The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Tolstoi's Religion

Here is the way Leo Tolstoi described his religion:

I believe in the doctrine of Jesus, and this is my religion:—

I believe that nothing but the fulfilment of the doctrine of Jesus can give true happiness to men. I believe that the fulfillment of this doctrine is possible, easy, and pleasant. I believe that although none other follows this doctrine, and I alone am left to practise it, I cannot refuse to obey it, if I would save my life from the certainty of eternal loss; just as a man in a burning house if he find a door of safety, must go out, so I must avail myself of the way to salvation. I believe that my life according to the doctrine of the world has been a torment, and that a life according to the doctrine of Jesus can alone give me in this world the happiness for which I was destined by the Father of Life. I believe that this doctrine is essential to the welfare of humanity, will save me from the certainty of eternal loss, and will give me in this world the greatest possible sum of happiness. Believing thus, I am obliged to practise its commandments.

" The law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. " (John i. 17.)

The doctrine of Jesus is a doctrine of grace and truth. Once I knew not grace and knew not truth. Mistaking evil for good, I fell into evil, and I doubted the righteousness of my tendency toward good. I understand and believe now that the good toward which I was attracted is the will of the Father, the essence of life.

Jesus has told us to live in pursuit of the good, and to beware of snares and temptations (σκάνδαλον) which, by enticing us with the semblance of good, draw us away from true goodness, and lead us into evil. He has taught us that our welfare is to be sought in fellowship with all men; that evil is a violation of fellowship with the son of man, and that we must not deprive ourselves of the welfare to be had by obedience to his doctrine.

Jesus has demonstrated that fellowship with the son of man, the love of men for one another, is not merely an ideal after which men are to strive; he has shown us that this love and this fellowship are natural attributes of men in their normal condition, the condition into which children are born, the condition in which all men would live if they were not drawn aside by error, illusions, and temptations.

In his commandments, Jesus has enumerated clearly and unmistakably the temptations that interfere with this natural condition of love and fellowship and render it a prey to evil. The commandments of Jesus offer the remedies by which I must save myself from the temptations that have deprived me of happiness; and so I am forced to believe that these commandments are true. Happiness was within my grasp and I destroyed it. In his commandments Jesus has shown me the temptations that lead to the destruction of happiness. I can no longer work for the destruction of my happiness, and in this determination, and in this alone, is the substance of my religion.

Tolstoi laid out a shocking claim; I’m still troubled by it.
But his ideas concerning non-violence are not the only hard sayings. David Bentley Hart addressed these in a troubling essay. Here’s a snippet; the whole thing deserves a read. @Bob_Wilson might want to weigh in on this as well. And @Hermano and others too.

" What did surprise me, however, was the degree to which the whole experience left me with a deeply melancholy, almost Kierkegaardian sense that most of us who go by the name of “Christians” ought to give up the pretense of wanting to be Christian —at least, if by that word one means not simply someone who is baptized or who adheres to a particular set of religious observances and beliefs, but more or less what Nietzsche meant when he said that there has been only one Christian in human history and that he had died on the cross. In that sense, I think it reasonable to ask not whether we are Christians (by that standard, all fall short), but whether in our wildest imaginings we could ever desire to be the kind of persons that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of life in Christ. And I think the fairly obvious answer is that we could not. I do not mean merely that most of us find the moral requirements laid out in Christian scripture a little onerous, though of course we do. Therein lies the deep comfort provided by the magisterial Protestant fantasy that the apostle Paul inveighed against something called “works-righteousness” in favor of a purely extrinsic “justification” by grace—which, alas, he did not. He rejected only the notion that one might be “shown righteous” by works of the Law—ritual observances like circumcision or keeping kosher—but he also quite clearly insisted, as did Christ, that all will be judged in the end according their deeds (Romans 2:1–16 and 4:10–12, 1 Corinthians 3:12–15, 2 Corinthians 5:10, Philippians 2:16, and so on). Rather, I mean that most of us would find Christians truly cast in the New Testament mold fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent."

Yes, like Hart, my impression of Tolstoi is that in addition to being insightful and inspiring, his conception of our need is so austere that it can be depressing. But since I see him not as an authority, but as a fellow troubled sinner, evaluating his rhetoric isn’t very critical for me. It’s challenging enough to wrestle with the meaning and challenge of the content of Jesus’ own words.

Bob, Tolstoi was advocating nothing else than to follow Jesus’ own words. This he clearly stated to be his religion! He wrote:

I believe in the doctrine of Jesus, and this is my religion.

George MacDonald believed the same:

Well sure, no one doubts that Tolstoi saw himself as following and advocating Jesus’ own words, even if their own exegesis thinks he gets their meaning wrong at some points. But insofar as that was Tolstoi’s intent, I’d think it bolsters my conclusion that I’d concentrate on wrestling directly with his source.

Don’t know if you fellas had a chance to read the snippet and/or the article? DBH brings out other hard saying from Jesus that are as stringent as this one. Could use your input if you get the time.

I read the article. I notice he said, “The early Christians were Communists.” I suppose he meant “Communalists.” In our day, the terms “Communist” seems restricted to some form of Marxism.
However, we do have various Communalist bodies of Christians in our day, the best-known of which are probably Hutterites.

I think you’re right.

Here’s a provocative excerpt from the DBH essay concerning Christ’s attitude toward wealth.

" Of the compilation of pericopes, however, there is no end. What is most important to recognize is that all these pronouncements on wealth and poverty belong to a moral sensibility that saturates the pages of the New Testament. It is there, for instance, in Paul’s condemnations of pleonektia (often translated as “greed,” but really meaning all acquisitive desire), or in the Pastoral Epistles’ condemnation of aischrokerdes (often translated as “greed for base gain,” but really referring to the sordidness of seeking financial profit for oneself). James perhaps states the matter most clearly:

Come now, you who are rich, weep, howling at the miseries coming upon you; your riches are corrupted and moths have consumed your clothes; your gold and silver have corroded, and their rust will be a witness against you and will consume your flesh like fire. You have stored up treasure in the Last Days! See, the wages you have given so late to the laborers who have harvested your fields cry aloud, and the cries of those who have harvested your fields have entered the ear of the Lord Sabaoth. You have lived in luxury, and lived upon the earth in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts on a day of slaughter. You have condemned—have murdered—the upright; he did not stand against you. (James 5:1–6)

Now, we can read this, if we wish, as a dire warning issued only to those wealthy persons who have acted unjustly toward their employees, and who live too self-indulgently. But if we do so, we are in fact inverting the text. Earlier in the epistle, James has already asserted that, while the “poor brother” should exult in how God has lifted him up, the “rich man” (who, it seems, scarcely merits the name of “brother”) should rejoice in being “made low” or “impoverished,” as otherwise he will wither and vanish away like a wildflower scorched by the sun (1:9–11). He has also gone on to remind his readers that “God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith and to inherit the Kingdom,” and that the rich, by contrast, must be recognized as oppressors and persecutors and blasphemers of Christ’s holy name (2:5–7). James even warns his readers against the presumptuousness of planning to gain profits from business ventures in the city (4:13–14). And this whole leitmotif merely reaches its crescendo in those later verses quoted above, which plainly condemn not only those whose wealth is gotten unjustly, but all who are rich as oppressors of workers and lovers of luxury. Property is theft, it seems. Fair or not, the text does not distinguish good wealth from bad—any more than Christ did."

What thinkest thou, brethren?

Well, rich Count Tolstoi certainly took all that to heart. He gave away all his huge wealth and lands to the peasants of Russia, and lived as a peasant himself for the rest of his life.

However, I think a rich person could do more for the needy if he invested it wisely, and used the continuing income for helping the down-and-outers.

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Do you think, then that (I won’t ask if Jesus was wrong) the dire warnings to those who seek to accumulate wealth (say one’s 401k or IRA or pension) are less important warnings than those that refer to resistance?
This is not a ‘gotcha’ question - I’m serious about it. If the injunction against resistance is to be taken at face value, binding on us the same as it was to Jesus’ audience, why not the strictures against wealth? Would Jesus take your - or my - seemingly logical glossing-over on wealth as an exemption to what He taught?
And the point is that we ARE wealthy beyond measure compared to most of the world throughout history - every one of us on the forum, as far as I know. If Jesus did not mean us - who did he mean?

Which strictures of Jesus on wealth are you citing? If the strictures about responding to evil are discouraging violent responses, then it seems the apostles’ practice was consistent with this. Then a possible difference insofar as Jesus’ limits on wealth are not definitive is that the apostles apparently accepted wealthy people in the church, expecting them to generously share it, but not expecting them to refrain from keeping any of it.

I was responding to the article by DBH that had quite a bit of scripture concerning wealth. Which actually seem to be clearer, and certainly more abundant, than the verse about violence.

True, I think: but then again, a rich person who did not resist evil could be allowing many needy to be deprived or even killed (under certain scenarios) or, if the rich person was killed by not resisting evil, he himself could not help the needy.

Dave: “The article by DBH that had quite a bit of scripture concerning wealth. Which actually seem to be clearer, than the verse(s) about violence.”

Well, I’d think whether the NT affirms followers of Jesus using personal violence
and whether it requires personal poverty each needs to be decided on the textual merits.

My sense is that endorsing Jesus followers’ actual bodily attacks on others is questionable (the cryptic 2 swords is enough text we’ve discussed as the possible exception). But it’s less clear to me that it consistently requires followers be divested of all property (unless the admonition to the rich young ruler is taken as a universal).

Again, it seems apparent that many rich benefactors are accepted by Jesus and the apostles, and that the admonition is often to share generously, but no opposition is given to holding on to some of their wealth.

Still, I agree that the warnings about riches and greed are profoundly challenging to our culture, and I agree with Hart that they seem incompatible with the driving ethos of capitalism. If I’m right, the NT tension here leaves a reality where we who have so much are constantly challenged by the truth that we probably hold onto more than love would expect.

Thanks for the comments Bob (and for reading!) The question of wealth is for me an easy place to justify what may not be pleasing to the Lord. It’s troublesome, mainly because the NT emphases are pretty darn clear. CS Lewis said something about not giving enough unless it hurts.

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Perhaps if you quoted the passages you have in mind it would help. I think your word “accumulate” is the key word here. There is a vast difference between a person who miser-like continues to accumulate wealth, and one who earns a good living and uses it wisely, such as in the relief of the needy.

I can think of one warning that Christ gave concerning riches, and that is the one in Luke 12:16-21 ESV) in his parable about the rich man who thought only about accumulation—about tearing down his barns and building larger ones to accommodate his increase in crops. There is no indication in the parable that the rich man considered the needy.

And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

I suppose one could construe the following to mean that Jesus recommended poverty:

But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. (Luke 6:24)

However, in my opinion, He was again speaking of the type of rich people who just continue to accumulate wealth without sharing it with those in need. Their consolation is their accumulation.

A problem for me, is that the term ‘wealth’ is so relative. We can point to what we think are wealthy billionaires, but others would point to US in the same way. A tough thing to think about.
To flesh it out a bit more, from the article:
" Perhaps, to avoid trying to serve both God and Mammon, one need only have the right attitude toward riches. But if this were all the New Testament had to say on the matter, then one would expect those texts to be balanced out by others affirming the essential benignity of riches honestly procured and well-used. Yet this is precisely what we do not find. Instead, they are balanced out by still more uncompromising comminations of wealth in and of itself . Certainly Christ condemned not only an unhealthy preoccupation with riches, but the getting and keeping of riches as such. The most obvious citation from all three synoptic Gospels would be the story of the rich young ruler who could not bring himself to part with his fortune for the sake of the Kingdom, and of Christ’s astonishing remark about camels passing through needles’ eyes more easily than rich men through the Kingdom’s gate. As for the question the disciples then put to Christ, it should probably be translated not as “Who then can be saved?” or “Can anyone be saved?” but rather “Then can any [of them, the rich] be saved?” To which the sobering reply is that it is humanly impossible, but that by divine power even a rich man might be spared."

That is also the impression I get from the NT. Like I said, I can justify my wealth (which is laughable if you knew what it was) in any number of ways, but I can’t get around the force of the emphasis.[quote=“DaveB2.0, post:18, topic:14495, full:true”]
To flesh it out a bit more, from the article:

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