Silence in the Face of Evil

In The Drama of Atheist Humanism, the French Jesuit Henri De Lubac describes the fictional confrontation between Christ and the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. He asks how it is that the ruthless, yet eloquent, proponent of a worldly anti-Christian paradise is overmatched: “How did Jesus set about producing such an effect? Did he confute the Grand Inquisitor?” In this respect Dostoevsky’s story mirrors the conduct of Christ in the presence of Herod.

De Lubac says that the Inquisitor “found the silence of the accused oppressive.” Christ’s refusal to descend to his level is disarming. According to the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (cited by De Lubac): “The artistic method that Dostoevsky adopts in his narrative is admirable; his Christ is silent all the time and remains in the shadow. The effective religious idea is not expressed in any words.”

The Inquisitor’s protracted discourse shows that it is generally easier to advocate the false benevolence of tyranny than to convey the idea of genuine freedom. The response is not an equally verbose rebuttal. “The Grand Inquisitor,” explains Berdyaev, “produces arguments, he is convincing: he is endowed with a potent logic and a strong will bent on carrying out a definite plan. But Christ’s silence, his gentle refusal to speak, carry more persuasion and a more decisive influence than all the Grand Inquisitor’s force of argument.”

The French theologian concludes that “the aesthetic device” of Dostoevsky’s novel is compelling because it is backed by conviction. “So long as we talk and argue and busy ourselves on the plane of this world, ‘evil seems the stronger.’ More than that: whether evil distresses us or whether we exalt it… it alone seems real. The thing is to enter upon another plane, to find that fourth dimension that represents the kingdom of the Spirit.”

We are frequently admonished to speak out against evil. But that is only part of the picture. Sometimes vehemence and denunciation outstrip necessity, in which case it appears that the confidence of our belief is revealed as much in its humility as in its assertions.

For related commentary, see: De Lubac on the Roots of Nihilism

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