March 7, 2015. If Christ gave us the recipe for happiness why is there so much misery?
Lent Day 18: What I Believe, Chapter 7
Yesterday (Lent Day 17) I took a day off from writing about Tolstoy’s What I Believe. I needed time to process this astounding information, and although one day is hardly enough, tonight I will continue to most forward, even though I now enter into dangerous territory. Until the end of Chapter 6 I was pretty much in agreement with Tolstoy’s insights into the real meaning of the Gospels. His analysis does challenge traditional interpretations but his reasoning makes perfect sense.
I especially like his translation of the five commandments of Christ from the Sermon on the Mount, even though it is difficult to envision how I could actually live exactly that way when the rest of the world does not. I am hoping that Tolstoy will have some advice to offer on that problem by the time I reach the end of the book. Nevertheless, I can see that, however unlikely, if everybody did live according to these teachings, most of the world’s evil, at least that part of evil that is man-made, would go away.
As I venture into Chapters 7 and 8 I find myself more challenged and sometimes in total disagreement with Tolstoy. However, he has spent a lot more time than I have studying the gospels, so I want to pay attention to his findings. And it’s possible I do not agree with his findings because I don’t like his findings. But if I am operating under any delusions, or if my mind is limited by ignorance, or if I am allowing my personal desires to obscure my understanding, the only way to move toward truth is to press on into territory outside my comfort zone.
But my gosh. Just when I thought he couldn’t get any more radical, he gets more radical. I began to feel nervous about halfway through Chapter 7. Tolstoy had already turned my world around like a salt shaker and I just getting over the dizziness, and then he went and pulled the rug out from under my feet. He begins the chapter innocently enough by asking a simple question: “Why does man not do the things that Christ enjoins and can give him the highest earthly felicity – the felicity he has ever longed to attain?”
In answering that question Tolstoy gets into webs and layers of Biblical scholarship and reasoning but the short answer is that for a lot of us living by Christ’s teaching would mean more work and less stuff. If we adopted Christ’s method for living we’d have to share our stuff with others, even with others we don’t like and those we think don’t deserve our stuff. We could not consider providing for ourselves the highest priority.
Yet Christians claim to believe that Christ is God and His words are good and true, and even many non-believers acknowledge that Jesus was a wise teacher. So if his words are so good and wise why don’t we want to do what he says will make us happy? Well for one thing, Tolstoy says, we expect the world to match up to certain expectations. These expectations may vary from age to age and culture to culture, even person to person, but we all have an idea of what we are entitled to. Our reality almost always falls short so we we put lots of energy into working toward that expectation and resent anything or anyone that seems to get in the way. God’s job, according to this assumption, is to help us get what should be ours, if not in this world, then surely the next.
Say you’re an American and your expectation is to live in a world of mowed green lawns in a four-bedroom house, have a high income for life, and college education for your children. You put a lot of effort into making your world fit that vision. Your community and even your church reward you for any success you may achieve toward maintaining that life. Schools, churches, retailers, and country clubs love rich people with green lawns. You get invited to events and get your picture in the paper, so you know you are doing things right. Anything or anyone that interferes with or causes any aspect of the vision not to happen is impossible and should not be expected of you. Tolstoy says that both Church believers and non-believers (such as materialistic scientific types) “….believe in the fundamental false assumption of the right of man to a life of perfect bliss….”
If we lived by Christ’s commandments we could not take anything for ourselves to the detriment of anyone else, we could not think of ourselves as better or more deserving that anyone else, and we’d have to look out for the needs of others as much as we looked out for our own. So what it would come down to is that a lot of us would have to work harder and and have less material wealth and could not exercise any power to make others do things for us. That’s right. It comes down to that nasty word: labor. Ugh. My favorite writer Albert Jay Nock flashes to mind. Mr. Nock is the one who introduced me to the theory that the great mass of humanity is motivated by the unquenchable drive to gain as much as possible of whatever they desire with as little labor as they can get away with; which usually means finding clever ways to benefit from the labor of others.
But here is where Tolstoy begins to say some uncomfortable things. Not only regular human beings, but the Church, meaning Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant, does not want to follow Christ’s simple commandments for how to humans should actually conduct themselves in our daily lives. So early on the Church worked into its doctrine that living according to Christ’s teaching is impossible because of our fallen nature and that the Gospel is all about redemption from above, outside of and apart from our own efforts. And furthermore, Tolstoy’s analysis of the gospels indicated to him that Christ did not teach redemption the way the Church teaches it. Christ came to show us the way to eternal life – that much is true – but the way has much more to do with the way we choose to live our lives while on the earth than with the traditional conception of redemption from above.
This false idea that humans should expect to live a world that caters to our every desire came from the Church, according to Tolstoy, but it also laid the foundation for European civilization: “The teaching of the church gave, as the basis of life, the right of man to perfect bliss – bliss that is to be attained, not by the individual efforts of man, but by something beyond his own control; and this view of human life became the basis of our European science and philosophy.”
What exactly does Tolstoy think Jesus did teach about redemption and eternal life? What did Jesus mean by all those references to “the son of man”? What about that idea of having to be born again? That’s what I’ll talk about tomorrow.