Thoroughly Alive

We must hunger after the beautiful and the good...


The Grand Inquisitor

I read the passage below from Dostoyevsky's The Grand Inquisitor today. This is a smaller "poem" within the larger work of The Brothers Karamazov. It is part of a conversation between two brothers, Alyosha, an aspiring monk, and Ivan, a spiritual skeptic. Ivan tells Alyosha a story he has imagined, a story that describes the debate in himself, I think. The story is set in Spain during the Inquisition, when "heretics" were burned at the stake by the hundreds. Ivan imagines that Jesus somehow come backs in the midst of this, not as he will in his final coming, but for a simple visit to his people. All who see him recognize him, the people crowd around, yearning to touch him. But the Grand Inquisitor himself, the head of the very church that supposedly reveres Christ, has Jesus arrested and condemned to be burned as a heretic. Late that night, the Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus in his cell, knowing full well who it is he has condemned. And the Grand Inquisitor berates Jesus himself for the way of salvation.

Why, he asks, did Jesus refuse to do what Satan asked in his three temptations when Jesus was in the desert? If Jesus had turned those stones into bread, the whole world would have followed him. If he cast himself from the temple to fly and made miracle and show the basis of his appeal, the whole world would have fallen at his feet. Why, hisses the Inquisitor, did God make faith so hard by making it a choice, by offering so insubstantial a thing as love instead of the easy reality of bread? The Grand Inquisitor thinks that common men are too weak to make the choice of faith, so he will rule them in God's place, defying God himself by making a new Law so that the people no longer have to choose. In his words:

Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering. And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest for ever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague and enigmatic; Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all- Thou who didst come to give Thy life for them! Instead of taking possession of men's freedom, Thou didst increase it, and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings for ever. Thou didst desire man's free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide.

"Enticed and taken captive by Thee..." And my heart is stabbed alive. Will I make this choice? Will I bear the great, daily work of belief in a love I can't yet see? Will I live as devotedly for my invisible God as I would for a human authority? Will I make the difficult, daily choice of weighing good and evil, of choosing the right, of walking the difficult, confusing road of righteousness?

The fury of the Grand Inquisitor is sometimes my own, when I wish that the loving of God were a simple, formulaic thing. When I wish that choices were written in black and white, that right was a box I could check off instead of a road I must walk, a love I must wrestle. To love in relationships that are difficult requires much more of a laying down of myself than to cut someone off when they went above a certain level of reasonable tolerance. It would be easier if there were a list of the right books to read, and the right things to do, and I could just check them off and be good, instead of daily searching the depths of my soul to find what light, or darkness dwells there.

And yet, with free heart, I choose this love of God. I choose the work of faith, the great burden and freedom of living by God's love instead of a law that kills the great freedom of love.

Sarah Clarkson1 Comment