Finding Christ Among the Karamazovs

I believe that for all of us [Dostoevsky] is an author that we must read and reread due to his wisdom.
—Pope Francis

Dostoevsky sought to portray the “person in the person.” His “higher realism,” rooted in his Christian faith, sees visible, finite reality as bearing an analogical relationship to an invisible, infinite reality. An analogical imagination recognizes that human persons are creatures, both like and radically unlike their Creator. Created in God’s image, persons are like God in their rationality, freedom, and capacity to create and love. But God is one and persons are many; God is unchanging and persons are mutable; God is infinite and persons are finite. Above all, persons are dependent as their existence is contingent upon God’s. God is not simply another being, but Being itself, the One in Whom all persons live and move and have their particular beings. Our existence as beings does not place us in the same ontological category as God. But the divine is not so utterly transcendent that our own rational conceptions of the good and true and beautiful bear no relation to God. They bear an analogical relation.

Christian faith understands God not only as Being but as Love. God is a unity of three persons bound in infinite, inter-relational, self-giving love. God’s love overflows to form creation and, in time, enters history and a particular place in the person of Christ. In Christ, the believer sees most clearly the image of God’s beauty, goodness, and truth. The infinite Word takes on creaturely flesh and finitude. But Christ’s descent into finitude and death brings forth resurrection, ascension, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. As Trinity, God is both One and three differentiated persons; Christ is both God and man, “without confusion . . . without separation” (Dogmatic Definition of Chalcedon). The analogical imagination is built upon the two doctrinal beams that undergird the Christian faith: Trinity and Incarnation. Analogy recognizes the unity in our human plurality: for all our particularity and diversity, we are each persons, and, in analogy to God’s Trinitarian nature, created to be in integral relation to other persons. Analogy recognizes that human love is both like and—given our creaturely, fallen frailty—unlike the Creator’s love.

Both like and unlike: a “both/and” approach to reality recognizes both its complexity and wholeness. It resists the temptation to order that complexity with too-tidy “either/or” categorizations. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (all citations come from the Susan McReynolds translation; page numbers are given in parentheses) represents reality as both graced gift and arduous task; the world as both sacramentally charged and sinfully fallen; paradise as both here and yet to come; persons as both open in their freedom to change and closed given the realities of time, interpersonal commitment, consequences of past actions, and even genetic inheritance. Dostoevsky depicts the human desire for holiness as demanding both willing receptivity and a willed (but never willful) effort of self-denial.

A both/and vision should not be understood as resulting in static indecision. Rather, it fosters a prudential appreciation of particularity that, in time, necessitates decisive action. Taking one road precludes taking another. Thus, the novel’s “both/and” vision recognizes that “either/or” moments are inevitable in human experience, and require the preparatory work of discernment. Having reached a clear apprehension of the truth of a particular situation, each character in the novel must decide and act. Rather than depleting personhood by foreclosing options, decisive action enhances it. Wholeness is found in the passage through the limited. Grace remains ever available in the place of fragmentation. As St. Thomas Aquinas emphasized, uncreated grace builds upon created nature; infinite freedom fosters finite, creatural freedom. Freedom exercised in “active love” is grounded in the person’s “precious mystic sense of our living bond with the other world” (276).

Active love itself has a both/and form: it integrates both human inclination, our attraction to the good and beautiful (eros) and sacrificial self-emptying on behalf of others (agape). Persons are called to participate in the divine self-emptying, the kenosis of “perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of [their] neighbor” (54), in acts of self-transcendence not of self-obliteration. Dostoevsky distinguishes the relational person from the autonomous self: “For Dostoevsky, it is a bad thing to lose one’s personality, but a good thing to lose one’s self ” (Corrigan, Dostoevsky and the Riddle of the Self,12). Paradoxically, he affirms that fullness of personhood—one’s “true self”—emerges only through the gift of self. In this way, Dostoevsky’s vision bears deep affinities to those of St. Augustine and Dante Alighieri—two other Christian “classics” to whom I will sometimes refer in my Dostoevsky's Incarnational Realism. For all three writers, eros and agape find a “hidden wholeness” in the practice of caritas. “Except a corn of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus spoke these words as he entered Jerusalem, and into his passion, death, and resurrection. The words comprise the novel’s epigraph and suggest its recurring theme. The epigraph presents a seminal image of both finitude and fruition. It suggests that self-giving love, in response to God’s own, is the human person’s deepest desire.

To reiterate, a both/and vision must include the reality of a decisive “either/or.” “See, I have today set before you life and good, death and evil” (Deut 30:15). Moses presents here a stark either/or, and in its similarly high-stakes choice between life and death the novel is both “both/and” and “either/or.” Paradoxically—and aptly—the cross becomes “the tree of life” “the roots” of which lie in the “other world” (276). The cross stands as the novel’s symbol for that which “brings forth much fruit.” Its counterimage is the gallows, chosen by the suicide. The night before the trial, Ivan vows to Alyosha: “Tomorrow the cross, but not the gallows” (549). This “either/or” is decisive. But even the tiniest of charitable deeds can re-direct and re-align a person to the form of Christ: the gift of a kiss, a pillow, or a “pound of nuts” that open an orphaned child’s eyes to the hidden ground of Trinitarian love (567–68). A gratuitously offered “little onion” (307, 311) can be salvific.

Given Dostoevsky’s radically inclusive vision of salvation “for all,” what of those who choose the gallows? Does Smerdyakov have his onion? Here too we find complexity: the novel complicates any quick condemnation of those who, like Smerdyakov (or Judas, his scriptural prototype), choose suicide. In the Gospel of Matthew, Judas “deeply regret[s] what he had done.” He returns the thirty pieces of silver and confesses. Only after being rebuffed by the priests does he commit suicide (Matt 27:3–5). Similarly, on the night before the trial, when Smerdyakov describes his murder to Ivan and hands him the blood money, the narrator admits that “It was impossible to tell if it was remorse he was feeling, or what” (529). Both tragic images complicate the reader’s overly hasty judgment, as does Zosima’s meditation which emphasizes both justice and mercy:

But woe to those who have slain themselves on earth, woe to the suicides! I believe that there can be none more miserable than they. They tell us that it is a sin to pray to God for them and outwardly the Church, as it were, renounces them, but in my secret heart I believe that we may pray even for them. Love can never be an offense to Christ. For such as those I have prayed inwardly all my life, I confess it, fathers and teachers, and even now I pray for them every day. (279)

The reader, implicated, is called to “go and do likewise.” In Zosima’s vision, and that of the novel as a whole, God’s love and the possibility of redemption extends even into hell, where God continues to call souls (279) and angels offer onions (303). “God wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:3–4); Zosima fulfills the Christian “obligation to hope for the salvation of all” (see: von Balthasar, Epilogue).

Dostoevsky sees like both a fox and a hedgehog: he perceives diverse particulars, but also their participation in a deeper “living unity.” His analogical vision of reality fosters clear-eyed hope left unavailable by an imagination that is univocal or equivocal. The univocal imagination forces unity where it does not exist. Recoiling from disorder, it imposes a totalizing and unblessed rage for order. Its political form is totalitarianism: the Grand Inquisitor annihilates human freedom in the name of “love [of] mankind” (223). In its interpersonal form, the univocal distorts reality by seeing the world in rigid, reified binaries: something or someone is either wholly good or wholly bad, either saved or damned. In a despotic insistence on sameness, the univocal rejects the mixed, messy, and imperfect. It elides the finite realities of time and place. It ignores the partial and particular by projecting a constructed ideal upon the real. It is impervious to surprise. In the novel, the univocal takes various forms, inevitably absurd, such as Ferapont’s hallucinatory asceticism, Katerina’s lacerating “self-sacrifice,” or Madame Khokhlakova’s “love in dreams.”

But here too complexity arises: even “love in dreams” cannot be too simply opposed to “active love.” It cannot be reduced to a negative in a neat Manichean binary, demonically defended as an “indispensable minus” (545). Madame Khokhlakova fantasizes about “becoming a sister of mercy,” but Zosima cannily (and comically) detects a grain of good in her dreams: “It is much, and well that your mind is full of such dreams and not others. Sometime, unawares, you might do a good deed in reality” (54). Some fantasies are better than others; Ivan’s wish for his father’s death corrodes his capacity for commitment. Contemporary psychologists corroborate Zosima’s insight: contemplating a change is the first step in the process of change.

But finally, after prudentially reaching a decision, one must act. As Zosima makes clear, if an overweening desire for others’ “approbation” takes precedence over integrally made decisions, one’s “whole life will slip away like a phantom” (55). The Grand Inquisitor reveals the destruction wrought by the univocal: his proclaimed “love of humankind” masks his contempt for persons, and his inclination to annihilate them. His demonic dehumanization foreshadows the totalitarian horrors of recent history. In Zosima’s (and Dostoevsky’s) imagination, hell is the refusal to love. In both this world and the next, hell has an exit, but as an existential condition remains a real option. Some refuse the way out, and for them “hell is voluntary” (279). The univocal imagination can lead to such hell.

The equivocal imagination is similarly infernal. It distorts the real by seeing in it nothing but intractable difference. Rather than imposing a false unity, the equivocal imagination relishes the mess, with a perverse amalgam of willful jouissance and Sartrean nausea. It rejects the unity, wholeness, and harmony that are given, but that also emerge out of the slow work of active love. Ethically, equivocation rejects the ordinary bonds that comprise human personhood: responsibilities to family, friends, and the common good. In the novel, Ivan and the illegitimate, unacknowledged fourth brother, Smerdyakov, exemplify equivocation. Ivan articulates the nihilistic vision (65) and Smerdyakov enacts it (531): “if there is no immortality [i.e. heaven, theosis, the telos of communal beatitude], there is no immorality. Everything is permitted” (65; emphasis added). In the novel, the equivocal imagination produces a “love of disorder,” motivated by willful, irrational self-assertion. Ivan and Smerdyakov, the younger Grushenka, Katerina, and Lisa melodramatically luxuriate in lacerating both themselves and others. They thus oppose the incarnational work of active love.

Janus-faced, the univocal and equivocal imaginations comprise a refusal of reality. By rejecting the ontological reality of the “hidden ground of love,” both reject unity within diversity. In place of that ontology they assert an epistemology that projects upon and cuts “against the grain” (545) of the real. The univocal compels order; the equivocal exacerbates disorder. Both reject reality as grounded in God’s self-giving love. Both choose “the gallows”: violence toward others and self.

The “analogy of being” has been described as the “fundamental Catholic form” (Przywara, Analogia Entis, 348). As a lifelong Catholic, I am aware that my partiality to the novel’s analogical dimension stems partly from my rootedness in that tradition. The many forms of Catholicism—liturgical, doctrinal, cultural, intellectual—in-form my reading of Dostoevsky’s novel. As my book Dostoevsky's Incarnational Realism illustrates, a wide array of notable Catholic writers have deeply resonated with Dostoevsky’s novels. Of course, the Russian novelist (and nationalist) wrote withering critiques of both Catholicism and Protestantism. Dostoevsky believed that through the truth of Orthodoxy “the star [would] arise in the East” (62) and save the world. I approach Dostoevsky’s classic with a degree of readerly “outsideness” and hermeneutic “prejudice.” But as Bakhtin and Gadamer suggest, such a readerly position can be hermeneutically fruitful. Furthermore, Catholicism and Orthodoxy share a sacramental tradition and an understanding that analogy entails both likeness and even greater unlikeness. In both their cataphatic and apophatic forms, Orthodoxy and Catholicism evince the incarnational realism I emphasize in my reading of the novel.

“Realism” is a word with a complex literary, philosophical, and theological valence to which I cannot do justice here. Suffice it to say “incarnational realism” refers not only to the late-nineteenth-century literary genre in which Dostoevsky writes, but to his philosophical/theological belief that the human mind is capable of apprehending the world as it is ontologically, even with our epistemological limitations and inheritance of “social constructions.” As literary scholar Susan Felch writes, the world outside of us “impinges upon us and sets limits to our ways of seeing, being, and acting in the world.” And we are ourselves limited by our particularity of perspectives; thus Susan’s term, “perspectival realism.” Realism must be “critical”; theologian N. T. Wright defines “critical realism” as:

A way of acknowledging the process of “knowing” that acknowledges the thing known as something other than the knower (hence “realism”) while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality is through the spiraling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence “critical”).

And, here, in part, is sociologist Christian Smith’s description:

Critical realism’s central organizing thought is that much of reality exists independently of human consciousness of it; . . . that humans can acquire a truthful though fallible knowledge and understanding of reality through various forms of disciplined conceptualization, inquiry, and theoretical reflection . . . [and] that knowledge and understanding of the truths about reality position knowers to critically engage the world in normative, prescriptive, and even moral terms . . . and [to] intentionally try to shape the world for the better.

Ethically, realism entails the indispensable practice of prudence. Through prudence we become more discerning, more responsible. By degrees, we become better able to receptively apprehend and respond to the real. In ordinary parlance, we aim to “be realistic.” Aware of human limits, we set practical, attainable goals—and (when it is prudent to do so!) implore those whom we care about to “get real.” Consider Zosima’s practical advice to Fyodor: “If you can’t close all [your taverns], at least two or three” (43; emphasis added). You have to start somewhere. And for Dostoevsky, God’s grace, which sustains reality itself, gives us the strength to begin again, to apprehend and respond to divine love.  

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is an excerpt from the book Dostoevsky's Incarnational Realism: Finding Christ Among the Karamazovs courtesy of Wipf & Stock Publishers and the author, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Featured Image: Nikolai Yaroshenko, Life Is Everywhere, 1888; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Paul Contino

Paul Contino is Professor of  Great Books at Seaver College, Pepperdine University. He is the author of Dostoevsky's Incarnational Realism: Finding Christ Among the Karamazovs.

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