Rowan Williams on Dostoevsky

From an interview with Bridget Kendall on BBC’s Radio 4:

BK: So are you saying, then, that Russian spirituality offers something that you don’t get here in Britain?

RW: Russian spirituality, I think, offers a number of things which, at the very least, bits of western tradition rather overlay, or occlude.  There’s the long-standing, very deep-rooted tradition, not just Russian but universal in the Christian east, of the prayer of Jesus—the repetition of the formula “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me”, the attention you pay to your breathing in almost a yogic kind of way.  That very deep-rooted tradition is something which lots and lots of western Christians have recovered more recently.  But I think also the powerful sense in, again, eastern Christianity generally but Russian Christianity in particular, of the things of this world being shot through with puzzle, beauty, mystery, danger.  The liturgy as a great drama—worship as not just addressing a few well-chosen remarks to God but being caught up in something, in the fullest sense, theatrical.  That, again, matters quite a bit to me and it’s not something which the western tradition has always been good at.

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BK: You know, it seems a long way from the public debates of our age that you, as Archbishop of Canterbury, get drawn into—who should bear responsibility for the financial crisis, or whether the church should back or move on anti-capitalist protesters outside a cathedral, or divisions within the Anglican world over female bishops and so on.  Does having spent so much time in the world of Dostoevsky have an impact on your thinking when you deal with these things?

RW: It gives you a perspective.  It’s a reminder, certainly, that what’s significant about faith or Christianity is actually not the headline-driven concerns of the day, it’s something to do with how human beings confront their anguish.  And that’s why faith matters.  So at the very basic level, that’s a perspective which this gives.  Also, I think, it conveys the sense that you need some caution in assuming that one side of any argument is unequivocally God’s perspective.  That can make you wishy-washy, it can also just give you a salutary humility, stepping back from saying “This is the word of the Lord”.  Now Dostoevsky himself, when he turned to his journalism, was all too prone to do exactly that, of course.  He hadn’t read his own novels, you might say— or he hadn’t understood what he was saying.

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RW: I think it would be a very terrible thing if religious faith meant that you saw people in a less three-dimensional way than you would otherwise.  Fiction helps you to understand that whatever the principles, whatever the standing rules and perspectives on the moral and the spiritual life, human beings are every bit as unpredictable as Dostoevsky sets out—that they resist rational cataloguing and categorisation, and they often resist reasonable solutions.  And you don’t begin to understand humanity unless you understand that thread of wildness that’s in it all.  And because I believe, as a Christian, that my faith obliges me to engage with every area of human life and human experience, fiction is a crucial part of nourishing my faith.

From an interview with Lesley Chamberlain in Prospect magazine:

RW Dostoevsky famously said: “If there’s no God, then everything is permitted.” It’s a view the west might consider more often. Dostoevsky’s not saying that if there’s no God then no one’s watching us and we can do what we like. He’s really asking: what’s the rationale for living this way and not otherwise? If there’s no God, then there’s no shape to our lives. Our behaviour needs to be in tune with something. If there’s no divine tune, how do you know where to go, what to do? To believe in God is not a business of rewards, but an ability to make sense of things.

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LC What do you think the west today might take out of the Russian tradition?

RW For most of us it’s a question of what authority we are prepared to recognise, and I think authority often comes from something endured, either by ourselves or someone else. Think of Nelson Mandela. Think also of Gee Walker, the mother of the murdered Liverpool teenager Anthony, who forgave her son’s killers. Suffering confers a certain authority. We learn from it. Dostoevsky is often accused of masochism. But he’s not saying suffering is good for you. He’s saying suffering is how you are likely to learn. Don’t be frightened when it happens to you.

LC Vladimir Solovyov, Dostoevsky’s friend and contemporary, once wrote that what was desirable was “a just social environment in which human freedom is limited for the sake of love.”

RW It’s a wonderful statement, but who does the limiting?

LC That’s what we’ve been talking about: how to get some kind of unity and emotional coherence in our lives without infringing personal freedom.

RW We find the answer when we tell us ourselves the story of God, whose own freedom was restricted by love in creating the world. We find it in the way God chose to redeem the world on the cross, not in triumph and power. The Christian story in turn brings to mind certain Russian ideals. The Russian tradition has always attached great importance to the humiliated and the marginal, and to abandoning self-interest.

From an interview with Susan Hitch on BBC Radio 3 ‘Literary Proms’:

Reading 2, from Book VI of The Brothers Karamazov, From the Discourses of the Elder Zosima: “Bear in mind particularly that you can be no man’s judge. For a criminal can have no judge upon the earth until that judge himself has perceived that he is every bit as much a criminal as the man who stands before him, and that for the crime of the man who stands before him, he himself may well be more guilty than anyone else. Only when he grasps this may he become a judge. However insane this sounds, it is true. For were I myself righteous, it is possible that there would be no criminal standing before me. If you were able to take upon yourself the crime of the man who stands before you and is judged by your heart , then lose no time, but do so and suffer for him yourself, while letting him go without reproach. And even if the law itself appoints you as his judge, then act even in them to the best of your ability in this same spirit, for he will go away and condemn himself even more harshly than your judgement. But if with your kiss he departs unfeeling and laughing at you, then do not be tempted by this: it means that his season has not yet arrived, but it will arrive in its own good time; and if it does not arrive, it matters not: if not he, then another will do it instead of him, suffer and condemn, and take the blame upon himself, and the truth will be accomplished. Believe this, believe it without doubt, for in this lies the hope and faith of all the saints.”

To what extent is Zosima speaking for Dostoevsky there? Is this Dostoevsky’s code for the renewal of mankind – this notion of active love?

The whole of Karamazov I think pivots on this notion of ‘active love’ and what you mind call ‘substitutionary love’; that is you take to yourself the responsibility for somebody else’s sin or failing – and that can sound masochistic, it can sound strained and there is that; it is almost an artificially heightened pitch that Dostoevsky achieves in Karamazov. And yet I think in the discourses he’s trying to put it into Zosima’s mouth as in as distanced a way as possible; this is a sermon so to speak and what’s being said is ‘Everybody is to some extent complicit in human failure – recognise that. Embrace it, take it on yourself freely, don’t try to avoid that complicity and if you do that out of love something actually happens to the human world that you’re living in and redemption works in that way for Dostoevsky of course as for any Orthodox Christian that is if you like, based on the way in which God himself takes on responsibility for humanity – becomes human. And in that way becoming human: taking on the awareness, the weight of that complicity and evil. That’s part of joining in the redemptive strand of life.

Going Further

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