Anyone who has attempted to understand our contemporary malaise, as I have for many years now, must begin with the death of God. This is an uncomfortable topic and one that is dismissed by many. But if we contrast our current ethos with that of, say, the medieval period, it is clear that God plays a very small part in the lives of the vast majority of people in the West, at the very least. I have blogged about this from time to time and will not repeat here what I have already said. But a passage in one of Dostoevsky’s major works, written in his maturity, raises the issue anew.
Like Nietzsche, Dostoevsky was aware, toward the end of the nineteenth century, that he was living in a new age, an age in which God was no longer the viable force He had been during the Dark Ages when faith was paramount, the Cathedrals were being built and, as it has been said, there were no atheists.
In any event, Dostoevsky’s novel The Adolescent (previously translated as Raw Youth), brings Arcady Makarovich and his father Andrei Petrovich Versilov together toward the end of what is a rather long prelude as the novel nears its conclusion. Arcady’s father is imparting his wisdom and while doing so reflects on the godless age in which they are living and imagines what he calls a “fantasy” in which those who once loved God now turn toward nature and toward one another and embrace their fellow humans, “. . . each would tremble for the life and happiness of each.”
“The great idea of immortality would disappear and would have to be replaced; and all the great abundance of the former love for the one who was himself immortality would be turned in all of them to nature, to the world, to people, to every blade of grass. They would love the earth and life irrepressibly and in the measure to which they gradually became aware of their transient and finite state, and it would be with a special love now, not as formally.”
To prepare us for this insight, we are told that
“. . .after the curses, the mudslinging and whistling, a calm comes and people are left alone as they wished: the former great idea has left them; the great source of strength that had nourished and warmed them till then is departing, like the majestic, inviting sun . . ., but it already seemed like the last day of mankind. And people suddenly realized that they remained quite alone, and at once felt a great orphancy. . . .I have never been able to imagine people ungrateful and grown stupid. The orphaned people would at once begin pressing together more closely and lovingly. . .”
Indeed, neither the narrator not the author himself can think of people as “ungrateful and grown stupid.” But apparently they are. While Dostoevsky drew on his five years of imprisonment in Siberia and his tortured existence before reaching the autumn of his life, he was convinced that humans have a deep need to love and in finding themselves unable to love God any more — after the curses and mudslinging — they would turn to nature and to one another. Without the ability to draw on that experience myself, I find it difficult to say that people have, in fact, turned to one another and to nature. Their need to love, which I cannot deny, seems to have turned upon itself. Humans exploit and destroy nature for their own purposes, ignore one another, and find themselves alone in a labyrinth with no one to love but themselves. Or is it because they love themselves that they are alone in the labyrinth? It is not clear. But either way, Dostoevsky’s “fantasy” is just that. It is wishful thinking on the part of a brilliant and deeply pious mind.
I do not share the man’s brilliance. Nor do I share his deep piety. In any event, from where I sit I see only a perverted love of self that has taken the place of a deep and abiding love of something greater than the self, something “out there” that takes the person out of himself or herself and into a world of wonder and joy — and hope. This may be a mistake on my part, but if it is even partially true it would help explain our current state of mind, our collective anxiety, our sense of despair that is so deep that we would, in this country at any rate, choose an ignorant and callous man, a man who exudes hatred from every pore, to lead us to a brighter place
I was thinking about some of the same ideas on my treadmill this morning, only i was equating God with Capitalism. The love of money and power and the influence that brings. Bhutan has Happiness as the goal of their gross national product. We need to replace the nouns (tangible things) of capitalsm with the verbs of those intangibles such as happiness, cooperation, and compassion. But, money and power over others can be made by tangible things described in nouns, Not so much money ends up in the pocket of the already wealthy when we increase the value of compassion, etc. I believe God is Love. When the God that is Love dies, we are all doomed. Just some crazy thoughts this morning. Maybe God makes up all creation. We can only speculate on any of this. Thanks, Hugh.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I also believe God is love and that love has become inverted and now focuses on the self (money is just part of this). I also have the same distrust of unbridled greed you do. Some might say I have blogged that horse to death!
You might be interested in a book I have coming out in the next couple of weeks that collects a few hundred on my best blog posts. I will announce it when it is available. Take care and give my best to Paul.
Thank you for discussing this topic. It is a phenomenon that regualrly gives me great anguish. The fact is that you are right. Over the last 100+ years God has been pushed out of the mainstream culture. On top of that, those of us who believe in Jesus have been deemed the source of countless societal evils by many of the “smartest” people in the world.
The elephant in the room is the continuing confusion in our culture about who God is. You may say God is Love. You may think God is a passive grandfatherly type who loves us so much he couldn’t possibly bear to punish our wrong-doing. Maybe you think God hates Trump. Whatever you think about God’s character, it is probably because your “feelings” say he should be just like you. If God is really God, doesn’t He have to have a character and personality that is uniquely His and can’t be changed because we want it to be?
Personally I accept the authority of The Bible when it comes to determining God’s character. My experience tells me, however, that the search for God for most people will stop before it accepts such absolutes. We want a worldview that will excuse our bad behavior (that means all of us, not just Trump) and remove all possibility of eternal punishment.
The sad truth is that the majority of people will not accept the Jesus of the Bible. I personally have peace because no matter whether he is accepted by mainstream culture, God is still God.
Thank you for your good comment. I do wonder why so-called “intellectuals” hesitate to discuss God and the implications of the death of God in the West (at least). By this I mean, as suggested in this post, the absence of God in the lives of the vast majority of Westerners who have transferred their love and devotion to themselves and worry more about making enough money to improve their life style than they do about how they behave toward one another.
Reading “Change of Heart” by Jody Picoult at the moment. A piece of fluff….until [parts] of religion pop-up in discussions and conversations with and amongst main characters. Catholicism (first universal bully), Christianity, Agnosticism, Atheism, etc. Finding definitions, explanations, historical accounts to be intriguingly accurate….clothed between layers of life, salvation, redemption and death. Greed for the [perceived] need there, as well. Interesting. Fits your post. Continuing to read PROVOKING THOUGHT between visual prompts for watercolour projects and actually putting brushes to paper. Some days a slow crawl. Thanks to you, Hugh, me thinks I think too much…..but looking forward to publish date of your new book! Even in saying that…many thanks for keeping the wheels turning….R.
Many thanks for the good comment! The book is supposed to be sent to the publisher at the end of this month. There will be an announcement on my blog and if you send me your name and address at firstname.lastname@example.org I will be sure you get a signed copy!!
Address noted. Will send along. Thank you. Raye
Dear Hugh! I was just about to read your latest post, for I do realize I have been neglectful of late, and I saw your comment that this one had not received much attention, especially from some of the people you count on. So, instead of reading that one, which I will try to do a bit later, I hopped right over to this one!
I am probably the last person who should comment on this post, since I have long since given up on all religions, and am not convinced of the existence of God. I’m not sure that I would completely naysay Dostoevsky’s idea that humans would turn from their love of God to a love of nature and of other people. I think some have, yet others obviously have not. Not being an anthropologist or any other sort of ‘ist’, I cannot say why that is, but more and more I’m realizing that one cannot simply say, “people do this” or “people think that”. Take our own small (relatively) part of the world. I have said this nation is going to hell in a hand basket and the people have no morals, no values. And that is true of some. But then … look at some of the people I find and write about on Wednesdays. Those people have a deep love of people, else they wouldn’t do what they do. Remember the man who adopted many terminally ill children? Is that not a love of people?
Now, the thing that disgusts me is those who claim to deeply love God, but cannot seem to love other people. Franklin Graham, Joel Osteen, Jim Bakker, Robert Jeffress, and all who follow them seem to find it impossible to love anybody who doesn’t fit into the neat little peghole they have drawn. i have a lot more respect for Mama Rosa down in South Africa opening her heat and helping children, than I do for these “men of God” who claim to have such great love of God. Which makes me wonder a number of things, but time and space are limited, so I will leave it at that for now, and simply conclude that there are those who have a great love for their fellow humans and for nature (I love nature immensely, but admittedly, I fall down on the love of humans these days).
Again, I do apologize for not being around as much, but hopefully my vision problems will soon be much better and I can keep up a bit better. As always, this post made me stop and think … good job, my friend!
P.S. Please forgive any typos, for am still unable to see this text without magnifying glass.
Bless your heart! I worry that you are straining to see what you read and write. Please feel free to take time off from reading my posts — though your comments are always insightful and expand the discussion considerably — as does this one.
In order to take what Dostoevsky says seriously one needs to adopt a very broad usage of the word “religion.” He was a deeply religious person who had no time for organized religion. And you are right: there are exceptions that prove the rile. Please continue to remind all of us of those remarkable people.
Hugh, I LOVE your posts, as they always give me food for thought, and I will read them as often as I possibly can! Even though you don’t serve wine 😉
I will certainly keep spotlighting those good people, for I still believe they are more prevalent than the other sort, but they are just quieter, not all the time tooting their own horns. Interesting world we live in, isn’t it my friend?
“Interesting.” Yes, that’s the word!
Hugh, I am catching up on old posts. Please forgive my tardiness. I feel this “self-love” is a nice way to define the prosperity church movement. In essence, it is OK to have nice things as it is a reward for piety. In my help with homeless working families, I have found that some people believe that if people in need were more pious, they would not be in this situation.
I have found that this is not to be true. We used to require our church volunteers to sign a statement to not proselytize when they help others. We found that it was not needed, as our homeless mothers were as or more pious than those helping them. Poverty is due to the lack of money, not lack of piety.
I like to keep this simple. There are two rules that stand out that Jesus taught us that are embodied in all sober religions. Treat others like you want to be treated was called the Golden Rule by Jesus. The other is take care of your neighbors in need.
If we do these things, we can make our world better. No mountain of gold is more valuable. If we think about the dishonorable US President, he treats people with disdain unless they kowtow to him. And, he is more about making himself look good than actually helping people. Parents need to look more at the Jesus model on how to act and pray that the man in the White House can learn this. We need him to.
You wouldn’t know what “self-love” is because you are one of those who gives of himself and does so much good. But I do believe that narcissism is more widespread than we might have imagined possible a generation ago.
Hugh, thanks. We are all selfish to a degree, but that knob on narcissism has been turned up more. I think it dates back to the “me decade” in the 1980s, when market segmentation took off. Keith
I think it started in the West when God died. But I have gone on about that….
P.S. In France it almost certainly started during the French Revolution when the Churches and religion came under sustained attack. But as humans became convinced that there was no after-life and this was IT and there was money to be made and power to be had they became increasingly self-absorbed.
But, to be sure, the revolution in this country in the 60s gave it tremendous impetus, coupled with the “me-decade” of the 80s. Thanks, as always, for the comment, Keith.
Hello, Hugh. Like Jill, I was about to read your recent post, saw the comment and thought – but I commented on that… I see, however, I didn’t, merely liked it. As I make my own journey down the well that is my psyche in search of what used to be God for me, I find what you write thought provoking, as ever, but at the moment I am so deep in thoughts about my own destiny that I am neglecting that of the world as a whole. Forgive me for being an absent commenter for a while, I hope one day things will settle down. I have neglected Jill, too. Both of you inform me, make me think – and I would hope that if the three of us were to meet it would be convivial – I would bring the wine 😉 – but also taxing, mentally, in a rewarding way! Keep on writing. Just because we don’t comment doesn’t mean we aren’t reading. And thinking. Mary
Thank you so much. I really shouldn’t complain. It’s not about numbers: it’s about trying to come to grips with complex issues and enjoying the comments when they appear. I have some really good followers who make striking comments from time to
time. Besides, no one is holding a gun to my head and making me write these posts! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. It would be fun to meet some of the people we get to “know” through our blogs!
Mary. For some reason I follow your blog but don’t receive notices in my email when you post. It’s not a perfect system. Sorry about that. I enjoy what you write when I finally locate where it is posted!
I had the same problem with The Venomous Bede (don;t you love that name) – I seem to have sorted it by going into ‘manage blogs I follow’ or whatever the label for it is. Don’t worry, just pop by now and then! It’s always good to detect you’ve been by and left a star behind!
I figure it’s gremlins!