Lessons from The Brothers Karamazov: Doubt, Freedom, and the Organic Nature of Religious Truth

Ali Ahmed

If you have read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, you will agree that it is one of a select few treasure-houses of literature. A classic novel of ideas, it is singular in that unlike many classics, Dostoevsky’s magnum opus has only one group of readers: admirers. (There might admittedly be some dissidents here and there but, to me, they have not really read the novel) It is certainly one of the most powerful works I have ever read. While it is not as long as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it is still however good and lengthy. And if you haven’t read it, yet, then in this two-part series, by exploring a little of the profound depths of the novel and drawing out some of its lessons, I intend to persuade you that you are worth it.

In abbreviations of the book, the novel is often boiled down to the infamous section of the Grand Inquisitor, which says a lot about the novel as that particular section does not really, at least in my estimation, move the plot. Nevertheless, readers might agree that it forms perhaps the most gripping part of the novel. By focusing on this particular chapter, we’ll get a sense of Dostoevsky’s understanding of the place and purpose of religion, and how he envisions the real liberation of man vis-à-vis religion.

Without getting into too much detail about the plot, allow me to briefly preface our discussion by saying that the novel is about the return of the three Karamazov brothers to their birthplace, their father’s home in the town of Skotoprigonevsk. In the days that follow, their father is murdered and one of the brothers is accused with the crime. Essentially, as far as plot is concerned, the novel is a whodunit, but as we’ve mentioned, The Brothers Karamazov being a novel of ideas, Dostoevsky is infinitely more intrigued by the intricate subtleties of thought and emotion, the hundred indecisions and the hundred visions and revisions, than he is with solving the crime. Now, each of the three brothers-Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, in that order-are quite different from one another and that’s part of the dynamic of the story. In the chapter of the Grand Inquisitor, which takes place before the murder scene, the two younger Karamazov brothers, Ivan and Alyosha, meet at a local tavern and catch up. It’s been years since they’ve had a chance to speak to each other. Ivan, the elder, has since been through several years of schooling, including University, and has thus become somewhat of a recognized intellectual. Alyosha, the youngest brother, chooses the path of spiritual training and has joined the monastery to become a monk. After many years of separation, the two younger brothers meet-earlier in the novel-and in this chapter, Ivan presents his thesis, his “what I believe” to Alyosha.

Ivan relates to his brother a philosophical “poem” he has written, set during the severest days of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century. A large crowd has gathered outside of a cathedral in Seville, just a day after a hundred heretics were burned at the stake by the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor in an auto-da-fe. The people are a scattered, miserable sight, and it is in the midst of this misery that Jesus reappears, not in the form of the spiritual lion that vanquishes falsehood at the end of times – as is prophesied – but in the same human image in which he walked on the earth fifteen centuries ago. He says nothing but the people know it is him; there is a healing power even in the touch of his garments. He cures an old man of his blindness and witnesses a funeral procession leading out of the cathedral. The mother of the dead child wails and begs him for his help. With the same words with which he had brought back the dead all those years ago, he brings the little girl back to life. She sits up in the coffin, still holding the flowers in her hand, and looks around in amazement. By this point, the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor, who had been eyeing the situation from a distance, has had enough. He is enraged at what he has seen and orders his guards to take away the meddling intruder. The people not only don’t intervene, but they have been made so utterly submissive to the aged Inquisitor that they, as one body, bow down to him as Jesus is taken away to prison. In his sermon on the Dostoevsky Brothers, Robert M. Price makes a noteworthy point when he says, about Jesus, “after all, wasn’t he, and doesn’t he remain, the greatest of heretics?” That is indeed a common oversight, the fact that all prophets are, by virtue of their task, rebels against the status quo. But more on that another time.

“Why, then, have you come to interfere with us?” asks the Grand Inquisitor of Jesus in the cell. “Anything you proclaim anew will encroach upon the freedom of men’s faith, for it will come as a miracle, and the freedom of their faith was the dearest of all things to you, even then, one and a half thousand years ago. Was it not you who so often said then: ‘I want to make you free’? But now you have seen these ‘free’ men…this work has cost us dearly…but we have finally finished this work in your name. For fifteen hundred years we have been at pains over this freedom, but now it is finished, and well finished…these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.” What exactly is the aged Inquisitor babbling about? Well, Jesus had made it his priority to inspire faith freely. The faith that he demanded was born of constant thought and personal reflection in the face of doubt and disarray. “Such an experience of faith,” writes Simon Critchley in his piece in the New York Times, “is not certainty, but is only gained by going into the proverbial desert and undergoing diabolical temptation and radical doubt…doubt is not the enemy of faith. On the contrary, it is certainty.” The truth that sets you free is a difficult truth because it is predicated upon the constant dialectical process between certainty and doubt. Contrary to popular opinion, which is of course based on an easy and widely accepted interpretation of faith, religion does not demand a surrender of contemplation, but rather exactly the opposite. Religion is not a manual for life, as some might like to declare, with an extensive index that conveniently leads you to the solution for every situation. Those that think that religion is just that, a manual, compromise the organicism that is at the heart of faith and reduce the grand design of the human subject to the machinations of an operating system. It is only in understanding and accepting faith as a living, organic process that addresses each individual subject’s search for truth in a world of “diabolical temptation” that one exercises the freedom Jesus required from the faithful.

Returning to the Grand Inquisitor, we note again, to emphasize his point, what he tells Jesus: “Was it not you who so often said then: ‘I want to make you free?’…For fifteen hundred years we have been at pains over this freedom, but now it is finished.” The freedom of faith that we’ve been discussing; the organic, dialectical process – born of contemplation – navigating between the waters of doubt and certainty, all that is finished. It is finished because this freedom has been a burden on humanity, says the Grand Inquisitor, who accuses Jesus of mistakenly believing it to be strong enough and thus demanding more than it can handle. The Grand Inquisitor says that the Church has replaced this dialectical process with the fixity of certainty (and the Inquisition-the burning of “heretics”-itself both actuates and demonstrates this shift), for that is more conducive to the happiness of mankind than the burden of free thought and free choice. So how has the Church accomplished this? “You were warned,” says the Inquisitor to Jesus in the prison cell. “You had no lack of warnings and indications, but you did not heed the warnings, you rejected the only way of arranging for human happiness…” That course of “arranging for human happiness” was offered to Jesus by the devil in the account of the three temptations which, exhorts the Inquisitor, was the real miracle. But Jesus rejects each of these temptations precisely because they sacrifice human freedom. “Decide yourself who was right: you or the one who questioned you then?” asks the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor. The Church has effectively re-written the narration and thus defeated the entire trajectory of faith that Jesus had envisioned.

After a 40-day fast in the desert, Jesus is met by the devil, whose temptations come in the form of three questions. Each of these temptations the Grand Inquisitor identifies with a single word. In the first, the devil tells Jesus to convert stones into bread, not so much for his own sake, but for the benefit of the people who will, struck by the miracle, immediately follow him thereafter. Man cannot live on bread alone, replies Jesus, but rather on the word of God. This Palestinian Prophet has in mind something other than the contentment offered by a material appetite; he envisages a spiritual satiation. In the next question, the devil tempts Jesus to throw himself off from the top of the temple. If he is really the son of God as he claims, says the devil, he will be propped up by angels who will keep him from falling onto the ground. Not only will this prove his devotion to God, but it will force the people into faith. They will have no option but to believe, incapable as they will be of processing the mystery. In the final temptation, the devil takes Jesus to the top of a mountain, offering him a vista of humanity and heaven, and promises him a combined package of eternal and temporal power under one singularauthority. All kingdoms of all peoples would answer to one single sovereign. This would ensure the happiness of humankind through unity. Dissent is a result of difference. In this new scheme, humanity would be homogenized; it would be composed of a factory-line of people. Each individual would thus be exactly like the other, hence not an individual at all. A familiar scene out of so many science fiction movies we all know. Jesus is well aware of this and thus simply rejects the final offer.

“In this you acted proudly and magnificently, like God,” says the Inquisitor to his prisoner, “but mankind, that weak, rebellious tribe-are they gods? …could you possibly have assumed…that mankind, too, would be strong enough for such a temptation? Is that how human nature was created-to reject the miracle, and in those terrible moments of life, the moments of the most terrible, essential, and tormenting questions of the soul, to remain only with the free decisions of the heart?” He accuses Jesus of setting unachievable goals for humankind, that “weak, rebellious tribe.” The freedom that he wanted for them is of no consolation in the face of existential despair; hence they themselves give up their freedom for happiness. “We corrected your deed and based it on miracle, mystery, and authority. And mankind rejoiced that they were once more led like sheep, and that at last such a terrible gift, which had brought them so much suffering, had been taken from their hearts.” Finally, the Inquisitor reveals that the Church, though working in the name of Christ, is actually in cahoots with the devil. “Exactly eight centuries ago, we took from him what you so indignantly rejected, that last gift he offered you when he showed you all the kingdoms of the earth.” It is in working with the devil that they have “corrected” the work of Jesus and thus rewritten the entire flight plan of the human spirit that he had envisioned. “Why did you reject that last gift? Had you accepted that third counsel of the might spirit, you would have furnished all that man seeks on earth, that is: someone to bow down to, someone to take over his conscience, and a means for uniting everyone at last into a common, concordant, and incontestable anthill”. This is the Grand Inquisitor’s ultimate assessment of humanity: a pathetic, rebellious band of weaklings who cannot bear the burden of a conscience and thus collectively seek a higher being to fall down in front of. A higher being that can dictate their lives and free them of any accountability. They find comfort in this collective unconsciousness and hate being told that things could be arranged differently. It is out of pity for what it believes to be the human condition that the Church sets out to rewrite religion, of which it has a rather bleak view.

In rejecting miracle, mystery, and authority, Jesus had desired faith freely given, faith that was, as we’ve mentioned before, born of a process. The two opposing poles of doubt and certainty charge and propel man towards truth, living life in the middle-path that is faith. “If faith becomes certainty,” writes Critchley, “then we have become seduced by the temptations of miracle, mystery, and authority. We have become diabolical. There are no guarantees in faith. It is defined by an essential insecurity, tempered by doubt and defined by a radical experience in freedom.” This radical freedom does not make easy the most terrible moments of life, nor is it any fun to live a life tempered by doubt. The insecurity that is at the heart of faith is terribly demanding and it takes its toll on even the most mentally adept; hence the daily, new converts to the Church of certainty, the religion of the Inquisitor. And it is only the ones who are certain of themselves and their faith that can pass judgement on others – who are either coerced into conviction or annihilated if found wanting. This is why certainty demands homogeneity, for it cannot tolerate difference. Those who follow this creed have not really dealt with their internal insecurity; they have merely covered it with the blanket of blind faith. And in the darkness, their insecurity silently spreads like a plague. A toxin of the mind and soul. While Jesus founded his teachings on spiritual precepts (Man shall not live on bread alone…), the Church has effectively recalibrated it on materialistic principles, hence the emphasis on the physicality of the three temptations. It is materialistic precisely because the Church has sought power by subverting the transcendent principle of religion. As Gabriel Marcel notes in Man and Mass Society, “even the authentic religions may become similarly degraded in their very principle of being. They too can degenerate into idolatries; especially where the will to power is waiting to corrupt them; and this, alas, is almost invariably the case when the Church becomes endowed with temporal authority”. The will to power, the ego, chokes the organicism of religion and thus do we see multiple, temporal authorities reigning and disputing over fragments of a shattered spirit. More and more splinter groups that invoke heaven with more zealousness than those before them.

“You hoped that, following you, man, too, would remain with God, having no need of miracles” says the Inquisitor. “But you did not know that as soon as man rejects miracles, he will at once reject God as well, for man seeks not so much God as miracles. And since man cannot bear to be left without miracles, he will go and create new miracles for himself, his own miracles this time…” The miracles man makes himself are the miracles of technology; the manipulation of matter. And since man had invested in faith for the sake of miracles to begin with, mastery over matter leads him to believe that he no longer needs God. As Dostoevsky himself says in the novel, commending Alyosha, for the realist, faith does not spring from miracles, but miracles from faith. Modern man belongs to the Church of White Coats, investing his faith in the idea that Physics alone reveals all; nothing stands outside of the frontiers of Physics. And Metaphysics, if it still exists, is an increasingly diminishing field as Science grows to encompass more of that which it did not know before. That is thus another reason why I believe that the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor is the prophet of materialism because a materialistic universe is essentially deterministic; the future is merely the result of all the physical data-the atoms-present in the universe. Human free will is an illusion. “It is very important for us to recognize,” says Marcel, “that a materialistic conception of the universe is radically incompatible with the idea of a free man: more precisely, that, in a society ruled by materialistic principles, freedom is transmuted into its opposite, or becomes merely the most treacherous and deceptive of empty slogans.” Marcel goes on to say that freedom in a society run on materialistic principles would be evanescent, it would consist of “rendering oneself sufficiently insignificant to escape the attention of the men in power…from the point of view of the individual in such a society, there is no conceivable way out at all: private life, as such, does not exist any more”.

While real religion is predicated upon a self-willed process between certainty and doubt, and this process is an expression of human liberty as one chooses to face their personal insecurities and the despair of the human condition, the religion of materialism quietly rids you of your autonomy to afford you happiness. And it does this under the banner of making you free, convincing you that you’ve been a captive under religion. It sells you “freedom” in bulk; and what is more comforting than the freedom of certainty-freedom from self-doubt. The Church of Materialism has become so pervasive in so short a time that its principles have corrupted religions with principles of transcendence, religions that, under the increasing pressure of a secular, materialistic conception of the universe, have – unfortunately – lost ground in their “radical experience of freedom.”

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