the archbishop’s dostoevsky


Fyodor Dostoevsky’s views on religion are notoriously hard to pin down with confidence. If you collected up the criticism devoted to Tolstoy, there could be no doubt about what he believed at any stage of his journey. Yet in the history of Dostoevsky criticism we find, for example, Henry Miller reading Dostoevsky as a great social revolutionary, whereas others have seen him as a diehard conservative. Rowan Williams, in his latest book, quotes (and rebuts) William Hamilton, who sought to enlist Dostoevsky as a forerunner of “Death of God” theology; Georges Florovsky, who saw Dostoevsky as an exemplar of Russian Orthodoxy; Malcolm Jones, who has linked him to “post-atheism” in contemporary Russia, and judged him to exemplify the workings of “minimal religion”. Clearly, all these contradictory readings cannot be right. Or can they? Is that precisely the nature of the difficulty?

We need a guide who combines the gifts of a literary critic and a trained theologian to work out how far the novels of Dostoevsky can be used as vehicles for such explorations. We also need a guide who is deeply versed in the ethos and spiritual traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church to place Dostoevsky, and the tormented exchanges of his characters, within some intelligible historical framework. Luckily, the Archbishop of Canterbury combines all these qualities, and more.

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