Katerina Khokhlakova is a fairly minor character in Dostoevsky’s the Brothers Karamazov. She is the mother of Lise, the little girl who begins the novel as an invalid, but who later develops a close loving relationship with Alyosha. Madame Khokhlakova in the end is not an especially sympathetic character. She is vain and foolish and is used at times as a sort of comic relief. But the chapter in which she first appears in conversation with Father Zosima is very interesting as it involves a discussion of faith. In this chapter “A lady of little faith” (p. 53-59) she is not referred to by name. The reader only later finds out who she is. Perhaps this is intentional. Her surname sounds slightly ridiculous, like a parody of Ukrainian. It goes well with her later ridiculousness, but she does not at all appear ridiculous in this initial conversation. Rather she puts forward concerns that must touch many readers.
Madame Khokhlakova says to Father Zosima that she suffers from lack of faith. She does not quite dare say that she lacks faith in God, but she lacks faith in the idea of life after death. Really this is just a matter of politeness, for the one issue goes with the other. From a Christian perspective, to cease to believe in life after death is to cease to believe in God. If a person believes in a Christian God, a belief in life after death follows as a matter of course. Although she believed, mechanically as a child, she wonders now if faith came about because of the fear of death, thus that it is a product of man’s fear and unwillingness to accept that after death there is nothing. She wonders if when she dies there will simply be a grave and nothing more. She comes to Father Zosima looking for proof. She wants him to convince her.
Zosima immediately says that there is no question of proof, but that it is possible to be convinced. He says “Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. And if you reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor, then undoubtedly you will believe, and no doubt will even be able to enter your soul” (p. 56)
How can it be that by loving others a person will be convinced about the existence of God and immortality? One way to understand this is through an appreciation of the work of Søren Kierkegaard and the Epistle of James. In the Epistle of James the emphasis is on actions. The author of James writes, for instance, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith and have not works? … faith if it hath not works is dead” (James 2: 14-16). Kierkegaard throughout his authorship shows a great deal of respect for the Epistle of James, which in itself is somewhat surprising as he was brought up a Lutheran and Luther notoriously called James an epistle of straw.
In the first discourse of For self examination (p. 13-51) Kierkegaard looks closely a text in the first chapter of James which includes the following:
“But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.” (James 1: 22-25)
Kierkegaard asks himself “What is required in order to look at oneself with true blessing in the mirror of the Word?” He answers “The first requirement is that you must not look at the mirror, observe the mirror, but must see yourself in the mirror” (p. 25). How though can a person see himself in a mirror without observing the mirror? If however, we reflect that the mirror is God’s word there may be an answer? Kierkegaard is saying that a person must not look at God’s word and only see the words; rather he must see himself in the words, or see that the words apply to him. What this means is that the words require something of him, and that thing is action.
There are all sorts of ways of putting off action. One of these is to interpret. He writes “God’s Word is indeed the mirror … but how enormously complicated.” (p. 25) He reflects on the fact that the Bible is complicated that there are many interpretations. We don’t know which books are authentic, who wrote them. But if a person looks at the mirror in this way, it will always remain confusing. The task is to see yourself in the mirror, but what prevents this is if the person continues endlessly to interpret. The problem with scholarship is that it is a way to avoid acting. The scholar can always reflect that he will just come up with a slightly better interpretation of this or that passage before acting on it. The crucial thing however, is not to interpret, but to realise that the text applies to me. Kierkegaard writes that “when you are reading God’s Word, it is not the obscure passages that bind you but what you understand, and with that you are to comply at once” (p. 29). The amount of scholarship required to act according to God’s word is so minimal that all that is required has already been done. We have had for hundreds of years a reasonably accurate translation of the Bible and this contains enough clear statements of required actions to last a lifetime.
The task for Kierkegaard is to take the Bible personally. Thus he writes “If you are to read God’s Word in order to see yourself in the mirror, then during the reading you must incessantly say to yourself. It is I to whom it is speaking.” (p. 40) The reason why this is crucial is that it is instrumental in creating the Christian self. He writes:
“If God’s Word is for you merely a doctrine something impersonal then it is no mirror - an objective doctrine cannot be called a mirror, it is just as impossible to look at yourself in an objective doctrine as to look at yourself in a wall. And if you want to relate impersonally to God’s Word, there can be no question of looking at yourself in mirror, because it takes a personality, an I, to look at yourself in a mirror; a wall can be seen in a mirror, but a wall cannot see itself or look at itself in a mirror” (p. 43-44)
If a person reads objectively he cannot see himself in God’s word for there is no self to see. Reading personally creates the “I” and thus creates the Christian self. Recognising that the Bible applies to the self is instrumental in creating the self which recognises that the Bible applies to it. When the self is objective, like a wall, it can be seen, but it is not self-conscious because it is not conscious of itself as a spirit or a soul and thus it cannot see itself. The self is created when it relates itself to God through relating itself to God’s word. To do this however the self must be personal and it achieves this through relating itself to itself. The self-relation is achieved through the recognition that God’s word applies to it. The self relates to the self that it sees in the mirror of God’s word and thus at the same time relates to itself and to God. The whole passage about correct reading as opposed to scholarship is about how the Kierkegaardian self is created. It is by following God’s word by loving one’s neighbours that the sense of self, the sense of spirit is created. By relating myself to God’s word, I relate myself to God. I see myself in the mirror, relate myself to myself, but also relate myself to another.
Kierkegaard writes that the “The demonstration of Christianity really lies in imitation” (p. 68) From a perspective that sees belief as a matter of reason this is absurd. Kierkegaard is saying that through imitation a doubter will lose his doubts. But if a person doubted due to lack of reasons, why would he imitate? Kierkegaard though is looking at the matter in a different way. By imitating Christ a person demonstrates that he is a Christian. Moreover if Christian belief (faith) is action, which is what has been learned from James, then if a person does not act, he does not really believe it. If he does not believe, then he doubts. The only solution to doubt is action. To act is to cease to doubt, and to cease doubting is to cease looking for reasons.
We can now see an interpretation of how Father Zosima’s advice to Madame Khokhlakova can help her to have faith. If we see faith as a matter of action, then by acting, by loving others, the person automatically has faith. Faith that just contemplates, that fails to act, is a lifeless thing. No wonder then that she does not feel it.
Moreover if Kierkegaard is right, it is through action, through loving others, that the spiritual self, (the self that relates itself to itself and relates itself to others and indeed God) is created. If a person fails to act, if he fails to follow God’s word, he will lack any sense of the spiritual. Only when a person relates to God’s word does he relate to God and in doing so create the soul.
In this sense it may even be that the atheist is right. He does not believe in the soul, he does not believe in immortality. He is right as for him these things are not. Only by acting in a loving manner does a person develop faith and with it the sense of himself as a soul, as a spiritual being. Perhaps only in this way does he enable God to create this immortal soul. If this is so, then how we live our lives really is decisive. Not because God will punish us, but because if we have not related to him at all, there is nothing for him to save.
We see as the conversation between Madame Khokhlakova and Father Zosima continues that she is attempting to avoid action. She dreams of great, kind deeds. She dreams of being a nun of giving up everything, of not being frightened by sores and dirt. Father Zosima brings her back down to earth by saying maybe one day you will actually do a fine deed. She realises that her dreams of acting kindly would fail as soon as someone showed ingratitude. Father Zosima comes up with a similar anecdote of a Doctor who hates people individually but loves humanity. Again we see someone who loves in theory but not in practice. What is to do be done? Zosima is very kind and gentle. He thinks that it is a lot if the person is already aware of his fault, aware of his lack of action. The key is to begin acting. He says “Do what you can and it will be reckoned unto you. You have already done much if you can understand yourself so deeply and so sincerely” (p. 57). This however only works if the person is sincere and genuinely repentant about his lack of action.
Zosima compares active love with acting in dreams. This is similar to the idea in Kierkegaard about someone who follows Christianity in theory and someone who follows it in practice. But whereas Kierkegaard can be strict Zosima is very very gentle. He accepts that we are weak. Active love is difficult. It is a matter of action, and day to day action, not just one glorious act. It needs perseverance and endurance and patience. But even if someone is as weak as Madame Khokhlakova, there is hope for her. Even if she finds in the end that all her efforts at active love have failed, that she is as far as ever from her goal, then she will find that the miraculous and mysterious power of God is enough to save her and that He always has been guiding her.
In Zosima’s view it is enough to strive to love actively. He expects so very little of us. No more than the mere act of striving. This striving is like Grushenka’s story (later in the novel) of the gift of an onion. The solitary good act in a life of wickedness can be enough to pull us out of the pit. God perhaps then does not need more than our striving to be doers of the word. Perhaps this is enough to create the self for him to save. Perhaps in the striving alone there is enough self-relation and enough relation to another for the Christian self to come into existence.
Zosima’s account is very gentle as compared to Kierkegaard’s strictness. But that is not to say that Kierkegaard would not have sympathised with Zosima’s view. After all Kierkegaard continually recognised our inability in the face of Christianity’s demands, our powerlessness in the face of Christ’s example. Madame Khokhlakova is powerless. She thinks that she can do nothing. But so long as she tries just a little and so long as she does not use this sense of powerlessness as an excuse, she like all of us can gain faith. Dostoevsky’s account of faith is very gentle. In the end we only need to give the tiniest thing. One good dead is enough to save us. But this gentleness only works if we do not deceive ourselves. It is for this reason that Zosima warns above all against lies. How can a self look in Kierkegaard’s mirror if it is not honest with itself? A lie destroys the self’s relation to itself and if a person can not even find himself in the mirror how can he expect to find God?
The Brothers Karamazov, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky, Vintage, 1992.
For Self-Examination, translated by Hong and Hong, Princeton University Press, 1990.