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Journey to transcendence: Dostoevsky’s theological polyphony in Barth’s understanding of the Pauline KRISIS

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Anticipating Mikhail Bakhtin’s appreciation for the unfinalizability of Fedor Dostoevskij’s universe, prominent Protestant theologian Karl Barth celebrates the Russian novelist’s presentation of “the impenetrable ambiguity of human life” characteristic of both the ending of Dostoevsky’s novels and Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Barth’s unique reading of The Brothers Karamazov not only demonstrates the barrenness of the “theocratic dream” but also complements Bakhtin’s discussion of polyphony with an explicitly theological dimension by focusing on the dialogue between Creator and the created. Dostoevsky’s prophetic voice provides Barth with a poetic expression of the divine command that highlights the ethical dimension inherent in every theological choice.

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  1. 1.

    In his 1958 introduction to their collected correspondence (1921–1925), Barth himself acknowledges his dependence on Thurneysen’s study for the analysis of The Brothers Karamazov in his The Epistle to the Romans: “He was the one who first put me on the trail of Blumhardt and Kutter and then also of Dostoevsky, without whose discovery I would not have been able to write either the first or second draft of the Commentary on Romans” (1964: 72). I have relied on S. H. Rae’s article, which contains a good outline of the collaboration between the two theologians on Dostoevsky during Barth’s early period of writing, for my discussion of their relationship (1970: 75–77).

  2. 2.

    In other words, Barth believes that: “Jesus would not be the Christ if figures like Abraham, Jeremiah, Socrates, Grunewald, Luther, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky remained, contrasted with Him, merely figures of past history, and did not rather constitute in Him one essential unity” (1968: 117). George Pattison, discussing this same passage from Barth’s commentary in “Freedom’s dangerous dialogue: Reading Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky,” finds that: “They are, as it were, the chosen representatives of a sacred history hidden within the course of secular history but secretly judging it and pointing to its final meaning” (2001: 238).

  3. 3.

    Rae notes the significance of Grace for Barth and Dostoevsky as well:

    Barth sees God’s grace at work in the world heralding the coming of the kingdom of heaven, and his saints, like Dostoevsky’s are not the formally pious or the self-conscious martyrs, but those who have turned from man-centered striving to become the friends of God and who, in their turn, carry God’s grace and the gift of authentic freedom into the world (Rae, 1970: 80).

  4. 4.

    Thurneysen compares these two Russian authors as means of highlighting Dostoevsky’s ability to unite “in himself the whole many-sided striving of the European soul at the end of the nineteenth century” whereas Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and Lenin are merely “figures out of the works of Dostoevsky” (10–11).

  5. 5.

    Bakhtin finds this correspondence significant for Dostoevsky’s expression of his “form-shaping ideology” that informs his polyphony (1964: 97).

  6. 6.

    For a general discussion on the complex reception history of Dostoevsky’s religion, see the first chapter of Steven Cassedy’s study, Dostoevsky’s Religion (2005: 1–25).

  7. 7.

    Terras notes Rozanov’s belief in “Dostoevsky’s own incapacity for true religious feeling” as well as Nikolaj Berdjaev’s doubts over Dostoevskij’s faith in Orthodox Christianity (1981: 48).

  8. 8.

    In “The Rejection of the World: Dostoevsky, Ivanov, Camus,” Pat Simpson describes Camus’ “theory of creative rebellion” as “drawn partially from the example of Ivan Karamazov” based on “the question central to Ivan Karamazov’s poem, ‘Can one live and hold one’s ground in a permanent state of revolution?’” (1981: 102, 103).

  9. 9.

    Cited in Robert Belknap’s The Genesis of The Brothers Karamazov (1990: 127). After citing Lawrence at length, Belknap concludes: “Whether Ivan has any real greatness or not, scholars need to reckon with the enormous response he has evoked in many readers who basically agree with Lawrence” (1990: 128).

  10. 10.

    Thurneysen also concludes that Dostoevskij’s portrayal of outcasts suggests that they, rather than the pious, are closer to God: “Because men have become clever, righteous, wise, and pious without God, therefore God stands in a corner of the earth and is seen and understood only by those who have been cast out and disinherited, by those who are depraved and corrupt.”

  11. 11.

    For a discussion of the correspondence, see Rae (1970: 76).

  12. 12.

    In addition to citing this preface, Rae also quotes an early letter from August 1921 in which Barth refers to Thurneysen’s work as key to his commentary on the second section of Romans 10 (1970: 76).

  13. 13.

    A translator of Paul Natorp and well regarded by Hermann Cohen, Matvej Isaich Kagan (Bakhtin’s best friend during his Nevel years) returned to Russia in 1918 after having spent 10 years at Marbury and Berlin. Clark and Holquist relate that: “Bakhtin found especially sympathetic the work of Cohen’s last years, when that great exegete of Kant had become, in his own militantly intellectual way, a seeker after God. A line of ethical concern descended directly from Kant through Cohen to Bakhtin’s dialogism” (1984: 60).

  14. 14.

    During his tenure at Marburg (1908–1909), Cohen and Natorp “exercised a good deal of influence of Hermann and through him on the young Barth so that after Barth’s break with Marburg theology, the philosophical categories of Cohen and Natorp continued to play an important role in the earliest phase of his dialectical theology” (McCormack 1997: 42).

  15. 15.

    Clark and Holquist make this observation about Bakhtin’s poetics, but I apply it here as well to Barth’s study of Dostoevskij.

  16. 16.

    The Inquisitor’s defensive stance in The Brothers Karamazov is contrasted by Marmeladov in Crime and Punishment when he proclaims, “he—the one who pitied everyone and who understood all and everyone—will pity us; he is indivisible, he is judge” (PSS VI: 21). Diane Oenning Thompson identifies Raskol’nikov’s attentiveness to Marmeladov’s drunken sermon as the pivotal scene from which “grows the novel’s plot of a redemption eventually accomplished” (Thompson 2001: 73).

  17. 17.

    In the Epistle to the Romans (2nd edition), Barth conceives the divine–human relationship in terms of Søren Kierkegaard’s notion that God makes an absolute demand upon humankind to choose between the human sphere (esthetic and ethical) on the one hand, and the religious/divine sphere on the other. See Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or (2 vols). ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987).

  18. 18.

    The Grand Inquisitor draws upon this biblical image of the Devil tempting Christ to throw himself off the precipice and reveal himself once-and-for-all as Lord and Savior, in order to juxtapose the ambiguity of freedom with the certainty of law.

  19. 19.

    For a discussion of how the Polish witness testimony ensures Mitja’s conviction, see Elizabeth Blake’s “F.M. Dostoevskii’s Dialogue with Time of Troubles Narratives” (2001: 186–187).

  20. 20.

    Literally, “discourse about last things,” eschatology refers broadly to the realization of God’s divine plans for humanity in the coming of Christ.

  21. 21.

    Ellis Sandoz’s study on the Grand Inquisitor concludes with an analysis of the eschatological dimension of Dostoevsky’s Legend that brings to light the political consequences of Dostoevsky’s understanding of God, “for the light of the spirit must find a place at the core of political order or suffer destruction through perversion” (Sandoz, 1971: 247).


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Correspondence to Elizabeth A. Blake.

Additional information

All citations from Dostoevskij’s writings are the authors’ translations of the academic collection: F.M. Dostoevskij, Polnoe sobranie sochinenij v tridcati tomakh [Complete Collection of Works in Thirty Volumes] (Leningrad: Nauka, 1972-90), hereafter referred to with the abbreviation PSS. The authors have chosen to work from the English translations of Karl Barth’s works: All of the Church Dogmatics, translated by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1936-1977), and The Epistle to the Romans, translated from the sixth edition by Edwyn C. Hoskyns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968). It should be noted that Barth’s commentary on Romans underwent major revisions between its first and second editions, but later editions contained no substantive changes as noted in the author’s prefaces to each succeeding edition.

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Blake, E.A., Rosario, R. Journey to transcendence: Dostoevsky’s theological polyphony in Barth’s understanding of the Pauline KRISIS. Stud East Eur Thought 59, 3–20 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11212-007-9022-y

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  • Barth
  • Dostoevskij
  • Thurneysen
  • Bakhtin
  • Ivan Karamazov
  • The Grand Inquisitor
  • Paul
  • Romans