James Carroll: Christ and the Grand Inquisitor

Posted by Kendall Harmon

The boldest meditation on the meaning of Jesus comes in the tale of the Grand Inquisitor in Fyodor Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov," in which Jesus is interrogated by the Grand Inquisitor. The crime of Jesus consists precisely in the affection that so many otherwise ignoble humans have for him.

How dare Jesus inspire such widespread trust?

A relatively small number "of the great and the strong," the Inquisitor argues, can carry the burden of freedom, "while the millions, numerous as the sands of the sea, who are weak but love Thee" cannot bear freedom's weight.

Only an elite minority is worthy to manage the world. The rest, taken up with narrow concerns for bread and money, and consoled by miracles and mysteries, must live for subservience. The masses are to blindly meet their meager needs, while bowing before the authority of those few who are capable of higher aspirations.

The crime of Jesus was to say no to this. Dostoevsky sees in him an invitation addressed to every person, to regard himself or herself as capable of overcoming the limits of birth, circumstance, class, culture, and even time. That the Grand Inquisitor, an official in the movement that claims Jesus as founder, regards this invitation as an offense is Dostoevsky's way of pointing to the transcendent significance of Jesus, beyond Christian belief.

Read it all.

Filed under: * TheologyChristology

8 Comments
Posted December 26, 2007 at 7:47 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Fr Jay Scott Newman wrote:

There’s no anti-Catholic like an ex-Catholic, and Carroll, upon a time a Catholic priest in the Paulist order, is now the Boston Globe’s favorite Catholic baiter.

December 26, 9:56 am | [comment link]
2. DonGander wrote:

I think that this article is better than I know. It exposes the human heart. It defines “Modern Liberal” and “Conservative” without even mentioning the terms.

“Indeed, the Jesus who rejects slavish authority for himself and others is the living critique of any institution, the church included, that asks less of humans, instead of more. It is in this universal call to self-surpassing that the radical appeal of Jesus can be found.”

Wasn’t that the situation in the Garden of Eden? Didn’t Satan ask Eve to accept a lesser mankind than God had intended - couched in an arguement of greater Mankind? Isn’t the temptation of thousands of years to yield up the Immage impressed upon us by God for either a form or subservience, or both? But Jesus demands that we be completely His creation. He gives us no out. Yet He remains God.

But there is so much more there in that little article.

December 26, 10:21 am | [comment link]
3. Words Matter wrote:

I’m not much for Russian lit, so if I read The Brothers Karamazov, it was 30 years ago. Hence this possible ignorance: wouldn’t the Church being critiqued be Orthodox rather than Catholic?

December 26, 10:53 am | [comment link]
4. Chris Molter wrote:

#3, shh.. don’t let facts get in the way of Carroll’s cross burning.

December 26, 1:10 pm | [comment link]
5. driver8 wrote:

FWIW the immediate object of the Grand Inquisitor story clearly is the Roman Catholic Church. However it questions the capacity of any/all human beings (journalists included) to respond positively to the choice that Jesus has set before us. Christ does not answer directly to the Grand Inquisitor’s claims but instead kisses him. In the novel Elder Zossima provides not an answer but a narrative response.

December 26, 2:42 pm | [comment link]
6. Pete Haynsworth wrote:

This piece somehow seems to be of the same vein as the editorial that appears annually in the Wall Street Journal right before Christmas: In Hoc Anno Domini

December 26, 4:57 pm | [comment link]
7. Tom Roberts wrote:

#6 JH- What Vermont Royster and Fyodr Dostoevsky are talking about in terms of ‘freedom’ are nearly the same thing, but what Carroll is referring to in this article is something else again. The quote that Carroll converts to his own purposes is:

“Or is it but those tens of thousands chosen among the great and the mighty, that are so dear to Thee, while the remaining millions, innumerable as the grains of sand in the seas, the weak and the loving, have to be used as material for the former? No, no! In our sight and for our purpose the weak and the lowly are the more dear to us. True, they are vicious and rebellious, but we will force them into obedience, and it is they who will admire us the most. They will regard us as gods, and feel grateful to those who have consented to lead the masses and bear their burden of freedom by ruling over them—so terrible will that freedom at last appear to men! Then we will tell them that it is in obedience to Thy will and in Thy name that we rule over them. “

Both Royster and Doestoevsky see the clear linkage between free will and Christ’s sacrifice leading towards redemption from sin.  But Carroll mangles these concepts and their linkage in:
“The crime of Jesus was to say no to this. Dostoevsky sees in him an invitation addressed to every person, to regard himself or herself as capable of overcoming the limits of birth, circumstance, class, culture, and even time. That the Grand Inquisitor, an official in the movement that claims Jesus as founder, regards this invitation as an offense is Dostoevsky’s way of pointing to the transcendent significance of Jesus, beyond Christian belief.

“Indeed, the Jesus who rejects slavish authority for himself and others is the living critique of any institution, the church included, that asks less of humans, instead of more. It is in this universal call to self-surpassing that the radical appeal of Jesus can be found.”
(my italics)

Italicized are the post modern, gnostic concepts that Carroll attempts to foist on Dostoevsky. If Carroll had actually analyzed the Grand Inquisitor as a whole and integral to Brothers Karamazov, he might have found that short story to be more of a commentary on the essential nature of how free will actually works, along with being an outstanding exegesis on Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. In that sense, the burden that the Inquisitor offers is the offer of enslavement to sin, encapsulated in
“Feed us first and then command us to be virtuous!” will be the words written upon the banner lifted against Thee.

This is the ‘freedom’ of Hell, both for the Inquisitor and any who follow.

December 26, 5:27 pm | [comment link]
8. Tom Roberts wrote:

One more thing that is absolutely astounding in Carroll’s article: the ending Carroll portrays for The Grand Inquisitor isn’t Dostoevsky’s.

Carroll’s:
““Go!” the Grand Inquisitor said to Christ, allowing the principle of self-surpassing its escape. “And he let Him out into the dark alleys of the town. The Prisoner went away.”“

Original:
“What I now tell thee will come to pass, and our kingdom shall be built, I tell Thee not later than to-morrow Thou shalt see that obedient flock which at one simple motion of my hand will rush to add burning coals to Thy stake, on which I will burn Thee for having dared to come and trouble us in our work. For, if there ever was one who deserved more than any of the others our inquisitorial fires—it is Thee! To-morrow I will burn Thee. Dixi’.”

December 26, 5:44 pm | [comment link]
Registered members must log in to comment.




Next entry (above): Troubled veterans find heavenly haven at Shepherd’s Heart

Previous entry (below): Pastors Strive to Make Christmas Sermons Unique, Relevant

Return to blog homepage

Return to Mobile view (headlines)