Tolstoy, Facts, and Community

I continue to ponder what I believe to be Tolstoy’s misguided view of the world and reality itself as expressed in his book, The Kingdom of God Is within Us. In this essay I want to consider his rejection of the larger community and the resulting narrowness of his thinking. Most everything he said was factual but he didn’t have enough facts. Because of his disdain for those who disagreed with him, he had no source of the other facts and ideas that would have rounded out his opinions.

We have far too much confidence in facts. Facts are good, but there are too many of them. Several factors limit our ability to get the facts that are useful to us. First, we are limited creatures. I can only be in one place at once, so my perceptions of the world are not actually of the world, but of this small place that I am in. Even if we had access to “all” the facts, all that information would overwhelm our limited brains.

Second, my personality shapes how facts are observed and incorporated into my thinking process. Consider two observers of a conversation between two people. The one observer, who is an idea person rather than a people person, pays attention to what is said. When asked to  report on what happened, she describes the content of the conversation and what she learned from it. The second observer, being a people person, describes how the conversation was uncomfortable and one-sided because person A was domineering, moving into person B’s space. The effect that person B was constantly on the defensive. What are the facts of the conversation? Our idea person described it in a series of concepts while our people person described the relationships. All those facts were present in the conversation, but personalities shaped which facts were heard and incorporated into the listener’s perspectives.

Third, my value system will shape which facts stand out, and thus get incorporated. The van has a flat tire and everyone gets out and stands by the roadside while the tire gets changed. Afterwards they are asked what they saw. The prairie expert notices an unusual flower tucked in beneath the bank beside the road. The flower requires shade and is usually found in woodlands, but because of the shade of the bank created by the road cutting through the hill, the flower is thriving in a most unexpected place. The bird expert saw the sparrow, which he had never seen this far north. He wonders if that species is expanding its range. The environmentalist didn’t see the flowers or birds in particular but bemoaned the litter along the roadside. The guy who works for the county said a crew needs to come out and fill the potholes.

Expertise also comes into play in our ability to see what’s there. I am a fan of the Creighton Men’s Soccer team and attend most of their home matches. I don’t know a lot about soccer, but enough to enjoy the matches. One night I sat in front of two scouts from the Chicago Fire, a professional soccer team. They were there to watch three players. They saw the same match I did, but what they saw was completely different because they knew exactly what to look for and their eyes were trained to see the small details that I didn’t have the skill to notice.

Put all of these factors together and the result is that different people see or hear the same things physically but harvest a different set of facts from the same event. If I don’t interact with these different people, when I observe the world and collect the facts that shape my understanding, I will see and hear things that confirm my personality, my interest, and my expertise. I need other people to round out my perceptions of the world.

This is one of the primary functions of communities. Groups of hunter/gatherers were more successful than lone hunter/gatherers and this was the basis of the first human towns and tribes. Similarly, one cannot be a lone Christian and remain truly Christian for long because we need the broader insight and experience to come to know the living God and not just the caricature of a God (or a caricature of the Bible) that I develop all by myself.

But community is having a tough time of it at the moment. Universities were originally designed to promote this sort of broad thinking that would promote true communities of learning. Increasingly, universities are doing the opposite by focusing on a single ideology and excluding most others. (The book The Closing of the American Mind offers a thorough critique of the problem.)

Social networking, as it is currently conceived, is not social at all, in the classic understanding of the term. These networks tend to gather people of a single opinion together and thus mirror the crisis of the modern university. The effect is that certain facts that confirm a certain bias get amplified in the various self-selected “social” groups.

American churches suffer from the same confirmation bias. Individual congregations and denominations tend toward a single perspective on critical issues. In the most recent American election cycle a Trump supporter would probably have been stoned (if that were still allowed) at the local Episcopal Church while the same fate would have faced a Hillary supporter at the currently popular local post-denominational entertainment church. (At least if the rhetoric at work from members of those congregations is any indication.)

If we want to be well-rounded human beings, it is critical that we spend time, and I think it requires face-to-face time where we interact with the fullness of persons and not just their on-line avatars, with a variety of people. I’m not sure where we go to find these relationships, but I do believe it is one of the critical needs of the day.

Eventually we will figure out how to incorporate all of our new technologies into our social relationships. For the time being, we need to be intentional about seeking those sorts of relationships out. Only then can we be given more facts by others – facts that we probably won’t and can’t discover on our own – that will give us a well-rounded understanding of reality.

Advertisements

What I learned from Tolstoy (That Tolstoy did not intend for me to Learn)

I am quite ignorant when it comes to Leo Tolstoy. Like most people with a passable liberal arts education, I have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but I know little of his life. I had assumed that, like Dostoyevsky, he was Orthodox; although in fact he was an anarchist with what seems to be vaguely Christian tendencies (a Christian in general but believes whatever he wants to pull out of the Bible and ignores the rest) and dismissive of not only all Orthodoxy, but seemingly all organized Christianity.

I came to this realization reading his book The Kingdom of God Is Within You is his explanation and defense of his anarchist position, drawn largely from two American writers, William Lloyd Garrison and Adin Ballou. It was an influential volume. Gandhi said it was one of the books that taught him the value and process of non-violence. But it is a thoroughly 19th century book that embraced most of the weakness and few of the strengths of the era. I’ve managed about a third of the book but doubt I will finish it.

Tolstoy says he embraces “non-resistance,” but his understanding of the idea is so comprehensive it must necessarily be identified as an anarchist philosophy. Along with pacifism, Tolstoy argues that the Christian cannot serve in any government office, cannot vote, cannot willingly pay taxes (although one shouldn’t object if the government takes it by force). He also is open to the possibility that the Christian cannot be a land owner.

As alluded to above, the book is a product of the some of the least tenable ideas of the 19th century. It is thoroughly rationalist and considers Christianity, not as a living relationship with God, but rather as a philosophy or a collection of ideas (or in the case of this book, a singular idea from the Sermon on the Mount) to shape his thinking and live by. It also elevates his own private interpretation above all others that have gone before. The depth and breadth of his hubris is quite frankly a bit frightening. That someone could be that absolutist and sure of his own ideas in the context of the Stalinist regime is unimaginable to me. But I suspect that sort of triumphalistic rationalism was the air the 19th century breathed because those same sensibilities were also built into American Protestantism and still largely infect conservative American Christianity.

If Shashi Tharoor is correct in his analysis (and most Indians think so, if not Britons) Winston Churchill committed genocide on a scale near to that of Stalin in his dealings with India. Tolstoy was essentially responding to Stalin and his genocide in this book, and it could be that context in India was similar enough that Gandhi found, in Tolstoy, a comrade who was horrified by the evil perpetrated by the government.

I mention Stalin and Churchill because we too live in an age of demagoguery. Brexit, the American and French elections, along with similar sentiments in Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and elsewhere, indicate that the neither Brexit nor Donald Trump are outliers in the modern Western world. The sort of violence expressed in acts of genocide have not been seen, but the attitudes that underlie such actions should be recognized.

But if I dislike the book so much, why am I writing about it? Because it reveals the disconcerting ways in which we are living in similar times. First it is rooted in the idea that a relatively simple idea will fix everything. (For Tolstoy it was anarchism. Today it is, among other things, nativism, which is at the root of the Brexit vote, the Make America Great Again campaign, and the le Pen campaign.) Second, it is rooted in a personal version of truth that rejects a broader understanding of reality. (In this sense, Tolstoy’s interpretation of the Bible is similar to the modern phenomenon which is currently called “fake news.”) Third (and this is closely related to the first), is inherent triumphalism of such ideas. Some things are simply too big to fix with an overarching plan. The problems need to be chipped away rather than swept away. Trying to sweep them away will lead to unimagined consequences that are almost always bad. India was left with staggering poverty (although that was almost certainly the result of British policy more than Gandhi’s response), Russia was left with the police state that we called Communist Russian and the modern world … well, what knows what will happen with the modern world.

And this has led me to think at length at how we chip away at world that seems to be spinning madly out of control. Tolstoy didn’t have a clue. Dostoyevsky understood the problem very well it seems. Gandhi was immediately successful, but his revolution has been a long-term spiral downward. It’s hard to find true modern success stories.

This essay is designed to set forth some very broad ideas. I will propose the following:

  1. The problem isn’t fake news, or more fundamentally, the problem is not truth and our lack of commitment to it; rather the problem is relationships, and our lack of commitment to them.
  2. We can solve very little by focusing on the victims. They do not represent the core problem, but rather the effects of deeper problems.
  3. Most problems cannot be fixed in an acceptable way. Rather than fix them, we need to learn to live with them and through them.
  4. The biggest problem is not the government nor radicals nor the unengaged, it is rather us. If we learn to focus on our own issues rather than other peoples issues (Jesus described it as the log in my eye and the speck in the other person’s eye), we can seriously begin to address #3.

These are some rather broad ideas that I hope to flesh out in the next months. I am curious how much headway I can make. I invite you to follow along.

What is Salvation and the Task of the Christian Life?

A review of Compassion, by Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison, 1966, rev. ed. 1982, Image Books.

I read this book as part of a group book study. Very early in the study, one of my study partners commented that I was having a real problem with the idea of compassion and was clearly pushing it away, or at the very least pushing against it. That wasn’t true but at that point in the book, I couldn’t put my finger on just what I was pushing against. Eventually it became clear.

There are two very different ways of understanding our salvation. The one, most common in Roman Catholic and Protestant communions, is that salvation is a transformation of the heart and will and thus is worked out ethically (although I’m not sure this is the best word). God changes my mind allowing me to change my actions. The Orthodox understand salvation to be far deeper and more pervasive than that. Salvation is physical and encompasses the whole person, body in addition to mind and will.

There is a profound unity of body and soul, heart and will. In Orthodox anthropology the will would be classified as a bodily (or animal) function, and when Christ united himself with humanity, he united himself, even at this most primitive animal level in order that our whole being could be saved.

The differences between these two conceptions of salvation are often subtle and a bit hard to grasp. I will offer two examples from the book. The first comes in ch. 4, entitled “Community.” The foundation of the authors’ understanding of community is Phil 2:1-2. “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

The Orthodox begin, not with the mind, but with the body. Community begins in communion, which is a process of union with Christ which is physical and spiritual (the word mystical is helps convey this profound unity). At the Table I eat his body and drink the blood of the covenant. As a result of this a union begins to be formed that is completely real, although invisible.

The call to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” is therefore not the goal, but rather a necessary warning. A body (in this case, the Body of Christ), that is mystically united cannot be warring against itself. In medicine we call this cancer. The unity that Paul calls for is thus an outworking of a far deeper unity that already exists objectively.

In ch. 7, entitled “Patience,” the authors consider the need for discipline. All three are Roman Catholic priests and they have a difficult history to overcome on this subject, because “discipline” in the form of misguided practices such as self-flagellation, has a long history in the Roman Catholic church. Instead of offering a classic or historic definition of discipline they opt for the Protestant version:

“In the Christian life, discipline is the human effort to unveil what has been covered, to bring to the foreground what has remained hidden, and to put on a lamp stand what has been kept under a basket.” This is not a bad definition as far as it goes, but this understanding of discipline will result in a feeble light.

Again, we need to remember that salvation is not only mental but physical. We were created in God’s image, and from that starting point we need to grow into the fullness that this divine image allows. The word that’s used to express this is a Greek word that is problematic to translate. Nous, is sometimes translated mind and sometimes translated heart, and refers to the most inner part of our being. (Note: the word “like-minded” and “mind” that appears twice in Phil. 2:1-2, above, is a different word, phroneo.)

The most remarkable characteristic of the nous, is that after it is brought to life from spiritual death (the first step of salvation) is that it can grow … and grow. It reflects, to the extent possible in a created being, the infinity of God. Through the Spirit it is filled with divine love that shines out in the darkness, and as the nous grows, it is able to “contain” or “reflect” (here I suspect human language fails) more and more of the divine light.

But expanding or stretching out our nous requires discipline; not just an uncovering of what is already there, but a further development of what the divine image might become. Paul compares it to athletics (both a boxer and a runner) and military training. Thus, this process of discipline is called askesis (the Greek word from which we get the English athletic) and it is often compared to military boot camp.

I realize that at this point we get into an area of the spiritual life where there is a profound difference between the Latin west and Greek east. There was a great controversy in the 14th century, called the Hesychast controversy that had to do with this precise thing. The Orthodox and Catholics came down on different sides of this controversy. I therefore realize that Roman Catholic and Protestant readers might well have some heartburn over this. But that is not the question at hand, the question is, “Why do I find myself pushing this book away?” It’s not that I have a problem with their ideas about compassion, it’s that I find their conception of salvation, and thus the root and outworking of compassion, to be truncated.

This differing understanding of the expanse of our salvation truly comes to a head in ch. 9, entitled, “Action.” The chapter begins by saying that the discipline of prayer necessarily leads to the discipline of action. They turn to James to remind us that faith without works is dead. Thus, the goal of the Christian life is the active life. It is a very specific sort of active life to be sure. Christian action is not action for action’s sake, it is an outgrowth of the disciplines of patience, prayer, etc., but action – being in the world – is where all these disciplines inevitably lead us.

From an Orthodox perspective, this is quite a muddled version of salvation. All of these disciplines, this askesis, leads to the transformation of the person. The goal is not centered in “the other” and particularly in service to the other, the goal lies within the self. This is certainly an idea that service oriented Christianity finds troubling, so more needs to be said.

Since salvation is ultimately physical and not ethical, our disciplines need to focus on the preparation of our physical selves (through prayer, fasting, alms, the three classic disciplines of the church) so that God can transform us. This does not mean that Christians ought not care about the world, it rather puts into perspective how Christians ought to care for the world. As I am transformed, my nous expands and is filled with more and more of God’s love. Thus the actions that would be described as service to the world are not something I do, they are something that I am.

It does little good, from the perspective of God’s Reign, to help the poor because, as Jesus reminded us, the poor will always be with us. Helping the poor, in this context, is an application of the sort of “works” that Martin Luther and the Protestants railed against. Rather than being an expression of God’s Reign, it is an attempt to help it along or to bring it about.

I suspect most Protestants will disagree with me. Presbyterians are especially fond of the dynamic between grace and gratitude. God gives us his grace and we respond with gratitude. Our action in the world is not works because it is a response to salvation, i.e. gratitude, rather than attempt to secure salvation. My response to this is that it still sells the breadth of salvation short and therefore fails to faithfully describe what’s going on.

So I don’t want to make a bigger deal out of this than it is. There is plenty of room for ecumenical dialog and further nuance. But my starting point, if that discussion is ever to happen, is that this book failed to take seriously the depth of salvation and, as a result, reduced compassion to an activity that can never be a satisfying form of service.