Leo Tolstoy’s What I Believe

Over spring break, I also read Leo Tolstoy’s What I Believe. In this book, he relates his personal journey from atheism to his version of Christianity. Earlier in his life, he had no use for religion. During these years he wrote his novels and other famous works. But then, finding something lacking in himself, he turned to the church and began reading the Gospels. Soon, however, he noticed that the church did not follow the words of Christ. In Tolstoy’s view, the church was entrenched in the sacraments and rituals, but neglected to follow the command “do not resist evil.”

It was this command which Tolstoy believed was the true essence of Jesus’s teaching. Everything in his interpretation revolved around this command. Thus, Tolstoy’s favorite (and in some ways only) passage to interpret from was the sermon on the mount. Like later liberals, he argued for the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God. Like anabaptists, he argued for complete pacifism and the renunciation of oaths to the state. Like conservatives, he believed that Jesus was God.

But then, the weirdness crept in. For about half of the book, his exegesis was ok and, in some places, excellent. But then, he abandoned all that for his ideas which he seemed to draw from Buddhism. He first denied that the resurrection would be corporeal and individual. Instead, every Christian would be raised and be united into God—the One. All would become one in him. He also absolutely denied original sin (in any form) and argued that man was basically good. He also believed that if all men just tried to live out the sermon on the mount (as he interpreted it) then the whole world would be at peace. Then the kingdom of God would come.

Tolstoy was a weird mix of theologies. So, in one since, his claim to have come up with a new theology was right. Well, to be more precise, he said he found the theology that the church had lost. His views, however, were more of a hodgepodge of other sects rather than just his own. He was driven by he distaste for war and conflict (and the church). In the end, I’m not sure you could truly call him Christian. He preferred the teaching of Christ. But it was his version of Christ that he portrayed. Anything in the Bible that seemed to contrast his view of Christ he would either ignore or twist to fit his perspective.

I probably wouldn’t read this book again or for the first time if I had the chance. And, unless you’re doing research into Tolstoy or Russian theologies in the 1800s, I wouldn’t recommend it to you.

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