The concept of freedom can be rather complex; one that carries an element of incomprehensibility. In fairness, we could justifiably say that we do not really know freedom, and probably never have. Nevertheless, this has not deterred many people from trying to understand its nature, and its relationship to us. But we ask: Can human beings, in all their ordinariness, bear to be truly free?
Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) in his novel ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, wove the story of the Grand Inquisitor into his novel, to point out some impressive thoughts on human freedom.
Perhaps we have an inner need for freedom; a freedom of expression that will lead us on a path of life that leads to true liberation. But do we possess any true idea of what such a freedom would be like? Even an idea that has formed an image, a vision, still seems visceral and feels like a longing that always lies just beyond the horizon. As a place of longing, there is something unattainable about it.
This freedom however, has something in common with the horizon. A horizon is a place where heaven and earth meet, a boundary where longing ends and perhaps true freedom begins. But a horizon can never be reached. If I move towards it, it flees from me. If I turn my back to it and move away, it follows me. Perhaps this is similar with freedom.
The awareness that this horizon is inaccessible, can awaken in many people the desire for an oasis, a perfect garden that is not only accessible, but invites you to linger. This is because their current ‘garden’ is not perfect, but has boundaries, and there are those whose task it is to keep a watchful eye to ensure that no one strays beyond its borders.
There were times when these ‘protectors’ were called ‘Inquisitors’. They were the unrestrained rulers of a world that feared nothing more than the true freedom that threatened to destroy their imperfect oasis. They fought to give the people who could not attain to true freedom, a dwelling place to accommodate their need to feel protected, and at the same time, also gain their adoration. The Inquisitors were the priestly caste who were ready to receive the worship of humanity as God’s representatives, as long as God remained aloof from their efforts. They were ready to accept all the suffering of this material world, as long as people continued to obey them.
Yet, at the same time, the inner eternal voice of every human being, that calls to belong to that perfect garden, becomes the persistent agitator that keeps longing for that true freedom, that perfect garden. And that voice becomes the antagonist who threatens to undermine the powers of the inquisitors.
These inquisitors gather around them all the people who are content with the imperfect, illusory oasis. People who are more comfortable allowing their priests to mediate for them with their God, who are obedient to their priests, and who cheer when those who would point to a truer freedom, are burned to death at the stake because they dare to disrupt and challenge the status quo with their burning hearts.
Secretly however, these same people dream of a perfect love that does not need to be fed with earthly ‘bread’. Yet those who actually try to follow this dream, who begin to sacrifice everything to attain it, are few indeed. Such people live with a longing heart that burns with a love for humanity, and their lives tend to demonstrate that ‘man does not live by earthly bread alone’.
Following the example of their Lord, who went into the desert of his earthly life, and in full sacrifice overcame and regained his original freedom as promised by God, such people also willingly follow Him into their own inner desert. But there are also those who follow them, stirred by the longing for this true freedom, yet still fascinated by the ‘desert’, they soon turn to anger when the bread they expect, becomes scarce. They quickly turn their longing back to the illusory oasis, preferring to follow those who offer them stones instead bread.
The inquisitor however, knows both these reactions. He knows those people who, with a heart that burns with longing and a deep love for their fellow man, again and again urge humanity to follow their longing for that greater freedom. And he also knows those people who, still captured by the illusory oasis, do not yet follow their longing for a truer freedom.
In this sense, the inquisitor becomes the bridge that offers ‘safe passage’ to those who are content with the ‘small’, limited freedom, while at the same time, does what he can to turn those who seek true, absolute freedom, away from their journey through the desert. Thus, he is a symbol of a fractured reality in which both the ‘small’ and ‘greater’ freedoms interpenetrate each other. Sometimes the inquisitor confronts the longing heart in the dark dungeon of the individual’s reality, and seeks to make an offer that will turn them aside from their longing.
In his story ‘The Grand Inquisitor’, Dostoevsky relates a monologue that the Inquisitor directs at Christ, which is symbolic of the voice that can only be heard within the darkest recesses of the self. The Inquisitor says to Christ:
‘I have come to talk to you, to ask some questions! Why have you come to disturb us? You know very well that we do not need you. You offer people the prospect of freedom; a freedom they do not want. Every pyre they stoke, every punishment they inflict, every war they declare, aimed at those who follow you, is proof that they would rather follow us than you.’
‘Time and again, people who followed you and your promise of freedom, have, at the hour of their death, realized their failure. You offered them freedom when you said: “Man does not live by bread alone”. But is this true freedom if they squat like hermits, fasting somewhere in the desert, until they are no longer aware of their torment? We prefer to give them bread in your name, because it helps them forget their bondage, even if they regret this in the last hour before their death, when they finally realize this bread has not satisfied their hunger.
But then it will be too late, for they will be mine, and We will soothe them and lead them away in your name. It will then be too late for your true freedom. But you see that they would rather follow us than fail to attain your true freedom. But do not worry, for we will take care of them, reassure them, and give them what you have denied them in the desert. We will lead them back to the point where we can satisfy them again with our bread. You wanted to give them freedom, but they will bow to the freedom we give them, because we can satiate their immediate hunger.
What kind of freedom is this anyway, that you want to offer them? Are you free? After all, we are all thoughts of God. Every thought contains a structure, is the beginning of a story, which therefore already has its limitations, so what is the difference between your freedom and ours? Our freedom is perhaps superior, as it offers the sweet distraction of not having to think, and we also prefer to give people a ‘miracle’ to distract them as well.
But, to be able to give them miracles, we still need you. Through the miracle, we make them worship you, and we then stand in your place and receive their prayers, for they will love us for we offer them our bread. They need such miracles so that they can believe, and not question their insignificant existence. The miracle gives them the opportunity to worship us in your place. Didn’t you also aim to gain their attention and worship through your miracles?
What was your aim when, in Canaan, you turned water into wine? Was not this first miracle also meant to give you authority and gain attention? You wanted the people to believe in you, and walk with you in perfect freedom, but you failed to do that. Instead, you overwhelmed them and they crucified you for it, because they did not understand your miracles.
They did not understand that you were opening a gate to freedom; a freedom that remains unattainable for most. You cannot escape the torment that this gateway produces. For you opened it in every heart, through your crucifixion, which you allowed. Now we have to close the chasm that you created.
The fire that you kindled in man, we carry for them. Again and again, we have fanned the flames of war, and burned the pyres of fear, to limit your freedom. And though there stands a long history since you opened this gateway to freedom, I know that you have asked too much of mankind. For we have succeeded in dividing this fire into small controllable flames. So why do you come back to disrupt that work?
Mankind does not need you, for it is doing just fine without you. And we have learned to do miracles of our own. Man no longer needs the freedom that is associated with real miracles. I only have to stage my miracles well enough to convince the masses. Many people already believe in them, and are therefore spared the efforts of the difficult path you demand of them. Your freedom may well prove to be the greater in the end, but who will want it when it seems so unattainable?
The secret we keep from the people is that we know you. We have always known that you were there, and that we must reckon with you. I am your shadow, darker than the darkest night, and I belong to you until the last hour.
Back when you first came, you left a shining light on earth. You became the scourge of humanity, and we had to alleviate that scourge.
Your great secret is your light, but people need to attain this from within. When your great adversary confronted you in the desert, and asked if you could offer something of the ‘little’ freedom for all those who could not attain your ‘greater’ freedom, you denied them this. You did not wish to unveil this inner secret to the outside world, because you said that you would be tempting God if you left the path of self-fulfillment by demonstrating this freedom that must be earned.
Thus, you denied yourself the last opportunity to give the people an attainable goal. I do not know if you were aware that you would only ever be a guiding figure for the few, and leave the majority behind. So let us work in peace, and do not disturb us!
I could even now burn you at the stake, knowing that the multitude would rejoice, because I would be removing the expectation which they feel in your presence, and to which they can only respond through worship. But with every pyre, we have only succeeded in magnifying your light; we have only succeeded in making more people aware of your light. We could help you in this way, but it only increases the suffering of the people.
I know that you have no answers for me that I do not already know. And in your silence, I see only the burning love and compassion in your eyes. So, I will not try to burn you, for already the crucifixion has benefited you more than me. Instead, I will open the door of your cell and beg you to go and never return. Even if you bring the truest freedom to man, you do not help us, so go!’
The Christ stepped out into the silent night and wandered through the lonely streets, not knowing how many hearts He had set on fire in the quiet chambers of the resting people.