Wednesday, October 29, 2003

And on the tail of that post, it seems only right, at least for context, to post a summary of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor:

...There is a story in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov about Christ coming back to earth during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. It's called 'The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor', and in it Christ appears in Seville the day after a hundred heretics have been burned at the stake in a great auto-da-fe. He appears as he did during his lifetime, and the crowds recognise him at once, and he heals the sick. At the steps of the cathedral he meets a funeral procession for a little girl, and he has compassion on the mother and brings the child back to life. Just at that moment the Grand Inquisitor is passing and sees has happened and orders his guards to arrest Christ and throw him into prison. And that night the Grand Inquisitor, an old man who has served the Church throughout his long life, visits Christ in the dungeons and talks to him.

It is in fact a monologue, because Christ remains silent throughout. And the Grand Inquisitor tells Christ that he will have him burned at the stake the next day, as the worst of heretics, because he has come back to undo the work of the Church.

The point is that the Grand Inquisitor understands perfectly, well that Christ came originally to offer freedom to mankind: he wanted man's free, unforced love, in place of the ancient rigid law. This lies at the heart of the temptation scene in the desert. If Christ had agreed to turn the stones into bread, he would have had no difficulty in persuading men to follow him - people everywhere would have flocked to him. But Christ rejected that option - he resisted the temptation. He refused to coerce mankind, he didn't want blind obedience: he preferred freedom - without freedom it would all be worthless.

But, says the Grand Inquisitor, that was a mistake. Man doesn't want freedom, he wants simply to be happy; and the only way to make him happy is to deprive him of his freedom. Man's greatest need is to find someone to whom he can hand over this gift of freedom as quickly as possible, and that, says the Grand Inquisitor, is where the Church stepped in. The Church, not Christ, had man's happiness in mind., the Church had the good sense to correct Christ's work, to take away man's freedom, and to give him the bread he asked for. What mankind craves is simply someone to obey.

As I said, throughout this monologue Christ remains silent. When the Grand Inquisitor has finished he waits for a reply - he longs for Christ to say something, however bitter, however terrible. But suddenly Christ gets up and comes over to the old man and softly kisses him on his aged, bloodless lips. That is all his answer. The old man shudders. He goes to the door, opens it, and says to the Prisoner: 'Go, and come no more'. And he lets him out into the dark alleys of the town: the Prisoner goes away.

Now Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor is a very good example of what we now call a Fundamentalist. The only uncharacteristic thing about him is that he is fully conscious of the implications of his philosophy: he actually intends to correct Christ's work, to rewrite Christianity Most Fundamentalists persuade themselves that they are imitating Christ, even to the extent of making the farcical allegation that they share his attitude to the infallibility of the Bible. But that apart, the Grand Inquisitor illustrates perfectly the following features of Fundamentalists- a distrust and fear of freedom; a belief in the importance of authority and in controlling what people believe; a corresponding preference for obedience rather than love; a desire to give people what they want rather than the truth: a refusal to allow themselves to be in the least disconcerted when they are confronted with the true nature of their religion; and a readiness to persecute and exclude anyone who is of a different persuasion.

To reduce that to convenient headings, the Fundamentalist is uncomfortable with freedom, truth, and dissent.' and very much at home with authority, obedience, and conformity But the most striking feature of the Fundamentalist is that, whether he is conscious of it or not, his approach results in the total contradiction of what he professes to believe... (from Peter Cameron's "Fundamentalism and Freedom" (Doubleday; Sydney: 1995. pp. 6-7).

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