The Complications of Unbelief in The Brothers Karamazov

By Rachel Ballinger

Ivan tells Alyosha the Grand Inquisitor Story.

On Monday, September 20, the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies welcomed its first guest lecture event for the fall colloquia series on “Dostoevsky at 200” with John Givens, professor of Russian at the University of Rochester. His lecture focused heavily on themes of unbelief and atheism in Fedor Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

Givens introduced the lecture with points from his most recent book, The Image of Christ in Russian Literature, noting that secularism was rising in popularity in Russia in the nineteenth century and therefore challenging the hold of Orthodoxy in intellectual circles, providing the audience with a good sense of the religious landscape of the time. Givens particularly highlighted the influence within Russia and elsewhere in Europe of David Friedrich Strauss’s 1835 book, The Life of Jesus, which attempted to portray the “historical Jesus” and denied his divine nature. Strauss’s work excited the great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. Other writers, such as Alexander Pushkin, had already laid the groundwork for rethinking religion, writing poems that parodied the idea of God. The influential critic, Vissarion Belinsky, supported the theories set out by Strauss that divinity is connected to the human race, rather than to the “historical Jesus”.

Within this environment, Dostoevsky—who read Strauss’s work—wrestled with questions of doubt and unbelief throughout his life.  These struggles were also reflected in his writing, with the writer referring to himself as “a child of disbelief and doubt”. In The Brothers Karamazov, faith is clearly juxtaposed with atheism. The “logical” brother, Ivan, represents this struggle the most. Although the “holy” brother, Alyosha is identified as the hero of the novel, his faith in God is never entirely swayed. Many important scenes in the novel are pushed forward through the inward challenges Ivan faces with his desire to remain an atheist, his physical state often mirroring his spiritual state. In opposition to Ivan, Dostoevsky uses what Givens termed the apophatic approach to work through the discourse Ivan has with other characters about religion, meaning he used devices such as negation or contradiction to show what God is through giving examples of what God is not.

Ivan presents his main argument against God through his story of the Grand Inquisitor. In this passage Ivan has created, Jesus returns to Earth, and is questioned by the Grand Inquisitor, painting him in a negative light, arguing that his love for humanity was not genuine. However, Alyosha interpreted the story as a positive outlook on Christ. Givens uses this important piece of the novel to make the point that atheism and belief are closely tied together in the way that they are almost parallel to one another, in the way that to truly understand belief one must be familiar with unbelief, as goes for the opposite.

Givens also highlighted Smerdyakov’s situation in the novel. Arguably the main antagonist, Smerdyakov shares Ivan’s atheism but is undeniably cruel, torturing animals and teaching children how to do the same harm. He remains an adamant atheist throughout the course of the novel, despite receiving a copy of religious texts and, as Givens noted, “flirts” with the idea of Christianity but never has any intention of taking it seriously. At the end of the novel, he commits suicide, a deed that ensured his own damnation.

Givens ended his lecture by stressing that Dostoevsky’s main point in The Brothers Karamazov is that man-made morality should be feared the most. The morality Ivan created for himself in the novel was his biggest downfall in his character development. Alyosha, along with other characters, found his morality through the teachings of religion and were presented as people with little flaws. The common factor between these two opposing forces is their pride: Alyosha shows none while Ivan and Smerdyakov are prideful. This is reflective of Dostoevsky’s personal beliefs; namely that we ought to look toward a higher power for direction in the challenges we face in life.

Rachel Ballinger is a senior majoring in History.

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