In 1839 the eighteen-year-old youth Dostoesvsky wrote to his brother: “Man is a mystery: if you spend your entire life trying to puzzle it out, then do not say that you have wasted your time. I occupy myself with this mystery, because I want to be a man.”
From Konstantin Mochulsky’s Dostoevsky: His Life and Work
A short time ago I wrote about the “soul as mystery” – the fear and wonder with which human beings are made is a given starting point for me – an assumption that must be afforded to every human being. I have already confessed my debt to Dostoevsky but I wonder, “To what extent is he a man for our time?”
He wrote in the early to mid 18th century. In many ways he was ahead of his time – prescient – able to describe the tragic forces which, if not reigned in, would destroy Europe and the modern world. Those forces were not reigned in – and the twentieth century saw the destruction of Europe in two successive world wars that spent the largest part European cultural inheritance and then engaged in an orgy of madness with the competing worlds of Nazism and Communism. For a time, the mystery of man was placed on a shelf, or trampled underfoot.
But what of our time. We are now better than a generation removed from the last of those wars. My aging father (86) has stories to tell me and I can see about me – in books and in other things – the vestiges of a passed world. There can be no nostalgia for that world. For even Dostoevsky saw its impoverishment 100 years before my father witnessed the madness that would, in time, come to pass.
I am no Dostoevsky. I am only a priest. I listen to the hearts of other moderns like myself who are struggling to be faithful to the teachings of Christ in this early part of the 21st century. We are not filled with the idealism that bordered on insanity that marked Dostoevsky’s 19th century man. Nor are we the madmen who would come later and destroy all that had been left us.
There is likely no single nor easy way to characterize the man of the postmodern West. Some believe, and some do not. Most of the great cultural forces are either economic or hedonist. If there are ideals they are the dreams of youth who find purpose in “saving a planet” they imagine to be dying.
I believe, however, that man is not infinitely malleable – we cannot, in fact, be anything we want to be. We are creatures and have a telos,an end and a purpose, that is Divinely given. Whether it haunts us just now or lies as a forgotten dream in the pages of a 19th century novelist, our purpose has not changed. The Gospel that was good news both to Galilean peasants and to a Russian intellectual, remains the same. The end and the purpose are eternal, for they are the fearful and wonderful reason of our making.
C.S. Lewis, in his The Abolition of Man, wrote of “men without chests,” describing a certain breed of modern man which had jettison his heart, having substituted false science and a devalued subjectivity for the eternal verities that had once linked human beings together in a common culture. He wrote his work in the immediate years following World War II. Nothing in our educational system has reversed the trends of which he complained. We have not regained our chests – not as a culture.
However, we have no where been commanded to change the world or to save civilization. These are things that are measured on a much larger stage of history and longer period than a single life. It is not the diagnosis of our disease that is so important as it is the medicine of our healing. The heart which must again fill our chests is not some missing part of Western Civilization but the heart of flesh that is our inheritance in Christ. It is an imperishable healing that alone can give us what we lack.
Dostoevsky – in his youth – rightly saw his life’s work and the work of every lifetime well-spent. We do well to ponder the mystery of man – for we are a mystery that is a reflection of God Himself. To know man as he truly is – one must know the God who created him.
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:4-9)