27 July 2011

Suffering behind closed doors and reflections on morality

The Classical Gate, originally erected in Hall Court to replace the original main gate of Sidney Sussex College, was moved during Wyatville’s alterations in 1832 to the north-east corner of the gardens, where it remains an eye-catching feature (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

we heard about the suffering and survival of the Orthodox Church in Russia during the Soviet era, and its rebirth, renewal and rapid growth in recent decades, this morning [Wednesday, 27 July], at the 12th summer school organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and we reflected on the moral dilemmas raised by one of the greatest Russian writers, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Alexander Ogorodnikov from Moscow was strongly critical of the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church and political leaders in Russia today. He was speaking in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, on: “The Russian Orthodox Church in the face of the modern secular challenge.”

Alexander was born into a strong party family, but his grandmother secretly arranged for his baptism as a child. He was arrested in 1976, and held in confinement on the grounds that his religious conviction was a mental disorder that began and persisted after he received his education. He was arrested again in 1978, while he was working on a film, The Jesus People, and in September 1980 he was found guilty of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.”

He was singled out because his religious convictions openly challenged Soviet “science” on the eradication of religious belief. He was sentenced to six years in a labour camp and five years in internal exile. He was held in Perm 36 near the Siberian border.

Alexander spoke this morning of his harrowing experiences of being jailed and being held in solitary isolation, and how he was sustained at night in his prayers and by the surrounding love of God. He was the subject of an international campaign for his release in the 1980s, and was finally released by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987.

He compared the confession and repentance of the former Church leaders in Bulgaria and Romania with the loss of opportunities by the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, and accused Russian Orthodox leaders of betraying the people.

Although he knows Patriarch Kirill and has worked closely with him, Alexander has faced strong opposition from bishops throughout Russia. He said that despite its suffering, the Russian Church had developed a poor theology and had little understanding of the contribution and suffering of martyrs since the 1920s.

He spoke critically of the work of American Protestant evangelical missionaries in Russia, but said their work had met with little success.

This survivor of the Gulag prisons is a former chair of the Russian Orthodox Argentov Seminar, a peace activist and a key figure in several Russian humanitarian organisations.

Alexander Ogorodnikov was introduced by Irina Kirillova, a retired lecturer in Russian Studies and a Fellow Emerita of Newnham College, Cambridge. Later in the morning, she spoke on the theme: “‘If there is no God, then all is permitted!’ (F.M. Dostoevsky).”

Irina Kirillova, MBE, is a retired University Lecturer in Russian Studies, a Fellow Emerita of Newnham College, Cambridge, and a trustee of Pushkin House, the Russian cultural centre in London. Her publications include The Image of Christ in Dostoevsky’s writing (Moscow, 2010).

Referring to Alexander Ogorodnikov’s reflections earlier in the morning, she recalled an “appalling speech” in Canterbury by a Russian metropolitan. When she challenged him, he smiled and told her he was pleased by her reaction to his speech – this meant he could open more churches in Siberia. And so, she said: “We have to be careful how we judge.”

She spoke in the context of the mass murder in Norway last weekend, and in her opening remarks also referred to Philip Blond, the author of Red Tory, who was referred to by the Revd John Hughes in his lecture yesterday, and to the Chief Rabbi, Dr Jonathan Sachs, and his book God, Science and the Search for Meaning.

She quoted Dostoevsky, who – shortly after being released from prison in 1854 – wrote to Natalya Fonvizinia: “If someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth, and it was really the case that the truth lay outside Christ, then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth.”

Hans Holbein’s ‘The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb’ had a profound, lifelong influence on Dostoevsky

She looked at the influence of Hans Holbein’s painting, ’The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521), which had a lifelong influence on Dostoevsky, who was totally overwhelmed on first seeing it in Basel in 1867 – so much so that his wife had to drag him away, fearing its grip on her husband might induce an epileptic fit. She wrote that he could never forget the sensation he experienced gazing at the painting, which continued to haunt him. Two years later, Dostoevsky wrote The Idiot (1869), in which he refers to the painting many times. He thought it posed a terrible threat to faith in Christ, and Prince Myshkin, having viewed the painting in the home of Rogozhin, declares that it has the power to make the viewer lose his faith.

Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is one of the most complex and most complexly misunderstood authors in modern literature – Henry Miller could read Dostoevsky as a great social revolutionary, while others have seen him as a die-hard conservative; William Hamilton tried to enlist Dostoevsky as a forerunner of “Death of God” theology; Georges Florovsky saw Dostoevsky as an exemplar of Russian Orthodoxy; while Malcolm Jones linked him to “post-atheism” in contemporary Russia and judged him to exemplify the workings of “minimal religion.”

And this variety of interpretations of Dostoevsky was reflected in the discussion that followed.

Is it Dostoevsky who thinks that if we cease to believe in our immortality and in God, then all is permitted? Or is it Ivan Karamazov, as filtered through his murderous half-brother Smerdyakov, as a feeble excuse for having killed his own father?

Is it Dostoevsky, or the Devil, or Ivan Karamazov imagining the Devil, who says that he would rather give up everything and become a merchant’s wife lighting votive candles?

The quotation in the title of her paper, “If there is no God, then all is permitted!” is an encapsulation of the belief espoused by Ivan Karamazov in the early chapters of The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan has concluded, or pretends to conclude, that there is no God, no immortality. As what he claims is a logical consequence, "everything is lawful." However, Ivan never speaks the sentence in question, and neither does any other character in the novel. The phrase, “everything is lawful,” is used frequently by other characters as an idea that they got from Ivan. And once, Ivan says: “If there is no immortality, there is no virtue.”

Dostoevsky has also strongly influenced the thinking of Archbishop Rowan Williams, and it would have been interesting to her views of his book, Dostoevsky: language, faith and fiction (2008), in which the Archbishop of Canterbury explores the intricacies of speech, fiction, metaphor, and iconography in the works of Dostoevsky.

In that book, Dr Williams focuses on the four major novels of Dostoevsky’s maturity – Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Devils, and The Brothers Karamozov – and argues that understanding Dostoevsky’s style and goals as a writer of fiction is inseparable from understanding his religious commitments.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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