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. 😀 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.