The Brothers Karamazov
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I felt sick. I was at the British Library when I finally reached the part of this novel known as the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. I sped through the dialogue, taking up chapter 5: Pro and Contra. Engulfed in the doubt that is a common occurrence in my life, I felt deadened by a relentless assault of painful accusation against the Roman Catholic Church, and specifically against the Jesuits. Several cups of coffee and a good amount of prayer were needed to bring any feeling back, but let me describe the work that brought about such an existential crisis.
The Brothers Karamazov is Dostoevsky's final novel. It follows a family of three brothers: Dmitri, the eldest, a hedonistic waster, Ivan, the restless rationalist and atheist, and Alyosha, a novice of the local Russian Orthodox monastery. A dispute between Dmitri and their equally useless father Fyodor brings them to the monastery, looking for reconciliation. Unfortunately, the situation becomes irredeemably worse when Fyodor is found murdered, and Dmitri is implicated in the murder, driven by numerous conflicts, including those surrounding the young woman of Gruschenka. The novel works on the level of the whodunit with a distinctly existential leaning. While investigating the death of a worthless man, it simultaneously explores the death of God.
The most famous part of the novel takes place in an chapter where Ivan shares with his brother Alyosha a "poem in prose" in which Jesus comes back to bring healing and miracles during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, and the Grand Inquisitor, a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, asks Christ to go away. The Inquisitor believes that people cannot handle the real freedom that is Jesus' legacy, explained through an exposition on the Three Temptations of the dessert. The Inquisitor rejects this freedom for his people because he believes that Jesus underestimates human evil. If people are told that they can do anything, then everything is permitted, and all kind of horrors are possible. So the Church chooses instead to control the people by their consciences and by bread. The Church rejects the freedom of Christ because they prefer the order of control. As the Inquisitor explains:
For the secret of man's being is not only to live but to have something to live for. Without a stable conception of the object of life, man would not consent to go on living, and would rather destroy himself than remain on earth, though he had bread in abundance. That is true. But what happened? Instead of taking men's freedom from them, Thou didst make it greater than ever! Didst Thou forget that man prefers peace, and even death, to freedom of choice in the knowledge of good and evil? Nothing is more seductive for man than his freedom of conscience, but nothing is a greater cause of suffering.
Is Ivan's story valid? It must have been for me because I found myself nearly suffering a panic attack. It is an accusation regularly leveled against the Church but never so beautifully and convincingly as by Dostoevsky.
The truth is this critique of the Church does apply to the Jansenist movement that infiltrated many parts of Catholic culture in Dostoevsky's time. In this worldview, people are so sinful and evil that there is very little hope of redemption for most. It was declared a heresy but remained influential, and veins of it stretch even to the modern day and can be discovered in much of what I was taught in Filipino Catholicism. However, the spirituality of St. Therese of Lisieux, which I write about more fully here, was the antidote to the Jansenist poison, and as her spirituality became dominant, it allowed for the healing that brought the Church to fuller wellness in the Second Vatican Council with its more positive view of humanity.
However, I do take something from the Grand Inquisitor; as a reflection on what a pastor should be, I find it helpful. The Catholic view of freedom is important; it is not primarily a "freedom from" but a "freedom to", a freedom to love. As a friend of mine so wisely said, "Freedom is not being able to choose anything, but having made the choice." Because being human means that we are entrenched in lives that are full of other people with whom we are in relationship. Freedom then does not mean being free from such relationships and their corresponding responsibilities (which is anyway impossible) but choosing the right kind of relationships, those that lead to the full flourishing of the people around us and ourselves. The problem with existentialism is that it confuses freedom with independence from people; one leads to a full life, the other a meaningless one. The role of pastor is to help people develop the connections with other people that gives their lives meaning, especially in the fullness of community. Some theologies (specifically many Protestant ones, but I would include Simone Weil here) centre on the relationship between God and the individual in an odd way. They exclude the social and communal aspects of religion, often saying we have to be true to ourselves and listen to what God tells us personally. Our very language with which we communicate with God is constructed by the society and community within which we have grown. The Catholic acknowledges the importance of others in the experience of faith and love. Therefore, those who complain about the importance placed on the Institution do not realise that the institution is an essential element of our experience of God. Human beings do need institutions and can never be "liberated" from them because it is part of the way we interact with reality and organise ourselves. However, Ivan's Legend does make us think about the nature of institutions; that these institutions can be developed into prisons rather than Churches. From my own personal experience, the Church has been a vehicle of my liberation. It has led me to the freedom wherein I try to embrace a life that attempts (often with much difficulty) to be a full expression of my relationship with God. Freedom means choosing love, and love is being in fruitful relationship with God and others.
Read it if: you have a problematic relationship with your father or are into existentialism.