[Note: There was a combined July/August newsletter issue, so this is my September article... You might find it has a different feel, intentional on my part; however, if you mull over Tolstoy's short story, you might see Do It Yourself theology in a... Well, I hope you'll see what I mean...]
What do Thomas Jefferson and Leo Tolstoy have in common? Read on…
One early Spring morning when I was a seminary student, I was walking to class and as I came around the corner into a hallway with a couple of large potted trees/shrubs, one with a lone bright yellow bloom caught my attention (as if that was its plan). I stopped and looked at it and wondered how a tree/shrub in a pot left to its own devices on the second floor of a poorly ventilated old building could generate the kind of natural beauty that could stop me in my tracks. I considered that, perhaps, the bloom was sign or a message or something... Maybe from God? Maybe the plant itself is trying to speak the only way it knows how? Even the hapless atheist has to ponder a yellow bloom from time to time...
As I sat through my classes that day, I felt a renewed appreciation for the nearly infinite things the people of this planet believe and believe in. For some, when a belief is at odds with a tenet or dogma, the simplest remedy is to either rework (reinterpret) a teaching or create a more palatable replacement. (In the world today, science, history, politics, and especially religion function for so many as a cafeteria line—if the price is right, we get in the line and take what we want.)
In the late 1800s, the renowned Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, took issue with some facets of Russian Orthodox theology and the practices of the church; he became an outspoken thorn in the side of Tsar Nicholas II upon whom the church had bestowed near-deity status. He was quieted only by the pneumonia that took his life in 1910. Before he died, had put together his own "bible" and even had a cult-like following of morally austere pacifists ("Tolstoyans") who believed that non-violent resistance to authority was mandated by Jesus and true faith manifests itself in anarchy (contrary to what Paul tells us in Romans 13).
He may have been a religious renegade and he certainly had no use for monarchy; however, Tolstoy was an interesting character and a gifted writer. Much of his work contains a thread of piety. A great example of this is his short story Three Hermits, which I found to be an unorthodox (pun intended), but very effective conversation-starter when I was a high school Russian teacher:
“And in praying use not vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask Him.” -- Matt. vi. 7, 8.
A bishop was sailing from Archangel to the Solovetsk Monastery; and on the same vessel were a number of pilgrims on their way to visit the shrines at that place. The voyage was a smooth one. The wind favorable, and the weather fair. The pilgrims lay on deck, eating, or sat in groups talking to one another. The Bishop, too, came on deck, and as he was pacing up and down, he noticed a group of men standing near the prow and listening to a fisherman who was pointing to the sea and telling them something. The Bishop stopped, and looked in the direction in which the man was pointing. He could see nothing however, but the sea glistening in the sunshine. He drew nearer to listen, but when the man saw him, he took off his cap and was silent. The rest of the people also took off their caps, and bowed.
“Do not let me disturb you, friends,” said the Bishop. “I came to hear what this good man was saying.”
“The fisherman was telling us about the hermits,” replied one, a tradesman, rather bolder than the rest.
“What hermits?” asked the Bishop, going to the side of the vessel and seating himself on a box. “Tell me about them. I should like to hear. What were you pointing at?”
“Why, that little island you can just see over there,” answered the man, pointing to a spot ahead and a little to the right. “That is the island where the hermits live for the salvation of their souls...”
You can read the rest of the story at goo.gl/vKVTJz. (Go ahead—you’ll like it!)
In the end I decided that the one-bloomed shrub-tree, a paean to the brick-and-mortar captor that sheltered it from a disordered and fragmented world, was simply relaying the instructions of its God. We humans were made to do the same (through faith, without alterations—our theology is not DIY, but DIH… as in [God] Does It Himself ).
That’s it for this month. May the Lord bless you and keep you,
P.S. Jefferson, like Tolstoy, took what he liked from Christian doctrine and assembled his own "bible."