Christmas: 1924

During our family’s tour of Thomas Hardy Country, I asked the guide these questions: “How would you characterize Hardy’s relationship to Christianity? Was he a man of faith or a skeptic?” He answered by reciting this short poem that left me aghast with its piercing truth.

Christmas: 1924

‘Peace upon earth!’ was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We’ve got as far as poison-gas.

Along with Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and W.H. Auden, Thomas Hardy belongs to those “artists who lived somewhere on the margins of belief even though they may have longed to rest at its center,” as literary critic Roger Lundin wrote in his book Believing Again. Note the date of Hardy’s poem. Knowing that he endured the horrors of the Boer War (1899-1902) and World War I (1914-1918), we can better understand the writer’s agnosticism about whether a Prince of Peace reigns in the modern world. With such meaningless carnage, anyone might question if Isaiah was mistaken when he prophesied that “of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:6-7). Judging by the poem above, I imagine Hardy’s outlook was not much different than Dickinson, who wrote near the end of her life: “On subjects of which we know nothing, or should I say Beings — we both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps Believing nimble.”

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4 thoughts on “Christmas: 1924

    • Roger Lundin includes Dostoevsky on the list of artists who are caught up in what he calls “the modern drama of belief and unbelief.” By quoting him at length in the introduction of Believing Again, I think you’ll have a better understanding for his reasoning: “At first blush, this may seem to be at best a loosely connected group of writers . . . But there is a pattern here, and the fact that we can trace it across a period of 150 years tells us something vital about the continuing power of belief in our culture and our lives. . . . For some of these artists, such as Dickinson and Melville, it was as though an uncanny metaphorical sense drove them more than a century ago to discover a degree of promise and peril that the rest of us have only recently begun to fathom. In the instance of Dostoevsky, we find one of the greatest dramatic talents in literary history grappling with an exceptional array of pressing intellectual, political, and personal issues. And with Auden and Milosz, we have two of the most gifted poets of the twentieth century who were also powerful intellectuals and Christian thinkers. To call Milosz and Auden ‘Christian thinkers’ is not to claim for them an orthodox thoroughness that they neither professed nor practiced; even in the case of these two churchgoing poets, the conflicts and uncertainties surrounding belief remained too great for us to hear in them ringing theological clarity and conviction. This is even more the case with those writers from the nineteenth century — Dickinson, Melville, and Dostoevsky . . . These three knew that the theological ground had shifted dramatically in their own lifetimes. Of the three, Melville found the new dynamics of belief most challenging, and he wearied of the pursuit of God more readily than did Dostoevsky or Dickinson.” Lundin treats Dostoevsky in his fourth chapter, “Interpretation.”

      • That’s helpful. I just ask because in of all the experience I have had with Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Double, Joseph Frank’s Biography (currently reading), and The Brothers Karamazov (currently reading), I have never been convinced that he was in between belief and unbelief. It always seemed to me that he was a Christian man doubting in faith.

      • Notice that Lundin carefully avoids judgment on the question of whether Dostoevsky was a Christian or not. He would probably call Dostoevsky a “Christian writer” without making a claim for his “orthodox thoroughness” or “ringing theological clarity and conviction.” Dostoevsky, like the other writers he engages from the 19th and 20th centuries, is caught up in the “modern drama of belief and unbelief.”

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