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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Dostoevsky, Language, Faith, and Fiction by Rowan Williams

I've always thought the characters in Dostoevsky's fiction seem real. One reason is that they seem to have freedom. For example, no one ever wins an argument decisively, even the characters who represent Dostoevesky's own views.

The open, ambiguous, unresolved narrative insists on this, which is why novels are never popular with ideologues and do not flourish in climates where eschatology is excessively realized. You do not find fundamentalist novelists.

Dostoevesky doesn't seem to script and control events. Instead he provides the space for his characters to decide and speak for themselves. Rowan Williams made an intriguing suggestion that this is similar to the way God gives freedom to us.

Some think that God's foreknowledge would necessarily limit our real freedom. However, Rowan thought of it differently:
But if timelessness is taken seriously, we should have to say that what happens at all points is equally and in some sense simultaneously known to a God who is fully aware of every factor that has contributed to events at each moment - including the fact that this or that act was freely chosen.

Dostoevsky's vision of the meaning of hell:
the possibility of forgiveness is always present and the righteous in heaven are always ready to receive the damned, but those in hell know that they can no longer love - though Zosima wonders whether their grief at not being able to love opens them up to an unselfish gratitude for the love of the blessed in heaven, which in itself is a sort of love. For others, there is no alleviation: " they are already willing martyrs". They are in revolt against reality itself, demanding that there should be no God; they long not to exist. They represent, in fact, the final stage in that affirmation of freedom as the purely arbitrary assertion of self...

Dostoevesky talks a lot about the implications of God's existence/non-existence.
What happens "if God does not exist" is not that a particular item is withdrawn from the sum total of actual things, nor that a crucial sanction against evildoing is taken away, so that no punishment for evil can be guaranteed. It is that we are no longer able to see violence against others as somehow blasphemous, an offense against an eternal order; no longer able to see our dealings with each other as opening on to a depth of interiority that we cannot fathom or exhaust. In a world deprived of such possibilities, it is reasonable enough to respond to a suicide by saying "it was the best solution"; there is nothing definably insane about taking one's life.

Another summary from Rowan Williams on the same issue...
The difference between the self-aware believer, the self-aware sinner and the conscious and deliberate atheist is not a disagreement over whether or not to add one item to the sum total of really existing things. It is a conflict about policies and possibilities for a human life: between someone who accepts the dependence of everything on divine gratuity and attempt to respond with some image of that gratuity, someone who accepts this dependence but fails to act appropriately in response, and someone who denies the dependence and is consequently faced with the unanswerable question of why any one policy for living is preferable to any other.

The question of God and the suffering of children:
If there were a way of saying that the suffering of children did not matter, it would be immeasurably easier to give our allegiance to the notion of a universal moral order and a just and loving God, but it is precisely the conviction of order and divine love that makes the suffering of children beyond justification or mitigation, because it is this conviction that anchors the "depth" of the child's being in a way that nothing else does. Faith, in this context, is anything but consoling. If the only possible reply to Ivan's catalogue is Alyosha's admission that he could not imagine torturing a single child for the sake of cosmic harmony, what becomes of the possibility of anything like reasoned faith?.... Alyosha is right in refusing the idea that any particular suffering can be seen as a means to someone else's purpose (even God's). But what kind of creation is it that produces personal identities that are so valuable for their own sake or in their own right that their value is totally detached from whatever fate lies in store for them?


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