Crises, Dostoevsky and the Gospel

There is something of a common thread that runs throughout the novels of Dostoevsky, the 19th century Russian writer: personal crises. Dostoevsky has long been recognized as a genius of psychological perception, writing at a time before psychology was a formal academic discipline. Many of his novels carry a relgious theme, particularly Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. There are other personal crises in many of his other works – though none that compare with those two novels. It is in these personal crises that Dostoevsky introduces the reality of the Christian faith – in particular the Orthodox Christian faith. His characters frequently live in a state that is dangerously close to the edge of madness or self-destruction until they “come to their senses” and embrace the life of the gospel. He does not describe such conversions as instantaneous or easy.

But his recognition of the role of crisis in the conversion of the human soul is an important insight. American revivalism, born from roots in the First and Second Great Awakening, seeks to create crisis for the individual through preaching. Thus the famous and common references to Hell, or “if you were to die tonight do you know where you would go?” are attempts to foster crises within the human soul.

But a true crisis is not something which can simply be manufactured – at least not with any accuracy. I once worked with an Anglican priest who was very “high Church.” His services of Holy Week were about as complete as one could find in an Anglican setting. I remember him saying to me: “On Good Friday, when the service is complete, I don’t want anyone to know anything other than that Jesus is dead.” He wanted the crisis of the death of God to prepare the way for Easter. I understood his point but felt is was somehow, artificial. After all, everyone knew that Christ has been raised from the dead. The moment of surprise had long ago passed.

Indeed, in the services of Orthodox Holy Week, though the crucifixion and entombment of Christ are marked as profoundly as possible, they are always done so against the backdrop of Pascha. Thus there is no Eastern practice of refraining from “Alleluia” during Lent (as is the fashion in some Western Churches). Christ is never not risen and nothing we do makes sense unless it is placed in the context of Pascha.

Personal crises resist manufacture (and well they should). From the Christian point of view, inducing a crisis in someone’s life might very well have the character of sin (I would make exception for things such as drug interventions and the like, although even interventions fail from time to time). There is an integrity to the human soul that is not transparent to others. God knows us and does so far more deeply than we know ourselves. I have always assumed some activity of grace at work in the human heart that, in cooperation with the world around, brings crisis in a way in which it can be salvific and not destructive.

St. Paul’s conversion is probably the most widely attested crisis in Scripture – the story being related several times within the pages of the book of Acts. As St. Paul is told, “It is hard to kick against the goads.” It is difficult to resist the prodding of the Holy Spirit.

The temptation to manufacture crises, it seems to me, is a belief that God needs our help, or that, somehow, we are the ones who “save” souls. Instead, it would seem more correct to me, that we should trust that God knows very well what He is doing in the souls of men, and it is for us to be patient, prepared and equipped to offer what help souls in crisis may need as they reach out for grace.

My experience as a pastor is that many crises present themselves without clear or obvious answers. That the answer is always, “Turn to God,” seems obvious enough, but even this requires patience and frequently long endurance. The healing of the human soul can sometimes be a very slow thing.

As such, we “put our hand to the plow,” and seek to remain steadfast in all things. And we may trust that every crisis of our life is an opportunity of salvation – even though we may not see clearly how that is so.

Comments

  1. Barbara says

    Dear Fr. Stephen,

    I hope you had a wonderful return to your home altar yesterday.

    Again, with the above post, you make me think about something in such a new way. I had never thought about how so often preaching is an attempt to induce or manufacture a heart crisis. I was four years old the first time I walked down the aisle to be “saved” in response to an induced heart crisis. Was this the first step down the road to needing more and more dramatic manufactured awakenings, while becoming increasingly unable to pay attention to/respond to the real crises in my life and increasingly cynical about the role of the church in my life?

    I was just talking to my priest and his wife yesterday about how difficult it is for a protestant convert to orthodoxy to adjust to worship that doesn’t make any attempt to induce feelings, and in fact, does the opposite.

    I sometimes wonder how my life would have been different if every Sunday I had heard the words, “Child of God, Barbara, receives the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ…” As I bring my new little God daughter to receive the Eucharist every Sunday morning, I’m so grateful that she has a more authentic, loving, steadfast and supported spiritual journey ahead of her.

    I would love to hear from “cradle” orthodox about what hearing the “child of God” words every Sunday meant to them.

    Barbara

  2. says

    Barbara,

    When I was an Anglican priest, I gave communion by name as the Orthodox do. I remember one Sunday a young woman had returned to Church after “straying” for several years. Her parents told me her name before the service. When she came to communion, I gave her communion by name. I noticed later that she was in tears.

    We spoke the next day and she told me that simply hearing her name (making the long story short) brought her crisis to its breaking point and a desire to turn to God. Just her name. I have never forgotten her story and remember it many times as I give the Body and Blood of Christ to his children by name.

    Thank you for sharing. God keep you!

  3. Margaret says

    Growing up in a similar situation to Barbara, and then having the experience of participating in Anglican high church worship, I can relate to these comments well. Thank you both for taking the time to comment.

    For me the Orthodox reminder that Jesus is truly the Lover of Mankind resonated with my spirit in a way that surprised me by its familiarity the first time I heard it and ever since, praise God!

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for taking the time to post these thoughts here. I believe that many movies and novels popular today “feed” on this human weakness to create crises and to “help” or to “act as” God. I especially agree with your comment herein:
    “Instead, it would seem more correct to me, that we should trust that God knows very well what He is doing in the souls of men, and it is for us to be patient, prepared and equipped to offer what help souls in crisis may need as they reach out for grace.”
    I am adding this to my personal prayers.

  4. Steve says

    God is patient and kind to me. I cannot ignore that fact if I want to find any sort of peace with others.

  5. says

    Fr. Stephen,

    As Barbara said your profound insights have allowed me to think about an issue in a new way. After living as a Southern Baptist for several years I came to dread the altar call. The vast majority of the congregation were already members and the likelyhood of someone coming forward was remote. Yet every Sunday 10 verses of a hymn waiting for the Spirit to move. Even at weddings and funerals the same. Never was an opportunity missed to create a personal crisis for everyone in attendance. Sometimes it even appeared to be grandstanding.

    At the time it was my only Christian experience and I had no idea that a liturgical church/service even existed. I distinctly remember the first time I attended a Lutheran service and there was no altar call. No guilt trip, no doubting my salvation, no frustration.

    Thank you Father for your insight. Once again you have given me much to ponder.

  6. says

    Yes, this analysis rings true for many of us. Many Calvinists do not believe in the altar call, largely because the Calvinists during the Great Awakenings actually opposed the developement of it. Part of my becoming a Calvinist was trying to find a way out of what I knew was artificial about all this. Eventually that same search for what is authentic in religion, in its larger context, led to the authority of the Church, specifically the Orthodox Church.

    I’ve never heard it put so well as this, Father…”inducing a crisis” and so forth. Very true. Thank God his grace is so natural.

  7. Karen C says

    Father bless! For me, Orthodox worship was a profound relief and respite from the superficial ups and downs of a forced emotional response to the “content” of the gospel (in its various abstract elements as it is conceptualized) in my former, mainline, then Pentacostal and finally Baptist and Seeker-sensitive Protestant background. This is not to say that God didn’t speak to me and to others in those contexts, but there was no direct link between the worship of the services and that word from Him as there now is (and that very consistently) in my Orthodox liturgical experience.

    I also am firmly convinced that God is always working even in the most obviously lost or fallen soul. After reading your blog, I recently picked up “The Brothers Karamazov” and read the whole thing. I fell absolutely in love with the character of Alyosha and his beautiful, humble, and redemptive embrace of all the broken souls in his circle of influence. I saw more than I would have liked of myself in Mitya’s would-be redemptrix, Katarina, and in many others of the broken characters–the school boys Alyosha befriends, for instance!

    With regard to crisis and discerning when it is developing of itself and when one’s action would be forcing to prematurely precipitate it counterproductively to God’s purposes is too close to home for comfort. All that is to say that I really still covet your prayers for me, Father.

  8. says

    This is not where the crisis of faith lies, it seems to me. Many modern believers doubt huge portions of the Christian faith, precisely because they have placed them in a “second-storey” category where they are no longer accessible (through a variety of schemes). Thus it’s not a crisis of faith, but a failed spiritual understanding of the universe. They are, often, “secular atheists,” in need of conversion not to the details of the faith, but the context in which faith is possible.

    The last thing I am interested in doing is arguing on some sort of rational grounds about the resurrection, because it transcends such ground and utterly changes the nature of such ground.

    I think we need to help people see that it is not a “crisis of faith” that troubles them but the “crisis of modernity” and everything it brings with it -including an inadequate account of a reason to even exist.

    Just a quick thought.

  9. David says

    Looking back on my own behavior, deliberately creating a personal crisis (I used to call it “bursting their bubble”) was a controlling sort of thing to do. It was about kicking people off the throne of their hearts instead of asking them to step down.

    Shock, rhetorical manipulation, even cult-like “love bombing” people, were all accompanied by condescension. More often than not it wasn’t about the Gospel at all, but about finding a hook, a pearl that the person couldn’t give up and figuring out how to twist them so that if they want to keep that pearl, they have to believe and do as I told them.

    I don’t even know how to begin to repent for that. I was a sort of religious mad scientist willing to commit to unethical emotional experiments on people to get the result I wanted.

    Incidentally, a nice book about a crisis of modernity was written by a good friend and college here at Pepperdine. His name is Ted McAllister “Revolt Against Modernity”. It’s on Amazon. I’ve been teasing him that it’s crypto-Orthodox.

  10. says

    I see your point Father.

    In the context of a secular society, the existential reference points are delusions rooted in history.

    It seems to me that people existing in tightly compartmentalised two-storey garage spaces, are going to miss the point entirely.

  11. Robert says

    Fr Stephen<

    Would you be so kind to elaborate on the following you wrote:

    “Many modern believers doubt huge portions of the Christian faith, precisely because they have placed them in a “second-storey” category where they are no longer accessible (through a variety of schemes). Thus it’s not a crisis of faith, but a failed spiritual understanding of the universe. They are, often, “secular atheists,” in need of conversion not to the details of the faith, but the context in which faith is possible.”

    Specifically, how are we to bring people to conversion as to the context in which our Faith is possible? What will be the talking points in that conversation?

  12. evie says

    Fr. Stephen-

    Honestly, I write mostly for a little peace of mind. I am protestant but greatly enjoy your blog. I am pretty confident and content with being devoted to my church but appreciating traditions/aspects of other church. However, i have recently decided to dive deeper into church history and various other theological differences so that frankly, i can know what i’m talking about when discussing these things with others… whether it’s to the more calvinistic of my tradition or to those that have made the decision to convert to Orthodoxy.

    My questions/concerns are not exactly related to this post so if you wish to respond to them in another way, i understand. But it was the language of “crisis” that drew me to finally post. Basically- what i want to know is – Do you believe that ultimately it is the Holy Spirit that draws one confidently into the Orthodox church?

    I ask because i am the type that gets caught up in a lot of arguments and theology. I bury myself under it all so that I cannot see anything. It keeps me from trusting in the guidance of God in my life. There are things i really like about the Orthodox church. There are things that honestly, i’m just not ok with it. But I would like to trust that if it is where God wants me, He will lead me in that direction.

    Certainly, i believe that decision is involved. And God can use even these debatings and questionings to show me something. But i would definitely not feel ok with, and not peaceful about joining an Orthodox church at this point. And no matter what, God and His Love and His Spirit are above everything else so isn’t it really up to Him on where He wants me? And can’t I trust that He will lead me there if that’s where He wants me to go?

    It probably seems that i’m already pretty confident in what i feel to be true. Sometimes I am. But sometimes i get nervous and wonder if i’m just sticking with what’s comfortable. I want to make sure that i present these things to “the other side” and not only to those that have the same history and “comforts” as i do.

    And as I talk to friends that are converting or are almost there, I would like to be confident in the counsels they are receiving. Of course, i know you can’t speak for every orthodox church or priest but it would help greatly in giving me a little peace to know that my brothers and sisters in other traditions are one with us in believing that God will indeed show you where you need to be… even in matters of which church you choose. Thanks in advance for any wisdom you might offer.

  13. says

    Robert,

    Excellent question. One that deserves a good, careful answer. To tell the truth, it is much of what I do in preliminary catechesis these days. First laying a ground work in which people can see how “faith” works in the setting of modernity, versus how “faith” works in a proper sacramental view of the world.

    Some questions along the way (to use the resurrection as an example)

    1. Is the resurrection only an historical event that is now opaque to us since we’re so many years removed?

    2. What is the nature of Liturgy?

    3. What is the nature of True Worship?

    4. What precisely do we mean be “knowing God.”

    These would be some of the talking points.

  14. says

    evie,

    Yes, I believe the Holy Spirit is intimately involved in becoming an Orthodox Christian, and I also think the journey there may take some twists and turns.

    However, I do not believe in denominationalism. I believe, as we say in the Creed, in “One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church,” and I believe that the Orthodox Church is, indeed, that Church. If I did not believe this, I would not be Orthodox (it is a requirement).

    But I do not worry about whether someone else is Orthodox, for I don’t know what God is doing in their life at this time. However, I believe that we were all created for Orthodoxy (the fullness of right worship in communion with God). But it’s not mine to argue or convince. It is mine to live and ask constant forgiveness for my failings.

  15. says

    David,

    Just bought it from Amazon. Look forward to reading it. My experience with a number of “post-modernists” when I was in grad school at Duke, was that they’d have a much better case if they were Orthodox.

  16. evie says

    Well, it is a comfort to me not only that you believe in the Holy Spirits guidance but also that you claim to trust in what God is doing in a persons life.

    I do understand that you do not believe in denominationalism. It is certainly one of the most attractive things about Orthodoxy.

    But there are still obstacles I would have to leap over before I could confidently claim with you that it is indeed the One True Church. I think i’ve just been scared, though, that i needed to hurry up and “figure it out”… too scared of being wrong. But i know that i’ m not ready and do not feel that the Spirit is leading me there.

    If i were to approach someone in my tradition with this (as I have) i would receive encouragement to look at all the arguments and to seek Gods guidance but, naturally, i would be encouraged to stay where i am because, of course, they would be Orthodox if they agreed with its claim.

    So i guess i just needed that same affirmation from an Orthodox person… that indeed the Spirit will lead me there in His timing if that is where I need to be (although, that does naturally raise questions like.. “if it is the one true Church, how would the Spirit NOT lead you there?)

    Anyways, thank you for your answer and I thank you for your encouragement and wisdom in your writing. Even if we never agree on what constitutes the holy, catholic, apostolic church, I will still count you as a brother.

  17. says

    “Why would God NOT lead you there? Right now?” Because He loves us and knows the mystery of your soul and what you need and when. If you are seeking God honestly and with all your heart, don’t worry. He is good and only wishes your good. He loves us so much that He gives us freedom and is not anxious about us. He is God.

    By the same token, if I believe there really is a God, and someone really wants to know the Truth, I should not be anxious about it either. Patience is a good, Biblical word.

  18. Jehovah Rophe says

    Evie,

    Can I just say that denominationalism is part of the great existential delusion alluded to earlier (Fr. Stephen spoke of systems that hold us back from experiencing God). These delusions have their roots in history.

    What is important is that we get the healing we need to become complete persons in full communion with God. This we know is God’s will. It cannot be anything else.

    Also, we know that a spirit of fear does not come from God. This is a redflag. We must address these fears.

    It is only by submerging ourselves completely in God (this is what the water baptism symbolises) can we begin to understand what full communion means.

  19. Robert says

    Fr. Stephen,

    Sorry for being so dense, but would you further explain the contrast between “a ground work in which people can see how “faith” works in the setting of modernity, versus how “faith” works in a proper sacramental view of the world.”

    I am trying ascertain what this means in today’s context (modernity, post modernity etc.). Thank you for your time, you are wonderful. Glory to God for all things indeed!

  20. says

    Robert,

    In the modern world, “faith” acts as a believing in something that is almost contradictory to the world, something that belongs somewhere else. Life after death is a good example. In a sacramental or one-storey world, faith is more an “organ” of seeing things as they truly are – even here. The resurrection is not something that belongs to another world, but is, in fact, the meaning of this world, contained in everything around us, rightly seen.

  21. Karen C says

    Evie, my husband is not Orthodox, while I converted to Orthodoxy as a result of a strong inner necessity by the Holy Spirit after a lifetime of searching for the fullness of the expression of the gospel and finding it here. I experienced many of the same fears in my journey as you describe and was unnecessarily obsessive in the speed and perfection with which I sought to discover whether what I was finding in Orthodoxy was fully true. As a result, I have been unbalanced in the use of my time in a way that has been very hard on my husband and children. All this was the result of not being firmly enough grounded in the experiential knowledge that God is truly good and that He is pure mercy, unconditional love and grace, and never calls us where He does not also clearly show us the way. He is not in a hurry, and the worry that I felt was not from Him. Truly what Fr. Stephen said above is right. God is mysteriously working ALL things (even our present incomplete states) together for the good of those who love Him, however imperfectly, and wherever they may be found. We can confidently trust that “God makes all things beautiful IN HIS TIME.” Giving us true freedom is a necessary part of that process.

    My husband still has no clear word and call from the Holy Spirit to show him that Orthodoxy has any especial claim to be the fullness of biblical faith, and he feels very out of place in an Orthodox culture. He worships at the evangelical church where we met, which is where he first really experienced and can perceive God’s grace and love. It is not easy for us to balance each other’s spiritual needs properly against our own, but we have grown more in true intimacy and maturity our marriage through having to negotiate our differences and selflessly work to accommodate one another, than we did when we were united in our church choice. This, too, is a part of the mystery of how God works. Our fundamental values and trust in God’s grace remain the same, and I know God is in this arrangement, though it may lack “propriety” from a doctrinal purist’s point of view. I hope this is encouraging to you. Forgive me for being so long winded! Christ is in our midst!

  22. Gabriel Sanchez says

    Just quick…

    I’m not looking into opening a huge debate, but McAllister’s work has serious limitations as an exploration of Strauss or Voegelin. Admittedly, it’s been a few years since I read the book, but there have been so many individual interpretive studies of both since then that his work doesn’t seem to have the same resonance it once did. That’s not to stay it isn’t an engaging read with some real benefits, but I don’t think it does nearly enough credit to either: (A) Bringing out the magnitude of the tensions between Strauss and Voegelin or (B) Reconciling the apparent differences between them which, upon further reflection, don’t appear as substantial as some “kneejerkers” believe(d). (E.g., Voegelin’s “historicism” vs. Strauss’s “natural right, etc.). I would be curious to know how McAllister appears crypto-Orthodox on the basis of the study. But again, it’s been a few years and maybe I’ve missed something.

    In saying that, I read Voegelin’s essay on immortality the other evening. From my perspective, it is the closest Voegelin ever came to espousing Christianity, albeit of a stripe which neither Protestants nor the Catholics Voegelin had in mind could fully ascent to. But I believe Voegelin’s “non-dogmatic Christianity” (for lack of a better term–pardon the imprecision) is less problematic from the standpoint of Orthodoxy, even if a faithful Orthodox Christian is likely to question Voegelin’s understanding of symbols and their (in)capacity to capture the experiences behind them. But I am getting ahead of myself here. If the McAllister study interests you, I’d suggest Faith and Political Philosophy, an anthology collecting the extant correspondence between Strauss and Voegelin. The four appended essays (including the aforementioned by Voegelin on immortality and another eyebrow-raising work, “The Gospel and Culture”) are almost worth the price alone. The correspondence does have the benefit of quickly revealing the coolness Strauss felt towards Voegelin, especially as the latter’s major works started to come into print.

  23. says

    Voegelin’s instinctive distrust of those who sought to “immanentize the eschaton” can be linked to the historical context within which he lived. He linked certain gnostic ideas, “forms”, with abhorrent manifestations such as Nazism. Of course we live in another, albeit closely juxtaposed context but it is interesting to reflect on the Catholic Church’s position on the eschaton:

    “The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism”.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church, article 676.

    Note that this does not imply that believers cannot experience “heaven on earth” (sic). As Fr. affirms, “forms” birthed outside the context of the resurrection are bound to end in failure, making a loud crash as they do.

    The LORD largely builds His eternal kingdom away from the glare of the media spotlight, in the Mar Sabas and the Jerusalems, in the lowliest of deserts and on tops of high mountains.

    “Be still”, He says, “and know that I am God” — Psalm 46:10

  24. evie says

    Karen C- extremely helpful and encouraging.

    Patience patience indeed. And TRUST. Thanks friends.

  25. Gabriel Sanchez says

    Voegelin was and would continue to be nauseated by the reduction of his work to a catch slogan which dripped off the pen of William F. Buckley. Not that Voegelin wasn’t abhorred by “world imminent” religious/political movements. But he went much further than that over the course of a very long and extremely productive career. Voegelin had no quarrel with religious or, rather, mystical experiences. What he quarreled with was the closing off of men’s souls to transcendence and man making himself a “god.” But I’m getting ahead of myself here…

    It occured to me that a worthwhile book to recommend would be David Walsh’s After Ideology. He deals not only with Voegelin, but also Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and Camus and their struggle to regain the meaning of being. It’s more on point to this discussion than the aforementioned McAllister book.

  26. David says

    Gabriel,

    Ted is a friend of mine. I read the book because he means something to me, not particularly because Strauss and Voegelin do. I offered it as a recommendation because he influenced me to become Orthodox even though he, himself, didn’t realize that I could be moved that way by his influence. I, of course, have the benefit of many hours spent with him that enriches my reading of his book..

    I must say, given the flip in the card catalog in my head of Ortho-folks online, I didn’t think it was possible for you to say you weren’t open to a huge debate. I’m not equipped to defend his work on academic grounds anyway. I can only say that compared to most of the scholarly materials I read in college his was in the top tier critically, stylistically and substantively.

    I should point out that when I told my friend that I read his book and had recommended it to my priest, he said that he’d prefer if I used something more recent. I told him to write another book.

  27. says

    Obviously, I have readers with a lot more experience of Vogelin, etc. I’ll be interested in reading more widely as suggested. I would not suggest a deeper discussion here, since I do not have what I need to moderate such a discussion.

    I woud also ask that readers restrain themselves in personal responses to comments unless you feel very confident about it, and don’t be surprised if I edit or delete. Pastoral guidance is difficult at best, and almost impossible on the internet. I might note that if someone addresses a question to me, that should not be interpreted as a question to everyone else who happens to drop by. Sometimes it’s better to read and pray.

    Karen,

    Thanks for what I think was a very helpful word and encouragement.

  28. says

    David, May God forgive, but I see no problem – it obviously is an area that interests a lot of people and I appreciate the suggestions. I just wanted to keep us on topic. I look forward to the reading.

  29. Robert says

    Fr Stephen,

    you said: “In the modern world, “faith” acts as a believing in something that is almost contradictory to the world, something that belongs somewhere else…..The resurrection is not something that belongs to another world, but is, in fact, the meaning of this world, contained in everything around us, rightly seen.”

    I have read something by Dumitru Staniloae in “Orthodox Spirituality” that affirmed your position:

    “By the world man grows to the height of the knowledge of God and to the capacity od being His partner. The world is a teacher to lead us to Christ…Salvation isn’t obtained in isolation, but in a cosmic frame. This value of the world as a road to God is explained by the fact that man must have an object of giant proportions for strengthening his spiritual forces, but also from the intrinsic structure of the world as a symbol of transcendent divine realities.” pg 205

    This is explains our “Great Crisis” as much of what is done in modern Christianity is done in isolation, outside this one storey “cosmic frame”.
    In doing so we will have abandoned the Faith of the Apostles and arrived at something entirely alien to it.

    Thanks for your time and thoughtful input.