There are several possible objections to the idea that Christianity is a religion with a paradoxical, and inter-dependent idea of freedom and of authority. The first would be to state that there are moments in foundational Christian texts, such as Paul’s epistles, which make it clear that it is necessary for Christians to submit entirely to earthly laws and to remain in social conditions as they exist The second would be to state that that, at several points, the Gospels portray an antinomian message that appears to preach radical freedom without a fall-back to a conception of authority. Finally, a third objection would state that, simply because ideas of authority and freedom can be seen to have come into conflict with each other throughout the history of Christianity, this does not mean that the two ideas necessarily constitute a paradoxical relation within Christianity. It could just as well be the case that one of these aspects was historically wrong, while one of them was right.

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Fyodor Dostoevsky’s parable “The Grand Inquisitor,” contained within the novel “The Brothers Karamozov,” concerns the question of the relationship between authority and freedom within Christianity. The story is presented by the radical atheist Ivan to his brother Alyosha. It tells of a fictional return of Christ during the Spanish Inquisition. Dostoevsky describes how Christ moves amongst crowds in Seville, heals the sick, raises the dead and gathers an adoring following. He is promptly arrested and interrogated by the Grand Inquisitor, an old man who is responsible for the burning of hundreds and thousands of “heretics.” Christ is informed that he to will be burnt in the morning, and the Inquisitor proceeds to present a discourse of role of the church and the nature of the Christian religion.

At one point, he notes that Christ’s life as depicted in the Gospels was one based around an idea of radical freedom and independence of spirit. In this discourse, Christ did not come from the cross when this was demanded of him because he did not he “did not want to enslave man by a miracle and thirsted for faith that is free, and not miraculous.” At this point, it is clear that Dostoevsky envisages that Christianity is a religion that contains a radically emancipatory impulse and that does not wish individuals to submit themselves to an authority outside of their own free faith and reason.

Despite this, however, it is not the case that one can see Christianity as simply antinomian and as a religion of radical freedom. Rather, Dostoevsky writes that people are simply not capable of being able to live with the radical freedom made available to them in Christianity. As such, a church-like authority must be considered to be necessary to the religion, and to life in general. Ivan has the Inquisitor state to Christ that he, and the other representatives of the Catholic church, have “corrected” his deed “and based it on miracle, mystery, and authority. And mankind rejoiced that they were once more led like sheep, and that at last such a terrible gift, which had brought them so much suffering [the freedom contained in Christ’s death] had been taken from their hearts.” Here, religious authority is presented as necessary, not because Christianity contains no trace of freedom, but because people who made need to be Christians cannot confront this freedom of their own accord.

Finally, therefore, it is possible to see that Dostoevsky argues that freedom and authority form an irreconcilable paradox within Christianity. Ivan ends his story with the image of Christ, who has remained silent throughout his interrogation, rising from his seat and kissing the Inquisitor who then shudders and lets him out into the night, stating: “Go and do not come again…do not come at all…never, never!” In this image the radical freedom of the Christ who eschews miracles in order to inspire free faith, and the totalitarian figure of a church that can only dominate are placed side by side, and both are seen to be dependent on the other. Freedom without any authority is impossible for a fallen humanity, and authority without such freedom is infernal and totalitarian. As such, Christianity can be seen to be dependent on a paradoxical relation between ideas of radical freedom and of complete submission to authority.

  • Dostoevsky, Fyodor. “The Brothers Karamazov.” Translated by Richard Peavar and Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Everyman, 1992.