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  • Daniel G Opperwall

The Theology of Dostoevsky

 (Dostoevky's Grave, St Petersburg)

The following is a lightly edited version of my final remarks to the students for a course at Trinity College titled The Theology of Dostoevsky.

Through this course we have treated Dostoevsky as a theologian, doing so in marked defiance of a number of important commentators for whom he is no such thing. The fruits of this approach have been manifold, and I must say I have learned a tremendous amount myself over the course of our inquiry. Dostoevsky is a lot of things, but I trust that we have shown very well that among these things he is indeed a theologian in the fullest sense—a writer who talks about God, who God is, and what that means for human beings.

One of the things that has stood out this term is how very little Dostoevsky challenges or even engages directly the traditional systematic and dogmatic questions of theology. We have seen precious little discourse on the topic of how God can be Three Persons and One God, for instance, or how exactly the nature or natures of Christ interact in the Incarnation, or how exactly God works in history or reveals Himself in scripture and so on.

This, I think, is not at all because Dostoevsky does not care about such questions, but rather because his approach to them is simple—almost reflexive—and bears only a little commentary. A careful engagement of his novels on these questions reveals to us a very typical Russian Orthodox thinker, one for whom the basic theological articulations of the Church are really not in doubt. God is Triune, God has become man so that man might become God, God acts within a world of human free will, and so on—Dostoevsky takes these things for granted, and accepts virtually whole-hog the Orthodox Church’s approach to what they mean. And maybe that is why he has so often been classed as something other than a theologian, or at least a very unimportant theologian indeed.

But I have already hinted that I think this is unfair. What, then, is Dostoevsky’s theological project? It is, I think, to do the very opposite of challenging long held orthodoxies—it is, rather, to push them to their absolutely shocking conclusions, and to leave us, his readers, as dumbfounded as we ought to be about the claims we as Christians are making. Nowhere does he do this better than in his explorations of the Incarnation. It is easy to say that God forgives us sinners, but are we prepared as the Underground Man was not, to accept the violence, the personal upheaval of God’s forgiveness as demonstrated by Liza's forgiveness and the Underground Man's inability to accept it? It is easy to say that God became man, but are we prepared to accept that in a world where Myshkin (in The Idiot) is roughly the best man that we can imagine? It is easy to say that God died and rose again—but are we prepared to face a God who has really died? Can we look at Holbein’s Christ, as we are invited to do in The Idiot, and yet maintain our faith? Can we believe in resurrection after all that? Can we embrace it for ourselves if it makes us into Nastasya or even more pointedly into Rogozhin, who murders out of love in the novel?

Yet more, perhaps, it is easy to say that God suffered for us, but are we prepared to accept what that means about the significance of suffering—that we too must suffer, and really suffer, if we are to be like God and come close to him like Dmitri in The Brothers Karamazov? Are we prepared for the destabilizing of our religious institutions, our canons, our politics to which this must all lead, as the Grand Inquistor is not, and as Alyosha and Zosima attempt to be? Can we accept this overturning without forgetting the message of Ferapont (anything but a pure foil to Zosima) and the importance of what we do as religious people, the reality of demons, the necessity of a true and active struggle? And are we willing to accept a ticket into God’s world even when innocent children must now suffer heinous crimes and be redeemed only by God suffering along with them—or do we stand with Ivan and try to hand “the ticket” back as he expresses it?

Unless a seed perish, it shall yield no fruit--this is the epigraph to The Brothers Karmazov. We agree so easily in thought. Yet we are seldom willing to die.

Simple orthodoxies, Dostoevsky shows us, are anything but simple. We are forgiven by a whore (Liza in Notes from the Underground), murdered for our love (Nastasya in The Idiot), forced to inhabit two spaces at once (all three brothers in The Brothers Karamazov), met face-to-face by the Devil himself (Ivan in The Brothers), convicted of crimes we did not commit but of which we are still guilty, guilty of crimes for which we will never be convicted (Dmitri and Ivan in The Brothers), forced into duels and love triangles, attempted suicide, madness, social disgrace, and constant, endless wrangling in our hearts—forced into this by God’s wild method of saving us. We, like the goose in The Brothers who was killed by Kolya's actions, must stick out our neck and have it run over by the cart of God’s Incarnation and Salvation. But we will not simply be baited by a few bits of bread, for He leaves us free. We must stick out that neck voluntarily. Dostoevsky’s program is built on the shock of realizing the ramifications of meaning what we say when we recite well-worn creeds and uncontroversial theological treatises.

If there is anything close to unique in Dostoevksy’s thinking, it is his ability to connect this shocking traditional orthodoxy to the vision of human community and sobornost that marks the most Slavophile aspects of his writing. He invites us to the personal shock, but then to the communal realization of this shock even more. He invites us to be saved in this seemingly impossible way together. For, to paraphrase Khomiakov who so deeply influenced Dostoevsky, man may fall alone, but he will never be saved all by himself.

This is quite the theology, astonishingly powerful in that it is precisely not unique or innovative.

So, then, let me respond to my own final question for the course: who is God for Dostoevsky?

For Dostoevsky, God is the creator of all things, yet transcendent of them. God is three persons existing in a communion, indeed a community, of love. God has become a man, and truly died to rise again. God is a God who loves human beings, and forgives them. And, most of all, God is a God who has implanted his image at the very heart of human nature, such that to contemplate mankind, or any given person, in fullness is to see precisely God—such that to become a real, true, and complete human being through co-suffering love in communion, whether in a monastery or the world, in America or Russia, in a court-room or jail-house or Siberia—to become truly human together anywhere at all is to become God. And so it is becoming a human being that turns out not to be so easy for us, these little icons of our creator, and every one of Dostoevsky's characters demonstrates some essential aspect of why it is so difficult, and thus when taken all together, give us a nearly complete index of the different reasons for which we all struggle to do so--to be really human; and that includes, Dostoevsky endlessly reminds us, perhaps especially those of us who are actually trying, to say nothing of those who are not.

Yet we venture boldly onward, for we can never escape the image planted within us together. The life-force in the heart of every grain of wheat may well drive us to madness in this world, but it will never vanish. God, for Dostoevsky, is a Love far too radical, shocking, violent, and absolute to leave us without that which makes death the doorway to Life itself.

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