Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Tolstoy's Shaky Premise

In The Kingdom of God is Within You, Tolstoy speaks of what he understands to be the "true meaning" of Christ's teachings, and he is very critical of those that he believes have misunderstood Christ. Included among those that misunderstood Christ, according to Tolstoy, are the earliest disciples in the New Testament.

But Tolstoy is working on a faulty foundation. What Tolstoy believes to be the "true meaning" of Christ is based on Christ's words as recorded by the disciples. Tolstoy claims scripture shows that these same disciples misunderstood Christ's teachings, and added all sorts of miraculous and supernatural material. But without those same disciples recording Christ's words, Tolstoy would not have a touchstone with which to find fault with those disciples.

It is fine if Tolstoy has a standard by which to determine which parts of the disciples' recorded writings he believes provide Christ's true teaching, and which parts are "miraculous" embellishments. It is rather frustrating, however, to read Tolstoy claiming to have the "true meaning" in his assessment, while criticizing others who "misunderstand" the text. In this way, Tolstoy disappoints me: he seems to be another person with a religious idea that uses some passages of a religious text to support what he already wants to believe, while dismissing those passages of the text that don't suit his purposes.

(But I'm in the middle of the book, so perhaps I'll have more to say later. I just had to articulate what I was finding frustrating in Tolstoy's content and tone in the book. And I'm not writing this from a religious standpoint, but an academic one: I find his argument problematic).


  1. It wouldn't be impossible for him to assert that they had misunderstood Christ. One could, for instance, tell a story about a conversation he had with someone else, and I could understand something in it that had gone directly over the teller's head--a form of dramatic irony, where the audience perceives something the storyteller does not.

    Of course, this does require him to take on faith that someone who was not competent to understand Christ was somehow competent to record his parables and sayings accurately.

    This is to say nothing about problems with translations and interpolations.

    I haven't checked out this piece by Tolstoy, but I'm interested in what he perceives to be the truth.

  2. Tolstoy bases his religious understanding of truth on the Sermon on the Mount, but he also has an idea about stages in the development of human history that seems to be mostly his own theory.

    I'm not necessarily bothered that Tolstoy would claim the disciples misunderstood Christ--it's a fine assertion. What bothers me, I think, is his tone: even as Tolstoy dismisses large parts of the same text, he accuses--in rather biting language--others of misinterpreting Christ's meaning by ignoring the passages he uses.

    But lately I've found myself incredibly sensitive to the tone people use when expressing ideas, interpretations, assessments, and tastes. I probably need to chill out about that a bit.

  3. Don't chill out; one of my pet peeves happens to be talking to people who are blindly confident--I just can't stand that.

    I'm rather extreme, but deep down I don't believe anybody really has anything figured out.