One of the heroic characters in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov is an elder monk named Father Zosima. Zosima seems to be sort of the chief protagonist of Dostoevsky’s novel. All of the evil has has to look in the face of Zosima, the Christ-figure.
One moment in the novel struck me in a very strange way. There is a period of time in the long novel where the entire monastery is awaiting the death of Zosima. There is a strong belief among his followers that Zosima’s death will bring about miracles. What miracles, they are not sure, but they are sure that his body will not stink.
A strange thing happens when he does die. He stank horribly. Dostoevsky gives no explanation. Alyosha and the rest of the monks were disappointed with no answers.
This kind of realism is ubiquitous in The Brothers Karamazov. It is one of the reasons I have come to love reading Dostoevsky. His writing is so striking that many have speculated whether he actually had any Christian faith. I think it is hard to believe, however, that he didn’t.
It seems that he was simply a Christian realist. He made the Christian hold on to their faith and look square into the gruesome realities of this world. By far, the most disturbing chapter in the book is “The Rebellion.” Ivan, the atheist, tells his brother Alyosha, the mystic, why he does not accept God. His explanation is a long-winded description of gruesome current events, mostly focused on the suffering of children. Again, Dostoevsky gives no logical defense of this chapter. It is my understanding that he had none. He simply believed that Jesus could stand up in the face of it.
I am convinced that the church can only be helped by realism. The gospel is not mythology. It is not fantasy. It is not a story to retreat to in order to escape our present reality. It is the hope in the face of our present reality.
"Realists do not fear the results of their study." -Dostoevsky