Dostoevsky and His Theology
by James Townsend
Alfred Einstein stated: "Dostoevsky gives me more than any other thinker."1 Nicholas Berdyaev was professor of philosophy at the University of Moscow until he was expelled by the Communist regime in 1922. Berdyaev testified that Dostoevsky "stirred and lifted up my soul more than any other writer or philosopher has done…when I turned to Jesus Christ for the first time.2 Some would assert that either The Brothers Karamazov [pronounced kare-uh-MAHT-tsov] or Crime and Punishment is the greatest novel ever written. Some thinkers within the Christian camp would claim Dostoevsky as one of our own, thereby lending added value to such a study as this.
II. A Brief BiographyFyodor Dostoevsky3 (1821-1881) was the son of an ultra-strict Russian Orthodox father who was a medical doctor. He would call his sons names (e.g., stupid) when they got their recitations wrong. He compelled his sons to stand at attention when they spoke to him. Thus, the young Dostoevsky did not receive a very accurate mirror image of God the Father from his harsh human father.
When Dostoevsky was 18 years old, one of the most formative events of his life occurred. His severe father was brutally murdered by his own Russian serfs. The corpse lay out in the field for two days, and the police never conducted an investigation or made any arrest. There is evidence that young Dostoevsky felt something of a guilty complicity in this murder—if only, perhaps, as a death-wish. All four of Dostoevsky’s major novels revolve around a murder, and The Brothers Karamazov is constructed around parricide.
Dostoevsky hit the jackpot with his first novel, Poor Folk. Russia’s leading literary critic, Belinsky, announced a new star had arisen on the literary horizon. However, because Dostoevsky’s following works were more personally psychological than social commentaries, the radical Belinsky and other Russian writers began to be more severe in their criticism.
Eventually Dostoevsky became involved in the sociopolitical ferment of his era. He joined a group known as the Petrashevsky circle, which contained atheists and revolutionaries (during this pre-Communist period). They planned to publish anti-government propaganda on a secret printing press. Then the police stepped in. Dostoevsky was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress, and a four-month investigation was conducted. Twenty-one of this group were sentenced to die.
On December 22, 1849, at 8 a.m. Dostoevsky and his compatriots were bundled away to be taken before a firing squad. They were to be executed three at a time. At the last moment a rider from the Czar came galloping up and announced that their sentence had been commuted. It was as if the writer had been granted a new life.
However, four years in a Siberian camp awaited him. Ten-pound iron chains were placed on his ankles. The prisoners’ sled was driven for two weeks—sometimes in minus-40-degree centigrade temperature—across Siberia to the Omsk prison. Dostoevsky reminisced about that lice-infested, filth-ridden cemetery-of-the-living in The House of the Dead. His release was followed by four years of enforced military service near the border of China. The only book Dostoevsky was permitted in prison was The Gospels which he retained to his dying day.
After approximately ten years in Siberia, Dostoevsky returned to society. He authored a dozen novels, often while he was in debt or bordering on starvation. In 1880 he gave a major address in honor of the poet, Pushkin. To his second wife, Anna, he announced the very day of his death. On that day he called for his prison copy of The Gospels, and the family read the parable of the prodigal son. Between 30,000 and 40,000 people attended Dostoevsky’s funeral, the first state funeral to honor one of Russia’s writers.
III. Four Major NovelsDostoevsky’s literary offering included four masterworks. They are, in order of appearance: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot,Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov. Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov may be among the world’s top ten novels, as mentioned above.
Crime and Punishment is a kind of commentary on the NT concept of a functioning conscience. It reveals a person mentally tormented by his crime until he finally confesses it. Raskolnikov is a poor ex-student who murders a despised woman pawnbroker. In the process he is also forced to do away with the pawnbroker’s weaker, more likable sister by means of an ax.
Raskolnikov had convinced himself that his desperate sister, Dunya, and mother really deserved the stolen money more than the "louse" of a pawnbroker. Prior to the murder he had also written an article dividing the world into ordinary people and gifted heroes (like Napoleon) who are above the ordinary laws. Raskolnikov executed his crime under the guise of his victim’s classification in this unworthy group of people.
Oddly, Raskolnikov’s "savior" is a young woman, Sonya, driven to prostitution by her alcoholic father’s impoverished family. One of the classics in the novel is the reading of the story of the raising of Lazarus to Raskolnikov the murderer by Sonya the humble prostitute.
Through the persistent pecking away of the Columbo-like detective Porphyry and the gentle persuasion of Sonya, Raskolnikov eventually confesses his guilt and is sentenced to penal servitude in Siberia, where he is faithfully accompanied by Sonya.
The Idiot began as a story by Dostoevsky about a Christ-figure, the ideal man. Like Don Quixote, however, this honorable and considerate man (Prince Myshkin) is often treated as an idiot. (Our term idiot really doesn’t quite capture the flavor of the Russian title.) The prince is somewhat socially inept, unpretentious, naive, overly friendly, and innocent. He also possesses Dostoevsky’s own social stigma: he is an epileptic. Nevertheless, he is courteous, kind, gentle, and more—a veritable string of boy-scout qualities.
Prince Myshkin is attracted to the portrait of Nastasya Filippovna, a beautiful "kept woman." Upon returning from a Swiss sanitarium he makes connections with the Epanchin family, and eventually the issue arises as to whether he will marry their daughter Aglaya. Nevertheless, he is still drawn to the mentally suffering Nastasya. However, at her wedding to Prince Myshkin, a wealthy scoundrel named Rogozhin carries Nastasya away. The book ends strangely—with Prince
Myshkin and Rogozhin (her murderer) sitting in the same room grieving over the woman’s corpse. Eventually, however, the apparent Christ-figure collapses and reverts again to his former state of inadequacy (both physically and mentally).
Demons (whose title is also variously translated as The Devils or The Possessed) is Dostoevsky’s most political novel—directed against nihilistic revolutionaries. Stepan Verkhovensky is an aristocratic liberal of the 1840s. His neglected son, Petr, is a nihilist agitator of the 1860s. Petr Verkhovensky admires a young man named Stavrogin, who had been taught by Petr’s father. Stavrogin is a mysterious, cool axis around whom other characters in the novel revolve. The others he has influenced are Kirillov (an intellectual who has pronounced himself god and commits suicide) and Shatov (who wants to get out of the revolutionists’ cell group and so is murdered by the rest).
All of the revolutionists are arrested for the murder of Shatov—except the chief catalyst, Petr Verkhovensky, who escapes to Europe. His father, who has become disillusioned with the revolutionary ferment, likens the situation to the Gospel account of the demons that are cast into the pig herd (hence, the novel’s title).
Dostoevsky’s books were first serialized, but one section of Demons was not permitted into a serialized family journal. It is Stavrogin’s confession of the rape of an under-age girl and her consequent suicide, which ultimately resulted in Stavrogin’s own suicide.
The Brothers Karamazov is one of the leading candidates for top honors as the world’s greatest novel. (However, this does not mean that all of that novel is streamlined reading. Instead, one analyst spoke of the "dishevelment of [Dostoevsky’s] prose."4
Although Alyosha is—according to the author himself—the chief character of the novel, of his four great novels, this one comes closest to putting forward an entire collection of chief characters. The Karamazov family consists of four brothers: Ivan is the intellectual atheist. Dmitri is the emotional womanizer. Alyosha is the most lovable—a temporary monk. Smerdyakov is their father’s illegitimate child, who is treated as a family servant.
Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is a debauched and neglectful father. He totally neglects his boys and virtually maintains a harem at home. Dmitri (who is most like his father) comes to hate him. The main reason for the hatred is that they both want the same woman, Grushenka. Because Dmitri had threatened to kill his father and because he appears to have made off with his father’s bribe-money (for Grushenka), he is accused of his father’s murder. However, Smerdyakov, the lackey, is the real killer.
In the bosom of the novel is one of the greatest anti-God arguments in literature, set forth by Ivan Karamazov. In addition to the atrocities recited by Ivan that have been perpetrated against helpless children, he presents a classic concerning the temptations of Christ. It is called "The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor." Also commended to the reader is that touching chapter entitled "The Medical Experts and a Pound of Nuts."
Though he is technically not guilty of the murder, Dmitri Karamazov is pronounced guilty by jury trial. Like Raskolnikov and Dostoevsky himself, Dmitri is sentenced to Siberia. In some fashion all the brothers acknowledge their collective guilt in the murder.
IV. Theological EvaluationAt this juncture we will assess five major pillars in Dostoevsky’s theological framework. Dostoevsky, of course, was not a systematic theologian by profession, so he is even less systematic than a theological thinker such as John Wesley in the way he formulates truth.
A. His View of God
In general, Dostoevsky’s doctrine of God appears to be orthodox. He exhibits no maverick views, as did his contemporary Leo Tolstoy, who was anti-Trinitarian. Intriguingly, the principal atheists in Dostoevsky’s novels (Stavrogin and Kirillov in The Idiot, Ivan and Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov, and Svidrigaylov in Crime and Punishment) all commit suicide. It is as if Dostoevsky is saying that because these characters have forsaken Life—the One who is life—they see no meaning in this life and so end their earthly lives.
In Demons the author says that "faith in [God] is the refuge for mankind…as well as in the hope of eternal bliss promised to the righteous…"5
God was the fundamental datum beneath all of Dostoevsky’s writing. That is not to say that Dostoevsky did not wrestle with that reality over and over. As a matter of fact, he admitted that he would deal with doubts to his dying day. In his five-volume masterpiece on the famed novelist Joseph Frank commented: "Dostoevsky was to say…that the problem of the existence of God had tormented him all his life; but this only confirms that it was always emotionally impossible for him ever to accept a world that had no relation to a God of any kind."6 As hinted earlier, the type of unkind father Dostoevsky had experienced in early life probably contributed significantly to the breeding of his later doubts.
In filtering out the novelist’s theology from his writings, one must take into account the fact that not all Dostoevsky’s characters enunciatethe author’s personal beliefs. In fact, Dostoevsky, "as an artist, accord[ed] equal rights to his atheists," and "it is the atheists in his novels who do most of the theological talking!"7
One character in The Brothers Karamazov who reflects an aberrant view of God is a semi-crazy monk named Father Ferapont who makes an unbiblical distinction between the Holy Spirit and the Holy Ghost. Nevertheless, the overall eccentricity that Dostoevsky accords this character makes it abundantly plain that the writer himself does not hold this bizarre view.
No major analyst has really raised any serious questions about the orthodox view of God that Dostoevsky apparently held.