The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky as a Spiritual Tool, Part 4 of 5, The Grand Inquisitor
“The Grand Inquisitor” is a chapter within Dostoevsky’s novel, “The Brothers Karamazov.” In it one of the brothers, Ivan, relays his feelings about Jesus and religion, to his monk brother, Alyosha. In the previous chapter, “Rebellion,” Ivan explained why he can’t accept the idea of God and the happiness that God offers in Heaven or “salvation.” His argument rested upon his refusal to accept the fact that innocent children suffer within God’s creation. He said that it was impossible for him, as a lover of humanity, to accept an eternity of happiness as one of God’s “saved” if it came on the backs of suffering innocent children.
Alyosha agreed with his brother that his difficulties in accepting God on that basis are understandable but countered that the life and actions of Jesus provide the answer. Ivan, however, is not convinced and shares a story he calls “The Grand Inquisitor” to explain his difficulties with Jesus the Savior.
Ivan’s story involves a highly respected leader of the Christian church who wielded near absolute power over his parishioners. He was so influential that he was able to orchestrate and direct the killing of perhaps 1,000’s of people he called “heretics.” This fictional story of Ivan’s supposedly took place during the Spanish Inquisition of the 1500’s and curiously described a possible meeting between this “Grand Inquisitor” and Jesus, Himself.
In the story the Grand Inquisitor persecutes and threatens to kill Jesus for similar reasons to the ones Ivan shared in “Rebellion.” Just as Ivan said that he could not accept a salvation that involved the suffering of innocent children, the grand inquisitor tells Jesus that His salvation is unfair to the majority of humans and is willing to kill Jesus again for the sake of those people.
The grand inquisitor implies that his authoritarian, oppressive measures are more loving of humanity as a whole than Jesus’s original teachings. He tells Jesus that He left humanity with directives that they cannot possibly match up to and that what He offered them, namely True Freedom, most of humanity does not even want. The Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus that what most humans want is their “daily bread” not freedom. The Grand Inquisitor claims that he, not Jesus, gives most of humanity their chance for happiness by taking away the one thing they fear the most, their freedom.
Ivan’s story paints Jesus as the God who offers salvation (and its eternal happiness) but in a way that only a very small number of people can actually receive. Jesus’s teachings are too difficult for most people to even think about, much less follow through with, and so, his teachings are partial; i.e., unfair. Ivan thereby explains his grounds once again for rejecting such a salvation offered by Jesus, due to his “idea” of unfairness.
Earlier in “Rebellion” Ivan mentioned that he “suffered for an idea.” This is his way of saying that he adheres to principles which get in the way of faith in God or Jesus. His principles about what is right and just allow him to feel indignant towards what he witnesses in society. He observes a world that is unfair, even downright cruel at times, and he cannot forgive such injustice nor does he feel it is right for anyone else to do so. Jesus’s salvation doesn’t work for him either because he believes that salvation is partial; not everyone is saved, only those who are capable of acting correctly as Jesus prescribed. What about everyone else, Ivan asks? For the sake of those people, the ones excluded from salvation, Ivan rejects God and the eternal happiness that He offers through salvation. “And if for the sake of the bread of Heaven thousands shall follow Thee [Jesus], what is to become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly?”
Ivan also criticizes religion itself, as characterized by the Christian church. In “The Grand Inquisitor” Ivan paints a picture where a religion must become oppressive in order to cater to the majority of humanity that is incapable of true sanctity as the scriptures prescribe. In other words, religion itself ends up perpetuating the very unfairness/cruelty of the world in order to give people what they want (food and shelter) and protect them from what they fear (true freedom) because “freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together.” The picture that Ivan paints is thereby even more distressing for a man of real love for humanity as he claims to be. On one hand religion provides for the needs of people that Jesus has discarded (because His standards are too high) and on the other hand religion adds to the suffering of innocents.
Ivan’s criticism of religion, as represented by the Christian church, has another ironical part to it. In addition to the church adding to suffering (out of concern for the masses) the church must take away freedom in order to give happiness to the people. Ivan claims that the church owns “mystery” and when the people bring a certain threshold of suffering upon themselves because they follow the path of “free thought” (i.e., the sciences) they will turn back to the church as the abode of “mystery.” In other words, when the intellectuals finally admit that they don’t understand the world and its purpose any more after extensively exhausting the sciences they will give up such freedom of thought and come back to the safety of the church.
The Grand Inquisitor predicts that science (free thought) will fuel humanity to fight each other ever more fiercely, causing ever more suffering, until it gives up such science and admits that existence is all a mystery that only religion can handle. They will say in the end “’Yes, you were right, you [the church] alone possess His mystery and we come back to you, save us from ourselves!’” The grand inquisitor says that in the end “they will know the value of complete submission!” But “until men know that, they will be unhappy.” And, of course, he blames Jesus for leading humanity away from such submission by offering them complete freedom (in exchange for acts that they aren’t capable of). In the grand inquisitor’s view Jesus led humanity astray by inspiring them to reach for freedom which led to the sciences which led to wars and an increase in strife. Only religion, he claims, can fix this situation by humanity’s complete submission to it.
Echoing Ivan’s thoughts, I believe, the grand inquisitor stands up to Jesus, claims that he is the true savior, providing for the people that Jesus has rejected and then dares Jesus to judge him for the lies and the acts of cruelty that he had to perform in order to do so. The grand inquisitor truly believes that he holds the high moral ground on Jesus and so, does not fear Him. The grand inquisitor feels that he rejected Jesus’s salvation on principles (on an “idea”), because any salvation that leaves a vast number of incapable, weak, childlike beasts (as he describes the majority of humanity) hanging is “madness.”
So Ivan’s counter-argument to Alyosha’s reliance upon Jesus to overcome the dilemma concerning the suffering of innocent children is a negative assessment of Jesus’s actions relative, not to each individual, but to humanity as a whole. Through his “Grand Inquisitor” story, Ivan criticizes God for not accepting everyone, regardless of their capabilities and actions, into Heaven.
Essentially, Ivan criticizes God for judging us in any way: for identifying what we are doing wrong and delineating what we need to do in order to reform ourselves and receive eternal salvation and happiness by His side. Ivan criticizes God because His plan leaves out a tremendous number of humans who are not capable of earning their place in Heaven by doing good, being good.
In that way, “The Grand Inquisitor” does a wonderful job of putting words to so many valuable questions and helping us to determine how we have already secretly answered many of them. Do we, too, already harbor an “idea” about the suffering of innocent children? Do we, too, secretly feel that if God judges any of us He is not a truly loving God? Do we, too, harbor resentment towards the idea of a God that will reject an individual for choosing “bad” over “good?” What if that individual is our father, brother or sister? Can we happily go to Heaven if we know that they have gone to Hell? Or to put that in more modern terms, are we willing to be happy everyday (because we believe in an all-loving God) when others close to us are unwilling or unable to do the same? Can we allow ourselves to be happy all the time when we know that many children are suffering all around the world? Do we secretly feel superior to the God that our religions describe because of our unwillingness to be happy all the time?
In the next blog entry I will explore a few of those questions in greater detail but for now the important point I want to make is that the value of reading this story is in considering to what degree we share Ivan’s feelings and opinions. We must keep in mind that these feelings and opinions may be held deeply within our mind and may take a bit of introspection in order to dig up. It is a fact that our upbringing may have encouraged the burying of such feelings. Modern society doesn’t help us very much in exploring our emotional relationship to God and suffering. It trains us, rather, to focus more superficially on issues related to daily affairs.
In other words our very busy daily lives may hide deeper feelings about God and suffering that are not only secretly driving us but also do a lot to prevent us from feeling content or happy in any given moment. To what degree have we already blocked off happiness in our lives, like Ivan has done, because we have judged God and His creation as inherently unfair or even downright cruel to those undeserving of such treatment? This is question worth asking and re-asking ourselves, resisting the temptation to judge our deeply held ideas and opinions are “good” or “bad.” Let’s find out how we truly feel about life, first, before attempting to force ourselves in one direction or another.
Posted on August 8, 2015, in Spiritual Physics, Spirituality & Religion and tagged Dostoevsky, free thought, God, happiness, Heaven, Jesus, mind/heart, religion, salvation, science, submission, suffering. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.