cjbanning: (Default)
The Gospel in BriefThe Gospel in Brief by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


The most interesting thing about this book is not that it omits "the miracles," but that it is a harmonization of the four canonical gospels; that is, it edits together material from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John without regard to the specific and differing agendas the authors of each of those works were pursuing in their specific accountings of the Christ myth to their specific audiences in their specific places and times, in favor of Tolstoy's own pet interpretation of what the Christian message is (or should be) saying. In doing so, multiple perspectives are collapsed into a single perspective, and the gospel loses the important dialectical plurality manifested in the canonical version in favor of a dogmatic, modernist "one true reading."



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cjbanning: (The Bishop)
"[Tolstoy] is not a mystic; and therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men [sic] talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism; they are a mere drop in the bucket. In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticism has kept men [sic] sane." -- Chesterton, quoted here
The subtitle to Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God Is Within You, our book club book and the subject of a couple of recent posts, is Christianity Not As a Mystic Religion But As a New Theory of Life. Implicit in this title seems to be a conflation of mysticism and supernaturalism which is endemic throughout the text and seriously weakens Tolstoy's ability to engage with the religion, for it causes Tolstoy in his quite correct (in my opinion) resistance to supernaturalism to throw the baby out with the bathwater and also reject the core of Christian mysticism which runs throughout Scripture and Tradition, leaving him only with a weakly modernist set of humanist ethics.

Tolstoy's version of Christianity, then, falls into a type of angel worship by de-throning the mystic, living, Risen Christ who works in history via the Spirit. Tolstoy writes in the third chapter, "The Church as a church, whatever it may be--Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian--every church, in so far as it is a church, cannot but strive [. . .] to conceal the real meaning of Christ's teaching and to replace it by their own, which lays no obligation on them, [and] excludes the possibility of understanding the true teaching of Christ." By asserting a "true teaching of Christ" Tolstoy thus limits Christ to a human doctrine, trying to place God within the categories of human beings.

Tolstoy thinks he does so in the name of reason and science, but it is not Christian mysticism which lies in contradiction thereto, but Christian supernaturalism. Supernaturalism represents the claim that some set of empirical phenomena operate in a manner which is, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, "beyond the order or laws of the whole created nature" (ST I:102:4). (For further thoughts on the supernatural, see my post here.) Mysticism, on the other hand, makes no falsifiable claims about creation, and thus cannot find itself in tension with science. Instead it attempts to provide insight into that which cannot be said when we have come up against the limits of our language, and attempt to perceive that which is made manifest in experience. The Trinity, the Real Presence, and the Unity of the Church are examples of mystical doctrines, not supernatural claims.

Tolstoy joyfully skewers those who place their faith solely in tradition (his caricature of Roman Catholocism and Eastern Orthodoxy) or in scripture (his caricature of Protestantism)--and of course he is right to do so (for there are of course Christians of all brands who do indeed live up to the caricatures). But his own modernist account of what Christianity ought to teach similarly elevates reason as its sole authority. There's nothing wrong with this, per se: certainly being reliant on reason is far superior to a slavish, unthinking devotion to either scripture or tradition alone, and I don't have any real argument, yet alone a proof, that scripture and tradition represent legitimate sources of revelation when used in moderation, or that Tolstoy should recognize them as such, anymore than I have an argument against sola scriptura (well, other than that the doctrine of sola scriptura is nowhere to be found in the Bible).

And yet the truly catholic option is to allow scripture, tradition, and reason to enter into dialogue with each other--the "three-legged stool" of Anglicanism. (Add in experience and you get the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.) And it is precisely this sort of relationality which lies at the very heart of Trinitarian Christianity.
cjbanning: (Default)
  • One of the Amazon reviewers refers to Tolstoy as being "essentially a liberal postmillennialist, believing in a humanistic method of success to the divine intent for man." Well, I'm a liberal postmillenialist (but not a full preterist, since full preterism is incompatible with the creeds) myself, so that's a point in Tolstoy's favor. I'm not exactly sure what the rest of that sentence, the part after "believing," actually means, though.
  • From Chapter 2:
    The command against fornication they [i.e., the teachers of the Church] do really recognize, and consequently they do not admit that in any case fornication can cease to be wrong. The Church preachers never point out cases in which the command against fornication can be broken, and always teach that we must avoid seductions which lead to temptation to fornication. But not so with the command of non-resistance. All church preachers recognize cases in which that command can be broken, and teach the people accordingly. [. . .] But in connection with the commandment of non-resistance they openly teach that we must not understand it too literally, but that there are conditions and circumstances in which we must do the direct opposite, that is, go to law, fight, punish.
    So since I (and other modern-day Christians who are in some sense or other social liberals) don't think fornication is always wrong, I can get away with not being a pacifist? (Admittedly, I'm not sure how we're defining "fornication" here. But there's a parallel equivocation in Tolstoy over "murder.")
  • From the same chapter:
    And to reply that that is evil which I think evil, in spite of the fact that my opponent thinks it good, is not a solution of the difficulty. There can only be two solutions: either to find a real unquestionable criterion of what is evil or not to resist evil by force.

    The first course has been tried ever since the beginning of historical times, and, as we all know, it has not hitherto led to any successful results.
    This seems to beg the question. That people disagree over what is to be termed evil is not particularly interesting, and indeed indicative of a healthy dialectic. It's true that I believe social conservatism to be evil, and the social conservative thinks the same of social liberalism. But we have a mechanism by which differing opinions on the nature of evil are able to engage with each other such that inferior arguments are placed to rest: it's the dialectic of history.

    Indeed, it's precisely my liberal postmillenialism which leads me to argue that our understanding of evil is improving over history in a way which will result in the final construction of the Kin(g)dom of God. (And note that when I put it that way, Tolstoy thinks that too.) Tolstoy's rejection of the Trinity robs him of the Spirit who, according to the Episcopal catechism, is revealed in the New Covenant "as the Lord who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ." The deuterocanonical book known as the Wisdom of Solomon reminds us that God's "Wisdom guided Her disciples safely though all the tribulations" (11:9); "She rewarded the labors of a holy people and guided them on a wondrous quest" (11:17). (More on this in my essay History and Christ.)

    The notion that we cannot act unless we are 100% certain (and actual philosophical certainty, not just psychological conviction) of the moral rightness of our actions is a reductio ad absurdum in and of itself. Yes, we will err; that's a necessary result of our fallen human nature. But that doesn't free us from the obligation to fight for what we think is right.



cjbanning: (Bowed Head)
I'm constantly amazed at how much so many things I learned in my high school theology classes not only have stuck with me, but actually have become a core component of who I am. One of the most enduring and central of the concepts I learned in high school was of the "two feet of justice": the works of mercy on the one hand (or, well, foot) and social action on the other.

My high school theology textbook Justice and Peace (Harcourt, 2000) begins by telling the story of Who will save the babies? from the Inter-Religious Task Force for Social Analysis. (If you're not familiar with the story, go read it. I'll be here when you come back.) This parable is one I heard not only in my high school theology class but also in sermons at both Ascension and Circle of Hope, because it's very good at making clear what's required in social justice work.

Anyway, the two feet of justice:

The works of mercy are feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, and providing other examples of direct aid to those who are in need of it. It treats the symptoms of injustice, with those with power choosing in their freedom to give to those in need. They leave the overarching structures in place, and indeed in many ways act to support those structures, in that they relieve the pressure placed upon the system (a "vent") or can create a dependence upon the largesse of the powerful (making them even more powerful).

Any system which relies on the works of mercy to provide for the needs of human freedom and dignity is fundamentally flawed.

Our system is fundamentally flawed, and thus the works of mercy are crucially necessary, as well as being commanded by Jesus in scripture. 

Social action works to complement the works of mercy by attacking the underlying disease which is injustice through engagement with the social, political, economic, and cultural systems. The U.S. [Roman] Catholic Bishops write, "Our Lord’s example and words [. . .] require action on a broader scale in defence of life, in pursuit of peace, in support of the common good, and in opposition to poverty, hunger, and injustice. Such action involves the institutions and structures of society, economy, and politics.” This vision of justice, then, is at odds with isolationist or exilic understandings of the mission of the Church (such as that undertaken by several historic peace churches, including the Anabaptists). It is absolutely in conflict with the following vision of Tolstoy, from our book club book The Kingdom of God is Within You (link is to the full text of the public domain translation used in book club),  describing Helchitsky (whoever that may be):
Helchitsky's fundamental idea is that Christianity, by allying itself with temporal power in the days of Constantine, and by continuing to develop in such conditions, has become completely distorted, and has ceased to be Christian altogether. Helchitsky gave the title The Net of Faith to his book, taking as his motto the verse of the Gospel about the calling of the disciples to be fishers of men [sic]; and, developing this metaphor, he says:
"Christ, by means of his disciples, would have caught all the world in his net of faith, but the greater fishes broke the net and escaped out of it, and all the rest have slipped through the holes made by the greater fishes, so that the net has remained quite empty. The greater fishes who broke the net are the rulers, emperors, popes, kings, who have not renounced power, and instead of true Christianity have put on what is simply a mask of it."
Helchitsky teaches precisely what has been and is taught in these days by the non-resistant Mennonites and Quakers, and in former tunes by the Bogomilites, Paulicians, and many others. He teaches that Christianity, expecting from its adherents gentleness, meekness, peaceableness, forgiveness of injuries, turning the other cheek when one is struck, and love for enemies, is inconsistent with the use of force, which is an indispensable condition of authority.

The Christian, according to Helchitsky's reasoning, not only cannot be a ruler or a soldier; he [sic] cannot take any part in government nor in trade, or even be a landowner; he [sic] can only be an artisan or a husbandman [sic].
The underlying assumption in this account that is liberal democracy (and, indeed, every other potential form of political governance) is fundamentally incapable of allowing for the flourishing of human freedom and dignity, because it utilizes violence (e.g., in its police force).

I think the flaw here is that Tolstoy and Helchitsky are actually using a far too narrow definition of "violence," where violence is understood only as physical force or the threat thereof, which discounts the ways in which poverty, hunger, sexism, racism, and homophobia all act as a species of social and cultural violence. (And, indeed, the where the threat of physical violence ends and social and cultural violence begins is far from clear, as anyone who has been bullied in high school can tell you.) Furthermore, they are forms of violence which are far more destructive to human freedom and dignity that can be any knife or gun, bullet or bomb.

The parent teaching their child about the life of Jesus Christ is perpetuating a sort of propagandizing violence, but one which would presumably remain appropriate within Tolstoy's dream anarchy. The social perpetuation of values in this soi-disant "anarchy" then, would still necessarily constitute a form of violence, because these sorts of institutions represent the ways that humans necessarily interact with each other: through language, through ritual, through culture.

My high school theology textbook draws a distinction between "graced social structures" and "sinful social structures." Graced structures, it tells me, "encourage and strengthen life, dignity, and the development of the community" (p. 73). (Sinful structures discourage those things.) This seems to me a much more useful way of approaching the project of social justice than violent vs. non-violent or governmental versus non-governmental. "Taxation," my theology textbook says, "can be structured in ways that either promote community and care or facilitate selfishness and greed."

Rather than refusing to engage with the socio-politcal economy of the secular world, social action seeks to destabilize sinful social structures through full engagement. 
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


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