Rowan Williams is well-known for his knowledge of all the forms of Anglican theology. Less known is his command of Russian Orthodox theology, of which this new book is a stunning example. (Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction. London, Continuum, 2008. ISBN 9781847064257) Williams makes Dostoevsky and his ideas "unmistakably contemporary." The reader certainly needs to have some experience of the writings, though Williams’ skilful recreations of characters, plots, and issues are good aides memoires, especially of the four big novels: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Devils, and Brothers Karamazov.
Fluent in Russian, his interpretations of crucial words in these texts are revelations in themselves.
Williams sets standards, saying that the central question posed by the various moral crises to which Dostoevsky was searching to respond is "What is it that human beings owe to each other?" The book identifies main ways in which the Russian master addresses the question.
One way is the need to confront suffering and evil. Dostoevky shows that to bring about evil "you do not have to have evil intentions. But the more the climate of untruthfulness comes to feel natural to people, the more evil results." He sees The Devil as out to stop the future. In Devils and Karamazov, people manipulate and control other people’s wills, seeking to deprive them of personal freedom and the chance for redemption. Another major theme is the learning of responsibility. Williams states that "love is the crucial instance of freedom … that is able to give sustained attention to the other and to hold open a door for change in them." The shape that love takes is the assuming of responsibility – owning one’s words and acts, and being answerable.
Williams is a warrior against received opinion. For example, he dismisses the cliché that Karamazov is about atheism versus belief. Dostoevsky is not interested – in general terms – about whether God exists. The novel narrates the changing positions of different people in their arguments about God. It describes "a conflict about policies and possibilities for a human life." This salutary position helps us see a typical Williams’ approach to debate. Us versus Them, say in the current public atheism disputes, is not a useful way forward; it closes off discussion. Polarisation is not helpful. He is making the point too, that the debate is nothing new. Dostoevsky is enacting via his characters the very challenges we see amongst those seriously engaged in debate today. Other moral issues – child abuse, sexual abuse, mass violence, terrorism, and unquestioned greed – that haunt our age, are central in Dostoevsky. Williams’ cunning achievement here is to reassemble an imaginative involvement with these issues that is at a remove, in time and culture, from our own. Williams highlights Dostoevky’s view that the disappearance of religious belief is not the triumph of reason, but the harbinger of reason’s collapse.
Rather than make a predictable riposte to a Dawkins or a Hitchens, he chooses Dostoevsky to broaden everyone’s understanding.
That said, this is Williams at his complex best. It is neither a popular introduction to the subject, nor an abstruse gift to the academy. It will, in time, be seen as one of his main works. Within the wordy grammar there is a fund of extraordinary insight and erudition that ought to inspire readers to try more Williams, and more Dostoevsky. Consider this: "Dostoevsky wants us to choose that humanity will survive – not merely as a biological but as a cultural reality. And the culture he identifies as human is one in which we do not have to lie about what we are in relation to our environment."
This book review by Philip Harvey was first published in The Melbourne Anglican.