Another Pitch for Dostoevsky...

Lately, I’ve been reading a bit more philosophy than usual. One of the books in my backpack on a regular basis has been Henri De Lubac’s work, The Drama of Atheist Humanism. I may have posted about this book before (probably quite a while ago), but it continues to give rise to new ideas in my mind, which I think are worth writing down for others to consider.

In his exposition of atheist humanism’s rise and sustenance, De Lubac draws primarily from four thinkers: Feuerbach, Comte, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. Although background in all four schools of thought is preferable in understanding the full depth of De Lubac’s argument and synthesis, there is a very evident and consistent truth that pervades the entire work, and which has struck me profoundly. In the end, the author certainly sees, the intellectual environment of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been formed almost exclusively by an overwhelmingly atheistic outlook on reality; with Marxism as the social ideal of progressive countries and existentialism as the predominant literary style moving the hearts and minds of the world’s citizens, the atheistic ambiance is unmistakable. Contemporary art becomes formless, a Nietzschian Wille zur Macht manifests itself in the human spirit, and Humanity is shown as the ruling deity, and ultimately one constituted by its very disciples. In fact, the power of secular and atheistic humanism has become so strong, it seems, that can no longer be seen as the marginal practice of a few, but rather as the diametrically opposed alternative to classical religion. In other words, there is no middle ground; there is only belief or unbelief.

What strikes me most about such an insight into this “drama” of modern times is precisely the irreconcilable nature between faith and faithlessness. As a fan of Dostoevsky, I’m particularly fond of De Lubac identifying the great Russian novelist as a “prophet” of this whole phenomenon. Indeed, Dostoevsky’s work characterizes exactly the rift between faith and despair—between hope in God and hope in one’s self—most perceptibly in what De Lubac calls the author’s treatment of the “torment of God.” The characters in Dostoevsky’s books ultimately add up to a complete sketch of himself; he is the faithful Alyosha, the blasphemous Ivan, the murderous Raskolnikov and the truly Nietzschian “underground man.” His novels bear not only the burden of conveying a comprehensible plot, but also of imbuing that plot with the struggle of life, doubt and ultimately hopelessness. Truly Dostoevsky depicts in his work, as no other has, precisely what it is that defines the modern age.

Although it is difficult to tell where the noble author redeems his characters—since all of his work is really one big portrait of the human psyche—perhaps the most beautiful and telling realization of his own redemption can be found in a private journal entry, penned just before the end of his life. “The dolts have ridiculed my obscurantism,” writes Dostoevsky concerning The Brothers Karamazov, “and the reactionary character of my faith. These fools could not even conceive so strong a denial of God as the one to which I gave expression…The whole book is an answer to that. You might search Europe in vain for so powerful an expression of atheism. Thus it is not like a child that I believe in Christ and confess him. My hosanna has come forth from the crucible of doubt.” (cf. De Lubac, p. 296) Here the fullness of the atheistic problem is summed up: it is not a degree of disbelief, but rather the antithesis of belief and the antithesis of hope and love. Dostoevsky realized in his heart—after waging an all out war with his doubts—that faith alone suffices in giving man hope. De Lubac points to this in his work as well, concluding finally that Nietzsche, the most superlative proponent of atheism, “does not need anybody to refute him. He takes care of this task himself.”

In the end, “love alone is credible,” as Hans Urs von Balthasar states; and as Pope Benedict XVI so auspiciously reminds us, “God is love.”