Is God Russian? Dostoevsky Thought So

When Dostoevsky wrote that for man to be saved it was necessary that he should believe in the Russian God, he was speaking not more vaguely than most other professed researchers into salvation who work within a church. It is necessary that we should walk in the Spirit, said St. Paul. It is necessary, stammered St. Theresa in answer to an age when the awakened mind of the world was beginning to ask for clearer formulations, that grace should descend upon the essential of the soul. And past that vague passion of the seraphic doctor, theology has today advanced hardly a step towards finding out on what intellectual bases a man ought to rebuild his life if he wants to be saved from the peril of wasteful drinking or thinking, and become unalterably a part of the glory of the universe, the apprehension of which is religion. The task has been so completely abandoned by the churches that one could write a history of the moral aspirations of England since the death of Wesley without once mentioning the name of any man who was not a layman. Roman Catholicism has become more and more a social organization to control the ignorant, and a refuge for those among the educated who desire not so much salvation as an escape from democracy and the teasing discussions of life which are promoted by democracy. Protestantism has partly retroceded into an Anglicanism which is identical with Roman Catholicism in that it exists chiefly to maintain the present social system by inculcating obedience as the prime virtue; and its other part considers the emotions evoked by picturesque phrases about the Saviour on the Cross and the Blood of the Lamb to be magic experiences which automatically save the souls they visit and thus preclude the necessity for intellectual research into the salvation of humanity. That has become the fervent pursuit of the secular intelligence. It is the inquiry that looks over the shoulder of the man of science at every experiment; it is the preoccupation that sits like a judge in every artist’s brain. The discoveries of science and philosophy have opened such magic casements out of the world of appearances that they have attracted men of imagination, whose impulse it is to find out the beauty and significance of material, as strongly as they have repelled those who have staked their existence on the finality of the Christian revelation. And thus it is that the history of the research for redemption is written not in the liturgies but in literature.

It was Dostoevsky’s misfortune that the part of this discussion which came under his notice was the pert atheism and utilitarianism which were the dregs of the draught of ideas brewed by the French Revolution, and that he lacked the education to follow thought into her hidden and wonderful ways. So, just as fervently as he took up the research—and there never was a great artist more consciously preoccupied by it—did he turn his back on the culture which had evolved its technique and vocabulary, and link himself with a church that had never heard of this mental adventure. It was his further misfortune that it should be the Greek church; for though that sect has preserved the naïve grace and kindness of the early church and practices a morning Christianity with the dew still on it, it is a savage institution, and its ritual is blood-brother to the prayers mouthed into the beard round the black rock of Mecca, or any magic words howled under the moon by naked worshippers. Yet although each one of his books proved that the church’s terminology and processes were hopelessly inadequate for the pursuit of his ideal, he clung to it with that feverish obstinacy which comes of unstable nerves. He continued to talk of ikons and venerable elders who dwelt in cells, and this peculiarly, almost comically, Russian God, who seemed to distrust the Pope as a “furriner,” until he left a confused impression that it was his puerile ambition to see the world dominated by priests with pigtails rather than by priests with tonsures. And that is the impression which will remain in the mind unless one turn to the last read and least sympathetically regarded of all his works, The Possessed, one of the most tormented books in literature.

To all of us there comes at times a mood which wakes us up at two in the morning and makes us think quickly and lucidly and despairingly, so that we lie till the dawn watching the world spin down the skies to destruction. That mood fell upon Dostoevsky at the thought of the picking, spoiling hands and minds of the Nihilists, and it stayed with him all the many days of his writing of The Possessed. “The treetops roared with a deep droning sound, and creaked on their roots; it was a melancholy morning,” he writes in his account of the duel which was one of the graceless follies of Stavrogin, the man who might have been great had he not been paralyzed by Nihilism. And he conceived the nineteenth century to be just such a melancholy morning, with Russian life creaking on its roots, and its branches roaring with the wind of doubt and hate which chased across the steppes from godless Europe. At last he becomes distraught by his own gloom, and in one of those still, interminable nights when Stavrogin wanders restlessly about the streets of the little town against whose harmonies his fellows are conspiring, he throws aside the borrowed phrases of the church and cries out his real faith in his own words. He sends out Shatov, the Christian hero, an unstable, untalented thing, redeemed only by his hunger for truth, to pluck Stavorgin by the sleeve and try to recall him to thought and action by restating the idea that had lit up their youth.

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