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Keeping the argument open with a kiss

02 October 2008

Richard Harries on a subtle, sophisticated study of faith in the novels of Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky: passionate debates about the existence of God

Fyodor Dostoevsky: passionate debates about the existence of God

Dostoevsky: Language, faith and fiction
Rowan Williams

DOSTOEVSKY, more than any other novelist, is where religious questioners, whether believers or unbelievers, find their concerns addressed. In his great novels there are passionate debates about the existence of God, and whether, if there is a God, he was justified in creating a world in which innocent children suffer.

In them we find the dark forces, whether inside us, or demonic, or both, explored as nowhere else; and the reality of evil in all its forms, brute and rational, is set before us. We have the most ambitious ex­ample ever of the attempt to depict a perfectly good life, and hints that some kind of healing love might be possible even in a world as cruel as ours.

Although Rowan Williams is very modest about his credentials in writ­ing an important book on Dos­toevsky, it is difficult to think of anyone who is better qualified. He did original doctoral work on Rus­sian literature, and has published translations of Bulgakov, as well as a significant study on him.

So, although he refers to the most available current translations in Pen­guin, he does not hesitate to cor­rect them and give his own transla­tion, where he thinks it necessary. He is clearly on top of the changing critical evaluations of Dostoevsky that have taken place over the past century; and his close reading of the text must be the work of familiarity with it over many decades.

All this, together with his expert­ise as a theologian who is deeply sympathetic to the Orthodox Church, and his being a writer sen­si­tive to the task and nuances of lan­guage, make his book a remarkable contribution to under­stand­ing not just Dostoevsky, but what it might involve to be a religious be­liever in the world today.

For the Dostoevsky he puts for­ward is very much Dr Williams’s Dostoevsky, one who offers a narra­tive of what belief in a post-mod­ern culture might look like.

Dr Williams suggests that it is a mistake to look to the novels of Dos­toevsky to settle arguments about God. For it is the essence of what Dostoevsky was trying to do that they express multiple points of view; and they do this not as ab­stract arguments but as lived lives. A friend of mine once gave a lecture entitled “Will the real Mr Dostoev­sky please stand up”, and that indi­cates something of the polyphonic nature of the novels.

In fact, what they display, above all, is a theology of writing and speech, so that the act of writing a novel is in some way analogous to the act of creation itself. It is a gratuitous act, in that there is no need for it. It is sheer gift.

Furthermore, the key element is human choice, expressed both in speech and action; and this means that every voicing can be countered by another voice; every action by something that might, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, be “counter, original, spare and strange”. Therefore, at the heart of this understanding of Dostoevsky is resistance to the idea that history can be shut down, that it can reach any kind of final resolution. There must, in a phrase of contemporary literary criticism, be no premature closure.

It is at this point that the de­monic comes in, seeking to close things down through some allegedly rational scheme for human good —as, for example, is argued by the Grand Inquisitor in his famous speech. This is evil, in that it tries to take away that radicality of human desire and choice which was so re­spected by Christ, a radicality that always leaves the future open. Yet there is an ambiguity about evil; for it is also one of the forces that keep the narrative moving on by offering dissent, and that therefore stop it from closing down in another kind of way.

It is against this background that we are to understand the famous statement of Dostoevsky: “If some-one were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it was really the case that the truth lay outside Christ, then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth.” This is not a plea for mere subjectivity or irrationality. It means that claims to the truth which think they operate above the flux of human history and contin­gent human choice, and are organ­ised to control human responses, have to be resisted.

One dramatic example of this resistance comes at the end of the speech in which the Grand Inquisi­tor says that he has to correct Christ’s work by taking freedom away from people, when Christ simply stays silent, and kisses him. Again, at the end of Ivan’s devasta-ting and apparently unanswerable speech arguing that no future heav­enly harmony could justify even one innocent child’s suffering, his brother Alyosha offers a kiss. In such small gestures, the future is kept open for a possible healing — not, of course, any guaranteed one.

Icons play a significant part in some of Dostoevsky’s novels, for they indicate that human beings are called to be icons of God. Even if the icon is disfigured and spat upon, even if we are sinful and know that we are sinful, we can still witness to our iconic status. On this reading, Myshkin, the hero of The Idiot, and Dostoevsky’s attempt to depict the perfect man, does not really work, for he has no memory and no his­tory. He makes no truly adult choices, and is not therefore subject to change. All this makes him incap­able of a true response to other human beings.

In contrast to Myshkin, Jesus did have to make real choices: he had a memory and a history, and was shaped in and through his encoun­ters with others. Although he was sinless, he took real human nature.

Another famous theme in Dostoevsky is that we must “take responsibility for all”. Dr Williams rejects any interpretation of this which involves either subjugating our own personality or seeing the other in terms of it. What it involves is seeing the other person in all their particular visibility and vulnerabil­ity, helping them to articulate who they are in speech and deed, and being able, oneself, to do that ima­ginatively for them. In this way we reflect what God does for each one of us.

It is also what a novelist like Dos­toevsky does in relation to his char­acters. So, for example, to say that God is on the side of the down­trodden is not to say that they will one day be raised up and trample on others. It is that God is on their side, articulating their life, and help­ing them to do this for themselves.

This study of Dostoevsky shows all Dr Williams’s characteristic subtlety and sophistication; and his close, attentive reading of the texts will make most readers feel rather inadequate, and send them back to the novels themselves to look more closely. It is a reading that is clearly deeply felt and grounded in his own theology.

But there is one point where I would want to carry the argument further. Dr Williams’s Dostoevsky is one who sets forth the picture of a God who creates and loves his crea­tion in and for itself, giving it all the space it needs to continue the narrative — for ever and ever? All we know about the future is that it cannot be predetermined, but that God himself will be there. But if we are to think of God as creating in and through perfect wisdom, would wisdom be wisdom if there was no final hope that the purpose of love would triumph?

In short, perhaps we can and must say something, however tenta­tive, in answer to Ivan’s bitter rejec­tion of any final forgiveness and healing.

Dr Harries is Gresham Professor of Divinity, and an Honorary Professor of Theology at King’s College, Lon­don. His latest book is The Re-enchantment of Morality (SPCK).

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