Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Russian Christ

A few years ago I was asked to assist a non-Orthodox student writing a senior thesis on the connection between Orthodoxy and Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. We exchanged a number of emails and met face-to-face once. Below is one of our written dialogs; the sections in italics are my words, those in plain font his. I reproduce the exchange as written, and therefore apologize for parts that may be a bit cryptic.


What is the actual object of this study: to understand Dostoevsky or to understand Orthodoxy? Is the primary objective to understand Dostoevsky through the prism of Orthodoxy, or to understand Orthodoxy through the prism of Dostoevsky’s works? One faces an immediate hermeneutical problem: are we reading Dostoevsky as theology or as literature? That is, is the objective to compare Dostoevsky’s ideas with normative Orthodoxy on the level of doctrine, or to give an “Orthodox” reading of Dostoevsky as literature? If one is comparing Dostoevsky’s ideas with normative Orthodoxy on the level of doctrine, then points of divergence are immediately visible: Hackel examins many of these. Dostoevsky was not, and never claimed to be, a theologian; the roots of his thought are to located much more within the tradition of Russian religious philosophy (e.g., Soloviev) and within currents of European literature (e.g., Victor Hugo) than within the tradition of the Orthodox Church (as expressed, for instance, in patristic, liturgical, devotional and doctrinal works). If one reads Dostoevsky as literature and overlooks many of the surface differences between Dostoevsky’s writings and Orthodox Christian doctrine, reading his works not as theological treatises but rather as works of imaginative literature, then some deeper connections emerge, especially on themes relating to redemptive suffering and compassionate love. A case in point would be Myshkin’s speeches about the “Russian Christ” in The Idiot: taken literally, this is incompatible with Christianity; taken as a literary statement, it can interpreted more liberally. What sources are being used? If one is comparing Dostoevsky’s thought to Orthodoxy, what does one take as the criterion of normative Orthodoxy? (For that matter, how can one determine what Dostoevsky’s thought really is?) If one is studying how Orthodox thinkers have read him as literature, what sources is one using? Very little criticism of either variety exists in English, and even there one will find a variety of approaches and conclusions.

1. How do you feel Zosima’s this idea of boundless, inexhaustible love relates to Russian Orthodoxy?

On a doctrinal level there is nothing unique about “Russian Orthodoxy” as vis-à-vis other local Orthodox Churches (e.g., Greek Orthodoxy, Serbian Orthodoxy, etc.)

i. Is it something only God can have?

God alone has this love by nature, but it can be acquired by man by grace. We are called to share all God’s attributes, to become all that God is, without becoming God Himself. Some contemporary Orthodox theologians, especially John Romanides and his “school,” speak of man’s goal in the Christian life as turning away from egocentric, limited, conditional love and towards an unconditional love of all. See also St. Isaac the Syrian.

ii. How do you feel about the idea that people can buy the whole world with love, redeeming not only their own sins, but also those of other people?

What does it mean to “buy the whole world with love”? Christ alone can redeem, although we can share with others the same love that God shares with us.

iii. How does this idea of self-redemption, and even redemption of others, fit in the Orthodox tradition?

Again, Christ alone is the Redeemer; there is no place for self-redemption or, strictly speaking, for redeeming others. God and man cooperate in man’s salvation, but man’s own efforts can serve only to make him a worthy vessel for God’s grace.

2. How do you feel that Zosima’s healings fit within the religion?

See Jean-Claude Larchet, “The Theology of Illness,” esp. part three. Christ Himself is the one Physician, but all those who have put on Christ can extend this healing ministry to others?

i. And why would other monks criticize him for the same?

The monk who objects on p. 55 is likely either suspicious of Zosima’s sanctity, thinking that his boldness is an act of pride, indicating that he has fallen into spiritual deception (prelest). In other sections of the book, Ferapont represents the antithesis of Zosima, whose interest is only in external asceticism, to the exclusion of inner prayer.

3. Zosima claims that “people are created for happiness” (55) and that if people are completely happy, they have fulfilled God’s commandments. How closely does this idea relate to Russian Orthodox doctrine?

Again, “Russian Orthodox doctrine” is a misnomer: there is only Orthodox doctrine; it is Orthodoxy of doctrine and union of prayer and Eucharist that unite the Orthodox Churches. We are all called towards happiness in the sense of eternal blessedness, eternal communion with God – which is quite different from a sense of earthly happiness or contentment. Zosima’s statement that “he who is completely happy can at once be deemed worthy of saying to himself: ‘I have fulfilled God’s commandment on this earth.’ All the righteous, all the saints, all the holy martyrs were happy” is inconsistent with Orthodox tradition. One will not find in the either patristic or hagiographical writings such a statement of accomplishment: the saints recognized that each day was a new beginning, that repentance was something that needs continual renewal. There is a story from the desert fathers of a monk, highly respected by all his brethren who, on his deathbed, confessed that he had not yet begun to repent.

4. How do Zosima’s ideas on the relationship between church and state and ecclesiastical and governmental courts reflect the Orthodox tradition ?

The classical model of church state relations (a thoroughly anachronistic term) within the Orthodox tradition is that of Byzantine symphonia or harmony between Church and government, and Patriarch and Emperor. This model was held, at least in principle, by Russian rulers under Peter the Great, who undertook a vast project of secularization. This question is not, strictly speaking, a doctrinal one. Zosima’s idea of punishment by excommunication is an idealistic one: one rather doubts that the average criminal would care. In a very real way, however, such discipline already exists within the Church.

5. He repeatedly suggests that all people are guilty for all people’s sins. By making ourselves guilty before and for all people, he claims we are able to have paradise on earth. How do you view this idea that we are guilty for each other’s sins?

One can speak of the consubstantiality of mankind (i.e., we are share the same substance or nature); moreover, all of our actions affect others in unseen ways – none of us are truly “individuals.” One can also speak of a “generational” sin by which the sinfulness of man accumulates and is passed down in increasing measure from generation to generation. But this is a far cry from claiming universal guilt or claiming that everyone is responsible for the sins of all others.

6. If there is another area or point you feel is critical to a proper understanding of Zosima’s relationship to Russian Orthodoxy, please explain. Feel free to include as many or as few areas as you would like.

In order to understand Dostoevsky’s portrayal of Zosima, I’d suggest following three lines of inquiry: first, studying Dostoevsky’s literary style, his manner of narrative, asking how Zosima functions as a literary device (see, for instance Bakhtin’s “Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics”); second, studying the roots of Dostoevsky’s thought by placing him in his historical context and considering his philosophical and literary influences (e.g., Soloviev, Fedotov, and other Russian religious philosophers, for which see Alexander Schmemann, “Ultimate Questions: An Anthology of Modern Russian Religious Thought,” and Paul Valliere, “Modern Russian Theology – Bukharev, Soloviev, Bulgakov: Orthodox Theology in a New Key”); third, by studying the Orthodox tradition that Dostoevsky was attempting to portray, especially modern Russian Orthodox monasticism and the institution of Eldership (see handouts), as well as basic Orthodox Church history (Alexander Schmemann, “The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy”) and theology (Vladimir Lossky, “The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church”).


Maximus Daniel said...

not to completely detract from this wonderful exchange, but you mentioned Jean-Claude Larchet, is that book worth the buy?

thanks Felix.

Felix Culpa said...

Absolutely. J-C Larchet is one of the best Orthodox theologians writing today. So far two of his books have been published in English translation: "The Theology of Illness" and "Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing: Teachings of the Early Christian East." The third and largest volume of this trilogy, on spiritual illness, has not yet appeared in English.

His greatest work is his book on St Maximus the Confessor which, to my knowledge, exists in French and Russian.