“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamazov
A Gospel Formed Family?
The church plant Maria and I are attending is seeking to be a “gospel-formed family for the city” of Austin.
In a sermon series on Ephesians entitled “God’s Workmanship,” our pastors explained how the church must understand itself as a family – an institution where members are united despite their diversity. Such unity in diversity is a mystery of God’s workmanship. We see this mystery in a singular beam of refracted light which reveals every imaginable color. We feel this mystery in our beating heart, reminded that our own life is dependent on different organs all working in unison to make us walk, or breathe, or think about these things. This organizing principle of life reflects God. It is mysterious. And it is beautiful.
While it may not be hard to convince people that such beauty exists in nature, it is more difficult to convince them that this beauty characterizes the family. Perhaps this is because beauty, as described by Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, is both mysterious and terrible. It is terrible because, “God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” This fight mars the created order and when it is waged in the family, the aftermath is divorce, separation, abuse, and neglect. Each is an ugly reality that shapes far too many people’s experiences of this institution. This is not a 21st-century phenomenon. The first account of brotherhood in the Bible is also the first account of murder. For many the family is a place of pain and bitterness. It may be diverse, but it is certainly not unified.
If this is how many people experience family, is the church using the right metaphor to describe its role in the city of Austin?
Dostoevsky: Recovering the Beauty of Brotherhood
This summer I picked up Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It is my first attempt at reading the Russian giant and I make no claim to be a literary critic. But what strikes me about this story is how it uncovers the obstacles that prevent brotherhood and in doing so recovers the beauty of brotherhood as a force for making the world over anew.
The brotherhood between Dimitri, Ivan, and Alyosha Karamazov is, like any brotherhood, characterized by differences in personality and temperament. Dimitri is a passionate sensualist who blows unearned money on entertainment, women, and booze. Ivan, on the other hand, is a stoic rationalist who believes in the existence of God but because of the suffering he sees in the world, decides to renounce God as a deity worthy of his worship. The youngest brother, Alyosha, is the most spiritual of the three, living his life in the seclusion of a Russian Orthodox Monastery as a novice.
Alyosha is under the spiritual mentorship of the Elder Zosima. Early on in the story, it is Zosima who understands that the passions of the oldest brother, Dimitri, and the brothers’ father, Fyodor, threaten to unravel the unity of the family. Before he dies, he releases Alyosha from his isolated monastic life and sends him into the broken world of his older brothers charging him to make this world “over anew.” He is to accomplish this task through brotherhood.
In order to make the world over anew, people themselves must turn onto a different path psychically. Until one has indeed become the brother of all, there will be no brotherhood. No science or self-interest will ever enable people to share their property and their rights among themselves without offense. Each will always think his share too small, and they will keep murmuring, they will envy and destroy one another.
It is this self-interest and envy that defines Dimitris’ relationship with his father. Zosima warns Alyosha that both of these force destroy brotherhood, and it does so by creating a culture of isolation. It is this isolation which Zosima tells Alyosha is the primary obstacle to brotherhood, and which must be overcome if he is to make the world over anew.
[Brotherood] will come true, but first the period of human isolation must conclude.
“What isolation?” I asked him.
That which is now reigning everywhere, especially in our age, but it is not all concluded yet, its term has not come. For everyone now strives most of all to separate his person, wishing to experience the fullness of life within himself, and yet what comes of all his efforts is not the fullness of life but full suicide, for instead of the fullness of self-definition, they fall into complete isolation. For all men in our age are separated into units, each seeks seclusion in his own hole, each withdraws from the others, hides himself, and hides what he is, and ends by pushing himself away from people and pushing people away from himself. He accumulates wealth in solitude, thinking: how strong, how secure I am now, and does not see, madman as he is, that the more he accumulates, the more he sinks into suicidal impotence. For he is accustomed to relying only on himself, he has separated his unit from the whole, he has accustomed his soul to not believing in people’s help, in people or in mankind, and now only trembles lest his money and his acquired privileges perish. …. But there must needs come a term to this horrible isolation, and everyone will all at once realize how unnaturally they have separated themselves one from another. Such will be the spirit of the time, and they will be astonished that they sat in darkness for so long, and did not see the light.” [emphasis mine]
Russia in the mid-19th century sounds a lot like America in early twenty-first. This “unnatural separation” of isolation which people embrace under the mis-guided belief that the fullness of life can be experienced within oneself defines our culture of competitive self-reliance. It manifests itself in the accumulation of wealth in solitude and results in nothing more than seclusion and withdrawal from community. It is this isolation “which is now reigning everywhere,” in 2015.
The Road to Character by David Brooks, offers some statistics on this front. Considering the decline in intimacy, he writes:
Decades ago, people typically told pollsters that they had four or five close friends, people to whom they could tell everything. Now the common answer is two or three, and the number of people with no confidants has doubled. Thirty-five percent of older adults report being chronically lonely, up from 20 percent a decade ago.
Envy, self-interest, and the isolation they produce, destroys brotherhood. It would be easy to say that unity can be attained when we go out into this world and tell others to take responsibility for their actions, to stop envying, and to form communities. It would be easy to tell others about all the things we have figured out because of our Christian faith. Yet, Zosima offers a way forward that is a little more challenging.
Zosima offers Alyosha a radical conception of love that begins, not by telling others to take responsibility for their sins, but by taking the responsibility for their sins on yourself. Alyosha is not sent into the world to tell his brothers how awful they are in their brokeness. Rather, his time in monastic isolation uncovered his own brokeness so that when he sees the passions of Dimitri that lead him to run to women, or the cold-rationalism of Ivan that lead him to run away from God, he understands the same battle is waging in his own heart.
When he admits guilt of the same battle within, he realizes he is not better than his brothers. He is not even equal to his brothers. Now he sees himself as “worse than all those in the world…guilty of everything, before everyone.”
The result of this radical shift in thinking, says Zosima, is the capacity for radical love that brings unity:
But when he knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all, for all human sins, the world’s and each person’s, only then will the goal of our unity be achieved. […] Only then will our hearts be moved to a love that is infinite, universal, and knows no satiety.
Taking responsibility for your sins AND the sins of others is the way to recover the beauty of brotherhood and bring unity to diversity. When we are able to see our sins in the sins of others, we see the depth of brokenness in the world, and the need for a Saviour. If we are unable to see our sins in the sins of others, we end up seeing ourselves as their Saviour, which never goes well. Or, as Zosima says, we end up “shifting our own laziness and powerlessness onto others [thereby] sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.”
Back to Austin
Radical love that brings unity is difficult. When thinking about how to begin seeing the people in Austin outside of my church-community as my family, I considered how Dostoevsky’s brothers each possessed character traits that are evident in the father, the “buffoon” Fyodor Karamazov.
It seems obvious to say it, but the brothers share a father. This father’s image is, like a singular beam of light, refracted into a diversity of Karamazov personalities. This is an image that is broken, and as a result, the brothers inherit that brokenness. Maybe Alyosha can see that he is guilty of everything before everyone because he, like everyone, is the image-bearer of a broken father.
Once we realize this ugly reality, the only hope we have in forming a brotherhood with all, a family in Austin, is that a Father exists who is not broken, and that somehow we are His image-bearers. This would be a beautiful mystery.