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.

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.


Listening to this weekend’s Prairie Home Companion, it occurred to me just how lonely most of Garrison Keillor’s stories and sketches are. They feature people with no friends who are alienated from family and live in a cold and anonymous world. This week it was a sketch about a man at a party who almost met a girl who had ear buds in her ears because she was listening to opera on her iPod instead of engaging in conversation with her fellow party goers. I began to wonder if these stories were a reflection of Keillor’s own life.

But then it occurred to me that in another context I was accused of the same thing.

I used to post some of my photographs on an art web site. Someone told me that my collection was very lonely, which I initially found to be a strange comment. But after re-examining the collection, I understood exactly what she meant. Most of the images had no people and could be described as empty or desolate. My people – if there were people in the photo at all – were usually faceless. (There’s an example below.)

At the time I attributed it to growing up in eastern Montana, which most people hate when they first see it because it is so empty and desolate. But for many who stick around, they come to love it for its beauty. The trick is one has to learn how to look at eastern Montana (or an alley in downtown Sioux City for that matter) in order to find the beauty that is there.

This isn’t eastern Montana, by the way, but the parking lot of an apartment in which we used to live. Empty? Desolate? Yeah. Lonely? Maybe. But beautiful all the same.

After the sketch about the solitary man and the woman listening to opera on her iPod, a tenor began to sing a piece from Tosca, giving me more time to consider Keillor sketches and my photography. Maybe it was the melancholy strains of Puccini coming from the radio or maybe I’m really on to something, but an alternative theory sprang to mind.

Keillor’s lonely stories and my lonely photographs aren’t a reflection of our individual lives but rather a commentary on modern society. We Americans do indeed live disconnected lives. According to sociologists, few of us have friends while most of us have many casual acquaintances. Few of us belong to voluntary societies where true relationships can be built, and even activities designed to promote that (such as bowling and church attendance, according to Robert Putnam’s popular thesis) have been turned into solitary activities in our society. David W. Smith goes so far as to say, in The Friendless American Male, that our society has become so isolated that very few men have any friends at all.

In such an environment, people are unimportant unless they add some color to the scene, and even when present, their faces are certainly irrelevant.

Does the fact that I take lonely photographs make me lonely? I don’t think so, but maybe my friends (oh yeah, David Smith says I don’t have any, let’s make that “acquaintances”) would disagree. Problem is, I don’t know them well enough to ask.