Archive for November 17th, 2009

In the Shadow of the Grand Inquisitor

November 17, 2009

Perhaps the most famous chapter in all of Dostoevsky’s novels is that of the “Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov. It is a “poem” according to the character Ivan Karamazov, a fanciful tale that embodies all of the cyncism that Ivan can muster.

In a previous chapter, “Rebellion,” Ivan had mounted a devastating complaint against God with regard to the problem of evil. Having completed his tales of injustice (mostly involving children and for which he ultimately blames God), Ivan does not cry out that there is no God, but simply that “I refuse the ticket.” He will not accept Christ and wait for all injustice to someday be explained to him. He has had enough.

In the “Grand Inquisitor” Ivan moves to a different scene. In this “poem” he imagines that Christ has returned to earth during the trials of the Inquisition in medieval Spain. There Christ finds himself confronted with a Church that tells Him that He should leave. He is told that He has failed to give people what they want and that the Church will now have to do the job. He is no longer wanted.


These two chapters from Dostoevsky are among the most poignant in modern Christian literature. They are particularly powerful in that that bring the full force of modern indictments against God to bear (and this in a Christian novel). Nor does Dostoevsky treat them lightly. For readers of Dostoevsky it is clear that the only answer given to these philosophical rants is the example of the Christian lives that are lived.

This is always the case. The case for power is always replete with good reasons. The case for forgiveness is weak in the extreme. It is generally the case that those who take the commandments of Christ so seriously that they actually seek to live them inevitably look like fools against those whose knowledge and cynicism wield worldly power.

In Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor,” the answer to the rage and philosophy of the old Cardinal, is silence and a kiss from Christ.

There are many modern forms of the Grand Inquisitor – or at least that for which the chapter stands. Our human lives are repeatedly tempted to take up certain “Christian” goals and implement them. Indeed, the increased organization and efficiency of modern man seems quite capable of eradicating hunger, abuse, neglect and the like. Strangely, the many efforts towards such worldly perfection (in the name of heavenly goods) has left history littered with failed schemes and occasionally vast amounts of carnage.

I have written repeatedly: Christ did not come into the world to make bad men good, but to make dead men live.

It is not a great scheme through a united world, or a united Europe that will succeed in creating paradise on earth. I find it comical (were it no so tragic) that among the earliest accomplishments of the European courts is to banish crucifixes in the schoolrooms of Italians children. How many empty bellies will that feed? The Inquisitor (now in Strasbourg) will tell us it is for the children’s freedom.

The battle lines are not political (they never have been). The removal of one Inquisitor is simply to create a vacancy for the next. Indeed, the Christian response is not a response to the actions of man: it is a response to the actions of God.

Dostoevsky’s answer to the Grand Inquisitor is not a better-honed argument – but a kiss – it is the lives of holy characters such as the Elder Zossima and the young Alyosha Karamazov. For us, it is the day to day life of the simple believer: “Greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4). The answer of the the Church, apart from everything else, is to live the transforming life of the indwelling Christ. Christians will be persecuted in this world. They will take away our crosses, smash our icons and tell us that we are wasting our time. They will tell us many things.

But Christ tells us: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).