Reza Aslan’s Grand Inquisitor

Reza Aslan’s new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, pits a “historical” Jesus against the orthodox Christian Jesus that founded Christianity and shaped Western Society. Non-Christians have been writing books that challenge the historical, biblical person of Jesus for millenia. And even though Aslan’s Jesus has been getting a lot of press, I am not worried that Aslan is harming orthodox Christianity any more than I’m worried  A-Rod is ruining the entire sport of baseball by lying about steroids.However, in a recent interview at The Atlantic, Aslan talks at length about the literary work that most influenced his religious views: Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov. Aslan focuses in particular on the famous chapter “The Grand Inquisitor.” Now it just so happens that The Brothers Karamazov (particularly “The Grand Inquisitor”) was also incredibly important in my own spiritual development. However, Dostoyevsky flung my affections in the opposite direction of Aslan. The Brothers Karamazov impressed upon me not only a deeper love for Jesus himself (particularly through the character of Alyosha) but also a deeper love for God’s established church.

The Brothers Karamazov is the last, and possibly greatest novel of Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Written in Imperial Russia during the early 1880s, it centers around three brothers with extremely different leases on life and their awful, abominable father. Dmitri, the oldest brother, is an impulsive, hedonistic, and emotional firecracker. Ivan, the middle brother, is a staunch atheist and leftist intellectual.And Alyosha, the youngest, is a gentle, loving, and compassionate Christian. “The Grand Inquisitor,” easily the most famous section of the book (and occasionally sold and taught separately from the rest of the novel) is a poem written by Ivan being read to Alyosha. The poem is set in 15th century Spain during the inquisitions. In “The Grand Inquisitor,” Jesus comes back to Spain and takes up his ministry again—healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and loving the unlovable. After attracting a crowd, the head of the inquisition comes and hauls Jesus off to prison. Awaiting his execution, Jesus is visited by the Grand Inquisitor to remind Jesus of his uselessness to the present-day church. The inquisitor knows very well it is Jesus that he is speaking to, and would rather that the person of Jesus leave the church alone. The church is running just fine without Jesus, and as a matter of fact is anti-Jesus now! As the Inquisitor says, “A thousand years ago, he (Satan) gave us Rome.” At the end of the Inquisitor’s harangue, Jesus simply responds by silently kissing the forehead of the Grand Inquisitor.

And after listening to Ivan’s condemnation of the church institution and a brief dialogue, Alyosha gets up and kisses his brothers forehead, a gesture that brings me to tears every single time I read it. It  powerfully demonstrates how Alyosha is growing in Christlikeness and love for his brothers.The poem, written in the novel by an atheist, becomes itself an apologetic for the love of Christ. And carries with it a strong message about the person of Jesus and his church. However, the ecclesial message that I took from this incredible narrative is not the same one that influenced Reza Aslan. In Aslan’s interview with The Atlantic he says,

 “I think Dostoevsky is saying that we must never confuse faith with religion. We must never confuse the institutions that have arisen, these man-made institutions… with faith itself. What I love about the Grand Inquisitor parable is this notion that if Jesus showed up, all of a sudden, today, he would not only bear very little resemblance to who the Church says he is, his primary focus would be on challenging the very religious institutions who claim to speak for him.”

I understand Aslan’s frustration with the church. I really do. The Christian church has been messy since its formation in the book of Acts. And oftentimes certain organizations that call themselves churches function in an anti-Christian, anti-church way. For centuries, entire networks of “churches” have developed and held power that probably would harm Jesus as badly as the Grand Inquisitor.

But what I see in Dostoyevsky’s creation of “The Grand Inquisitor” is not a scathing condemnation of institutions, but a call to faithfulness in the church and the absolute necessity of Jesus and Jesus-like love in the church. Aslan sides with Ivan, the atheist. Aslan sees, just as Ivan saw, the Church as oppressors of self, with liberation from authority, tradition, and the constraints imposed by the Christian God as the chief enlightened state of man.

photo credit: lungstruck via photopin cc

Ivan’s point in writing “The Grand Inquisitor” is to condemn the church. But like Jesus in Ivan’s own prose, Alyosha turns the condemnation of Ivan on its head. Alyosha doesn’t say, “Well that’s the church, it’s only the personal relationship that matters.” Alyosha, a man who is literally living at a church and being discipled by a clergyman, shows Ivan that Jesus has not left the church. By kissing the forehead of Ivan, Alyosha not only represents himself, but the church in its true form, as an imitation of Jesus. A follower of Jesus who acts like Jesus, because someone who loved Jesus (Father Zossima) taught him how. That is the function of God’s church.

Though begging for reform (as seen by the character of Rakitin, the corrupt seminarian), the church that Dostoyevsky loved is not dead. In Dostoyevsky’s world (and reality), the church is a necessity, because the true church is an earthly establishment of the heavenly order.  In The Brothers Karamazov, the monk Zossima says this to those who would balk at the church,

“For it is not we, but they, who are in isolation, though they don’t see that.”

While speaking particularly of those who scoffed at the monastic order, this can be understood generally. Those who love God in a community formed by and for him forsake individualism for true fellowship. Aslan and those like him refuse to forsake their individuality, but in doing so lose any hope of fellowship that might challenge or result in knowing higher, absolute truth. And in the end, it is Ivan, not the ecclesial-bound Alyosha whose end is isolation.

This is because all goodness in The Brothers Karamazov comes from God. And all wickedness comes from isolated self-governance. Aslan and Ivan both reject the God of Scripture for something of their own creation. So when Reza Aslan says this after reading “The Grand Inquisitor:”

“[Y]ou are the only one qualified to define what God is for you. No one else is qualified to make that decision for you.”

He is merely echoing Ivan, not Dostoyevsky.

Dostoyevsky wants so much more for the reader than to live as Ivan lived. Ivan did not fare well in his anti-establishmentarianism. When only “the self” matters, “the self” destructs. In The Brothers Karamzov, self lead to the downfall of every character that lived by that ethos.

Dostoyevsky isn’t telling us that the truth was in ourselves, he is telling us that the truth is in the true person of Jesus, and Jesus is found in the church.

And Jesus’ church did not fall. In The Brothers Karamazov (and in real life), the church is indeed a strange, incomplete place. Hated by atheists (Ivan and Fyodor Karamazov), imitated by false practitioners (Rakitin and the Inquisitor), frequented by the bizarre (Father Farapont), and propelled forward by those who, through understanding God’s truth, love like Jesus (Zossima and Alyosha).

The Inquisitor did not make the church, God made the church. And through the Spirit of God working in love through believers, the church goes on. Throughout Dostoyevsky’s writing, esoteric self-religion destructs just like atheism and hedonism. Because, as Alyosha tells Ivan and one might tell Aslan:

“Your Inquisitor does not believe in God, that’s his secret.”


Correction: Originally Ivan was listed as the oldest brother instead of the middle. 


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