The Book That Changed Reza Aslan's Mind About Jesus

The religious scholar from the viral Fox News interview explains how Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov taught him the difference between faith and religion.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

Doug McLean

By now, millions of people have watched FOX news host Lauren Green’s grilling of writer Reza Aslan. Last week, the clip of the interview made the Internet flare up—mostly in outcry that a news anchor would so flagrantly suggest that Muslim thinkers are more biased and agenda-driven than other (presumably white, Christian) talking heads.

Though Green’s questions received scorn, media reaction largely avoided the more substantive questions brought up by the interview and Aslan’s new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. And that’s too bad. These are lines of inquiry worth tracing: What does Jesus stand for, and who gets to decide? Who has the authority to determine what a figure of massive religious and cultural importance really “means”?

In Zealot, Aslan aligns himself with the scholars—Christian and otherwise—who argue for a clear distinction between Jesus Christ, leading man of the four Christian Gospels, and Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish peasant and itinerant leader who was crucified for insurrection in the First Century. In Aslan’s telling, Jesus was a political revolutionary who fought for social justice, championed the downtrodden, and sought actively to disrupt Rome’s dominion and bring forth a new worldview.

In Aslan’s view, the facts of Jesus of Nazareth’s biography should inform any belief system that calls itself Christian—though he acknowledges the impossibility of piecing together a full or conclusive historical record. As he acknowledges in the book’s preface, all definitive statements about Jesus are subjective and based on faith—on religious faith about the nature of the universe, or on intellectual faith in one’s interpretation of a largely undocumented history.

When I asked Aslan, an associate professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, to share a favorite passage from literature for “By Heart,” he chose a passage from The Brothers Karamazov that shaped his spiritual outlook. In an interview by phone, Aslan explained his skepticism of definitive statements about religion and why he values his highly personalized faith. We discussed the difference between faith and religion, the reasons for his conversion from Christianity to Islam, and why he’s been fascinated by the historical Jesus in his life and work.

Reza Aslan: When I was 16 years old, I read the book that has probably had the greatest influence on me—The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This book was pivotal in making me realize what I wanted to do with my life: that I wanted to write for a living, that I wanted to write about religious topics, that I wanted to help others explore the same issues I could feel Dostoevsky making me grapple with, even that young age. Really, truly, this book is the impetus for who I am.

The passage I want to discuss is one a lot of people know. It’s from the section in the book that’s sometimes referred to as “The Grand Inquisitor.” Ivan, the atheist brother, tells Alyosha, the believer, a story about Jesus coming back to earth during the time of the Inquisition. Jesus begins performing miracles, and people recognize him for who he is—and he’s arrested, of course, by the Inquisitors, who sentence him to be burned to death.

The night before his sentence, the Grand Inquisitor visits Jesus in his cell. Jesus doesn’t speak, but the Grand Inquisitor speaks to him at length about how the church doesn’t really need Jesus anymore. And that, frankly, his return at this point is just disruptive to the overall meaning of the church. In other words, the Grand Inquisitor says that the church’s mission in preaching Jesus has become more important than Jesus himself. And the great line, the quote that I really gravitated towards is this one here:

“Anyone who can appease a man’s conscience can take his freedom away from him.”

What I love about the story is that it’s become a kind of atheist manifesto, if you will. Many non-believers cite this passage as the reason why they do not believe—forgetting, by the way, that Dostoevsky himself was quite a fervent believer. But they also forget the end of the story: what happens after the Grand Inquisitor makes this huge statement, and lambastes Jesus for not speaking up for himself. Jesus simply stands up, walks up to the Grand Inquisitor, and gives him a kiss.

I think Dostoevsky is saying that we must never confuse faith with religion. We must never confuse the institutions that have arisen, these man-made institutions—and I mean that quite literally, because they’re all run by men—who have created languages to help people understand faith, with faith itself. I, as a person of faith, read the same story and did not see it as a repudiation of faith the way a lot of atheists do. I saw it as a challenge to always remember that those who claim to speak for Jesus are precisely the kind of people that Jesus fought against. What I love about the Grand Inquisitor parable—and a parable is truly what it is—is this notion that if Jesus showed up, all of a sudden, today, he would not only bear very little resemblance to who the Church says he is, his primary focus would be on challenging the very religious institutions who claim to speak for him.

I first read this book when I was a Christian: a firm, devout follower of Jesus. Someone whose impression of Jesus was wholly a result of what the church told me he was. When I read The Brothers Karamazov, and particularly this section, my eyes were opened to the notion that the Church’s conception of Jesus is inextricable from the Church’s political, religious, and economic interests—that their Jesus may not be who Jesus actually was. This rocked my world, even back then. I could sense that I was never going to be the same.

This realization instilled in me, first and foremost, a deep sense of anti-institutionalism. I have always been distrustful of institutions—particularly religious institutions, but also political institutions. Essentially, anyone who presents themselves as a gatekeeper to truth, or a gatekeeper to salvation, I am distrustful of by definition—regardless of anything that they are saying or doing. In a sense, that’s the impression I have of the historical Jesus as well—I see him as a man who challenged political authorities for no other reason except that they had set themselves up as authorities, over and above anything good or bad that they were doing. Just the notion that they were in this position of power was enough for them to be challenged, to be questioned.

This is one reason why I am not interested in any church, mosque, synagogue—any kind of organization. Because I have no interest in subsuming my beliefs and practices into what a group of men somewhere have decided I’m supposed to believe. The great Christian mystic Meister Eckhart once said “if you focus too narrowly on a single path to God, all you will ever find is the path.” I take that to heart.

I also feel that the mistakes of institutions have no bearing on the value of the faith. To me, the most unsophisticated attack on religious faith is to say that religion has been responsible for great evil in the world. Well, of course it has. It’s a man-made thing, and human beings are prone to evil acts. But to blame religion for bad things done in the name of religion is akin to blaming nationalism for fascism. Any ideology is prone to be used for good and bad, and rather than focusing on judging the actions of those performing these deeds in the name of the ideology—we, in a knee-jerk way, focus on the ideology itself.

But for me, it’s not even about the beliefs versus the institutions. It’s about the metaphors offered by a faith—the symbols with which religions speak about God. You know, you’re either a person of faith, or you’re not. You either believe that there’s something beyond the material world that you can commune with, or you don’t. If you do believe it, then it helps to have a language to help you express that ineffable experience—to yourself, and to other people. And that is all that religion is—that language.

I’m a Muslim not because I believe Islam is more correct than other religions, or that it’s more “true.” On the contrary! I’m a Muslim because the symbols and metaphors that Islam uses to talk about God and humanity, the relationship between creator and creation, are the symbols and metaphors that work best for me. That makes sense to me. They are not more valid, or more true, than the symbols of Judaism, or Christianity, say, but they just make more sense to me.

For example: There are important differences between Islam and Christianity in the metaphor for God. In Christianity, it’s the trinity. God in three forms: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The metaphor for God in Islam is tawhid, which means divine unity. The notion is that God is fundamentally indivisible. That God is, by definition, oneness. Form and substance: oneness. And as a result of that, God must be understood as inseparable from his creation. Meaning that there is no difference, there is no distance. In a sense, everything that exists only exists because it shares in the existence of God. That makes more sense to me than the metaphor of the triune God.

One of the things that’s fascinating about Jesus is that he refused to recognize the power of the Jewish authorities to define the Jewish religion for him. In this time, the priests had a monopoly on the Jewish cult. They decided who can enter the presence of God, and who could not. Which means of course that the lame, the sick, the marginalized, the outcasts, the “sinners,” were divorced from communing with God. And Jesus’ ministry was founded upon not just rejecting that idea, but claiming the absolute reverse: That the kingdom of god that he envisions is one in which the priests, the aristocracy, the wealthy, the powerful, would be removed. And in their place would be the weak, the powerless, the marginalized, and the dispossessed. This was a reversal of the social order. In other words, it’s not just about the meek inheriting the earth. It’s about the powerful disinheriting the earth.

I think that, obviously, is an enormous threat to the power-holders whose authority came from—precisely as Dostoevsky says—from their ability to appease a man’s conscience. Pay us your dues, your tithes, bring us your sacrifices, submit to our authority, and in return, we will give you salvation. And Jesus’ challenge to that idea was based on the notion that the power for salvation does not rest in any outsider’s hand: that it rests within the individual. I think that’s an idea that a lot of Christians need to remember. Those who state that salvation comes solely through the Church or belief in a set of doctrines that a bunch of men wrote many years ago are forgetting what Jesus himself said: that salvation is purely an internal matter. That you are the only one qualified to define what God is for you. No one else is qualified to make that decision for you.