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Faculty Blog | Two Paths

November 24, 2023

Earlier in my career, I had the privilege of teaching in an undergraduate Great Books curriculum. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and a valuable benefit – as a teacher – was in finding texts where one encounters theological and philosophical themes in works of great literature. One such work, of course, is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Many consider this work to be the greatest novel ever written, and one of the reasons for such high esteem is precisely because of the existential nature of the dialogues that take place between many of the characters. The most famous chapter of the novel, “The Grand Inquisitor,” is an example par excellence of this literary form.

In this scene, two brothers debate the existence of God. The younger of the two, Alyosha, is a would-be vocation for the local monastery and a spiritual disciple of the monastery’s saintly Fr. Zosima. The elder of the two, Ivan, is a brilliant yet troubled sceptic who attempts to undermine Alyosha’s faith by telling him a parable. The story of “The Grand Inquisitor,” invented by Ivan, takes place in medieval Seville, Spain, where Christ has returned, performs a healing miracle much like one contained in the Gospels (cf. Mk 5:41), and is recognized by the multitude. He is then apprehended at the behest of the local Grand Inquisitor and brought before him. [For the record, the Holy Inquisition did not exist in Spain until the Renaissance, but we’ll forgive Dostoevsky the historical error.]

Far from being a saintly old Cardinal, the Grand Inquisitor is an angry misanthrope and quite upset with our Lord for returning. In an interrogation, he accuses Jesus of failing the Temptation in the Wilderness (Mt 4:1-11; cf. Mk 1:12-13; Lk 4:1-13), because he rejected precisely what people want. People want bread, displays of power, and acts of authority. They want to indulge in “lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 Jn 2:16). By contrast, they don’t want heavenly bread, a faith that is free, and a love that is self-sacrificial. “[Y]ou demand too much of him,” the Inquisitor says of human beings, “He is weak and mean.” Speaking of men like himself, the Inquisitor states that “[w]e corrected your deed and based it on miracle, mystery and authority. […] Have we not, indeed, loved mankind, in so humbly recognizing their impotence […]?”

With the parable of “The Grand Inquisitor,” Ivan is giving voice to a sentiment with which I think many of us are familiar; namely, that we want God to conform to our expectations rather than vice versa. We want to be the authors of our own salvation. We wish to be the Grand Inquisitor, who arranges his world according to his own judgement, and is quick to justify his arrangement according to how he views reality.

I shall spare you greater detail of the scene and, indeed, the novel as a whole [no spoilers here]. However, I will say that Dostoevsky does provide a response to Ivan’s atheistic parable, but not in that scene. Nor is Dostoevsky’s response a dialogue at all, it’s another character; Alyosha’s spiritual mentor, Fr. Zosima. “The Grand Inquisitor” has as its counterpart a chapter entitled “From the Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima,” which Aloysha is compiling. In contrast to the Inquisitor’s demands for authority, bread, and power, Fr. Zosima states: “Obedience, fasting, and prayer are laughed at, yet they alone constitute the way to real and true freedom.” To those who view power as the ability to control others, Fr. Zosima says: “[a] loving humility is a terrible power, the most powerful of all, nothing compares with it.” And to those who lack faith in God’s

providence, he says: “the truth will all be made full. Believe it, believe it without a doubt, for in this lies all hope and all the faith of the saints. […] Have faith to the end, even if it should happen that all on earth are corrupted and you alone remain faithful.” In essence, Dostoevsky has presented us with two paths: a path without God, which seeks authority, bread, and power, and a path with God, which seeks true freedom, humility, and faith. I know which path I’m taking.

Dr. Anthony Coleman

Dr. Coleman brings more than a decade of experience working in higher education as a teacher, administrator, and scholar. Having earned a B.A. in Theology at St. Anselm College, and an M.A. in Theology and Ph.D. in Systematic Theology (with a minor in Historical Theology) at Boston College, he has taught theology at St. Joseph's College of Maine, Anna Maria College (Worcester, MA), St. Gregory's University (Shawnee, OK), and has previously served as an Associate Program Director for St. Joseph's College of Maine and Director of the Albany Campus for St. Bernard's School of Theology & Ministry. He is the author of Lactantius the Theologian (2017) and editor of Leisure and Labor: The Liberal Arts in Catholic Higher Education (2020). He is the most blessed husband of AnneMarie and a father of four. A native of Braintree, MA, Dr. Coleman is excited to be moving back home, near family, and to serve an institution that was pivotal in his own spiritual and intellectual formation.

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