The Grand Inquisitor and Wilderness Temptations

glazunov53b
One of my all-time favorite chapters in modern literature is “The Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamozov.” It features two brothers, Ivan (an atheist) and Alyosha (a monk), bantering back and forth about Jesus. Ivan reads a poem he has written about Jesus coming down to the streets of 15th century Spain (during the inquisition).

Jesus is of course arrested for being a heretic and told his mission in Spain is at odds with the church in Spain. The grand inquisitor pummels Jesus with question after question regarding Jesus’ three temptations in the wilderness. If Jesus had said “yes” to those three, so much suffering would have been avoided (bread would feed the hungry, miracles would keep people superstitiously in line, and power would keep the world from war). According to the inquisitor, by denying those temptations, Jesus has given humanity free-will but has also brought about large amounts of unavoidable suffering. Given humanity’s free-will, they can never choose what is good without coercion… The questions are too difficult, the truth is too dark, the suffering is unavoidable… And now the church must rectify what its Lord has done wrong and say “yes” to the devil’s temptations to bring coercion to the people of God (Ivan was okay with religious ruler-ship so long as they kept people in line- unlike Jesus).

But after all the questions had been asked and the inquisitor waited for an answer, Jesus stood in silence. After the long period of quiet, Jesus arose, walked over to the inquisitor and kissed him on the forehead, causing the inquisitor to shutter. What Dostoevsky has shown was that it is not the problem of evil with which we must wrestle, but the problem of good. In a world of lies, violence, deception, and greed, how is it that there is still a human capacity for vulnerability, compassion, beauty, or self-donation?  How is there still love?  

Advertisements