March 8, 2015. Where western civilization took a wrong turn

Lent Day 19, What I Believe by Leo Tolstoy, Chapter 7 continued

We have been mislead by the world’s oracles of wisdom. The Church and secular institutions and all of our philosophy and science are all cut from the same cloth and are selling us a version of reality based on a false premise!  Is this a vast universal conspiracy? Probably not. But it is a big part of Leo Tolstoy’s worldview, as he explains in Chapter 7 of What I Believe. The world system’s false premise is that we are dependent on something outside of ourselves for happiness, improvement of our lives, and the redemption of our souls.

“Religion, science, and public opinion all unanimously tell us that the life we lead is a bad one, but that the doctrine, which teaches us to endeavor to improve, and thus make our life better, is impracticable.

The doctrine of Christ, as an improvement of human life by the rational efforts of man, is impracticable because Adam sinned and the world is full of evil, says religion.

Philosophy says that Christ’s doctrine is impracticable because certain laws, which are independent of the will of man, govern human life. Philosophy and science say, in other words, exactly the same as religion in its dogmas of original sin and redemption.

In the doctrine of redemption there are two fundamental theses on which all is grounded: (1) man has a right to perfect bliss, but the life of this world is a bad one and cannot be amended by the efforts of man, and (2) we can only be saved by faith.”

All the theories that justify the existing order or “the way it is” are based on these theses. The Church derives its doctrine of redemption from #2 and #1 is the underlying assumption behind all or social, philosophical, and political theories.

So says Tolstoy. At first I said, wait a minute: I thought that most of our political and social theories are all about the opposite assumption, the assumption that humans do have the power to change the world to better fit our visions of way it should be. But on second thought, I think Tolstoy believed that trying to change the world by applying some human theory is just another attempt at redemption from the outside. The kind of action he believed in is individual change by internal effort. Our social and political theories tend to focus on how some people should  impose rules and employ practices to control the behavior of other people, and thus create a world that better suits whoever  has the vision and the power to make it happen.

Tolstoy thinks that when it comes to improvement, the rightful domain of each person is limited to the self – one’s own body, mind, and soul. Our relationship with other people is to love them, speak kindly, and provide any help they might need in the way of material goods or sustenance.  “Neither believers or unbelievers ask themselves how we must use the reason given to us; but they ask themselves, ‘Why is our life not such as we fancied it to be, and when will it be such as we wish it to be?” The real mission of man, which all our false doctrines and philosophies help us forget, is to “endeavor to solve the contradiction between his rational and animal nature.”

What? Here is where it gets a little strange, although Tolstoy says most of wisest people who ever lived have taught the same thing. Most philosophic and religious traditions have focused on how the individual can live a better, more ethical life: Judaism, Buddhism, Brahmanism, Confucius, and Socrates and the other sages of ancient Greece. And then just when the wisest person who ever lived, the man we believe to be God Himself, comes along and gives us the key to our highest good, the Church, and Western civilization with it, started back-pedaling fast, saying in effect, “Yes, that’s all very nice Lord but no can do. It is not practical. But we’ll tell you what: we’ll tell everyone to worship You and to believe you will save us anyway, not matter how we conduct our lives. Anyway, we think that must have been what You were really telling us to do. Because You, being God, must know we mere humans can’t possibly do all that Sermon on the Mount stuff.”

But Tolstoy thinks Christ really was telling us to do these things and also that if we lived according to our higher reason and did not indulge our animal nature, it would not only make us happier, but would be the most natural thing in the world. (“For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:30) Our reason, Tolstoy believes, is the light that is in us, the part of us that shares the nature of God. He believes that when Christ talks about “the son of man” He refers to this part of our nature. We first have to believe the son of man is within us. Once we believe this we can cultivate it, encourage it, and nourish its strength by living according God’s eternal law.

Christ speaks to Nicodemus at night. Copy of painting by Crijn Hendricksz (1601-1645)

Christ speaks to Nicodemus at night. Copy of painting by Crijn Hendricksz (1601-1645)

Tolstoy says the gospels best illustrate this principle in the story of the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus. This is the passage that is the main basis for the belief that being saved means to be “born again.” Here is Tolstoy’s interpretation of this passage:

“’Every man,’ He [Jesus] says, ‘in addition to his consciousness of an individual life, through is human parents, must admit His birth is from above’ (John 3:5-7). That which man acknowledges in himself as being free, is just what is born of the Eternal Being, of Him Whom we call God. The Son of God in man, born of God, is what we must exalt in ourselves in order to obtain true life. The son of man is of the same nature as God (not begotten of God). He who exalts in himself the Son of God over the rest that is in him, he who believes that life is in himself along, will not find himself in contradiction with life. The contradiction only results from men not believing in the light that is in them; the light of which John the Evangelist speaks when he says, ‘In him is life, and the life is the light of men.’”

Well that interpretation is quite a bit different from any I’ve ever heard before! Tolstoy read the Gospels many times and studied the Greek and he had no reason not seek the truth, so I think his interpretation is genuine and honest. But I don’t always see the same thing he sees when I read the verses. But I do agree with the part of his thesis that says any person’s most reliable guide to the truth is his or her own reason in combination with honest thought, prayer, and study. But we haven’t gotten to that part yet.

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