Bahai News - Tolstoy's musings food for thought
Web posted Thursday, September 23, 1999
5:51 a.m. CT
Tolstoy's musings food for thought
By MIKE HAYNES
We are in a culture that increasingly promotes intellect and human abilities
as the keys to success in life while relegating any spiritual motivation or
goals to the sideline, like cheerleaders at a football game.
Oh, yes, we are told, it's nice to be spiritual in the sense of having a
system of ethics that calls for us to be nice to each other and to the
planet. But when you start talking about an intelligent creator and beliefs
that can't be proven in the lab - well, you're getting a little weird if
you take that too seriously.
One attitude is that if being "religious" is good for you as a quaint
little part of your life, fine, but all that really counts is what we
accomplish here, now, as professionals, as productive citizens, as
thinkers, as humans, out on the true field of play.
For some, such a humanistic view of life is necessary for a person to be
sophisticated. So through the years, it has comforted - and inspired -
me when I've run across the opinions of people who the world has accepted
as great writers or thinkers and who, it turns out, had strong beliefs in
God that sometimes heavily influenced their writing.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, generally accepted as one of the world's great novelists
on the strength of such works as "Crime and Punishment" in 1866 and "The
Brothers Karamazov" in 1880, fits into that category. He explored the
depths of human nature and in doing so, treated Christianity as an
essential, not a peripheral, part of life.
Leo Tolstoy also saw religion as a lifestyle, not just one of several
components of life. His great works such as "War and Peace" in 1860 and
"Anna Karenina" in 1877 also reflected Christian philosophies.
But Tolstoy wasn't content with the institutional religion that dominated
Russia in the 19th century. In part because of the elitism of the Russian
Orthodox Church, he gradually turned toward a more humanistic
philosophy that drew on all the major religions but still kept the direct
teaching of Jesus Christ as central.
Now a distillation of Tolstoy's conclusions is readily available in the
form of a paperback book, "The Wisdom of Humankind," published this year
by CoNexus Press in Grand Rapids, Mich. The unabridged version was
Tolstoy's last work, published in 1911, the year after his death. He never
got to his plan to condense it for easier use. Guy de Mallac, a professor
at the University of California-Irvine, produced that short version.
The celebrated author drew upon Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim,
Baha'i and other faiths and philosophies, picking and choosing the parts
that seemed real to him and that fit together into an integrated philosophy.
In the latter part of his life, Tolstoy's own example illustrated the
melange of belief to which he had migrated. Born into the Russian ruling
class in 1828, he eventually deeded his estate to his wife and lived a
life of virtual poverty. In addition to his studies, Tolstoy's observation
of the simple life of Russian peasants greatly influenced his turn to a
"The Wisdom of Humankind" is presented as a series of guidelines under
topic headings such as "The Spirit Within," "Sexual Unrestraint," "False
Religious Practice" and "Self-Denial." Tolstoy directly quotes Jesus more
than anyone, but he also endorses ideas from Buddha, Muhammed, Pythagoras,
Krishna, Lao Tzu, Socrates, Paul and St. Francis of Assisi.
This is not some philosophical tome that only scholars can understand. De
Mallac has translated the Russian simply and edited it into brief segments.
And its application is as modern as the Internet. For example, Tolstoy's
views on nonviolence heavily influenced Gandhi, who in turn was an
inspiration for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Tolstoy's "True Religion" as presented in the book focuses heavily on the
idea of God within us all and how, by living an ascetic and unselfish
lifestyle, we can more fully be aware of that universal spirit inside us.
Some specifics of Tolstoy's beliefs include the elimination of armies,
turning the other cheek, the need for every human to do manual labor in
order to justify eating and the complete submission of self to serve
Certainly, modern Christians would agree with many of Tolstoy's general
principles. But others, such as a call for the elimination of government,
embrace a form of communism. And Tolstoy has that view of God as a spirit
within all of us that we will become more aware of only as we do good
deeds. That approach smacks of Eastern religions, New Age beliefs and,
yes, even The Force in modern space movies.
Without endorsing Tolstoy's version of theology, I nevertheless think the
guidelines from this giant of literature are worth a look. If nothing
else, a reader would gain a quick course in some of the beliefs of major
"The Wisdom of Humankind" is worth spending some brain power on, but
realistically, I know most of you aren't going to read the book. So next
time in this space, watch for some more specific examples of Tolstoy's
suggestions for living.
Mike Haynes teaches journalism at Amarillo College.
©Copyright 1999, Amarillo Globe
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