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A Secular Baptism: Dostoyevsky’s Penultimate Trajectory for Sacramental Language


This is the second installment in a four-part series written by a theology major at Pacific Union College.

On April 8, 1966, Time magazine’s cover shocked millions of Americans asking the question, “Is God Dead?” Behind the cover and sudden controversy, four primary theologians had come to similar conclusions that modern man had finally closed the chapter on the Judeo-Christian deity in Western society.

Three of these men credited the renowned Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky for contributing to their theological conclusion that God, linguistically, historically, philosophically, or actually, was dead. Interestingly enough, Dostoyevsky had been traditionally recognized for his use of theological motifs: redemption, theodicy, etc. But until the arrival of existential and radical (“death of God,” “secular”) theology, his impact had been largely overlooked.

Dostoyevsky begins his infamous parable, The Grand Inquisitor, with the theme of redemption. Yet for Dostoyevsky, traditional definitions of the word are rejected; these theological understandings are incoherent with the spirit of his modern context. In the parable, Ivan Karamazov (an atheist) concludes to his brother Alyosha Karamazov (a priest), that man’s ultimate redemption from himself can only be accomplished by accepting this temporal world’s harsh reality instead of postulating a separate and ethereal existence. For Ivan, Jesus’ responses to his temptations in the wilderness are not redemptive; they are cruel and agonizing. They impose an impossible demand on the rest of humanity: the denial of our fundamental drive for food, stability, and purpose to exist. Therefore, Ivan reworks what it means to be redeemed and opts for active participation in this, present reality. He states:

“Heaven . . . lies hidden within all of us . . . And in every truth, as soon as men understand that, the Kingdom of Heaven will be for them not a dream, but a living reality. It is a spiritual and psychological process. To transform the world, to recreate it afresh, men must turn into another path psychologically. Until you have become really, in actual fact, a brother to every one, brotherhood will not come to pass.”[2]

Jack R. Sibley points out that Dostoyevsky, though the voice of Ivan, reconstructs the concept of hell by demythologizing it, explaining it as “the suffering of being unable to love.”[3] These transformed expressions helped signal a transition into a new theological framework: secularism. Gabriel Vahanian, a radical theologian, appeals to the need of redefined sacramental language in The Death of God by saying:

“The Christian vocabulary has very little meaning for modern man except for the victim- let us say, zealot-of religiosity… Such religiosity fulfills civic ends: today it is socially fashionable to be religious… Christianity is displaced by religiosity, it no longer inspires contemporary culture; its spirit does not impregnate the ethos of our time.”[4]

Vahanian wants to show us that we have overworked the semantics of our religious orthodoxy; so much that it’s once vibrant and dynamic nature has become ossified into a state of unnatural preservation, analogous to the use of formaldehyde in the preservation of fauna. Such a paralyzed object will eventually be overtaken by one of the perverse drives of humanity: the casting of Idols. Idols are immobile, unresponsive, and lifeless; they simply do not have the capabilities to “impregnate” or resurrect aspects of our existence.

Therefore, an important dimension of Dostoyevsky’s writings is the “new” playing ground it has laid out for theologians that followed him. Linguistic idols are destroyed, enabling us to direct our line of attention to new visions. We see Dostoyevsky’s underdeveloped idea of secular sacramental language engrossing one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, Paul Tillich. Tillich, saw Dostoyevsky’s polarization of a sacred and secular concept in language inclining him to develop a method of dialectics were secular and “separate” realities could inform each other and be used to find a sort of median (Christian existentialism).

On the other hand, radical theology took the Russian author’s notion of a secular reality and magnified its scope, pushing sacredness out from the theological field of vision. The result was taking Tillich’s dialects and turning them into a one-way conversation:

Western existence is now a secular one.

A secular existence is a Godless one.

Therefore, our current existence is now one without a living God.

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.

Image: Ilya Glazunov, Легенда о Великом Инквизиторе (The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor), 1985.

[1] Title: It is important to note, that although I will be focusing on Dostoyevsky’s secular tendencies it is not the position he ultimately resonates with, rather it is the revelation and the hope of the crucified God, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Therefore, I found it appropriate to subtitle this article as his “penultimate trajectory.”

[2]Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Constance Garnett & Maire Jaanus, (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), 362-363.

[3]Jack R. Sibley, “The Seeds & Substances of Secularism in Dostoyevsky or the Vital Voice of the Ethical Person,” Encounter, 62.3, 2001, 280.

[4]Gabriel Vahanian, The Death of God: The Culture of Our Post-Christian Era, (New York: George Braziller, 1961), 49.

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