At the end of the 1870s Count Leo Tolstoy seemed to have everything. He was in the prime of his life and in excellent health. He was the owner of a hereditary title and a large, profitable estate. He was happily married with a growing brood of children. War and Peace and Anna Karenina had made him one of the most celebrated novelists in Europe.
Yet he was profoundly unhappy. He detested his great novels almost as soon as he had finished them. He felt uneasy about his title and his wealth. He felt that his life had no value and no meaning and if this was the case, what was the point of bringing children into the world?
The result of all this dissatisfaction was three years of intense, harrowing soul-searching which he describes in A Confession. He scoured the works of contemporary philosophers, scientists and religious thinkers trying to understand the meaning and purpose of life. Nothing helped him. The only conclusion he could reach was that life was pointless and absurd, and the only rational course was to kill himself.
Two things saved him. One was simply that he lacked the courage to carry out his decision. The other was that he observed that the poor peasants on his estate experienced far more hardship and suffering than he did, yet never doubted the value of their lives. The reason, he came to understand, was that unlike himself and the intellectuals of his social circle they had not abandoned their faith. This led him along the path of religious exploration and to a profound and sincere conversion which radically reshaped his life.
Tolstoy's conversion was to Christianity, but not to the conventional form of Christianity preached by the Church, whether it be the Russian Orthodox church of his time or the Catholic and Protestant churches that you could find even in Russia if you looked hard enough. He remained an uncompromising critic of the church and of the Christian creeds, seeing them as perversions of the true faith of Jesus Christ. He regarded the idea of miracles as absurd and most of the supernatural stories of the Bible as fictions. The doctrines of the Church - the formulation of the Trinity, the virgin birth, redemption from sin, the sacraments, the reverence for icons and relics, the adoration of saints - all seemed so much mumbo jumbo. Worse still, by aligning itself with the ruling classes the church had fatally compromised its mission.
So to what was he converted? In What is religion, and of what does its essence consist? he describes his faith like this:
The principles are very simple, comprehensible and uncomplicated. They are as follows: that there is a God who is the origin of everything; that there is an element of this divine origin in every person, which he can diminish or increase through his way of living; that in order for someone to increase this source he must suppress his passions and increase the love within himself; that the practical means of achieving this consist in doing to others as you would wish them to do to you.
He did not regard this understanding as exclusive to Christianity - he saw it as the true kernel of all religion - but he viewed Jesus as its highest representative. Consequently, Jesus' teachings provided the supreme guide to living the religious life. Because he had little time for Paul or the other apostles, or for the miracles or supernatural stories in the Gospels, he came to focus exclusively on Jesus' moral teachings, in particular the teaching about doing to others as we want them to do to us, not resisting evil by force, loving your enemies and so forth.
He explained this view further by talking about three stages of human religious development. These appear repeatedly and at great length in his religious writings and although they have little to recommend them as a theory of history they provide a simple, powerful tool for the moral polemic at the heart of his life and message.
In our primitive state, he says, human society and religion was focused on individual survival - every person for himself. Hence primitive religion was about protection from powerful forces and aid in the business of survival.
The second stage was the development of social consciousness. Humans began to identify not as individuals but as members of a group, and what became important was group survival. In its most primitive form this group was simply the family, but later the same principle was extended to the clan, tribe and eventually the nation-state. Religion in this condition served two purposes - building group cohesion and identity, and seeking help against outside threats and particularly enemies. This phase spawned national gods and gods of war, patron deities like the Greek Zeus or the Hebrew Yahweh who went to war on behalf of their chosen people.
The third phase, which he believed was dawning in his day and of which he believed Jesus was the origin and forerunner, is a phase in which the believer lives a life permeated by the knowledge of the presence of God in the world and within him or her self. This allegiance to God overwhelms all other allegiances - allegiance to family, to nation, to class, to any government - as the only thing of value to such a person is obedience to this God. The challenge of his day (and I'm sure he would say ours too) is to make the transition from the social to the divine conception of life.
Jesus, he said, taught this message and you can clearly see it in his moral teachings - love one another as I have loved you, do to others as you want them to do to you, whatever you do the least of these my children you do to me. Yet the first apostles, and the subsequent church leaders, failed to fully comprehend this message. Hence they tried to incorporate the Christian faith into the social conception of life. They allowed themselves to be co-opted by the rulers of their day - by Constantine and all his successors down to the present day.
In service of the social conception of life and the power of the State, the love, peace, equality and unity which Jesus intended to operate in the here and now were postponed to the next life. In this life our duty was to bear our sufferings bravely and obey our earthly rulers. The true teaching of Christ, that we should treat all humans as our brothers and sisters and equal to us, was replaced by church sanction of war overseas and persecution and imprisonment of dissenters at home. The idea that all material goods should be shared equally with our brothers and sisters was replaced by the sanctity of property which justified huge social inequalities.
Yet for Tolstoy the germ of true Christianity could not be eliminated, because it was present in the very scriptures the Church endorsed and regarded as sacred. Hence they were there ready for anyone who wanted to discover them.
The result was that Tolstoy's Christian faith was theologically very simple, completely grounded in the present and deeply radical. His two particular concerns, as a Russian at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, were with poverty and war. In The Kingdom of God is Within You he launches a passionate critique of the nation states of Europe. The nations were militarising at a rapid rate with conscription almost universal, and wars becoming more frequent. It was obvious to Tolstoy that war was inevitable. The level of inequality was also rising and revolutionary movements were brewing.
Tolstoy had little sympathy with the Communists who were working their way towards revolution, because he thought the problem was much more profound. Revolutionaries wanted to change the State by taking it over. For Tolstoy this was an impossibility.
Any revolutionary who seized power would inevitably be even worse than those they replaced, and would proceed to do the same things as their predecessors under a different name. I doubt it would have been any comfort to him that the Bolsheviks so comprehensively proved him right.
For Tolstoy, all government was equally illegitimate. No true Christian could support or participate in acts of violence against other humans, either those of other nations dubbed enemies, or those of their own nation dubbed criminals. Yet this violence, or the threat thereof, is the ultimate basis for all government. All the true Christian can do is refuse to cooperate. He or she can refuse to accept conscription, and will do so even on pain of severe punishment, because it is unthinkable to shoot fellow human beings. He or she will refuse to call out the law, because it is unthinkable to collaborate in the jailing or hanging of another human, even if that human has harmed or wronged them. The true Christian will refuse to pay taxes, knowing that these are used to fund war and repression. "Love your enemies," says Jesus, "and pray for those who persecute you."
Tolstoy was not a mere dilettante, preaching a radical gospel from the safe comfort of his wealth and privilege. He tried hard to practice what he preached, although his life circumstances placed some limits on him. He was past the age of conscription, and his wife and children did not agree with his views. Hence while he renounced his wealth and property he did so by making it over to his wife. His writings he declared public property, refusing any further royalties. He devoted the latter years of his life to writing copious religious tracts and doing acts of charity, establishing and teaching in peasant schools, supporting economic development initiatives among the peasants on his estate, and preaching pacifism and disarmament to a wide audience.
His religious writings are far less read now than his great novels, although many of them are still in print. Yet in his day they were hugely influential and widely read. Even though most of his later writings were barred from publication in Russia they circulated widely, either via editions imported from overseas (either in Russian or in translation) or manuscript copies circulated surreptitiously. Absurdly, tracts and articles were published refuting his views, even though they were not supposed to be available to refutation. He had a devoted following across Europe, with groups of people in Russia and elsewhere founding religious communities based on the principles he advocated. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King were both admirers.
What are we to make of Tolstoy? His anthropological theories are laughable, his theology heretical, his social theory idealistic and profoundly impractical. Yet for all that, he's right. We, the church, in the name of our theology, have profoundly compromised the plain and simple moral teachings of Jesus. We have acted as if they don't apply to us, as if they are an impossible ideal. Yet Jesus didn't act like that. He was prepared to die rather than betray his own mission. He asks us to take up our cross and follow him, but we refuse because we are afraid.
I think the best way to understand Tolstoy is through the lens of what Merold Westphal calls the Ethic of Suspicion. In discussing Freud, Marx and Nietzsche, Westphal urges Christians to forebear from arguing with them and instead to listen carefully to their critique, because much of it turns out to be true. These atheists can lead us to repentance and to rediscovering our true calling. Tolstoy is the same. His calling out of the corruption of the church is just as true in our day as in his. His call to profound non-violence and to regard all humans equally as our brothers and sisters is as true, and as urgent, now as it was then. His call to live a life wholly guided by our awareness of the presence of God in our world, and in us, is as relevant today as it ever was. Beside this, his heresies and intellectual mistakes are mere details.