Struggling and Searching? Lessons from Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy went through a faith journey that ultimately led him back to Christ. His reflections can reassure those of us who have lingering questions and give us hope.
“My heart was oppressed with a painful feeling, which I can only describe as a search for God…It was a feeling of fear, orphanage, isolation in a strange land, and a hope of help from some one.”
Perhaps you’ve experienced this “painful feeling” of losing your faith, of seeking meaning in life and not knowing where to turn. Even if you haven’t, it’s likely you’ve known someone who has. The great novelist Leo Tostoy had his own spiritual crisis, vividly recounted in his spiritual autobiography, A Confession1. His doubts and struggles are surprisingly relevant still today, with some useful insights to help orient those those who find themselves searching for meaning while struggling with belief.
Tolstoy’s road to crisis
Tolstoy was born into a noble family in 19th Century Tsarist Russia. As was typical for one of his station, he was raised—nominally at least—in the Russian Orthodox church. But by the time he went to university, any vestiges of faith soon fell away. As he recalls in A Confession, “Judging by certain memories, I never seriously believed, but had merely relied on what I was taught and on what was professed by the grown-up people around me; and that reliance was very unstable.”
Following university, Tolstoy soon found his first recognition as a writer, giving vividly-realized accounts (as a sort of early “war correspondent”) of his fighting in the Crimean War. His fame grew as he returned to his nobleman’s estate, particularly with the serial publication of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, now universally admired as two of the finest works of world literature. He was recognized as a quintessentially Russian artist, and his fame spread as his works were translated across Europe. On the home front, he was happily married (his wife Sophia was his copyist and essentially his literary agent throughout his life), and his estate increasingly filled with his growing family.
Tolstoy was a lifelong hunter, yet one day, heading out onto his estate to hunt rabbits, he decided to rely on his dogs alone to catch rabbits, leaving his gun at home. He was afraid to be alone with both his thoughts and his rifle; having reached middle-age and secured lasting fame, Leo Tolstoy’s mind was on on suicide2.
The soul-crushing question that brought him to this point was this: “What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow?—What will come of my whole life?…Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?” Having lost his Christian faith, “I felt that what I had been standing on had collapsed…and there was nothing left to live on.”
For a while after the loss of his childhood faith, his career success, peer recognition, and happy marriage provided enough distraction to avoid staring into the blackness of these questions. The writer David Brooks writes of a similar dynamic in his recent book The Second Mountain. The first mountain, in Brooks’ metaphor, is the one we tackle early in life, as we pursue a vocation and find some success in it. And yet conquering that peak proves ultimately unsatisfying, even as it opens up a more mature view of another peak—the mountain we were truly meant to climb. The second mountain is a life of faith, service, and community—of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Climbing that peak involves the pursuit of what Brooks calls “eulogy virtues,” in contrast to the “resume virtues” accumulated in pursuit of the first mountain.
Tolstoy’s social circles were awash in novel ideas of secular humanism, offering Tolstoy a sort of alternative religion in pursuit of that “second mountain.” Intellectuals and artists like himself were the high priests of progress, leading the world toward its ideal future and bestowing meaning on their own lives in the process. But Tolstoy found faith in this secular religion an equally hard pill to swallow. After all, how could he teach others when he didn’t know the answers to the most fundamental questions of life? How could his class be the high priests when they could do no more than argue about the answers themselves? And how could anyone know what counts as “progress” without a destination that orients us and validates any movement toward it? (Tolstoy described his “progressive” self as a man in a boat who, when asked which way to steer, can only reply, “We are being carried somewhere.”)
So then what is the true goal of life, the source of meaning and purpose? Reading widely, Tolstoy concluded that the humanities and philosophy could at least recognize this question, but failed to cohere on an answer. On the other hand, natural science, which fascinated Tolstoy, was able to provide exacting answers—but only “to its own independent questions,” and not to the ones that kept him up at night. Questions of ultimate meaning and purpose, Tolstoy rightly noted, were simply outside the realm of science. The more science attempts to provide answers to the meaning of life, “the more obscure and unattractive” science’s answers become.
From all that reductionist science can discern, “You are an accidentally united little lump of something.” And so what is a person to do with their life? Having come to this point, Tolstoy could see only four possible outcomes. The first were either to ignore the question, or to distract from it by the pursuit of pleasure, “drown[ing] it in life’s intoxication.” The third was the path of “strength and energy”—embracing the futility of life and ending it on one’s own suicidal terms. The final path was that of “weakness,” “clinging to life, knowing in advance that nothing can come of it.”
And yet Tolstoy ultimately found another path forward, a path that brought him back to religious faith and a commitment to follow the way of Christ. What follows are a few pointers drawn from Tolstoy’s writings, to aid one struggling with faith and yet searching for meaning in life.
Finding your way
Tolstoy was a deeply observant, empathetic man, and perhaps his greatest gift as a writer was his ability imbue his novels with the same perspective. Reading his works, you cannot help but deeply understand Tolstoy’s characters in all their myriad imperfections. (Occasionally, the narrator’s perspective even shifts to the “thoughts” of an animal in the story, and one of Tolstoy’s short stories is told entirely from the perspective of a horse!) And it was this very gift to see life from others’ vantage points that provided Tolstoy a turning point in his spiritual crisis.
Tolstoy remarked that it was rare to find someone of his elite social circle who genuinely believed the Christian faith, while it was rare to find someone of the peasant class who rejected faith. In contrast to the uneducated peasants, Tolstoy was part of the intelligentsia. And yet, he asked, “What if there is something I do not yet know?” Among the peasants, “It appeared that all mankind had a knowledge, unacknowledged and despised by me, of the meaning of life.” Tolstoy became convinced that it was “ignorance” to dismiss as “stupid” the reality that the peasants seemed to have grasped, simply because he had not. It was “the delusion of my pride and intellect” to believe that those of simple, enduring faith had simply “not yet arrived at an apprehension of all the profundity of the question.”
It wasn’t simply that the peasants around him were believers, but their whole lives showed that they had grasped the meaning of life. In sharp contrast to his peers, the peasants by and large “accepted illness and sorrow without any perplexity or opposition, and with a quiet and firm conviction that all is good…these folk live and suffer, and they approach death and suffering with tranquility and in most cases gladly…a troubled, rebellious, and unhappy death is the rarest exception among the people.” Tolstoy was not simply romanticizing Russia’s peasants; he was deeply disturbed having seen up close the horror of their poverty and exploitation. But their harsh lot in life only further highlighted the immense import of their “content[ment] with life,” while those lives marked by wealth and leisure evidenced only a thin mask of amusement over a gaping hole of despair, fearing death most of all.
Looking to others for guidance is the path Brooks takes in The Second Mountain. In his own mid-life evolution on matters of religious faith, Brooks seems increasingly to have realized the difficulty of finding meaning as a solo affair. His latest book is full of examples of those who have found a sense of meaning that career success cannot give, through humble faith, community ties, and love and service of others. As Brooks and Tolstoy remind us, it is people like these that we must look to if we want to understand the meaning of life.
However, this shift in perspective alone was not enough to make a believer of Tolstoy. He concluded that the peasants sense of purpose rested in the “irrational knowledge” of faith—“God, One in Three; the creation in six days; the devils and angels, and all the rest that I cannot accept as long as I retain my reason.” He was at an impasse. “Either that which I called reason was not so rational as I supposed, or that which seemed to me irrational was not so irrational as I supposed.” Though he continued to struggle with faith and reason, “I could not but admit that [religious belief] alone gives mankind a reply to the questions of life; and that consequently it makes life possible.” Faith “gives to the finite existence of man an infinite meaning, a meaning not destroyed by sufferings, deprivations, or death.”
Look to those who truly live out their faith in Christ
“I took note of all that is done by men who profess Christianity, and I was horrified.” Sound familiar?
Like Tolstoy, all of us have encountered Christians whose lives seem a direct contradiction of their professed faith. Countless individual stories and large-scale studies show that this hypocrisy is a leading cause of people leaving Christianity—or refusing to consider it in the first place. Earthly pleasures and powers of all kinds seduce us, with political power perhaps a uniquely potent and visible temptation.
Two centuries before Tolstoy’s life, the Russian Tsar Peter the Great was wary of any challenges to his political power, and eyed with suspicion the independent authority afforded the Russian Orthodox Church. So he officially placed church leadership under the authority of the secular state hierarchy, rather than the church’s independent Patriarchate as before.
As a result, the Russian Orthodox Church often became simply a rubber stamp on the government’s wishes. The Church secured pride of place in exchange for a willingness to provide pretty spiritualized wrapping to a naked lust for political power. And Tolstoy was sickened by the hypocrisy.
Likewise in his travels, Tolstoy had seen firsthand the suffering and starvation of the peasants, exploited yet ignored by the wealthy. And he had seen (and even had a hand in) the killing of others in unjust wars as the Church prayed for victory. Among the Christians of his day, Tolstoy saw people who apparently “found no other meaning in life than to live while life lasts, taking all one’s hands can seize,” and who “feared privations, suffering, and death.” “No arguments could convince me of the truth of their faith. Only deeds which showed that they saw a meaning in life…could convince me.”
Doctrines were never intended to exist in a vacuum. As theologian Kevin VanHoozer puts it, doctrines are more like stage directions intended to shape our actions in the drama that God is writing. So don’t limit yourself to wrestling with Christian beliefs only on the page; consider them by seeing how they direct the lives of those who seek to be the hands of feet of Christ in the world. For Tolstoy, “beliefs [that] had repelled me and had seemed meaningless when professed by people whose lives conflicted with them” now “attracted me and seemed reasonable when I saw that people lived in accord with them.”
In recognizing this, Tolstoy at the same time acknowledged that it was the moral failings of his own life that left him feeling adrift. “I had erred not so much because I thought incorrectly, as because I lived badly.” In finding his life to be a meaningless evil, he “was quite correct. The only mistake was that the answer referred only to my life…but not to life in general. I understood the truth, which I afterwards found in the Gospels, ‘that men loved darkness rather than the light, for their works were evil. For everyone that doeth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his works should be reproved.’”
The foundations of our religious belief—a sense of the divine, of human worth, of good and evil—Tolstoy saw as “conceptions formulated in the hidden infinity of human thought.” We are “born believers” as cognitive scientist Justin Barrett puts it, our minds from birth a fertile seedbed for religious belief. Learn from those who have nurtured these seeds of truth over a life of faith into a tree that bears good fruit (Matthew 12:33).
Going through the motions of religious faith
This may seem an odd suggestion, since simply “going through the motions” often seems the last vestige of religion in one’s life. But Tostoy gives us the metaphor of a starving beggar invited into a lovely home and told to work a certain lever up and down. The ritual may seem pointless, but it’s not until the beggar follows through that he recognizes that the lever works a water pump that will nourish himself and the whole household. Tolstoy and the learned skeptics of his circle were more akin to one who says “‘Why should that handle be moved? Isn’t it stupid!’” and “have decided that the master is stupid, or does not exist, and that we are wise.”
Similarly, religious faith involves observances—prayer, Communion/Eucharist, confession, worship—that have nourished the household of faith for two millennia. But you must exercise them firsthand in the community of fellow seekers and believers before you will come to know the nourishment they will provide to your own life.
Jesus Gave Tolstoy Purpose
Despite his return to a new form of religious faith, Tolstoy’s rationalistic doubts never left him (in A Confession he refers to miracles in passing as “the things I tried not to think about in order not to deny”). His hostility to the corruption of the Russian Orthodox church arguably clouded his vision, amplifying his skepticism of almost anything the church taught. And Tolstoy also had a prideful streak, an overconfidence in his own ability to discern the core truth of Christianity. So while his reflections in A Confession are helpful, his subsequent writings show a rather muddled version of Christian belief that is highly idiosyncratic and certainly less than orthodox biblical faith.
At the core of Tolstoy’s newfound faith, though, were the teachings of Jesus Christ, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. He took Christ’s teachings quite literally, and the change is Tolstoy’s life as a result was truly radical. He gave up the lucrative copyright on his works, as well as much of his accumulated personal wealth, choosing instead to live simply. He devoted extraordinary resources to creating educational texts and local schools for the peasants, advocating a student-centered pedagogy that was far ahead of its time. He began an international fundraising effort to address famine among the peasants. He translated excerpts from the Gospels into modern, colloquial Russian. He spoke out boldly against social injustice—a genuinely risky path in such an authoritarian state—and was firmly committed to nonviolence.
Tolstoy’s vigorous devotion to Christ’s teaching had a sizable impact on his world, beyond the sense of purpose it gave to him personally. Tolstoy exchanged letters with Mahatma Gandhi, for example, and was instrumental in cementing Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolent resistance. Turning to our own country, one of the most essential Christian leaders in American history, Martin Luther King, Jr., was deeply influenced by the example and teachings of both Gandhi and Tolstoy. As yet as King’s life demonstrates, it is a fuller affirmation of the totality of Christian belief that gives staying power to the Christian ethical convictions Tolstoy came to believe in so strongly. Numerous Christians today follow the ethical teachings of Jesus in radically counter-cultural ways. But you’ll be hard pressed to find true “Tolstoyans” as there were in Tolstoy’s own time. Where Tolstoy’s ethical convictions have endured, they have frequently endured where supported by the fuller bedrock of orthodox Christian belief.
As for Tolstoy, he at the very least was right in recognizing that there was “a tradition transmitting the meaning of life,” a tradition that brings us back to the presence of God. His spiritual search can offer pointers for those today who struggle as he did. As Tolstoy reminded himself, “‘Live seeking God, and then you will not live without God.’ And more than ever before, all within me and around me lit up, and the light did not again abandon me.”
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