Law and Religion in Literature: Dostojewski’s Grand Inquisitor
In Dostojewski’s legend of the Grand Inquisitor, Christ returns to earth to witness the Inquisition’s burning of infidels in the town square. The Grand Inquisitor has Him thrown in the dungeons immediately, sentenced to be burned to death.
Literature rules. There is nothing more edifying for conscience and for our power of judgment than a good story. One of the greatest temptations for man is the temptation to sovereignty. It contains an enslaving force that threatens both the usurper as well as the usurped. The temptation of sovereignty comes down to natural man’s longing for generalization and unification. It is man’s Primal Sin. Religion is the antidote to this spiritual disease, although in history it has more than often bowed down to the kingdom of slavery.
In Dostojewski’s well-known legend of the Grand Inquisitor, which is part of The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Christ returns to sixteenth century Seville to witness the Inquisition’s burning of infidels in the town square. The Grand Inquisitor recognizes Jesus and has him thrown into the dungeons immediately, sentenced to be burned to death.
At night, he visits Him in his cell, and he tells Him he should not have refused the devil’s offer of economical, ideological, moral and political power. In the wilderness, Christ rejected the temptation of sovereignty. From a high mountain, the devil showed him ‘all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them’, and proposed that He should worship them. But Jesus rejected the temptation to rule over the world. ‘In place of the rigid ancient Law’, the Inquisitor says, ‘Thou hast said that man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide.’ To search in this beautiful but primitive way (by means of the Law of Love) for the Kingdom of God would be destructive to the Kingdom of the World, and thus the suffering of man would continue. Man is a slave: he cannot bear to exist in freedom and responsibility; free to decide, but without rules, rulers, and authority to guide him. For the sake of this weak man and his many needs, the Institution of the Church has ‘corrected’ His work, and does not need His further interference. The church must aspire to become a Kingdom of this world; the state must become a church. ‘Anyone who can appease a man's conscience can take his freedom away from him.’
Although indeed Christ was concerned with the free human soul, and (in that respect) sacrificed the general for the singular and personal, (canon) Law by its nature must sacrifice the individual for the general. This is the Laws intrinsic deficit: it does not want to share its world and power; it denies the independence of the free person and its conscience.
I can recommend Dostojewski’s wonderful story to anyone interested in this subject matter. His legend is so intriguing because it breaks down the soothing universalizing myths that underlie our civilization. Law is to be based on morality (i.e. on natural law). Morality is (one way or another) founded on religion. The usurpation of political authority by the church, and the usurpation of religious authority by the state bare ample witness to the narrow-minded tendency to bypass the inherent fundamental differences between these spheres. ‘Law and religion are essentially united and continuous.’ This somewhat provincial interpretation of their ‘happy marriage’ is, as you like, the holy pantheistic story we live by. But the intrinsic generality and objectivity of Law and the moral concern for the bonum commune, challenge the opposite personalist values within religion, for which the general is the relative, and the personal the absolute. Indeed, there is a sharp tension between religion and law; this tension should be well respected. But to the benefit of both. To the benefit of their mutual interdependence, and for their dialectical and qualitative synthesis they should not be kept apart. Law devoid of faith, rulers and judges ‘uninformed’ of this religious openness to the infinite worthiness of the person, easily degenerate into the rational legalism that Dostojewski describes. If religion can avoid the temptation of sovereignty (if necessary with the help of the law and the independence of the state), it can prevent law from becoming worshipped and deified as a divine object of idolatry, and reassert the rights of persons and minorities to their spiritual values and beliefs.
Against the ever-present sanctification of law and its excessive (logical and linguistic) legalism, religion might challenge law to put itself in the place of the person. That is: to change continually in order to become more and more humane.