Read an Excerpt
Free of Charge
God the Giver
In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky tells a story about an old peasant woman, very wicked, who died without leaving a single good deed behind. All she did, she did for herself alone, illicitly taking what she could take and acquiring by legitimate means what she could acquire, but not giving anything to anyone, nothing useful or beautiful, no helpful deeds, not even a kind look. After she died,
the devil seized her and plunged her into the lake of fire. The story continues,
So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; 'She once pulled up an onion in her garden,' said he, 'and gave it to a beggar woman.' And God answered: 'You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to
Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.' The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. 'Come,' said he, 'catch hold and I'll pull you out.' He began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. 'I'm to be pulled out, not you.
It's my onion, not yours.' As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.1
Some may read this story naively, as a recipe for how to get into paradise with minimal effort. If you do just a single good deed, God will pull you on the slender thread of that generosity out of the lake of fire. But the deed must be good, given to others in true generosity.
If you do it just for yourself, just to get you out of hell, the thread will break, and you'll end up licked by flames for eternity.
If this wonderful story were a recipe for getting into paradise,
it would be a bad one. True, it would get one thing right. God, here personified in the guardian angel, is immensely good even to the wicked. God seeks to save them and weeps when they are desperately stuck in their sin. But it would get the main thing wrong. It's not by our generosity, however slender, that we are saved, at least not according to the Chris tian tradition. We are saved by God's generosity.
But the story isn't about how to get into paradise as much as about how to avoid hell -- not the fiery lake at the end of one's life and of the world's history, but the hell in the here and now, whose flames are made up of greed, selfishness, cold calculation, pride, indifference,
exclusion, and many such things. No life worth living is possible without generosity. Indeed, it is doubtful whether the tender plant of newborn human life would even survive without generosity.
Yet from the get-go, we seem to be but one bundle of cravings that screams for satisfaction of needs that appear to go unfulfilled and for interests that feel threatened from all sides. That's the big fissure in the life of human beings, individually and collectively -- a yawning gap between deep self-centeredness and true generosity.
Can we bridge the gap? We can, if we can show that in all our selfcentered cravings, we are ultimately craving love -- which is to say,
craving both to receive love and to give it. Such recognition would be the first part of the bridge on which we could travel from the land in which even what looks like generosity is a form of self-centeredness to a land where generosity is our true self-interest. But how can we con-
struct such a bridge? We can't construct it using secular materials --
or at least, I haven't seen it happen so far, and I can't imagine how it could. It takes God to make such a bridge, a God who is love, a God who gives and forgives, a God who created human beings to find fulfillment in love. This chapter -- this book as a whole -- is an attempt to construct such a bridge, and it is an invitation to then walk from one side to the other, from self-centeredness to generosity.
So the first and central question is, Who is God?