"Battlefield of Beauty" (contra Solzhenitsyn)

Not open for further replies.

Jerusalem Blade

Puritan Board Post-Graduate

Beauty is not only a terrible thing, it is also a mysterious thing. There God and
the Devil strive for the mastery, and the battleground is the heart of man.

– Dmitri Karamazov, in The Brothers Karamozov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky​

In the passage this quote is from (Part One, Book III, Chapter 3) Dostoevsky holds forth two ideals of beauty, “the ideal of the Madonna and…the ideal of Sodom,” as though these were the two combatants for the hearts of men on the battlefield of beauty. I hear an echo of this in Solzhenitsyn, where he opposes a secular humanism to religion — namely the Russian Orthodox, although he has strong affinity with Roman Catholicism — as though the beauty of “religion” could stand against “the beauty of Sodom”! This beauty of Sodom, for Dostoevsky, is not just raw sensual pleasure, but that love — or desire — which is but human, typified in his story by the lovely and unscrupulous Grushenka. He does not refer to the dark lusts we reflexively think of, but to the well of earthly beauty and passionate love our longing hearts drink deeply from in lieu of a better love. Dostoevsky thinks to distill this matter of beauty to its essence in comparing Sodom against the Virgin. She to whom the angel said, “Blessed art thou among women,” and in whose womb God the Son was conceived — according to His flesh — by the agency of the Holy Spirit, she whose tender and holy heart cared for the young Lord all His youth, why has she been elevated to the pinnacle that is her Son’s place?

It is not fitting to contrast the world’s cornucopia of sensual joys and beauties with the chaste young woman, “the handmaid of the Lord,” not fair to the “blessed mother” to compare her in this way. She — notwithstanding Rome and Byzantium — is not the well to quench the thirst of the heart. She herself drinks from the well of the better love.

Fit to stand against the beauty of Sodom is her Son, the young King, He who is so glorious in majesty the angels shield their eyes. As He leads His people into the fray against the powers of darkness — they having learned that the “jaws of death” are sometimes the bite of exquisite pleasure — they turn from the allurement of Sodom’s fair beauties to gaze, if but fleetingly, upon the smiling face of Him who flung forth the billions of galaxies,(1) and the Creator of all this earth’s pleasures; His smiling approval is a beauty that satisfies the heart and steels the nerves; men and women both will walk through fire for His love.

How is it then, that great souls can err so greatly? Solzhenitsyn shows some of his thinking in this statement from an address to the International Academy of Philosophy in 1993,

Of course, one cannot declare that only my faith is correct and all the other faiths are not. Of course God is endlessly multi-dimensional so every religion that exists on earth represents some face, some side of God. One must not have any negative attitude to any religion but nonetheless the depth of understanding God and the depth of applying God’s commandments is different in different religions. In this sense we have to admit that Protestantism has brought everything down only to faith. Calvinism says that nothing depends on man, that faith is already predetermined, and also in its sharp protest against Catholicism, Protestantism rushed to discard together with ritual all the mysterious, the mythical and mystical aspects of the faith. In that sense it has impoverished religion.(2)​

This reminds me of another saying; in my files I have a quote from Christianity Today (April 24, 1995; p. 41),

Dosova commended [Billy] Graham for his preaching. “But this simple Western style is not enough for Russians,” she said. “For Russians, the message must be complex, so the individual not only worships but experiences the message. Westerners preach in a rational, logical style, but the Russian soul understands tears and mysticism.”​

As a poet and writer I can relate to Dosova’s sentiment. Is it possible to so present the gospel that the complexity of intertwined human destinies, of the ways of our hearts, of the paths on which salvation finds and keeps us, and of Him who orders all these things, may be exposed, so that the sight of this provide-ence draws the soul, arrests the soul and leaves it panting after this ravishing and mysterious One who knows the labyrinths of our beings and ways, illuminating their dark corridors with wisdom and love, and drawing us to Himself? A preacher I love has said, “God not a one- or two-dimensional Being, although He is often caricatured to look like that; in truth, His character is profoundly complex.”

What I want to show is that the “religious” imagination — however rich — is what is “two-dimensional” compared to the actual experience of God, and thus it is unfair to compare the beauty of it to the world’s beauties, as though it, or even the beloved Virgin, could represent the glory of God Himself.

I do not want to comment here on Solzhenitsyn’s views on other religions, although I hope he is not saying that “all paths lead to God, in greater or lesser degree;” as then I would have to withstand that view properly. What I do wish to remark on is his view that religion — with all the embellishments he lists — is far greater than faith alone, even though he now laments the turning of his countrymen away from “Russia’s religion” and to Dostoevsky’s Sodom (spiritually supplied in abundance by the decadent West, I am sad to say). How can so great a heart miss the point that it is not faith per se — faith itself — we cleave so to, that this is but the way by which we apprehend and hold onto Him who is the desire of our hearts, who satisfies us as the world cannot? It is trust in His word — our Scripture — by which we draw near to Him; this is our faith; it is the trust in Himself He has planted in our hearts as a gift. He has magnified His living Word above all His name!(3)

And such communion with Him, is this not the essence of what is called by some “mysticism”? Union with Christ, and in Him one with the Father — resulting in intimate fellowship with God — this is the goal the mystics of the ages sought. The Protestants — yes, and the pure Calvinists especially — know this well. I call it a robust mysticism, after the manner of David in the Psalms, or Paul in his letters.

Sometimes the traditions — and even the liturgies — of men become corrupt or archaic, and the beauties of religious music, architecture, and apparel deeply stir the senses but leave the heart and its volition untouched, so that gangsters are deeply moved, even to weeping, yet do not throw away their guns, drugs, and bloodied money, cleaving in remorse to the Savior for mercy and eternal life, and lesser sinners likewise do not repent, they just become religious over hearts hardened to God and neighbor. God’s word, on the other hand, goes to the deeps — the Spirit of God Himself speaking to the sinner in that living word — and the sinner is hardened or renewed, hates or loves, according to the mysterious will of God.

When Solzhenitsyn states, “Calvinism says that nothing depends on man, that faith is already predetermined,” it appears he objects on the grounds it will “discard…the mysterious, the mythical and mystical aspects of the faith” by putting the locus of salvation in God’s hands instead of ours. In supposedly making salvation a building on the foundation of human free will, he would disdain a house built otherwise. Nicholas Berdyaev, in his little volume, Dostoevsky (Living Age Books – Meridian, 1968), shows how Dostoevsky also was greatly wrought upon over the matter of human freedom. In Letters from the Underground, Dostoevsky’s hero says of a human being,

All he needs is an independent will, whatever it may cost him and wherever it may lead him….In only one single case does man consciously and deliberately want something absurd, and that is the silliest thing of all, namely, to have the right to want the absurd and not be bound by the necessity of wanting only what is reasonable….for at all events it will have safeguarded our dearest and most essential possession—our personality and individuality….If you say that everything, chaos, darkness, anathema, can be reduced to mathematical formulae, that it is possible to anticipate all things and keep them under the sway of reason by means of an arithmetical calculation, then man will go insane on purpose so as to have no judgment and to behave as he likes. I believe this because it appears that man’s whole business is to prove to himself that he is a man and not a cog-wheel. [Italics Berdyaev’s] (pages 52, 53)​

Without entering fully into this discussion on freedom of the will, I would like to aver a point of importance to me. Without the sovereign arrest of my plunge into eternal destruction by Christ, my freedom consisted of choosing which pictures would decorate my house as it was being swept in the river of time over the falls of death and into the abyss. I was shackled and bound by the spiritual deadness of my human nature and rendered incapable of making even the slightest move toward God on my own to seek escape from destruction. From a conversation with a friend on this subject,

We must consider the nature of the free will of the creature we are speaking of. With the unregenerate man, his freedom is constrained only by the nature of his heart; it is free to act according to his moral and spiritual qualities. He is free, but he cannot — by nature — go beyond his own limits. He is dead to the spiritual life of God, and cannot choose anything but what accords with an evil heart. He has free will — the free will of a sinner antagonistic to God. The only thing that will change him is a new life and heart given in regeneration. I do not deny the free will of humans at all. But the range of choice is similar to your being committed to jail: you could choose freely within the precincts of the lock-up, never beyond it. Unless, of course, the president (or governor) issued you a pardon.​

So Solzhenitsyn’s disparaging dismissal, “Calvinism says that nothing depends on man, that faith is already predetermined,” misses the very point that saves my life. It is not faith that is predetermined, it is a love that sought me out in the abyss of eternity, engendering — albeit to be realized in the future — a responsive love in me, thus rescuing me from the freedom to inescapably go into eternal torment. And to say there is no mystery in this! On the one hand there is a love that knew me — and willed to secure me — ever before I existed, and on the other we have the startling saying of Jesus,

For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved. He that believeth on Him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.(4)​

This saying clearly presents the responsibility of humans, and how they act by what they love or hate. Is there not an unfathomable depth here? And the depth does not stop with man, and his love, but with God, and His, and ultimately one cannot plumb it. I kept the saying of Dostoevsky’s “Underground man” in my heart for over thirty years, as I went through my own passage in the archetypal heartlands of humanity, and it lightened my way, until a greater light brought the clarity I now have. Perhaps this corresponds to what Berdyaev calls the two sorts of freedom Dostoevsky explored, the initial, and the final — the freedom to choose the truth, and freedom in the truth. I only know that regarding the initial, I gained that freedom solely in responding to an irresistible love. Is that a contradiction? Or a mystery? Perhaps a gist from another conversation can clarify:

When [your friend] says, addressing something that passed earlier between you, “the concern you expressed in your e-mail about the idea that God might compel someone to be saved, because that would be a sign of weakness in God,” I would elucidate further by urging a more detailed examination of the word compel. It can be used in many different senses: “I was compelled by her beauty...”, “He was compelled by the moral force of her argument...”, “The majesty of his person and the quality of his love compelled me to follow him...”, “I was compelled by my conscience to...” and so on. It may be a quality that draws, moves, and even drives the affections, the mind, and/or the conscience by outstanding virtues and not by mere and base force. The sense I am referring to — and the sense in which God compels someone to come to Him and thus experience salvation — is not a compelling which violates the will of the person, but wins it over; it is a compelling by virtue of the ravishing excellence and profundity of His love which kindles in (say) my heart a responding love, and desire to be joined to Him. The “forcing” that results from such passionate love is not to be likened to that of coercion. So do not be offended by the word, please.​

I equate irresistible and compel to be the same quality (as used here), but seen from different vantages, objectively and subjectively: He was irresistible and I was compelled. Sometimes a person may be so winsome they capture our hearts. We know this humanly speaking, so why may love not enter into the issue of the freedom or bondage of the will? Suffice all this to say that Solzhenitsyn’s dismissal of Calvinism on the grounds it impoverishes religion….well, “religion” is impoverished compared to the robust mysticism of that faith which allows intimate fellowship with the divine Friend!

Contra Solzhenitsyn again, plenty depends on man, such as obedience, creativity, self-sacrificial love, loyalty, all that is involved in being human in the kingdom of God. All that we may do as sub-creators — to use Tolkien’s term — depends on us!

Are we ordained from eternity “unto [specific] good works”(5) thus making our creations or vocations mechanically? No, we are given talents — skills — with passions and loves to propel them into actuality, even as an artist pursues his or her craft with joy, or a mother devotes herself to the nurture and upbringing of her children with delight. The children of God learn — after Paul — to “labor, striving according to His working, which worketh in [us] mightily.”(6) That is, we discern what God is doing in and through our lives, and we co-operate with Him as intelligent children. To labor thus in resurrection power, having the energy which comes from being in perfect rest, and the fullness of heart which comes from being perfectly loved, both of which are part of our present inheritance in Christ, this is abundant life, with freedom of the will found in loving our God, and choosing to do His will.

What impoverishes man — and what impoverishes the Gospel of Christ in particular — is the absence of that preaching or teaching which declares His marvelous and abundant provision for the wretched characters we are. When I say provision I mean, among other things, the gift of the righteousness He bestows upon — imputes to! — the poor young saint struggling (sometimes unsuccessfully) against his or her ungodly passions and desires. The gracious, undeserved, stability the tempest-torn soul knows in this family of the heavenly Father, where he or she will not be cast away despite repeated failure, engenders a gratitude, built on the security of a steadfast love, that bonds the soul to God with cords of joyous, repentant, adoring, and grateful love. The sufferings of Christ as He took the place of His people under the poured-out fury of outraged Justice from the Father — utterly exhausting the punishment due us for our sins — bespeaks a wealth of grace proffered us, and along with the moral perfection of His obedience to God’s law imputed to us, why, we stand now before the holy Godhead robed in the righteousness and purity of the Son, nothing between us and the Love of Heaven! This is riches!

This preaching of the opened floodgates of God’s choicest treasures given in Christ to the lowest of His struggling saints may impoverish “religion,” as Solzhenitsyn terms it, but it is the making rich of all who seek Him, and is the antidote to the glory of earthly pleasures. Russia could use a little of this, to offset the banes of its religion and modernity, or rather, post-modernity!

Let us look again at this quote of Dostoevsky’s;

“Beauty is not only a terrible thing, it is also a mysterious thing. There God and the Devil strive for the mastery, and the battleground is the heart of man.”

Might we not aptly typify Dostoevsky’s “Sodom” by the figure of Aphrodite? (The accoutrements of man’s religions I would include in the beauties of the world.) And here the battle is not between her and the Virgin, it is between Aphrodite and Jesus the Christ. The antidote to her ravishing beauty is the revelation of His saving love to a world about to go over the roaring falls of time into the seething maw of Thanatos while embraced in the arms of her pleasure (underneath her guise, is she not the archetypal hag, the monstrosity whose gaze turns hearts to stone?), and will not this love of Christ the Savior capture the hearts of those who love the Light that has come into the world, and win them into the safety of His heart, them gladly willing it to be so?

The preacher I mentioned earlier, Tim Keller, has another saying, “The essence of beauty is relationship.” (Consider, what avails great beauty without love, but a torture akin to that of Tantalus?) To be in the love of God — to be passionately and steadfastly loved by Him, and loving Him in return — is the rarest beauty there is. The entire world lies under the sway of a counterfeit beauty — a hidden stinger of death in her kiss — and the lifting up the genuine beauty of a love which has abolished death for all who will come and bow the knee to the young and glorious Lord of eternity, this beauty devastates all contenders on the battlefield, exposing them as tawdry playthings of dwindling Time. The Scripture says to the thirsting soul, Whosoever will, let him come and freely drink the living waters of His love! (7) And He assures, “him [or her] that comes to Me, I will in no wise cast out.”(8)


(1) From, Starlight and Time: Solving the Puzzle of Distant Starlight in a Young Universe, by D. Russell Humphreys, Ph.D. (Master Books, 1994). “There are about 100 billion galaxies within the viewing range of our best telescopes.” (Page 9.)
(2) Cited in, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul In Exile, by Joseph Pearce (Baker Books, 2001), p. 302.
(3) Psalm 138:2
(4) John 3:17-21
(5) Ephesians 2:10
(6) Colossians 1:29
(7) Revelation 22:17
(8) John 6:37
Not open for further replies.