Trinity College

Wrestling with God: Literature on the Fringes of Christian Orthodoxy

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Summer 2020

Many of the most important religious authors in the modern era have done their work on the far fringes of Christian orthodoxy, testing the waters of utopian idealism, intellectual iconoclasm, and the darkness and light found within the soul. This course will explore four such authors who began their lives within the Orthodox Church specifically. Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Bulgakov, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Tasos Leivaditis were all baptized as Orthodox Christians. Some of them would also finish their lives within the Church, while others would not; in every case their wrangling with religious truth would take them into the reaches of atheism, new religious movements, and modern politics. Yet, religion would remain a fixation for them all, and become the primary subject of many of their most important works.

19th Century Russian literary giant, Leo Tolstoy, is best known for his epic novels, but was also a renowned and significant religious thinker, writing essays and treatises on topics such as Christian pacifism, spirituality, and biblical interpretation. Tolstoy's quest for an entirely authentic Christianity would lead him to craft a new and challenging approach to the faith, eventually departing the fold of the Russian Orthodox Church and forming his own Christian community. His challenging approach to Christian orthodoxy, and dogged pursuit of a pure faith, continue to challenge and influence Orthodox Christian thinking to this day. We will explore his explicitly religious writings, including essays and reflections on Christianity.

20th Century Russian novelist, Mikhail Bulgakov, came from several generations of Orthodox clergy. Yet, as his artistic talent grew, Bulgakov would venture into atheism and begin to break down his received expectations about religious truth. His summative novel, The Master and Margarita, was published after his death. A fascinating and often bizarre exploration of magic, the Devil, Pontius Pilate, and redemption, The Master is considered a classic of world literature today, and still puzzles scholars and readers.

In the mid-20th century, Nikos Kazantzakis gained global fame for his novel The Last Temptation of Christ. Telling the story of a fictional experience of Jesus choosing to step down from the cross at the last moment, Kazantzakis' work challenged the foundations of Christian orthodoxy, and the meaning of the Incarnation. The book shook the Church of Greece, and many campaigned to declare Kazantzakis a heretic. While Kazantzakis was never excommunicated, his legacy and work remain some of the most controversial in the Christian world.

Little known outside Greece, Tasos Leivaditis spent his early career heavily involved in the turmoil of the Greek civil war, embracing militant far-right politics. In his later years, however, Leivaditis began to repent of his earlier commitments, and to turn toward religion to make sense of his experiences. His mature poetry centers on his struggles to make sense of Christian faith as he returns to life as a committed Orthodox Christian. Terse, yet profound, Leivaditis' work is a beautiful tribute to the true challenge of a life of faith amid the scars of violent politics.

In reading these four authors, we will ask why and how thinkers depart, re-enter, and/or reinvent the Christian faith from the fringes. In a rapidly changing and secularizing world, the human struggle with religious truth is an increasingly important topic for theologians and scholars to consider; we will examine the theological and religious aspects of our chosen works, doing so with the problem of faith in mind. We will also investigate the responses of the Orthodox Church and other Christian groups to these authors and their work, exploring the question of how Christians do and should treat divergent thinkers and teachings. While we will focus on Orthodox authors in particular, this course is designed for Christians of any affiliation interested in the meaning of Christian literature in its most challenging and therefore often most fruitful forms.

All texts will be read in available English translations. Knowledge of Russian and Greek will not be required.