New Article: Struggling and Searching? Lessons from Leo Tolstoy

David recently read A Confession and had some lovely reflections on Leo Tolstoy and his long journey back to faith.


I believe @vulcanlogician brought up Tolstoy in a discussion on these forums in the last year. Dillon, perhaps the next time you look in you might enjoy reading it and sharing any reaction you may have.


Great piece, @David_Buller. You accidentally hit upon a subject close to my heart. A couple of quick notes:

Tolstoy was a master of the short story, and those he wrote after his conversion are gathered in Divine and Human. From Amazon: “Suppressed in turn by the tzarist and Soviet regime, the tales contained in this book have, for the most part, never been published in English until now (2000).” I wouldn’t classify these stories among his greatest, but definitely an interesting read.

You mentioned Tolstoy’s unorthodox Christianity and his influence on Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr., but it goes even deeper than that. One of his post-conversion works was a harmonized version of the gospels called The Gospel in Brief. Like Thomas Jefferson’s famous chopped-up Bible, Tolstoy’s version left out the miracles and, as the Amazon description puts it, “makes accessible the powerful, mystical truth of Jesus’s spiritual teaching, stripped of artificial church doctrine.”

As it turns out, Tolstoy’s short harmony of the gospels had a profound influence on modern philosophy. Ludwig Wittgenstein came from one of the richest families in Europe. He rejected his family’s nominal Catholicism as a young man and began studying engineering. He soon became fascinated with logic and philosophy and moved to England to study with Bertrand Russell at Cambridge. He happened to be visiting home in Austria when WWI broke out, and he enlisted in the Austrian army. Stopping in a shop for a postcard, he wound up buying the only book they had for sale – The Gospel in Brief. He carried it with him everywhere during the war, to the point that the other soldiers called Wittgenstein “the Gospel Man.” During this time, he also wrote the one and only book published during his lifetime, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The Logical Positivists misunderstood his book to mean that nothing existed beyond what was empirically provable, but Wittgenstein actually had done the opposite and made room for religion. (An interesting article on the subject is Wittgenstein,Tolstoy and the Folly of Logical Positivism.)

When the war was over, Wittgenstein horrified his family by giving away his share of the estate. Certain that he had solved the fundamental problem of philosophy, he gave it up and became a teacher so that he could at least “teach the gospel to the children.” He was eventually persuaded that the Tractatus’ pictorial view of language was flawed, and he returned to Cambridge and philosophy in the late 1920s.

A fascinating man, a fascinating life, and possibly the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. Would any of it happened without that chance encounter with Tolstoy and The Gospel in Brief?


I love Tolstoy. And I very much enjoyed the article.


don’t critique poor David’s leaving out of content, you should have seen how much he had starting out. :rofl::rofl::rofl::rofl::rofl:

Not at all. I enjoyed the piece and learned some things. Thought the author might like to discuss Tolstoy a minute, but I eventually gave those thoughts a different form. The obligatory link:

Culture War, Inerrancy, Tolstoy, & the Gospels: A Personal Journey

While one might say that these was a connection between Gandhi and Martin L. King since King studied his use of non-violent protest and soul-force. I really do not think that there is any real connect between Tolstoy and King theologically.

Tolstoy seems to justify the stereotype the education is the enemy of Christianity. Maybe education based on Greek philosophy is, but education per se is not. .

1 Like

Can you give me an example? I’m a little rusty on my Tolstoy. More of a Dostoevsky fan, actually.

I think Tolstoy’s main problem was that he viewed the Russian Orthodox Church as allied with the state against the poor. I’m not sure he was wrong in that, but he took it to the extreme, as Tolstoy was want to do. Thoughts?

Sorry to double up, but I recently watched the PBS documentary on Reinhold Niebuhr, and I was interested to learn that his book Man and Immoral Society directly influenced MLK’s strategy of nonviolent resistance. I always check out Niebuhr stuff because of his work on original sin, which is a thing of mine (if you didn’t know). Funny, but he would never be employed by Union Theological Seminary today. He lacked a PhD. Dang!

Is there a more sympathetic character in any novel than Rodion Raskolnikov?


There are two competing places between which we spend our time: in gratitude or in entitlement.

Given those two labels, one is tempted to think of the latter only in pejorative terms as the inferior residence. And while that may be mostly true (I’m not suggesting any complementary equality between the two), it need not (must not) be entirely true all the time.

Entitlement attitude is what the west increasingly promotes in nearly all arenas: the academy, law and government, health care, news media, and one of the very sources of it all: marketers in corporate board rooms. It is the reason our health care is such a mess as will not be touched one whit by any policies (or lack of the same) from either the left or right. It is the reason why the west now lives under perpetual terror and threat of war, idiotically justifying ruinous deficit trajectories. It is the reason we can’t have nice things! …Or can’t keep them long when we do get them.

This is the secret that Tolstoy’s peasants, and indeed working classes everywhere know, but without any special recognition of it as such by them. Science at large does not touch on it, and in fact has largely been relegated into servility of the entitlement cause. It is the corporate marketeers that dictate where science shall focus its attentions, and that will increasingly be to fortify the existing trenches of addictive entitlements whether these are substances, devices, or niceties of life.

Gratitude, on the other hand, is the joyful residence of those who are not, at that moment, feeling entitled. The poor, the oppressed, often even the destitute seem to have a generous measure of it that evades nearly all the elite. In the midst of their suffering, they yet still have that inner joy of purpose that refuses to be captured, bottled, and sold by any corporate overlords, all their counterfeit attempts at its duplication notwithstanding.

As suggested, though, entitlement is not bereft of its rightful place among the virtues. It only begins to rot and decay when clung to by the already-powerful and privileged. When I can only look out to protect my own entitlement without a care for my neighbor’s and nary a care for any entitlement due those on whose backs our society wrings out its gold - that is the rot setting in. But even entitlement recognition for ourselves need not be always bad, and in fact at some base level is quite necessary as we learn that we too have rightful needs, and that those needs are met so that we can go on to help others toward the same.

The laborer knows they are due their wages; but if they receive them gratefully all the same, they are doing so realizing that ultimately, those ‘wages’ are still a gift – with due gratitude towards agency that is far above any human hierarchy, though it certainly can and often does include human agency and employers as its mediator. And such a laborer may be much closer to joy, even in the midst of need and want, than the wealthy employer is! While the employer would no doubt like all their employees to have just such a gratitude in place, they themselves will miss out on the very same blessing if they too do not live in active gratitude, both for what comes from above them as well as what they receive from the laborers, customers, and clientele in their circle of responsibility.

Science, with all its theoretical fixation on truth, can help answer a lot of questions, but as Tolstoy observed, it cannot address those that most keep us up at night. In fact it would seem that most religions, in their more distilled less institutionalized forms, give us this highly needed imperative that science simply cannot deliver and so often gets wrong when it tries. From nearly any random pulpit (nearly any religion, any denomination) we have a good chance of hearing the needed imperative: live in gratitude. And it seems to me there is no down or shadow side to that! What comes from western media and all its attendant marketing can be counted on to indoctrinate you with one message: you are entitled (or others are, and don’t you wish you were!). And all that can be counted on to be the shadow side of entitlement. It has the privileged and the powerful living in driveling fear of what might happen while the yet-to-be-indoctrinated peasantry already knows the secret: “it has already happened, and will continue to happen … thanks be to God for today!” It’s called suffering. It’s called death. It’s called life. It’s the human condition.

[Gone are the days when any leader can challenge us to think not what your country can do for you, but of what you can do for your country. And if we can’t even be troubled to think on behalf of our present neighbors, how much less are we likely to think of future generations?]


A great character! I’m partial to the “Underground Man,” who in some ways is a dry run for Rodion. The first half of Notes from the Underground is a fantastic attack on the myth of progress and the idea that people always will choose what’s in their rational self-interest. 19th century political philosophers and economists thought they could engineer a perfect society, but the Underground Man satirizes the folly of that idea. He consistently makes bad choices for no other reason than he wants to! And Dostoevsky was right. People make choices against their own self-interest every day.

We do take a great deal for granted, don’t we? Until the 20th century and the dawn of modern medicine, about 50% of live births didn’t live to 18, and when median lifespans were around 40 years, the odds were good that a child would lose one or both parents before he/she reached maturity.


Indeed! And after lives spent mostly on our butts, with atrocious eating and other habits, if healthcare can’t keep us alive into our 80s we’re prepared to sue somebody. There is no healthcare system in the world (public or private) that can successfully deal with that.

I think that Tolstoy spoke of this contrast profoundly in his Confession.


In relationship to one another I see room for entitlement. People should keep promises, honor contracts and generally deal honestly with us. But existentially I see no room for it. To live a life as a human, provided we are not too badly used by our fellow man or plagued by chronic poor health, is undeserved bounty for which we can only reasonably be grateful.


Agreed. On both counts - that there is room for entitlement too.

As @vulcanlogician wrote/quoted above, it was reading of Tolstoy’s observations about the working classes that provoked these further comparisons of mine. If I have it in my mind that you and/or society “owe me”, that is then a seedbed in my own heart for resentment as I will inevitably deem myself to have been shorted by somebody. If I have it in my mind that I am owed nothing (or even in fact am the one in debt) - then that is a seedbed for joyful work and fellowship. “Indebted to whom?” is a fair question to ask. To God, of course. But even for those who won’t believe, even just to feel indebted to those around them is still the higher road for their own soul, and (I think) will bring them closer to God.

1 Like

One of the many places this balance (gratitude / entitlement) can all get very tricky is in how we advocate for others. While I may have good recourse to confidence for favoring gratitude over entitlement for myself, the same Christian impulse might drive me to look after my neighbor’s entitlement or look after the cause of some especially some needy person being treated unfairly. While I think it appropriate to side with the oppressed in their vulnerability before a powerful oppressor, and to even cultivate a healthy measure of entitlement in the mind of the weaker party, I think we need to do this with extreme care. Once something is set straight between two parties, a lingering sense of entitlement may begin to hinder rather than help relationship.

I have a personal example of how this can begin to go awry. As a young married man driving by myself in a functional, but not new or pretty vehicle, I was stopped at a stoplight in town. An inattentive college student rear-ended me with his jeep - no injuries, and only further cosmetic damage on my already-ugly car. We both drove away from the scene after police had been summoned to take record and we had exchanged information. Now I would typically have inclined toward generosity (as people who drive older vehicles typically are) that nobody should be much put out for a fender bender. But a well-meaning (and Christian) friend of mine immediately took up my cause that I needed to hold out for the reimbursement that was my due. Influenced by that, I did demand the (to-my-mind) generous compensatory amount and firmly stood my ground despite the protestations of the young man’s father, who I believe was more eager to just get it paid for and keep insurance / driving records out of it. Now looking back, I have regrets over the way I handled that, and wish that I had stuck with my original proclivity to be more laid back about it (though my ‘proclivity’ was itself obviously a weak thing in that I still solicited - and took - my friend’s advice about it!) No relationships were at stake (that I knew of) … I did not know the young man or any of his not-from-town family; and still don’t to this day. But my own memory convicts me that I could have done better by him and shown more grace than I did. So was my well-meaning adviser who encouraged me into attending to my own rights - was he wrong to do so? Probably not - I don’t put this on him at all; it’s all on me. But had I been spiritually stronger at the time, I think I would have persisted more towards grace and resisted the well-meaning exhortation to exercise my ‘rights’.

As one can imagine this gets all the more tricky when I am speaking of family and loved ones. We are advocates for many needy others - not least our own children or any family who is in need of advocacy. And rightly so. But too often, I suggest, our good-intentions fall short in encouraging people towards grace as well. I think we would do well to remember that we are not only looking out for immediate needs of our loved ones, but also looking out for their spiritual (and eventually remembered and reflected upon) experience of the whole situation and relationships - or potential relationships involved. We should not lose sight of that.

1 Like

I think we all have such failures, especially when young and less settled in our convictions. But hopefully they serve to firm up those convictions, as seems to be the case for you. Life is probably more about becoming than it is being perfect in every moment. Attaining our humanity may not be pretty but it’s probably the best we can do.


I really do not know what you want to know. Reinhold Niebuhr was widely discussed during the King’s time so it would be surprising if he did not play a role in King’s thinking.

However it would be a serious mistake to think that King’s theology, the most effective Christian theology and American political program of our time, is based on traditional “European” White theology as most do. It is based primarily and most effectively on the theology of the African American Church.

Sadly, the Eastern Church is a puzzle to Westerners. The Church was born the east. When the Roman Empire split, the Church split too. The western part of then empire fell in the 5th century The western part did not fall until the 15th century.

The Western Church followed Augustine’s understanding of the Trinity which is the egalitarian Trinity, while the Eastern Church followed the Cappadocian understanding of the Trinity which is called the Monarchical (of the Father) Model of the Trinity. In the West all Three Persons of the Trinity are God, not just the Father, which is a common mistake that the Christians make. In the East they say that God is Three and One, but they say that the Son is born of the3 Father and the Spirit processes from the Father alone. The West following Augustine maintains that the Spirit processed from the Father and the Son, Filioque in Latin.

The other differe4nce which I believe to be related is the relation between “Church and State.” In the Eastern Empire the Emperor was clearly seen as superior to the Patriarch. In the West the Empire disappeared and the Church of Rome was min a strong position to provide unity, direction, and stability to the West, so it asserted the authority of the Church over the State(s.)

The First Person of Trinity is closely aligned with the State, while the Second Person is very closely aligned with the Church. This should tell us that Church and State need to work together for the benefit of all, and at times correct each another when one gets out of line , as humans are prone to do. Therefore it should be no surprise that the Eastern Church over emphasized the Father and the Western Church the Son.

When the Protestants broke off from the Roman Church, they brought the Holy Spirit into the mix. They saw the Spirit was the basis of the unity of the Church, not the authority of the Son or the Father. The Protestant movement saw that the Spirit through the Bible would provide the unity of the Church. When the Church overemphasizes the Holy Spirit it leads to serous problems like anarchy and inerrancy.

My view based on Augustine as that the Persons of the Trinity are all unique, but all equal as God, but we do not find that in our churches, which has led to inequalities. On serious cause of this is Western Dualism, which clearly says that entities which are one cannot be different. 3 cannot be 1, and 1 cannot be 3.
Western Dualism is based on Western philosophy, not Christian doctrine. Tertullian, an African Father of the Church, posed the question, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?.” This refers to theology and philosophy. Philosophy must not be the final judge of Theology. He was right then and he is right now.

Now the answer to the puzzle of The One And the Many is The One And The Many. The problem with Western philosophy is that it is based on Being, while Reality and God are based on Relationships. Dr. King and Black theology realized that Christianity is based on Love or the right relationship between God and humans, between humans with each other, and we can now add humans with our environment.

I have tried to provide African- American theology in my book The GOD Who RELATES with the theoretical basis which is needed to share it with everyone, but of course this is not simple. P. S. The Relational Theology of Thomas Oord is similar to mine, but it is not based on the Trinity.

1 Like

I just thought it was an interesting connection. I haven’t studied MLK’s theology or relational theology in any depth. Thanks for the quick run-down.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

This is a place for gracious dialogue about science and faith. Please read our FAQ/Guidelines before posting.