Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Copyright (c) 2002 First
Things 122 (April 2002): 2-7.

Dostoevsky and Rome

I enjoyed Rodney Delasanta’s “ Dostoevsky
Also Nods
” (January). I also agree with Professor Delasanta
on the profound depth of Dostoevsky’s insight into the Christian
faith. However, I’m not sure how Prof. Delasanta’s arguments
would ease Dostoevsky’s concerns about the Church of Rome.
As cited in the article, Dostoevsky’s main complaint against
Rome is that “it is not even a religion but very definitely
the continuation of the Holy Roman Empire . . . . The Pope
usurp­ ed the earth, an earthly throne, and took up the
sword, and since then everything has been going that way.”

While Dostoevsky would surely admire the papacy’s stance against the encroachment
of materialistic rationalism, his main problem with the pope was that he acted
as a temporal lord rather than as the preacher of the Christ whose Kingdom is
not of this world. How then does Prof. Delasanta’s noting that Pope Leo faced
down Attila the Hun and that Pope John Paul II helped topple the Soviet Empire
alleviate such concerns? Is Prof. Delasanta not admitting that the papacy, especially
the current Pope, has wielded amazing temporal power as a primary agent in bringing
down one of the most powerful empires ever? And is not the wielding of such
temporal power precisely what Dostoevsky hated about Rome? The enemy of my enemy
can also be my enemy, and I can’t see how Prof. Delasanta’s arguments would
help Dostoevsky see the papacy any differently.

(The Rev.) Kevin Martin
Our Savior Lutheran Church
Raleigh, North Carolina

While I enjoyed Rodney Delasanta’s well“written piece on the anti“Catholicism
in Dostoevsky’s works, I could not help but question some of his statements.
He deserves credit for exposing the biases of a highly regarded novelist, but
he perhaps did not go far enough. He describes Dostoevsky as “a great writer
and a good man who understood Christianity de profundis and was able to transmit
that understanding with an unmatched power.” It is undeniable that Dostoevsky
was a great writer, and he certainly was remarkably gifted in his ability to
transmit his understanding of Christianity. But was his understanding of Christianity
accurate? Was it really “de profundis”?

Professor Delasanta mentions Malcolm Muggeridge’s statement that Stalin’s mistake
was to let the masses read Dostoevsky while denying them access to the Gospels.
While I am not sure if Muggeridge meant it this way, his assessment is most
accurate in how it shows the breach between the Christ of the Gospels and the
Christ figures in Dostoevsky. Delasanta aptly summarizes the “Grand Inquisitor”
scene, but fails to mention the incompatibility of the Christ figure in that
scene with the Jesus of the Gospels. It is very unlikely that the Christ of
the Gospels would have quietly listened to such a terrible person as the Grand
Inquisitor, smiled demurely, given him a little kiss, then gone his merry way
without so much as a single verbal challenge. When confronted with hypocritical
and self“righteous religious leaders, the Christ of the Gospels “got in their
faces” and “told them off””sometimes with strong (albeit perfectly just) insults,
at least once with physical violence. The same breach is evinced in the characterization
of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot . To use the common parlance, Dostoevsky’s
Christ figures are, frankly, wimps. They lend credence to Nietzsche’s understanding
of Christianity as a religion for weaklings.

L. A. Carstens
Castaic, California

Rodney Delasanta offers a fine analysis of the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky, who
is indeed, as Delasanta says, “a great writer and a good man.” In fact, I am
quite grateful to him for the depth to which he exposes a remarkable novelist’s
prejudices and yet demonstrates the aesthetic quality of a public thinker who
“understood Christianity de profundis and was able to transmit that understanding
with an unmatched power.”

Nevertheless, Professor Delasanta seems to be held captive by what Paul Ricoeur
calls the first level of naiveté. Prof. Delasanta says that “as a Catholic reader”
he can revere Dostoevsky. But he then goes on to say: “So, I mutter to myself,
especially in consequence of his Russian Orthodox spirituality, should he not
have tolerated my Catholicism, or at least muted his disrespect for it? East
is East and West is West, but to my unsophisticated American eye the spiritual
respect of the West for the East has gone cruelly unrequited.”

It seems to me that a tyranny of the “shoulds” seizes Prof. Delasanta’s evaluation
of history. If we live by the “shoulds” of life, then no progress will be made
in ecumenical dialogue. Divided by centuries of hatred and conflict, the Church
needs time to heal. We need to understand why Patriarch Alexei II is unwilling
to seek what unites rather than what divides the Church. Or perhaps we have
to accept that the Russian Patriarch is not at the same place as his Western
counterparts in terms of spiritual and ecclesial respect.

Here in the West many consider ecumenism to be a way of life; not so in other
parts of the world. Dialogue on whatever level is the result of God’s grace
and the generosity of human relationships. It would be nice if the two Patriarchs
could sing the Te Deum or a Moleben before too long, but significant issues
and long“standing perceptions need to be recognized and dealt with honestly.

In that context I am reminded of a shrewd observation by the late Rus­ sian
Orthodox priest, Father Alexander Schmemann: “Lately Catholicism is trying to
follow suit [in aping the Protestants] with a dull social message and service
to the world.” Prof. Delasanta seems to agree with Dostoevsky’s diagnosis of
the ills of the West. But if the Eastern Churches see the Roman Church accommodating
itself to those very pathologies, then Eastern wariness toward Rome no longer
seems reactionary, just cautious and prudent.

Paul A. Zalonski, S.J.
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Rodney Delasanta replies:

I infer from Kevin Martin’s questions about papal power that he thinks that
Dostoevsky would have balked at John Paul’s anti“Communist mission, even though
Russian Orthodoxy was among its major beneficiaries, because papal realpolitik
is un“Christian and should never be enlisted even in the cause of Christ’s Kingdom,
which is not of this world. I would hope that the obvious distinction that leaps
to my mind”the difference between spiritual power enlisted against “evil empires”
and spiritual power dedicated to its own temporal gain”would have occurred to
Dostoevsky too. It’s obvious that John Paul, like Pope Leo before him, faced
a different kind of enemy and armed himself with a different kind of breastplate
than, say, the warrior pope Julius II, who really was a temporal lord. To Stalin’s
question”“How many divisions has the pope?””John Paul would have to answer,
“None since the Risorgimento,” and this is one reason why he is no longer a
temporal lord.

Still, it would be interesting to know what Dostoevsky thought of papal militancy
against rapacious empires in earlier times, like Pius V against the Turks at
the naval battle of Lepanto and Pius VII against Napoleon, especially since
both struggles were against enemies of Russia. Would Pius V have earned Dostoevsky’s
approval by remaining above the fray and watching the Mediterranean fall under
Turkish/Muslim control? And should Pius VII have only preached the gospel from
the sidelines without politically opposing the Corsican juggernaut across Europe
to Moscow itself? It is hard to imagine Dostoevsky or Orthodox churchmen answering
“yes” to these questions, but for them the depth of anti“papal feeling might
even have trumped self“interest.

With respect to L. A. Carstens’ reading of the “wimpy” figures of Christ in
Dostoevsky, allow me at least to respond to the Christ of the Grand Inquisitor.
(Prince Myshkin would require another essay.) It is imperative to recall that
the Christ of the Grand Inquisitor is the creation of Ivan Karamazov, who wrote
the prose poem in order to counter Alyosha’s insistence that, before we give
up on God in His apparent indifference to human suffering, especially the suffering
of children, we must take Christ’s own suffering into account. In his self“serving
narrative, the Enlightened Ivan sees Christ as failed, defeated, banished” écrasé ,
if I may use Voltaire’s famous word”from the world of Christians, at least Christians
in the West. True, Ivan’s Christ has offered the world freedom, which the world
has forsaken for bread, but what Ivan leaves out of his “respondeo” to his brother
is that Christ by his crucifixion has also offered the world the divine exemplar
of suffering, the one interpretation of the mystery of human suffering that
can stand up to Ivan’s withering attack. The working out of that redemptive
suffering sets the direction for the rest of the novel, especially as it is
dramatized in the Russian Monk chapter of the life of Father Zosima and then
in the ministry of his disciple Alyosha. Both of them are Christ figures”Russian
Christ figures, to be sure”who in Dostoevsky’s world are hardly “wimps” and
are spiritually responsible to “all for all.”

In response to Fr. Zalonski, I admit that I am probably guilty of more levels
of naiveté than Paul Ricoeur can count. If I am a captive to the historical
“should,” I confess that my captivity is voluntary, because I cannot conceive
of justice or peace ever being kindled into reality without the spark of a human
“should.” Professional theologian or historian I am not, but only a reasonably
informed Christian who looks at the wound of the Schism and wonders why churchmen
routinely expect it to take more than a thousand years to heal. No hatred was
more intense than that between the Germans and French after 1870, and yet “grace
broke through gravity” (in Simone Weil’s memorable phrase) when Konrad Adenauer
and Charles DeGaulle knelt together in the Cologne Cathedral to signal a healing
between their two countries. One of them must have uttered the first “should.”
And when Anwar Sadat forced a reluctant Menachim Begin to shake hands on an
unlikely peace between Egypt and Israel, that “should” actually cost him his

With his own sense of “should,” John Paul has moved mountains to help rescue
Orthodoxy from the oppression of international atheism while seeking forgiveness
for those sins that Catholics have committed against the Orthodox. And for this
all he asks is that Alexei II heat up the samovar and invite him to tea. Is
it not ironic that the same John Paul who kissed the Wailing Wall when invited
to Jerusalem is forbidden by a brother patriarch to kiss the sacred walls of
the old Kremlin?

Not“So“Hard Thoughts?

It is good to think “ Hard
Thoughts in Wartime
” (January), but I’m not sure James
Nuechterlein is doing so. While he doesn’t claim victory
at this date, Mr. Nuechterlein cheers on the early war efforts
and denigrates the antiwar critics for speaking of a “quagmire””though
they might respond that a quagmire may be just a damp spot
on the sand in the beginning.

However, it is a welcome relief that Mr. Nuechterlein pauses to visit the “tradition
of pacifist thought” that may “not be as feckless” as most think. Here, at least,
he recognizes the deeply religious nature of martyrdom as the driving force
for the other side.

To argue that radical Islam will, no matter what, “produce new generations
of martyrs” is no justification for reciprocal lethal violence by anyone, especially
by Christian believers. Upon citing the old Vietnam mantra to “capture their
hearts and minds,” Mr. Nuechterlein may just brush by the neighborhood of “hard
thoughts.” Is it not the claim of our Lord that his radical new birth brings
about just such change? Are not the “root causes” of the attacks by radical
Islam and our lethal response found in the “deceitful and desperately wicked”
heart we all share?

Might not the empirical question of deterrence then be answered less by massive
force than by the gospel? Ah, but maybe that is the not“so“fine line between
nationalistic thinking and biblical thinking. The latter is hard, the former

It is easy to defend “doing what one must” and “saying one’s prayers” because
“one” is the only authority consulted. It is harder to live in obedience to
commands to “love our enemies and pray for those who despitefully use” us. Is
the issue then that believers are called to a higher standard than unbelievers
and the governments of the world? Is the biblical imperative for believers to
be “in the world” but not “of the world” more to the point than the pseudo“difficulty
of contemplating the “morally problematic”? I would posit that not even war
“pushes us to and sometimes beyond our moral capacities”; we choose to sin freely.
Happily, our Lord is “faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify
us from all unrighteousness” if we confess them. This is probably a better format
for our prayers, but undoubtedly harder than our nationalistic egos would wish.

William T. Hunter, Jr.
Santo Domingo,
Dominican Republic

Although James Nuechterlein acknowledges “the limits imposed by the rules of
just war,” he avoids discussing how these limits bear on the way the U.S. military
intervention in Afghanistan has been conducted. Instead, he pleads that war
is “a limit situation” that sometimes pushes us “beyond our moral capacities.”
When we are so pushed, “We can only do what we must, and say our prayers.”

With the Italian theologian Antonio Rosmini, I maintain the contrary. We cannot
grant ourselves a status that is somehow beyond our moral capacities. Whatever
the situation, we can perform no action unless we are certain (i.e., “morally
certain”) that “the action we are about to do is not intrinsically evil. Otherwise,
we expose ourselves to the danger of formal evil” (Rosmini, Conscience
[1844], 1989).

Are we morally certain that the massive bombing of practically defenseless
soldiers is not a violation of the “naked soldier” rule? No? Then we cannot
resort to such bombing. Likewise: Are we morally certain that “collateral” civilian
deaths will not be disproportionate to carefully identified military objectives?
No? Then we must circumscribe attacks so as not to violate the principle of

Moral limitations on the conduct of war, Mr. Nuechterlein writes, “must always
be kept in mind by our leaders.” The just war tradition, however, is comprehensive
in its interest in getting beyond the minds of leaders to criticize the structured
situation in which these leaders find themselves. The Postulata presented
to the First Vatican Council in 1870 is an early description of this badly structured
situation: “The present condition of the world has assuredly become intolerable
on account of huge standing armies. The nations groan under the burden of the
expense of maintaining them. The spirit of irreligion and forgetfulness of law
in international affairs open an altogether readier way for the beginning of
illegal and unjust wars, or rather hideous massacres spreading far and wide.”
What this Postulata implicitly protests is the fact that, by force of
distorted circumstances, we are too often left to apply our just war criteria
only after the fact.

John F. Maguire
Natural Law Jurisprudence Center
Berkeley, California

Knowledge, Wisdom, and Cardinal Newman

I have been teaching John Henry Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University
to undergraduates and graduate students for over thirty
years, and I must say that the argument of this rich and
complex work seems to me to be distorted beyond recognition
in Edward Tingley’s “ Knowledge
for the Sake of Knowledge
” (January). I would fail a
student who ascribed to Newman the things Mr. Tingley ascribes
to him.

According to Mr. Tingley, Newman is the unwitting prophet of “a post“Enlightenment
world closed to wisdom.” Newman’s “knowledge” is a substitute for wisdom; it
is knowledge of facts devoid of values, of facts that remain uninterpreted,
unstructured by meaning, detached from the “big picture,” degraded to an “informational
commodity.” Mr. Tingley thinks that all of this is implied in Newman’s teaching
that liberal knowledge is to be sought “for its own sake,” which he thinks excludes
the possibility of liberal knowledge being sought for the sake of wisdom. All
this seems to me to make Newman say the very opposite of what he really says.

Newman used the following analogy to explain his conception of liberal knowledge.
Imagine a person born blind awakening from the surgery that restored his sight.
He would not at first perceive the ordered world that you and I know, but would
only have, Newman supposes, a jumble of sensations, “nothing else but lines
and colors, without mutual connection, dependence, or contrast, without order
or principle, without drift or meaning.” Only gradually would he learn to pick
out distinct beings, to discern where one being stops and another one starts,
to tell which being is closer and which is farther away, how they act on each
other, and what belongs in their background.

Now we live not only in a visual but also in an intellectual world, and Newman
thinks that in this intellectual world we are at first in a confused condition
like that of the person just receiving his vision. We conflate things that are
really very different; we do not discern what is more important and less important.
Newman thinks that to become liberally educated is to learn to order things
in the intellectual world, to rank them, to understand their interrelations,
their ultimate unity, so that a kind of cosmos emerges in the realm of the spirit
analogous to the ordered world of perception in the realm of the senses. Thus
those who merely accumulate information do not count as liberally educated for
Newman. To be really educated you have to know how “to invest facts with an
idea” and to locate them within the whole of knowledge. This is what Newman
teaches from the beginning to the end of The Idea of a University .

Is this ideal of liberal knowledge not also an ideal of wisdom? Does Newman
not entertain a vision of wisdom when he says, “But the intellect . . . which
has learned to leaven the dense mass of facts and events with the elastic force
of reason, such an intellect cannot be partial, cannot be exclusive, cannot
be impetuous, cannot be at a loss, cannot but be patiently collected, and majestically
calm, because it discerns the ends in every beginning, the origin in every end,
the law in every interruption, the limit in each delay”? Newman is the very
last person who can be charged with basing education on uninterpreted facts
to the neglect of comprehensive principles of meaning.

Mr. Tingley entirely misunderstands Newman’s talk about cultivating knowledge
“for its own sake.” Newman does not mean by this that you have to cultivate
some piece of knowledge in isolation from the whole of knowledge, as if you
would cultivate it for the sake of something else by inserting it in the whole
of knowledge. No, he means just the opposite of this; what is good for its own
sake is precisely the habit of mind that “never views any part of the extended
subject matter of Knowledge without recollecting that it is but a part” and
that “makes everything in some sort lead to everything else” and “would communicate
the image of the whole to every separate portion.” It is this wisdom in the
liberally educated mind that is worth having for its own sake. In a word: with
his “knowledge for its own sake” Newman does not exclude the relation to the
whole of knowledge, but insists on it as the main point.

Mr. Tingley seems to misunderstand Newman in yet another fundamental way when
he aligns him with the German Enlightenment. Mr. Tingley thinks that Newman
is affected by rationalist ideals of self“evidence according to which many moral
and religious truths are easily demonstrable to every rational being. In fact
Newman was a relentless critic of such ideals; he is always showing up the limits
of formal proof and always pleading the case of intuition, reasons of the heart,
and ways of reasoning that cannot fully be put into words. Ian Ker, the great
authority on Newman, observes that the originality of Newman’s ideas on faith
and reason “lay above all in their rejection of the received Enlightenment concept
of reason.”

Mr. Tingley tries to play off Newman’s Idea of a University against
John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae . He quotes these words of the Pope:
“Scholars will be engaged in a constant effort to determine the relative place
and meaning of each of the various disciplines within the context of a vision
of the human person and the world that is enlightened by the gospel.” Mr. Tingley
thinks that this is the wisdom about education that Newman betrayed. He seems
to have overlooked the fact that in exactly this paragraph of Ex Corde Ecclesiae
John Paul quotes Newman as agreeing with him! John Paul says there, “Cardinal
Newman observes that a University ‘professes to assign to each study which it
receives its proper place and its just boundaries; to define the rights, to
establish the mutual relations, and to effect the intercommunion of one and
all.’” Mr. Tingley evidently has a talent for getting things exactly backwards;
he assures us that the Pope contradicts Newman, and his proof is a passage where
the Pope makes it clear that he agrees with Newman. Mr. Tingley seems to have
read Ex Corde Ecclesiae with no more care than he read The Idea of
a University

John F. Crosby
Professor of Philosophy
Franciscan University
Steubenville, Ohio

Edward Tingley replies:

Professor Crosby’s letter took me by surprise, apparently unrelated to the
article I thought I had written yet provoked by it. The task it sets me is not
to defend my claims (as, oddly, no claim I made was attacked) but to clear up
serious confusion”caused, I sense, by two things.

First, by the fact that the terms knowledge and wisdom have specific
senses in my remarks, and filling in other senses makes those remarks”I fully
agree”breathtakingly senseless.

By “knowledge” Prof. Crosby has taken me to mean “uninterpreted facts” and
the results of hard proof. Why, I don’t know. Unless he presumed I could not
mean what we normally take liberal arts knowledge to mean, given that I attribute
deficiencies to it. But that is what I do mean. I mean the same thing
by knowledge that Prof. Crosby means. That Newman means.

Newman saw knowledge as we do: not as “self“evidence” or proven fact but in
contrast to “opinion””what can be supported with widely visible evidence and
widely effective arguments.

Prof. Crosby seems to understand “wisdom,” on the other hand, as interpreting
facts, clothing them with meaning and investing them with values, learning to
rank things, grasping relations. And this is pretty much a description of knowledge,
for these are things that a botanist or an historian does. He seems to suggest
that Newman’s world is not closed to wisdom because it is open
to this kind of sense“making.

But this view of wisdom could not possibly fit what I wrote, for if wisdom
had the same description as knowledge what purpose could I have in saying that
knowledge has usurped the place of wisdom?

And it gradually dawns on me that the very state I was attempting to characterize”that
the concept of “wisdom” has been diluted in the modern period until it is indistinguishable
from knowledge (Prof. Crosby’s letter giving evidence of this)”can affect the
way a reader encounters these terms. The condition described bedevils the description.

My point was that, regardless of Newman’s express desire to integrate knowledge
into some whole, the restriction of education to publicly supportable claims
means that Newman’s university broke from its tradition. Whether “the imparting
of knowledge” is in fact the teaching of wisdom depends entirely upon what you
understand knowledge to be.

Newman wished that knowledge would tend to a higher unity, and in so
doing gave John Paul II every reason to see him as an ally: “[Newman] proposed
that learning should not lack unity, but be rooted in a total view.” Newman
talks of “converging . . . to the true center,” which he names as theology,
but (to repeat) Newman created no branch of the university to form that whole.
(It is not the task of theology. It is not the task of any discipline,
each devoted to the imparting of knowledge.) So where, in the university,
is this wisdom?

And this brings me to the second cause for confusion. It was probably unwise
to agree to publish my remarks on Newman separately, outside the larger argument
that initially housed them. If you are told, abruptly, “We must leave this boat,”
you will probably resist if you see nothing but water in every direction. The
boat will seem very good. Criticisms of it will perhaps infuriate you. And I
could not agree more that Newman is a vessel, whereas most university education
is just long years of treading water.

So the thrust of my remarks was lost by focusing upon Newman rather than on
the positive point, which envisions a Christian university open to a
deeper sense of wisdom than Newman’s.

To what end did Newman separate out “Christian knowledge”? Knowledge that has
its “end in itself,” he writes, is not knowledge as a service to “virtue or
religion.” Why was the university designed to make the “gentleman” and not (as
the Pope proposed) to help students “live their Christian vocation”? Any proper
answer to that question situates Newman in history, revealing the Humean, post“Enlightenment
division between fact and value, knowledge and morals that defines the modern
landscape. Convinced of faith, Newman was certainly an Enlightenment foe, but
he could not entirely escape his world.

And why does Christian education accept that division? Why is there
no room for a “knowledge oriented to wisdom” as the liberal learning tradition
understood it? Augustine conceives knowledge in relation to wisdom, the know“how
to fulfill our only task: the journey to God.

The Pope, by contrast, suggests a truly Enlightenment“free view of knowledge
when he says that the scholar’s task is to integrate the disciplines “within
the context of a vision of the human person and the world that is enlightened
by the gospel.” In this paragraph he advocates “a higher synthesis of knowledge”
in that specific context (citing Newman only in respect of “mutual relations”
the disciplines must have).

In Fides et Ratio , John Paul II characterizes “history” as “the arena
where we see what God does for humanity. God comes to us in . . . things of
our everyday life, apart from which we cannot understand ourselves.” Would it
not, therefore, be an historian’s task (much as it may shock Humean sensibilities)
to present history in such terms? In biblical times to know about history was
to interpret human events in relation to our purpose: to see the building of
the Tower as idolatry was to understand an historical event.

Would it not be knowledge of art to understand a nineteenth“century landscape
painting (as Ruskin did) as a challenge? (“As I myself look at it, there is
no fault or folly of my life . . . that does not rise up against me.”)

But modernity separates knowing into a factual armature to which the individual
must attach, as if this were all perfectly easy, moral significance. The task
of figuring out how the world pictured in knowledge relates to his vocation
is foisted upon the student as a mere individual.

To know is to grasp reality in the sense of what will heed and what
will hinder me on the journey that is the whole meaning of my life. And if I
have to do that on my own, then I am not being taught wisdom. The wisdom
is not in the university. The university is closed to wisdom.