Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Essence of Christianity in "The Idiot"

Ever the theologian, Dostoevsky, in The Idiot, includes an interesting dialog between two of the central characters. The conversation takes place between two men. They are good friends despite both being awe-stricken by the same crazy woman with the beautiful name of Natasya Filippovna (she's the dark, allusive, spontaneous, moody, confident type). Rogozhin questions Prince Myshkin (the "Idiot") as to whether he believes in God or not. In response Prince Myshkin recounts a series of 4 encounters that happened over the course of two days the previous week.

First he had a 4 hour train ride on which he conversed with a man of “rare courtesy”, was a well known scholar, and who also was a devout atheist. He then arrives at his destination only to hear a story of a murder that occurred the previous night. A man, though "not a thief", murdered his friend for his silver watch he had been tempted by. It is said he “went up to him cautiously from behind, took aim, raised his eyes to heaven, crossed himself and, after praying bitterly to himself: “Lord, forgive me for Christ’s sake!” – killed his friend with one blow, like a sheep, and took his watch.”

Rogozhin has quite a laugh over this second event responding, “Now that I like! No, that’s the best yet! The one doesn’t believe in God at all, and the other believes so much that he even stabs people with a prayer!”.

The third event occurs the next morning Prince Myshkin is taking a stroll through town and comes across a drunken soldier who offers to sell a silver cross for twenty kopecks. The cross, of Byzantine design, is obviously made of tin, but he buys it all the same. The soldier stumbles off to "drink up his cross", quite pleased that he was able to dupe the Prince.

And this is where it gets good…
Prince Myshink “went along and thought: no, I’ll wait before condemning this Christ-seller. God knows what’s locked away in these drunken and weak hearts. An hour later, going back to my hotel, I ran into a peasant woman with a nursing baby. She was a young woman, and the baby was about six weeks old. And the baby smiled at her, as far as she’d noticed, for the first time since it was born. I saw her suddenly cross herself very, very piously. ‘What is it, young woman?’ I say. ‘It’s just that a mother rejoices,’ she says, ‘when she notices her baby’s first smile, the same as God rejoices each time he looks down from heaven and sees a sinner standing before him and praying with all his heart.’ The woman said that to me, in almost those words, and it was such a deep, such a subtle and truly religious thought, a thought that all at once expressed the whole essence of Christianity, that is, the whole idea of God as our own father, and that God rejoices over man as a father over his own child – the main thought of Christ! A simple peasant woman! True, she’s a mother…and, who knows, maybe this woman was that soldier’s wife. Listen, you asked me earlier, her is my answer: the essence of religious feeling doesn’t fit in with any reasoning, with any crimes and trespasses, or with any atheisms; there’s something else here that's not that, and it will eternally be not that; there’s something in it that atheisms will eternally glance off, and they will eternally be talking 'not about that'.”
I find it fascinating that Dostoevsky's view of Christ, in a book first published in 1868 and in the midst of the Eastern Orthodox church, was so relational. I absolutely love how Dostoevsky makes the "simple peasant woman" the brilliant "theologian". Through the power of the Spirit we are all made able to know God. It is not some higher calling reserved for the super-spiritual. And I also find his understanding of faith quite interesting (especially in light of much more discussion about atheism earlier in the book).

I should add, after hearing the fourth encounter, a much sobered Rogozhin asks if the Prince is still wearing the tin cross; which he is. He then asks to exchange crosses, being a common custom symbolizing spiritual brotherhood.


News From The North said...

Orthodoxy actually holds a highly relational view of God, perhaps more so in their theology than most protestants. Salvation in Orthodoxy does not emphasize the a legal metaphor of salvation as the West has. Salvation is not primarily attaining pardon from sin or being spared of the consequence of sin rather Salvation is about Union with God. Jesus created the way that was lost through sin. I myself am an evangelical yet as I have been studying Orthodoxy am discovering it is not at all what I thought it to be.

DK said...

I have, in the last few years, been discovering a strong trinitarian theology myself.