Dostoevsky’s Christianity

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I’ve been enjoying the novels of Dostoevsky the last few years (I’ve read and reread Brothers Karamazov, then The Idiot and Demons), as well as American Southern authors, from Flannery O’Connor to Faulkner, who evoke something of his sense of hopeless poverty, and Russian spiritual authors, from the Vladimir Lossky to Catherine Doughtery to the Philokalia, who I feel have . . . something important to say to us in the West.  I also find something hopeful in the bleak hopelessness of English Catholic novelists like Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.  But no one speaks to me of both that bleak poverty and that special Russian sense for the Gospel like Dostoevsky.  I’ve been trying to figure out why. 

I have felt like part of the value of the Russians is that, for all their problems, they speak into the West from the outside.  Their problems are not our problems, so they offer a perspective that can at least shake us out of the narrow ways we often frame things. 

I’ve had a sense that somehow this fits into the Russian debate, at Dostoevsky’s time, between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles.  Dostoevsky was one of the Russians who thought that they shouldn’t be imitating us in the West.  On the one hand, Slavophilia (whatever it means) makes me nervous.  I believe in Catholicism, which means rising above our national biases into the universal perspective of Christ; I hate nationalist Christianities, and Russian Orthodoxy is one of the most nationalist.  I don’t want to follow Russians deeper into their self-regarding parochialism. 

On the other hand, that might be what makes the Russians useful for us: they can shake us out of our Western biases, help us see beyond the narrowness of our own sort of nationalism, and so recover a Christianity that is bigger than America and the modern West.


I recently began another read through Crime and Punishment, and found this wonderful line, already in the second chapter:

“A follower of the latest ideas was explaining to me just the other day that

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in our era compassion has even been prohibited by science and that this is already being done in England, where they’ve developed political economy.”

From the pen of the Slavophile Dostoevsky, the line is obviously ironic.  It identifies the problem of the West as a kind of know-it-all pseudo-scientific outlook that thinks it rises above basic human relationships.  Dostoevsky’s word “compassion” nicely ties together a central part of the supernatural Gospel with the most natural parts of human existence.  “England”—that’s us—thinks it’s too sophisticated for either Jesus or basic human decency.


I happened to read these lines in a bright white Urgent Care, with one of those home improvement shows playing on the television in front of me.  On tv, they’ve just knocked open a wall and discovered some new opportunity.  I wasn’t following exactly, but the contractor says to the couple, “Do you want to switch over to a tankless water heater?”  They say, “Is that within our budget?”  He says, “Oh, it will only be fifteen hundred dollars.”  And she says, “Yes, I think we should do it: for our future, and for the environment!” 

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The impression is that “normal” people have thousands of dollars to throw around on spur-of-the-moment ideas; that we should be “investing” in “our future”; and that the most meaningful things in life are how fancy your latest renovation is.  There is no interior life, no need for compassion, no relationships, just lots of expensive stuff. 

Meanwhile, I read about Dostoevsky’s characters, horrifically poor, living in a hallway, dying of consumption and drunken despair, physically beaten by their bosses, hiring their daughters out for prostitution because they have no other hope of feeding their starving children. 

Two very different worlds: Dostoevsky’s Russia and our modern West.


Within the first thirty pages, a main character is on his kness, arms stretched out like a cross, proclaiming his wretchedness to his wife.  The same character has proclaimed of himself, “There’s no reason to feel sorry for me!  I should be crucified, nailed to a cross, not pitied.”

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But he says of the Crucified: “He who has pitied all men and who has understood everyone and everything, He will take pity on us; He and no one else; He is the judge.  He will come on that day and He will ask: ‘Where is thy daughter who sacrificed herself for her wicked and consumptive stepmother and for a stranger’s little children?  Where is thy daughter who pitied her earthly father, a useless drunkard, , and who was not dismayed by his beastliness?’  And he will say: ‘Come forth, I have already forgiven thee!’ . . . Then He will summon us, too: ‘Come forth, He will say, “even ye!  Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weaklings, come forth, ye shameless ones! . . . And He will say, ‘I receive them, oh, ye wise men, I receive them, oh ye learned men, because not one of them hath ever considered himself worthy. . . . ‘And He will stretch forth His arms to us, and we will kiss His hands . . . and we will weep . . . and we will understand all things.”


In our world of HGTV, we pretend that compassion—compassion for one another, compassion for the poor, the compassion of Christ, our own desperate need for compassion—is a thing of the past, solved by economic “progress.” 

Of course, that’s not true.  Though we might not live in the wretched physical poverty of Dostoevsky’s characters, we real human beings still feel the terror of all sorts of emotional and relational and spiritual poverty.  We still anaesthetize our pain, just like Dostoevsky’s drunks.  But we pretend that economic growth replaces compassion.  And we lose the immediacy of the Cross, Dostoevsky’s sense that our whole lives revolve around the pity and suffering of Jesus Christ. 

That’s one of the reasons to read the Russians, and all those other authors who still know that suffering is real.

It might explain, too, why our South American pope sounds so strange to the ears of rich white Americans . . . .

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Fifth Sunday: Lavishly He Gives to the Poor

Our readings this Sunday begin with a controversial idea: “Share your bread with the hungry.”

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Modern politics seems to be split between those who think the hungry probably don’t deserve my bread, and need the stimulus of their hunger to teach them a better work ethic; and those who think the government should take care of them so I don’t have to. 

And modern Christianity seems split between those who substitute the so-called “spiritual works of mercy” (counsel the doubtful, etc.) for the Gospel’s somehow inferior “corporal” works of mercy (“I was hungry, and you did not feed me . . . Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”; and those who prefer to ignore all the business about God and Jesus and Truth and Virtue in favor of an entirely material social program.

Oddly enough, the solution to this tangled controversy is in what the old Greek theologians call theosis: divinization.  “God became man so that men could become God.”


One place to find the key is in our Gospel.  “You are the salt of the earth . . . .  You are the light of the world,” says a familiar Gospel.  (These are the lines immediately following the Beatitudes, but it happened that this year the Presentation replaced that Gospel, something that only happens on average every twenty-one years.) 

No matter where you are on whatever ideological spectrum, these lines are attractive: We all think we should make the world a better place.

But our Gospel ends on an odd note: “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”  What is the connection between my good deeds and “glorifying” God in heaven?  The first part focuses on me—but the second on God.  The first part is very this-worldly—the second part is about worship and heaven. 

The Tradition sees it this way: our good deeds are a product of God’s good work in us.  The saints are his masterwork.  This is parallel to Creation: the world is good because God made it.  The things of this world are less good than God, but they really do have a share in his goodness, because he made them, and therefore they are reason to give thanks to God, to “glorify your heavenly Father.”  But whereas the world is only his Creation, the saints are his children, really sharing in his life; only a human being can love as God loves. 


The flipside is the other odd part of this Gospel: whereasas the second part, about the light of the world, ends with glorifying your heavenly Father, the first part, about the salt of the earth, ends with a threat.  “If salt loses its taste . . . It is no longer good for anything but to be throw out and trampled underfoot.” 

God created us in image so that, through us, he could show his glory through this material world, just as salt brings out the flavor of food.  But if we do not serve that purpose, our lives have failed.  That is the real threat of Hell: we can fail to let God work through us.


The Tradition notes an interesting double layer in the various calls to serve the poor.  “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless . . . .  Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!” 

The poor cry to us for help—and we, who are poor, cry to God for help. 

Our Psalm says, “Lavishly he gives to the poor.”  Who is he?  God?  Or us?  In fact, it’s both.  We give, because he gives, and when we give to them, he gives to us.  The whole mystery of Christianity is in this chain of giving: “Lavishly he gives to the poor.”


Our reading from First Corinthians adds the key middle ground: Jesus.

“For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” 

All of Christianity, it turns out, hinges on Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

He is both the poor man and the generous man, and he teaches us to be both.

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“I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,” says Paul, and so he renounces all claim to glory and riches and power.  In Christ the poor man, we find that our true riches are not in what we hoard for ourselves, but in our total reliance on the mercy of God, who raises the dead.

And in our love of Christ, we long to poor ourselves out as he did.  The corporal works of mercy give flesh to that call to imitate Christ.  Yes, of course we should preach the Gospel.  But if we turn the corporal demands of the Gospel into merely “spiritual works,” we empty the Gospel of its power, and deny the flesh of Christ. 

The world offers a false choice, between God or this world, the spiritual or the material.  Christ shows us how the two come together.

Where do you find yourself making that false division?

[Incidentally, my apologies for my absences.  Our seventh was born in early December.  Relying to much on my own strength, I have often been finding how weak that strength is!]