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Why Did Jesus Kiss the Grand Inquisitor?

November 1st, 2006 by David Kronemyer · 6 Comments

In his recent lectures on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Hubert Dreyfus asks this question of his audience, primarily comprising lower-division students at U.C. Berkeley.  Through the electronic magic of pod-casting, I surreptitiously have been listening to Professor Dreyfus for the last six months or so, as I drive to and from the studio.  My dog, Archie, also has been taking it in.  He has related his thoughts to me, and they are incorporated in this note.  Archie is a 90-lb.  Rottweiler-Rhodesian Ridgeback combination, so I always pay special attention to his views.

By way of background, there was a time when dinosaurs walked the earth, and I, too, matriculated at Berkeley.  When I was there, as a matter of fact, I took several classes from Professor Dreyfus, including one discussing Brothers K.  I since have read the book about a dozen times – twice in the last six months – as I alternate between reading it, and playing Professor Dreyfus in the car, then reading it again.  Although not a philosopher by trade, I have retained a lively interest in the subject; you might characterize me as that most deadly of all species, an amateur practitioner.

In response to this question, the students attending the lecture remained frustratingly mute.  So Dreyfus valiantly theorized, it’s because of Ivan’s “lofty way of being.” Ivan (who after all is telling the story to Alyosha) fancies himself as a defender of the weak, just like Jesus.  Indeed, Ivan is portrayed as being a kind of Jesus: after the story ends, Alyosha “suddenly noticed that Ivan swayed as he walked and that his right shoulder looked lower than his left,” almost like he’s carrying a cross.  So, in a way, Jesus kissing the Grand Inquisitor, is like Ivan kissing himself.

The first time I heard this, I was bobbing and weaving around in Los Angeles rush-hour traffic.  Archie sat in the passenger’s seat, staring out the window.  He looked at me, and I looked back at him, and, almost simultaneously, we both thought: “Interesting, but there must be more to it, than this!”  So I thought I’d rise to Professor Dreyfus’ challenge, and set forth my views.

The first thing that occurred to me – in fact, it leaped into my cognition like some kind of a jungle cat – was another incident involving Jesus, and kisses.  I refer, of course, to Judas Iscariot’s famous betrayal of Jesus, with a kiss.  Just like Roger Rabbit couldn’t resist chiming in to “shave and a haircut, two bits,” so Dostoyevsky would not be able to resist such an analogy – surely one of the most famous in Christendom.

But what, then, was the purpose of the kiss? I submit the following five alternative hypotheses:

I.

Jesus Kissed the Grand Inquisitor in Order to Identify Him to God

When Judas kissed Jesus, it was to identify him to the Roman authorities.  Similarly, we might say Jesus kissed the Grand Inquisitor in order to identify the Grand Inquisitor – not to any civil authority – but rather, to God, who is the ultimate religious authority.  It would be appropriate for Jesus so to “betray” the Grand Inquisitor, because of the Grand Inquisitor’s apostasy and heretical interpretation of Jesus’ life and works.  Knowing who he is, God now can send the Grand Inquisitor straight to hell (probably to Circle Eight, Dante’s Ninth Bolgia, wherein reside the sowers of religious discord).

II.

Jesus Is Capable of Sin, Just Like Judas

Dostoyevsky wants to conflate the roles played by Jesus, on the one hand, and Judas, on the other.  By kissing the Grand Inquisitor, Jesus in effect becomes like Judas.  We know Judas primarily for one thing: betraying Jesus, in exchange for 30 pieces of silver.  In other words, Judas committed a grave sin, he had evil in his heart.  By contrast, Jesus – especially as he is depicted in the Grand Inquisitor – is pure as the driven snow, even to the point of asceticism.  One of Dostoyevsky’s themes in Brothers K is a person so pure could not possibly take away the sins of the world, because he doesn’t know evil, to begin with.  But the kiss is Dostoyevsky’s way of saying even someone as ostensibly pure as Jesus, has the capacity to commit evil (albeit in this case, by proxy, or by analogy to Judas).  This is a step towards qualifying him, in Dostoyevsky’s terms, as a potential savior of mankind. 

III.

Jesus Forgives the Grand Inquisitor

Jesus simply is forgiving the Grand Inquisitor for his effrontery and presumptiveness, as any good Christian would.  They arise not only from the Grand Inquisitor’s misinterpretation of Christian doctrine, but also from his incarceration of Jesus, and subsequent lecture to him.  After all, just as God made Jesus, so God made the Grand Inquisitor, too; thus, at least there is a scenario pursuant to which God sanctions the Grand Inquisitor’s message, and Jesus’ kiss is an acknowledgement of same.

IV. 

Jesus Acts, Instead of Continuing to Remain Silent

One of the things we know about Jesus in the Grand Inquisitor is he remains silent through the Grand Inquisitor’s entire disquisition.  I’m tempted to cite the last proposition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”  The Grand Inquisitor certainly has a lot to speak about, indeed, he’s the one doing all the talking.  Jesus says nothing.  In a kind of weird, post-modern distillation of Jesus and Wittgenstein, we therefore might conclude Jesus “cannot speak about” the Grand Inquisitor, or his message.  What exactly is it about the Grand Inquisitor, of which (or, as to which) Jesus cannot speak?

It could be Jesus thinks the Grand Inquisitor’s right.  Or, Jesus thinks he’s so wrong, he doesn’t even deserve a reply.  Or, simply, Jesus is bored with the entire exercise.  Regardless of what Jesus is thinking, we know silence is a mode of repose, of physical inactivity.  In this, it contrasts with action, that is, the doing of something.

This contrasts dramatically with the Christian emphasis on thought, versus deed.  Consider, for example, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23, where Jesus is arguing with the Pharisees, and concludes by saying “there is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.”  Another one of my favorite examples – and, evidently, one of our former President Jimmy Carter’s, too – is the sermon on the mount, where Jesus states at Matthew 5:27-28: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.”

By kissing the Grand Inquisitor, then, Jesus is breaking out of merely his thoughts and ideas, and transferring the focus of his efforts towards action and activity.  In much the same way, true Christians must engage in, for example, altruistic behavior, rather than just thinking about it.

V.

Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor Share a Secret

(My Favorite!)

During the course of his speech, Jesus and the Grand Inquisitor form a strange kind of bond, based on their respective roles, embodying the antinomian pairs of “mystery” and “authority.”  Jesus represents mystery; the Grand Inquisitor, authority.  “Mysteries” are “revealed truths that surpass the powers of natural reason,” McHugh, J.  A.  (tr. Potter, D.), “Mystery” (1911).  “A mystery is a supernatural truth, one that of its very nature lies above the finite intelligence,” McHugh, op.  cit.  “Authority,” on the other hand, “is the moral power of command, supported (when need be) by physical coercion, which the State exercises over its members,” Rickaby, J.  (tr. Potter, D.), “Civil Authority” (1907).  Significantly, “It is natural to man to live in civil society; and where there is civil society, there must be authority,” Rickaby, op.  cit.

Dostoyevsky’s views on mystery and miracles are well known.  At the beginning of Chapter V of Book I of Part One, as he is describing Alyosha’s character, Dostoyevsky goes on an excursus about miracles, and states:

“It is not miracles that dispose realists to belief.  The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact.  Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognized by him.  Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith.  If the realist once believes, then he is bound by his very realism to admit the miraculous also.”

Later, the Grand Inquisitor observes, Jesus didn’t climb down off the cross, even though he had the power to do so, because he did not want “to enslave man through miracle, but to obtain faith in Thee freely and apart from any miraculous influence.”  The Grand Inquisitor also hypothesizes the reason why Christ did not turn stones into bread [Matthew 4:3] is because it would transform man into a condition of dependency: “this is what Thou hast rejected for the sake of that freedom which Thou hast exalted above everything.  Yet in this question lies hid the great secret of this world.  Choosing ‘bread,’ Thou wouldst have satisfied the universal and everlasting craving of humanity–to find someone to worship.  So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.”  The Grand Inquisitor, on the other hand, believes man cannot “remain without miracles, so, rather than live without, he will create for himself new wonders of his own making.”

This fits in with Dostoyevsky’s over-all belief structure: as a realist himself, he wants to eliminate, or at least drastically curtail, the role of miracles in religious belief.  This would include not only Christ’s resurrection, but also others such as the virgin birth, the loaves and the fishes, and dozens of others in the New Testament.

However, we learn from the Grand Inquisitor that authority is every bit as necessary to mankind, as is mystery.  The Grand Inquisitor is not alone in this belief.  For both Aristotle and Aquinas, conglomerating into civic entities is part of man’s nature.  Hobbes thinks it’s necessary if we’re going to escape a life that (famously) is “nasty, brutish and short.” Rousseau was a little bit more optimistic; while nature may be intrinsically good, conventions (“social contracts”) are necessary if we’re to live together in a harmonious, well-ordered society.

By kissing the Grand Inquisitor, then, Jesus in effect is acknowledging they’re “brothers in arms,” in the sense they’re both dependent upon social artifice, and construct, for their validity and vitality.  He’s further acknowledging that, in some sense, mystery is subordinate to authority, in much the same way we must “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s (“Reddite igitur quae sunt Caesaris Caesari et quae sunt Dei Deo”), Matthew 22:21.  Here, Dostoyevsky isn’t thinking so much about “civil” authority, as he is the authority of the Church.  By kissing the Grand Inquisitor, Jesus (as the representative of the pretty-much-discredited “mystery”) is paying obeisance to the Grand Inquisitor (as the equally-necessary but-not-quite-so-badly-discredited representative of “authority”).

I like this last hypothesis best.  Not only does it resolve one of the confusing antinomies the Grand Inquisitor presents; it also reconciles the Grand Inquisitor with another one of Ivan’s works, his article about the tension between church and state.  We do not understand the Inquisition, or the power of a person like the Grand Inquisitor, because we have “ceased to grasp religious belief as something objective, as the gift of God, and therefore outside the realm of free private judgment,” Blötzer, J.  (tr. Dean, M.), “Inquisition” (1910).  Further, we “no longer see in the Church a society perfect and sovereign, based substantially on a pure and authentic Revelation, whose first most important duty must naturally be to retain unsullied this original deposit of faith,” Blötzer, op.  cit.

But church and state inextricably are linked.  “Everywhere and always in the past men believed that nothing disturbed the common weal and public peace so much as religious dissensions and conflicts, and that, on the other hand, a uniform public faith was the surest guarantee for the State’s stability and prosperity.  The more thoroughly religion had become part of the national life, and the stronger the general conviction of its inviolability and Divine origin, the more disposed would men be to consider every attack on it as an intolerable crime against the Deity and a highly criminal menace to the public peace,” Blötzer, op.  cit.  Indeed, the reason why heresy was punishable by death by fire, is because the Law of Ancient Rome prescribed the same punishment for high treason (crimen laesae maiestatis).

If we regard Jesus as the iteration of mystery, and the Grand Inquisitor as the iteration of authority, there remains one last question: how to resolve the antinomy?  I think it’s resolved in the person of Father Zossima, who has known evil (that is, when he was in the army, and he slapped his orderly).  He also is regarded by most of the characters in the book (including Alyosha) as a saintly man.  He thus (potentially) embodies both mystery, and authority.

Even more significantly, Zossima has an answer to the Grand Inquisitor’s paradox of why people have faith.  In his reminiscences, as written down by Alyosha, Father Zossima avers the people of the earth in fact are up to the task imposed by the Grand Inquisitor, that is, to accept the freedom offered by informed choice.  Father Zossima says:

“Salvation will come from the people, from their faith and their meekness.  * * * Fathers and teachers, watch over the people’s faith and this will not be a dream.  I’ve been struck all my life in our great people by their dignity, their true and seemly dignity.  I’ve seen it myself, I can testify to it, I’ve seen it and marvelled at it, I’ve seen it in spite of the degraded sins and poverty-stricken appearance of our peasantry.  They are not servile, and even after two centuries of serfdom they are free in manner and bearing, yet without insolence, and not revengeful and not envious.”

This pretty much sums up Dostoyevsky’s over-all take on the issue, which is, enlightened or knowing belief is preferable to simply believing, without knowing why.