Dostoevsky for Christmas

The Brothers KaramazovAt some point during my teen-aged years, my father decided we needed a new family Christmas tradition, so he began reading us “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov on Christmas Eve. We’d sit in the living room, Christmas tree lit up, packages arrayed underneath, and my father — skipping the introduction to Ivan’s so-called poem about Jesus appearing in Seville during the heart of the Spanish Inquisition — would intone. “In His infinite mercy He came once more among men in that human shape in which He walked among men for three years fifteen centuries ago.”

He would read, and then we would rush out the door for midnight services at the local Episcopal Church, where my father served as a layreader and senior warden, my mother played the organ, and my sister and I sang in the choir. It is no exaggeration to say that the Moore family kept that church together for many years, especially when we were between priests.

It seems a cynical piece to read at Christmas, especially in a church-going family, but I think my father was trying to teach us that religion was more complicated than the tale of Jesus being born in the manger might lead us to believe. Or maybe he’d just reached his limit of happy Christmas hysteria.

I was reminded of this by an essay on “The Grand Inquisitor” that appeared on The New York Times philosophy blog, The Stone.

For those who haven’t read it, in the story, Jesus appears in Seville the day after the Grand Inquisitor has burned to death a hundred heretics. The people immediately recognize him and begin to worship him. The Inquisitor has him arrested as a heretic, even though he, too, knows that this is Christ. The Inquisitor sees Christ as a threat to the church. Jesus, it should be noted, behaves in much the way you might expect.

In the Times essay, philosopher Simon Critchley says the essence of the story is that the freedom and responsibility Jesus preached is too hard for anyone to follow, that the kind of power Satan tempted Jesus with is much better for human beings. He writes:

What is it that makes human beings happy? In a word, bread. And here we return to Jesus’ answers to Satan’s desert temptations. In refusing to transform miraculously the stones into loaves, Jesus rejected bread for the sake of freedom, for the bread of heaven. Jesus refuses miracle, mystery and authority in the name of a radical freedom of conscience. The problem is that this freedom places an excessive burden on human beings.

The Inquisitor and other church leaders, having recognized this, have compromised with Satan for the sake of the people. They know this is evil, but the other choice is mass unhappiness. Critchley ends his piece:

The Grand Inquisitor’s dilemma is, finally, tragic: he knows that the truth which sets us free is too demanding for us, and that the lie that grants happiness permits the greatest good of the greatest number.  But he also knows that happiness is a deception that leads ineluctably to our damnation. Is the Grand Inquisitor’s lie not a noble one?

To be perfectly (or imperfectly) honest, I don’t know the answer to this question. Which should we choose: diabolical happiness or unendurable freedom?

Unlike Critchley, I have no trouble with this question: I’m for freedom — even unendurable freedom — every time. But then, I find the story more political than religious. To me, the Grand Inquisitor represents every monarch, every pope, every leader of any kind who thinks he (or she, but more often he) should make decisions for the rest of the world because he is the only one who really understands the situation. Some of these people are sincere; some just want to keep their power over others. But the end result is the same, regardless of intent.

I want to make my own decisions, even if they leave me unhappy. I suspect this was my father’s point, though I don’t remember if he ever made it directly.

I’m not religious any more, but you don’t have to believe that Jesus was the son of God to appreciate his teaching. He was a radical, of course; what he taught has the potential to upend all kinds of power structures. “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Heady challenges to a hierarchical world.

Of course the Roman Catholic Church, once it got started, couldn’t countenance all that any more than the Roman Empire or the Jewish leaders of Jesus’s time. No authority can allow such a challenge and survive.

Apologies to Monty Python, but they got it wrong. Everyone expects the Spanish Inquisition.

My ideas on this are my own. I’m not quite sure what side Dostoevsky was on when he wrote it. If you want to judge that for yourself — and I would certainly argue in favor of everyone making up their own mind about these things — The Brothers Karamazov is available for free on Project Gutenberg. “The Grand Inquisitor” is found in Part II, Book V, Chapter V.

Though when I was looking for a copy, I discovered that there is a more recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokhonsky available. Given that their incredible translation of Anna Karenina got me to read that book, I think I have to get their version, even though it isn’t free. The right translation is crucial to understanding a book when you can’t read the language it’s written in.



Dostoevsky for Christmas — 5 Comments

  1. A very nice post, Nancy…thank you. My hunch is that at some level your father understood that the “Hallmark Christmas” that seems to command so much of our attention is only part of the story. Two days ago I ended up being pointed towards a sermon by Br. Kevin Hackett SSJE (an Episcopal monastic community) where he said “As for how we keep the Twelve Days, I can tell you this: if you are inclined to be even remotely sentimental about Christmas, you should not be here. Go somewhere else. If you prefer pristine manger scenes and Bible stories tied up as neatly as packages under a tree, you should visit a Hallmark store. Not the monastery. You will not find those kind of stories here in the worship which we offer, nor do we coo too much over the new-born baby Jesus. In fact, we don’t coo at all. Instead, at nearly every turn, we read and hear stories of violence, filled with hurled stones and dashed hopes, with swaggering soldiers swinging drawn swords, and lots of blood (or, as in this evening’s Gospel, the promise of it). All of which sounds a lot more like the newspaper than the Bible… On the Second Day of Christmas (and incidentally, those two calling birds are intended to remind you of the Old and New Testaments), we were brought face to face with the brutal murder of a young man named Stephen, stoned to death because of his religious convictions. His blood is splattered all over the manger. If that seems grotesque or remote to you, let me remind you that in the land which saw the birth of Jesus, young men and women are still dying for their deeply held convictions of faith. Everyday. It’s still happening.”
    (The full sermon can be found at and it is well worth reading.)

    So thanks for reminding us that Christmas is FAR more complex than we typically view it. And thanks for reminding me that I need to read The Brothers Karamozov in the near future!

    • Fascinating sermon, Matt. I suspect so many people end up dying for their faith because so many other people think they must stamp out all beliefs except their own, a la the Spanish Inquisition.

      I don’t think my father was ever into Hallmark Christmas. He had his romantic side, but he was not particularly sentimental. He used to teach Sunday School and focus on biblical history. His own view of God, expressed a few years ago, was as a “force.” So he brought a lot of complicated ideas to his religious outlook.