Dostoevsky on the Tensions of the Christian Life


I’m currently reading through The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Early in the book, there is a scene where the entire Karamzov clan goes to meet with this elder priest to solve some disputes amongst themselves. Of course, being a Russian novel, before they can get to the actual disputes they engage in various forms of political and theological philosophizing for a few chapters. One of the brothers, Ivan, has one of his ideas brought up concerning moral differences between Christians and Non-christians. The elder hears this and immediately identifies it for what it is: an over-intellectualization to help explain away tensions and mysteries existing in Ivan’s heart that he can’t stop wrestling.

As any reader of my writings knows, in the past year or so I have been absolutely taken captive by the truth that Christianity, and therefore the Christian life itself, is fundamentally an exercise in holding tensions and living within mysteries that have no real answer in this life. As Peter Rollins says in the amazing book The Fidelity of Betrayal: “doubt is intimately tied up with faith, because the deep truth of faith gives birth to doubt.” In other words, only the true believer has experienced something in their heart that they can doubt in the first place. Unbelievers don’t doubt, they just don’t believe. But we Christians follow our forefather Jacob whose blessing was to wrestle with God and receive the very name Israel, which means “He wrestles with God”.

So it’s in the spirit I want to post this extended quote from Karamazov. When the elder speaks, he not only exposes Ivan, but also myself and many of us in our struggles with these despairs and doubts and dialectics. May this speak peace to your soul:

“For the time being you, too, are toying, out of your despair, with your magazine articles and drawing room discussions, without believing in your own dialectics and smirking at them with your heart aching inside of you . . . The question is not resolved in you, and there lies your great grief, for it urgently demands resolution . . .”

“But can it be resolved? Resolved in a positive way?” Ivan Fyodorovich continued asking strangely, still looking at the elder with an inexplicable smile.

“Even if it cannot be resolved in a positive way, it will never be resolved in the negative way either — you yourself know this property of your heart, and therein lies the whole of its torment.  But thank the Creator that he has given you a lofty heart, capable of being tormented by such torment, ‘to set your mind on things that are above, for our true homeland is in heaven.’ May God grant that your heart’s decision overtake you still on earth, and may God bless your path!”

The elder raised his hand and was about to give his blessing to Ivan Fyodorovich from where he sat. But the latter suddenly rose from his chair, went over to him, received his blessing, and, having kissed his hand, returned silently to his place. He looked firm and serious. This action, as well as the whole preceding conversation with the elder, so unexpected from Ivan Fyodorovich, somehow struck everyone with its mysteriousness and even a certain solemnity, so that for a moment they all fell silent…”

[artist credit: etching by Jack Coughlin]

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5 thoughts on “Dostoevsky on the Tensions of the Christian Life

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