Conversatio Divina

Part 14 of 16

Reflections On The Brothers Karamazov

Christ & the Self

Ken Boa

Editor’s Note: The purpose of this column is to provide thoughtful reflections on classic literature, film, or music as relevant to our issue theme and Conversations overarching theme of promoting Christian spiritual formation.

The Brothers Karamazov is a poly-phonic novel that displays the architectonic grandeur of a Gothic cathedral. Dostoevsky explores the souls of his characters, ranging from the depths of depravity to the heights of exaltation, from meanness to the nobility of which the ambivalent human spirit is capable. Taken together, the three brothers form a composite hero, constituting the body, the mind, and the soul. They represent three dimensions that include physical experience (Dmitri), intellectual reason (Ivan), and intuitive faith (Alyosha). This fragmented collective hero reveals the tragic fission of the fallen soul and illustrates how the division of the family is symptomatic of and largely responsible for the loss of a binding moral idea in contemporary society.

For me, the most artistic and controversial section of The Brothers Karamazov is the chapter concerning the Grand Inquisitor. Here Ivan rejects God, and therefore real love. Ivan says, “I don’t accept this world of God’s, and, although I know it exists, I don’t accept it at all. It’s not that I don’t accept God, you must understand, it’s the world created by him I don’t and cannot accept.” He goes on to say, “I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbors. It’s just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those at a distance.” He argues that this idealized love is not realistic or possible. He continues, “One can love one’s neighbors in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it is almost impossible.” He adds, “People talk sometimes about bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beast; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically, so artfully cruel.”

Dostoevsky uses Ivan’s observations to address some common complaints by religious skeptics. Ivan attempts to use the existence of evil as evidence for God’s nonexistence because what he sees in human nature is so vile, so contrary to what he believes a loving God would have established. He struggles with this and, at the same time, seeks to reject the idea of original sin because he views children as innocent. Ivan uses the sufferings of children as his primary challenge to the idea of a good and just God. He says, “I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so, I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.”

Ivan rejects God in part because he cannot reconcile evil with the existence of a good and omnipotent deity. Yet his logic is grievously flawed. His very recognition of evil and suffering suggests knowledge of an objective standard. He observes that beasts are incapable of the cruelty demonstrated by mankind. In both these observations, he attacks his own assertions. If man were merely a beast, he would live without moral conflict or knowledge that the world is an unjust place. If good did not exist in some ideal form, Ivan could have no recognition of a skewed or perverted good. He seeks to deny or blame God for a world of suffering and evil while he would elevate to a divine status the very will that makes evil possible. Through Ivan, Dostoevsky cleverly refutes the standard argument of the skeptic that would both embrace the sovereignty of will yet denounce God for failing to step in and eradicate evil, a step that would require the elimination of free will.

Ivan then discusses a poem he has developed called “The Grand Inquisitor,” an allusion to the Inquisition in Seville in the sixteenth century, some eight centuries after the Church decided to usurp the role of temporal authority. In his poem, Jesus arrives in Seville during the Spanish Inquisition, just after many heretics have been burned at the stake. Jesus begins to heal people but is quickly arrested. He is then brought before the Inquisitor, who recognizes him and asks, “Is it thou? Thou? . . . Don’t answer, be silent. What canst Thou say, indeed? . . . I know not who Thou art and care not to know whether it is Thou or only a semblance of Him, but, tomorrow I shall condemn Thee and burn Thee at the stake as the worst of heretics.”

The Inquisitor explains that people have brought their freedom and laid it humbly at the feet of the Church. He continues, “No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, ‘Make us your slaves, but feed us.’” Here Dostoevsky critiques the Church’s lust for power and its attempts to become the State. His Inquisitor argues, “And all again in the name of freedom! I tell Thee 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.” His assertion is that people cannot handle the gift of freedom:

We have corrected Thy work and have founded it upon miracle, mystery, and authority. And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep, and that terrible gift that had brought them such suffering was at last lifted from their hearts…. We are not working with Thee, but with him [i.e., Satan]—that is our mystery. It’s long—eight centuries—since we have been on his side and not on Thine. Just eight centuries ago, we took from him what Thou didst reject with scorn, that last gift he offered Thee, showing Thee all the kingdoms of the earth.

The Inquisitor declares, “We have taken the sword of Caesar, and in taking it, of course, have rejected Thee and followed him For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy.” At the end of the account:

When the Inquisitor ceased speaking he waited for some time for his Prisoner to answer him. His silence weighed down upon him. He saw that the Prisoner had listened intently and quietly all the time, looking gently in his face and evidently not wishing to reply. The old man longed for him to say something, however bitter and terrible. But He suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer. The old man shuddered. His lips moved. He went to the door, opened it and said to Him: “‘Go, and come no more . . . come not at all, never, never!’” And he let him out into the dark squares of the town. The prisoner went away. . . . The kiss glows in [the old man’s] heart, but [he] adheres to his idea.

Using this very vivid imagery, Dostoevsky refutes the idea of socialism and its longing for a secular order. This passage is not merely his condemnation of the ambitions of the Catholic Church; he also points to the loss of freedom inherent in a socialist context. Furthermore, the passage depicts man’s tendency to seek comfort, security, and power rather than true freedom through submission to Christ.

Dostoevsky then draws a parallel between the three ecclesiastical forces of “miracle, mystery and authority” spoken of by the Grand Inquisitor, the temptations of Christ, and the temptations of the three Karamazov brothers. Christ’s first temptation, to turn stone into bread, echoes the dilemma of Dmitri, who seeks sensory gratification. The second temptation of allegiance or authority relates to Ivan’s longing for a secular order in which harmony is imposed by force, ultimately, an adumbration of a socialist order. The third temptation, for Jesus to put God to the test by throwing himself off the temple roof, corresponds to the crisis of faith that Alyosha experiences when his deceased mentor is not miraculously preserved from decomposition after his death.

I want to comment on how each of the three brothers symbolically answers the allegations of the Grand Inquisitor. The first answer comes from Alyosha’s Cana of Galilee experience, through which we are reminded that we need spiritual regeneration far more than physical sustenance. Jesus’ miracle of turning water into wine demonstrated the new life he offered to those who would receive Him.

Next, Dmitri provides the second answer. In spite of his passionate nature, love of money, and desire to kill his father, he finds inner strength to overcome that passion. Ultimately, through his unjust imprisonment, he learns of the collective responsibility of all people for the human condition and discovers salvation through Christ.

Ivan supplies the third answer to the Grand Inquisitor’s accusations. Ivan confesses to the murder. Those who would say that everything is permitted find they cannot live with the logical implications of that proposition, as it is self-defeating. Ivan’s answer is not intellectual but rather derives from his whole being. It is an answer that actually combines the mind, the will, the emotions, the body, the soul, and the spirit. He acknowledges his need.

A complete person is revealed in the polyphonic answer of these brothers. Those who were formerly fragmented begin to find faith and reality through suffering—although Ivan’s madness is not completely resolved in the plot.

Dostoyevsky used the sequence with the Grand Inquisitor as an ideological prelude to the redemption sequences. The real hero is the Spirit of God working through the characters themselves. At the very end of the novel, there is a triumphal sense of the affirmation and confession of faith in the resurrection: “Karamazov . . . can it be true that what’s taught us in religion, that we shall all rise again from the dead and shall live and see each other again, all, Ilyushechka too?” (This question refers to a boy who has just died.)

Alyosha answers, “Certainly we shall all rise again, certainly we shall see each other and tell each other with joy and gladness all that has happened.” And so, we see Alyosha moving his ministry into the world, having finally found his place in that world.

It is through our restoration in Christ that the process of healing commences in our inner and outer lives, a renewal that becomes increasingly real in this soul-forming world as it anticipates its consummation in the fullness of the image of Christ in our resurrected existence. Meanwhile in these shadowlands, we must pray for the grace of holy aspiration and the realization that even the most mundane experiences in this world can become redemptive and sacramental.


Kenneth Boa is president of Reflections Ministries and is engaged in a ministry of teaching, mentoring, writing, and speaking. He holds a BS from Case Institute of Technology, a ThM from Dallas Theological Seminary, a PhD from New York University, and a DPhil from the University of Oxford in England. Recent publications by Dr. Boa include Conformed to His Image, 20 Compelling Evidences that God Exists, Face to Face, Augustine to Freud, Faith Has Its Reasons, Handbook to Leadership, and A Taste of the Classics. Kenneth Boa also writes a free monthly teaching letter called Reflections, and his website has numerous free resources.