Dostoyevsky and the abolition of God

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Stanely Mushava Literature Today

The cataclysmic tragedy in the dream speaks to the abolition of God, perversion of knowledge, downgrade of morality, end of reason, aversion to love, prevalence of crime and eruption of terror currently sweeping across the world.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels prefigure mankind’s progress through history with a depth of field which goes light years beyond time travel.

The novelist considers the implications for the future from ideas which started rooting for establishment during his time.

By the time his native Russia became the world’s first officially atheist state, the unsettling implications had been articulated in his work.

Dostoyevsky’s great novels – “The Idiot”, “The Brothers Karamazov”, “Crime and Punishment” and “The Demons” – set him apart in the canon of world literature for their prophetic magnitude.

Dostoyevsky’s apocalyptic vision of a world unhinged from the centre, of mankind detached from the source, holds especially true for the present.

His observation in “The Brothers Karamazov” that “without God, everything is permitted”, captures succinctly the problem of the 21st century.

“The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love,” Dostoyevsky observes.

A supposition is taken for granted that atheism is the default intellectual state as faith has been marked out as the bête noire of modernity.

The invasive ferment of evil predicted in his novels is coming full circle. Self-interest and situational ethics run the thread of modern cultures.

Offhand, we could discuss constitutional euphemisms for murder and new names to sell the evolving standards of decency.

An institution can chop aborted babies for sale and bankroll a sitting president – not in a bad day for God at the Box Office but in real-life chemistry starring Planned Parenthood and the White House.

While secular humanism attempts a case for man’s inherent capacity for good, Dostoyevsky insists that the question of what constitutes moral conduct, without God in the picture, is open to contradictions as it is informed by self-interest.

Mistakes of history in the ferment of fanaticism, outbreak of atheism and enforcement of ideology are materials of vision and conversation in Dostoyevsky’s major novels.

His accomplishment consists largely in his pursuit of the great questions of life, in their varied categorisations, to their logical conclusion.

His characters, often psychologically tortured individuals and sites of disparate world views, translate broadly subscribed ideas from abstract space to everyday life.

For Dostoyevsky, the problem of existence lies “not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for”. He agonises over the nature of man, the essence of life and the place of God in the world.

Dostoyevsky merits Malcolm Muggeridge’s portrayal of him as a “spy of God”. While he is occupied with the commonplace, he searches deeper than the ordinary writer – he shatters the “the givenness of things” and assumed answers.

His observation that stars brighten as night deepens might have been made from a theological perspective but it equally explains the growing significance of his work in an antagonising spiritual climate.

The pitch at which he struggles with the burden of meaning is elevated and demanding yet honesty, more than sophistication, seems to be the passcode for getting into his work.

The crowning work of Dostoyevsky’s genius is probably “The Brothers Karamazov”. The book commands vast acclaim, with Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and Franz Kafka among its warm admirers.

With such a varied following and respect across major disciplines, the essential Dostoyevsky who obsesses over the broken signal between man and his Maker tends to be obscured.

He once complains elesewhere that exclusive attention for his narrative facility obscures his principal intent of pointing his audience to faith.

In “The Brothers Karamazov”, Dostoyevsky foregrounds, in a story revolving around parricide, the dialogue between faith and unbelief in a novel which has secured a monumental rating in world literature.

Despite its prohibitive length, the novel is engaging both for the narrative and the contesting tendencies of Fyodor Karamazov’s sons, Dimtri the sensualist, Ivan the rationalist and Alyosha the novice, and the Christian apologist Father Zosma.

The high point of the novel is the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor passage, set in unusual apologetic mode, in which Ivan presents the basis of his unbelief to his pious young brother.

One of the accomplishments of the passage is its clearcut distinction between biblical Christianity and institutionalised Christendom.

The career-oriented and material-minded trending creeds and the historically bungling older forms whose baggage includes inquisitions and crusades are not spared.

Curiously, the passage is claimed by both Christians and atheists as defence chest for their beliefs.

However, Dostoyevsky is essentially discussing the implications of rejecting God, thereby short-circuiting both atheism and the instutionalised excesses of Western Christendom.

Dostoyevsky himself had struggled with doubt but rediscovered faith while serving time in Siberia.

The dialogue between faith and secular tendencies characterises much of his subsequent work but in the end, the Bible-beater triumphs over the sceptic.

While Dostoyevsky is troubled with the perversion of the truth by religious institutions, he is drawn to the primitive and pure faith of the Bible.

“I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly, and more perfect than the Saviour; I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one,” he intimates in a letter.

“I would even say more: If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with truth,” he says.

“Crime and Punishment”, one of Dostoyevsky’s more familiar works, narrates a young nihilist’s murder of a pawnbroker and an unfortunate witness. However, it is essentially a story of spiritual regeneration.

The criminal, Raskolnikov, who cannot bear the weight of his guilt, ultimately renounces pride and finds Christ.

The novel was a subject of both censure and acclaim. Nihilist critics took offence while others saw a work of staggering genius underpinned by profound spiritual implications and psychological insight.

The closing chapter carries a passage of apocalyptic import in the form of a dream. Raskolnikov’s dream is a penetrating portrayal of the degenerate tendencies of modernity.

“Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious,” narrates Dostoyevsky.

“But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, and their moral convictions so infallible.

“They did not know how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify.

“Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite… They gathered together in armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other,” relates Dostoyevsky.

At the high point of the dream, a new dispensation commences in which “a pure chosen people, destined to found a new race and a new life, to renew and purify the earth” find its way out of the chaos.

The cataclysmic tragedy in the dream speaks to the abolition of God, perversion of knowledge, downgrade of morality, end of reason, aversion to love, prevalence of crime and eruption of terror currently sweeping across the world.

The viral, and seldom question, diffusion of redefinitions of values and institutions such as love, marriage, freedom, family, gender, sexuality, tolerance, truth and the meaning of life in our time hint the fulfilment of Raskolnikov’s dream.

The crisis of judgment in the creative industries has metamorphosed from a subject of concern to the new normal.

In the end, Dostoyevsky foresees a universal brotherhood, brought about not by enforcement or anarchy, but the triumph of Christian enlightenment.

 Stanely Mushava blogs at upstreamafrica.blogspot.com


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