Dostoevsky's Incarnational Realism
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Dostoevsky's Incarnational Realism

Finding Christ among the Karamazovs

Paul J. Contino

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eBook - ePub

Dostoevsky's Incarnational Realism

Finding Christ among the Karamazovs

Paul J. Contino

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About This Book

In this book Paul Contino offers a theological study of Dostoevsky's final novel, The Brothers Karamazov. He argues that incarnational realism animates the vision of the novel, and the decisions and actions of its hero, Alyosha Fyodorovich Karamazov. The book takes a close look at Alyosha's mentor, the Elder Zosima, and the way his role as a confessor and his vision of responsibility "to all, for all" develops and influences Alyosha. The remainder of the study, which serves as a kind of reader's guide to the novel, follows Alyosha as he takes up the mantle of his elder, develops as a "monk in the world," and, at the end of three days, ascends in his vision of Cana. The study attends also to Alyosha's brothers and his ministry to them: Mitya's struggle to become a "new man" and Ivan's anguished groping toward responsibility. Finally, Contino traces Alyosha's generative role with the young people he encounters, and his final message of hope.

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Publisher
Cascade Books
Year
2020
ISBN
9781725250765
Chapter 1

The Analogical Imagination and Incarnational Realism

Dostoevsky sought to portray the “person in the person.” His “higher realism,” rooted in his Christian faith, sees visible, finite reality as bearing an analogical relationship to an invisible, infinite reality. An analogical imagination recognizes that human persons are creatures, both like and radically unlike their Creator. Created in God’s image, persons are like God in their rationality, freedom, and capacity to create and love. But God is one and persons are many; God is unchanging and persons are mutable; God is infinite and persons are finite. Above all, persons are dependent as their existence is contingent upon God’s. God is not simply another being, but Being itself, the One in Whom all persons live and move and have their particular beings.11 Our existence as beings does not place us in the same ontological category as God. But the divine is not so utterly transcendent that our own rational conceptions of the good and true and beautiful bear no relation to God.12 They bear an analogical relation.
Christian faith understands God not only as Being but as Love. God is a unity of three persons bound in infinite, inter-relational, self-giving love. God’s love overflows to form creation and, in time, enters history and a particular place in the person of Christ. In Christ, the believer sees most clearly the image of God’s beauty, goodness, and truth. The infinite Word takes on creaturely flesh and finitude. But Christ’s descent into finitude and death brings forth resurrection, ascension, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. As Trinity, God is both One and three differentiated persons; Christ is both God and man, “without confusion . . . without separation.”13 The analogical imagination is built upon the two doctrinal beams that undergird the Christian faith: Trinity and Incarnation. Analogy recognizes the unity in our human plurality: for all our particularity and diversity, we are each persons, and, in analogy to God’s trinitarian nature, created to be in integral relation to other persons. Analogy recognizes that human love is both like and—given our creaturely, fallen frailty—unlike the Creator’s love.14
Both like and unlike: a “both/and” approach to reality recognizes both its complexity and wholeness. It resists the temptation to order that complexity with too-tidy “either/or” categorizations.15 Dostoevsky’s novel represents reality as both graced gift and arduous task; the world as both sacramentally charged and sinfully fallen; paradise as both here and yet to come; persons as both open in their freedom to change and closed given the realities of time, interpersonal commitment, consequences of past actions, and even genetic inheritance. Dostoevsky depicts the human desire for holiness as demanding both willing receptivity and a willed (but never willful) effort of self-denial.16
A both/and vision should not be understood as resulting in static indecision. Rather, it fosters a prudential appreciation of particularity that, in time, necessitates decisive action. Taking one road precludes taking another. Thus, the novel’s “both/and” vision recognizes that “either/or” moments are inevitable in human experience, and require the preparatory work of discernment. Having reached a clear apprehension of the truth of a particular situation, each character in the novel must decide and act. Rather than depleting personhood by foreclosing options, decisive action enhances it. Wholeness is found in the passage through the limited. Grace remains ever available in the place of fragmentation. As St. Thomas Aquinas emphasized, uncreated grace builds upon created nature;17 infinite freedom fosters finite, creatural freedom. Freedom exercised in “active love” is grounded in the person’s “precious mystic sense of our living bond with the other world” (276).
Active love itself has a both/and form: it integrates both human inclination, our attraction to the good and beautiful (eros) and sacrificial self-emptying on behalf of others (agape). Persons are called to participate in the divine self-emptying, the kenosis of “perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of [their] neighbor” (54), in acts of self-transcendence not of self-obliteration.18 Dostoevsky distinguishes the relational person from the autonomous self: “For Dostoevsky, it is a bad thing to lose one’s personality, but a good thing to lose one’s self” (Corrigan 12). Paradoxically, he affirms that fullness of personhood—one’s “true self”—emerges only through the gift of self. In this way, Dostoevsky’s vision bears deep affinities to those of St. Augustine and Dante Alighieri—two other Christian “classics” to whom I will sometimes refer in this study. For all three writers, eros and agape find a “hidden wholeness”19 in the practice of caritas. “Except a corn of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). Jesus spoke these words as he entered Jerusalem, and into his passion, death, and resurrection. The words comprise the novel’s epigraph and suggest its recurring theme. The epigraph presents a seminal image of both finitude and fruition. It suggests that self-giving love, in response to God’s own, is the human person’s deepest desire.20
To reiterate, a both/and vision must include the reality of a decisive “either/or.”21See, I have today set before you life and good, death and evil” (Deut 30:15). Moses presents here a stark either/or, and in its similarly high-stakes choice between life and death the novel is both “both/and” and “either/or.” Paradoxically—and aptly—the cross becomes “the tree of life” “the roots” of which lie in the “other world” (276). The cross stands as the novel’s symbol for that which “brings forth much fruit.”22 Its counter image is the gallows, chosen by the suicide. The night before the trial, Ivan vows to Alyosha: “Tomorrow the cross, but not the gallows” (549). This “either/or” is decisive. But even the tiniest of charitable deeds can re-direct and re-align a person to the form of Christ: the gift of a kiss, a pillow, or a “pound of nuts” that open an orphaned child’s eyes to the hidden ground of Trinitarian love (56768). A gratuitously offered “little onion” (307, 311) can be salvific.23
Given Dostoevsky’s radically inclusive vision of salvation “for all,” what of those who choose the gallows? Does Smerdyakov have his onion? Here too we find complexity: the novel complicates any quick condemnation of those who, like Smerdyakov (or Judas, his scriptural prototype), choose suicide. In the Gospel of Matthew, Judas “deeply regret[s] what he had done.” He returns the thirty pieces of silver and confesses. Only after being rebuffed by the priests does he commit suicide (Matt 27:35).24 Similarly, on the night before the trial, when Smerdyakov describes his murder to Ivan and hands him the blood money, the narrator admits that “It was impossible to tell if it was remorse he was feeling, or what” (529). Both tragic images complicate the reader’s overly hasty judgment, as does Zosima’s meditation which emphasizes both justice and mercy:
But woe to those who have slain themselves on earth, woe to the suicides! I believe that there can be none more miserable than they. They tell us that it is a sin to pray to God for them and outwardly the Church, as it were, renounces them, but in my secret heart I believe that we may pray even for them. Love can never be an offense to Christ. For such as those I have prayed inwardly all my life, I confess it, fathers and teachers, and even now I pray for them every day. (279)
The reader, implicated, is called to “go and do likewise.” In Zosima’s vision, and that of the novel as a whole, ...

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