jews celebrated Passover, Jesus gathered with his 12 apostles in a home just outside of Jerusalem. There, they celebrated the Passover meal together. During the meal, Jesus picked up the loaf of bread used to celebrate the Passover, said a prayer to bless it, broke it into pieces, and declared to his apostles, “This is my body, which is broken for you.” He then gave the pieces to his apostles to eat. After the meal, Jesus lifted up the cup of wine at the table and told his apostles, “This is my blood, which will be shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.” He then gave the cup to all of his apostles to drink. Most Christians around the world remember this special meal every Sunday morning in their worship when they celebrate the Eucharist by eating and drinking blessed bread and wine.

After the meal, one of his apostles, a man named Judas, left the house where they had eaten. For 30 pieces of silver, he betrayed Jesus by telling them where he was. They went to the hillside where he and his apostles had gone after the meal and arrested Jesus. They took him first to the Jewish priests, who declared that he was guilty of the crime of blasphemy for claiming that he was equal to God. Jesus was then taken to the Roman authorities who found him guilty of the crime of treason for claiming that he was the messiah and the king of the Jews.

In afternoon the following day, a Friday, Jesus was crucified. Crucifixion is a Roman punishment which was used to put the very worst criminals to death. In crucifixion, a criminal’s hands and feet were nailed to pieces of wood placed in the shape of a lower-case t. We call this shape a cross. All of Jesus’s apostles except for one young boy, John, fled because they were afraid they too would be crucified along with him. While Jesus was crucified, John, Jesus’s mother, and a few women who were Jesus’s followers stood by the cross. After three hours on the cross, the Gospels say Jesus looked up into the sky and loudly shouted, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Jesus then died.

His body was taken down from the cross and placed in a cave just outside of the city. Because Saturday was the Sabbath day on which Jews could not do any work, his body could not be prepared for burial until sunrise on Sunday morning. The Gospels say that four of the women who were followers of Jesus went to the tomb on Sunday morning, but found it empty. The bandages that Jesus’s body had been wrapped in were in the tomb but his body was gone. As they exited the tomb in confusion, Jesus himself appeared to the women and told them that he had resurrected, which means he had risen from the dead. Christians celebrate this event every year on the holiday of Easter.

According to the Gospels, Jesus spent the next 40 days visiting his followers and teaching them the meaning of his death and resurrection. At the end of the 40 days, his followers watched as Jesus ascended into heaven. A new religion, called Christianity, was born. This religion would spread from just a few followers in Judea to become the religion of the whole Roman Empire. Today, Christianity is still the largest religion in the world.


Review Questions

1. What event do Christians celebrate on Christmas?

2. What were the two crimes Jesus was convicted of?

3. How was he punished for these crimes?

4. What event do Christians celebrate on Easter?


Vocabulary Words

 Salvation – rescue from sin and its consequences

Being polite to God

Ask this question: Does the salvation of the world truly depend on the letter that you are writing, the copper you are cleaning, the sentence full of wisdom that you are in the midst of pronouncing? Did the world not exist for millions of years before you said or did this or that? Will it not still live millions of years without your continuing to be a useful presence? So give it a chance now to enjoy your absence. Settle peacefully and say: ‘Whatever happens, I will not budge.’ Say to all those, visible and invisible, who come to disturb you: ‘I am very sorry; I am here, but not for you! …’ This is what we are always doing: suppose we are in conversation with someone and another person knocks on the door, you answer: ‘I am sorry, I am busy.’ If you are busy with God, you do not say: ‘I am sorry, go away.’ What logic, what common sense is there in this? It is not even a matter of contemplation, it is a matter of being polite!

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, God and Man, p. 106


Panentheism and the Incarnation

That Deity should be born in our nature, ought not reasonably to present any strangeness to the minds of those who do not take too narrow a view of things. For who, when he takes a survey of the universe, is so simple as not to believe that there is Deity in everything, penetrating it, embracing it, and seated in it? For all things depend on Him Who is, nor can there be anything which has not its being in Him Who is. If, therefore, all things are in Him, and He in all things, why are they scandalized at the plan of Revelation when it teaches that God was born among men, that same God Whom we are convinced is even now not outside mankind? For although this last form of God’s presence amongst us is not the same as that former presence, still His existence amongst us equally both then and now is evidenced; only now He Who holds together Nature in existence is transfused in us; while at that other time He was transfused throughout our nature, in order that our nature might by this transfusion of the Divine become itself divine, rescued as it was from death, and put beyond the reach of the caprice of the antagonist. For His return from death becomes to our mortal race the commencement of our return to the immortal life.

St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism, ch. 25

God, man, and beauty in eternity

It is foolish, good people, for you to fret and complain of the chain of this fixed sequence of life’s realities; you do not know the goal towards which each single dispensation of the universe is moving. You do not know that all things have to be assimilated to the Divine Nature in accordance with the artistic plan of their author, in a certain regularity and order. Indeed, it was for this that intelligent beings came into existence; namely, that the riches of the Divine blessings should not lie idle. The All-creating Wisdom fashioned these souls, these receptacles with free wills, as vessels as it were, for this very purpose, that there should be some capacities able to receive His blessings and become continually larger with the inpouring of the stream. Such are the wonders that the participation in the Divine blessings works: it makes him into whom they come larger and more capacious; from his capacity to receive it gets for the receiver an actual increase in bulk as well, and he never stops enlarging. The fountain of blessings wells up unceasingly, and the partaker’s nature, finding nothing superfluous and without a use in that which it receives, makes the whole influx an enlargement of its own proportions, and becomes at once more wishful to imbibe the nobler nourishment and more capable of containing it; each grows along with each, both the capacity which is nursed in such abundance of blessings and so grows greater, and the nurturing supply which comes on in a flood answering to the growth of those increasing powers. It is likely, therefore, that this bulk will mount to such a magnitude as there is no limit to check, so that we should not grow into it. With such a prospect before us, are you angry that our nature is advancing to its goal along the path appointed for us? Why, our career cannot be run thither-ward, except that which weighs us down, I mean this encumbering load of earthiness, be shaken off the soul; nor can we be domiciled in Purity with the corresponding part of our nature, unless we have cleansed ourselves by a better training from the habit of affection which we have contracted in life towards this earthiness. But if there be in you any clinging to this body, and the being unlocked from this darling thing give you pain, let not this, either, make you despair. You will behold this bodily envelopment, which is now dissolved in death, woven again out of the same atoms, not indeed into this organization with its gross and heavy texture, but with its threads worked up into something more subtle and ethereal, so that you will not only have near you that which you love, but it will be restored to you with a brighter and more entrancing beauty.

St. Macrina the Younger, in St. Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Soul and Resurrection”

Hell and Christian moral consciousness

Man’s moral will ought never to aim at relegating any creature to hell or to demand this in the name of justice. It may be possible to admit hell for oneself, because it has a subjective and not an objective existence. I may experience the torments of hell and believe that I deserve them. But it is impossible to admit hell for others or to be reconciled to it, if only because hell cannot be objectified and conceived as a real order of being. It is hard to understand the psychology of pious Christians who calmly accept the fact that their neighbors, friends and relatives will perhaps be damned. I cannot resign myself to the fact that the man with whom I am drinking tea is doomed to eternal torments. If people were morally more sensitive they would direct the whole of their moral will and spirit towards delivering from the torments of hell every being they had ever met in life. It is a mistake to think that this is what people do when they help to develop other men’s moral virtues and to strengthen them in the true faith. The true moral change is a change of attitude towards the “wicked” and the doomed, a desire that they too should be saved, i.e. acceptance of their fate for oneself, and readiness to share it. This implies that I cannot seek salvation individually, by my solitary self, and make my way into the Kingdom of God relying on my own merits. Such an interpretation of salvation destroys the unity of the cosmos. Paradise is impossible for me if the people I love, my friends or relatives or mere acquaintances, will be in hell — if Boehme is in hell as a “heretic,” Nietzsche as “an antichrist,” Goethe as a “pagan” and Pushkin as a sinner. Roman Catholis who cannot take a step in their theology without Aristotle are ready to admit with perfect complacency that, not being a Christian, Aristotle is burning in hell. All this kind of thing has become impossible for us, and that is a tremendous moral progress. If I owe so much to Aristotle or Nietzsche I must share their fate, take their torments upon myself and free them from hell. Moral consciousness began with God’s question, “Cain, where is thy brother Abel?” It will end with another question on the part of God: “Abel, where is thy brother Cain?”

Nikolai Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, pp. 276-7