Dostoevsky the Liberal
March 24, 2014

In the most famous section of his best-known novel, Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov brings forward his case against God. He opens with a horrific litany of outrages against children. Turkish soldiers make a baby laugh and then shoot a pistol into his face. A little girl is beaten, thrashed, kicked by her parents, and pushed into a frosty privy overnight. A Russian general sets a pack of hounds on a starving boy. If this is the world God has made, Ivan says, he doesn’t want to have any part of it. He doesn’t care whether or not God exists. He wants to turn in his ticket.

“You’re forgetting Jesus,” responds Ivan’s pious younger brother Alyosha, but Ivan has not forgotten Jesus, and in the following chapter he recites his “poem” about the Grand Inquisitor. In the story, Jesus returned to sixteenth-century Seville and begins performing miracles. An ancient Inquisitor sees Jesus and has Him arrested. During the interview with the prisoner, the Grand Inquisitor explains to Jesus how He failed. Jesus rejected the temptations of the devil, but in doing so He imposed an unbearable burden of freedom on the human race. The Catholic Church has made up for His failure, and has adopted the program of the devil.

The Grand Inquisitor’s discourse revolves around three related triads. He claims that man’s basic needs are someone to worship, a guide for conscience, and means for achieving unity. These three needs are supplied by miracle, mystery, and authority: Miracles elicit worship, mystery guides or obfuscates but in any case calms conscience, and authority brings unity. The three temptations in the wilderness match these triads. Had Jesus turned stones to bread, He would have performed a miracle that would have convinced the world to follow Him. If he had thrown Himself from the temple, the mystery would have enabled Him to tell people what to do. And if He had accepted the kingdoms of the earth and their dominion, He would have been able to unify the human race under His authority.

Not only did Jesus fail to fulfill the basic human needs, but He left the field open to rivals. Because Jesus offered only spiritual and not actual bread, He is responsible for the socialist movements that attempt to fill the gap with promises of bread. For the Grand Inquisitor, bread comes first. Men want bread, and there’s no use exhorting them to virtue when their bellies are empty. Because Jesus refused to bind conscience with mystery, He gave room for other guides to do their work. Because He refused authority, He left man vulnerable to tyranny. Jesus could have set up His own kingdom and temple. Instead, He squandered the opportunity and therefore a new tower of Babel has arisen in the world.

The Grand Inquisitor’s program of social salvation reverses each of Jesus’ refusals. Man cannot stand too much reality, Eliot said; or freedom, says the Grand Inquisitor. And they don’t want freedom anyway. They want bread, they want to be controlled, they want someone to make their decisions for them. For the sake of humanity, the Catholic church has deployed the weapons Jesus refused. The church uses miracle, mystery, and authority in order to hold people captive. For their own good, mind you; for their own good. As many commentators have pointed out, the Grand Inquisitor’s argument is an uncanny pre-echo of the propaganda of twentieth-century “humanitarian” totalitarianism.

Ivan’s basic charge against Jesus is this: He came into a world where infants get impaled on bayonets, and He does nothing. Thousands of years later, and babies are still getting sliced to pieces, in a “surgical procedure” that has the full backing of the US federal government. What good is Jesus if He didn’t fix anything?

Dostoevsky wanted Ivan’s case to be the strongest case against God he could think of, and much of The Brothers Karamazov is a “non-Euclidian” response to Ivan’s poem. Dostoevsky did not think Ivan’s case could be refuted logically. The only response is a practical one, active love where all take responsibility for all and each.

Behind Dostoevsky’s problem and its solution, however, is an implicit “free will theodicy.” He believed that freedom was a basic human need, as necessary as food and drink. Through the Grand Inquisitor, Ivan expresses the belief that Jesus refused Satan’s temptation to leave men free. He could not “fix” things without infringing on human freedom, and so He didn’t fix things. He offered a spiritual and eschatological kingdom, and left men to suffer in the present in fervent hope of future bliss.

That is to say, what stands behind Ivan’s challenge and Dostoevsky’s solution is an implicit liberal theology (which is also, in many ways, evangelical theology). That Dostoevsky held a liberal view of Christ is evident from The Idiot, where Prince Myshkin, Dostoevsky’s emblem of indiscriminate love, makes a hash of things not in spite of but because of his innocent goodness. For Dostoevsky, one cannot be truly Christlike here and now because Ego stands in the way. Someday, though, Ego will disappear and we will finally be able to love our neighbors as ourselves, as Christ demands. Dostoevsky is mistaken: Christlikeness only makes a hash of things only when the Christ whose likeness is represented is the Christ of liberal theology. Jesus Himself didn’t make a hash of things. His love was not eternally, tragically poised at a decision it can never make.  Jesus’ love is driven love, because it is electing love, a love that can and does make choices.

A similar liberal theology is behind the Grand Inquisitor’s challenge. He, like Ivan, like Dostoevsky, believes that Jesus did not promise literal bread. He, like Ivan, like Dostoevsky, believes that Jesus failed to “fix” things, and that because He didn’t intend to fix things. Dostoevsky thinks he’s combating liberal theology, and he is to the extent that he uncouples the liberal yoking of Christianity to human progress. Foundationally, though, he assumes with liberal theology that, in contrast to Judaism, Christianity promises spiritual redemption.

But what if Jesus did offer redemption in history? What if Mary meant what she sang – “He fills the hungry with good things”? What if Jesus really did promise to give farms and brothers and sisters, along with persecutions, to those who forsook everything to follow Him? What if He did promise bread, real material bread, to those who joined in His community? What if Jesus came to fulfill the promises to Abraham, not in some “spiritualized” form but in their actual content? What if He did set out to fix things?

If so, it only intensifies Ivan’s challenge. Like all liberal theology, Dostoevsky leaves Jesus with an easy out: He didn’t fix things because that would infringe on human freedom; He didn’t fix things because He didn’t want to. If Jesus did intend to fix things, then we need to feel the full power of the Ivan’s question, Why ain’t they fixed?

Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House. This article first appeared in Credenda/Agenda in 2011.

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