God and Religion
The fundamental tension in “The Grand Inquisitor” is between God, in the form of Jesus, and religion, in the form of the Roman Catholic Church. According to the Grand Inquisitor, the two cannot coexist in the modern world; one must give way because they require different things from their followers. Jesus refused to make things easy for his followers. He could have given them bread when they were hungry in the desert and satisfied in one gesture their need for material comfort and their need to see miracles. But he refused, demanding instead that his followers believe on the strength of their faith alone, without any proof. God will not force people to believe in him, or to follow him. Each person must be free to choose her own path. This road to salvation, says the Grand Inquisitor, is appropriate only for the very strong. Ordinary people are too weak to find this satisfying, as he explains: “Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but.. . can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever-sinful and ignoble race of men?”
People seek “to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men would agree at once to worship it.” This is the reason for religious wars: people demand that everyone believe as they do, and “for the sake of common worship they’ve slain each other with the sword.” In placing the freedom to choose above all else, God has permitted this misery. And yet, “man is tormented by no greater anxiety than to find someone quickly to whom he can hand over the gift of freedom.” In short, says the Inquisitor, God does not understand the true nature of human beings.
To fill that need, the Church has stepped in. The Church offers the mystery and the community that people need, and so it has joined forces with the devil to deceive people and take away their freedom. The Grand Inquisitor knows that he is in league with Satan, and he accepts the damnation that will be his in the end, because he is making people happy—something Jesus refused to do. The Inquisitor once followed Jesus, but “I awakened and would not serve madness.”
Critics have debated about Jesus’s silence in the face of these accusations, and wondered whether the Grand Inquisitor speaks for Ivan, and whether Ivan speaks for Dostoevsky. Does Jesus stand silent because he has no answer, or because he is God and need not answer? Is the kiss he gives to the cardinal a kiss of loving forgiveness, or one of thanks? Dostoevsky was an adherent of the Russian Orthodox faith, and believed that the Russian Orthodox Church allowed people to come closer to God because it does not have a Pope whose powers are handed down. Ivan tells Alyosha that it does not matter whether the man in the cell was really Jesus or not; what matters is that the cardinal thinks he is and that the cardinal says what he says. In other words, Jesus’s response is not really the issue. What is important is what the Inquisitor’s words reveal about the position of the Roman Catholic Church.
Within the novel as a whole, the theme of God and religion is addressed in different ways by different characters, and Ivan’s position as a doubter is clear. As a short story, “The Grand Inquisitor” presents only one character, the cardinal, who believes that God and the Roman Catholic Church are at odds, and that people can follow only one of them.
Throughout his life Dostoevsky used his writing to explore the issue of free will. He believed that human beings are given free will, and that they must constantly choose between good and evil. It is not an easy choice, and God and the devil battle each other for the possession of every soul. Dostoevsky was conscious of this struggle all his life. He wished to believe, yet his intellect kept raising doubts. For him, the question of free will was central to his understanding of humans and society.
As the Grand Inquisitor states it, Jesus was tempted to offer his followers aids to faith, and Jesus chose instead to insist on free will. Had he followed the devil’s suggestions and given the people food, or miracles, or an earthly structure such as an organized religion, the people would not be choosing freely. The Inquisitor claims that people are too weak to make a free choice. As Edward Wasiolek in Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction states, for the Inquisitor “it is not a question of what man would like to be but what he is and can be. He argues logically about the human condition as he sees it, as history has proven it, and he can see no place for free will if people are to be happy.”
The Grand Inquisitor takes the position that faith and religion are intellectual issues, that the truth can be reasoned with the brain. His strategy is to try to reason with God, to persuade him by rational argument. Jesus’s response is to sit in silence, listening intently but not engaging in argument. For Jesus, the issues are not intellectual or provable, and happiness on earth is not the goal. As Wasiolek explains, “What he offers them is the same as what he demands of them. He asks them to rise above their natures, to make over their natures in his image, and they can do that only as he had done it: in loneliness, terror, and anxiety.”
Free choice and free will are only free if there are no conditions on them. To demand proof, or miracles, or a secure structure—or even happiness—are to put conditions on the choice. Do not think, says Jesus. Choose to believe. This freedom is what Jesus offered, and it is what the Grand Inquisitor rejects.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.