Berdyaev on Dostoyevsky

Culture versus Civilisation

Russian writers like Leontiev and Dostoyevsky denounced Western Europe’s “new mercantile civilisation with its middle-class spirit” [Berdyaev, ‘Dostoyevsky’, p 174]. “There were two spirits fighting in the world, and the spirit of commercial civilization was beginning to win because the Christian principle of culture had been betrayed= material well-being was hiding [all deeper truth]. That was the tendency of civilization throughout the world, but it was most clearly marked among European [and American] peoples” [p 175].

“The struggle between religious culture and irreligious civilization was always imminent in Western Europe itself and was fought out there.. Again, Nietzsche, with his impassioned dream of a Dionysic culture, was a loud protest.. against the same triumphant advance of middle-class civilization” [p 176].

“..while civilization may lack spirituality altogether, culture is always spiritual: it is bound.. to a sacred tradition, and veneration for the persons and things of times past” [p 177].

A Russian Orthodox ikon painter= “The Indian peoples of North American had true culture; it is the absence of any culture that marks modern America and Europe, and much of the so-called civilised world.”

“Leontiev longed hopelessly until the end of his life to see a new type of culture.. which would stand up to the withered civilisation of Europe; ..he saw instead the victorious progress.. of that general levelling which he hated so much” [p 177].

“Dostoyevsky showed that the nomadism of the Russians, their restless and rebellious wandering, was a profoundly national trait. ‘Only universal happiness can give peace to the Russian wanderer: he will find peace in nothing less.’ ..[This is] Dostoyevsky’s dynamism, rejecting everything fixed and stable..” [p 179].

Dostoyevsky’s novels of the underworld depths are prophetic. He looks to the future, in an apocalyptic way, not any return to a golden but lost past, to bring about the victory of freedom and love over the current and predominant loveless enslavement..

The Messianic is not the Missionary

“They have their mission, ..to spread the faith, but missionary consciousness is not the same thing as a Messianic consciousness. …Messianic consciousness is not nationalistic, it is universal. The Jews were not one people among other peoples: they were the one and only people of God, divinely chosen to [redeem] the world and prepare [the way for] his kingdom on earth; and the Messianic.. is always a reJudaization of Christianity..” [p 181].

But the false kind of ‘Messianic mania’, whether in Russia in the 19th Century [as Dostoyevsky showed in ‘The Possessed’], or in America through-out its history [the ludicrous belief in ‘American Exceptionalism’], or anywhere else [the British Empire was marked by this ethos as well], is dangerous.

The Grand Inquisitor

The story of the Grand Inquisitor, told by Ivan in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, presents a chillingly dehumanising ‘solution’ to the human predicament.

Christ returns to the world, but the Grand Inquisitor — who is a prince of the church — explains to Christ why he must be crucified again.

The Grand Inquisitor accuses Christ of giving humans too much freedom, too much responsibility, too much mystery; this believes in them too much, and by putting too heavy a load on their shoulders, it fails to love them in their vast limitation. To love them truly is to let them off the hook, to give them the ‘bread, circuses, magic’, they need to keep them happy, like sheep munching grass in a field. A superficial contentment with the superficial: that is all humanity is capable of. To expect more of them is cruel.. All this, and more, the Grand Inquisitor throws in Christ’s face, as a rebuke.

The vast majority of people prefer ‘contentment without freedom’ to ‘freedom with suffering’.. This is the basis of the Grand Inquisitor’s negative and rejecting judgement on Christ. “Did you forget”, the Grand Inquisitor asks him, “that humanity prefers peace and even death to freedom of choice of good or evil? ..instead of giving clear cut rules that would have set humanity’s conscience at rest once and for all, you put forward things that are unfamiliar, puzzling, and uncertain.. Humans look less for God than for miracles.. You did not come down from the Cross because you would not coerce humanity by a miracle: you wanted a free faith and not one born of marvels; you wanted willing love, not the obsequious raptures of slaves before the [divine] might that has over awed them. But you thought too highly of humanity: they are only slaves.. It was pitiless of you to value humanity so highly, for you required far too much from them. Had you respected them less you would have asked less, and that would have been more like love, to give a lighter load. Humanity is weak and despicable” [pp 191-192].

Berdyaev relates what the Grand Inquisitor offers humanity to Christ’s three temptations by Satan in the wilderness. “[He] refused them in the name of humanity’s spiritual freedom, for it was not his will that the human spirit should be won over by [guaranteeing] bread, by a [tyrannical political or religious] kingdom, or by miracles” [p 196].

The Grand Inquisitor is the real ‘Anti-Christ.’ This spirit appears in history in many forms. “For Dostoyevsky, the [Roman] Catholic theocracy was one of them; it can be discerned in Byzantine Orthodoxy, in all Caesarism and all Imperialism. A State that knows its limitations will not give expression to the Grand Inquisitor’s ideas, nor will it strangle spiritual freedom. Throughout its history Christianity seems to have been constantly beset by the temptation to deny this liberty.. So burdensome is the yoke of liberty to humanity that they have ..tried to rid themselves of it within Christianity. The principle of authority that plays so large a part in the history of the church.. [is] a denial of the mystery of Christian freedom, the mystery of Christ crucified. Truth nailed upon the Cross compels nobody, oppresses no one; it must be accepted.. freely; its appeal is addressed to free spirits” [p 197].

“A divine.. power, triumphant over the world and conquering souls, would not be consonant with the freedom of humanity’s spirit, and so the mystery of [the Cross] is the mystery of liberty. ..every time in history that humanity has tried to turn crucified Truth into coercive truth they have betrayed.. Christ” [pp 197-198].

“Whenever this has happened church people have assumed the mask of earthly sovereignty and laid hands on the sword of Caesar. On the one hand, the organisation of the church takes on a juridical aspect and her life is subject to rules and regulations; on the other, her [teaching] assumes a rationalist aspect: Christ’s truth becomes subservient to logical restraint. ..If we regard Christian truth rationally and juridically.. we abandon freedom for compulsion” [pp 198-199].

“Dostoyevsky stood alone in his conception of Christian liberty, but he had the mark of universality none the less. His [stance] was similar to [that of] Khomiakov, and the Russian Orthodoxy of these two was not the Russian Orthodoxy of Metropolitan Philaret and of Theophanes the Recluse” [p 199].

“Christ repudiated all temporal authority for himself. ..Christ knew no power except that of love, which alone is compatible with freedom. His is the religion of unconstrained love between God and humanity, and the attempts to actualise this in Christianity have generally been very far indeed from Christ’s own vision” [p 204].

‘Unconstrained love’= passion. The passion between God and humanity cannot be forced, dictated, ordered. The heart is only given freely. God wants the heart—not behaviouristic compliance..

“Theocracy cannot but involve compulsion; all the theocracies of history, pre-Christian, Christian, and post-Christian, have been tyrannical.. The theocratic idea is bound to come into conflict with Christian freedom, and in the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor Dostoyevsky dealt severe blows to this false theocratic notion of an earthly paradise..” [p 211].

The New Christianity

In effect, Dostoyevsky was the prophet of a new Christianity.

“Zosima by no means represents the traditional staretz [‘spiritual elder’]; he does not, for example, resemble the Father Ambrose of the monastery of Optina.. Zosima knows something about the tragic destiny that Dostoyevsky was discovering for humanity, …of which the staretzi formed in the old school knew nothing. [Zosima says] what no living monk of Optina would ever have said: ‘..do not fear men’s sin but love them even in their sin, for then will your love resemble divine love and be greater than any other on earth. Love all God’s creation, the whole of it, and each tiny grain of sand. Love every leaf, ..love the animals, love the plants, love everything. Love all things, and you will find the mystery of God in all things.. Love to throw yourself on the ground and kiss it. Love all people. Love all things. Seek this rapture and ecstasy. Water the earth with the tears of your joy.. Don’t be ashamed of such ecstasies but rather prize them, for they are a gift of God not given to all’..” [p 206].

“Only at the end of humanity’s tragic journey was the new holiness to appear” [p 206]. It is from the depths of the ‘underworld’ struggling and suffering, from the divided men and women lost in the hell of the heart, that the new humanity has to be born.

This is the implication of Christ’s Cross, Descent into Hell, and Resurrection, for modern humanity. We must pass through the tragedy, go through the long dark tunnel, before we can re-emerge, changed in depth. The old way, of trying to rise out of the darkness and pain of the underworld depths by light, no longer has any impetus.. It is not relevant to the time.

“There can be no more humanists.. after Dostoyevsky– we are all doomed to be tragic realists. This tragic realism is the mark of an age which lays on us a heavy responsibility that [people of older generations] could hardly have borne.. [It is in this time] that ‘those cursed questions’ [the existential questions] became real and vital, matters of life and death..” [p 215].

Dostoyevsky followed “the tragic way through division and darkness” [p 220]. “For him, humanity’s only road is through tragedy, inner division, the abyss, the attainment of light through darkness” [p 221].

In reality, no light can go into these places, and all light is defeated in the abysmal depths. Only the Fire of Spirit can go through this tragedy that is so ‘deep’, and change it at source. It is Fire that must be kindled in the long journey through our human lostness. Enlightenment is inadequate; only the Fire of a new holiness will spark redemptive change in the ‘black inexplicable pain.’

Christians are not simply lacking the Light, they are without the Fire.

“There are plenty of dead things in Christianity, and their putrefaction spreads pestilence that can poison the well-springs of life. In some respects Christians are more like minerals than parts of a living organism: we are petrified, dead words come out from lifeless mouths. ‘The Spirit breathes where he will’, and he will not breathe upon souls that are religiously desiccated: they must be first remade and baptised anew, but with fire. ..loss of faith, spread of materialism, these are only secondary results, consequences of the stiffening and death that has gone on within Christianity, in the lives of Christians. A Christianity given over to stereotyped rhetoric, formal and spiritless in its rituals, debased by over reliance on priests, cannot be a life-giving force” [p 225].

If Christianity is to become the religion of the new age, the actualising of the Second Covenant that has hardly begun, “there must arise within it a creative movement such as the world has not known for a long time” [p 226]. Dostoyevsky turned his eyes to the future, when his fellow Christians were almost entirely living in the past, clinging on to formulae and habits that had died on their feet long before.

Fate will have to roughly jerk Christians “out of that state of middle class self-satisfaction in which.. they obviously hoped to stay forever” [p 227].

It will take rebaptism in Fire, and that is the Daemonic. The Light of Eros cannot spark this change..

The new Christianity will arise from people who give their heart, freely, yet passionately, for in their depths, not Light but Fire will dwell. They are not any new enlightenment. They will be the new holiness.