Conversation 5: ‘Light from the East’. Episode 5

Fyodor Mikhailovich looked at Solovyov, as if inviting him to speak—which he did.

            “Of course, you need a church. I know that many people in your time say that you don’t need a church and you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian and they were saying it in our time too. But think what happens if you don’t have a church, if you just have vague ideas of love, freedom, and fellowship. Maybe someone here and someone there will be inspired to live by those ideas, but let’s be realistic: where are they going to get those ideas from if there isn’t some historical organ to teach them, if they don’t learn about the examples of Christ and the saints to show them how to put them into practice? Even more importantly, don’t imagine for a moment that if you give up having a church then the state will give up being a state. On the contrary, without a church the state itself will take over the church’s tasks and take it upon itself to teach people the values they should live by and to punish them if they fail to do so. Once you’ve reached that point, it’s then only a small step into complete tyranny. If there isn’t a living community to witness to the truth that God alone is God, then you can be sure that Caesar will seize the opportunity and make himself god—as happened in Rome and innumerable times since.”

            “So how do we know what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God? Christ asked the question, but I don’t think he answered it and I don’t think anyone else ever has either.”

            Solovyov’s eyes flashed, ominously I felt, but an amused smile suggested he’d been expecting just this question.

            “It’s not easy. Ultimately, of course, there can be no division. All life is one and all is moved by the one divine spirit; but here and now, in the middle of history, there’s still a long way to go before this is universally acknowledged. For now, there must be church and state, until the time when the church has infused the state with Christ’s spirit, which is to say that there’s no immediate or simple answer to your question. Both the church and the state relate to the whole of life but they do so in different ways, meaning that they cannot ultimately be separated in the way that your Western theorists tried to separate them by saying ‘This belongs to the Church’ and ‘This belongs to the State’, the so-called ‘division of powers’. That just invites endless conflict. But, no: the Church relates to the whole of life and, in the end, it will become the whole of life but only by using its proper means of freedom and love. Without freedom and love, it ceases to be a church.”

            As he was talking, I remembered one of the first scenes in The Brothers Karamazov in which there is a heated discussion between Ivan Karamazov and some monks about an article Ivan has written. In this article he had argued that the state should be transformed into a kind of church, making itself a moral and spiritual organism as well as a means of preserving and ordering human beings’ material life in the world. He had also argued that whereas a person now can commit a crime and still regard himself as belonging to the church (even if he also knows that the church requires him to repent), to be caught committing a crime in the state that has become a church would result in being completely excluded from every form of society. It would be a kind of terror that no one could endure. The kind of leverage that, perhaps, people experienced in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. Even without the threat of torture. Then, suddenly, I remembered reading somewhere that Solovyov had in fact been a model for Ivan and, without thinking, blurted out that what Vladimir Sergeyevich had just said was surely the argument of Ivan’s article.

            Dostoevsky and Solovyov looked at each other. Fyodor Mikhailovich raised his eyebrows questioningly. I was afraid I’d put my foot in it—after all, Ivan is eventually revealed as the principal theorist of nihilism in the novel and, after being visited by the devil, ends by having a mental breakdown. Had I perhaps offended Solovyov by associating him with this strange schizoid character? Much to my relief (and surprise), he burst out laughing.

            “So, you’re thinking that I’m Ivan?” he asked, as if delighted at the idea. “Well, some of his ideas are not entirely bad—if he really means them. But does he?”

            He looked at Fyodor Mikhailovich, who pursed his lips but said nothing.

            “You mean,” I said, “that maybe he’s just playing with ideas for the sake of it?”

            “Exactly. But the question is a real one. Wars and revolutions have been fought over it—just look at what happened in Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. But I’m not talking about the church taking over the state or the state taking over the church in a political way. I say again: the church can only progress by using its own proper means of freedom, love, and brotherhood. If it uses any other means, then it’s no longer the church.”

            “Like the Grand Inquisitor!” I said.

            “Exactly—although we’ve been talking about the state turning itself into a church and the Grand Inquisitor torturing and burning those he decides are heretics is more an example of a church turning itself into a state.”

            “The Catholic idea,” muttered Fyodor Mikhailovich, though I seemed to detect a teasing or perhaps self-deprecating tone in the way he said it.

            “Not at all the Catholic idea!” declared Solovyov. “A perversion of the Catholic idea, maybe. I grant you that it was a perversion that did appear on earth, in history. And maybe it lasted many hundreds of years. The Inquisition happened. People tortured and burned their fellow Christians in the name of Christ. There can be no excuse. But that is not the Catholic idea, as you can see from the fact that since our time the Catholic Church herself has learned a greater humility and no longer promotes wars in the so-called defence of the Church. Its authority is and can only be a spiritual authority, not the authority of the sword.”

            “Nevertheless,” said Fyodor Mikhailovich, as if reluctant to concede the point, “nevertheless, what happened remains a warning. Not that the Protestants were any better. They too tortured and burned their enemies. In the end, whether the church makes itself into a state or the state makes itself into a church, it’s no different from communism. Trying to rule over men’s material and spiritual needs at the same time will inevitably end up by destroying the difference between them. It’s the politics of the ant-heap.”

            “We’re agreed on that,” interjected Solovyov. “But I still say that, for now, at the present stage of history—and that may yet last a long, long time—we cannot leave the state to itself. It is not enough just to appeal to the vague spiritual longing of the masses, the ‘Russian soul’, if you like.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich shifted uncomfortably as Solovyov said this, but he carried on without seeming to notice.

            “Christ’s new word needs someone to speak it, someone who can speak it in Christ’s name, someone with authority. That is why He appointed Peter to be the foundation of his Church: because without a real living person to be its spiritual father, the Church can never really be the Church, just some kind of religious organization.”

            “Yes, yes, yes,” Fyodor Mikhailovich interrupted, “this is all very fine as an argument, but you must remember that Peter isn’t the same as Rome. Yes, every Church needs to be grounded in the life of a human being who is willing to give himself or herself in love and to take responsibility for their flock, but that doesn’t of itself justify the argument that the Pope must always and forever be the primary authority in the Church. The Pope may be Peter’s successor, but is he the successor to his office only or his spirit? And the spirit cannot be constrained—it blows where it will, does it not?”

            “Of course, the Pope should not rule alone, which the Catholic Church itself now understands. Peter needs Paul and both need John.”

            “Sorry?” I asked, puzzled at these rather obscure references.

            “The Pope,” Solovyov explained, “is the successor of Peter” (Fyodor Mikhailovich shrugged), “while the Protestant churches have taken the mantle of Paul, and we, in the East, are the heirs of John. Only the witness of all three is the true Christian witness, but one must have authority—until the time when God is indeed all in all. And,” he continued, looking sideways at Fyodor Mikhailovich, “before that happens, the Christian witness must also rejoin the witness of the Jews.”

            I wasn’t really used to this kind of theological argument and many of its terms were strange to me. Although Solovyov was still looking intently at me, I turned away and again scanned the view across the city towards the estuary. The streaky silver clouds were darkening and it was starting to look as if rain might be coming in. I turned back to Vladimir Sergeyevich.

            “I’m not at all sure where this is going,” I began, “but I’m inclined to agree—at least, I think I agree—with Fyodor Mikhailovich. I mean, how can you have authority without some sort of compulsion being involved? Isn’t the whole point of exercising authority down to the fact that people don’t spontaneously do the right thing? So don’t you then have to end up forcing them to do it?”

            Solovyov shook his head.

            “Not at all. If you see someone walking towards a cliff edge, don’t you warn them about the danger is? So why shouldn’t it be the same in the moral universe, when you see someone behaving in ways that are likely to cause harm to themselves or others? Don’t you warn, rebuke, persuade? Don’t you do all you can to bring them back onto the right way?”

            “Yes, but that’s different from telling someone what to believe, isn’t it?”

            “Not at all. Telling someone the truth isn’t forcing them to accept it.”

            “Not when their own hearts witness to that truth,” added Fyodor Mikhailovich.

            “Fyodor Mikhailovich,” said Solovyov, taking his friend’s hand and speaking in a softer voice. “You know what I think: that you, more than anyone, have shown how even the most abused heart can still nurture a flame of love for God and even those who imagine themselves made in the image of the Beast are, nevertheless, loved by their creator, fellow creatures with saints and angels. But if the truth of the heart is to become a universal truth it needs to become manifest, it needs a social form. We believed, didn’t we, that such a form existed in Russia and that the love of Tsar and people connected the whole of society, but I think we were disappointed.” Dostoevsky shrugged again. Solovyov turned to me and explained. “You see, when Alexander the Second was assassinated, I, like Fyodor Mikhailovich, looked on the Tsar as a true father to his people and so I appealed to his successor to spare the murderers. But, of course, he didn’t. In fact, I lost my post and became what you might call a vagabond, relying on the protection of friends just to stay alive. And all for a letter that didn’t ask for anything more than simple Christian compassion.” He sighed. “Alas, in the end, the Tsar too was an earthly ruler, like any other earthly ruler—and that is why we need a Church capable of speaking with an independent voice, which our beloved Orthodox Church could not do and, in the end, allowed itself to become little more than a servant of the state.”

            He paused before continuing.

            “Let me tell you a story” he began. “Once upon a time St Nicholas and St Cassian had been sent back to visit earth, for a reason we are not told. On their way through Russia they came across a peasant whose cart had got stuck in the mud. ‘Come on,’ said St Nicholas, ‘we must help this poor fellow out’. ‘But if we do that,’ replied St Cassian, ‘my heavenly robe will be stained with mud.’ ‘Well, you carry on,’ said St Nicholas, ‘and I’ll rejoin you when I can’. And so St Nicholas went down and helped the peasant get the cart moving and, of course, his heavenly robe was indeed stained with mud. When they got back to paradise, St Peter was surprised and asked what had happened. St Nicholas explained. ‘Very well,’ said St Peter, ‘because you cared more about the peasant than your beautiful shining robes, you, Nicholas, will become the most venerated of all the saints in Russia and your feast will be celebrated twice a year. But you,’ he said, turning to Cassian, ‘because you worried more about soiling your own robe, your feast will be celebrated only once every four years only.’ And this is how it is with the Church. The Western Church has taken the risk and gone out into the world and, of course, its robes have been soiled as a result. I do not dispute that. Our Orthodoxy believed that it could keep itself pure behind the monastery walls but although that too is a way of serving God it is not the better way.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich lifted his hands weakly in what might have been a gesture of protest, before letting them fall back on his knees while emitting a noise that sounded like a cross between a grunt and a laugh.

            “I like your story, Vladimir Sergeyevich,” he said, ‘but it says the opposite of what you think it says. Of course, St Nicholas is the most beloved saint of the Russian people, precisely because he was willing to get down in the mud beside them and be alongside them in their suffering. Some in Orthodoxy have retreated from the world, it’s true, but the true Russian Church is not found on Mount Athos, it’s found in every Russian village and its rites accompany every poor forgotten earthly soul, no matter how humble and downtrodden. The Russian monk was not retreating from the world, he was keeping the people’s treasure secure, so as to return it to them in those moments when they needed it most.”

            “But it’s not enough to be religious,” insisted Solovyov “the Church that prays must also be the Church that acts, in the world!”

            “That’s all very well and good,” said Fyodor Mikhailovich, “but this so-called independent Church: doesn’t its independence mean becoming independent of the people? As long as the people know that the Church is with them, that its teachers are praying for them and caring for them, they will accept it. But the moment when the Church cares more for the Church than for the people—and this must happen as soon as the Church constitutes itself as a separate and distinct organization within society, insisting on itself and its own laws as the condition of salvation—in that moment, the Church is no longer a part of the common life; it has made itself a power over the people. It can act, you say, but its action is for itself and no longer for the people.”

            I don’t quite know when it began but at about this point I suddenly became aware that the two of them were speaking what I assumed was Russian, as if they were carrying on a conversation they’d been having for a long time and had forgotten about my presence. Maybe this had been going on for several minutes and I had somehow been able to understand it by virtue of the strange alterations of language that were involved in communication between our world and theirs but after this point I lost track. Fyodor Mikhailovich said something to which Solovyov gave long reply, delivered in an exultant oratorical style, while Fyodor Mikhailovich was almost literally bouncing up and down as he tried to get a word in. They were causing quite a commotion and I was aware that people passing by were looking rather oddly at them—at us. A couple of young men kept looking back and smirking. A woman nodded at me and I realized it was someone who worked in Laura’s office, though I didn’t know her well. I nodded back, rather uncomfortably.

            This continued for a minute or more, until I coughed rather loudly to remind them that I was still there. They both stopped immediately and looked round at me. More or less at the same time they apologized and burst into laughter, simple, joyous laughter, like a child’s—and couldn’t help joining in. Laughing with dead people. What next?

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