The Inquisitor Within

04 Dec

Permit me one more excerpt from Beal in The Rise and Fall of the Bible. I am just going to have to break down and read The Brothers Karamazov. I am tempted when encountering the Grand Inquisitor in this story to think of churches and persons out there that fit his profile. But reading this again I am taken first and foremost to the Inquisitor within that seeks to control, that fears to know, and who is always ready to launch a personal inquisition against those deemed suspect for whatever reason. Not to recognize the Inquisitor within – the one who always drapes himself in flags and causes and wears such a lovely mask of righteous zeal and indignation – is to guarantee his appearance in a world that hardly needs another one of those walking, stalking about.

I’m reminded of the famous parable of the Grand Inquisitor in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The story is told by Ivan, a cynical atheist, to his younger, mystically minded Christian brother, Alyosha. In it, Jesus appears in the city of Seville during the Spanish Inquisition, just as a huge crowd gathers to witness a mass execution. He never says a mumbling word, and yet everyone immediately recognizes him. Throngs gather around him, and he blesses and heals them. A tiny white coffin passes by, and the child within it is revived.

Standing in the cathedral doorway, the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor also sees Jesus, and immediately has him arrested. “Such is his power over the well-disciplined, submissive and now trembling people,” explains Ivan, “that the thick crowds immediately give way, and scattering before the guard, amid dead silence and without one breath of protest, allow them to lay their sacrilegious hands upon the stranger and lead Him away.” In the evening, the Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus alone in his prison cell, and explains to him that in the morning he will be burned at the stake “as the most wicked of all the heretics; and that same people, who today were kissing Thy feet, tomorrow at one bend of my finger, will rush to add fuel to Thy funeral pile.”

The reason, explains the Inquisitor, is that Jesus came to give people freedom, but that’s not what they want. What they really want, he says, is to be told what to do and believe, and to be fed. “For fifteen centuries, we have been wrestling with Thy freedom, but now it is ended and over for good.”

Are Ivan and the Grand Inquisitor right? Would we rather not be free, to think and question for ourselves? “Sapere auda!” Proclaimed Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. “Dare to know” or “be wise,” to release yourself from your self-incurred tutelage under the authority of others and think for yourself, to trust your own reason and imagination. To be sure, such a calling is both empowering and intimidating. Would we rather be told what to do and think? Do the questions make us nervous? Do we thirst for the answers that will put our restless spirits to rest? Is that what we really want religion to be, or rather do, for us? Is that what we want from the Bible?

What an excellent place for the use of that grand Hebrew word from the Psalms…


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Posted by on December 4, 2011 in Doctrine & Heresies, musings, Religion


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