About that

Myshkin:  “One morning I was traveling on a new railway line and spent four hours talking on the train with a certain S., having only just made his acquaintance. I had heard a good deal about him before and, among other things, that he was an atheist. He’s really a very learned man, and I was glad to be talking with a true scholar. Moreover, he’s a man of rare courtesy, and he talked with me as if I were perfectly equal to him in knowledge and ideas. He doesn’t believe in God. Only one thing struck me: it was as if that was not at all what he was talking about all the while, and it struck me precisely because before, too, however many unbelievers I’ve met, however many books I’ve read on the subject, it has always seemed to me that they were talking or writing books that were not at all about that, though it looked as if it was about that. I said this to him right then, but it must be I didn’t speak clearly, or didn’t know how to express it, because he didn’t understand anything…

In the evening I stopped to spend the night in a provincial hotel where a murder had taken place the night before, so that everyone was talking about it when I arrived. Two peasants, getting on in years, and not drunk, friends who had known each other a long time, had had tea and were both about to go to bed in the same little room. But, during the last two days, one of them had spied the silver watch that the other wore on a yellow bead string, which he had evidently never noticed before. The man was not a thief, he was even honest, and not all that poor as peasant life goes. But he liked the watch so much and was so tempted by it that he finally couldn’t stand it: he pulled out a knife and, while his friend was looking the other way, went up to him cautiously from behind, took aim, raised his eyes to heaven, crossed himself and, after praying bitterly to himself: ‘Lord, forgive me for Christ’s sake!’—killed his friend with one blow, like a sheep, and took his watch.”

Rogozhin: “Now that I like! No, that’s the best yet! The one doesn’t believe in God at all, and the other believes so much that he even stabs people with a prayer … No, that, brother Prince, couldn’t have been made up! Ha, ha, ha! No, that’s the best yet!…”

Myshkin: “The next morning I went out for a stroll about town and I saw a drunken soldier staggering along the wooden sidewalk, all in tatters. He comes up to me: ‘Buy a silver cross, master. I’m asking only twenty kopecks. It’s silver!’ I see a cross in his hand—he must have just taken it off—on a worn light blue ribbon, only it’s a real tin one, you could see it at first glance, big, eight-pointed, of the full Byzantine design. I took out twenty kopecks, gave them to him, and put the cross on at once—and I could see by his face how pleased he was to have duped the foolish gentleman, and he went at once to drink up his cross, there’s no doubt of that. Just then, brother, I was under the strongest impression of all that had flooded over me in Russia; before I understood nothing of it, as if I’d grown up a dumb brute, and I had somehow fantastic memories of it during those five years I spent abroad. So I went along and thought: no, I’ll wait before condemning this Christ-seller. God knows what’s locked away in these drunken and weak hearts.

An hour later, going back to my hotel, I ran into a peasant woman with a nursing baby. She was a young woman, and the baby was about six weeks old. And the baby smiled at her, as far as she’d noticed, for the first time since it was born. I saw her suddenly cross herself very, very piously. ‘What is it, young woman?’ I say. (I was asking questions all the time then.) ‘It’s just that a mother rejoices,’ she says, ‘when she notices her baby’s first smile, the same as God rejoices each time he looks down from heaven and sees a sinner standing before him and praying with all his heart.’ The woman said that to me, in almost those words, and it was such a deep, such a subtle and truly religious thought, a thought that all at once expressed the whole essence of Christianity, that is, the whole idea of God as our own father, and that God rejoices over man as a father over his own child—the main thought of Christ! A simple peasant woman! True, she’s a mother … and, who knows, maybe this woman was that soldier’s wife. Listen, Parfyon, you asked me earlier, here is my answer: the essence of religious feeling doesn’t fit in with any reasoning, with any crimes and trespasses, or with any atheisms; there’s something else here that’s not that, and it will eternally be not that; there’s something in it that atheisms will eternally glance off, and they will eternally be talking not about that.”

-Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.


Letter to an Unbelieving Friend

I used to think that your disbelief was covering something deeper, that there was something you were suppressing or lying to yourself about, and I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was. The reason I thought this, is that your arguments for not believing appeared so shallow and superficial, that it was hard for me to imagine that it was all based on this. I kept thinking there must be something deeper.

I don’t think this of all disbelievers. There are deep and troubling arguments for God’s absence, his nonexistence,  the sort that would feel like a punch to the gut for even the most committed believer. There’s a very deep and profound sense of atheism, comparable in some sense to a deep and profound sense of faith. But this is not yours.

While everyone attempts to answer your question in ways that neither work for them or for you, they all seem to be bewildered as to why you would stop believing as the result of these doubts. Everyone thinks there’s more to it. J thinks it’s because you want to do whatever you want, and feel unaccountable to anyone. C thinks that it’s like a teenager declaring her independence and rebellion. I thought it had something to do with your mom and dad, and difficult childhood, a position that I think D thinks too.

But I’m starting to think that after yesterday’s conversation that this is not the case. When I mentioned depth, you equated it in a way, that had no real resemblance to what I meant by it. What I meant by depth, is a deep rooted intimacy whether to one’s own belief or unbelief. Believers who had some sense of that, carry it over to their disbelief, but this hasn’t been the case for you.

All your questions and doubts are rooted in the impersonal world, void of any roots, and have no real bearing to your predicament. There is no you in it, that Siri could have regurgitated the same arguments. And I think this was the predicament now as it was when you were a believer. Your faith rested in a series of historic realities, of things said and done thousands of years before you were even a thought in someone’s head. You can only conceive it in such a way as you do now. It was all about the gears and mechanism of actions, like the pharmacology behind a new drug, that even if you didn’t understand it all that well then, you just had faith that it made sense in such away.  But once this image fell apart, this idea of a God, believed in like you would the things described in a series of lecture notes, you found yourself unable to piece it all back together the same way, which may just be a good thing.

Nobody wants to put back together your failed faith, to return you to where you once were, but to find what it is that you were missing then, as you’re missing now.

You think it’s all just a story that occurred so a long ago, that the Gospel is merely a recording of a series of events thousands of years ago, but it’s not. It’s the story that occurs every day, at every moment, and every aspect of our waking life. You think Adam was just a man who did a single act, that set the world in disharmony, rather than seeing the Adam, whose very name means, “Man”, is us. Even in the most simplest and contrite of confessions, found in abundance at every charismatic alter-call, we don’t appear in front and confess the sins of someone else. We don’t say God forgive us for what Adam did, for his transgression, but for God to forgive us of our own.

If Adam was the one who flicked the switch, we’re the ones who keep the lights off. If Adam was the one who brought disharmony in the world, we are the ones sustaining it. If Adam was the one who first rebelled, it is us who have joined his rebellion.

It us who imagine us the wiser, who worship a series of idols, who feel ashamed. It us who are broken, and failed creatures, refusing that which offers to make us whole, who live amiss of that very thing itself. It is not that God decided to love us only at the time of Jesus, but that God has always loved us, and it is God through the very bruised and battered body of Jesus, who reveals our inability to love him and others,  who became the very victim of that inability.

You imagine that God is a question of something else, but God is the very question of you. You think to believe is to believe in a series of events, to believe in the very holes in the hands of Christ, but this is not it. Because an unbeliever can believe this. But belief is something else all together. It’s a belief in the very transformative power that raised a mangled body from the dead, that offers to breathe into our own dry bones, our very body of death, and transform it the same way. Belief is a not a belief in the existence of God, but in the very power of this God, a power present and abundant here, that only requires that we take the wool off of our eyes to see it, and partake in the life that it offers us even now.

You imagine that difference between unbelief and belief is a matter or reason, but it’s not. It’s the very stumbling block to reason.

It’s that thing that keeps a woman’s hand around the neck of a man from a failed and broken marriage so long ago. That keeps it there that it becomes the very fabric of her being. Here’s a woman dealing with a profound and intimate disbelief, another bruised and battered body for which your own disbelief is all but trivial, a devoid and broken shell of nothingness.  You ask where’s the God that appeared resurrected for Thomas, who refuses to show himself to you. When you should be asking where’s the God who refuses to show that he has risen for her, so that she herself may be risen in him. Where’s the God who forgave those who bruised and battered him, so that she can forgive those who bruised and battered her.

You ask, why “have I not seen the God who raised Lazarus from the dead”, refusing to ask God to raise the body of the one whom you love so deeply. You imagine that the question of the Cross is a question somewhere out there. But it’s not. It’s right there, right in front of you, while you sit there and lay blind to it, trapped in your own cycle of superficiality to recognize the true meaning of it all.  Right there in the very question you should be asking, but is the one you never ask…