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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, And The Book Of Job–What is God Up To?

Constantine Levin (Anna Karenina), like many of Tolstoy’s characters, is concerned with death and the meaning of life. Perhaps the most chilling of all descriptions of a man facing death is Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ivan has constructed his life to allow for no surprises, no untoward and unexpected intrusions. His wife, his profession, his friends, and his daily routines have been carefully chosen to reduce or eliminate conflict, doubt, or difficulty. When he is diagnosed with a terminal illness, he is disoriented and troubled.  “What did I do wrong?”, he asks himself.  “Was I not good enough? Not moral enough? Not careful enough?”

His torment continues and worsens as he sinks closer to death; and only at the very last moment does he understand:

"And death...where is it?"

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it.  "Where is it?  What death?"  There was no fear because there was no death. In place of death there was light.

"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!" To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change.  For those present his agony continued for another two hours.  Something rattled in his throat,his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.

"It is finished!" said someone near him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.
"Death is finished," he said to himself.  "It is no more!"

He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched
out, and died.
Levin grapples with the same existential issues throughout his life. What irony, he says, that Man, gifted with intelligence, insight, humor, and creativity, lives for a few decades and then is consigned to the cold, hard clay of the steppes.  What was the point of life, he wonders, if it is so brief, so inconsequential, and its end so final? We are, as Macbeth noted nothing but ‘a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more’. 

At the end of the last chapter, uttering the final lines of the book, Levin says:

My life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!

Like Tolstoy himself who concluded at the end of years of tormented inquiry that the faith of millions was good enough reason to believe, Levin also backs into faith.  I still have no answers to the meaning of life or death, he says; but at least I can do good.

Tolstoy’s reflections express his nihilism.  There is no purpose to life, man dies alone, and as much as we may struggle to find meaning, there isn’t any to be found. In War and Peace he elaborates his deterministic theory of history. There are no great men in history, nor any heroic acts because every action is conditioned by millions of either purposeful and random events that precedes it.  There was no meaning in the Battle of Borodino, the burning of Moscow, or the eventual retreat of the French from Russia. These events simply happened.  Over 50,000 men died in one day at Borodino for reasons that elude logic. History is amoral, Tolstoy said.  There are no good actions nor bad actions, just actions.

The epiphanies of all Tolstoy’s characters – Alexei at Austerlitz and again on his deathbed, Levin, or Levin’s dying brother – are either temporary or secular. Alexei on the battlefield understands that all men are alike and at then at the end of his life realizes that love is what unifies all men.  Levin and Tolstoy himself in A Confession simply wear out after a tiring search for meaning, and come to the simplest and most traditional of conclusions – faith, love, and doing good.  

Dostoevsky is much more direct and critical regarding questions of life, death, and the meaning of both.  In The Grand Inquisitor Ivan confronts the returned Jesus and says that he has deceived Man by suggesting that he should not live by bread alone.  By so doing he has offered vain, elusive promises and consigned him to a life of misery, hunger, and penury.  What is the nature of a God, he asks Christ, who leaves innocent children to suffer? If he is omnipotent and merciful, then he surely can assure that all in his creation live as happily as Adam and Eve before the Fall.  What was the point of the Fall? And why this persistent betrayal?

Dostoevsky raises the essential question of the relationship of Man to God.  He is far less concerned than Tolstoy with existential questions and more engaged with the human condition - deceit, betrayal, and suffering.  A life of inescapable suffering spent under the illusion of salvation is no life at all.  I life lived under the authoritarian rule of the Church that Jesus made possible is intolerable. 

There have been many interpretations of The Book of Job. To some it reaffirms the conventional concept that through divine justice faith will ultimately be rewarded.  Others, particularly early Christian theologians, have suggested that it is all about the purifying, even desirable nature of suffering.  Job’s final capitulation to God is seen by some is obeisance and recognition of of God’s supremacy; but to others a familiar story of patriarchal authoritarianism.

The defining character of the Book, however, is not Job’s patience but his defiance.  How can You treat the innocent and the corrupt in the same way, he asks God?  How can You let those who benefit from Your largesse turn their backs on the less fortunate?  Why have you favored the rich while consigning so many others to want and misery? “Wherefore is light given to him that is in misery?”, Job asks (3:20).  Is there no such thing in Your universe as Divine Retribution?  If there in fact is none, then what reason is there for Man to act morally? “He destroyeth the perfect and the wicked”, Job says (9:22)

Job asks God why he has ruined him.  I am a good, honest, obedient man, he says, and yet you killed my family, robbed me of my wealth and inflicted inhuman physical suffering on me. Why? And for what purpose? He has a point, of course, because God had no reason to destroy Job and did so as a matter of principle.  Satan tells God that Job is pious and respectful only because you have been good to him. Watch how easily he loses his faith and rails against you once he has personally suffered.

Job challenges the fundamental principles which define the relationship between Man and God.  There is a contract, says Job, a Covenant no different from the one You concluded with the Israelites.   At least You should listen and respond with the same logic with which  Man’s questions are posed.

After God has shown him the marvels of His creation, Job demands, “But where shall wisdom be found?” (28:12).  The Devil in Milton’s Paradise Lost challenges God in the same way. Why is he keeping the fruit of the The Tree of Knowledge all to himself:? Job, Ivan, and Milton’s Devil all question the nature of divine omnipotence.  It is capricious, they all say.  It is without logic, apparent purpose, and unjust.

Each of these characters – Levin, Job, Ivan, and Tolstoy in A Confession – have integrity. “I will not remove my integrity, and my righteousness I hold fast” (27:6), says Job. You rule by fear,he says to God, but I am unafraid.

A number of Biblical scholars have suggested that we cannot take seriously Job’s capitulation to God in the last chapter of the Book.  He is too quick to give up his fierce individualism, honest, and integrity.  Even when confronted with the overwhelming power of God, he still asks about wisdom and righteousness.  Other more traditional critics have concluded that this is the way any engagement with God must end – absolute deference to Him and abandonment of all heretical notions, however honestly they have been presented.

The Book of Job is one of the most beautifully written in the Bible; and is one of the very few which challenge received wisdom.  God does not get off easily when confronted by Job.

Tolstoy as he recounts in A Confession considered both the logical dismissal of God and the faith-based affirmation of Him; but could not decide between the two. His conclusion - that it is simply easier to accept faith as a given in human nature – was still conditional on logical premises.  He could accept faith, but not stupidly or blindly.

Most of us are either true believers, anarchists, or like Tolstoy somewhere in the middle.  Few of us take God on in combat like Job or Milton’s Satan. Moses and Joshua were heroes – leading the Israelites, despite infighting, dissension, and the enmity and hostility of every tribe they encountered on the way to Canaan – but none were so heroic as Job.

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