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Daniel J. Mahoney
Reading Dostoevsky Religiously
Dostoevsky and the Christian Tradition
edited by George Pattison
and Diane Oenning Thompson
Cambridge Univ. Press, 2001
280 pp.; $60
The great 19th-century Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky is universally recognized as a profound psychologist (a point acknowledged by no less an authority than Nietzsche) and a penetrating analyst of the modern human condition. He is also widely and justly credited for his prophetic anticipation of the murderous left-wing totalitarianism of the 20th century. In addition, a range of influential religious thinkers including Karl Barth, Nikolai Berdyaev, Romano Guardini, Henri de Lubac, and Malcolm Muggeridge have celebrated Dostoevsky as the modern Christian writer par excellence, a luminous witness to the truth of Christianity amidst the spiritual and intellectual dislocations of the modern age.
But these thinkers did not always agree as to the precise nature of Dostoevsky's Christian affirmation. De Lubac's The Drama of Atheistic Humanism (1943) presents Dostoevsky's work as the great modern antidote to Nietzschean nihilism. In de Lubac's view, Dostoevsky was the prophet who resisted the temptation of the "death of God" and dramatized the prospects for the resurrection of the soul through the spiritual overcoming of nihilism. The great theologian Karl Barth saw in Dostoevsky the supreme analyst of the forlornness of man without God, the novelist-theologian who had powerfully depicted all the horrible consequences of human estrangement from God. In an almost Calvinist manner, Barth's Dostoevsky reaffirmed the radical sovereignty of God. And in his extremely influential book on Dostoevsky (published in English translation in 1934), Berdyaev read Dostoevsky as a proto-existentialist, an advocate of the "abyssal freedom" of the individual against the rationalist reduction of the world to the rule of inhuman necessity.
Many critics, believers and unbelievers alike, have even gone so far as to question the authenticity of Dostoevsky's Christian faith. ...