Total Depravity and Dostoevsky

I am nearly done with my last class in the Christian and Classical Studies program at Knox Theological Seminary. This capstone course takes a brief look at Nietzsche and spends a great deal of time with Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov. In fact the final paper pulls all of the voices we have interacted with throughout the program together, asking us to read and interpret The Brother’s K in light of the Great Conversation.

As I have been reading and studying Dostoevsky’s magnum opus I have been continually struck with how his highly developed characters all seem to be looking for self-atonement. Often through self-loathing and destruction. A seeming fixation on what theologians call “total depravity”. A theological construct that says while you are not as sinful as you could be, you are born in sin and you actually sin because you are a Sinner. This sinfulness by nature is what separates us from a holy God making us incapable of having right relationship with Him apart from His intervention, in Christ. So my problem is not with the concept of total depravity, it is what some seem to do with the discovery of their brokenness.

Could it be that an over-emphasized doctrine of total depravity could actually be detrimental to one’s faith, leading us away from Christ toward ourselves?

A continual theme of the novel is the concept of “laceration” — a soul that is torn apart and misshapen, a person who is less than whole. Each of the characters manifests proclivities of the lacerated soul (because this is a human condition) but Dostoevsky makes it clear that if a person in this condition turns away from their Creator looking inward toward themselves, or outward toward humanity, to find rescue, will ultimately only find despair.

Some might argue against Alexey fitting into this paradigm but even the “hero” of this novel seems to be seeking a kind of inward absolution through his piety in the monastery, and ultimately leaving the monastery to perform good works, in the real world, in obedience to his father, Zosima.

This brokenness that Dostoevsky describes, while not a philosophical essential to humanness, is indeed something that every post-fall human experiences. What we find in Dostoevsky (and certainly the Bible) is that what we do to find “wholeness” in our soul is paramount to finding meaning and purpose in this life.

Many people when struck with the brokenness of the world and the sin in their own lives begin, through a myriad of means, to attempt to save themselves. This human quest for self-justification, an attempt to assuage one’s existential crisis, does nothing to actually bring the wholeness we are so desperately seeking. In fact it only serves to further tear asunder our already broken soul.

While this tendency most certainly exists in the world outside of Christ. It is my belief, that it is also very much alive and well within the lives of those who have placed faith in Christ.

It seems that the Church in general and Christians in particular can become so enamored with “total depravity” (a doctrine that affirms the sinfulness of each person) that they lose sight of Christ. Putting so much of their focus on their sin and sinfulness that they forget who they are or who they could be in Christ. In the Classical tradition this is what is called, “having no comedic vision.” A woe is me mentality that echoes Eeyore more than it does the gospel.

Here the doctrine of total depravity can easily morph into the self-loathing that we observe in so many characters in the Brothers K. A hatred of self that actually drives one further into self and despair rather than toward Christ and the joy that comes with His redemption.

What I have come to observe is that this quest for finding justification (and sanctification) outside of Christ does not only exist in those who have outright rejected the gospel; it is actually quite prevalent amongst those of us who believe and preach the gospel. Causing us to return to the cave of our own depravity desperately attempting to find some kind of holiness by our own merit, wrongly believing that Christian progress, growth, and fruit bearing is something that we must attain through our works or concerted effort. Here the Church (of every stripe and flavor) has done its people a great disservice by continuing to turn people in on themselves (what Augustine called the very essence of sin) to try to find some holiness in themselves but like the characters in the Brothers K, what we find there is a soul irreparable damaged. Which, when continually focused upon (even for seeming good) can have only one of two outcomes — pride or despair. Pride that deceives us into believing that we can actually save ourselves or become holy and whole through our own efforts. Despair that can actually lead one to seek their own destruction because of their self-loathing. The only hope for the transformation that we sinners so desperately long to see is Christ. He is not only our hope for the forgiveness of sins, he is our only hope for seeing any kind of lasting change in our lives. He is in fact our holiness, and our sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30).

May our theology of total depravity, and our awareness of the brokenness of this world, and the darkness that exists in our own heart, lead us past ourselves to the One who exists outside of us, the Philosopher-King who came to do for us what we could never do for ourselves.

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5 comments

  1. I loved The Brothers Karamazov, but I think that Crime and Punishment actually deals more directly with the topic of human depravity.
    What’s really interesting is to see how Dostoyevsky differed from another Russian great: Tolstoy, and his views of depravity vs innate goodness. Tolstoy was a radical “literalist” – or at least liked to consider himself one, and he believed that people were basically good and the problem was with society more than human nature. Because of this he was a passivist who argued that there should not even be police because of Jesus’ command not to resist an evil person (Matthew 5:39). His views influenced Ghandi in his pacivism as well.
    So seeing Dostoyevsky’s views in light of how they contrasted with other popular views on human goodness of that time is interesting.

    1. Nick,

      Thank you for your thoughts. Have you done much work with the Classics? It’s one thing to read the Brothers K, it’s another to read it in light of the Great Conversation that Dostoevsky is interacting with.

  2. What’s interesting about the Brothers K is the most moral characters in the novel (Zosima, and Alexey) have the highest anthropology…the highest view of human goodness in fact. Whereas the characters in the book with the lowest moral character and the least use for God also have the lowest view of humanity…not just in terms of the imago dei but in regard to human goodness.

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