Dostoevsky and the Antichrist (part 2)

Dostoevsky and the Antichrist (part 2) October 13, 2022

Yesterday we discussed Fyodor Dostoevsky’s wonderful and highly entertaining Christian novel The Idiot, which includes a curious anti-Catholic rant.

Today we’ll take a look at the text of what Dostoevsky said through his character Myshkin.  From The Idiot. Part IV, Chapter 7:

Roman Catholicism is, in my opinion, worse than Atheism itself. Yes⁠—that is my opinion. Atheism only preaches a negation, but Romanism goes further; it preaches a disfigured, distorted Christ⁠—it preaches Antichrist⁠—I assure you, I swear it! This is my own personal conviction, and it has long distressed me. The Roman Catholic believes that the Church on earth cannot stand without universal temporal Power. . . .In my opinion the Roman Catholic religion is not a faith at all, but simply a continuation of the Roman Empire, and everything is subordinated to this idea⁠—beginning with faith. The Pope has seized territories and an earthly throne, and has held them with the sword. And so the thing has gone on, only that to the sword they have added lying, intrigue, deceit, fanaticism, superstition, swindling;⁠—they have played fast and loose with the most sacred and sincere feelings of men;⁠—they have exchanged everything⁠—everything for money, for base earthly power! And is this not the teaching of Antichrist? How could the upshot of all this be other than Atheism? Atheism is the child of Roman Catholicism⁠—it proceeded from these Romans themselves, though perhaps they would not believe it. It grew and fattened on hatred of its parents; it is the progeny of their lies and spiritual feebleness. Atheism! In our country it is only among the upper classes that you find unbelievers; men who have lost the root or spirit of their faith; but abroad whole masses of the people are beginning to profess unbelief⁠—at first because of the darkness and lies by which they were surrounded; but now out of fanaticism, out of loathing for the Church and Christianity!”

The prince paused to get breath. He had spoken with extraordinary rapidity, and was very pale.

All present interchanged glances, but at last the old dignitary burst out laughing frankly. Prince N⁠⸺ took out his eyeglass to have a good look at the speaker. The German poet came out of his corner and crept nearer to the table, with a spiteful smile.

“You exaggerate the matter very much,” said Ivan Petrovitch, with rather a bored air. “There are, in the foreign Churches, many representatives of their faith who are worthy of respect and esteem.”

“Oh, but I did not speak of individual representatives. I was merely talking about Roman Catholicism, and its essence⁠—of Rome itself. A Church can never entirely disappear; I never hinted at that!”

“Agreed that all this may be true; but we need not discuss a subject which belongs to the domain of theology.”

“Oh, no; oh, no! Not to theology alone, I assure you! Why, Socialism is the progeny of Romanism and of the Romanistic spirit. It and its brother Atheism proceed from Despair in opposition to Catholicism. It seeks to replace in itself the moral power of religion, in order to appease the spiritual thirst of parched humanity and save it; not by Christ, but by force. ‘Don’t dare to believe in God, don’t dare to possess any individuality, any property! Fraternité ou la Mort [“fraternity or death,” a slogan of the French Revolution]; 2,000,000 heads. ‘By their works ye shall know them’⁠—we are told. And we must not suppose that all this is harmless and without danger to ourselves. Oh, no; we must resist, and quickly, quickly! We must let our Christ shine forth upon the Western nations, our Christ whom we have preserved intact, and whom they have never known. Not as slaves, allowing ourselves to be caught by the hooks of the Jesuits, but carrying our Russian civilization to them, we must stand before them, not letting it be said among us that their preaching is ‘skilful,’ as someone expressed it just now.”

What makes “Antichrist,” according to this passage, is the church’s embrace of “universal temporal power.”  Yes, today’s Catholic church doesn’t do this so much, but it did in the time of the Reformation, it aspired to it through the 19th century, and today’s “Integralists” have brought back this ambition today.

But Dostoevsky’s charge, through Myshkin, would also apply to other church bodies that seek political power.  As in the current controversies over “Christian nationalism” and the various theocracies that are being proposed in Reformed and charismatic circles, as well as, again, the revival of Catholic “integralism.”

The problem, as formulated here, is not that churches make bad rulers or that the Two Kingdoms are confused or that a fixation on earthly government orients churches to the law rather than the gospel, though these are problems too. But Dostoevsky focuses on something else.  He says that a politically powerful church breeds atheism.  The imposition of power in the name of religion causes those who resent the power to reject the religion.

Furthermore, the church as a political, rather than as a spiritual entity, gives birth to socialism, a materialistic substitute for religion, an alternative idealistic cause that gives people meaning and moral significance to their lives.  This socialism, fed by a spiritual thirst, will, like other politicized religions, manifest itself in salvation “by force,” complete with guillotines and reigns of terror.

The alternative, says Myshkin, is “to let our Christ shine forth upon the Western nations.”

True, indeed, the church must be about Christ, not earthly power.  Letting Christ shine forth is the key to reversing atheism and our contemporary secularism.

Dostoevsky has been prophetic.  But then we see another irony of our day.  In its history, and, as Dostoevsky/Myshkin perceived it, Orthodoxy was otherworldly and mystical compared to Western Christianity, but we also see here Russian messianism, the notion that we Russians have preserved Christ “intact” and that we must carry “our Russian civilization to them.”

Today, Russian Orthodoxy sees itself as preserving Christianity against the forces of Western secularism.  But, tragically, it has allied itself with Vladimir Putin, giving us the war in Ukraine and discrediting itself.  That is to say, it has embraced temporal power, making it, by the criterion of one of its loyal adherents, into another Antichrist.

 

 

Photo:  Fyodor Dostoevsky by Constantin Shapiro (1879), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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