If you’re familiar with Leo Tolstoy, chances are it’s in the context of him being one of the greatest Russian novelists rather than as a Christian writer. He published his two best-known works in the mid-to-late 19th century: War and Peace in 1869 and Anna Karenina in 1878. It was after finishing Anna Karenina early in 1877, and before resuming his literary work in 1885, that he devoted himself to a close study of faith (reference: Aylmer Maude’s introduction to A Confession, The Gospel in Brief, What I Believe, printed by Oxford University Press).
Tolstoy’s essay titled A Confession was mostly written in 1879 and was first circulated in Russia (with a short additional note from the author) in 1882 despite efforts to suppress its publication. In this essay, Tolstoy recounts his own loss of faith, the years of his life spent in dissipation among other “learned and liberal” people, and finally his disillusionment with that sort of life. He describes himself as coming to a seemingly inescapable realization that life is meaningless and that he ought to kill himself. This was a time of mental agony for him. Tolstoy was a highly successful and respected author, with a wife and children whom he loved, yet he had to hide ropes and guns lest he use them against himself.
As he recalls his reasoning in those days, Tolstoy talks about asking questions such as, “What am I with my desires?” and “Why do I live?” As a well-educated man, he naturally turned to science and reason for answers. Yet there, he found that people aren’t so much interested in answering these questions as they are in studying and observing the world. What he found from science indicated that everything happened by chance and you must understand “infinite complexity” and “the laws of those mutations of form” before you could hope to understand why you’re alive. Then Tolstoy turned to philosophy, where he found that philosophers had been asking his same questions for thousands of years. Yet they didn’t have an answer which satisfied him either–they just gave back “the same question, only in a complex form” (Section V).
People in the Bible also asked big questions, and we’re still doing that today as well. The questioner from the Bible whom Tolstoy focused on in his writings was Solomon, and he quotes extensively from Ecclesiastes (which I’ve written about in “Crash Course in Ecclesiastes”). Other Bible people who asked big questions include Job and his three friends. And while Solomon and Job are the first people who come to mind as wrestling with big questions, other questions like “If it is like this, why do I live?” (Gen. 25:22), “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1), and “Is there unrighteousness with God?” (Rom. 3:5; 9:14) fill the pages of the Bible. We serve a God who invites us to ask big, difficult, and troubling questions and then come to Him for answers.
It’s fitting, then, that Tolstoy found the most satisfying answers for his big questions when he turned to faith. He realizes that just because he’d decided that his life was not meaningful did not mean all life was without meaning. As he looked around him, he realized that people had been acting as if life were meaningful for thousands of years. Perhaps they hadn’t been wrong. Perhaps they–and the people alive now who saw value in living–knew something that he’d missed. And so Tolstoy began seeking answers among those who believe that life is worth living in spite of the hardships, namely, among people of faith. He was not impressed by those Christians among his wealthy, highly educated acquaintances because most professed faith but did not live it out, but Tolstoy did find something to admire in the simple working people. Those people lived with faith that deeply affected their lives and which answered their big questions.
At this point, Tolstoy describes the highly educated and intelligent people who reject God as those who “have decided that the master is stupid or does not exist, and that we are wise, only we feel that we are quite useless and that we must somehow do away with ourselves” (Section XI). These sorts of people are so impressed with themselves that they’ve missed what gives life meaning. He also says, “Were it not so terrible it would be ludicrous with what pride and self-satisfaction we, like children, pull the watch to pieces, take out the spring, make a toy of it, and are then surprised that the watch does not go” (Section IX). It should be no surprise that if we try to take out God and faith–which make life worth living and reveal the meaning of existence– we’ll feel as if life is worthless and meaningless. Tolstoy found this born out in his own experiences: “I need only be aware of God to live; I need only forget Him, or disbelieve Him, and I died” (Section XII).
A Confession is a fascinating read. Tolstoy speaks frankly about terribly difficult subjects, including his struggles with suicidal thoughts and with finding answers to life’s most important questions. He also touches on his conflicts with church dogma (in this case the doctrines of the Russian Orthodox church), which I understand he develops more fully in writings that I haven’t yet read. In a way that reminds me a little of C.S. Lewis, Tolstoy left his childhood Christian faith and then later came back as a more mature and intelligent adult, concluding that God is the only thing which can give life meaning.
So many people in the modern world like to set up “faith” and “reason” as things that are opposed. I love reading about highly intelligent people like Lewis and Tolstoy who come to the conclusion that faith in God is the only reasonable answer to life’s big questions. It helps encourage me that a life of faith is not a life that’s opposed to reason, logic, and intelligence–that, in fact, the most reasonable use of our intelligence leads to the conclusion that faith in God is right and good.
Featured image by Dariusz Sankowski from Pixabay