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Dostoyevsky and Miracles

September 18th, 2006 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov unquestionably is one of the greatest novels of Western literature. I would not rank it as “the” greatest, as some do, because that spot is reserved for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Even so, I probably have read it a dozen times since first coming across it in high school. It’s one of those books that keeps asking questions; every time you read it, you notice new things about it, particularly the characters, their milieu, their thoughts and ideas, their circumstances. On the most recent of these re-reads, I particularly noticed a passage at the beginning of Chapter V of Book I of Part One. Somebody – a narrator – maybe Dostoyevsky himself? – is describing the character of Alyosha. But he then goes off on a brief excurses regarding miracles, as follows:

…to my thinking, miracles are never a stumbling-block to the realist. It is not miracles that dispose realists to belief. The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognized by him. Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith. If the realist once believes, then he is bound by his very realism to admit the miraculous also. The Apostle Thomas said that he would not believe till he saw, but when he did see he said, “My Lord and my God!” Was it the miracle forced him to believe? Most likely not, but he believed solely because he desired to believe and possibly he fully believed in his secret heart even when he said, “I do not believe till I see.”

Thomas, of course, was the apostle who doubted Jesus’ resurrection. As recounted at John 20:24 – 29, Thomas had to feel Jesus’ wounds, before believing he had risen from the dead. It has to be said that Dostoyevsky gives Thomas short shrift; by saying that it was “most likely not” the miracle that forced Thomas to believe, in a way, Dostoyevsky short-circuits his premise. A more natural reading of the Thomas incident is that Thomas, initially a realist, then became a believer, upon experiencing the miracle. He wasn’t a believer sub silentio, all along; the whole point of the passage is to emphasize the force and strength of the miracle, especially when juxtaposed against Thomas’ doubt. While it certainly is true that Thomas would continue to doubt “but for” the miracle, Dostoyevsky adopts what we might call an “ultra-realist” point-of-view: that even people who genuinely believe they have experienced a miracle, and even when those people start off being first-class doubters, they still probably haven’t “actually” experienced a miracle, they’re just predisposed to think so, or somehow became deluded into thinking they had, when in fact they hadn’t.

This fits in with Dostoyevsky’s over-all belief structure: as a realist himself, he wants to eliminate, or at least drastically curtail, the role of miracles in religious belief. This would include not only Christ’s resurrection, but also others such as the virgin birth, the loaves and the fishes, and dozens of others in the New Testament.

Dostoyevsky does not come right out and say it quite this way, but there is plenty of evidence for this conclusion, in the text. In particular, he uses the Grand Inquisitor as a foil for his own beliefs – the Grand Inquisitor himself holding down both sides of the dialog, i.e., his own beliefs versus what he imagines to be Christ’s belief’s (he has to do this, seeing as Christ remains silent throughout the entire chapter).

For example, as the Grand Inquisitor observes, Jesus didn’t climb down off the cross, even though he had the power to do so, because he did not want “to enslave man through miracle, but to obtain faith in Thee freely and apart from any miraculous influence.”

He also hypothesizes the reason why Christ did not turn stones into bread [Matthew 4:3] is because it would transform man into a condition of dependency: “this is what Thou hast rejected for the sake of that freedom which Thou hast exalted above everything. Yet in this question lies hid the great secret of this world. Choosing ‘bread,’ Thou wouldst have satisfied the universal and everlasting craving of humanity–to find someone to worship. So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.”

The Grand Inquisitor, on the other hand, believes that man cannot “remain without miracles, so, rather than live without, he will create for himself new wonders of his own making.” Although not stated by the Grand Inquisitor, Dostoyevsky also is willing to say the converse also is true – for example, during their meeting at the tavern, Ivan observes to Alyosha: “I think if the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.”

Ivan takes this up again in his remarkable chat with the devil, far later in the book, in the chapter entitled “Ivan’s Nightmare” — clearly intended as a counterpart to the tale of the Grand Inquisitor. Whether the devil exists — as opposed, for example, to being a figment of the imagination, or a social construct — is Ivan’s main issue, throughout the entire book. Ivan may have been suffering from what (interestingly) is called “brain fever.” The devil appears before him, not with fire and brimstone, but rather, in ordinary guise. He states:

“[W]hat’s the good of believing against your will? Besides, proofs are no help to believing, especially material proofs. Thomas believed, not because he saw Christ risen, but because he wanted to believe, before he saw. Look at the spiritualists, for instance…. I am very fond of them… only fancy, they imagine that they are serving the cause of religion, because the devils show them their horns from the other world. That, they say, is a material proof, so to speak, of the existence of another world. The other world and material proofs, what next! And if you come to that, does proving there’s a devil prove that there’s a God?”

In other words, the devil is just like God, in that his existence depends upon people believing in him. But he also plays a more significant role, because without the devil, people might not recognize God, to begin with. The devil states:

“Before time was, by some decree which I could never make out, I was predestined ‘to deny’ and yet I am genuinely good-hearted and not atall inclined to negation. ‘No, you must go and deny, without denial there’s no criticism and what would a journal be without a column of criticism?’ Without criticism it would be nothing but one ‘hosannah.’ But nothing but hosannah is not enough for life, the hosannah must be tried in the crucible of doubt and so on, in the same style. … Well, they’ve chosen their scapegoat, they’ve made me write the column of criticism and so life was made possible. We understand that comedy; I, for instance, simply ask for annihilation. No, live, I am told, for there’d be nothing without you. If everything in the universe were sensible, nothing would happen. There would be no events without you, and there must be events. So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what’s irrational because I am commanded to. For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy. They suffer, of course… but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one, for suffering is life. Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it? It would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious.”

In other words, just as suffering lends piquancy to life, so the devil is a necessary correlate, or even a reciprocal, to the concept of God. Incidentally, as shown by these passages, Dostoyevsky also may have solved the age-old problem of “why is there evil in the world.” There is evil, because only by reference to what is evil, can we define what is good.

This leads, however, to a peculiar kind of solipsism. The devil asks Ivan to imagine a kind of tabula rosa, a clean slate, without presupposition, where man can inquire anew whether God exists.

“As soon as men have all of them denied God … the old conception of the universe will fall of itself … and, what’s more, the old morality, and everything will begin anew. Men will unite to take from life all it can give, but only for joy and happiness in the present world. Man will be lifted up with a spirit of divine Titanic pride and the man-god will appear. From hour to hour extending his conquest of nature infinitely by his will and his science, man will feel such lofty joy from hour to hour in doing it that it will make up for all his old dreams of the joys of heaven. Everyone will know that he is mortal and will accept death proudly and serenely like a god. His pride will teach him that it’s useless for him to repine at life’s being a moment, and he will love his brother without need of reward. Love will be sufficient only for a moment of life, but the very consciousness of its momentariness will intensify its fire, which now is dissipated in dreams of eternal love beyond the grave’… and so on and so on in the same style.”

The devil asks Ivan if this period will ever come. Even the devil himself is dubious — “owing to man’s inveterate stupidity,” it may not come about “for at least a thousand years.” However, there is a solution to the dilemma. “[E]veryone who recognises the truth even now may legitimately order his life as he pleases, on the new principles. In that sense, ‘all things are lawful’ for him.”

All things are lawful” — another one of Ivan’s themes. As if to demonstrate how dangerous it is, though, Dostoyevsky has Smerdyakov cite this exact proposition, as partial justification for killing Fyodor Pavlovitch. Smerdyakov does not do so, however, in an intellectual or “philosophical” way — one gets the sense he’s just parroting something he heard from Ivan. Perhaps this illustrates the danger of complex thoughts for simple people, and hence the need for miracles as a more rudimentary kind of proxy.

Ivan’s devil is very believable. In attempting to explain him to Alyosha, Ivan says he is a “simple devil and not Satan, with scorched wings, in thunder and lightning.” Ivan further characterizes him as a “paltry, trivial devil.” Just like Christ in the story of the Grand Inquisitor, he visits Ivan as a wholly ordinary, mild-mannered type of person. While I don’t know for sure, I think Dostoyevsky may be trying to say that spirituality, and even religion, may be found all around us, even in the trivial and commonplace. It doesn’t have to come and announce itself as religion per se. In this respect, in the final analysis, Dostoyevsky may be a naturalistic pantheist, along the lines of someone like Spinoza.

These exchanges pretty much sum up Dostoyevsky’s over-all take on the issue, which is, that enlightened or knowing belief is preferable to simply believing, without knowing why. Indeed, this is the very reason why the Grand Inquisitor rejects Christ – because he (i.e., the Grand Inquisitor) does not believe the people of the earth can accept the freedom offered by informed choice. At least, this is his proffered reason; he probably also is worried about the diluted authority of the Church, in the event there is some kind of wholesale revisionism to the canonical Christian text.

Indeed, this is why he commands Christ to remain silent. In a passage that is eerily reminiscent to the closing lines of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, the Grand Inquisitor observes that everything that needs to be said, already has been said, and therefore to say anything more, would be meaningless. The Grand Inquisitor also surely knows that the ancient Israelites were prohibited even to speak the name of God, so instead they adopted the syllables YHWH, which we now translate as “Yahweh.”

Father Zossima, of course, is the counterpart to the Grand Inquisitor, and in many ways picks up where the Grand Inquisitor leaves off. In his reminiscences, as written down by Alyosha, Father Zossima states his belief that the people of the earth in fact are up to the task imposed by the Grand Inquisitor, that is, to accept the freedom offered by informed choice. Father Zossima says: “Salvation will come from the people, from their faith and their meekness. * * * Fathers and teachers, watch over the people’s faith and this will not be a dream. I’ve been struck all my life in our great people by their dignity, their true and seemly dignity. I’ve seen it myself, I can testify to it, I’ve seen it and marvelled at it, I’ve seen it in spite of the degraded sins and poverty-stricken appearance of our peasantry. They are not servile, and even after two centuries of serfdom they are free in manner and bearing, yet without insolence, and not revengeful and not envious.”

What’s most interesting about Dostoyevsky’s approach is that miracles present an epistemological problem, not a metaphysical one. Miracles are more a problem of having enough evidence, than anything else. In this respect, it’s interesting to juxtapose the story of the Grand Inquisitor against the Biblical story of Job. Job continues to believe, despite plenty of evidence that he no longer should. This is every bit as puzzling as its reciprocal, that is, not believing when there’s plenty of evidence you should, which is Dostoyevsky’s perspective.

You almost want to ask Dostoyevsky: “Would there ever be enough evidence for you to believe in a miracle?” If in reply he says, “No,” as I’m afraid he would, then something suspicious is going on; for, he also then should assent to the proposition that believers should continue to believe, regardless. This means they are not susceptible to rational persuasion, or any quantum of contrary evidence; which contradicts his original premise that miracles should be regarded skeptically.