Williams on Dostoevsky’s Faith and Ivan’s Inquisitor

The church and postmodern culture blog recently posted my brief essay, “Rowan Williams on Dostoevsky’s Faith and Ivan’s Inquisitor.”  If you are interested in Dostoevsky and did not have time to read my recent multi-part series on Dostoevsky, then this short post will perhaps spark your interest.

I highly recommend Williams’ book, Language, Faith, and Fiction:  The Making of the Christian Imagination. Even if you happen to disagree with Williams on various political, social or theological issues, his book on Dostoevsky is well worth your time.  Personally, I found the book spiritually edifying and existentially challenging.  Williams’ explanation of the diabolical, the sacramental nature of reality, the social importance of the role of icons (understood both specifically and broadly), and the need for humans to recognize and embrace a spirit of solidarity–what the Russians call, “соборность” (“sobornost”)–rather than a spirit of individualism, are among the many outstanding features of the book.

The following product description and editorial review appears on the back book cover and was copied from Amazon.com.

Product Description
Rowan Williams explores the intricacies of speech, fiction, metaphor, and iconography in the works of one of literature’s most complex, and most complexly misunderstood, authors. Williams’ investigation focuses on the four major novels of Dostoevsky’s maturity (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Devils, and The Brothers Karamozov). He argues that understanding Dostoevsky’s style and goals as a writer of fiction is inseparable from understanding his religious commitments. Any reader who enters the rich and insightful world of Williams’ Dostoevsky will emerge a more thoughtful and appreciative reader for it.

Reading Dostoevsky is like looking from a high peak at several mountain ranges, some brightly lit, others dark with mist, going back farther than the eye can see. In this breathtaking book, Rowan Williams takes us on a journey through literary art, the nature of fiction, psychological depths, historical and cultural setting and allusion, and beyond all else a world of faith and doubt, of philosophy and theology not dry on the page but moist with tears of compassion. We return to Dostoevsky with new insight and wide-ranging understanding and to real life with fresh perspectives on what it means to be human, to be under threat from the demonic, and above all to sense the dark and urgent presence of the living God. –N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham

Rowan Williams here reveals the originality and daring that have made him such a controversial (and inspiring) leader of his church. The readings demonstrate an impressive grasp of current scholarly criticism of Dostoevsky. But this is not just another book about Dostoevsky. The literary interpretations are guided by an intense humanism that shares at points surprising parallels with radical leftist critiques. As author of a previous book of Sergej Bulgakov, Williams is at home in Russian philosophy, particularly the Orthodox emphasis on kenosis, the voluntary emptying out of Christ’s divine attributes during his time on earth. This aspect of Russian thought was important for Bakhtin, who serves as a kind of dialogic third partner in Williams conversation with his reader. This is a work of learning and passion, a heteroglot blend of literary, ethical, and subtle theological argument that is full of surprising local triumphs of interpretation — and that most un-academic virtue, wisdom. –Michael Holquist, Professor Emeritus of Comparative and Slavic Literature, Yale University

Rowan Williams, in this study of Dostoevsky’s characters, brings to attention the theological anthropology implicit in and generative of the narratives’ dynamics. In his hands, theology becomes not a kind of explanation or completion but both a release, an opening of the narratives to the as yet unsaid, and a clarification of the continuities between the characters and the Orthodox Christianity of the setting. Crucial to this reading of Dostoevsky is an understanding of personal identity not as a possession but as a consequence of an ongoing relational process and an interweaving of freedom with a responsibility for others. As we no longer read Dostoevsky the way we did before reading Mikhail Bakhtin, so also, having read Williams, we no longer will read either Dostoevsky or Bakhtin as we once did. –Wesley A. Kort, Professor of Religion, Duke University

2 thoughts on “Williams on Dostoevsky’s Faith and Ivan’s Inquisitor”

  1. I do not know Rowan Williams’ work but this certainly prods interest. This morning I fished out my own imaginings about Jesus and noticed to what extent they suggest the path of Alyosha and at the same time the more realistic pragmatism of Obama. It’s a long read but it may be of interest and I would welcome discussion. http://stephencrose.wordpress.com/2009/01/04/jesus-in-beyond-creed/

    Cheers, S

    PS I was also interested in your posts on music. I am one of those folks who was weaned on Harry Smith’s anthology.

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