It’s just fiction, says Archbishop

Church leader sets aside the writer’s theology in favour of his imaginings, says Robin Feuer Miller

November 13, 2008

Rowan Williams’ fascinating book intermittently achieves what the best literary criticism strives for – smart readings of challenging works that simultaneously find ways to shed light on some urgent problems of our time. In Williams’ case the starting points are, first, the current rash of books hostile to religion and, secondly, the affirmation of the presence of metaphor and imagination in all systems of meaning, whether scientific or religious.

“How”, he asks, “shall we move the cultural discussion on from a situation in which religious perspectives are simply assumed to be bad descriptions of what can be better talked about in simpler terms?” This is, of course, a question about religion, but it is also a question, ultimately, about language and discourse, for Williams asks us to consider “what it is that the language of a particular religious tradition allows its believers to see”. The discipline of trying to see, to understand, is common to religion, philosophy and science.

Readers will, and should, be inclined to take Williams seriously. After all, he is the Archbishop of Canterbury, and at the same time a forceful spokesperson – as effective in this regard as any scientist, and more persuasive than many – against the teaching of creationism in our schools. The recent scuffle over the Church of England’s apology to Darwin, scoffed at by some and welcomed by others, highlights Williams’ conviction (shared by Dostoevsky) that the pursuit of scientific knowledge does not conflict with religious thought.

Dostoevsky’s language – his metaphors and words – offers Williams an arena for the contemporary cultural conversation he seeks, for he finds that “terrorism, child abuse, absent fathers and the fragmentation of the family, the secularisation and sexualisation of culture, the future of liberal democracy, the clash of cultures and the nature of national identity” – that is, most of “the anxieties that we think of as being quintessentially features of the early 21st century” – are omnipresent in Dostoevsky’s work. He is keenly attuned to the ways in which Dostoevsky’s novels leave answers to the questions they raise “painfully and shockingly open” while at the same time “unashamedly” pressing us to see the world in another light, “the light” – as Williams interprets it – of “faith”.

Reading this last bit, I felt uncomfortable. Over the past 20 years, following the evaporation of the Soviet Union, a subtle tendency has developed within the small teapot of Dostoevsky studies to read Dostoevsky more as a religious figure and pillar of orthodoxy rather than as a literary artist. Some, both in Russia and the West, have even gone so far as to assume that non-Christian readers cannot fully appreciate Dostoevsky’s writings. Of course it would not be a surprise to find Archbishop Williams finding a comfortable niche within that religio-critical camp. But the surprise is that he does not: Williams, despite his stated aim of finding in Dostoevsky an illuminating religious voice for our time, takes the writer whole.

Moreover, his Dostoevsky is above all a practitioner of the art of fiction – not one who puts forth a set of theological arguments about the existence of God, but instead a writer who has painted a “fictional picture of what faith and the lack of it will look like in the political and social world of his day”. “The presence of order” (by which Williams means a religious order) “is visible, in verbal argument and in the lives of certain ‘iconic’ characters, but the authority of such presence, its capacity to establish itself as final or decisive for the characters in the fiction, is something which the novelist strictly as novelist will not settle for us by an obvious strategy of closure in the narrative.” Williams wisely shifts the onus of this work on to the reader.

The seven chapters of Williams’ book range over Dostoevsky’s canon from the 1860s, after his return from Siberian prison and exile, until his death. The first chapter, “Christ against the Truth”, may be hard going for those readers not already familiar with Dostoevsky’s work. Williams is at pains to explain what Dostoevsky meant in an often-quoted letter by “the possibility of having to opt for the Christ who is ‘outside the truth’”. This chapter, and to a lesser degree the subsequent chapters, ranges between different characters and novels without sufficiently putting them into context. Nevertheless, he posits an exciting connection between this idea of a Christ who is outside the truth and the “entire rationale” for fiction itself.

In the chapter “Devils: Being toward Death”, Williams alludes, in passing, to Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism, labelling the saintly Alyosha’s prejudice “as poisonously and unpardonably” slanted as his creator’s. Today’s readers could have benefited from a deeper engagement from Williams on this subject. His analysis of Lise Khokhlakova’s terror and hatred of her body, however, is clearly relevant to the present.

In subsequent chapters, Williams goes on to embrace a deeply Christian version of Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of dialogism in Dostoevsky, finding that God’s aim is speech – “the dialogic speech by which we shape each other”. At this point (and at others, for example, as when he suggests that “when the other is not just my other, there is a possibility of renewal and change”), Williams might have found it relevant to take stock of the important philosophical writings of Vyacheslav Ivanov on Dostoevsky.

Most valuable for me was the author’s thoughtful effort to synthesise the problem of God’s foreknowledge with ideas about timelessness, time and free will – components that for many readers of Dostoevsky remain unreconciled with each other. Unfortunately, however, despite its rich suggestiveness, the concluding chapter is frequently confusing and difficult to parse, although readers can welcome Williams’ view that Dostoevsky continues to raise far more questions than he answers. “A constant theme in these pages has been the complexity and delicacy of creating a fiction that both clearly speaks the truth and yet provides the material on which a refusal or refutation can be based.” Williams’ ending thus returns fruitfully to his beginning, where on page one he had described “the unresolved tension in the novels”.

Dostoevsky: Language, Faith

By Rowan Williams
Continuum
268pp, £16.99
ISBN 9781847064257
Published 20 September 2008

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