The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky as a Spiritual Tool, 3 of 5
In “Rebellion,” the fourth chapter of Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” Ivan speaks to his brother, a Christian monk, about God. Ivan explains to his brother that the suffering of innocent people prevents him from believing in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and all-loving God. Even if God exists, Ivan explains, he wants no part of His Heaven because he cannot forgive the wrong done to innocent children.
Although Ivan appears to argue from a stance of accepting the existence of God and Heaven, Ivan is secretly telling his brother why he doesn’t believe in God at all. He then surreptitiously explains that without such a belief he views life as not worth caring about or preserving. Ivan is truly “rebelling” not just against God but against the existence of God.
In this one well-written chapter, Dostoevsky gives a cogent voice to feelings about God that many (if not most) humans deeply harbor. These are feelings that can cause not just depression but also suicidal aggression, as Dostoevsky also depicts. But the issue right now is not whether these feelings are right or wrong but rather whether they are acknowledged and admitted. When feelings that cause depression and aggression are kept hidden within the recesses of our subconscious then they affect us without any control. We are simply at the mercy of such emotions and don’t know why.
Ivan explains that even if he were to accept that all the suffering in the adult world is caused by previous sins (starting with the sin of eating the apple of knowledge of good and evil) that doesn’t help him to accept the suffering caused to innocent children. So even if all the pain in one’s life is a result of having caused pain to others previously (cause and effect, as he describes it) nothing atones for pain inflicted on children, especially by their own parents. Therefore if God does exist, He is imperfect and so is His happiness in His Heaven. Ivan says that he cannot respect such a God enough to receive His “salvation” into eternal happiness. In other words, Ivan doesn’t want to be “saved” into happiness by such a God because he must forget about the suffering that has happened to innocent children in order to do so. And because of the love he feels in his heart for humanity he cannot do so (“for the sake of an idea” as he describes it). Ivan, therefore, feels justified in his depression, anger and “rebellion.” Ivan, in fact, feels superior to such a God because he is unwilling to be happy out of protest to the injustice seen here and now.
How many of us, when we carefully consider Ivan’s arguments, feel as he does? I say this not to judge this position as good or bad but simply to point out that such feelings must rise to the surface of our awareness. If we harbor Ivan’s opinions and feelings on this matter, doesn’t it also follow that we share at least some of his depression, anger and rebellion? Whether or not such feelings are truly justified we must become aware of them if we are to understand what happiness in life is all about and why we are not experiencing it in every moment.
Some readers may counter that they think differently than Ivan because they are aware of Eastern spiritual principles that Ivan was ignorant of. Specifically, such readers may mention that the concept of reincarnation removes this stumbling block to accepting the possibility of a perfect, all-loving God that Ivan describes. Reincarnation explains that every innocent child that suffers is also receiving payback for the suffering that it caused in a previous lifetime.
I must ask, however, if reincarnation is a fact, why do children not remember their previous lives and if they don’t remember them do they really deserve to suffer for them? Is some degree of innocence returned to a child because it doesn’t remember what it has done to deserve being mercilessly beaten by one’s father or mother? If a child regains even a little innocence because it doesn’t remember what it has done wrong in a previous life don’t Ivan’s arguments regain validity whether or not reincarnation is a fact? As Ivan asserts, can we really forgive even the smallest transgression against someone who is even partially innocent? Do we have the right to forgive such things, Ivan wonders. Can we forgive even if we want to? Can we use the idea of reincarnation to force our heart to forgive even when it doesn’t feel justified?
Additionally, reincarnation is an idea that most of us have not actually verified by ourselves. How many of us “believe” in reincarnation but are far from certain about it? Many, I would guess. If we are not certain about reincarnation then there is some doubt. With some doubt about reincarnation Ivan’s arguments return and depression, aggression and rebellion are justified again.
Those of us who are like Ivan in that they are depressed, angry and rebellious of life itself AND they see this to be the correct response of a truly loving person have nothing further to consider here. I am not writing with these people in mind. These people have considered life and realized that they don’t want to be happy all the time. I am, rather, writing for the people who claim they want to be happy all the time but still experience moments of depression, anger and rebellion. These are the people that can most easily benefit from a careful consideration of the underlying question of God; that is, the benefit comes not in finding an answer to the question as much as in recognizing where they already stand on it.
The idea of reincarnation is weak for another reason, I believe. Even with those that profess to believe soundly in reincarnation such a “belief” is not there when they need it. In other words, even if you say, “yes, I believe in reincarnation” you still will find yourself depressed, angry or rebellious the next time your boss or neighbor treats you unfairly. You still will feel a sense of the unfairness of life if you witness a man molest a woman on a public bus and get away with it or if you see a news report of a mother who threw her one-year old baby into a garbage dumpster. In those moments you will probably forget about your “belief” in reincarnation and will be depressed, angry or rebellious. In those moments you will reject the happiness offered by “God,” out of indignation, just as Ivan does. The fact is that the mind might say “yes, I believe in reincarnation” but when push comes to shove the heart does not agree. And you can’t force the heart to feel happy when you are ignoring the underlying “ideas” that cause the heart to feel depressed, angry or rebellious. This points out an interesting connection between ideas we hold in our mind which affect the emotions of our heart. Certain ideas can force us to be unhappy even when we claim that we want to be happy and feel love. Clearing the heart of depression may require that we look closely at the ideas we hold in our mind.
At the end of the chapter Ivan’s monk brother, Alyosha, recovers his wits a bit (after being knocked over by Ivan’s argument) and asserts that God, himself, in the human form of Jesus can do all the forgiving, even for the innocent children. Alyosha asserts that all of injustice is redeemed because God, himself, was willing to suffer the worst of it. He implies that not even a child can be more innocent and undeserving of pain than God himself is and so, God’s willingness to suffer allows us to feel good again for all of life. God’s willingness to suffer restores our ability to respect and accept life as it is, in all its imperfections, and embrace the eternal happiness that is offered to us in “Heaven.” If God himself is willing to suffer indignation than certainly an innocent child should be willing as well, the argument goes. We forgive all in an attitude of celebration for God’s infinite love and compassion for us (which we “witnessed” in His suffering as a human being). That’s Alyosha’s response, in essence.
Alyosha thereby presents a strong counter-argument to Ivan’s “rebellion” but Ivan isn’t convinced. In the next chapter Ivan will counter back, explaining why the idea of the “Savior-God” doesn’t work for him. I hope you stay with me while I continue to examine Dostoevsky’s well-written words, not as much to find answers to this age-old dilemma but more to realize where we already stand on this issue and how this stance pre-determines our faith in God and level of happiness in the here and now.
Posted on August 3, 2015, in Spirituality & Religion and tagged agnosticism, anger, Atheism, faith, forgiveness, God, Heaven, innocent, Rebellion, redemption through Jesus, reincarnation, salvation, suffering. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.