“Anyone who can appease a man’s conscience can take his freedom away from him.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Grand Inquisitor
That unmistakable musty smell of old books and papers is still lingering in my nose
despite the needed shower in order to purge my skin of the accumulated dust and debris
from a previous life now clinging to my now older self.
The allergies are revving up as I sneeze, I mean type.
We’ve spent the last three days in our attic emptying it of its hoard of boxes and stuff…
most of which has been sitting in the same spot where it was deposited some 20 years ago
when we packed everything up from our first house before departing and moving
to where we are now.
Being the parent to an only child is both blessing and curse.
The curse is found in the saving of each and every little shred of his existence.
What that only child wore, played with, made or accomplished in school.
Treasures of the heart, but way too much stuff.
Throw in the boxes that have cradled mom’s china-head dolls, her tea set from childhood,
three generations of toys and stuffed animals, photographs upon photos,
outdated electronic this and that…add in those boxes of the well-read and dearly loved
books both from those who have called this house home as well as those who have not—
And so we have had a real mess!
I did, however, manage to rescue a few books left over from college.
You see that book sitting on top of my lap?…that Dostoevsky book?
And yes it does smell.
It is a paperback book of the Notes from the Underground and The Grand Inquisitor?
Well, you should know that that single little musty dog-eared book got me in a bad spot
during my sophomore year in college.
I’ve mentioned this tale before but I think given our current day and time, a revisit
just might be warranted.
But first a bit of background regarding the tale of the book…
According to Britanica.com
Dostoevsky’s novel The Brother’s Karamazov is most famous for three chapters that
may be ranked among the greatest pages of Western literature.
Brothers Dmitry, Ivan, Alyosha and the illegitimate Smerdyakov.
Within the story, there is another story…a poem written by Ivan…
that being The Grand Inquisitor.
In “Rebellion,” Ivan indicts God the Father for creating a world in which children suffer.
Ivan has also written a “poem,” “The Grand Inquisitor,” which represents his response to
God the Son.
It tells the story of Christ’s brief return to earth during the Spanish Inquisition.
Recognizing him, the Inquisitor arrests him as “the worst of heretics” because,
the Inquisitor explains, the church has rejected Christ.
For Christ came to make people free, but, the Inquisitor insists,
people do not want to be free, no matter what they say.
They want security and certainty rather than free choice, which leads them to error and guilt.
And so, to ensure happiness, the church has created a society based on “miracle, mystery,
The Inquisitor is evidently meant to stand not only for medieval Roman Catholicism but
also for contemporary socialism.
“Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor” contain what many have considered
the strongest arguments ever formulated against God, which Dostoyevsky includes so that,
in refuting them, he can truly defend Christianity.
It is one of the greatest paradoxes of Dostoyevsky’s work that his deeply Christian
novel more than gives the Devil his due.
Here is another look behind this troublemaker of mine…
a quick tutorial thanks to Sparknotes.
I didn’t have Sparknotes back in my day.
If I had, then maybe I would have tempered my more impulsive and defiant self
by having perused the gist of the story before meeting it cold turkey and in turn, going
rogue on a most liberal atheistic professor who pretty much thought he “got me” and my head on a platter.
The story is based on the notion that Christ has come back to earth.
He came to Seville, Spain where he performed miracles and was embraced by the people.
But the head of the Spanish Inquisition comes to town and has Christ immediately arrested.
The story then proceeds with the Inquisitor leading the majority of dialogue of the tale.
The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that he cannot allow him to do his work on Earth,
because his work is at odds with the work of the Church.
The Inquisitor reminds Christ of the time, recorded in the Bible,
when the Devil presented him with three temptations, each of which he rejected.
The Grand Inquisitor says that by rejecting these three temptations,
he guaranteed that human beings would have free will.
Free will, he says, is a devastating, impossible burden for mankind.
Christ gave humanity the freedom to choose whether or not to follow him,
but almost no one is strong enough to be faithful, and those who are not will be damned forever.
The Grand Inquisitor says that Christ should have given people no choice,
and instead taken power and given people security instead of freedom.
That way, the same people who were too weak to follow Christ, to begin with,
would still be damned, but at least they could have happiness and security on Earth,
rather than the impossible burden of moral freedom.
The Grand Inquisitor says that the Church has now undertaken to correct Christ’s mistake.
The Church is taking away freedom of choice and replacing it with security.
Thus, the Grand Inquisitor must keep Christ in prison,
because if Christ were allowed to go free,
he might undermine the Church’s work to lift the burden of free will from mankind.
The Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that it was Satan, and not Christ, who was in the right during this exchange.
He says that ever since the Church took over the Roman Empire,
it has been secretly performing the work of Satan, not because it is evil,
but because it seeks the best and most secure order for mankind.
Our professor was young, probably 30 if that, teaching a room filled full of late teens and early
He came to class barefoot.
This was the height of the preppy fashion trend…of which I embraced.
A barefoot instructor was a throwback to about 10 years prior add
my being a conservative Reaganite and I did not have a settled
sense of anything good.
He sat cross-legged, Indian style, on the classroom’s generic desk.
Some day’s he’d take us outside to sit in the grass.
He’d wax and wane over the advanced literature we were to read and discuss.
He rarely gave grades but when he did, what I received were A’s and B’s.
Of which was pretty good for me and I was most pleased.
We were reading challenging tales…some of which captivated me.
If it hadn’t been such…I would have lost interest quickly and then struggled.
He announced on day 1 that he was raised Catholic but was now an ardent Atheist.
“Great”— I felt my eyes roll within my head.
I was a 20-year-old who, despite living that hard balance of lose and large in college,
I was also a conservative and an ardent Christian,
For when it came to push or shove, I knew what was my Truth.
When it came to the end of the quarter, we read Dostoyevsky’s book.
Our illustrious professor took on the role of Inquisitor, of course, in the open class discussion
as I embraced that of Christ.
For each dig he offered to the class, I spoke up a counter thought.
For I took on the role of defense attorney for a man who truly needed no defending
but I wasn’t about to let this flippant professor spew falsehoods to a captured
The final exam was based on the story.
I wrote feverishly for the allotted 3 hours examination time.
I turned in the infamous blue book, walked out, got in my car, and in turn drove home
for the summer.
When the grades were mailed out, as they were back then since these were the days before computers,
my report noted that I had received a D in my Lit class.
I immediately called the University and eventually made my way to the English Department where I was told
that my professor had resigned his post and left to teach in Arizona…taking all of his records with
That was that.
No action news interviews.
No legal action as we see so often today.
No “one call, that’s all.”
My GPA dropped and I was crestfallen because it wasn’t that great, to begin with.
My mother knew I had been cheated and therefore did not say a word about the “D”
And I had been cheated for one reason and one reason only, my faith.
I know now that this was to be the beginning of what we currently see today—
that being a staggering indoctrination and persecution of the Christian faith
on college campuses.
And that single frustrating event came flooding back today when I opened that musty old box
full of books.
And so I flipped through the book.
There was underlining and pen scrawled notes in the section dedicated to Notes From the Underground…
“Pope [Alexander] says that if you want to see how to run a society, look at an anthill”
As I went back and looked over the premise of the story, I was struck by what the Inquisitor tells
Christ….that the Chruch is seeking “the best and most secure order for mankind”
and I find that exceedingly telling.
Just look at the Episcopal Chruch and the Chruch of England—both desperately trying to appease
man while turning a blind eye to God’s word.
Other denominations now follow suit.
“Satan was right,” the Inquisitor tells Christ—who only politely listens while remaining silent.
With our having been given free will…of which the Inquisitor sees as an inherently impossible burden
for mankind, he ignorantly believes that it is his sole responsibility to thwart what God, and in turn Christ,
afforded man. He does so in the name of the Chruch.
The Bride fighting the Bridegroom for dominance.
We see that it is the Inquisitor who knows what is best for humankind, not so much God nor His Son.
Historians agree that Dostoevsky is noted for having a canny understanding of the psychology of man.
In part because of his life and upbringing.
He is also oddly prophetic regarding the future of Russia and her undoing Revolution–
a theme that runs throughout much of his work as he often foretells of a great fall and of man’s ultimate
demise as there is always the struggle between free will and what is perceived as security…
as in what does man really want for his life and living?
I for one find Dostoevsky works most telling for our own day and time.
So much so that I need to reread this “poem”
Because it seems we are currently living the life of the Inquisitor as we prefer a sense of security,
a guarantee of living life in the 21st century rather than that of choice.
The choice of eternal life or eternal death.
In the end, Christ rises to kiss the Inquisitor as He takes His leave.
May He not take His leave of us.
If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not,
let your peace return to you.
If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words,
leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet.
Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment
than for that town.