Study Guide

The Brothers Karamazov Religion

By Fyodor Dostoevsky

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In the realist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith. Once the realist comes to believe, then, precisely because of his faith, he must also allow for miracles. (1.5.1)

The narrator here comes out with one of his few explicit comments on the novel. Here he confidently explains why Alyosha can be realistic about the world and still be religious. In fact, religion gives Alyosha an insight into human truths that others do not have. This, by the way, is a response to the Grand Inquisitor's notion that miracle is a way to deceive men into religion.

"No matter, he is holy, in his heart there is the secret of renewal for all, the power that finally establish the truth on earth." (1.5.4)

Alyosha believes fervently in his elder's teachings, but there is also an irony here in that, in his excessive admiration for his elder, Alyosha is setting him up as a substitute for Christ. The falsity of this admiration is demonstrated when Alyosha experiences doubt at his elder's dead body's decomposition – not the miracle he was hoping for.

"For people are created for happiness, and he who is completely happy can at once be deemed worthy of saying to himself: 'I have fulfilled God's commandment on this earth.' [...]" (2.4.22)

The elder Zosima explains that Christianity helps us understand that we are essentially happy beings; we just have to realize this in order for our sufferings to be eliminated.

"It is not the Church that turns into the state, you see. That is Rome and its dream. That is the third temptation of the devil! But, on the contrary, the state turns into the Church, it rises up to the Church and becomes the Church over all the earth." (2.5.31)

Father Paissy draws a distinction between Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy. Catholicism – "Rome" – corrupts Christianity in seeking to use religion to establish political power (such as the Holy Roman Empire). Russian Orthodoxy ("the Church") seeks the complete opposite – to sublimate the state (political institutions or nations, like Russia for example) into a higher, spiritual order. This is a response to the Grand Inquisitor's idea that the Church ought to establish a political authority on earth.

"[D]o not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we do not want to know it, and if we did want to know it, tomorrow there would be paradise the world over." (6.1.a)

A central premise of the novel is that once we recognize that paradise is here on earth, we can approach life with joy and happiness, no matter how much suffering is lobbed our way.

"But what is great here is this very mystery – that the passing earthly image and eternal truth here touched each other. In the face of earthly truth, the enacting of eternal truth is accomplished." (6.1.b)

Zosima's discussion of Job's story is a response to Ivan's Grand Inquisitor, who believes that mystery can only be used to enslave man's mind. Zosima insists that the mysteriousness of the Bible's stories comes from the encounter of an earthly mind with divine will.

"Do you think that a simple man will not understand? Try reading to him [...] and you will pierce his heart with these simple tales. [...] Only the people and their future spiritual power will convert our atheists, who have severed themselves from their own land." (6.1.b)

Zosima's theory of reading the Bible here may also apply to what Dostoevsky is trying to do as a novelist. Both believe that stories of religious truth can appeal to all readers, no matter their background or level of education.

"My young brother asked forgiveness of the birds: it seems senseless, yet it is right, for all is like an ocean, all flows and connects; touch it in one place and it echoes at the other end of the world." (6.3.g)

The elder Zosima in his teaching here seems to head toward pantheism, or the belief that God is inseparable from nature. He advocates kissing the ground as a form of prayer, and other characters such as Alyosha and Dmitri have moments of clarity when they are communing with nature.

"Much on earth is concealed from us, but in place of it we have been granted a secret, mysterious sense of our living bond with the other world, with the higher heavenly world, and the roots of our thoughts and feelings are not here but in other worlds. [...] God took seeds from other worlds and sowed them on this earth, and raised up his garden; and everything that could sprout sprouted, but it lives and grows only through its sense of being in touch with other mysterious worlds; if this sense is weakened or destroyed in you, that which has grown up in you dies. Then you become indifferent to life, and even come to hate it." (6.3.g)

This passage explains the significance of the epigraph to the entire novel. (For a detailed discussion, see "What's Up With the Epigraph?"). The novel is in some sense a test of what kind of life is possible from the perspective of two opposing world views – faith and skepticism. Only faith "sprouts" a happy life.

"Love to throw yourself down on the earth and kiss it. Kiss the earth and love it, tirelessly, insatiably, love all men, love all things, seek this rapture and ecstasy. Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears. Do not be ashamed of this ecstasy, treasure it, for it is a gift from God, a great gift, and it is not given to many, but to those who are chosen." (6.3.h)

Zosima's exhortation to "[k]iss the earth" links up his religious views with the love of the Russian land.

"It's impossible for a convict to be without God, even more impossible than for a non-convict! And then from the depths of the earth, we, the men underground, will start singing a tragic hymn to God, in whom there is joy!" (11.8.36)

Dmitri here practices Zosima's philosophy that all you have to do is recognize that your life is a paradise for it to become one (see Quote #7). Dmitri's image of the convicts' hymn shows how even a convict can praise God.

[Alyosha] was beginning to understand Ivan's illness: "The torments of a proud decision, a deep conscience!" God, in who he did not want to believe, and his truth were overcoming his heart, which still did not want to submit. (11.10.37)

Alyosha here recognizes the enormous suffering Ivan experiences because of his unwillingness to recognize the truth of religious doctrine.

"[...] let us never forget how good we once felt here, all together, united by such good and kind feelings as made us, too, for the time that we loved the poor boy. [...] And even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, that alone may serve some day for our salvation." (Epilogue.3.49)

Out in the world, no longer a monk, Alyosha starts to echo Zosima's philosophy as he exhorts the children to hold on to the memory of the funeral, a time when they were at their very Christian best.

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