On Kierkegaard and the Brothers Karamazov

As if my reading load for seminary courses in Philosophy and Ethics weren’t enough already, I decided for some reason that this summer would also be a good time to finally check Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov off my list of classic novels I should have read by now. So I downloaded the audio book and will digest it a few hours at a time as I criss-cross I-40 going to Nashville and Knoxville several times over the summer.

As I listened last night, though, a quote from one of the book’s early chapters reminded me quite a bit of the excerpt from Søren Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments which was assigned in my Philosophy of Religion class this week. The essay we read was entitled “Truth is Subjectivity”, and contains the Danish philosopher’s famous comparison between objective and subjective faith. He believed that true faith was impossible without the existence of some doubt, some “objective uncertainty” in the veracity of certain truth claims. In other words, if something can be proven objectively, faith is not required. But when we contemplate that which is transcendent, objectivity and reason can only take us so far; the “leap of faith” is the only way we can truly know God.

To a point, I agree with Kierkegaard here, but I believe that, once one comes to terms with the possibility of the existence of miracles, faith and reason can arrive at the same conclusions. Are miracles “objectively improbable”? Maybe, but in the words of Sherlock Holmes, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” For those who, like Kierkegaard, believe in the existence of the supernatural, the miraculous cannot be “impossible”, so if the evidence points to something completely improbable—say, for instance, the resurrection of Christ—then we can indeed rationally believe it to be objectively true.

Which brings me to the reader’s introduction to Alyosha, the youngest of the Karamazov brothers, who had become a monk in the Russian Orthodox Church. It seems to me that Dostoevsky is wrestling with the same issues here, and I just love the way he does it:

I fancy that Alyosha was more of a realist than anyone. Oh! no doubt, in the monastery he fully believed in miracles, but, to my thinking, miracles are never a stumbling-block to the realist. It is not miracles that dispose realists to belief. The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Even if he admits it, he admits it as a fact of nature till then unrecognised by him. Faith does not, in the realist, spring from the miracle but the miracle from faith. If the realist once believes, then he is bound by his very realism to admit the miraculous also. The Apostle Thomas said that he would not believe till he saw, but when he did see he said, “My Lord and my God!” Was it the miracle forced him to believe? Most likely not, but he believed solely because he desired to believe and possibly he fully believed in his secret heart even when he said, “I do not believe till I see.”

One comment on “On Kierkegaard and the Brothers Karamazov

  1. Did Dostoyevsky know Kierkegaard’s writings?

    I wonder about the possibility of direct influence.

    I have found no such mention anywhere in Dostoyevsky, not in the novels or diaries, so far as I’ve been able to tell.

    cambridgeforecast

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