Monday, May 03, 2010

Dostoevsky on Christ and Truth?

Monument to Dostoevsky
Russian State Library, Moscow
(Image from Times Online)

I once criticized the Archbishop of Canterbury in this blog for his suggestion that sharia be legally recognized as applying to British Muslims on issues of family law if they wished to appeal to Islamic principles, for he seemed not to realize that women are accorded fewer rights than men in sharia. On a personal level, however, I like Archbishop Rowan Williams, and I speak in the strictest sense of "personal," for I met the person in Scotland at St. Andrews some years back during a conference there on the Gospel of John. Probably, I like him because he laughed at a joke that I made.

I imagine that I would also like what he has to say much of the time, and I ought to read his book on a subject of mutual interest, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction. The book was published two years ago, so I'm too late for reading to review, but Salley Vickers reviewed it in 2008 for The Times in an article available online. Ms. Vickers goes to the heart of the matter concerning Dostoevsky, as does the Archbishop, for she writes:
Williams begins [his book] with a perplexing comment in the 1854 letter that Dostoevsky wrote when just released from labour camp. The letter, to the woman who had given him, while in prison, a copy of the New Testament which had dramatically affected his beliefs, asserts "if someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it was really the case that the truth lay outside Christ, then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth". This declaration has disturbed Dostoevsky readers ever since. Versions of it resound throughout the fiction, finding the clearest echo in The Devils, in the question put to one of the characters: "Didn't you tell me that if it were mathematically proved to you that truth was outside Christ you would rather remain with Christ than truth?"
This passage by Ms. Vickers motivates me to order a copy of the Archbishop's book, for I'd like to know how he unpacks Dostoevsky's assertion of a fideism against his better judgment in the hypothetical case Dostoevsky sets up. The novelist's remark sounds extreme, but I wonder how many contemporary Christians may have intuited the same potential dilemma. A couple of times in the past two years, I've heard intelligent ministers offer similarly fideistic views, one of them arguing that we must set aside our human logic and accept God's truth and the other arguing that we have to get back behind the Age of Reason and accept some mysteries that sound like a contradiction.

Well, I have a problem with that sort of fideism, for if one accepts that contradictions are acceptable, how does one decide which contradictions to accept, given that there are an unbounded number to choose from?

In my opinion, a contradiction requires resolution, or least an honest attempt at resolution, rather than the sacrifice of one's rationality. I'm not so arrogant as to imagine that I can resolve all contradictions, but I do believe that they impose a duty on us to attempt resolution.

I'd therefore like to see what the Archbishop has to say on Dostoevsky's formulation of this problem.

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At 1:49 PM, Anonymous Phil said...

".....if someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it was really the case that the truth lay outside Christ, then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth....."

Wouldn't this be like trying to prove a negative, which I'm told isn't philosophically possible?

If so, Christ can't be proved or disproved. Therefore to believe in him no matter what, would be entirely rational.

At 2:11 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That might be an artifact of Dostoevsky's manner of expression, assuming that one reads it as saying that one could prove that Christ is not in the truth. But in that sense, the negative statement could potentially be made about anyone or anything, and thus be unprovable, but I'm not sure that one should therefore believe in everyone and everything (whether one holds such belief rational or not).

At any rate, perhaps one could say that Dostoevsky's statement means that even if one were to demonstate that certain incontrovertible facts about Christ are inconsistent with divinity, Dostoevsky would still persist in believing in the divinity of Christ.

That, I think, would be irrational.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:11 PM, Blogger The Red Witch said...

I have read all of Dostoevsky's novels. I have not studied him in any debt however beyond a discussion at uni about the story in Brothers Karamazov about what might happen if Christ returned.
I wonder if Dostoyevsky meant by that statement - "if someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it was really the case that the truth lay outside Christ, then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth" - that he loved the idea of what Christ represented: love and compassion. Isn't that better than the truth?

At 3:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Red Witch, that's the central issue at stake here, in my opinion.

Dostoevsky's dilemma offers an instance from that category of unpalatable truths that are conceivably more harmful than illusions.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:50 AM, Blogger The Red Witch said...

Exactly. And I just noticed a typo on my earlier post. Debt should have been depth. LOL. Just goes to show, you should not trust spellcheck.

At 5:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

My brain caught it and made the correction. Oddly, that correction didn't show up on my blog . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:17 AM, Blogger Jacqueline Holland said...

Perhaps Dostoevsky felt that he knew Christ so intimately and loved Christ so deeply that if it were somehow proved that Christ were not true, he would be incapable of ceasing to love him and would go off in exile to the realm of the untrue with the Christ whom he loved more than "truth."

At 11:45 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Perhaps, but it is problematic, isn't it?

Jeffery Hodges

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