THR Web Features   /   December 8, 2023

Dostoevsky’s Dangerous Gambit

The divine hiddenness at the core of a masterpiece.

Ryan Kemp

( “Alyosha and Vanya,” 1971, by Mikhail Rojter (1916–1993); The Gamborg Collection/Bridgeman Images; background: manuscript of The Brothers Karamazov.)

There is arguably no other book in the history of literature that has so adeptly portrayed the beauty of Christianity while also converting more readers to atheism than The Brothers Karamazov. With the publication of Michael Katz’s translation, a new generation of English-language readers is invited to wrestle with the challenge of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece.

Dostoevsky is too Christian for a secular age and too secular for Christendom—bound to insult the run-of-the-mill believer just as readily as the village atheist. On his view, we moderns need considerable saving and the only version of Christianity that can do the job is one we can’t possibly accept. This means, perversely, that the true success of Dostoevsky’s presentation of Christianity depends, in its own way, on its failure. If Dostoevsky plays by the rules of his own game many of us will leave the novel disappointed. Many have left the novel disappointed. It’s a literary gambit that fails just as often as it succeeds. 

The Brothers Karamazov provides what many regard as the single most powerful case against the God of classical theism. This case is concentrated in two chapters that Dostoevsky himself considered the core of the book—“Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor.” At the center of each is the character Ivan Karamazov, an impassioned, yet conflicted skeptic, who explains to his younger brother—the sensitive, monastery bound Alyosha—why he refuses to worship God. This explanation involves, as no reader of the novel is soon to forget, a detailed description of several horrific cases of child abuse, many of them simply lifted by Dostoevsky from local newspapers. At the end of these descriptions, having caused Alyosha visible pain, Ivan invites his brother to place himself in God’s position: “Would you agree to be the architect [of the world] under these conditions?” “No, I wouldn’t,” Alyosha concedes. 

In the legend of the Grand Inquisitor, Ivan delivers the knockout punch. If “Rebellion” is meant to show that God’s creation is an unmitigated moral disaster, the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter is meant to show that no amount of incarnational fireworks—God made man or what have you—can fix the problem. Ivan’s story is set in sixteenth century Seville. Christ returns the day after a great “auto-da-fe” (the stench of roasted heretics still heavy in the air) and, just as they did fifteen centuries before, the people flock to him, and he heals and comforts the sick. But not for long. The Cardinal Inquisitor walks into the crowd and orders Jesus arrested. 

Later that night, the Cardinal enters Christ’s cell and begins the inquisition to end all inquisitions. The accusation is startling: Christ could have saved humanity if only he had used his limitless power to compel allegiance. Instead, he set a perversely high value on human freedom and remained hidden: living among the poor and lowly; rejecting political authority; and, finally, dying a humiliating death. This self-imposed ambiguity, reasons the Inquisitor, is the mark not of a loving savior but a callous misanthrope. And now the Church will begin the work of correcting Christ’s sins. The first step will be to add Jesus to the inquisitorial flames. From there, the Inquisitor will harness the political and moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church to finally find and feed all of Christ’s lost sheep, those too weak to find salvation in a God who requires a faith impossible for all but the most hardened saints.

This theme of divine hiddenness is at the core of The Brothers Karamazov. One of the more subtle ways it shows up is in Dostoevsky’s inversion of conventional symbols. Take, for example, the image of the setting sun, a motif the reader first encounters in a description of an early childhood memory of Alyosha’s. In what will become an anchor point for his adult faith, Alyosha recalls his mother holding him up, as if in a plea for protection, to an icon of Mary. Of all the surrounding details of this moment, it is the sun’s “slanting rays” he “recalled most of all.” The sun is emphasized again in a later passage that seems no less sacred. This time it is a childhood memory of Alyosha’s mentor, the novel’s most robustly developed Christ figure, the Elder Zosima. Zosima describes one of his last interactions with his dying brother, one in which the latter, Markel, embraces and exhorts him to “now you go out and play; live for me!” Again, the moment is spotlighted by the setting sun’s “slanting rays.” 

But now fast forward to a chapter called “The Odor of Putrefaction.” Zosima is dead, and all of his fellow monks await post-mortem confirmation of his righteousness. Orthodox tradition prepares them to expect that his corpse will resist decay, the bodies of true saints often marked by incorruptibility. But the opposite happens. Not only does Zosima’s body begin to decay, but it also decays faster than normal, emitting the tale tell odor of corruption just hours after death. And this naturally causes the skeptics in the room (“for ‘people love the fall of a righteous man and his disgrace’”) to conclude that Zosima must have been a phony. This triumph is punctuated by the entrance of Zosima’s chief critic, the fiendishly prideful Father Ferapont, who declares: “Christ is victorious over the setting sun!” (Emphasis mine.)

Here Dostoevsky takes one of the novel’s most potent symbols of blessing and divine presence and uses it to mark the fall and defeat of his Christ figure. And that’s not all. The rest of the chapter involves a series of hasty attempts to judge “the Christ” (for good or ill) by the presence or absence of explicit signs. At first, all the monks are prepared to see Zosima’s righteousness confirmed in a pleasant odor. When this doesn’t happen, they immediately conclude that they have misjudged Zosima’s character: As one monk says, “God’s judgment is not the same as man’s.” But then there is the odor of corruption, and from “a small dry body, dry and bony—where could the smell be coming from?” There can only be one answer. This must be a sign from God. “The judgment seemed irrefutable.”

Though the reader is beginning to see Dostoevsky’s larger point, it is soon made explicit. After Ferapont’s triumphant declaration, the faithful Father Paissy counters, “Perhaps we can see here a ‘sign’ that neither you, nor me, nor anyone can understand.” But this, of course, is both patently true and ridiculous. If a sign is necessarily ambiguous, then it’s no sign at all. The best we human interpreters can do is speculate or maybe trust. This trust in the absence of any unambiguous sign is what Dostoevsky calls faith. It’s a humiliating process by which a person’s attempts to make God amenable to their own reason are shattered. One is left to cast their lot with Christ in spite of the apparent evidence against him, and (with a nod to the “Rebellion” chapter) this negative case is no small matter. Why would anyone accept such a bleak invitation? 

Dostoevsky believes that part of what makes human experience so unbearably painful is our constant urge to reign supreme over life; we continuously look to exercise forms of control and domination over others and our own circumstances. And even when we seem to succeed, we’re left empty: There can be no satisfaction in the company of those who, by subtle or less subtle means, have been made to submit to our will. A world that is made to our measure can never inspire awe or reverence, and despair grows. But part of worshiping something bigger than yourself is submitting not just your desires and will. It’s submitting your mind as well. Echoing the novel’s epigraph (John 12:24), everything in natural man must die. But if it dies, “it bringeth forth much fruit.” Here we get a glimpse into the perverse wisdom of the cross that so infuriates the Inquisitor. Only a Christ who surpasses the understanding can do the proper saving. Reason too must bow. Only then is the human ego made to surrender its control and consent to something beyond itself. To utter in true humility: Thy will be done.  

The details of abuse in the “Rebellion” chapter are so unsettling that Dostoevsky’s own editor required serious convincing to publish them. Dostoevsky eventually prevailed, in part, because he promised a later “refutation” of Ivan’s blasphemy. But this idea of a refutation is complicated by two further features of the novel. First, as we’ve just seen, the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter, as well as Dostoevsky’s rejection of “signs” more generally, challenge the very possibility of such a refutation. And, second, the part of the novel that apparently includes the refutation—the life of the revered Orthodox monk and the novel’s Christ figure, Father Zosima—seems to be anything but. It’s thus unclear what precisely to make of things. Did Dostoevsky mislead his editor? Was he confused? Or was he simply not up to the philosophical task?   

The monk’s life, Dostoevsky insisted, would showcase a Christian response equal to the power of Ivan’s atheism. Many of the novel’s eventual readers have come to suspect that Dostoevsky overstated his case. Not only does Ivan’s challenge remain thoroughly unrefuted, it is also not clear how the life of Zosima could count as an attempted refutation. In other words, Dostoevsky seems to commit a basic category mistake: Philosophical claims of the kind attributed to Ivan (say, that the existence of extreme evil causes a problem for God’s presumptive goodness) simply cannot be refuted by the content of even the best Christian life. Dostoevsky has promised an apple and delivered an orange.

But, on closer inspection, these concerns are grounded in a serious misunderstanding of the “Rebellion” chapter. What we find there is not a conventional argument of the sort philosophers make, say, a new move within the dialectic of the so-called “problem of evil.” Far from embracing the tired syllogisms of the “Russian school boys,” Ivan maintains that it is only within the context of such abstract, detached discussions that one can credibly entertain the otherwise ludicrous thought that extreme evil is justifiable. On this point, and having just described a particularly obscene case of abuse, Ivan says, “Long ago I resolved not to understand anything. If I conceive a desire to understand something, then I’ll immediately betray the facts; I’ve determined to stick with the facts…” In order, then, to confront the “fact” of evil, we have to look at it close up, in all its horrific detail. For this, we don’t need a dissertation but a work of art. And that’s what Dostoevsky gives us.

The great irony of the “Rebellion” chapter is that in its brutal success it primes readers to desire a response of an entirely different kind. We want a conventional refutation, something an especially clever student might manage after, say, a decade of doctoral work. But hopefully we can now see why this is misguided: Ivan explicitly disavows conventional argumentative approaches, and the potency of his appeal is directly tied to this refusal. If Dostoevsky wants to respond to Ivan in kind, he too must paint. He must show the reader that Christian love and forgiveness are more than sufficient to justify the existence of this world, even with all its horrors.

Dostoevsky attempts this through his telling of the life of Father Zosima, which itself includes three narratives of conversion, the chief of which is the deathbed transformation of Zosima’s older brother, Markel. Markel is seventeen, intelligent, and given to philosophical rumination. In the weeks leading up to Easter, he contracts consumption and, though he initially refuses to attend Lenten services, at the beginning of Holy Week he changes his mind: “I’m doing this for you, Mother, to make you happy and comfort you.” 

But then a transformation occurs. When a servant enters Markel’s room to light an icon near his bed, he responds, “Light it, my dear, light it; I was a beast for not allowing you to do so before. You’re praying to God in lighting the lamp, and I’m praying as I rejoice watching you.” This new tenderness, as well as the advance of his illness, causes his mother to weep. Markel comforts her, “don’t cry. Life is a paradise, and we are all in paradise, yet we don’t want to know it: if we did, we’d have heaven on earth tomorrow.” As Markel moves closer, day by day, to death, his ecstasy grows: “Yes,” he exclaims, “there was such glory of God all around me: the little birds, trees, meadows, and sky; and only I lived in shame, only I defiled it all, and didn’t notice the beauty and glory…. If I have sinned before all of them, and if everyone forgives me, that will be paradise. Am I not in paradise now?”

A moving passage, yes. But what role can it and other similar scenes possibly play in addressing Ivan? Dostoevsky trusts that we are not altogether estranged from such experiences in our own lives. Consider the following examples:

I’m eighteen and sitting in the balcony at the Austin Symphony Hall. It is the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth. The choir joins its thunderous voice to the flood of strings, and the music surges in waves from the stage like servants swelling from some undersea quake. As the water hits, it steals my breath and I’m submerged. But then warmth and light. Something rises within me, my heart hums the words of Schiller’s ode. I remember: I am the author of the poem; this is my music; it will never end.  

He is twenty and waiting at a stoplight. As he sits, he looks ahead and, in the distance, sees a series of sun yellowed hills and, above, a sapphire sky. He slowly raises his eyes and is suddenly overwhelmed by the conviction that there is no real difference between him and everything else. His sense of self dissolves; time disappears; death is nothing. There is no terror or anxiety. This is not a hallucination; he’s not disoriented. It’s exactly the opposite—his body courses with intensely lucid feelings of love. The stoplight changes. He drives off. In a hushed voice, “Oh, my God”11xExample taken from Nick Riggle, This Beauty: A Philosophy of Being Alive (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2022), 129-130.

She is young and in a concentration camp. Days before her death, a doctor visits, and she tells him, pointing through the window, that her only friend is the chestnut tree. “I often talk to this tree,” she says. The doctor, suspecting delirium, asks if the tree ever replies: “Yes,” she confesses. “It says to me, ‘I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.’”22xExample taken from Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2006), 69.

That beauty might count as a response to evil seems like a monumental confusion, like asking what is the capital of Texas and receiving the answer “blue.” But our experiences say otherwise. Like the tree in the death camp or the birds outside Markel’s window, they speak, saying: we are enough. In the throes of such moments, it is clear that we must answer Ivan’s question in the affirmative. Would we agree to be the architect of the world on such conditions? Yes, brother, we consent even at such a high cost. With this yes, we become God’s conspirators in creation. And the responsibility adds to the joy, for “everything is like an ocean, flowing and mixing.”

But this intense light of conviction soon fades. The indubitable becomes dubious, and we are left again in the shadows. Dare we trust that the world as seen in the light is the world as it is? Can we trust the sun? Is it a genuine sign we can live by? If by “genuine” we mean one that’s grounded in the kind of evidence that passes the test of the philosophy seminar room, then the answer must be no. Beauty is, as another Karamazov laments, “a mysterious thing.” We must assent to it, and it gives us the space to do so. Though, to be sure, this space is often the source of much pain and anxiety, Dostoevsky believes it’s not something we should properly lament. Beauty’s saving power is inseparable from the risk it demands we take for its sake, its strength ever allied to its weakness.

Dostoevsky’s novel is brilliant in its relentless commitment to this governing ideal. He understands that while we might long for an explanation—of evil, of suffering—our hearts cannot be healed by anything as straightforward as that. The only god powerful enough to save us is one that consents to remain hidden.