Beauty Will Save the World: Metaphysical Rebellion and the Problem of Theodicy in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov

By Osborn, Ronald E. | Modern Age, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Beauty Will Save the World: Metaphysical Rebellion and the Problem of Theodicy in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov


Osborn, Ronald E., Modern Age


In his widely acclaimed 2004 book, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart offered a highly original defense of the Christian narrative in the face of its modern and postmodern cultured despisers. Christianity, he argued, cannot and should not seek to establish the plausibility or truthfulness of its central claims through rationalistic or scientific arguments, the standards of "truth" that modernist heirs of the Enlightenment continue to demand and that many believers assume they must therefore somehow supply through various modes of apologetic argumentation.

This is not to say that faith is blind or irrational or groundless (as Hart makes clear in his rigorous mustering of historical evidence to dismantle many of the claims of the so-called New Atheists in his 2009 book, Atheist Delusions). (1) But to use the tools of a purely syllogistic and inductive reasoning to bend the wills or silence the tongues or curry the favor of persons outside of belief, he suggests, would be to engage in an essentially coercive project. It would be to use the gospel's word of peace as a mask for aggression and strategy for power, just as Nietzsche declared all truth claims inevitably must be. It would be to betray the story of Christ's selfless love through tactics of epistemological closure, thus perpetuating a kind of subtle but real violence of its own.

If the Christian narrative is a narrative of peace in fact and not merely in word, Hart believes it must convince people of its truth by a means other than a politics of coercion and other than a grammar and syntax of mental compulsion. It must reconcile the world to God without participating in the "optics of the market" or empires of violence--including intellectual violence--that it seeks to overcome. The way the New Testament narrative does this in Hart's telling--the church's shameful history of violence and coercion post-Constantine not-withstanding--is through its beauty. Jesus is "a form evoking desire," and Christian thinking has an "irreducibly aesthetic character." The church "has no arguments for its faith more convincing than the form of Christ," Hart writes. Making its appeal to the eye and heart "as the only way it may 'command' assent, the church cannot separate truth from rhetoric, or from beauty." (2)

We know that the Christian evangelion, or "good news," is good news indeed, not because it presents a superior method of dialectic or a set of logical or scientific proofs, but because of the unique light that radiates from its story--the story of "a God who creates out of love, not necessity, who becomes human to suffer violence rather than impose it, who is the one condemned rather than the one who condemns," and who teaches us to see the reflected/refracted image of the divine in the weak, the lowly, and the oppressed. (3) As long as one remains dull and insensitive to the sheer beauty of this story. Hart makes clear, one will not be able to comprehend its truth, while to see the audacious loveliness of the Jesus narrative is to begin to grasp its truthfulness as well.

The aesthetics of Christian truth is, of course, a theme that is by no means original to Hart. It received perhaps its most compelling articulation in the writings of another Eastern Orthodox thinker, the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevslcy, who sought in all his major works to provide a Christian answer to the challenge of the ideologies of scientific materialism and will to power that have come to define our age. Dostoevsky also sought to provide a response to the theodicy dilemma of suffering that for many modern thinkers, particularly in a post-Holocaust world, has proved an insurmountable barrier to religious belief.

In order to grasp Dostoevsky's artistic and theopolitical vision, it is important to understand something of the intellectual times in which he lived. During the 1840s the intelligentsia in Russia, including Dostoevsky, came under the sway of French Utopian Socialism and German Idealism. …

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