The Brothers Karamazov by Theodore Dostoevsky
In my early 30’s I read a dialogue between two brothers of Theodore Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov that exposed my secret, buried doubts with such brutal clarity that I had to admit them and face them if my young Christian faith was to be preserved in a meaningful way.
Dostoevsky, a devout Christian after years of what he called “the hell fire of doubt,” wrote a dialogue in “The Brothers Karamazov” between the brilliant atheistic brother, Ivan, and his faith-filled, gentle brother, Alyosha. I would learn later that this parable, called “the Grand Inquisitor,” had and has often been showcased as one of the great literary and theological challenges to faith in God. Ivan’s hard hitting argument left me angry and crying, “Why God did you make us when you knew we would be so atrocious to each other and especially to children?” The question haunted me. Ivan had gotten to me.
Being a first time mother of a two-year old daughter made me particularly vulnerable to Ivan’s argument. In the parable,” the Grand Inquisitor”, Ivan builds a case against God by including a story of a young child who was abandoned and left to die. Ivan admits that this argument does not come out of love for others (he admits to not having love) but rather out of a logic and defiance towards Jesus whose humility and sacrifice had apparently made no difference to humankind. Interestingly, Alyosha, the brother who loves God humbly and loves people purely does not counter the argument but rather patiently listens to his brother’s angry rant. He recognizes Ivan’s negative freedom as rebellion towards God and offers sorrow for Ivan while remaining unshakably committed to the goodness of God.
Alyosha’s reaction, or non-reaction, towards this cynical brother was not satisfying to me at this time in my life. I wanted hard hitting, iron-clad defenses and apologetics in response to Ivan’s challenge. Dostoevsky does not offer any, at least not in this passage. At this point in my faith journey I was left disappointed and emotionally off kilter. The passage literally brought me to my knees and later to a self-arranged appointment with my pastor to discuss the faith turmoil I was experiencing. I was still a novice in understanding the mystery of love and grace found in Christ. I was growing up in my faith and suffering growing pains. Good! There would be more in life to come that would require a more robust faith than I had then.
For me and millions of others, the brilliance of Dostoevsky was his ability to pull back a corner of the curtain of faith through a grand narrative of humankind’s loveliness and awfulness within the context of the Gospel’s hope of redemption . I would need to read the entire book in my 30’s and reread it in my 50’s as I continued to give up simplistic views of faith and life and grow up into life’s complexities and God’s immutable ways. As it turns out gentle Alyosha’s words and more importantly his actions in the novel turn out a beautiful picture of grace that belies iron clad arguments while strongly “truthifying” truth. Sweet Alyosha continues to teach me something about the beauty and mystery of grace -” how sweet the sound.”
I not only recommend “The Brothers Karamazov” but also “The Gospel in Dostoevsky: Selections from His Books” (introduced by J.I. Packer, Malcolm Muggeridge, & Ernest Gordon).
Next blog: second on my list