In his Drama of Atheistic Humanism, the theologian Henri de Lubac presents Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), whose birth we are celebrating on October 30, as the prophet of modernity without God. Prophet, because he reveals the truth of a world tempted by revolt, but also because he gives him the only answer that can save him. Visionary novelist of the torments of the soul, oscillating between faith and doubt, his immense influence will mark Christian authors (Soloviev, Soljenitsyne, R.Girard …) as atheists (Gide, Nietzsche, Camus …), or even filmmakers such as Kurosawa , Bresson or Woody Allen …
Dostoyevsky lived in the heart of the Russian 19th century, its social changes and its ideological conflicts between Slavophiles and Westerners. His childhood, with an alcoholic and tyrannical father, is marked by the death of his mother and then, at 18, by the murder of his father by his own serfs. Here undoubtedly originates the theme of the murder of a little loved father, which can be found in The Brothers Karamazov.
The answer to atheism and despair is the mercy of a Father who, far from his terrorist caricatures, is love and forgiveness.
At 28, already a novelist (Les Pauvres Gens, Le Double, Les Nuits Blanches…), he was arrested with a group of “revolutionaries”, disciples of Fourier and Proudhon. Sentenced to death and then pardoned at the last minute, he was deported to Siberia for four years in prison. In contact with the convicts, he discovered the soul of the Russian people, read the Bible and traded his socialist ideas for a messianism of the Russian land, in a growing rejection of Western influences (cf. Souvenir from the house of the dead, 1862). Ten years later, he moved to St. Petersburg. Affectively unstable, subject to play (cf. Le Joueur, 1866), Dostoyevsky wrote his masterpieces in precarious conditions: Le Sous-sol (1864), Crime et Châtiment (1865), L’Idiot (1868), the Possessed (1872). In The Brothers Karamazov (1880), he brings together all the major themes that shape his work: freedom, faith and rebellion, evil and mercy, salvation in Christ. This final masterpiece definitively exorcises the temptation of atheism and ends in a vibrant profession of faith in the resurrection.
If our time is atheist, it is in the sense that it is ready to welcome any salvation (from oriental spiritualities, consumerism, the race for power or well-being …), provided that it does not not put on the face of the father. The murder of the father is the inaugural gesture of modernity, which denounces in all filiation – carnal, spiritual, metaphysical – the bond of enslavement from which one must free oneself. Dostoyevsky knew this temptation. Through his characters of deniers and rebels, such as Raskolnikov or Ivan Karamazov, he announces libertarian atheism which will culminate in the “death of God” proclaimed by Nietzsche. “If God does not exist,” Ivan repeats, “anything goes. But by exploring the consequences of this dream of autonomy (notably in The Possessed), Dostoyevsky unmasks the sham. Without a father, no more brothers, but a crowd of uprooted and lonely orphans.
The assertion of the omnipotence of the individual leads inexorably to the dissolution of the social body into an anonymous anthill, and finally, its enslavement by a few “superior men”. In the Brothers Karamazov, the fantastic figure of the grand inquisitor thus recapitulates the fate of political atheism: it is by wanting to make men happy that the grand inquisitor comes to confiscate their freedom, reproaching Christ for having hoped to them a freely granted faith of which they are, according to him, incapable. So humanism without God turns into avowed contempt for man.
For Dostoyevsky, true liberation will come with human consent to be loved and forgiven. This is what Raskolnikov, a rebel and homicide, discovers in the love that Sonia, admirable Christ figure of Crime and Punishment, has for him. The answer to atheism and despair is the mercy of a Father who, far from his terrorist caricatures, is love and forgiveness. To the rebellion of Ivan, who rejects creation disfigured by the suffering of children, responds the figure of “the Innocent”, Christ who takes charge of the misfortune and sin of men to offer them to divine mercy. Faced with our morbid guilt or our fantasies of innocence, the monk Zossima, father figure, benevolent and luminous of the Brothers Karamazov, reminds us that there is freedom only in the reception of forgiveness and that this forgiveness enlightens us on our real guilt, at the very moment when it frees us from it.
“Dear mother, I want to be guilty towards them, I cannot explain it to you … If I have sinned towards all, all will forgive me, this is paradise. Am I not there now? (The Brothers Karamazov, Pleiade, p. 311.)
To go further: to acclimatize to the Dostoevskian universe, I recommend starting with The Player, then Crime and Punishment, before tackling The Brothers Karamazov and the other works. X.D.