Although Nikos Kazantzakis (1883–1957) possessed a profound religious vision that may even be compatible in some ways with Christianity, he makes certain Christians extraordinarily angry. Bishop Athanasios of Syros (1928, p. 84) condemned Kazantzakis’s major philosophical work, The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises, as antireligious, quoting for example: “God … is not the kindly family-man we thought. He is cruel, he does not care about individuals.”
Of course, Kazantzakis was deliberately provocative. In 1925 he debated with a defender of Christianity, saying things such as: “Whoever struggles today to convince the bourgeoisie to return to Christian morality is nothing but a naïve dreamer” (p. 1). He was not a Christian, having lost his orthodox (and Orthodox) Christian faith when he was taught Darwinism in high school, and his soul was
"thrown into a ferment by two terrible secrets our physics teacher had revealed to us. … The first secret … was that the earth … is not the center of the universe. … The second was that man is not God’s darling, his privileged creature. … Like all other creatures, he is a rung in the infinite chain of animals, a grandson or great-grandson of the ape. If you scratch our hide a little, if you scratch our soul a little, beneath it you will find our grandmother the monkey. … My bitterness and indignation were insupportable. … What days those were when the two lightning flashes tore through my mind. … I kept asking myself, How can people sing, how is it their hearts are not throbbing to learn what God’s nature is, and where we come from… ? One of my neighbors possessed a monkey, a shameless red-rumped creature with human eyes. … Was this my grandmother? … In other words, was it true that God … did not fashion me with his hands, breathe his breath into my nostrils?" (Kazantzakis, 1965, pp. 114–115, 117–119)
Kazantzakis was not a Christian; yet he was clearly a religious person, a believer in “God” (always in quotation marks) despite his denials. Another way of saying this is to describe him as a true witness: someone who acts in a fashion that makes no sense at all if God does not exist. What his physics teacher taught him in high school destroyed his previous beliefs that nature is ordered, that God is complete and perfect, that this life is followed by an afterlife. All this he found contrary to science; it convinced him, above all, that nothing is complete, not even God, since everything continually evolves.
However, these new scientific certainties were not sufficiently satisfying for Kazantzakis. Like all essentially religious people, he needed to feel that his particular life was made meaningful by the cosmological context in which he resided; moreover, for this to happen he needed to believe that the cosmological context was ordered. Consequently, Kazantzakis eventually subscribed to a system, still based on evolution, that viewed change not as chaotic but as a logical progression from stability to motion, imprisonment to freedom, matter to spirit. He discovered this system in Paris in 1908 when he was 25 years old. The basis was Henri Bergson’s vitalism, which posits as the “creator” not an immutable God but a “life force” that needs to be realized through evolutionary development. “God,” for Kazantzakis, is the entire evolutionary process that moves from stability to motion, imprisonment to freedom, matter to spirit. This is how he expressed it in a letter:
"I believe steadfastly in the nobility and power of a Spirit that suffuses plants, animals, people, and that is now battling consciously inside me, desiring to surpass me, to liberate itself from my unworthy nature, to escape me. I am battling to serve this spirit because I know that it—and not this sack I carry of bone, meat, brain, and passion—is my soul’s essence." (Kazantzakis, 2012, p. 187)
This belief established powerful motivations in Kazantzakis to behave as a religious person (in other words, to imitate God), which meant for him to cooperate with the process of material evolution that advances toward motion, freedom, and spirit. Gone is Christianity’s admonition to escape the flesh. Kazantzakis’s system urges us to utilize the flesh in order to refine it, so that we may thereby help a not-almighty god to evolve.
"My God is not omniscient, not all-good, not omnipotent. … To the degree that I struggle, he struggles. To the degree that I ascend, he ascends. The ascent is rugged, terrifying, unending. I will die halfway there, but my spirit, uniting with his Spirit, will jump into every other body and continue the journey." (Kazantzakis, 2012)
As this indicates, Kazantzakis’s faith was unshakably optimistic. He felt that spirit/Spirit would triumph despite everything. This is of course precisely what Christians believe, and Kazantzakis’s major symbols for his own non-Christian (post-Christian?) faith were the Christian ones of resurrection and the second coming. He was never essentially pessimistic or cynical. He could write, “One must be or become a hero in order to stand this base and rotten world”; yet he then continued: “But at the bottom of this rottenness there is a virgin spirit pushing up, raising its head, nourishing itself on the rot; and one day, a few centuries beyond our time, it will triumph. A Messiah is always on the march” (Kazantzakis, 1968, p. 496).
Bergson taught Kazantzakis that the life force first clothes itself in flesh and then divests itself. Accordingly, Kazantzakis’s ideal mythic figure for the first phase of this cosmological process is Homer’s Odysseus; his ideal mythic figure for the second phase is Jesus Christ. His Odysseus-figure, the quintessential hero, can be transformed into a Zorba or a Kapetán Mihális, his Christ-figure, the quintessential saint, into a Francis of Assisi or a Manoliós (in Christ Re-crucified). Sometimes a Kazantzakian protagonist is both hero and saint; if he is only one of the pair, then he is normally coupled with an opposite who completes him. Thus Zorba, who cooperates with the evolutionary process by transubstantiating business ventures into laughter and dance (i.e., flesh into spirit), is paired with the Boss, who craves complete divestment of the flesh until he realizes that, consistent with Kazantzakis’s Bergsonian system, this can take place only after indulgence in the flesh.
Similarly, Jesus in The Last Temptation is paired with Judas, who transubstantiates bodily indulgence into political action. In Christ Re-crucified, spiritual evolution occurs in Manoliós, the saint, who is divested of flesh by being crucified, and in Fótis, the hero, who transubstantiates the status quo into revolutionary action. But the most complete character in Kazantzakis’s oeuvre combines both the first and second phases of the cosmological process. This is the hero/saint Odysséas in Kazantzakis’s huge Odyssey; starting as a man of action, he ends as an ascetic contemplator and artist.
Kazantzakis was so governed by religious vision and so devoted to spirituality that we must try to explain why he angered certain Christians so very much. His basic quarrel with traditional Christianity concerned process. Needing to base his religiosity on what he considered the cosmological (not just biological) truth of Darwinian evolution, he extended evolutionary process beyond the created world to God himself. We should call him a religious existentialist, certainly not an atheist, even though against him stands the central tenet of traditional Christianity, promulgated chiefly by Saint Augustine: that God is not subject to evolutionary process but, rather, is “eternal, immutable … ” (Hick, 1977, pp. 43–44). It is true that the New Testament declares at Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.” Yet, as Jack Miles argues (1995, p. 12), “contradictory as this must seem, [God] also enters time and is changed by experience. Were it not so, he could not be surprised; and he is endlessly and often most unpleasantly surprised. God is constant; he is not immutable.”
Kazantzakis infuriates orthodox Christians because he proclaims as blatantly as possible in The Saviors of God, “Our God is not almighty, he is not all-holy… . The essence of our God is obscure. It ripens continuously” (1960, p. 116). This is obviously very far from Augustinian Christianity, which stresses the nonevolving perfection of a God who certainly does not need to be saved by his creatures. Yet although Kazantzakis challenges Augustinian orthodoxy, he is clearly within the allowable bounds of Christian speculation. What he was doing, really, was trying to “offer a way of being religious in a … relational world” (Middleton, 1994, p. 69). Consistent with process-relational theology, Kazantzakis offers us “a religious vision of a God … struggling in a world still in the process of becoming, … wrestling with the evolving world’s ambiguity and materiality” (Middleton, 1994, p. 71). Or, as Kazantzakis himself says in his autobiography through the mouth of his “spiritual grandfather,” El Greco:
"Certain people call me a heretic—let them. I have my own Holy Writ. … I open it and read in Genesis: God made the world and rested on the seventh day. At that point he called his final creature, man, and said to him, “Listen to me, my son, if you want my blessing. I made the world, but I neglected to finish it. I left it in the middle. You continue the creation.”" (Kazantzakis, 1965, p. 509)
In order to convey his post-Christianity or Christian existentialism (whatever we choose to call it), Kazantzakis’s preferred context was interestingly the Christian one, as evidenced chiefly in three late novels, Christ Re-crucified (titled The Greek Passion in America), The Last Temptation (The Last Temptation of Christ in America), and God’s Pauper, St. Francis of Assisi (Saint Francis in America)—especially the last, in which he tempts Francis to push acceptable faith well beyond orthodoxy. His anguished saint dares to utter, for example, “To be a saint means to renounce not only everything earthly but also everything divine” (1962, p. 22); “True Poverty … means that the coffer … contains nothing, not even heaven, not even immortality” (p. 161).
Each of these statements eliminates the afterlife. If we start with Kazantzakis’s post-Christian conviction that this world is all we have, we presumably will hope that our passage on Earth will not be futile. We should be especially interested, therefore, in models who, while confirming human beings’ ephemeral nature, refuse to confirm futility as their necessary fate. Saint Francis as reimagined by Kazantzakis is one such model, giving us confidence in the God-permeated mud called humanity and teaching us that soul-force’s willingness to create its own fate will enable us to transform the vicissitudes of our earthly existence into a meaningful post-Christian life even though we refuse to be deluded concerning the Christian promise of an afterlife.
This and the other late novels set in a Christian context are Kazantzakis’s definitive answer to the agonized pessimism of his early play, diabolically titled Comedy, a One-Act Tragedy (1909), in which various moribund individuals are huddled in a room waiting for its door to be opened by Christ, who will usher them to life everlasting. They wait and wait, becoming more and more agitated. Of course the door never opens; they have all been duped.
Kazantzakis’s own refusal to be duped is fully evident in Zorba the Greek, in which Christian monks are portrayed as buffoons and pederasts, the local Orthodox priest as an acquisitive glutton. Yet the same novel also projects with great beauty Kazantzakis’s undiminished awareness of the peace and serenity that may be conveyed by true spirituality even within a traditional Christian context.
In sum, although alienated from fundamentalist orthodoxy/Orthodoxy, he was religious to the core—indeed suffused with the biblical Christianity that he was attempting to refashion. He once told a friend that throughout his life Christ had been “like a cyst that one removes but that grows back again” (Jouvenel, 1958, p. 99).
He of course could read with ease the New Testament in Koine Greek as well as the Old Testament in the Septuagint. In his notebook jottings for The Last Temptation, he devised a fourfold development for Jesus employing biblical language and concepts: Son of the Carpenter, Son of Man, Son of David, Son of God. The first stands for Jesus as an ordinary young man. The second derives from Daniel’s vision (7:13–14) of Jesus “given dominion and glory and kingdom,” the biblical text of which Kazantzakis has read out loud in the novel (1960, p. 101). In the third, Jesus as Son of David supports the revolutionary politics advocated by Judas, the Zealot. The fourth and last derives from Saint Paul’s declaration in Romans 1:4 that Jesus was “designated Son of God in power … by his resurrection from the dead.”
These and scores of other biblical references in numerous works show the extent to which Kazantzakis’s Jesus-cyst kept growing back throughout his 50-year career—a fact that makes us lament all the more the anger of certain Christians against him, for his prime desire was to encourage people to take Christ seriously again as a model able to speak meaningfully to a post-Darwinian culture. Yet his work inspired the Vatican to ban The Last Temptation, Bishop Athanasios to have Kazantzakis subpoenaed for impiety, and the Orthodox synod in Athens to attempt to excommunicate him.
Perhaps he experienced in his own life the discouraging truth that he made so vivid in one of his novels: that Christ is eternally recrucified. No matter. Despite all the opposition, Kazantzakis’s books do speak to religious seekers who are not straitjacketed by fundamentalism; and his life exemplifies true witness: for Kazantzakis aspired, suffered, and persevered in a fashion that makes no sense at all if God does not exist.
- Athanasios, Bishop of Syros. Εκκλησία 6 (17 March 1928): 81–86.
- Bien, Peter. Kazantzakis: Politics of the Spirit. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989–2007. Chapter 25 of Volume 2 traces Kazantzakis’s long apprenticeship to Christian themes. Chapter 28 treats Kazantzakis’s meta-Christian Saint Francis as a model of soul-force creating his own fate.
- Dombrowski, Daniel A. “Kazantzakis’ Dipolar Theism.” Sophia 24, no. 2 (1985): 4–17.
- Hick, John. Evil and the God of Love. London: Macmillan, 1977.
- Jouvenel, Renaud de. “En souvenir de Kazantzaki.” Europe, no. 350 (June 1958): 85–105.
- Kazantzakis, Helen. Nikos Kazantzakis: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968.
- Kazantzakis, Nikos. Νέα Εφημερίς, 19 February 1925, p. 1.
- Kazantzakis, Nikos. The Greek Passion (Christ Re-crucified in England). Translated by Jonathan Griffin. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1953. English translation of Ο Χριστός ξανασταυρώνεται, first published in 1954.
- Kazantzakis, Nikos. The Odyssey. Translated by Kimon Friar. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1958. English translation of Οδύσεια, first published in 1938.
- Kazantzakis, Nikos. The Last Temptation of Christ. Translated by Peter Bien. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960. English translation of Ο τελευταίος πειρασμός, first published in 1955.
- Kazantzakis, Nikos. The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises. Translated by Kimon Friar. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960. English translation of Ασκητική. Salvatores Dei, revised edition, first published in 1945.
- Kazantzakis, Nikos. Saint Francis. Translated by Peter Bien. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962. English translation of Ο φτωχούλης του Θεού, first published in 1956.
- Kazantzakis, Nikos. Report to Greco. Translated by Peter Bien. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1965. English translation of Αναφορά του Γκρέκο, first published in 1961.
- Kazantzakis, Nikos. “Comedy.” Translated by Kimon Friar. Literary Review 18, no. 4 (1975): 417–454. English translation of Κωμωδία, τραγωδία μονόπρακτη, first published in 1909.
- Kazantzakis, Nikos. The Selected Letters of Nikos Kazantzakis. Translated by Peter Bien. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2012.
- Kazantzakis, Nikos. Zorba the Greek: The Saint’s Life of Zorba. Translated by Peter Bien. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015. English translation of Βίος και πολιτεία του Αλέξη Ζορμπά, first published in 1946.
- Middleton, Darren J. N. “Nikos Kazantzakis and Process Theology: Thinking Theologically in a Relational World.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 12, no. 1 (1994): 57–74.
- Middleton, Darren J. N., and Peter Bien, eds. God’s Struggler: Religion in the Writings of Nikos Kazantzakis. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1996.
- Miles, Jack. God: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.
- Pattison, George. Anxious Angels: A Retrospective View of Religious Existentialism. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.