Tolstoy’s What I Believe, Chapter 1: In which he finds the key that makes it all make sense

Lent, Day 4:

I am continuing my reading of What I Believe by Leo Tolstoy and am enjoying his clear yet passionate writing, or at least this great translation of it (the version I am reading is translated by Constantine Popoff).

What-I-BelieveTolstoy begins Chapter 1 by informing the reader that for six years he has been engaged in writing two works that he considers very important: A Criticism on Dogmatic Theology and A New Translation and Comparison of the Four Gospels, with a commentary. “My life will perhaps end before the work is complete, but I am sure it is a much needed labor I have imposed upon myself, and therefore I shall do what I can while my life lasts.” (Apparently he did in fact complete these works and many more long before he died in 1910.*)

Tolstoy then goes on to say that this outward work of scholarship, important as it is, will not be the subject of this book but in this book he hopes to reveal “the inner working of my soul” – how after much searching he suddenly saw the light and found the key to the true meaning of Christian doctrine, a key that made all the gears click into place and opened the locked door that all his life had been blocking his understanding of the truth.

After his massive mid-life crisis, described in A Confession, Tolstoy came to a faith in God out of pure desperation, finding that belief in God seemed to be the only cure for a case of existential despair so painful that he wanted to commit suicide. But once he climbed aboard the life raft of faith he began noticing disturbing discrepancies between what he read in the Gospels and the way the his Eastern Orthodox Church operated.

Tolstoy felt deeply that the “…teachings about love, humility, meekness, self denial, and returning good for evil” were the heart of Christ’s message, and although the Church certainly professed to believe these essential principles, Tolstoy noticed these sorts of things never seemed to be a priority. Instead it seemed to him that the Church was more focused on the power struggles of the world and that it approved of things like persecuting people, capital punishment, and war.

He was also bothered by the Church’s assertion that its form of worship was the only right form and everybody else was wrong. Tolstoy did not find this notion in his reading of the Gospel. “But,” he writes, “my faith in the teachings of the Church was shaken still more by its indifference to what seemed to me the very basis of the teachings of Christ, by its partiality for what I could not consider an essential part of the doctrine.”

After several years of puzzling over the strange sense of dissonance between the Church and the Gospels he was unable to shake the feeling that something was wrong with the picture. He read the Gospels over and over again, parsing every line, concentrating most frequently on the Sermon on the Mount, feeling sure that there was something in there that was escaping him. He studied numerous commentaries on the Sermon and found that most theologians seemed to assert that Jesus was setting a standard that was impossible for sinful man to attain on his own strength, and that salvation does not depend on following these difficult instructions but rather on prayer and grace.

Tolstoy was not satisfied. “Why should Christ have given to us such good and clear precepts, applicable to us all, if He knew beforehand that keeping them was impossible by man in his own unaided strength?”

The more theology he studied the more bewildered and dissatisfied he became. Finally he gave up on the whole theology thing and went back to the plain words of scripture. Suddenly a single verse flashed with great clarity in my mind. The verse was Matthew 5:39: “You have heard that it has been said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist evil….” “Do not resist evil!” This was the key that, for Tolstoy, made the whole meaning and significance of Christ’s message fall into place. Have you ever found a key that made the pieces of a puzzle fall into place? I imagine there is no better feeling.

Tomorrow I will begin looking at what it was about these words that rocked Tolstoy’s world. When the words shined the light on that darkness what did he see?

* * * * * * *

* In the Introduction to What I Believe Tolstoy say he is 55 years old. Since he was born in 1828 he must have been writing that in around 1873. (I guess I do have a use for math after all.) A Criticism of Dogmatic Theology was published in 1880 and The Four Gospels Unified and Translated in 1881. You can find a bibliography of Tolstoy’s works at good old Wikipedia.


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