Essay / Theology

God who Writes Like Dostoevsky

English metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne (1636-1674) insisted that in spiritual matters, “the manner is always more excellent than the thing.” This has great implications for the idea of God as author.

When Kevin Vanhoozer presents God’s relationship to the world as a relation of authorship, his point is never simply that God is an author. What he’s after is what kind of author God is. Vanhoozer insists that everything depends on exactly how we construe the God-world relationship, and it is not enough to construe it as a relation of authorship.

There are authors, and then there are authors. The task of theology is to come to understand what sort of author God is. Vanhoozer surveys a wide range of options for the specific style and strategy of the divine author. But the basic answer is that God is an author like Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Here Vanhoozer takes up a literary quarrel that has become classic in modern criticism. Both Mikhael Bakhtin and George Steiner note that there is a fundamental opposition between the two great Russian novelists of the twentieth century, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Here is Steiner on the opposition between them.

Thus, even beyond their deaths, the two novelists stand in contrariety. Tolstoy, the foremost heir to the traditions of the epic, Dostoevsky, one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare; Tolstoy, the mind intoxicated with reason and fact; Dostoevsky, the contemner of rationalism, the great lover of paradox; Tolstoy, the poet of the land, of the rural setting and the pastoral mood; Dostoevsky, the arch-citizen, the master-builder of the modern metropolis in the province of language; Tolstoy, thirsting for the truth, destroying himself and those about him in excessive pursuit of it; Dostoevsky, rather against the truth than against Christ, suspicious of total understanding and on the side of mystery;… Tolstoy, like a colossus bestriding the palpable earth, evoking the realness, the tangibility, the sensible entirety of concrete experience; Dostoevsky, always on the edge of the hallucinatory, of the spectral, always vulnerable to daemonic intrusions into what might prove, in the end, to have been merely a tissue of dreams; … Tolstoy, who saw the destinies of men historically and in the stream of time; Dostoevsky, who saw them contemporaneously and in the vibrant stasis of the dramatic moment; Tolstoy, borne to his grave in the first civil burial ever held in Russia; Dostoevsky, laid to rest in the cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky monastery in St. Petersburg amid the solemn rites of the Orthodox Church; Dostoevsky, pre-eminently the man of God; Tolstoy; one of His secret challengers.

I’ve written elsewhere about how this Tolstoy-Dostevsky dichotomy is helpful for sorting out your friends. There are basically two kinds of people in the world: Tolstoyans or Dostoevskyans. But Vanhoozer goes much further, and says that there are two ways of considering God an author.

What is crucial for Vanhoozer is that their two modes of authorship suggest two different construals of the God-world relationship; even two different theisms: “Tolstoy and Dostevsky work with competing conceptions of authorship that parallel the way in which the two types of theism we examined in Part I view the God-world relation.” (p. 306)

Tolstoy has “consummate narrative artistry,” but also monologic determination by an author with absolute control over the characters. The narrative voice in Tolstoy sees everything, knows everything, invests every detail with meaning, and, reigning from on high, draws relationships among isolated incidents which no character in the story can see or comprehend. His works are gorgeous, unsurpassably rich narrations, “large-scale verbal compositions, poetic forms that provide meaningful frames for a sequence of historical and social events.” (p. 306) But if you once fall out of favor with that authorial voice, if you once notice the man behind the curtain, it is a fatal fall. There is nowhere to go to flee from his presence. “Tolstoy’s characters are merely mouthpieces for the author who uses them to express his own ideas, teach his own values, and display his own point of view.” (p. 307)

Classical theism, when it thinks of God as author, has been attracted to thinking of him on the model of Tolstoyan authorship. “Theologians, philosophers, and scientists have all made use of the analogy of authorship to explore the God-world relation though the authorship they typically have in view, for good or for ill, is the Tolstoyan variety.” (p. 307) And there are benefits to thinking this way:

The strength of the Tolstoyan model is that it upholds God’s authorial transcendence… A monologic God is answerable to no one: there is no other point of view from which to pose a question, no other voice to articulate it even if there were. (p. 309)

The major problem is not the oppressiveness of the authorial intrusion, but the way it “fails to account for the dialogical interaction of God human beings depicted in the Bible or, for that matter, the Bible’s diverse human authorial voices themselves.” (p. 309) Vanhoozer is not worried about an overly-sovereign God so much as he is worried that we risk having an inadequate read of what God has authored, and how he has authored it. He is not just thinking about how to read well, but is taking the relation of divine author to sacred text as a model for the God-world relation writ large.

In light of God’s speaking creation, covenant, and canon into being, divine authorship is an apt aid for understanding the nature of the dramatic action outside (and inside) the world of the text, and thus a helpful heuristic for grasping divine transcendence and immanence. Still, important questions about the author’s control, authority, and presence to the world of the text remain.” (p. 305)

Control, authority, and presence. That C-A-P triad is a reference to John Frame’s multi-volume theology of Lordship. Vanhoozer’s appreciative use of the C-A-P triad shows that, without repudiating a Frame-like theology of lordship, KJV is doing a theology of authorship. “Lordship as authorship” is not a bad way of understanding the whole book, which by the way is dedicated to Frame (p. xix).

But here is a Vanhoozer breakthrough, made possible by his critical abilities. Instead of Tolstoyan monological authorship, Vanhoozer suggests a kind of Dostoevskyan authorship: “a new literary genre: the polyphonic novel,” or as Vanhoozer says, a “dialogical polyphonic authorship.” (p. 311) Dostoevsky peoples his novels with “characters that speak in their own voices, not merely as mouthpieces for their author.” Zosima speaks his own point of view, which may be right or wrong; Ivan Karamazov argues the devil’s point of view so forcefully that the author seems helpless to silence him. If Dostoevsky were a director of a war movie, one gets the sense he would equip the actors with live ammunition. “What Dostoevsky projects into the world of his works is not a finished plot but unfinished voice ideas.” (p. 330)

Next: Dialogical polyphonic authorship as a model of God’s work in the world.

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