Tolstoy - Radical Christian?
In two previous blogs (here and here), and within the book Tolstoy illustrated, I claimed that Leo Tolstoy formed his worldview based on the teaching of Jesus Christ and that he was a radical Christian.But to identify Tolstoy as a radical Christian requires explanation. First however, there is no doubt that Tolstoy's worldview was based upon a very literal—and thus radical–understanding of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. Each of the three stories in Tolstoy Illustrated highlight different aspects of Christ's uncommonly iridescent teaching.
Too Dear focuses on the wrong-headedness that self-interest plays in making moral decisions. Three Questions promotes love and simplicity as the foundations of true happiness. The Empty Drum advocates non-violence as the key to peaceful coexistence. So all of these stories highlight virtues that Jesus Christ taught and lived in a very literal way and that Tolstoy totally bought into.
Nevertheless, any claim that Tolstoy was a Christian, radical or otherwise, would likely incite outrage in most Christians. For if he was, then Mohandas Gandhi was too. Both modeled their worldview on the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, but neither believed that Christ was divine. Divinely inspired, definitely. But not literally divine. This, of course, runs perfectly contrary to the belief of virtually all who call themselves Christian.
But leaving aside (at least in this blog) this preeminent Christian belief, Tolstoy would argue he was a Christian because he believed Christ's teachings and tried to live by them. He knew Christ’s teaching taken to heart and consistently acted upon in real world situations required much sacrifice, and he was sadly aware that adherents to Christian beliefs (including himself) often failed to follow the way. Yet he didn't hold believers strictly to blame for this. Instead he stressed the culpability of Christian institutions – churches, schools, universities, etc. – for their failure to illuminate Christ's uniquely fresh, other-worldly teachings, choosing instead to almost always preach that Christian believers must simply believe in Christ and adhere to age-old, morally correct behaviors to save their souls.
Nobody disputes Tolstoy’s intellect was huge. His opinions on religious matters were undergirded by eight uninterrupted years of independent scriptural study as well as a deep and wide knowledge of theological positions and church dogma. He ultimately concluded that Christian religion gradually embraced theological theories that obscured and all but obliterated Christ's teachings pertaining to the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth. He came to believe that these core teachings were so under-taught and under-practiced that Christianity lost all ability to perform the essential task of transforming the world so that humans might bear an authentic likeness to their creator.
So was Tolstoy a radical Christian? Even though I profess Jesus Christ to be God, I say that Tolstoy was Christian. As his friend and biographer Alymer Maude said about one century ago, nobody had yet disputed Tolstoy’s critiques of Christianity’s failure to change the world to correspond to the teaching of Jesus Christ. And to the best of my knowledge, nobody has disputed him to this day. Will anybody step forward to do that now?