On the mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Mar 20, 2022

The literary climax of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is a poem entitled ‘The Grand Inquisitor,’ in which Ivan––who is one of the Karamazov brothers––presents a startling challenge to the Christian idea of God. In the poem, Ivan imagines that it is the 16th century, and Jesus has come back to earth during the Catholic Inquisition. Jesus is brought before the Cardinal Grand Inquisitor himself, who argues that Jesus had been wrong to resist the devil during his temptation in the wilderness. More specifically, the Cardinal says that by resisting temptation the way he had, Jesus created the possibility for human freedom––a reality that has plagued humanity ever since. Humanity would have been better off, he says, had Jesus given them security instead of freedom.

Regarding the second temptation specifically (Matt. 4:6), the Grand Inquisitor asks Jesus: “Oh, of course, in this you acted proudly and magnificently, like God, but mankind…could you possibly have assumed, even for a moment, that mankind…would be strong enough for such a temptation?…[A]s soon as man rejects miracles, he will at once reject God as well, for man seeks not so much God as miracles. And since man cannot bear to be left without miracles, he will go and create new miracles for himself, his own miracles this time, and will bow down to the miracles of quacks.”

One of the things that makes Ivan’s poem so disturbing is that he is right, in so far as he goes. Indeed, a century and a half later, living as we are in an age where we worship––that is, give our hearts and our resources to––idols created through consumeristic technologies (the miracles of the modern marketplace), Dostoevsky appears altogether prescient. For in longing for these signs, we have sacrificed our freedom to the endless cycle of production of consumption. Chasing after these chimeras, we have become enslaved by them.

The church is not exempt from this. In fact, we are at times the worst offenders. So, Dostoevsky has his Cardinal go so far as to say that, from the time that Jesus made his fatal error, the church has been in the secret service of Satan––working on his behalf to protect the world from the freedom that Jesus gave them. In our day, we portend to offer the world these sorts of signs––in their various forms––in an act of self-preservation, aiming to stay relevant to a world now full of competing gods. Yet in doing so, we have subverted our most basic relationship to God, making ourselves the “tester,” and he the one “tested.”

But Lent offers a powerful corrective to this. To a world captivated by the spectacle, and a world whose hope is placed in great shows of authority and power, Lent calls us to the humility and weakness of the cross. That is, between false ideas of both freedom and power, Lent trains us to set aside the temptation to test God––the God in whose service, the Book of Common Prayer tells us, is perfect freedom.