Dostoevsky paid attention to the dramatic conventions of hagiography: A biblical parable would teach people more than any Cartesian meditation. The sayings of the Desert Fathers are part and parcel of Dostoevsky’s literary device. This is how Father Zosima is introduced in the book: as an elder surrounded by disciples, weak and strong, who are only too eager to listen to his famous adages. Zosima made alive the “rule of faith” (kanon tēs pisteōs) in Jesus. Dostoevsky’s poetic approach is genuinely cathartic. Ready-made answers are nowhere to be found. With Alyosha and Zosima, as with Anthony the Great in the famous apophtegmata, one discovers the importance of limiting the arrogance of the all-knowing members of the European intelligentsia. Often, Dostoevsky thought, public intellectuals are unable to grasp the horizon of intelligibility which reveals the divine Word.
Dostoevsky’s poetics remind us that man cannot grasp the ultimate rationality of the Divine Being. Along with the ancient Greek poets, Dostoevsky acknowledges the tragic battle raised by the conflict between human freedom and cosmic necessity. And yet, liberty prevails. It was Adam, and not God, who chose death instead of life. Evil is a distortion of the primal good, just as illness is the sheer absence of health. Dostoevsky looks at the juxtaposition of human agency and of demonic forces, respectively. Man, he believes, needs healing, and not merely a detached, intellectual diagnosis. Dostoevsky grounds his argument on the very texts of Christian theology, and yet he leaves room for the mystical experience of divine silence. The Russian writer tackles theodicy by recovering the meaning of Jesus’ parables, while still preserving a particular appreciation for the unknown.
Christ is the perfect image of divine beauty, in which Dostoevsky sees the promise of an answer to the universal drama of suffering. The vision of this cosmic figure of Christ is contrasted by the figure of the Grand Inquisitor (described at length by Ivan Karamazov). The Cardinal of Seville does not want to recognize the infinite power of Christ’s revelation: “You have no right to add anything to what you already said once.” This statement operates a radical refutation of orthodox Christology, which sees the person of Jesus as being equally human and divine. The Grand Inquisitor has a legalist, totalitarian approach, trying to provide our fallen humanity with some very simplistic formula for happiness. By denouncing the reduction of living Christianity to an institution obsessed with the abuse of power, Dostoevsky has met Nietzsche’s concerns.
Against the Grand Inquisitor’s vision of religion, Alyosha brings up the other perspective held by his “Pater Seraphicus,” namely Zosima. As it is well known, Dostoevsky shaped the literary character of this Russian monk in the image and likeness of Father Ambrose, who was, at the time, the abbot of Optina Monastery. As P. Travis Kroeker and Bruce Ward once observed, “Although freedom and equality in Zosima’s Christian understanding might find their initial realization in the monastic community, Dostoevsky does not envisage this community as a spiritual elite separate from a hopelessly corrupt world; monasticism is to function, rather, as a leavening force within the world, working toward the latter’s transformation.”