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The Good Shepherd: Dostoyevsky’s Penultimate Trajectory for Ethics


“[T]heology must cultivate the silence of death.”[1]

Before the modern period, theology was considered the queen of all the sciences.[2] Based on the foundation for human endeavors provided by theologians, scholars in all disciplines strove to:

  1. Study the natural sciences to better understand the beauty of the Creator’s handiwork.
  2. Study the formal sciences and stand in awe of the intrinsic order God had inscribed in the universe.
  3. Study the humanities to find better ways in expressing worship to the One.   

The sphere of ethical reflection was no exception and was intrinsically tied to the realm of religious beliefs and practices – that is, until the Enlightenment. Fast industrialization, the prominent rise of natural sciences, and a shift from religion as being the center of human living, all culminated in suspicion towards conventional forms of authority: religious organizations, governments, and traditional moral values.[3] The processes of modernization turned Christianity into an empty husk when compared with its former cultural significance and dominance. By the early 19th century, the reign of theology seemed to have been coming to an end, at least in Europe.

Nietzsche captures the sentiments of this turbulent time:

The whole of the West no longer possesses the instincts out of which institutions grow, out of which a future grows: perhaps nothing antagonizes its “modern spirit” so much. One lives for the day, one lives very fast, one lives very irresponsibly: precisely this is called “freedom.” That which makes an institution an institution is despised, hated, repudiated: one fears the danger of a new slavery the moment the word “authority” is even spoken out loud.[4]

It is in this context that Dostoyevsky sees the skeptic, heretic, and atheist, as having surmounting reasons for disbelief in God. Ecclesiological and theological authority had oppressed Western society for far too long; humanity had finally come of age. Or had it? Miüsov says in The Brothers Karamazov, “If you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral; everything would be lawful, even cannibalism.”[5]

Dostoyevsky is very clear throughout his writings that to erase God from the Western mind would tantamount to erasing morality. Man would become beast, sacredness would be lost, and humanity would be left with unparalleled self-destruction.

However, the Russian author writes through the voice of characters, an ethical reality based on secular values. Jack R. Sibley argues that this forms the crux of one of his works. For example, “The substance of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is to express the notion that every saintly person must carry the burden of ‘loving all humankind’ and at the same time not be destroyed by this incredible task.”[6]

As some have interpreted the Russian author, there is something admirable, perhaps even heroic, about humanity existing in the face of nihilism and complete existential angst.[7]Perhaps this is the true love and ethical reality Christ envisioned for this world: that despite our freedom and the giant void of definitive, shared cultural values, we can still strive for social harmony, instead of watching everything degenerate into chaos and cacophony.

With this possibility in our hands, we can find a new and fresh, sense of responsibility; we have no one to blame, no father figure or high ruler to appeal to.[8] We only have ourselves as we face a vast cosmic expanse.

This attitude became a normative point of departure in literature as the focus moved away from the classical, mythological, and biblical sources of narration to a secular view of life in which human individuality, freedom, and creatorship is the primary focal point of narration.[9] Sibley asserts that this shift in ideology results in questions about the “lives of humans and their destiny as they face the challenges of an ethical life in a secular world.”[10]

If the essence of human existence resides in our free choice what room is there for God? If we truly are creators of not only our ideas, but ultimately our reality why is there a need for a Creator?

These questions that Dostoyevsky, along with others, brought to the forefront of Western thinking allowed for the eventual culmination of a “radical departure” in the traditional loci of theology.[11] The deviation was the 1960s “death of God” faction. The movement stated that our traditional view of “God” was dead and had been so for quite some time!

But wait! Was this really a “radical departure” from theology?

Isn’t this what makes our shepherd good? The Good Shepherd dies for his sheep, but with his death comes our freedom and autonomy? No longer do the sheep have to walk behind authority, we can now follow our own authority and become our own shepherds. [12] However, this “freedom” seems to be our ultimate burden and more often than not we find ourselves handing over ultimate control of our own lives to traditional forms of authority, such as the church.

The Grand Inquisitor writes:

We have corrected Thy work and have founded it upon miracle, mystery, and authority. And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep, and that the terrible gift [freedom] that had brought them such suffering, was, at last, lifted from their hearts.[13]

Therefore, radical theology tries to revert such “sacred authority,” because it is based on a fear of human freedom. Instead this is a theology that starts our foundations on profane grounds, moving our moral footing from the assumptions of a religious culture to a secular one. This is a theology cultivating a harvest of fruit contained in the seeds of Dostoyevsky’s articulation of the bittersweet moral quandary shaped by the Enlightenment.

This is the third installment in a four-part series written by Gabriel M. Riojas. Find the previous two essays here.

Gabriel M. Riojas is a second-year theology major at Pacific Union College. He plays the guitar and bass, and leads praise music. He also enjoys reading, writing, art and philosophy. He hopes to eventually earn his PhD in systematic theology.


Note on title: John 10:11 (NASB), “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”

It is important to note that although I will be focusing on Dostoyevsky’s secular tendencies, these do not represent the position he ultimately advocates; recognizing his affirmation of the revelation and the hope of the crucified God, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, I found it appropriate to subtitle this article as dealing with his “penultimate trajectory.” Therefore, I would like to clarify that the scope of this series is to show that primarily existential/humanistic interpretations of Dostoyevsky’s writings, in particular The Brothers Karamazov, help set the field for theological thinking to be done in a secular fashion.

[1]Thomas J.J. Altizer & William Hamilton, Radical Theology and The Death of God (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc., 1966), 15.

[2]Avihu Zakai, “The Rise of Modern Science and the Decline of Theology as the ‘Queen of Sciences’ in the Early Modern Era,” Reformation & Renaissance Review, 9.2, 2007, 126.

[3]Hannu Salmi, 19th Century Europe: A Cultural History, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008), 1-2.

[4]Friedrich Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, intro. Michael Tanner (London: Penguin Books, 1990), sect. 39.

[5]Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett & Maire Jaanus (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), 71.

[6]Jack R. Sibley, “The Seeds & Substances of Secularism in Dostoyevsky or the Vital Voice of the Ethical Person,” Encounter, 62.3, 2001, 277. This is a biblical ethic but can be viewed in a secular framework.

[7]Justin Neufeld, “Faith, Fiction, and Skepticism: Transcendence in Flannery O’Connor, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Albert Camus,” Direction, 40. 1., 2011, 57.

[8]Immanuel Kant and his ethical philosophy of duty can be seen as a precursor to this type of autonomous thinking, contributing to modernism’s backlash at traditional theology of the time.

[9]Ibid., 271.

[10]Ibid., 271. The influence is evident in later writers such as Frank Kafka, John Steinbeck, and Cormac McCarthy.

[11]God as the ultimate being who is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient; personal and active in the lives of humans.

[12]This of course is an existential reading of the text but here we see how the influence of existentialism opened new theological conclusions, giving way to one of many new lines of theological inquiry, i.e. Death of God theology.

[13]Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett & Maire Jaanus (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), 238. Ivan Karamazov’s parable outlines two major characters, the Grand Inquisitor and The Christ.  There are many themes to draw from but primarily the motifs of miracle, mystery, and authority are central to the story. The Inquisitor goes on to describe the role traditional church played in and how religion has tried to regulate Christ’s true gift to humanity, freedom.

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