The Grand Inquisitor and Exodus

I’ve recently finished “The Brothers Karamazov“, a book that’s tough-to-chew, frustrating, blasphemous, hilarious, delirious and puzzling: in short, a great book.

I want to start with just a few *brief* remarks about the Grand Inquisitor story, the parable that Ivan Karazamov composes and shares with his brother Alyosha.

The parable is so well-known that I think only a short summary is necessary. To wit: Jesus makes an unexpected visit in the flesh to Spain around the year 1500. He receives a warm welcome by the people and performs a few miracles, most notably the raising of a dead girl. A priest known in the parable as the Grand Inquisitor, having burned hundreds of heretics at the stake only the day prior, arrests Jesus on sight and condemns him to be burned the next day. The Inquisitor visits the prisoner in his cell, and there begins a long monologue before an entirely silent Jesus that forms the bulk of the Grand Inquisitor parable. He says much, but for our purposes here, the key is his accusation that Christ loved humanity too much, respected them too much, by giving them freedom. The Inquisitor believes that humanity is incapable of freedom and that it would have been better if Jesus had compelled their belief 1) with food for their starving bellies, 2) with showy miracles that offered indisputable proof to the doubting mind, and 3) by being their powerful caretaking ruler. According to the Inquisitor, Jesus rejected these sensible and necessary paths when he rejected in turn each of the things that the Devil asked of him in that famous passage from the Gospels, the Temptation in the Desert: Satan visits Christ after forty days of fasting and invites Jesus to cut to the chase and use his divine powers: 1) turn these stones into loaves of bread; 2) throw yourself from the parapets of the Temple, and allow angels to rescue you in flight, thus proving that you are the Son of God; and 3) bow down before me, and in return I will give you dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth.

Jesus’ answers are well-known: 1) “Man shall not live on bread alone, but upon every utterance issuing from the mouth of God”; 2) “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test”; 3) “Be gone, Accuser: for it has been written, ‘You shall make obeisance to the Lord your God and him only shall you adore'” (Matt 4: 1-10, Lk 4:1-14).

The Grand Inquisitor declares outright that the Church is not following Jesus anymore but rather has secretly been following the spirit tempted him in the desert. He says that this has been true for several centuries already, going back to the when, following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the pope took on secular powers. He says that the Church took from Jesus’ tempter the gift that Jesus refused:

we took Rome and the sword of Caesar from him, and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth, the only rulers, though we have not yet succeeded in bringing our cause to its full conclusion.

Pevear/Volokhonsky translation

Jesus remains silent through all this and only replies with a soft kiss on the lips of the old man, who lets him go but tells him never to come back.

So much for summary. On to to specific remarks.

The Grand Inquisitor predicts that in the modern world the people will suffer so much that they will gladly become slaves of the Church:

They themselves will be convinced that we are right, for they will remember to what horrors of slavery and confusion your freedom led them.

Throughout the Bible, actually, we read of God’s people remembering how God delivered them from bondage in Egypt. Reminders of the Exodus fill the Bible, and Jews recall the event every year at Passover. Of course, after the Exodus, Israel suffered slavery and chaos repeatedly, right through Jesus’ time and up to our century, but at worst they regarded these events as the recurrence of temporary slavery; they did not conclude that God led them into slavery. From the Exodus onward Jews have never stopped hoping for freedom, and they have never concluded that they were incapable of handling it. By itself this disproves the Grand Inquisitor’s belief that people are sheep who will gladly hand over their freedom.

Of course the Jews who became Christians and started a new religion had a different focus, centered on Jesus, but the Hebrew Bible remained an essential part of the Christian scriptures, and the Jewish tradition of choosing independence over slavery is part of the Christian DNA, though Christians have not always recognized their ties to the old religion.

Ivan’s choice of the Spanish Inquisition as the setting for his story is perhaps unintentionally interesting, given that Spain expelled all Jews in 1492 and either converted or executed those who remained. Those heretics whom the Grand Inquisitor has been burning surely include some Jews, but Christians, too, yearning for their freedom.

Like any dictator, what the Grand Inquisitor is not taking into account is that all humans regardless of creed have an inherent desire for freedom and believe themselves capable of it. Of course, at times we also trade in our freedom for every kind of delight and comfort, and particularly for food, as the Grand Inquisitor points out. But his dream that the people will permanently become happy sheep in the Church’s hands, or in anyone’s hands, is a transparent fantasy shared by rulers of every creed and of no creed.

The particular flavor of this fantasy in Christian rulers has taken many forms over centuries, of course, and the Grand Inquisitor’s is one variation: We feed you, and you serve us. In another variation, present in the Inquisitor’s Spain as well as Dostoevsky’s Russia, Christians viewed themselves as God-chosen people with imperial rights over the rest of the world. They saw Jesus as the beginning of this special mission, and the consecrator of it, not as one who taught freedom and lamentably brought chaos.

Of course when we say that Christians held these attitudes, let’s make some necessary distinctions. The Inquisitor belongs to a political class of powerful masters and he does not claim that he and his peers are languishing in confusion or suffering from too much freedom. According to him, it’s the ordinary people who are confused and are incapable of independence or mastery.

There is a long tradition, stretching from the pagan Romans up to Nietzsche’s time and beyond, that charges Christianity with bringing servile values and habits into the world, beginning with the meek Jesus himself. This is superficially similar to the Grand Inquisitor’s belief that Christians in their millions are unthinking sheep, but his belief is better connected with the universal cult of power than with that long pagan tradition. The Grand Inquisitor doesn’t believe that Jesus and his followers brought meek values into the world. He believes that Jesus taught independence but that all people are inherently servile and do not want to think or act independently. They are this way pre-creed, if we take the Inquisitor at his word:

Man was made a rebel; can rebels be happy? … they are forever incapable of being free, because they are feeble, depraved, nonentities and rebels….. we shall convince them that they will only become free when they resign their freedom to us, and submit to us….No science will give them bread as long as they remain free, but in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us: “Better that you enslave us, but feed us.”

The Grand Inquisitor thus offers to step in and be the people’s ruler.

That’s a familiar story from every time and place. Pharaoh was one of the earliest examples, by generously feeding his Hebrew slaves, so that when they did follow Moses into the hungry desert they famously began grumbling that it would have been easier if they had died in Egypt where they ate from the fleshpots and had their fill of bread. When Satan whispered into Jesus’ ear, people need to eat, Jesus, he was just echoing an ancient template that Pharaoh knew very well. The Inquisitor need only have opened his Bible and quoted the Hebrews’ grumbling in the desert if he wanted to show Jesus some hungry people longing to return to bondage if it means food in their mouths. But remembering this story would not have been good for his case, obviously, given that Israel did not turn back.

The Church should never ape Pharaoh, and if it is one of the morals of Ivan’s parable that the Church wants to keep the people in their pews and pliant before Church power, then this is legitimate as a critique of much Christian leadership.

In this sense Ivan’s story is anticlerical, but it’s not exactly anti-Christian. Countless committed Christians have been anticlerical, from the mystic Desert Fathers to Martin Luther and beyond; Jesus himself was anticlerical in a sense, and was killed for it.

There is much in Ivan’s parable that I can agree with. As a cradle Catholic, I hear Ivan almost as a brother when he depicts a Church that made a pact with the devil around the time of the Emperor Constantine, whose embrace of Christianity began the creeping marriage of Christ’s Church with the state’s power. To be a reflective Catholic is to wonder at the very least: was this marriage a good thing? I have often looked with a mix of suspicion upon my Church’s history, especially when I see her siding with power rather than the powerless, so I have often asked myself, could we have turned in a different direction, at that fateful moment? how can we turn away from power now?

As for Jesus being rejected if he were to appear today, this has become a very commonly expressed idea in both religious and secular culture. Who has not declared in a fit of righteousness something like, “If Jesus were here today he’d be appalled at what he saw”? And if he made a visit, who cannot see things heading south when Jesus starts doing his thing, whipping the money-changers and identifying hypocrites who keep the kingdom of God barred from the pure at heart? Ivan’s words would ring out exactly as written: “Why have you come now to interfere with us?”

Ivan’s parable clearly aligns Christ with “freedom, for which you stood so firmly when you were on earth,” to quote the Grand Inquisitor himself. The parable is more ambiguous, in my reading, where it comes to human beings. As an atheist, Ivan surely thinks that the Grand Inquisitor has discovered the truth about whether God exists. But what does Ivan think of the Inquisitor’s view that people cannot handle freedom? How are we to understand that layer of the parable?

Later in “The Brothers Karamazov”, another key character, Father Zosima, has this to say:

Whoever does not believe in God will not believe in the people of God.

Now, that is not literally true, because there are plenty of people of no religious creed, and of other creeds, who retain hope in the human future. I hardly think that needs saying. However, Dostoevsky intended Zosima’s words partly to counter the parable of the Grand Inquisitor, who does not believe in God or the afterlife and whose view of the human capacity for freedom, reason, and morality could not be lower. To what degree this is related to his desire to enslave people or to the loss of his faith, all this is open to question, but his low human regard is certain. And that’s a problem because any argument to the effect that people are sheep is an argument that is friendly to power.

To be clear, I don’t want to say that the old Grand Inquisitor is merely a power-hungry dictator in a cardinal’s red robes. When Alyosha says that the figure of the Grand Inquisitor fundamentally represents the lust for power, Ivan gives us a little more about the old man, a little of his backstory. Ivan pictures him as someone who had once been faithful but who had “suddenly opened his eyes” and realized that there was no salvation in God, only earthly remedies as outlined by Jesus’ tempter. I am just not convinced that this character’s arc is so innocent/rational. People lose faith for countless reasons and this can cause them to end up, for example, in despair or hatred, but whatever this man has been through precisely, he comes out the other end worshipping power. You can hear this not just in his outright statements but also in his casual positive references to both Tamerlane and Genghis Khan. All of this revolves around his central point: that Christ should have accepted the last temptation thrown out by Satan and taken possession of all the earth’s kingdoms.

The Inquisitor may not be a Pharaoh who grew up on an earthly throne, but the real problem is that in his view of humanity he has sided with Pharaoh instead of Pharaoh’s slaves.

3 thoughts on “The Grand Inquisitor and Exodus

  1. Thank you so much for these reflections, Kevin. It has been a few years since I last read The Brothers Karamazov but it has always held a firm place within my inner world, not least this famous parable.
    What I have learned about Dostoevsky is that he writes in a plurality of voices all of which are spoken with utter conviction. This plurality is, of course, something that the Grand Inquisitor would hate and fear but then the Inquisitor’s voice is not one of Dostoevsky’s. It is Ivan who tells the story.
    I am struck in my own reading of Tolkien that wh whereas Melkor’s rebellion against God is inspired by jealousy Sauron’s is inspired by a desire for order and control and a frustration with God at God’s unwillingness to impose it. In that regard Sauron, and Saruman too, are close in spirit to the Grand Inquisitor.

    1. Stephen, thanks for commenting. Yes Dostoevsky is very impressive in that regard. He gives strong voice to both theism and atheism, and he does justice to the three very different Karamazov brothers. I had no idea about Sauron’s motives for rebellion (or Melkor’s), that is really, really interesting. As you know I’ve loved Tolkien for most of my life but I’ve never read the Silmarillion. Now I’ve got some new inspiration to pick it up. I’ve actually just picked up Paradise Lost for the first time, because BK left me wanting more about these themes (and as you know BK has a brief but most intriguing depiction of the devil). I’m through the first two books, and all I will say for now is, Good God! And I’ll throw in a Wow. Don’t know how I have never read this.

      But anyway thank you for your comment, and for bringing in this connection to Tolkien. Most interesting!

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