Bread Alone: Earth, Heaven, and Politics in the Wilderness
Over the course of Western history, radical materialism has taken over political thought. Its ancient variant, Epicureanism, justified hedonism on the basis that everything consists of physical substance, which decomposes and rearranges itself regardless of human action. A material soul, which dissolves upon death, precludes the possibility of an afterlife, so all should live simply to minimize pain. The gods are impotent to punish or reward, if they even exist. Classical Epicureanism offered a certain picture of the self and prescribed personal behavior accordingly. In short, Epicureanism saw personal life as all Earth, and no Heaven.
This systematized materialism went in and out of style in Western thought, but nevertheless came to influence political thought more and more over time. Eventually, Karl Marx fully adapted Epicureanism to political thought. For Marx, material concerns were of primary importance in politics, and people derive satisfaction in life from the products of their labor. He claimed that capitalism alienates workers from the material products of their labor, thereby removing any possibility for their satisfaction in life on Earth. Because it distracts from the material and offers future satisfaction in a heavenly life, Marx famously dubbed religion the “opiate of the masses.” Traditionally, Christianity has resisted impulses toward materialism and asserted the importance of Heaven over material gain on Earth. But if Epicurus and Marx are right, and all of history indeed revolves around material needs and material power, then what value does Christianity offer?
None outline the tension between Christianity and the materialism of modern life more skillfully than Marx’s contemporary, Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky’s novel contains a parable in which a Spanish Inquisitor challenges Jesus, arguing that He could have instantly and permanently won the nations for Himself had He submitted to any of Satan’s three temptations in the wilderness. The Inquisitor uses the first temptation—that Jesus turn stones into bread— to explore the relationship between common material needs and the spiritual satisfaction that Jesus offers. Remarkably, the gospels only devote a handful of verses to the temptation of Jesus in the desert. Matthew and Luke both provide brief accounts of the temptation, Mark only mentions it in a single verse, and the Gospel of John does not mention it at all. Despite the sparse narrative, Satan’s suggestion to turn stones into bread held significance beyond Jesus’ own physical hunger at the end of a forty-day fast. As the Inquisitor suggests, bread also has a crucial role in political life, which means the first temptation is relevant to politics.
Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor takes a materialistic approach to religious life because of the materialism of political life. Satan’s true temptation, as the Inquisitor describes it, is that Jesus provide bread so that “mankind will run after [Him] like sheep, grateful and obedient, though eternally trembling.” The Inquisitor sees that “in the name of this very earthly bread, the spirit of the earth will rise against [Jesus] and fight with you and defeat you.” In other words, if Jesus does not give the masses what they want—bread—someone else will, and whoever provides bread will rule the world.
To the chagrin of the Grand Inquisitor, Jesus will not coerce the nations to believe. He certainly knew that He could have gained followers through bread alone. According to the Gospel of John, a crowd of five thousand people followed Jesus after He miraculously fed them. In response, Jesus did something no political leader would: rebuked the crowd for following Him simply because He had given them bread. He exhorted them to “not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.” Something other than bread can fulfill ultimate human needs, and Jesus claimed to offer it.
The book of Acts sheds light on this seeming dichotomy between earthly and spiritual needs by presenting a direct encounter between Jesus’ message and Classical Epicureanism. When Paul came to Athens, he encountered Epicureans in debate with a rival school of thought, the Stoics. The Stoics, like the Epicureans, denied divine influence in their moral code, yet they did so by emphasizing human responsibility for their own thoughts and actions. Thus, both schools of thought focused on attaining earthly goals: bodily pleasure for the Epicureans and virtuous actions for the Stoics. Interestingly, Paul presented a single argument to them both—one which did not address Heaven or Earth at all. He posited that the Stoics and Epicureans sought a God they did not know—an Unknown God who created the universe and has made Himself known. He could have argued that Earth must be despised for the sake of Heaven, or he could have forced heavenly principles into their earthly ethical systems, yet he did neither.
In the wilderness, Jesus took a similar approach. He did not say to Satan “I must forsake bread for heavenly gain,” (although He was fasting) nor did He say “Heaven will satiate my physical needs” (although “angels came and [ministered] to Him” immediately after the temptation). Like Paul in his address to the Epicureans and Stoics, Jesus did not deny earthly needs for the sake of Heaven, nor subordinate Heaven to earthly needs. Rather, He said that “man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Refusing to discount the importance of material needs, Jesus indicated a still more pressing need, which only the Word of God can fulfill. As the fulfillment of the law and the prophets that came before, Jesus offered Himself as the Living Bread on which man can truly live.
American Christians have tended to take one of two approaches to the challenge of materialism: one that sees virtue as the heart of Christianity, and one that sees social justice as the heart of Christianity. These approaches are parallel to the responses Jesus and Paul avoided. The former focuses solely on heavenly gain, and it entails developing a tunnel vision for virtue. The virtue-oriented society tends to hold unrealistic views of itself—critics always find moral depravity at its core. Similarly, the virtue-oriented individual holds a hollow view of himself and of others, reducing all other people to examples of how to live or how not to live. In short, this first approach tries to subordinate earthly desires to heavenly virtues, but ultimately fails to do so. If man could live on virtue alone, he would have no need for either material reality or for Jesus.
A second approach is to view Christianity as a tool for social justice work. This materialistic approach to faith has a long tradition in the United States. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a “Social Gospel” movement developed around the idea that the primary reason for Jesus’s death, and the focus of the Gospel as a whole, was socioeconomic change and the bringing about of Heaven on Earth. This interpretation of the Christian faith is still prevalent today. While justice and positive social change are major themes in Scripture, the view that political change forms the heart of the gospel has significant problems. Jesus was not a political leader, and any number of Jewish prophets, judges, kings, or patriarchs could have propagated the same teachings on justice that He did. In subordinating heavenly aspirations to earthly needs, this view renders Jesus dispensable, since He enacted no political change Himself and provided no teaching on justice which could not have come through other means.
Though both approaches make claims about the true heart of Christianity, neither of them necessitates Jesus. Like the Grand Inquisitor, both look to something they find more compelling than Jesus to obtain followers. One expects its moral authority to compel belief, the other expects its political activism—which aims at material provision—to compel belief. Both assume that man lives on one thing—either moral or material fulfillment— above all else, and that all of history turns on the one thing. Dominion over the one thing would place the Church on the right side of history, coerce all the nations to belief, and bring about Heaven on Earth.
Both Jesus and Paul identified the true problem behind the personal materialism prevalent in their time and behind the political materialism prevalent in ours. The true problem is one of idolatry. Materialists, like all people, have objects of worship. Jesus and Paul point out that all people look for something ultimate in either the moral or the material—something which will bring about virtue or prosperity. Believing that virtue or bread are of ultimate importance only leads to an endless quest for moral or material utopia. Jesus did not come to satisfy these earthly longings, but to reveal humanity’s true needs, and ultimately address them in His life and death as the fulfillment of the Word of God. Material bread cannot remove our hunger forever. Only in Christ, the “bread of life,” shall we hunger no more.
1 Matthew 4:1–11 (ESV); Luke 4:1–13.
2 Mark 1:13.
3 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), 252.
4 Ibid., 252–253.
5 John 6:27.
6 Acts 17:16–34.
7 Matthew 4:11.
8 John 6:35.
Phil Jeffery (CC’17) is a history nerd from Portland, Oregon. He enjoys Panang curry, the music of Sufjan Stevens, and spending time with a certain someone. He is also President of the Veritas Forum at Columbia and a member of Columbia Faith and Action.
Tags: Dostoevsky, Epicures, hedonism, idolatry, literature, Marxism, materialism, philosophy, politics, social justice, Stoicism, The Brothers Karamazov