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The Crucible of the Grand Inquisitor


The Sunday discussion of this week’s Adult Bible Study Guide begins with this quote:

The great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky had been sentenced to death, only to have the sentence commuted at the last moment. He spent years in prison instead. Talking about his prison experience, he wrote: “Believe to the end, even if all men go astray and you are left the only one faithful; bring your offering even then and praise God in your loneliness.”

While this was written by Fyodor Dostoevsky, it’s not clear how it directly connects to his prison experience. The words are actually spoken by a religious character in his novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880). They appear in a section titled “Conversations and Exhortations of Father Zosima,” book VI, chapter 3, part of a homiletical section subtitled “Can a Man judge his Fellow Creatures.” In it, Father Zosima explores grace, moral responsibility, and the Russian monk’s radical egalitarian beliefs. Here is that quote in its larger context: 

Work without ceasing. If you remember in the night as you go to sleep, “I have not done what I ought to have done,” rise up at once and do it. If the people around you are spiteful and callous and will not hear you, fall down before them and beg their forgiveness; for in truth you are to blame for their not wanting to hear you. And if you cannot speak to them in their bitterness, serve them in silence and in humility, never losing hope. If all men abandon you and even drive you away by force, then when you are left alone fall on the earth and kiss it, water it with your tears and it will bring forth fruit even though no one has seen or heard you in your solitude.  Believe to the end, even if all men went astray and you were left the only one faithful; bring your offering even then and praise God in your loneliness. And if two of you are gathered together—then there is a whole world, a world of living love. Embrace each other tenderly and praise God, for if only in you two His truth has been fulfilled.

At the end of this longer talk, he dies. A mystic, Father Zosima plays a brief but vital spiritual role in the novel’s plot as a guide for the young monk Alyosha (Alexei), the Karamazov brother who functions as a foil for his intellectual brother, Ivan. This section follows the most famous vignette from the novel, book V, chapter 5, “The Grand Inquisitor,” in which Ivan shares his worldview, shocking Alyosha. See below for a video of the great actor, Sir John Gielgud, playing that title role in 1975. In this scene, the Inquisitor confronts the Captive, Jesus, with the ways that the church has used miracle, mystery, and authority to deal with the problems of suffering and freedom in Christianity

The setting for this, the Spanish Inquisition, fits thematically with an emphasis on martyrdom in this quarter’s crucible-focused lesson. This week the Teacher’s Comments section includes a section on Polycarp being burned on a pyre. The focus this week instrumentalizes how to rejoice through the pain. As the ABSG states

Rejoicing amid trials and persecutions is possible when we trust God, when we understand Him and His plans, when we are convinced that God is just and good and that He and His cause are worthy of our total and radical commitment. Thus, rejoicing amid crucibles springs out of the realization (1) that God is real and that He is good; (2) that He created us, that we are His, that He loves us, and that we love Him back; (3) that the great controversy is real, that it is Satan’s attack on God and on us, and that God is on our side and we are on His; (4) that God redeems us from the power of sin and of Satan and that we and God, in Christ, are, and will be, victorious; and (5) that God’s cause or mission of bringing salvation to the whole world is worth all the suffering we must endure, even, if need be, unto death.

For those teaching this Sabbath, it might provoke some thoughtful discussion to watch or read “The Grand Inquisitor” section together and compare the five stipulations from the lesson with the Inquisitor’s three corrections the church made to Jesus: miracle, mystery, and authority. In addition to the lesson’s focus on how praise through music enriches the spiritual life, it might be interesting to explore the ways that the institutional church exchanges freedom for happiness. As the Inquisitor points out to Jesus in a one-sentence twist on heilsgeschichte

Freedom, the free intellect and science will lead them into such labyrinths and bring them up against such miracles and unfathomable mysteries that some of them, the disobedient and ferocious ones, will destroy themselves; others, disobedient and feeble, will destroy one another, while a third group, those who are left, the feeble and unhappy ones, will come crawling to our feet, and will cry out to us: “Yes, you were right, you alone were masters of his secret, and we are returning to you, save us from ourselves.”


Alexander Carpenter is executive editor of Spectrum

Title image:  Temptation of Christ, mosaic in basilica di San Marco (public domain).

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