Dostoevsky’s Theology of Writing: the Gratuity of Faith and Fiction

What does Christian faith have to do with fiction, the novel?

On Rowan Williams’ account, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction, we find in Dostoevsky’s fiction something williamsdostoevskyof a theology of writing, one indicating a relationship between faith and fiction that points toward the gratuitous nature of both. Williams’ comments regarding the correlation between Dostoevsky’s narratives and his own faith have proved helpful for my reading of Dostoevsky as well. Rather than putting forward a vision for ‘ideal’ faith or a paradigm for obedience, Williams sees Dostoevsky instead imagining through his fiction what faith might look like (rather than should look like) in varying situations, personalities, and human hardships.  Put differently,  Dostoevsky  invites us to ask, ‘What would be possible if we – characters and readers – saw the world and all its sufferings, tragedies, and desolations in the light of faith?’

Rowan Williams is proving to be a delightful companion to Dostoevsky, and being on vacation last week finally gave me opportunity to begin reading it together with The Brothers Karamazov. Any other suggestions for good works on Dostoevsky or, perhaps, your favorite Dostoevsky novel?

[T]here is no end to writing. The endless turning on itself of the Devil’s conversation with Ivan [from The Brother’s Karamazov] is analogous to the writer’s self-interrogation becomes more urgent, since the dangers of avoiding it are so dramatic. All that we have seen of the destructive and self-destructive potential of language and faith, the various ways in which we can reduce it either to the willed and subjective or to the descriptive and worldly, with the suicidal consequences of both, means that we have to go on speaking/writing about God, allowing the language of faith to encounter fresh trials every day, and also fresh distortions and refusals.

In writing fiction in which no formula is allowed unchallengeable victory, Dostoevsky has implicitly developed what might be called a theology of writing, specifically of narrative writing. Every fiction is at its most fictional in its endings, those pretences of closure and settlement. Every morally and religiously serious fiction has to project something beyond that ending or otherwise signal a level of incompletion, even in the most minimal and formal mode, indicating a as yet untold story.


Faith and fiction are deeply related – not because faith is a variant of fiction in the trivial sense but because both are gratuitous linguistic practices standing over against a functional scheme of things. The gratuity of faith arises from its character as response to the freedom of the creator as unexpectedly in the fabric of the world. The gratuity of fiction arises from the conviction that no kind of truth can be told if we speak or act if history is over, as if the description of what contingently is becomes the sole possible account of language. A fiction like Dostoevky’s which tries to show what faith might mean in practice is bound to be both inconclusive in all sorts of ways, and also something that aspires to a realism that is more than descriptive (p. 46).

(By the way, Baylor University Press is sending James a copy to review later this Spring, so more to come on Williams and Dostoevsky)


6 thoughts on “Dostoevsky’s Theology of Writing: the Gratuity of Faith and Fiction

  1. Barth’s friend Thurneysen wrote a book on Dostoevsky as well. I personally think The Idiot is one of the greatest novels of all time, but you don’t hear nearly as much about it as you do with his other work.

  2. I wrote my thesis at Union Seminary (NYC) on D’s vision of G-d in the Brothers K and tried, I think with success, to refute the claim of Berdyaev that freedom was at the very height of things in the novel. I claimed that grace was. I published an abridged version of the thesis in a paperback called Alarms & Visions which appeared in the 60s and can probably be picked up for a few dollars at ALibris or Amazon. I agree with Kyle that The Idiot is one of the greatest, and it certainly gets short shrift these days. I also think Notes from Underground is must reading. It calls to mind Hamlet and Lear.

    It occurs to me that even though D was a conservative partisan of Orthodoxy that his imaging of faith in Brothers K understands that it is actually out there away from church and doctrine that the faith is expressed in compelling and explicit ways. The end of Brothers K is exemplary. I think a similar scene could be played out today in an urban ghetto if not in Columbine.

  3. I have been an avid but until now silent participant-but the crux of my own faith has most often been encountered in Dostoevsky in some sense throughout the years of it. I even went to Petersburg a couple of years ago mostly just to visit his old haunts and pay homage to Fyodor Mikhailovich.

    All that to say, Williams’ book is fantastic, even in the flowing style he writes in, sliding along from one spot to another. Arthur Trace’s The Furnace Of Doubt was a great work on seeing faith strongest on the other side of socio-theological or philosohpical-skepticism kinds of doubt. Much comes from this discussion, as if Ivan K. were to find faith of a sort.

    The Gospel In Dostoevsky (ed. The Bruderhof) is a good reader on “gospel moments” in D.’s work. Gibson’s The Religion Of Dostoevsky (referenced some by the Archbishop), and George Panichas’ Dostoevsky’s Spiritual Art are also good, and pretty concise meditations.

    One thing you may already be on top of, but just to suggest, is to read Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear’s translations of the major works, they are the newest, and hold a lot of verbal energy that sometimes goes missing in Constance Garnett’s otherwise classic translations.

    Thanks for all of your writing and sharing on this blog.

  4. Dustin, it is nice to make the connection with a long-time reader. Thank you for the additional recommendations on FD (my reading list just gets longer still). I have been reading the Volokhonsky and Pevear translation of The Brothers K based on a recommendation, and it is good to hear from another lover of FD that their rendering is peer none. I was considering their translation of The Idiot next, so thanks for confirming that for me.


  5. Pingback: Interesting Dostoevsky Comment « Stephen C. Rose

  6. Pingback: My Deep Soul Place: A Theology of Creative Nonfiction | jennifer ochstein

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