Radical Theology and the Death of God by Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton
Thomas J.J. Altizer is a native of Charleston, West Virginia. He attended St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland, and received his degrees of A.B., A.M., and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. He was Associate Professor of Bible and Religion at Emory University, Atlanta Georgia. William Hamilton is a graduate of Oberlin and Union Theological School. He received his Ph.D. degree from St. Andrews in Scotland in 1953. He is Professor and Dean at the College of Arts and Sciences, Oregon State University, in Portland. Published by The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. A Subsidiary of Howard W. Sams & Co. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Banished from the Land of Unity by William Hamilton
Dostoevsky’s Religious Vision Through the Eyes of Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov
"In the presence of God, Dostoevsky remains banished from the land of unity." (Stefan Zweig, "Dostoevsky" in Master Builders.)
"But it is just in that cold, abominable half despair, half belief, in that conscious burying oneself alive for grief in the underworld for forty years, in that acutely recognized and yet partly doubtful hopelessness of one’s position, in that hell of unsatisfied desires turned inward, in that fever of oscillation, of resolutions determined for ever and repented of again a minute later -- that the saviour of that strange enjoyment of which I have spoken lies." (Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground.)
The Dostoevsky of The Brothers Karamazov has revealed many faces to the critics. To a Roman Catholic like Romano Guardini, he is one who describes the disintegration of man when he departs from the natural tradition of nation and church. To an Orthodox like Nicholas Berdyaev or V. Ivanov, he is a spokesman for human freedom and a prophet of a new Christianity, transcending both Roman Catholic and Protestant distortions. By the Protestant critic he has mainly been valued as the supreme analyst of our cultural despair, particularly that despair that is inevitable when man turns way from God. A European intellectual like Hermann Hesse reads the novel as a prediction of the downfall of Europe: law is at an end, chaos is at hand, the Karamazov man is taking command. (Cf. V. Ivanov, Freedom and the Tragic Life, a study of Dostoevsky, Noonday Press, 1957. Nathan Scott’s excellent essay, "Dostoevski -- Tragedian of the Modern Excursion into Unbelief," chap. 7 in The Tragic Vision and the Christian Faith, Association Press, 1958. Nicholas Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, Living Age books, 1957. Also Eduard Thurneysen, Dostojewski, Kaiser Verlag, Munehen, 1930 (E. T. John Knox Press, 1906), an extreme and verbose but illuminating study of Dostoevsky as a forerunner of the theology of crises. In Sight of Chaos, translated by S. Hudson, Verlag Seldwyla, Zurich, 1923, p. 14.) Sigmund Freud, while numbering the man Dostoevsky among the criminals, has called The Brothers Karamazov the greatest novel ever written, and the Grand Inquisitor legend one of the artistic pinnacles of the Western world. None of us, apparently, can claim to see Dostoevsky as a whole, so perhaps Andrá Gide was right when he wrote:
"Dostoevsky remains ever the man of whom there is no way to make use! He is of the stuff which displeases every party"
The task of this essay is to discover what we can about Dostoevsky’s own religious vision from a study of The Brothers Karamazov. We will take for granted his uncanny insight into our cultural disintegration, adding that this does not exhaust his theological significance. No one can better teach us what our despair is like. But can he teach us how to believe or how to live?
The theme or problem of the novel is the existence of God, though the problem so defined is not identical with the plot. The plot turns on the rivalry between Dmitry and his father for the favors of Grushenka, with the murder of old Karamazov forming the climax. Dmitry is falsely accused, but he accepts his suffering and is changed by it. Smerdyakov, the true murderer and a follower of what he takes to be Ivan’s ideas, hangs himself. Ivan partly comes to see that he is the true murderer, collapses under the strain, and may or may not be healed at the end.
The plot begins to fit into the problem as soon as we note that both the literary and theological center of the book lies in the character of the three (legitimate) Karamazov sons, Ivan, Dmitry, Alyosha, and their relationship to the death of their father. The three brothers, taken together, are a portrait both of Russian man and of Dostoevsky himself: what he knew he was and what he hoped to become. He is, indeed, The Brothers Karamazov.
This can be established by noting the setting of the novel in Dostoevsky’s own life. On May 16, 1878, he lost his two-year-old son, Alexey, after an epileptic attack. Later, the hero of the novel was to bear the boy’s name. Dostoevsky was in despair and hungered for religious consolation. His wife urged him to visit a famous monastery, and late in June he did so, accompanied by Vladimir Solovyev, who may have been a source for both the character and the ideas of Alyosha. He went in search of faith, but the evidence is that he did not receive the consolation he expected. There was no one in the real monastery faintly resembling the saintly Zossima.
But the journey that really set the novel in motion seems to have been one taken the year before, in June 1877, when he visited some property once owned by his father. This return to a familiar place of his past brought not only his childhood but his whole life before him. Here it was that his father had been murdered; here it was that Dostoevsky himself had probably raped a young girl, many years before. It is not arbitrary, therefore, to see the novel that grew from these two journeys as in part an attempt at self-analysis.
If it is, we can understand why there is so much about the special character of the Karamazovs as a family. The family as a whole is marked by unique traits: shame and self-pity (p 46), (Page references in the text of the essay refer to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel translated by David Magarshack.) sensuality (pp. 89, 90, 824), unbeliefs. Even Alyosha confesses several times that he too is a Karamazov (pp. 254, 257) and once that he does not believe in God (p. 257).
The similarities between the brothers must be carefully observed before we can trust ourselves to note the obvious differences. All the brothers, in one way or another, desire the death of their father: "who does not desire the death of his father," Ivan had once cried out. And each of the brothers is partly guilty of his father’s death: Ivan most of all because he did not prevent the murder which he knew was to happen, and because his own "creation" Smerdyakov actually did the deed; Dmitry, because he wished for his father’s death; Alyosha, because he was falsely detached from the world and did not use the new courage derived from his conversion to prevent the disaster.
Dmitry is perhaps the truest external portrait of Dostoevsky: noble but uncontrolled, rake and trouble-maker. This is the Dostoevsky who was the compulsive gambler, complaining of his poverty. Dmitry’s love of the prostitute Grushenka reminds us of Dostoevsky’s own attraction to Suslova. But Dmitry was the son of old Karamazov’s first wife; Ivan and Alyosha were sons of the second. We may conclude that if Dmitry is more externally related to Dostoevsky, the real inner tension in Dostoevsky is that symbolized by Ivan and Alyosha. The novel as a study in Dostoevsky’s struggle with God has its focus in the tension between Ivan and Alyosha.
But this is not just a tension between Alyosha as believer and Ivan as unbeliever. Each of the brothers is himself a divided man. There is a kind of God in Ivan’s heart, for Ivan cannot be described as an unbeliever at all. He accepts God but rejects his world. There is a God in Dmitry’s heart for all his confusion (pp. 141, 430, 485, 694-95, 700-01, 822); and there is unbelief in gentle Alyosha (pp. 88-90, 125). Each of the brothers represents the sensuality of the Karamazovs looking for the new man to be born. "I’m the same as you," Alyosha once said to Dmitry. "The steps are the same -- I’m on the lowest one, and you’re above, somewhere on the thirteenth. It’s one and the same thing" (p. 125).
Each of the brothers, then (we are not including the "brother" who was the actual murderer) participates in the death of the father. Does the death of the father here stand for the death of the Father, the death of God? Can we then say that Dostoevsky identifies the plot (the story of the murder) with the theme (the problem of God) by having both speak of the death of the Father? All the brothers, therefore, participate in the death of God. How can one return to the Father when he is dead? This is Dostoevsky’s real religious problem in this novel. It is not the actual emptiness of man’s life but the possible emptiness of the heavens that really terrifies Dostoevsky.
Dmitry once said to Alyosha: "Don’t think that I’m just a boor of an officer who does nothing but drink brandy and leads a life of lust and depravity . . . I scarcely think of anything but of this degraded man" (p. 122). Of concrete suffering man, he means. Dmitry is of course a sensualist, without discipline or restraint. But like many sensualists he has a genuine sensitivity, especially to the suffering of the innocent. He is rough and uneducated, but he has a highly developed sense of pity and honor. He is coarse and crude, full of compassion and longing. His dream-vision of the starving child will never leave him; his joyful willingness to accept his conviction, even though he is innocent of the crime, attests to a real "conversion." He will wipe away the sufferings of Russia by suffering himself for a crime he did not commit (p. 898). He rejects, at the end, both suicide and cynicism, and even in the mines to which he is to be sent, he sees that God will be present. "If they banish God from the earth," he cries, "we shall need him under the earth! . . . And then shall we, the men beneath the ground, sing from the bowels of the earth our tragic hymn to God, in whom there is gladness!" (pp. 694-5). This earth knows neither God nor human brotherhood; but both God and brotherhood will be affirmed from the underground. In this way Zossima’s vision of a united humanity will be achieved, and we can understand why, early in the novel, the elder so mysteriously bowed before the troubled Dmitry.
This is a fascinating and moving eschatological vision, but it is not Christian. The basis for the new unity between man and God in suffering is an identification with Mother Earth. Dmitry is Demeter, the earth-god, and his religious vision is a pagan one. Notice the fragment from Schiller that is to be the song of the new underground man:
That from the worst unto the better
Thus Dmitry’s Karamazov-sensuality is transformed into a new and more spiritual form. But even in his conversion he is still a Karamazov. Yet, this is a real conversion. The final note is one of hope, and Zossima’s words find real fruition in him. But it is a conversion to the universal humanism and optimism of Schiller. It is a conversion to the earth, and perhaps to a mystical vision of a united nation, but not to the Christian God.
The faith of Ivan and Alyosha is a more complicated problem. We will have occasion later to be reminded of Dmitry’s vision, for Alyosha’s "conversion" will prove to be essentially the same. And we will conclude that Dostoevsky did in fact believe that he had broken through his own unbelief. He did think that he had gone beyond the death of God. He found what he called God and Christ. But what he found was a God who behaved very much like a Karamazov; and his Christ was the vague figure of Ivan’s distorted Grand Inquisitor legend.
Ivan, we are told again and again by commentators, is a figure of atheism and unbelief. His life and ideas are signs of what happens when the death of God is taken seriously. Autam Yarmolinsky reminds us of the sense in which Ivan may be seen as Dostoevsky himself.
There can be small doubt as to the identification of the novelist with Ivan Karamazov. . . . Ivan has Dostoevsky’s lust for life, his acute sense of evil, his capacity for cruelty to others --particularly those he loved -- and toward himself, and that duality Dostoevsky recognized to be his own, a source of perpetual strength and perverse pleasure. Was it true that when he had Ivan say that he could not understand how it was possible for a man to love his neighbor, he was describing precisely his own sentiments?
To Berdyaev it is obvious why Ivan cannot love his neighbor: he has rejected God’s existence. It is impossible to love man apart from God, Berdyaev asserts. "Outside of the Christian conception, love is an illusion and a lie." This conclusion seems both silly and false, but apart from that, Berdyaev’s whole point is based on a faulty reading of the evidence. Ivan is not unable to love his neighbor, and Ivan is not a simple atheist or unbeliever. Doubtless Dostoevsky did put much of himself into Ivan, but not into an unbelieving Ivan. He put himself rather into an Ivan with an overwhelming compassion and love for the world, and into an Ivan who "accepted" God.
There are two ways of reading the struggle of Ivan: one existential or personal, the other theological. The literary critics usually stress the first, and it is partly correct. Ivan has the Karamazov vitality and lust for life, and he is also the man of reason bent on understanding the life he is living. He says,
I’ve asked myself many times: is there in the world any despair that would overcome this frenzied and, perhaps, indecent thirst for life in me, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, perhaps, there isn’t. . . . However much I may disbelieve in the order of things, I still love the sticky little leaves that open up in the spring, I love the blue sky. . . . It’s not a matter of intellect or logic. You love it all with your inside, with your belly (pp. 268-69) .
The warmth of his love and the coldness of his mind give Ivan two different answers to the problem of the freedom of the will. His mind affirms that man is free. His "poem" about the Grand Inquisitor tells us this; and this freedom is what finally leads him to rebel against God. But Ivan’s actions convince him that there is no freedom, that all men are fated to be parricides, that no one can escape the curse. So man’s denial of God is not a free choice, it is a mysterious and fateful necessity.
We can see this tension as we trace Ivan’s actions just after the murder of his father. He had actually contemplated murder, but then he had suddenly left for Moscow. When he hears of the murder he returns home, learns who the murderer really was, and becomes more and more oppressed by his own guilt in the months before the trial. He realizes finally that he did in fact murder his father, thus confirming Zossima’s words about our responsibility for all men. This insight is a victory for his conception of freedom, and he resolves to make a full confession at the trial. Just before the trial, he has his dream-vision of the Devil and falls into his old confusion. Ivan falls asleep after the interview with the Devil, and Alyosha remarks that he will wake with either the light of truth or the light of hate in his heart. At the trial, however, his testimony is neither truthful nor hateful; it is confused, for he is already seriously ill with brain-fever. Ivan’s testimony convinces no one, and it leaves Dmitry worse off than before. Ivan tried to acknowledge his responsibility for the crime, but was either unwilling or unable to pay the price for his involvement in suffering and humility.
Is Ivan’s future one of salvation and hope, as Dmitry’s apparently is? We must say yes, even though we know nothing of Ivan beyond his mental illness. But Alyosha had pointed out that Ivan’s illness was not merely confusion, but a partial sign of hope. Alyosha remarked that Ivan’s decision to confess and to try to help his unjustly accused brother was a decision for virtue by a man who did not believe in virtue. In Alyosha’s words, we can detect the possibility of as real a hope for Ivan as there is for Dmitry: "he has served something he does not believe in." God, in whom Ivan did not naturally believe, gained a hold over his heart; and yet, Alyosha remarks, his heart still refused to give in (p. 771).(And, as Thurneysen says, "even when one is in hell, one can be forgiven," op. cit., p. 61. Zossima speaks a word, earlier in the novel, that may help us understand Dostoevky’s attitude to Ivan: "those who are apart from Christianity and in revolt against it are none the less still personifications of Christ in their essence, and such they will remain." Thus Ivan not merely will be, but already is, in Christ.)
So Ivan’s struggle is more than a conventional one between logic and life, between emancipated intellectualism and the unshakeable Karamazov lust. It is mainly a struggle about God. Is God dead? This is the real question that drives Ivan mad, for he cannot give a simple "yes" to it. The same question drove Nietzsche mad, and it may have very nearly driven Dostoevsky mad as well.
The struggle is not a simple one. It is set in motion by the problem of suffering and by Ivan’s confessed inability to see anything more than three dimensions to life. He refuses to affirm an over-all harmony merely to explain suffering. His terrible confession to Alyosha in the tavern is no simple atheistic indictment of religion. It is such a terrible and true picture that it has the power to threaten our most secure religious foundations.
"Well, this may surprise you, but perhaps I accept God," Ivan laughed (p. 273). "I accept God plainly and simply. But there’s this that has to be said: if God really exists and if he really has created the world, then, as we all know, he created it in accordance with the Euclidean geometry. . . . I have a Euclidean, an earthly mind, and so how can I be expected to solve problems which are not of this world? (p. 274). And so I accept God, and I accept him not only without reluctance, but what’s more, I accept his divine wisdom and purpose -- which are completely beyond our comprehension. I believe in the underlying order and meaning of life. . . . Anyway, you’d be surprised to learn, I think, that in the final result I refuse to accept this world of God’s, and though I know that it exists, I absolutely refuse to admit its existence. Please understand, it is not God that I do not accept, but the world he has created" (p. 275).
Ivan continues, and makes the same point in a different way. The sufferings of humanity in general are too vast a subject to tackle. "Perhaps," he says,
"we’d better confine ourselves to the sufferings of children" (p.277). No innocent must suffer for another, and such innocents, too! You may be surprised at me, Alyosha, for I too love little children terribly. (p. 278). Oh, all that my pitiful earthly Euclidean mind can grasp is that suffering exists, that no one is to blame, that effect follows cause, simply and directly, that everything flows and finds its level -- but then this is only Euclidean nonsense. I know that and I refuse to live by it" (p. 285). "Listen: if all have to suffer so as to buy eternal harmony by their suffering, what have the children to do with it -- tell me, please? . . . I understand solidarity in sin among men, I understand solidarity in retribution, too, but, surely, there can be no solidarity in sin with children, and if it is really true that they share their fathers’ responsibility for all their fathers’ crimes, then that truth is not, of course, of this world, and it’s incomprehensible to me" (p. 286). "I want to forgive. I want to embrace. I don’t want any more suffering. And if the sufferings of children go to make up the sum of sufferings which is necessary for the purchase of truth, then I say beforehand that the entire truth is not worth such a price. . . . I don’t want harmony. I don’t want it, out of the love I bear to mankind. . . . I’d rather remain with my suffering unavenged and my indignation unappeased, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price has been placed on harmony. We cannot afford to pay so much for admission. . . . It is not God that I do not accept, Alyosha, I merely most respectfully return him the ticket" (p. 287) .
Alyosha can only reply, softly, "this is rebellion." And of course it is. But it is a rebellion that has a strange and poignant love at the center of it. Albert Camus, in The Rebel, had this insight which makes his interpretation of Ivan much clearer than many of our Christian ones.
Then we understand that rebellion cannot exist without a strange form of love. Those who find no rest in God or in history are condemned to live for those who, like themselves, cannot live: in fact, for the humiliated. The most pure form of the movement of rebellion is thus crowned with the heart-rending cry of Karamazov: if all are not saved, what good is the salvation of one only?
In this conversation between Ivan and Alyosha, we are in quite a different world from that suggested by Ivan’s hypothesis as it is reported in the novel from time to time: "if God does not exist, then everything is permitted." Much of the critical discussion about Ivan’s religious views assumes that this declaration is at the center of his thought. But this hypothetical statement is interesting because Dostoevsky never has Ivan make it directly. It is mentioned several times, but only by someone else who has heard Ivan state it. Miusov and Rakitin report it; Smerdyakov suggests that he has also learned it from Ivan. In the dream-vision (p. 763), the Devil speaks of the mangod who will make his appearance after the idea of God is destroyed, but this has the effect of suggesting that Ivan rejects the idea. For though Ivan saw that the Devil was a part of himself, he was only the vulgar and stupid part. Ivan never seriously or directly affirms this idea himself. Indeed, only once does he ever directly declare his disbelief in God, and that is in the somewhat playful discussion over brandy with his father.
In Ivan’s confession to Alyosha, God is not dead, he is "accepted." "Everything is permitted if God does not exist," then, seems rather to be a mask that Ivan hides behind. It is a statement he enjoys making at parties, but his serious problem is not the non-existence of God at all. As a matter of fact, the existence of God gives Ivan far more agony than his nonexistence ever could. This is not unbelief or atheism, it is a testing of God on the basis of a standard of justice. And God fails the test. If God exists, he cries out, I will still reject his world, for it is unjust that so much pain and suffering should be necessary. What Ivan really rejects, Camus points out, is
the profound relationship, introduced by Christianity, between suffering and truth. Ivan’s most profound utterance, the one which opens the deepest chasms beneath the rebel’s feet, is his even if: "I would persist in my indignation, even if I were wrong.
Indeed, the burden of the passage is just that: God does exist, but Ivan returns to him the ticket of admission, he rejects his world. In one sense, Ivan’s rebellion is a true one, since he protests in the name of something. He is no nihilist. He protests in the name of the suffering of children. In another sense, Ivan does not have the power to carry this authentic rebellion out; for when it comes to the test at the trial, he cannot make himself comprehensible. His inability at the trial to admit his involvement in the death of his father, to carry out the logic of his true rebellion, is caused by the very mental anguish the true rebellion itself has brought on. Thus Camus’description of Ivan’s rebellion as nihilistic and false is only partly true. In principle, Ivan does rebel against God on behalf of the suffering of children. He thus meets Camus’ test of a true rebel as one who knows what he rebels on behalf of as well as what he rebels against.
Dostoevsky, through Ivan, faced a problem that modern Christian thought has tended to avoid: the suffering of children. So he (Ivan, and Dostoevsky too?) accepts God and refuses to believe in him or his world. Ivan persists in his rebellion, and is driven partly mad by it. Is this an inevitable fate for those who cannot break through their rebellion? If God had not spoken out of the whirlwind, would not Job himself have gone mad?
Ivan’s struggle was not merely one between two psychological dispositions: logic and thirst for life. It was a theological struggle. It was not that he decided to deny God and choose man and his freedom, (This is how Berdyaev reads Ivan, and he is prompted to describe Ivan’s brain-fever as the necessary result of choosing freedom without God. The divided self portrayed in the interview with the Devil is what, according to Berdyaev, comes to all men who try to choose man and his freedom without choosing God. But Ivan does not reject God, he "chooses" him, he accepts him.) but that he wanted to be a theologian without a theodicy. Karl Barth’s Romans is a similar attempt. Ivan’s partly failed and partly succeeded. It failed in that he was driven into what Dostoevsky calls "brain-fever," and thus became unable to save Dmitry at the trial. But it succeeded too, for it led him, at least for a moment, to accept responsibility for his father’s death. Ivan is a man in whom belief and rebellion are fatefully conjoined. In the interview with the Devil, Ivan says: "you’re the embodiment of myself, but only of one side of me" (p. 749). A moment later, he cries out: "you’re stupid and vulgar" (p. 750). To be able to say this is not to be wholly mad or wholly unbelieving. Rebellion and belief stand together in Ivan as in his creator. Ivan asks the Devil if God exists. The Devil replies: "My dear fellow, I really don’t know" (p. 755). Ivan replies, you don’t know, even though you see him? And then, with a kind of triumph: "You are I, you are I and nothing more! You are rubbish. You are my fancy!" (p. 756). A few pages later there are some words of the Devil, whom Ivan has identified with himself, that may be as clear an insight into Ivan’s actual faith as we have.
I keep you dangling between belief and disbelief by turns, and I don’t mind admitting that I have a reason for it. It’s the new method, sir. For when you lose your faith in me completely, you will at once begin assuring me to my face that I’m not a dream, but do really exist. (p. 759)
To examine Ivan’s poem about the Grand Inquisitor is to find the same mixture of perversion and insight, rebellion and belief.(Dostoevsky has a special meaning for the word atheist that does perhaps fit Ivan. In a fragment from The Possessed that did not appear in the final draft, but which has been published recently under the title Stavrogin’s Confession, the monk Tikhon says: "Complete atheism is more respectable than worldly indifference . . . . A complete atheist stands on the last rung but one before absolute faith [he may or may not step higher], but an indifferent man has no longer any faith at all, nothing but an ugly fear, and that only on rare occasions, if he is a sentimental man." This is acute, and it also looks like a piece of both self-description and self-defense on Dostoevsky’s part. An atheist in Zossima’s and Tikhon’s sense, then, Ivan perhaps is; and Dostoevsky as well: passionately concerned, a step away from absolute faith, never confident about getting there, usually sure he never will. Thurneysen distinguishes between the true and the demonic atheist in Ivan: the first sees through the dishonesty of most theodicies and sees the godlessness of most religion; the second exalts man into the place of God. [Op. cit., p. 53.] If this is the kind of atheism Dostoevsky finds in himself, we can understand Père De Lubac’s remark that "anyone whose chief desire is for reassurance will not take Dostoevsky as his confidant." See H. De Lubac, The Drama of Atheist Humanism, part III, "Dostoevsky as Prophet," Sheed and Ward, London, 1949, p. 179.) The legend of the Grand Inquisitor is often taken as the spiritual center of the novel. It may be, but it is also the most difficult part of the novel to get clear. Whose side is Ivan on? Whose side is Dostoevsky on? What is the relation of Ivan’s Christ to the Christ of the Christian faith? Does Ivan take this "stupid poem of a stupid student," as he calls it, seriously? Are we meant to? Or should we conclude that this is a piece of imaginative literature and therefore be content to allow it to remain in the limbo of ambiguous works that illuminate and excite without being understood?
Commentators all have their axes to grind. Roman Catholics (like Guardini) assure us that we need not take Dostoevsky’s anti-Roman bias seriously, and that we must interpret him by laws he was not fully conscious of. We are often told by others that the legend is a prophetic warning against political totalitarianisms. Berdyaev tells us that this portrait of Christ as absolute freedom is authentically Christian and our absolute model. For Eduard Thurneysen the legend is an analysis of how man can expect no earthly or spiritual security in this life. He has only the promise that God will be present to him in his insecurity. Of course, he says, the burden of freedom is too great for man. Of course man must reject that God who can be too easily grasped by miracle. Of course man wants "to believe in a God that is familiar, comprehensible, and testable." The true God is beyond all human need and ability, and thus Dostoevsky is portrayed as a forerunner of Barth.
So, reeling from all this good advice, we reread the legend; our love for the Christ moves into dissatisfaction and bewilderment. Our rejection of the Inquisitor becomes modified and nearly transformed into affection as we discover that his analysis of man’s fear of freedom is in line with that of the latest psychologists and sociologists, and that his doctrine of man partakes of today’s fashionable pessimism.
I claim that the message of the legend is deeply unclear and finally impossible to discover because Ivan did not know himself clearly, and because Dostoevsky did not either. Perhaps the legend was written to gain clarity, but the mixture of rebellion and belief that wrote it is the very mixture that comes out of it as we read it today. We rebel at and believe the cardinal; we rebel at and believe this Christ.
D. H. Lawrence in an interesting essay "The Grand Inquisitor by F. M. Dostoevsky" appearing in a collection of his papers, Phoenix, describes Middleton Murry remarking to him that the whole clue to Dostoevsky is in the Grand Inquisitor story. Lawrence tells us he replied: "Why? It seems to me just rubbish." He goes on to say that the whole passage seems to him just a cynical pose, a piece of showing off. He adds that it is also a final and unanswerable indictment of Christ, "a deadly, devastating summing-up, unanswerable because borne out by the long experience of humanity. It is reality versus illusion, and the illusion was Jesus’, while time itself retorts with the reality."
The illusion of Jesus was his estimate of man, Lawrence claims. It is not diabolical to deny human perfectibility, he notes. The church has always denied it, at least until the Enlightenment. Man has always needed mystery, miracle and authority, and always will. It is not weakness to need these; Jesus himself offered them:
And if Jesus cast aside miracle in the Temptation, still there is miracle again in the Gospels. And if Jesus refused the earthly bread, still he said: "In my Father’s house are many mansions." And for authority: "Why call ye me Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?" (p. 288)
Lawrence does not see, by noting that Jesus in the gospels does not withhold miracle, mystery and authority, that he has questioned the validity of Dostoevsky’s picture of Jesus. He continues to claim that Dostoevsky has demonstrated the irrelevance of Jesus as he really is. Most men, Lawrence claims,
cannot choose between good and evil, because it is so extremely difficult to know which is which, especially in crucial cases: and . . . cannot see the difference between life-values and money-values: they can only see money-values, even nice simple people who live by the life-values, kind and natural, yet can only estimate value in terms of money. (p. 290)
Jesus finally fails, Lawrence goes on, because his demand of freedom is too difficult for man. Christianity is the true ideal, but it is impossible because it puts greater burdens on man than he is able to bear. The Grand Inquisitor has discovered that men must be loved more tolerantly than Jesus loved them, for what is, not for what ought to be. Jesus loved mankind, Lawrence says -- following Dostoevsky carefully -- for what it Ought to be, free and limitless. The Inquisitor loved it for what it is, with all its limitations. And the Inquisitor, rightly for Lawrence, contends that his is the kinder love.
There is a good case to be made for Lawrence’s objection to Dostoevsky’s Jesus. There may well be an element of forgiveness in the Inquisitor’s relation to his flock that we do not find in the attitude of Dostoevsky’s Jesus. But of course, Lawrence may only have proved the irrelevance of Dostoevsky’s Jesus, and not the biblical one.
Lawrence makes a final comment that alters his whole interpretation of Christ in the legend. Up to the end of his essay, Christ is rejected because he was too pure, too irrelevant to the reality of human sin, too optimistic. But, Lawrence concludes, this Christ is converted at the end by the Inquisitor’s words, and his kiss of the old man is a kiss of acquiescence. Here Christ submits to the cardinal; he admits that his view of love is profounder than his own. The guilty savior asks to be forgiven.
Jesus kisses the Inquisitor: Thank you, you are right, wise, old man! Aloysha kisses Ivan: Thank you, brother, you are right, you take a burden off me! So why should Dostoevsky drag in Inquisitors and autos-da-fe, and Ivan wind up so morbidly suicidal. Let them be glad they’ve found the truth again. (pp. 290-9l)
This is certainly a possible interpretation of the kiss. Zossima taught Alyosha to kiss the earth, to become one with it, and this was an act of identification. Dmitry had sung a song about man’s union with Mother Earth. Alyosha, in the "conversion" scene after the death of Zossima, kisses the earth in an act that Dostoevsky intends to have decisive meaning for the youngest brother. So there is some evidence that the kiss might be an act of acquiescence.
Usually it is interpreted as a kiss of forgiveness from Christ to the saintly sinner. As Thurneysen puts this conventional view, "this is the answer which Dostoevsky . . . wants to give to man in his tremendous godlessness."
But it is more likely that something between forgiveness and acquiescence will come closest to the truth. Does not the use of the kiss in the rest of the novel suggest that Ivan means to say here that Christ admits his own involvement in the sin of the cardinal? There is ambiguity in the character of this Christ; even in him there is that old mixture of the highest and the lowest that so fascinated Dostoevsky. This is a kiss of understanding. The cardinal is man at the highest stage of historical development: unselfish, honest, wanting nothing for himself. Perhaps in this kiss we can hear the silent Christ saying something like this: "I nearly became what you are, and even so, I have made many men into what you now are. I am guilty for what you have become." If this is right, then in this kiss which is both demonic and compassionate, Christ fulfills the vision of Zossima, of which the three brothers, even at the end, possess only fragments.
Lawrence strikes wildly in many directions in his interpretation, and scores a few direct blows, but is finally either unable or unwilling to distinguish between Dostoevsky’s silent weakling and the Christ of the New Testament. Even so, he is right when he says:
As always in Dostoevsky, the amazing perspicacity is mixed with ugly perversity. Nothing is pure. His wild love for Jesus is mixed with perverse and poisonous hate of Jesus: his moral hostility to the devil is mixed with secret worship of the devil. Dostoevsky is always perverse, always impure, always an evil thinker and a marvelous seer. (p. 285)
Another original (and perverse) interpretation of the legend is that of the Roman Catholic Guardini. A Protestant is almost obliged to call part of Guardini’s interpretation perverse. Guardini denies that the legend is really speaking against authoritarian religion. Of course, Dostoevsky hated Romanism, he grants, but Guardini also grants to himself the right to interpret Dostoevsky as not really being against Rome, "in spite of himself," because he is able to see deeper levels in Dostoevsky of which he was unaware. But this is not a serious flaw. Dostoevsky has a way of tempting us to see only what we want to see, even when we look very carefully and try to see everything.
Guardini says much that is trenchant and true. The legend, he tells us, must be seen as Ivan’s elaborate justification for his own views. Since the Christ of the legend is so patently inadequate to the world, Ivan is saying, what can man do but try to find his own way? "This Christ makes Ivan right," Guardini says.(Romano Guardini, "The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor," Cross Currents, vol. iii, no. 1, Fall, 1952, p. 66. It should be noted that Guardini assumes, more decisively than I do, that "if God does not exist, everything is permitted" is a fundamental part of Ivan’s intellectual equipment.) It is clear that Ivan has much in common with the Inquisitor. Ivan, like the old man, "rejects the world and wishes to tear it from the hands of God, since he made it badly, with the pretension of organizing it differently and in a superior manner than its original author."(Ibid. Thurneysen reads the whole Grand Inquisitor legend as a modern temptation of Christ by the Devil. The cardinal is the Devil; the cardinal is also Ivan; and finally, as the dream-vision proves, Ivan himself becomes the Devil, "for what is the Devil but the spirit who knows the true eternal God -- not just the man-god -- and who still rejects Him." Op. cit., p. 57. But this kind of precise identification is not what we find in the novel itself. see pp. 306, 308 of text.) Or again, and more clearly:
This false Christ makes the transformation of the real world by a true Christianity impossible and so delivers it as a prey to usurpation -- to the usurpation of Ivan. (p. 67)
Guardini assumes that Ivan believed himself to be describing the Christ that the Christian affirms and the careful nonChristian rejects. Alyosha, after all, at the close of the legend, declares to Ivan that the poem is "in praise of Jesus and not in his disparagement as -- as you wanted it to be" (p. 305). In my view, Ivan had not really made up his mind whether he himself intended praise or disparagement. But both brothers agree that the poem does in fact describe Jesus Christ.(De Lubac agrees with Alyosha, and remarks (in direct contrast to Guardini) that the poem is really a hymn of praise to Jesus: Is this the deliberate effect of consummate art? May it not, rather, be the spontaneous result of a love which, even when it has to let the adversary speak, cannot wholly restrain itself? In any case, Dostoevsky here reveals the depth of his heart. Op. cit., p. 185.)
It is right to insist that this is not the Christian picture of Christ. D. H. Lawrence has already pointed out that the rejecter of miracles still performed them, the rejecter of authority claimed it from man, and, we might add, the rejecter of mystery came proclaiming the mystery of the kingdom of God. The frail silence of Dostoevsky’s figure does not really convince us. This is a Christ who has come from nowhere and who returns nowhere. There is no God beyond him, there is no forgiveness or redemption through him. Dostoevsky’s Christ is an ikon, an ascetic who has lost touch with the real world of ordinary men. This is how Guardini makes his case:
This Christ does not have that holy relationship of love for the real world which purifies it and renews it; he is simply compassion, bearing an invitation to leave the world. This Christ is detached; we might even dare to say that he is an egotist. . . . His figure leaves an impression on us, but it is purely imaginary and leads to nothing. The disturbance that he brings gives rise to confusion and finally results in despair.(Op. cit., p. 64.)
Berdyaev, on the other hand, believes Dostoevsky’s Christ to be simply absolute freedom. He is silent because the principle of freedom cannot be expressed in words without some form of authority being suggested. Historic Christianity has never actualized this radical freedom, and therefore historic Christianity must be judged by Dostoevsky’s Christ. But it is clear to Berdyaev that the gospels support his identification of Christ and freedom.
Therein lies the radical secret of Jesus Christ, the secret of freedom. It needed an extraordinary freedom of spirit, a prodigy of free faith . . . to see God beneath the appearance of a bondsman, and when Simon Peter said to Jesus, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," he made an act of freedom.(Op. cit., p. 79. Cf. pp. 189, 204.)
But Peter’s confession is surely not adequately described as an act of freedom. In Matthew 16:17 Jesus states that it is not Peter’s freedom, not "flesh and blood," but "my Father who is in heaven" that made Peter’s words possible. Peter’s confession was not so much an act of freedom as an act of faith in response to the grace of God. Freedom is involved, and something more. Berdyaev has apparently chosen to stand with Dostoevsky’s Christ against both scripture and historic Christianity.
Dostoevsky’s Christ is the idea of freedom, and it clears the air to be able to see this. But for us this is precisely the reason why this Christ cannot be identified with Jesus Christ of the New Testament record.
In his discussion of the relation of the ultimate to the penultimate, Dietrich Bonhoeffer points to two false ethical solutions which he calls compromise and radicalism. Compromise sees what needs to be done, and in order to do it, accepts the world in all its brutality. The Grand Inquisitor stands here. Radicalism sees only the goal, and every other consideration is rejected. Dostoevsky’s Christ is here. Neither way is possible, though Dostoevsky showed us only the two: the anarchy of love, or the ruling elect giving man what he wishes. Today we know too much to be satisfied with this simple set of alternatives, but too little to coherently state a third way. The love of Christ, freely accepted by man, does make us truly free. But we also know something else. Men may do without spiritual bread; they may even do without love; but they cannot do without earthly bread.
I have been shouting "unclear" at both Dmitry and Ivan up to now, and consequently at Dostoevsky’s religious vision. Perhaps this is the shout of an earthly Euclidean mind; perhaps it is the shout of a moralist or theologian too coarse-grained to discern the limpid clarity behind the warring images. To me "unclear" means two intelligible things. Dostoevsky’s religious vision is internally unclear, unclear on its own terms. Dostoevsky does not know the way he wishes to go. Is the way Dmitry’s sensual humility --singing praises of the earthgod from the subterranean depths, or worse (if he and Grushenka made good their escape to America), from some farm in up-state New York? Or is the way of Ivan and his theological rebellion one of holding to God for fear of annihilation, but hating him and his world, and with equal passion asserting the reality of a human freedom that he denies by his quixotic behavior at the time of the trial? Unclarity in this first sense lies in the material. Then, the God of Ivan in the tavern-scene is unclear; (There are really two images of God in Ivan’s discussion with Alyosha. One is the God who explains suffering by positing an over-all unity to things; the other is the Tormentor who compels Ivan to refuse to trust in the first. The first image is dead for Ivan [and for us]. The second, Ivan’s -- and perhaps Dostoevsky’s --true God, is not dead for us for it is very similar to the God of modern theology.) the God-less Christ of the legend is unclear; the earth-god of Dmitry is unclear. None of them can be related to distinctive Christian affirmations.
Many would agree that Dostoevsky was tempted to go Ivan’s way and made Ivan’s position as persuasive to himself as he could. But it didn’t work, and in the course of the novel he rejects Ivan and gives himself to Alyosha. The youngest brother is Dostoevsky’s sole claim to be taken seriously as a religious guide.
This view may be correct, and certainly Alyosha is to be taken seriously essentially new about Alyosha’s religious vision? Or is it, too, "unclear"?
Alyosha is not a successful character from a literary point of view. In the first half of the novel, he apparently interested Dostoevsky. But at the time of the trial, he passes into the shadows, only to emerge rather awkwardly at the end. There is no convincing relationship established between Alyosha’s virtue and the world in which he moves. In one sense he has a kind of virtue or innocence. But he is also a Karamazov.
What we have here is "the earth-bound Karamazov force," as Father Paissy expressed it the other day, earth-bound, unrestrained and crude. I don’t even know whether the spirit of God moves over that force. All I know is that I, too, am a Karamazov. I a monk, a monk? Am I a monk, Lise? I believe you said I was a monk a moment ago.
Yes, I did.
And yet I don’t think I even believe in God.
You don’t believe? What’s the matter with you? Lise said softly and guardedly.
But Alyosha made no answer. There was something very mysterious and very subjective in these sudden words of his, something that he perhaps did not understand himself, but that undoubtedly worried him. (p. 257)
At this time of the crisis in Alyosha’s life, when he was trying to face the fact of the decomposition of Zossima’s corpse, Dostoevsky tells us both that Alyosha’s faith was strong and that it was unsophisticated and inadequately trained (pp. 396-97). Indeed, at this time (p. 400), Alyosha even blurted out for himself the words he had recently heard his brother say: "I haven’t taken up arms against God. . . . I simply ‘don’t accept his world.’" Again, Dostoevsky seems almost to take delight in showing that at this very time when he was filled with a universal love for all men, Alyosha nevertheless forgot to visit Dmitry who needed him, and forgot to take the money to Ilyusha’s father as he had promised to do (pp. 397-98).
Just before his death, Zossima had been speaking to Alyosha, and part of his teaching at that time is a clue to what is to follow. "Fall upon the earth," Zossima had said,
when left alone, and kiss it, drench it with your tears, and the earth will bring forth fruit from your tears even if no one has heard or seen you in your loneliness. . . . Kiss the earth ceaselessly and love it insatiably. Love all men, love everything, seek that rapture and ecstasy. Water the earth with the tears of your joy and love those tears. (pp. 378-7g)
When Zossima died, it was generally expected that his body, like the bodies of traditional holy men of the past, would be exempt from corruption. Alyosha expected this miracle to take place as a matter of course. Just before he died, Zossima had read to Alyosha the words of John 12:24, and had solemnly urged him to remember them.
Alyosha returns to the elder’s cell after his death and hears Father Paissy reading the story of the miracle at Cana. Everything seems ready for the miracle of incorruption to take place. But it does not. Dostoevsky himself describes what happens rather gently: "What happened was that an odour of corruption began to come from the coffin" (p. 387). Rakitin puts it more bluntly: "his elder is stinking the place up."
Dostoevsky does not consider the corruption of the body a repulsive thing. It is the ultimate reality, and this event alone is able to penetrate Alyosha’s innocence. All mortal men, even holy men, do in fact return to the earth. Alyosha does not yet see why his innocence had to be shattered. He seeks out Grushenka, hoping, he says, to find a "wicked soul"; but he finds instead a "loving heart" that lifts him out of his depths. He returns to the cell and prays.
Dostoevsky is preparing us for a miracle of grace, but he suggests that a true miracle is not one that transforms the remains of a saint who has done his work, but one which touches a young man about to enter the world. Alyosha had assumed that the elder’s final words meant that he, Zossima, would rise again from the earth in a literal sense. Dostoevsky tells us that Zossima is about to rise from the earth, but in the form of Alyosha, the monk in the world. There is a kind of miracle of resurrection after all.
The biblical image associated with Alyosha’s conversion is not resurrection, however, but the first Johannine sign, the miracle at Cana -- the very passage Father Paissy had been reading over Zossima’s body just before Alyosha left the elder’s cell.
The vault of heaven, studded with softly shining stars, stretched wide and vast over him. From the zenith to the horizon the Milky Way stretched its two arms dimly across the sky. The fresh, motionless, still night enfolded the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the cathedral gleamed against the sapphire sky. The gorgeous autumn flowers in the beds near the house went to sleep till morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge into the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth came in contact with the mystery of the stars. . . . Alyosha stood, gazed, and suddenly he threw himself down flat, upon the earth.
He did not know why he was embracing it. He could not have explained to himself why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it all, but he kissed it weeping, sobbing and drenching it with his tears, and vowed frenziedly to love it, to love it for ever and ever. "Water the earth with the tears of your gladness and love those tears," it rang in his soul. What was he weeping over? Oh, he was weeping in his rapture even over those stars which were shining for him from the abyss of space and "he was not ashamed of that ecstasy." It was as though the threads from all those innumerable worlds of God met all at once in his soul, and it was trembling all over "as it came in contact with other worlds." He wanted to forgive everyone and for everything, and to beg forgiveness -- oh! not for himself, but for all men, for all and for everything, "and others are begging it for me," it echoed in his soul again. But with every moment he felt clearly and almost palpably that something firm and immovable, like the firmament itself, was entering his soul. A sort of idea was gaining an ascendancy over his mind -- and that for the rest of his life, for ever and ever. He had fallen upon the earth a weak youth, but he rose from it a resolute fighter for the rest of his life, and he realized and felt it suddenly, at the very moment of his rapture. (pp. 426-27)
Is this a Christian experience? It is a conversion, no doubt, but to what? There is a resurrection theme, but it has a pantheistic and humanistic tinge, as does the resurrection language at the end of the novel. It is a union with the earth, this much is clear. Why does Dostoevsky call this scene "Cana in Galilee," where Jesus performed the very unspiritual act of changing water into wine at a wedding-party? Berdyaev assumes that this is a Christian conversion and comments:
Thus did Dostoevsky bring man’s wanderings to a close: when he is separated from nature and earth he is cast into hell, at the end of his course he comes back to them. But there is no such return for him who is wedded to self-will and rebellion, it is possible only by way of Cana and Jesus Christ. The return is to a transfigured nature and a transfigured earth; the old nature and earth are closed to the man who has known self-will and inner division; there is no recovering a lost Eden, he must seek a new one.
This is eloquent, but irrelevant to the passage at hand, and the suggestion that the man of self-will (Ivan) is shut off from hope is clearly not what Dostoevsky says. Martin Jarrett-Kerr in his Studies in Literature and Belief also sees this scene as a Christian conversion. He cites the rites of prostration and kissing in the Orthodox liturgy, and notes the number of times the kiss is a symbol of acceptance and forgiveness in the novel: Zossima at the foot of Dmitry, Christ and the Inquisitor. Is the kiss of the earth here really forgiveness and acceptance? Dostoevsky insists in the passage that Alyosha himself does not ask for forgiveness. Why? Doesn’t he need it? Doesn’t he deserve it? What does it mean to say that Alyosha accepts the earth? Is the earth here God’s creation; is it the earth that refused to give back Zossima by means of a foolish miracle? Perhaps, but the earth is first a symbol of fertility and sensuality. Alyosha’s kiss of the earth is not so much a sacramental act uniting the physical and spiritual as it is a sign of the victory of the Karamazov strain in him: the earth-bound force, unrestrained and crude, as Father Paissy had put it. Is this not really a conversion to a spiritualized sensuality, a victory of the Karamazovs over Zossima? The child of grace will still be his father’s son, after all. We are told that Alyosha rose a resolute fighter. But a fighter for what? In the rest of the novel he is no fighter. He seems, if anything, even more ineffectual than before. Just what is the content of Alyosha’s faith? It is to be identified with Zossima’s faith, for Alyosha is intended to be a Zossima in the making and in the world, It is also doubtless to be identified with what Dostoevsky longed for but did not have. Dostoevsky was perhaps drawn to Dmitry’s way, to Ivan’s way, and to Alyosha’s way; each is the object of his desire. In any case, Alyosha’s vision proceeds from Zossima’s words about love and the earth, and especially from:
Don’t say, the power of evil, of the wicked world, is great, but we, we are guiltless. . . . We are responsible to all for all, apart from our own sins. It’s only that men don’t know it . . . .Each man is part of the single organism of all humanity, and every one of us accordingly shares the guilt for every crime, for everything that happens on earth. (p. 377)
What is most striking about Alyosha is his love of humanity, his faith in people, in all people (pp. 16, 17, 821) The new man that Dostoevsky sees emerging in Alyosha is a communal man, bound to his brothers in a new kind of community. Perhaps Alyosha’s views were suggested by the ideas of Solovyev (who published his lectures on Godmanhood in 1881), and if so, this would point to a Christian source for Zossima’s teaching and Alyosha’s vision of a new humanity. But Ivanov’s words seem more accurate. He calls Alyosha "a philanthropist of religious tendency." The community of this vision is more like the nation than the church, though there is some evidence that Dostoevsky himself longed for a transformed nation that would be merged into the national church. The first mark of this new community is the brotherhood of boys that is mentioned at the very end of the novel, banding together in loyalty to the memory of Ilyusha (pp. 910-13). But is this vision of a common humanity, confessing its solidarity in suffering and joy, really a new insight?
That there is a vision of something is clear. It is a vision that points toward the highest possible development of man on earth, through an affirmation of life, goodness and beauty. Dostoevsky once said that "beauty will save the world." This vision indeed led Dostoevsky to turn against both the new bourgeoisie and the positivists and socialists in the Russia of his day. But surely it is related only verbally to a Christian understanding of life. Philip Rahv may well be right to call this vision "little more than an anarcho-Christian version of that ‘religion of humanity’ which continued to inspire the intelligentsia throughout the nineteenth century and by which Dostoevsky himself was inspired in his youth."
The teaching of Alyosha (writes D. A. Traversi) hardly contains a word of the Incarnation. . . . It is a purely personal mysticism, often using Christian terminology, but rather sentimental and pantheistic in its force. It lays stress upon "watering the earth with your tears," but the reader is troubled by lack of feeling for the real earth of creation; Dostoevsky’s earth is merely there to be wept upon. His lack of sympathy for the sensible and the tangible lands him finally in sentimental weakness.
Is there not, once more, a fatal lack of clarity about Alyosha? What was the earth he fell upon, and what did he rise up to do? Is the new humanity which he seems to embody to be founded on Comte or on Christ? And if on Christ, whose picture of Christ? Here is how Middleton Murry in his book on Dostoevsky concludes his interpretation of the novel:
The present age is ended in suffering and gloom; from its loins springs forth the new harmony. Alyosha is a perfect being in body, and his mind is in harmony with his body’s perfection. He, the actual Alyosha, is only a symbol of what is to come. . . . This Alyosha, the resolute champion, is not a Christian. He has passed beyond the Christian revelation. . . . He may not believe in God, he may know himself for a sensualist, yet he is not confounded, for his knowledge of the great Oneness needs no belief in God for its support.
There is something odd and curious about Dostoevsky’s view of God. In the Inquisitor legend, he seems to believe in a sort of Christ figure, but one whose roots are more in popular Orthodox piety than in tradition or scripture, and, as we have seen, there is no God behind or above this Christ. The Christ of the legend comes from nowhere and goes nowhere. But if there is no God behind this Christ, there is a God for Dostoevsky. It can be described, but it is hard to relate it to the Christ, of the legend. Stefan Zweig, in his book Master Builders, says:
For Dostoevsky, God is the principle of unrest; He is the primal father of contrasts, simultaneously the affirmative and the negative. . . . Dostoevsky’s God is not the benevolent and venerable ancient depicted by the old masters, nor is he the gentle spirit. . . . He is, rather . . . not a being but a condition, a condition of tension, a process whereby the emotions are consumed, he is a fire, a flame, heating men to the point of ecstasy. He is a lash, scourging them out of their warm, calm bodies into infinity; he lures them to every excess whether of word or deed, and hurls them into the burning bush of vice. He resembles the men who are his creatures, the men who created him, for He is an insatiable God, whom no exertion can master, no thought fully grasp, no sacrifice content. He is the everlasting unattainable, the pain of pains. . . .
The ethical significance of Dostoevsky’s work is a delicate subject, for it is hard to separate what we know of the man from his teaching. Turgenev called Dostoevsky "the most evil Christian I have ever met in my life." The critic Strakhov once wrote in a letter to Tolstoy: "I cannot consider Dostoevsky either a good or happy man. He was wicked, envious, vicious, and he spent the whole of his life in emotions and irritations which would have made him pitiable, even ridiculous, had he not been so wicked and so intelligent." Andre Gide grants all this, but claims that Dostoevsky’s submission to Christ held the discordant elements in his personality together. Do we have enough evidence to decide such a matter? Does Dostoevsky overcome his own immorality, or is it merely sublimated in his artistic creations? Freud’s indictment in his essay "Dostoevsky and Parricide" is hard:
The moralist in Dostoevsky is the most readily assailable. If we rank him high as a moralist on the plea that only a man who has gone through the depths of sin can reach the highest heights of morality, we are neglecting one consideration. A moral man is one who reacts to the temptation he feels in his heart without yielding to it. The man who alternately sins, and in his remorse makes high moral demands, lays himself open to the reproach that he has made things too easy for himself. He has not achieved the most important thing in morality, renunciation, for the moral conduct of life is a practical human interest.
There is no denying Dostoevsky’s prophetic powers, but his answers are fatally confused. He bequeaths at once deep insight and inner division. Not even Zossima and Alyosha provide a clear moral guide. Out of his moral tension, he proposed a vague populism and a quietistic "sort of Buddhism," as Gide called it, that tries to love all things without facing the fact that we can only love particulars.
Dostoevsky is important because he can and does teach us how in fact we do believe, for he has understood, as only a great artist can, the struggle between belief and unbelief.
Dostoevsky began as an atheist and a revolutionary in his twenties, and before his exile into Siberia he had been a profound explorer of the underground depths of man’s nature. While in Siberia he was converted to a sort of mystical populist faith which ultimately came to be directed toward the Russian people as bearers of God, a nation-church. The twin strands of belief and unbelief were always together in him, and it seems as if he never really rid himself of either. In a letter to a friend he wrote:
As far as I am concerned, I look upon myself as a child of the age, a child of unbelief and doubt; it is probable, nay I know for certain, that I shall remain so to my dying day. I have been tortured with longing to believe -- am so, indeed, even now; and the yearning grows stronger, the more cogent the intellectual difficulties that stand in the way.
Yet, in the same letter, he continues,
And yet God sometimes sends me moments of complete serenity. It is in such moments that I have composed in my mind a profession of faith, in which everything is clear and holy. This profession of faith is very simple. This is what it is: to believe that there is nothing finer, deeper, more lovable, more reasonable, braver and more perfect than Christ; and, not only there is nothing, but, I tell myself with a jealous love, there cannot be anything. More than that: if anyone had told me that Christ is outside truth, and if it had really been established that truth is outside Christ, I should have preferred to stay with Christ rather than with truth.
Thurneysen is fully at ease with this paradoxical tension, as he of course calls it. Unbelief seems like the last word, he says, but it is not:
Something has happened, something has taken place; the questionableness of everything human has been revealed and accentuated, and the riddle of existence cries out even more tragically for its ultimate solution in God.
Beyond the cry of unbelief and the agony of human need, however, is the reality of God himself.
Therefore, the final word describing the true meaning of existence is not (in Dostoevsky) a problematic word.... What is impossible with men is possible with God. If no steps lead from us to Him, certainly steps will lead from Him to us. Revelation is being preached here. The eschatological tension becomes eschatology itself with Dostoevsky. The final word of his novel is resurrection. Above the dark abyss of humanity shines the eternal light of a great forgiveness.(Thurneysen, op. cit., p. 39. Previous citation from p. 38.)
To the theologian this suggests Barth’s Romans, and it would be nice to have Dostoevsky so neatly in our midst. But a close examination of the novel makes it impossible to believe even in this sophisticated eschatological victory for faith.
In fact Dostoevsky was both a convinced atheist and a convinced believer. It doesn’t even help much to say that he denied God and affirmed Christ, because in place of the denied God he put his own passionate Karamazov God; and, as we have seen, the Christ he affirmed is a strange and elusive combination of a principle of freedom, an ugly Russian ikon, and a suffering nation. He believed that salvation and peace come only by renunciation of the self, but he also believed that man is never closer to God than in his extremity of self-conscious despair.
The mixture is further complicated by the fact that his unbelieving side found itself preaching the need for unbelief, not out of arrogance, but out of compassion, lest all men suffer under God as he had done. Freud remarks that Dostoevsky was unable to shake himself free from faith because of his strongly developed feelings of guilt. Such feelings, Freud says, are often the unconscious basis for faith, and they were too strong in Dostoevsky to be overcome by his mind that saw the evidence against God so clearly. "God is necessary and must exist"; and, at the same time, "I know he doesn’t and cannot." This tension is almost inevitable because of the terrible transcendence of Dostoevsky’s God, too transcendent to stoop to an Incarnation, unrelated to man, approachable only by an extreme denial of nature and sense. That is why, as Traversi says, Dostoevsky’s hero-mystics are driven by their thirst for this God "into straining the boundaries of human experience, so that their ecstasy inevitably coincides with the dissolution of the personality into epileptic idiocy."
Yet, at the close of his life, while engaged in writing The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky seemed to believe that he broke through his doubt into a kind of faith. He wrote in his diary, after the first criticisms of the early installments of the novel began to appear:
The dolts have ridiculed my obscurantism and the reactionary character of my faith. These fools could not even conceive so strong a denial of God as the one to which I gave expression (in the novel). . . . The whole book is an answer to that. You might search Europe in vain for so powerful an expression of atheism. Thus it is not like a child that I believe in Christ and confess Him. My hosanna has come forth from the crucible of doubt.
It is terrible not to be able to believe Dostoevsky’s own words, at the close of his life, but the evidence of the novel does not quite bear out the claim he makes. Thus, as Stefan Zweig says:
At one and the same time he is the truest of believers and the most arrant atheist; these polar extremes are convincingly portrayed in the characters of his novels, though he himself remained unconvinced and undecided; we are shown, on the one hand, abject humility and the craving to become absorbed into the divine essence, and, on the other, the magnificent pride of being God oneself. He loves both the servant of God and the man who denies God, both Alyosha and Ivan.... His faith oscillates between Yea and Nay, the two poles of the universe. In the very presence of God, Dostoevsky remains banished from the land of unity.
But perhaps Dostoevsky’s claim and our protest are both right in their own way. The faith that comes from the crucible of doubt is certainly Alyosha, and it was he whom Dostoevsky thought to be the key to the new man and the new belief. But something has gone wrong so that Alyosha cannot be the answer. If Dostoevsky himself was unclear and vague it may be that, after all, the trouble is with us and not Dostoevsky. My objections may only mean that it is possible for us to receive only part of Dostoevsky’s religious vision today. Perhaps he seems to be "banished from the land of unity" because we are the truly banished ones.
My conclusion would be that we ought not to trust ourselves to claim that we have Dostoevsky’s final secret. But whether it be Dostoevsky’s unclarity or our blindness that makes us unable to receive Alyosha, we can all receive Ivan with a terrible kind of delight. Here is a true gift to us all, perhaps Dostoevsky’s supreme gift. Ivan’s picture of himself we immediately recognize as self-portrait; the God that is dead for him is dead for us; and his Karamazov-God of tension and terror is often the only one we are able to find.
Ivan does not tell us how to live or how to believe, but he does tell us how in fact we do believe. Is it, then, that we are fated to go the way he went? Is clarity and certain faith only an eschatological vision, the reality of which can never be enjoyed now?
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