Jesus was a Humanist

My Dad sent me a translation of “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor”, a prose-poem from “The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoyevsky. (It seems to be available for free download here if you are interested.) I am just back from a very interesting discussion on it in my monthly Unitarian group meeting, and there are so many more points I could add to this post as a result, but I want to keep it concise and fairly open.

The piece consists, in its bulk, of a furious monologue delivered by the Grand Inquisitor – a gloomy cardinal representing the Church during the Spanish Inquisition – to the returned Jesus, whom the Inquisitor has locked in a cell and intends to burn at the stake as a heretic despite knowing exactly who he is. ūüėÄ Jesus is portrayed as an endlessly compassionate figure who prized freedom above all else, died to secure it for humans, and possesses an optimistic view of humanity that is not shared by the Inquisitor.

The Inquisitor builds his rant around the three temptations of Jesus in the desert, declaring how naive and foolish Jesus was to reject miracle, mystery and authority in favour of his beloved freedom, and explaining how the Church has corrected this mistake over the intervening centuries. It’s dripping with irony and, in places, so powerful for me that it felt like being hit in the stomach.

In resisting the temptation to force submission through miracle, mystery and authority, and inviting others to resist also, says the Inquisitor, Jesus set the bar way too high for the weak, flawed, needy majority to ever be able to reach. He pushed them into the deep end, while the likes of the Inquisitor showed more compassion in rescuing them from drowning in this terrible freedom. Only he and his ilk are able to bear the responsibility of that freedom.

I tell You that man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over that gift of freedom with which the ill-fated creature is born.

… they will remember the horrors of slavery and confusion to which Your freedom brought them. Freedom, free thought, and science will lead them into such straits and will bring them face to face with such marvels and insoluble mysteries that some of them, the fierce and rebellious, will destroy themselves; others, rebellious but weak, will destroy each other; while the rest, weak and unhappy, will crawl fawning to our feet and whine to us: “Yes, you were right, you alone possess His mystery, and we come back to you – save us from ourselves!”

Too, too well they know the value of complete submission! And until men know that, they will be unhappy.

I think what makes the Inquisitor’s words so powerfully moving for me is that they have a ring of truth about them. That is why I disagree so vehemently with them! They seem to scream the deepest fears of humanity about itself, and of course, we tend to live up to what we believe about ourselves.

The temptation to turn stones into bread is given much attention in the story, and while bread fairly obviously symbolises the material on one level (“Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!”), I think it further symbolises another kind of need:

Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us!

You promised them the bread of Heaven, but… can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man?

While the “bread of Heaven” is conscientious freedom, the “earthly bread” is mystery coupled with certainty – in other words, religion. Mystery and certainty are both extremely seductive even though they hurt us deeply. I’m reminded of Surah 2:67-71 of the Qur’an, in which Moses is asked by the people for more and more detailed specification of the cow which is to be sacrificed, illustrating the desire of humankind for mysterious, detailed rules, where even God in the story seems to want them to have the confidence to make their own decisions.

“The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” makes Jesus sound like a Humanist, and it is a portrayal I can recognise. Yes, Jesus was a radical Jewish apocalyptic preacher and definitely no atheist. But when I read his ethical teachings, I find them deliberately provocative, ironic, and at times quite tongue-in-cheek, and am amazed that this tone seems to be completely lost on most Christian interpretations. He was all about getting people to confront their own legalistic self-righteousness, and instead, use reason and compassion. In that sense I think he was optimistic about human nature and saw religious legalism as a moral glass ceiling. There is a deep irony in how his words went on to be converted into another set of rules.

This entry was posted in Humanism, is religion good or bad for you?, morality. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Jesus was a Humanist

  1. Majeeda says:

    I will admit to being a bit out of my depth here so I will just leave a little comment regarding Jesus ”setting the bar too high” – fascinating concept. That is used very much now and I think has some place at times in terms of not pushing people too quickly. But I think it’s very easily used as an excuse also. An excuse not only by people themselves by probably by others when it suits them, as in the situation described in your post.

    There certainly does seem to be a lot of confusing over time between what these great men, people like Jesus and Muhammad, taught and wanted people to gain from them, and what has actually built up around their memory. Questioning, reason, logic, the search for truth, compassion etc…they seem to have been left by the wayside in many cases. ):

    • Majeeda says:

      I feel a little bad…let me rephrase that last sentence: they seem to have been left by the wayside in ‘some’ cases.

    • Sarah says:

      Yes, that was one of the things we discussed in the group… is it better to have “idealistic” or “realistic” moral aspirations? I’m inclined to think it’s best to aim high while recognising that you can only do what you can do at any moment. This is where mercy is so important because sometimes we need time to be motivated to be more morally ambitious. Mercy allows us to feel OK about our efforts without having to put a limit on our expectations of ourselves. We can still aim for the stars and accept that we’ll fall short.

  2. susanne430 says:

    What an interesting perspective! I really enjoyed what you shared from the poem as well as your thoughts on it. Good stuff!

  3. Valerie says:

    This is immensely thought provoking – great article. I have recently been thinking a lot about what Jesus actually taught and have been thinking about what Christianity really means to me – I want it to be about following the teachings of Jesus but I have realised that there is a lot that I have picked up along the way that doesn’t quite fit in with that. I have come across the poem before but have not read the whole thing so will probably do that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it!

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks, Valerie! I recommend “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by E. P. Sanders. I read it earlier this year when I wanted to get to know Jesus minus all the stuff that has been added to him by those that came after. It really blew me away and definitely made me like Jesus even more.

      I can send you a PDF of the Grand Inquisitor story if you like, just let me know!

      • Valerie says:

        Thanks Sarah, that would be great. I would love to read the whole text. I am currently reading ‘The Jesus I Never Knew’ by Philip Yancey and he mentions ‘The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor’ briefly. Thanks for the book recommendation, I will check that out as well!

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  6. breathnumber says:

    Good post. I think many of the truly great figures of history can be divided by their optimism, or pessimism, of humanity and its future. Jesus, as a humanist, necessarily fell into the former category, though many great geniuses, like — to borrow from more recent history — Albert Einstein & Tesla, became quite discouraged over (Einstein’s term) human stupidity and its implications for our future. I think today, in the present (the sum of all history), the state of the world may seem to some even more discouraging. But by reading what Jesus & others said, we may at least keep ourselves from a certain depression, and, indeed, even find some inspiration to change the damn thing, or die (or be imprisoned) trying.

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