Christ Is Not an Idea

In Dostoyevsky's greatest novel, logic and rationalism don't hold up in the face of unexplained suffering--but Jesus does.

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Yet Dostoevsky very much wanted to reply to Ivan's attack. He worried that Father Zosima and Alyosha would not be what he called, in a letter to an editor, a "sufficient reply" to "the negative side" (the atheistic side) of his book. Well, can there be a reply to Ivan's arguments? Alyosha says what any Christian must say: that Christ forgives all of us, that he suffered for us so that we may not suffer, that we do not know why the world has been constructed the way it is. Depending on our beliefs, we will find this adequate or inadequate.

But Dostoevsky's novel enshrines, in its very form, a further argument. It is that Ivan's ideas cannot be refuted by other ideas. In debate, in "dialogism," there is no way of defeating or even of matching Ivan, and Alyosha does not really try. At the end of Ivan's legend, he simply kisses his brother. The only way in which we can refute Ivan's ideas, the book seems to say, is by maintaining that Christ is not an idea. Socialism is an idea, because it is "reasonable"; atheism, too. But Christianity, so profoundly unreasonable--what Kierkegaard called "lunacy"--is not an idea. The painful part is that the only realm in which Christ is not an idea, in which he is pure knowledge, is in heaven. On earth, we are all fallen, and we fall before ideas, we have only ideas, and Christ can always be kicked around the ideational playground.

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But Christ is not an idea. This is surely the only way to explain the intellectually incoherent behavior of Dimitri, who, though innocent, is willing to be guilty for all and before all; or of Father Zosima's equally extreme advice that we should ask forgiveness "even from the birds"; or of Alyosha's final words, which close the book, that resurrection does indeed exist: "Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see, and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been!" Such notions have really fallen off the cliff of ideas and into the realm of illogical, beautiful, desperate exhortation. Belief has smothered knowledge. And this exchange--of the unreason of Christianity for the reason of atheism--means finally that there can be no "dialogism" in this novel, either of the kind that Bakhtin proposed, or the kind that Dostoevsky so ardently desired. There is neither a circulation of ideas nor an "answering" of atheism. For the answer--the unreason of Christian love--no longer belongs to the realm of worldly ideas, and thus no longer belongs to the novel itself. It truly exists in Paradise, and in that other, finally un-novelistic book, the New Testament.

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