I once read a very good book by one of my former professors called When People Are Big and God is Small. It’s about the sin many in church history have called “Fear of Man.” I read this entire book with a particular friend in mind, wanting to know what I could say to her to help her in her struggles with this. It wasn’t until the final pages that I realized that this was something that I myself wrestle with profoundly.
But the book was now done, I didn’t want to immediately re-read it, and so I had missed my place in the story; I had missed how it could have spoken to me and perhaps led me to some freedom and healing in this. Indeed, even though I’d hear the author lecture about it years later, I still write about and struggle with my “Fear of Man” issues today.
Have you ever had a similar experience of missing yourself in a story?
I’m currently reading through Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, a book some believe to be the greatest novel ever written. While I’m only two-thirds of my way through, it certainly does have a particular insight, nuance, and–dare I say–mundanity to it that drips with both the excitement and boredom of which real life (and Russian literature) consists.
It tells the story of the Karamazovs–a family made up of a father and his three sons, each representing a different philosophy by which many of us live our lives. The book, then, becomes a polemic against these various mechanisms and worldviews we often employ to make sense of the world both within and without us. This creates a natural “pull” in the narrative that invites us to find ourselves in it. We are given the chance to see where we are and the natural consequence or telos of life lived in a particular manner.
Fyodor, the Father, represents a hedonistic sensuality that seeks immediacy and pleasure in the moment. Ivan, the oldest, is the intellectual atheist whose reason defines his interactions in the world.
But as I have read, I have been identifying with the youngest son of the bunch, Alyosha, who is the monk-in-training at the opening of the story. He truly loves Christ and longs to serve his Church well. He at times has thoughts of doubt, frustration, and feelings of sensuality rising up within him (I’ve written before about Dostoevsky’s belief of the necessity of doubt in the Christian experience), but ultimately, at the end of the day, Alyosha is single-minded in his active love for others and pursuit of God.
By the grace of God, though, two-thirds of the way through the book, I have now realized this is not my place in the story. I’ve realized that I am, in fact, Dmitri, the middle son.
Dmitri represents a combination of the sensualist Father and the monk son. He finds himself caught between a strong desire for morality and faith and an equally strong desire toward Epicurean sensuality. When he sees this within himself, his response is a deep-deated disgust and shame at his behavior–not necessarily repentance. As one commentator put it: “Dmitri begins to emerge as the person Zosima [the elder monk of the story] recognizes him to be from the beginning: a troubled, confused young man, driven to sin by the power of his passions, but struggling to live by his conscience.”
And what scares me (and has scared me before) is that Dmitri eventually has to be sent through the depths of suffering, injustice, alienation, and loss before he begins to grow in this. In short, he must face judgment.
But the good news in this is that (as Sunday’s amazing sermon pointed out) Christianity does not take it’s Faithful and promise them salvation from judgment, but rather salvation through it. The chaos of my life, my sensuality, and my soul is precisely part of the story of redemption in which I find myself. It is through Christ tasting the chaos raging in my mind that I am found free and resting, even as he becomes the answer to each of those struggles.
And so as I find myself within Dmitri, I find myself within a space occupied by the nearness and work of the Living God, and therefore I find myself in very good–and ultimately hopeful–company indeed.
[art credit: “Female Nude” by Pablo Picasso]