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Analyzing the Themes of Faith and Belief in Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor"

Updated on March 13, 2017
Luke Holm profile image

Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, Social Justice, and Mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

The Grand Inquisitor

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Summary of Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor"

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (transliterated Dostoevsky) "The Grand Inquisitor" is an individual poem within a larger novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Within the tale, Jesus Christ is walking the Earth during the Spanish Inquisition. He is arrested by the Church which is led by the Grand Inquisitor.

In the tale, the Grand Inquisitor has sided with the Devil, and states that the world no longer needs Jesus because he can better fulfill mankind's needs himself. In this tale, the duelling viewpoints reflect Dostoevsky's own doubts about God and religion.

By examining the possibility of God, the meaning that mankind has put on God's name, and the product that has come from mankind's creation of God, we were better able to understand what human beings strive for: a common objective experience with other humans during a subjective life.

Dostoevsky's Reason for Religion

When we are born, we are placed into a subjective experience that instantly sets us apart from all else in the world. As we mature, we realize that a subjective existence occurs throughout all beings on this planet. Through this point of view we begin to realize that while we are doomed to live a life separated from the minds of others, such is the torment of every other individual walking the earth.

When this becomes part of our conscious level of thinking, we can better understand that since we are all destined to be subjective beings, we are all joined as one in a global separation from each other. As people realize that they are equally separated, both on a mental and a spiritual level, they begin to look for ways to better connect with each other, ways to fill the void that emulates our existence, the emptiness of a subjective experience to reality.

  • So long as man remains free, he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship. But man seeks to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men would agree at once to worship it. For these pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find what one or the other can worship, but to find something that all would believe in and worship; what is essential is that all may be together in it. This craving for community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time. (Dostoevsky 27)

Humanity's Necessity for God

Through the power of an undisputed source to worship, mankind can begin to fill its craving for community and oneness with each other; the goal is a slightly less subjective experience than that which we are born in to. Thus, by speculating how the craving was fulfilled, and understanding why mankind focuses on a common goal with each other, we can get an inner glimpse of human nature.

A forthcoming conclusion has arisen and has taken the place of man’s misery; the undisputed conclusion is the supreme source known as God. Without God, the mind lacks the satisfaction of any certainty and is compelled to create God. With God there is at least some sense of certainty. When coupled with all that encompasses God, certainty can become purpose, and with purpose, life can be given meaning.

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Faith, Human Nature, and the Idea of "God"

In the examination of a possible God, the meaning that mankind has put on the name, and the product that has come from the creation of God, one can better understand the three things that spiritual human beings strive for.

First, in the examination of a possible God, the term faith is produced. To help better understand faith, we will juxtapose the views of Dostoevsky’s the Grand Inquisitor, and his conversation with Jesus Christ.

Next, the discussion will flow from faith, to that which created it, human nature. By understanding mankind’s need for control, it can be better understood how the Grand Inquisitor took the meaning of God and began to control the population through it. By giving the people physical certainty, he takes faith and uses it to “fix” Jesus’ faults. “We have corrected Thy work and have founded it upon miracle, mystery, and authority” (30).

Finally, with the insight faith and human nature has provided, we can better understand the product of this spiritual venture that all started with the idea of a “God”: the institution known as religion. By looking at the Grand Inquisitor’s approach to religion, a final decisive reasoning can be made about mankind’s subjective experience to the world and those that surround it.

Faith and Belief

The theme of faith often shows up in daily life. It seems tethered to all ideals that would be considered positive. If something bad happens, all one must do is have some faith, and things will ultimately turn out for the best. However, when discussing spiritual matters, faith takes on a completely different role.

Faith becomes expressed in many different ways by many different people. Questions of ethics, morality, and “what is right” come in to play. People begin to argue about how they believe faith should be treated or carried out, when in reality, they can never be positive that their way is the correct way.

Who is right? Is anyone right? Can anyone ever be sure? It seems that these questions have deterred us from the original goal of spiritual nature, the goal of oneness within self and within community. Instead, it has become misconceived by the general public, and has become manipulated by those who understand its true nature: to have a common belief in someone or something.

In Dostoevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor, the Grand Inquisitor understands the public’s need for a general belief in something. He realizes that because of the general uncertainty, a God-like figure has been created in the minds of humans. Instantly he seizes his opportunity for control. Through his understanding, he concludes that people are weak and slavish, that they require something deeper to believe in than their own simple lives. He realizes that while people may be content with believing in a “God,” their belief still lacks a materialistic aspect that a “God” cannot give. So, he takes the public’s need for a belief and offers them solid visual evidence, something all can both see and believe in at the same time, religion.

Because the Grand Inquisitor has no faith in the common people, he feels as though it is his job to give people something to believe in, a faith in something better than life; he gives them the idea of God. Through the idea of God, he can now control the people. Essentially, through the idea that there is a God, the Grand Inquisitor gives the people something to live for.

“For the secret of man's being is not only to live, but to have something to live for. Without a stable conception of the object of life, man would not consent to go on living, and would rather destroy himself than remain on earth, though he had bread and abundance” (27).

He eventually constructs a secure environment around this belief, which furthers his control over the minds of the people; this belief now constitutes religious faith.

A Higher Form of Faith

Throughout Dostoevsky’s "The Grand Inquisitor," there is an other aspect of faith that battles for the consciousness of the people. In the story, the Grand Inquisitor harshly relays his views on faith and religion to Jesus Christ. In this alternate view of the characters, Jesus does not speak a word. Instead, at the end of the conversation, he gives the Grand Inquisitor a kiss on the lips.

The single kiss signifies Christ’s view of faith. While the Grand Inquisitor feels no compassion for the weak and slavish population, Christ exemplifies his faith in every human being with the kiss of unconditional love. Jesus shows that there is no need for control, that the minds of men are not as weak as would seem, and that mankind can prosper by using its most basic emotion, love. While we all take part in a global separation from each other, we become once again connected through an emotion that all share and feel, the emotion of love. With a single kiss, Jesus Christ shows that his faith is the greatest of all: faith in mankind, and faith in the power of love.

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Alas, by viewing the world around us, it is clearly seen that all men do not follow Christ’s example. As much as we would love a peaceful existence, the world proves to be corrupt; a simple kiss of unconditional love does not always apply. Perhaps the Grand Inquisitor was correct in his assumption of the people; perhaps mankind does require more than the simplicity of unconditional love. When examining human nature, all fingers point to the Grand Inquisitors view that, indeed, humans need more than just love.

Human Nature

In the conversation between the Grand Inquisitor and Christ, the Grand Inquisitor shares exactly what he believes mankind longs for. He states that, “There are three powers, three powers alone, able to conquer and to hold captive forever the conscience of these impotent rebels for their happiness---those forces are miracle, mystery, and authority” (28). By works of miracle and mystery, he can capture the minds of the public and keep them in an unconscious awe of the unknown.

He seems to be correct on his first assumptions. When mankind searched for the miraculous on its own terms, it found God. The Grand Inquisitor has taken it one step further. “But Thou didst not know that, when man rejects miracle, he rejects God too; for man seeks not so much God as the miraculous” (29). By creating an all-powerful and invisible god, the minds of the people are now capable of believing there are other things in life that exists but cannot be seen.

Just as the human brain is now subject to a belief in an invisible “God,” it is also subject to a belief in an invisible “control.” In fact, because they now believe in things that are not really there, the people become more and more susceptible to control. They actually begin to require it, just as they do God. This fits in perfectly with what the Grand Inquisitor states people long for, for he concludes his list with authority. Gladly, as the people seek security and begin to believe in the need for control, he gives it to them with divine authority. No longer does human nature seek freedom, they ask for security, and they are granted it by power of the Grand Inquisitor’s authority.

Humanity's Desire for Security

This whole process originated from mankind’s desire for a God. After they fulfilled their desire, they realized that they could not live on faith alone, but that the human body needs physical and visual faith too. Because of this realization, the Grand Inquisitor was able to put meaning on the term “faith,” by giving it a more physical quality. The people accepted his ideals of miracle, mystery, and authority, and in turn gladly succumbed to a loss of freedom.

Now, not only do they require the security the Grand Inquisitor offers, they also generate their lives around it. The physical ideal that can now be presented are that of religion. Humans created God to put certainty on life. The Grand Inquisitor takes their certainty and raises their faith to a level of something they can physically experience: miracle, mystery, and authority. Finally, with the population now believing in the need for security, an institution can be created to further provide the ideals of faith. Ultimately, the creation of God has resulted in a product known as the church.

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The Power of Religion

Through the creation of God, and through the creation of physical certainty known as security, it is understood how the power of religion governs life around the world. When the Grand Inquisitor relays just how powerful religion has become, he states that: “We took from him Rome and the sword of Caesar, and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth. . .” (30). At this point, if at first mankind was not weak and slavish, they certainly are created to be now. They now require a physical certainty to entertain their faith, and they require it in order to keep on living the idea that their life has a meaning.

In many ways, the institution of religion has helped mankind. It has created at least some control and order throughout the world. It has produced many people who have changed the way humans see the world around them. And, it has given people something to live for. However, it has also, in many ways, hurt the population of earth.

We now quarrel over who is correct, which religion is the true religion. We have given up our freedom in exchange for a blind faith in security. And, without religion, people would have nothing to live for. If at any moment people started grasping the idea that their religion may not be a correct way to view life, there would most likely be widespread panic. While it has created a circle of life, once it rounds the circle and starts from the beginning again, it is highly possible that the once governed world will create even more terror than it originally had.

  • They are little children rioting and barring the teacher from school. But their childish delight will end; it will cost them dearly. They will cast down temples and drench the earth with blood. But they will see at last, the foolish children, that, though they are rebels, they are impotent rebels, unable to keep up their own rebellion. Bathed in their foolish tears, they will recognize at last that He who created them rebels must have meant to mock at them. (Dostoevsky 29)

Humanity is Connected Through Subjectivity

The correlation between a subjective existence and religion has both its ups and downs. If what we are told is truth, then this essay, in and of itself, is blasphemy. According to the Grand Inquisitor, “man’s nature cannot bear blasphemy.” Perhaps, in Dostoevsky’s day, this reigned true; perhaps it still is. That without a visual faith in religion, mankind could not live with itself. However, perhaps it this ideal no longer remains true.

Is it possible for mankind to once again grasp its subjective reality to the world and those that surround it? Was Jesus Christ’s faith in mankind a legitimate and viable way to live? The Grand Inquisitor proclaims to Jesus, “Instead of taking men's freedom from them, Thou didst make it greater than ever” (28)! If Jesus was the perfect man as we are told, then maybe his idea to free the minds of men was also perfect.

If we have our security and certainty taken from us, but are given back our freedom of individual thought and understanding, then it may become possible for man to move past the institutional religions and faiths, and begin to live once again with a subjective relationship to others. It may be time for man to move past living for the invisible, and towards living for each other. Technically, we really only have each other. In this understanding a new idea of faith can arise, the faith in a prosperous and non-conflicting global separation from each other!

Who Was Correct: The Grand Inquisitor or Christ?

In conclusion, by examining the current idea of God, the world has become slightly better understood. In a realization of our own subjective experiences to reality, we may keep the idea of God, but change the ideas of faith. With an understanding of faith and human nature, we begin to realize how we have lost our freedom and gained an invisible sense of security. By reviewing the Grand Inquisitor’s conversation with Jesus Christ, an in depth look of how the church controls society is better understood.

Of course, religion is not completely at fault. Blame should also be placed on the mind’s who created it. Perhaps, if we can come to understand our real experience to the world around us, we can make the earth a much better and kinder place in which to exist. Maybe, in this life or the next, people will begin to see some of the corruption the church offers when it offers security.

Who knows? Things become especially confusing when I am told that just by questioning the aspect of faith, I am being blasphemous. I apologize to those who tell me this, for if trying to achieve a deeper understanding of existence is futile, then perhaps humanity really does need some certainty in life’s meaning. If that is the case, Jesus Christ was wrong, and the Grand Inquisitor was correct. If not, then let us do as Jesus did by spreading global freedom and unconditional love to all.

Who was correct: The Grand Inquisitor or Jesus Christ?

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The Grand Inquisitor by John Gielgud (1975)

© 2017 Luke Holm

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    • Luke Holm profile image
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      Luke Holm 5 months ago

      Thanks, Sakina. The story is great. It reveals so much about human nature and our current culture. If you get a chance to read it, let me know.

    • SakinaNasir53 profile image

      Sakina Nasir 5 months ago from Kuwait

      Great hub Luke. Very informative and detailed. :)

    • Luke Holm profile image
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      Luke Holm 5 months ago

      Chris, thank you for reading and commenting on my hub! I agree that Jesus had the right idea that all we need is unconditional love. What I found profound, though, was the GI's ability to synthesize man's spiritual desires and use them as a catalyst for religious opportunity and control. Dostoevsky's mind was brilliant! He really reveals how shallow (or not) humans can be. I wonder along the same lines as you. Are they both correct? From my limited perspective, it certainly seems so. Again, thanks for reading. Take care!

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 5 months ago from Maple City, Michigan

      Luke, Awesome explanation of this portion of the novel. In a way, both were correct. Jesus, as presented here, was a correct in his evaluation of what men needed, unconditional love. The GI had a very profound understanding of human nature and man's need for physical certainty. GI capitalized on and exploited the truth he discovered in a way that Jesus never did, never intended to do and never intended for his followers to do.

      I enjoyed this very much. Thanks for sharing.