SPidge Tales

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

I Was Wrong: The Grand Inquisitor Story Reinterpreted

In the 1980’s, Madonna was a material girl living in a material world. I was a little boy wetting his pants and watching cartoons. Now, in the 2000’s, Madonna is all grown up and so am I. We no longer live in a material world; I am a Wikipedia boy living in a Wikipedia world.

What does it mean to be a Wikipedia boy in a Wikipedia world? We live in the information snippet age. The Internet grants access to so much info, so much stuff, creating an ever-growing field of important cultural facts and writings to be aware of. But there is just not enough time to really read and become expert in all the important stuff. That’s okay, because Internet sites, most prominently Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that allows users to create and change entries, let us skim the classics of literature, philosophy, and science, giving us just enough sprinkles and hot fudge to confidently take part in the ice cream sundae of intellectual conversation.

Recently I had what Mike Tyson would call an “epithany.” Ever since sophomore year at St. Mike’s, when I first read the legend of the Grand Inquisitor in my Theologies of God class, I have been fascinated with Dostoyevsky’s tale. I’ve read the fable many times over the years, seeing in it a great moral lesson on things such as freedom versus authoritarianism. I even wrote a blog entry on it a while back (http://spidgetales.blogspot.com/2005/11/faith-and-miracles.html). In my “epithany,” I have come to realize I was wrong. I entirely misread the story. You see; The Grand Inquisitor, though often read and taught as a stand-alone narrative, is not an isolated short story. It is a story that takes place in the context of Dostoyevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov. Of course, I had never read the entire novel. Using sites like Wikipedia, I skimmed through plot summaries to catch myself up with the book’s context. To really know something, of course, one (in this case me) cannot just skim Wikipedia; one needs to really read the book.

I began The Brothers Karamazov a month and a half ago. I still have not finished it, but I am almost two-thirds through, and I have long since passed The Grand Inquisitor chapter. In light of what I’ve read in the novel, I am fairly confident I have a better grasp on the old legend. The Grand Inquisitor story, I believe, is far darker than a story of freedom versus authoritarianism, as I had mistakenly assumed. And if I’m wrong again, I can always check Wikipedia to fix my new mistakes.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the great nihilist philosopher, was a contemporary of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. They held diametrically opposed views on religion. Dostoyevsky was an orthodox Christian and Nietzsche an avowed atheist. Yet, they did admire one another and were in agreement on the implications of the Enlightenment. They both agreed with Dostoyevsky’s words: “If there is no God, all is lawful.”

Nietzsche wrote a fascinating book called “Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” Zarathustra comes down the mountain and enters the village ranting and raving like a crazy man. “God is dead,” he shouts. “And you killed Him,” he accosts the villagers. These villagers he speaks to are not born again Christians, fundamentalists, or any other pejorative we moderns assign to those we consider backward religious folk. The villagers are atheists themselves. Nietzsche’s prophet Zarathustra is accusing atheists of killing God.

The town atheists are symbolic of the Enlightenment movement. Following the Reformation and the religious wars, thinkers came to the conclusion that we ought not kill one another because of our differences over belief in God. Morality and values judgments to this point had been tied into religion and religious belief. Enlightenment thinkers said that instead of basing morality on what we believe God regards as just, right and wrong should be based on human reason. Through human reason, we can deduce what are the right actions to do.

(This is actually somewhat close to what St. Thomas Aquinas said. Aquinas taught that man can read the natural law through his heart and know what actions are just and unjust. This natural law, like all of creation, he taught came from God. William of Ockham, however, shifted most of the Church in an unfortunate direction away from Aquinas. While Aquinas had taught that, for example, murder is wrong because life is an inviolable good given to us by God, Ockham taught that murder is wrong because God arbitrarily decided to condemn murder through divine command—the implication being that God could easily change his mind and make good be bad, up be down, etc. The Enlightenment thinkers were not really criticizing a true Christian ethic as embodied in the teachings of Aquinas, but rather the nominalism of Ockham.)

Most people mistakenly pluralize the Book of Revelation, referring to it as “Revelations.” What they should pluralize is “Enlightenment.” It’s not really accurate to speak of THE Enlightenment. What we witnessed in the 17th and 18th centuries is a series of Enlightenments. There is no one Enlightenment thinker. We meet diverse thinkers like Descartes, Locke, Bentham, Kant, and Hume. All claimed to construct a way of seeing morality and making value judgments from below. That is, each claimed to create a universal moral outlook from the viewpoint of mankind, not from God above. Each claimed to step beyond, to step outside of, narrow parochial interests and viewpoints, and create a way of looking at the world from a detached perspective.

The problem with the move to shift morality and value judgments from the realm of the divine to the mind of man, Nietzsche points out, is that each Enlightenment thinker came up with his own slightly (sometimes more than slightly) different perspective. If we shift values from the mind of God to the mind of man, which man gets to be the new God? All the Enlightenment did, said Nietzsche, was transpose the old Christian framework to a new base. The Enlightenment man tries to keep the old God inspired worldview while simultaneously dropping God. This can’t be done, says Nietzsche. When you “kill” God, when you remove God from the equation, you can’t hold onto a world with values. Value and meaning go out the window too. “You have killed God,” shouts Zarathustra. Be ready to accept the implications of your deicide.

Dostoyevsky the man struggled with the question of God his whole life. In his last and greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, he creates characters with diverging viewpoints to wrestle with the question of God. Our family patriarch, Fyodor Karamazov, a drunken womanizing buffoon, is unsure about the existence of God. He realizes he is a great sinner, and instead of struggling to reform, he chooses to bask in his licentious ways; if he is going to be a sinner, why not go all the way. As he says in Book 4, Chapter 2, “I mean to go on in my sins to then end, let me tell you. For sin is sweet; all abuse it, but all men live in it, only others do it on the sly, and I openly.”

Fyodor Karamazov’s three sons, Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, symbolize the flesh, the mind, and the soul. Dmitri, like his father, delights in sins of the flesh. Ivan received a Western education, and is an atheist intellectual. Alyosha is a kindhearted monk. They are all aware of our fallen world, and the suffering that fills it. Each represents a different response to life on a post Eden Earth. Dmitri dives into the swimming pool of sin; why fight it when you can enjoy it. Ivan tries to detach himself from sin and suffering, and look upon it with scorn from an intellectual distance. Alyosha confronts sin and suffering through a life of self-giving love.

Issues become complicated with the introduction of two women, Katerina and Grushenka. Dmitri offers Katerina money to sleep with him. When Katerina accepts his offer, Dmitri relents out of shame. He lets her keep the money, but refuses to defile her. Katerina feels to indebted to Dmitri, and vows to love him forever for this kind deed. They become engaged.

Dmitri soon falls in love with another woman, Grushenka. This same Grushenka is the love interest of Dmitri’s father, Fyodor. Katerina, herself, has fallen in love with Dmitri’s brother Ivan, and he with her. But she vows to remain true to Dmitri even in his infidelity, to show him how great she is and make him forever indebted to her because of her “suffering love.”

When Fyodor Karamazov is murdered, accusations of patricide are thrown, and questions of guilt are raised based on each brother’s attitude toward life, including supposed illegitimate son Smerdyokov (the son of a local retarded woman pejoratively nicknamed Stinking Lizaveta; the liaison between Lizaveta and Fyodor is speculated but never definitively proven).

The Grand Inquisitor legend takes place in Book 5, Chapter 5. Ivan, the atheist brother, tells his brother Alyosha, the monk, a grand tale. He prefaces the story with an old tale of the Virgin Mary’s descent into Hell. She witnesses the suffering of the sinners burning in the lake of Hell, and pleads with God for mercy on their behalf. God grants the sinners a reprieve from suffering every year from Good Friday through Easter Sunday.

Ivan then moves on to his main story, which takes place in Seville, Spain during the height of the Inquisition. Cardinal Torquemada, the ninety-year-old Grand Inquisitor, is busy burning heretics at the stake. He has lost his own personal faith, but feels that faith is necessary for the people, or they will fall apart in despair. So, he tortures those who question Christianity to prevent the common people from doubting and falling into anguish.

Into this pit of suffering walks Christ. He is not back for the Second Coming, but rather just a visit, so to speak. The people instantly recognize Him. They flock to Him, and He embraces them, performing healings and miracles. The Grand Inquisitor sees this and has Christ arrested. ‘You have no right to come back now,’ Torquemada admonishes Christ. ‘We have things under control.’

Torquemada brings up the three temptations in the desert, when Satan confronted Christ. ‘You were wrong to reject the Devil’s temptation to turn stones into bread,’ says Torquemada. Saying ‘man does not live on bread alone, but on the word of God,’ means nothing to the common people who are starving and need bread, not words of spiritual comfort.

‘You were wrong to reject the Devil’s second temptation, to jump off the Temple and have God send His angels to save you (and reply to the Devil, ‘Scripture says don’t tempt the Lord),’ says Torquemada. The people don’t want to have blind faith; they want to be awed by miracles.

‘You were wrong to reject the Devil’s final temptation, to bow down before him and have power over the people,’ says Torquemada. If Christ had compelled obedience instead of condemning people to freedom, then there would be no heretics raising doubts about the faith and Torquemada would not be “forced” to burn people at the stake to insure happiness.

‘I will burn you with the other heretics,’ says Torquemada. Christ does not respond with words. He instead gives the old man a kiss. Torquemada shudders, then releases Him, telling Him to go and never return.

There are many interpretations of this story. Torquemada is seen as the Russian Orthodox caricature of Catholicism, using hierarchy and power to control the people and compel belief in Christ. The Christ figure in the story is seen as the Russian Orthodox caricature of Protestantism, with its emphasis on freedom of conscience as the path to Christ. We can also see an allegory of Communism (The Grand Inquisitor) versus Capitalism (Christ). In my original analysis of the story, I saw the Grand Inquisitor as a representation of dogmatic faith used to compel people to belief, and the Christ figure as the symbol of freedom. I saw the Christ figure as the hero of the story, representing the noble truth that faith must come freely, not through compulsion. Yet, my interpretation was wrong.

The Grand Inquisitor story is often (mistakenly) seen as Dostoyevsky’s personal view on freedom versus authority. It is seen as an allegory for the endless debates and arguments in religion, government, and public life about how much freedom should be granted and how much freedom should be taken away to ensure security. This is NOT Dostoyevsky’s view. The Grand Inquisitor story is a legend told by Dostoyevsky’s character Ivan, from the point of view of Ivan.

Ivan is an atheist, and in Book Five, Chapter Four: Rebellion, the chapter immediately preceding the Grand Inquisitor chapter, Ivan outlines the reasons for his atheism. He begins in acknowledgement of an understanding of Theodicy. Ivan understands the Christian teaching that God is omniscient and completely good. He understands the idea of God creating humans with free will, that man sinned of his own accord, bringing suffering and death into the world. He understands that God will reward the just and punish the wicked, setting things back in balance. But he cannot accept this viewpoint of the world.

Maybe adults deserve suffering, because “they’ve eaten the apple and know good and evil…and go on eating it still. But the children haven’t eaten anything, an are so far innocent,” says Ivan. He gives particular examples. There is the story of a Turk soldier pointing a gun in a baby’s face. The baby smiles and laughs, holding its hands out to the pistol before the soldier pulls the trigger and blows off its face. There is the story of a general who kept a kennel of hundreds of dogs. A little boy about eight throws a stone at the dogs and hurts the general’s prized hound. The boy was taken from his mother, stripped naked in the cold, and ordered to run. The general sent the pack of dogs after the boy, and they tore him to pieces.

Ivan cannot accept a world in which children such as these have to suffer. Explaining this suffering through free will does not justify it. Even if the general or the Turk soldier get punished, or get sent to the fires of Hell, it still does not take away the cruelty done. Even if that little boy is reunited in Heaven with his mother, still, it does not make sense why he needed to be torn to bits to justify a creation in which humans have freedom to inflict this kind of suffering. “It’s not that I don’t accept God…it’s the world created by Him I don’t and cannot accept,” says Ivan. “It’s not God that I don’t accept, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.”

Is there a better option for Ivan than traditional Christian Theodicy? Maybe the world would make more sense if we got rid of God, if we built a world based on the reason and rationality of man, as the Enlightenment thinkers attempted to do. Or, maybe there is something missing in Ivan’s indictment. Alyosha brings up this point, pointing to Jesus as “a being in the whole world who would have the right to forgive and could forgive” humankind’s atrocities. Ivan smiles at this question and responds in the following chapter with his story of the Grand Inquisitor.

My earlier reading of Torquemada as the bad guy and the Jesus figure as the good guy is too simplistic. The figure of Torquemada is representative of Ivan. Torquemada and Ivan are both atheists. Neither can understand why God would create a world in which (according to them) humans are burdened (condemned) to a blind freedom in which they must come to faith in Christ with nary a miracle to inspire them (save the handful of miracles recorded in the Bible). With these odds, most will fail to come to faith in Christ, resulting in eternal suffering. Even if the legend of the Virgin Mary’s visit to Hell is true, the annual three-day reprieve from suffering cannot justify the suffering sinners face because God condemned them to blind freedom. The Christ figure in the Grand Inquisitor story is not the good guy, but the bad guy. Instead of giving man bread, miracles, and authority, things that would actually give man sustenance, hope, and order, he condemns man to blind faith, resulting in suffering for the multitudes and bliss only for the small number of devout faithful strong willed enough to keep the faith and make it to Heaven.

The Grand Inquisitor story is not really an allegory about freedom versus security or freedom versus authoritarianism. It is Ivan’s critique of life itself. It is Ivan’s critique of life, God or no God, as seen from the perspective of Torquemada. At the beginning of the story, as I noted, Torquemada is an atheist. He sees himself as one of the enlightened few who is burdened to bear the truth about the meaninglessness of life. If the masses knew the truth, they would despair. It is better to give the people ‘bread, miracle, and authority;’ it is better people believe and go into death and nothingness in a state of happy ignorance than know the truth that there is no pie in the sky. When Jesus comes, it makes the problem worse. Now that Torquemada sees that God is real, the problem of suffering is worse. The free will excuse is not good enough. Free will is not worth it if it condemns humanity to suffering.

Ivan sees only two options. Either there is no God, life ends at death, and existence is a meaningless fraud, or God is a monster for condemning us to suffering because of our free will.

What is the response to Ivan’s view in The Brothers Karamazov? I have not yet finished the book, so I cannot answer. Yes, I’ve skimmed Wikipedia. Wikipedia says Dostoyevsky’s response can be seen in the words of Alyosha’s spiritual mentor Fr. Zossima, and in the way Ivan’s life plays out. But I’ve made the mistake of relying on Wikipedia for background information already. Before an analysis or critique of Ivan’s view, I will finish the book.

Will my response to Ivan be an exhortation for the detached perspective of the Enlightenment? I have to say it will not. While taking Nietzsche’s perspective on a world without God, Ivan embodied the Enlightenment view of remaining detached from the nitty-gritty of life. I’ve already erred as Wikipedia boy of the 2000’s. I will not advocate going backwards further, rejecting God, embracing a purely ‘natural’ viewpoint, and becoming a 1980’s Material Girl.


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