Sunday, March 16, 2008

Tolstoy's "A Confession" - Part I

After finishing "Anna Karenina" I've been lead through to Leo Tolstoy's "A Confession" which is somewhat of a testimony of Tolstoy's own journey to faith. For those who don't know, Born into Russian Orthodoxy, Tolstoy was an agnostic for most of his life before coming to Christianity well into his fifties. But even then, Tolstoy did not become your orthodox Orthodox Christian. Based on his radical interpretation of Christ's teachings and particular the Sermon on the Mount, Tolstoy espoused a form of Christianity known as "Christian Anarchism", which prides itself on strict adherence to the teachings of Christ, and chiefly involves the conscientious objection to violence, whether by the individual or by the State.

In the first part of his fifteen part confession, Tolstoy speaks about his fall away from faith in his teenage years. He also tells an interesting story about an individual going through the motions of religious belief without realising that he had become agnostic:

So that, now as formerly, religious doctrine, accepted on trust and supported by external pressure, thaws away gradually under the influence of knowledge and experience of life which conflict with it, and a man very often lives on, imagining that he still holds intact the religious doctrine imparted to him in childhood whereas in fact not a trace of it remains.

S., a clever and truthful man, once told me the story of how he ceased to believe. On a hunting expedition, when he was already twenty-six, he once, at the place where they put up for the night, knelt down in the evening to pray — a habit retained from childhood. His elder brother, who was at the hunt with him, was lying on some hay and watching him. When S. had finished and was settling down for the night, his brother said to him: “So you still do that?”

They said nothing more to one another. But from that day S. ceased to say his prayers or go to church. And now he has not prayed, received communion, or gone to church, for thirty years. And this not because he knows his brother’s convictions and has joined him in them, nor because he has decided anything in his own soul, but simply because the word spoken by his brother was like the push of a finger on a wall that was ready to fall by its own weight. The word only showed that where he thought there was faith, in reality there had long been an empty space, and that therefore the utterance of words and the making of signs of the cross and genuflections while praying were quite senseless actions. Becoming conscious of their senselessness he could not continue them.

Tolstoy suggests quite strongly that one cannot be an honest believer as an adult without first losing the faith of his or her childhood. Implied throughout this chapter seems to be a fairly damning indictment of the established church and of its followers, whom he believes to be playing mere games and calling this their faith, either through motivation of profit or fear of reproach and having to be honest with oneself. Tolstoy also communicates the pain of severing oneself from faith of one's childhood, but clearly believes that this is necessary to progress as a Christian. But for Tolstoy, this progress would only take place through many decades of rigorous soul searching ...

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