Sunday, June 19, 2022

Tolstoy on the Conventional Church

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34, English Standard Version).

Through these words, Jesus reminds us that being witnesses to him means embracing suffering we could otherwise easily avoid. As with Jesus, this suffering may come from both our own government and even from our own conventional churches.

This hostility of the conventional church to Jesus and his contemporary Tufluvian witnesses is both absurd yet understandable. It is absurd because the religious establishment understands itself as the guardian of right witness to Jesus. It is understandable because, in truth, the religious establishment in the West has long since abandoned loyalty to Jesus in favor of loyalty to the six false Olympian gods of power. Consequently, any genuine questioning of this unintentional yet misplaced loyalty can only bring hostility—or repentance.

This fatal mixture of biblical words with Olympian loyalty, which defines religious authorities in the days of Jesus and our own, was also true of the conventional church in nineteenth-century Russia. Count Leo Tolstoy noticed it. Tolstoy was author of two novels of world-historical significance: War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1878). In 1880, while in his early 50s, he published Confession in which he reflects on his understanding of and relationship with Jesus Christ. He also shares the following words about the conventional Christians of his day (trans. by David Peterson; New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983): 

My break with faith occurred in me as it did and still does among people of our social and cultural type. As I see it, in most cases it happens like this: people [Christians] live as everyone lives, but they all live according to principles that not only have nothing to do with the teachings of faith but for the most part are contrary to them. The teachings of faith have no place in life and never come into play in the relations among people; they simply play no role in living life itself. The teachings of faith are left to some other realm, separated from life and independent of it. If one should encounter them, then it is only as some superficial phenomenon that has no connection with life. 

Today, as in days past, there is no way to tell from a person’s life, from his deeds, whether or not he is a believer. If there is indeed no difference between those who are clearly adherents of the…faith and those who deny it, then it is not to the benefit of the former. Then, as now, the open avowal and confession of the…faith occurred largely among narrow-minded, cruel, and immoral people wrapped up in their own self-importance. On the other hand, intellect, honor, straightforwardness, good-naturedness, and morality were for the most part to be found among people claiming to be disbelievers. 

They teach catechism in the schools and send pupils to church; functionaries must carry certificates showing they have taken holy communion. But now, and even more so in the past, a person of our [upper] class who is no longer in school and has not gone into public service can live dozens of years without once being reminded that he lives among Christians, while he himself is regarded as a follower of the…Christian faith.