Clearly, he does not understand the difference between comprehend and apprehend!
In The Brothers Karamazov, I am reminded that Active Love is the essential calling of the faithful. Christian mysticism, the love of God and neighbor lived out day to day, is Dostoevsky’s answer to the problem of evil, isolation, and doubt.
As children of the Enlightenment and the Reformation, it is easy to think of faith as the total moral appropriation of the practices of the Christian community. Such an appropriation is simultaneously intellectual and cultural. While this is indicative of a very beautiful tradition of discipleship, it is also indicative of a particularly modern and Western emphasis on the Faith. The greatest heroes of our era tend towards the intellectual and academic.
Perhaps our delight in Mother Teresa has been in part due to the fact that she recalls us to the centrality and power of Active Love. She demonstrated a life which was simultaneously humble and filled with grandeur.
At New College Franklin, we are beginning Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I want to communicate to my students, not a different faith, but a larger one. Such a faith includes a God who is more mysterious and more merciful, who yet calls us to be holy, and not only in our professions, but in our daily lives. Such a life lived daily for God and others is finally a life unburdened by fear and doubt, as well as the exhausting and impossible demands of the ego.
The Enlightenment, which helped produce an exaltation of reason, was a concern of Dostoevsky’s. He saw the effects of modern education in the skepticism which it produced. He believed that it was not better reasoning or education which was needed, but active love. He believed that active love of neighbor (that love which is not abstracted toward humanity in general, but directed to those before us) could be the ground of true faith. Dostoevsky rejected hyper-rationalism in favor of Christian mysticism.
It is easy to reduce faith to an adherence to creed and social practice. While this is certainly part of the story, we often consider our own social and intellectual assimilation to be equal to our moral and spiritual assimilation of God’s total call upon us.
In The Brothers Karamazov, as in Flannery O’Connor, God’s grace, and our appropriation of His grace is allowed to be strange and terrible. While it is true, the Christian faith is about having a “personal relationship with God,” the very meaning of ‘person’ must take on divine proportions (cf. the picture under title of this post). It is only in the context of the supra-personal that we can contextualize ordinary piety along with Zacchean repentance, and Widow’s mite dependence.
The idea of a personal savior, while correct, runs the risk suggesting we relate to God merely as another person, a person greater and grander than the self, but not a God so other that we would fall on our faces in wonder and terror before Him. And though I would not be rid of such terminology as ‘relationship’ or ‘personal’, I can relate to this post by Will McDavid over at Mocking Bird.
The power of The Brothers Karamazov is that it depicts a culture and a people in whom grace remains strange and terrible. In Dostoevsky’s Russia, there remains a sense of awe and a sense of otherness which is not easily assimilated into a merely cultural expression of faith. Thus its pious and its piety take on numerous forms, forms not easily imitated or comprehended.
This is why Brothers Karamazov is such an exciting and yet difficult novel. It emphasizes God’s grace while preserving the brokenness and strangeness of our humanity. It might even be more correct to say that it preserves the strangeness of the creature in the context of an infinitely strange and wonderful Creator.
Such a savior invites love and gratitude that is not only warm, but alarming, and at times offensive. This is a grace which inspires one women to wash His feet with her tears and her hair. This same grace restores Peter after his ‘apostasy’, not by inviting him to make some grand gesture of repentance, but through the grander sacrifice of love lived out in a lifetime of service to God’s sheep.