There is kind of a continual fascination with Tolstoy. I had a friend email me some of his writings on non-violent resistance earlier this fall; I just watched The Last Station on Saturday. We are fascinated by this man who is seemingly an enigma. He was a brilliant writer. He taught on love and non-violence. His marriage was continually falling apart; he slept around; he moved between a saint and a cad in one day, in one instant. We are fascinated not only with his writing but with his life due to the stormy nature of it: Tolstoy is the equivalent of a modern day Tiger Woods. Enormous talent, seemingly great guy, and then we see the darker side. Only, people like me can blog about Tolstoy and still seem intellectual, whereas if I blog about Tiger I seem prosaic.
What I like about Tolstoy, however, is his stubborn belief in the Kingdom of God. While Dostoevsky (someone whose life has not been so scrutinized, possibly because he also wrote about it less) wrote about the broadness of man, Tolstoy lived this broadness for all to see. In this month’s Boston Review:
The Tolstoys spent their lives warring with one another because simply to walk away from the ancient dream of two-shall-be-as-one was, for them, psychologically prohibitive…To feel transformed by romantic passion was to see with radiant clarity the meaning of humanity as it could and should be. Indeed, the worship of love, realized or denied, aroused in both Sonya and Tolstoy the sense of paradise gained or lost that haunted every nineteenth-century romantic.
That is, Tolstoy took this idea of marriage so seriously, that he had deep problems with it. Marriage was a conduit to the divine, and when it did not offer continual paradise, the entire marriage shattered. Tolstoy could not make his peace “with the discrepancy between what should have been and what actually was.” He wanted to realize the Kingdom in all its fullness here and now.
That refusal [to make peace with actuality] is timeless and mythic; it is emblematic of a millennial yearning to achieve wholeness through the transformative ideal. If we give ourselves heart and soul to Love with a capital L, God with a capital G, Revolution with a capital R, perhaps we can be persuaded that what we fear most—our own incoherence—is not an immutable truth.
In the end the mixed nature of humanity itself proves the source of the great existential drama. To be mean and generous, depraved and decent, loving and murderous, not by turns but all at once—that, it seems, is the true burden of our existence. It is this humiliation that makes us rage at the heavens, this humiliation that has ever demanded of us some over-arching myth of redemption that will atone for the despair of our own self-divisions.
As I look at Tolstoy’s life, I can’t help but both admire him and shake my head. I admire his stubborn insistence on realizing the Kingdom of Heaven in the here and now. I wonder how more followers of Jesus might be changed by such an insistence. Looking at marriages, how many marriages would improve if husband and wife took seriously the promises of the Bible, and strove to find such meaning and oneness. Or, as I look at my own life, how often I lose my idealism for actuality. My money won’t change anything. My time won’t change anything. My work and effort, really, won’t change anything. I often become complacent with the world as it is, rather than striving to make it better.
Ultimately, however, Tolstoy put all the work on himself. He wanted to find salvation in marriage, salvation in non-violence, while I believe that salvation is not something we can achieve for ourselves. It must be achieved for us, and then we can begin to bring it to the world around us. Salvation comes not from a philosophy, but from being made right in a relationship. How often I see it the other way around; how often I put it the other way around: no philosophy of non-violence can save. Only a person can save. To save is a verb; it is an action, and no latent philosophy can achieve it.
May I, may we, take the lessons from Tolstoy. May we never look to philosophies to save us, but rather to the sometimes seemingly disjointed and oftentimes foolish call of a Person. But, having been transformed, may we also refuse to rest with the world as it is right now, always seeking to bring the Kingdom to our own here and now.