Reza Aslan on The Brothers Karamazov

In case you missed it, Reza Aslan, the author of the controversial new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, told The Atlantic that the book that “changed his mind about Jesus” was Fyodor Dostoevsky’s badass The Brothers Karamazov. Aslan said that his favorite passage of the book is from the tale of the “Grand Inquisitor”:

The passage I want to discuss is one a lot of people know. It’s from the section in the book that’s sometimes referred to as ‘The Grand Inquisitor.’ Ivan, the atheist brother, tells Alyosha, the believer, a story about Jesus coming back to earth during the time of the Inquisition. Jesus begins performing miracles, and people recognize him for who he is—and he’s arrested, of course, by the Inquisitors, who sentence him to be burned to death.

The night before his sentence, the Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus in his cell. Jesus doesn’t speak, but the Grand Inquisitor speaks to him at length about how the church doesn’t really need Jesus anymore. And that, frankly, his return at this point is just disruptive to the overall meaning of the church. In other words, the Grand Inquisitor says that the church’s mission in preaching Jesus has become more important than Jesus himself. 

Then he goes on to talk about why that passage meant so much to him:

What I love about the story is that it’s become a kind of atheist manifesto, if you will. Many non-believers cite this passage as the reason why they do not believe—forgetting, by the way, that Dostoevsky himself was quite a fervent believer. But they also forget the end of the story: what happens after the Grand Inquisitor makes this huge statement, and lambastes Jesus for not speaking up for himself. Jesus simply stands up, walks up to the Grand Inquisitor, and gives him a kiss.

I think Dostoevsky is saying that we must never confuse faith with religion. We must never confuse the institutions that have arisen, these man-made institutions—and I mean that quite literally, because they’re all run by men—who have created languages to help people understand faith, with faith itself. I, as a person of faith, read the same story and did not see it as a repudiation of faith the way a lot of atheists do. I saw it as a challenge to always remember that those who claim to speak for Jesus are precisely the kind of people that Jesus fought against. What I love about the Grand Inquisitor parable—and a parable is truly what it is—is this notion that if Jesus showed up, all of a sudden, today, he would not only bear very little resemblance to who the Church says he is, his primary focus would be on challenging the very religious institutions who claim to speak for him.

I like a lot of what Aslan has to say, though I’m not entirely on board with his distinction between (personal) faith and (institutional) religion. Lillian Daniel says about that notion that “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you.” I agree with her, and I think it’s important to remember, while we’re being skeptical about the institutional church, that the institution brings us things we can’t get on our own. Communion, specifically.

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