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Tolstoy on Paulinism

Overview

In My Religion (1884), Tolstoy explains Christianity went off the rails initially with Paul who knew nothing of Jesus's ethical teachings:

"The separation between the doctrine of life and the explanation of life began with the preaching of Paul who knew not the ethical teachings set forth in the Gospel of Matthew, and who preached a metaphisico-cabalistic theory entirely foreign to Christ; and this separation was perfected in the time of Constantine, when it was found possible to clothe the whole pagan organization of life in a Christian dress, and without changing it to call it Christianity." (Leo Tolstoy, My Religion (1884) at 219.)

Later Tolstoy will explain what happened by an analogy to an original pilot who had rules replaced by a new pilot who has no rules but only dogma to accept:

"Imagine a number of men rowing a boat, a pilot steering. The men rely upon the pilot, and the pilot steers well; but after a time the good pilot is replaced by another, who does not steer at all. The boat moves along rapidly and easily. At first the men do not notice the negligence of the new pilot; they are only pleased to find that the boat goes along so easily. Then they discover that the new pilot is utterly useless, and they mock at him, and drive him from his place." Id., at 225.

Tolstoy perceives the church led by the new pilot (i.e., Paul) is now recognized as useless to give meaning to life. Regardless, men who do know about Jesus and even hate his name are still drawn to Jesus' principles that they have unconsciously absorbed. In this time when people might be prepared to call back the first pilot (Jesus), the church is afraid to call upon Him to return to restore the right principles of living. Instead, the majority of society and the church as a whole are clinging onto the belief that the only rules for life come from government. In the modern world, most think it is not important to return to Jesus and His principles. Instead, most believe the state must be obeyed as ministers of God (as Paul taught in Romans 13:1). As a result, life has now become devoid of meaning to the great masses:

"The distinctive trait of civilized man is to obey what the majority of men regard as iniquitous, contrary to conscience. I seek in vain in civilized society as it exists to-day for any clearly formulated moral bases of life. There are none. No perception of their necessity exists. On the contrary, we find the extraordinary conviction that they are superfluous; that religion is nothing more than a few words about God and a future life, and a few ceremonies very useful for the salvation of the soul according to some, and good for nothing according to others; but that life happens of itself and has no need of any fundamental rule, and that we have only to do what we are told to do." Id., at 233.

Tolstoy says the solution is now to go back to the original pilot - Jesus. We need to restore the church to Jesus-Words-Only (to use my phrase), and leave the old dogma-laden church to its dissolution:

"The truth of the doctrine of Jesus, once unconsciously absorbed by humanity through the organism of the Church, must now be consciously recognized; for in the truth of this doctrine humanity has always obtained its vital force. Men must lift up the torch of truth, which has so long remained concealed, and carry it before them, guiding their actions by its light.

"The doctrine of Jesus, as a religion that governs the actions of men and explains to them the meaning of life, is now before the world just as it was eighteen hundred years ago. Formerly the world had the explanations of the Church which, in concealing the doctrine, seemed in itself to offer a satisfactory interpretation of life ; but now the time is come when the Church has lost its usefulness, and the world, having no other means for sustaining its true existence, can only feel its helplessness and go for aid directly to the doctrine of Jesus." Id., at 238.

Tolstoy concludes with an exaltation of Jesus' doctrine as shining forth still boldy if anyone would but read it:

"The doctrine of Jesus is the light. The light shines forth, and the darkness cannot conceal it. Men cannot deny it, men cannot refuse to accept its guidance. They must depend on the doctrine of Jesus, which penetrates among all the errors with which the life of men is surrounded. Like the insensible ether filling universal space, enveloping all created things, so the doctrine of Jesus is inevitable for every man in whatever situation he may be found. Men cannot refuse to recognize the doctrine of Jesus; they may deny the metaphysical explanation of life which it gives (we may deny everything), but the doctrine of Jesus alone offers rules for the conduct of life without which humanity has never lived, and never will be able to live; without which no human being has lived or can live, if he would live as man should live, — a reasonable life. The power of the doctrine of Jesus is not in its explanation of the meaning of life, but in the rules that it gives for the conduct of life." Id., at 239.

Tolstoy concludes the chapter with this simple principle: "The faith that triumphs over the doctrines of the world is faith in the doctrine of Jesus." Id., at 244.

Step-by-Step Reading Of Tolstoy

Let's go back now and see Tolstoy's reasoning in the greater context. Leading into the first quote about Paul, Tolstoy writes, beginning on page 218:

"I became convinced that the doctrine of the Church, although bearing the name of 'Christian,' is one with the darkness against which Jesus struggled, and against which he commanded his disciples to strive....

"But, with regard to the doctrine of Jesus, as with regard to all other doctrines, men wander from its precepts, and they always find some one to justify their deviations. Those who, as Jesus said, sit in Moses' seat, explain the metaphysical theory in such a way that the ethical prescriptions of the doctrine cease to be regarded as obligatory, and are replaced by external forms of worship, by ceremonial. This is a condition common to all religions, but, to me, it seems that it never has been manifested with so much pomp as in connection with Christianity, — and for two reasons: first, because the doctrine of Jesus is the most elevated of all doctrines (the most elevated because the metaphysical and ethical portions are so closely united that one cannot be separated from the other without destroying the vitality of the whole) ; second, because the doctrine of Jesus is in itself a protest against all forms, a negation not only of Jewish ceremonial, but of all exterior rites of worship. Therefore, the arbitrary separation of the metaphysical and ethical aspects of Christianity entirely disfigures the doctrine, and deprives it of every sort of meaning." Id., at 218

Then appears the quote on Paul above where Pauline doctrine creates this separation which "deprives" Jesus's message of "every sort of meaning." Then the text continues on page 219: 

"After Constantine, that arch-pagan, whom the Church in spite of all his crimes and vices admits to the category of the saints, after Constantine began the domination of the councils, and the centre of gravity of Christianity was permanently displaced till only the metaphysical portion was left in view. And this metaphysical theory with its accompanying ceremonial deviated more and more from its true and primitive meaning, until it has reached its present stage of development, as a doctrine which explains the mysteries of a celestial life beyond the comprehension of human reason, and, with all its complicated formulas, gives no religious guidance whatever with regard to the regulation of this earthly life." Id., at 219 -220.

One senses here that Tolstoy balks at the Council of Nicea, and the emphasis about the correct formula to depict Christ, taking the emphasis away from the ethical teachings of Jesus. Tolstoy next makes the point that a religion where belief is all that matters becomes a peculiar one where behavior no longer holds central importance. Tolstoy calls this Pseudo-Christianity:

"All religions, with the exception of the religion of the Christian Church, demand from their adherents aside from forms and ceremonies, the practice of certain actions called good, and abstinence from certain actions that are called bad. The Jewish religion prescribed circumcision, the observance of the Sabbath, the giving of alms, the feast of the Passover. Mohammedanism prescribes circumcision, prayer five times a day, the giving of tithes to the poor, pilgrimage to the tomb of the Prophet, and many other things. It is the same with all other religions. Whether these prescriptions are good or bad, they are prescriptions which exact the performance of certain actions. Pseudo-Christianity alone prescribes nothing. There is nothing that a Christian is obliged to observe except fasts and prayers, which the Church itself does not recognize as obligatory. All that is necessary to the pseudoChristian is the sacrament. But the sacrament is not fulfilled by the believer; it is administered to him by others. The pseudo-Christian is obliged to do nothing or to abstain from nothing for his own salvation, since the Church administers to him everything of which he has need. The Church baptizes him, anoints him, gives him the eucharist, confesses him, even after he has lost consciousness, administers extreme unction to him, and prays for him, — and he is saved. From the time of Constantine the Christian Church has prescribed no religious duties to its adherents. It has never required that they should abstain from anything. The Christian Church has recognized and sanctioned divorce, slavery, tribunals, all earthly powers, the death penalty, and war; it has exacted nothing except a renunciation of a purpose to do evil on the occasion of baptism, and this only in its early days : later on, when infant baptism was introduced, even this requirement was no longer observed." Id., at 220-21.

Tolstoy next comments that this has led to a Christianity without Christ:

"The Church confesses the doctrine of Jesus in theory, but denies it in practice. Instead of guiding the life of the world, the Church, through affection for the world, expounds the metaphysical doctrine of Jesus in such a way as not to derive from it any obligation as to the conduct of life, any necessity for men to live differently from the way in which they have been living. The Church has surrendered to the world, and simply follows in the train of its victor. The world does as it pleases, and leaves to the Church the task of justifying its actions with explanations as to the meaning of life. The world organizes an existence in absolute opposition to the doctrine of Jesus, and the Church endeavors to demonstrate that men who live contrary to the doctrine of Jesus really live in accordance with that doctrine. The final result is that the world lives a worse than pagan existence, and the Church not only approves, but maintains that this existence is in exact conformity to the doctrine of Jesus." Id., at 221.

Tolstoy then says the light from Jesus's words are still powerful, and sometimes break through the cloud used to keep them from us:

"But a time comes when the light of the true doctrine of Jesus shines forth from the Gospels, notwithstanding the guilty efforts of the Church to conceal it from men's eyes, as, for instance, in prohibiting the translation of the Bible ; there comes a time when the light reaches the people, even through the medium of sectarians and free-thinkers, and the falsity of the doctrine of the Church is shown so clearly that men begin to transform the method of living that the Church has justified." Id., at 222.

Tolstoy sees steps have been taken despite the church that approximate better Jesus's teachings, e.g., end of popery and divine rights of kings, charity of property, etc. But this movement of civil rights breaks down the authority of the church, transfering power to secular authorities. The church which abandoned Christ long ago is left with empty dogmas and buildings:

"And in this way the conduct of human life is freed from the control of the Church, and subjected to an entirely different authority. The Church retains its dogmas, but what are its dogmas worth ? A metaphysical explanation can be of use only when there is a doctrine of life which it serves to make manifest. But the Church possesses only the explanation of an organization which it once sanctioned, and which no longer exists. The Church has nothing left but temples and shrines and canonicals- and vestments and words." Id., at 222.

The church which abandoned Christ's teachings for dogma alone finds itself abandoned and powerless in the world. What the church professed that came from Christ but which the church abandoned lives on in the modern movements for progress. However, the church has no influence over them because the church abandoned these equality-promoting messages long ago:

"All these churches — Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant — are like so many sentinels still keeping careful watch before the prison doors, although the prisoners have long been at liberty before their eyes, and even threaten their existence. All that actually constitutes life, that is, the activity of humanity towards progress and its own welfare, socialism, communism, the new politico-economical theories, utilitarianism, the liberty and equality of all social classes, and of men and women, all the moral principles of humanity, the sanctity of work, reason, science, art, — all these that lend an impulse to the world's progress in hostility to the Church are only fragments of the doctrine which the Church has professed, and so carefully endeavored to conceal. In these times, the life of the world is entirely independent of the doctrine of the Church. The Church is left so far behind, that men no longer hear the voices of those who preach its doctrines. This is easily to be understood because the Church still clings to an organization of the world's life, which has been forsaken, and is rapidly falling to destruction." Id., at 224-225.

Tolstoy then explains how the church became a shell following Paul's dictum to obey the government in all things. (Paul's Epistle to the Romans ch. 13). Tolstoy laments our faith is not entwined with ethics, but instead is all about dogmas / beliefs. Thus, rather than transforming the world with higher ethical principles to stop evil, the church now defends all things which promotes the ruler's interest:

"A century ago, and among the ignorant now, the nominal Christian makes this reply: " Compulsory military service, wars, tribunals, and the death penalty, all exist in obedience to the law of God transmitted to us by the Church. This is a fallen world. All the evil that exists, exists by God's will, as a punishment for the sins of men. For this reason we can do nothing to palliate evil. We can only save our own souls by faith, by the sacraments, by prayers, and by submission to the will of God as transmitted by the Church. The Church teaches us that all Christians should unhesitatingly obey their rulers, who are the Lord's anointed, and obey also persons placed in authority by rulers; that they ought to defend their property and that of others by force, wage war, inflict the death penalty, and in all things submit to the authorities, who command by the will of God." Id., at 227.

This leads into my favorite passage. Tolstoy says that when he asks Christians why they live at odds with what Jesus's teaches, the Christian responds by despairing of the skepticism of the age, as if anyone who wanted to restore Jesus's words to a priority were a traitor of Christianity:

"When we ask a Catholic, or Protestant, or Orthodox believer why he leads an existence contrary to the doctrine of Jesus, instead of making a correct response he begins to speak of the melancholy state of scepticism characteristic of this generation, of evil-minded persons who spread doubt broadcast among the masses, of the importance of the future of the existing Church. But he will not tell you why he does not act in conformity to the commands of the religion that he professes. Instead of speaking of his own condition, he will talk to you about the condition of humanity in general, and of that of the Church, as if his own life were not of the slightest significance, and his sole preoccupations were the salvation of humanity, and of what he calls the Church." Id., at 228-229.

When dogma and opinion about Christ is all that is left to Christianity, and Jesus' ethical messages are ignored which give us life, there is no answer one can give to the meaning of life that suffices:

"This subterfuge is employed simply because the believer and the philosopher, and the average man have no positive doctrine concerning existence, and cannot, therefore, reply to the personal question, '' What of your own life ? " They are disgusted and humiliated at not possessing the slightest trace of a doctrine with regard to life, for no one can live in peace without some understanding of what life really means. But nowadays only Christians cling to a fantastic and worn-out creed as an explanation of why life is as it is, and is not otherwise. Only Christians give the name of religion to a system which is not of the least use to any one. Only among Christians is life separated from any or all doctrine, and left without any definition whatever." Id., at 230.

Where does that leave anyone? The state becomes the new religion. In other words, when Christians now say that Christianity is not about ethics but belief, and thereby empty Christianity of the religious quality that Jesus also taught besides belief, the masses have one choice left: to have as their religion the obedience to the state's morality. This is the last condition of Christianity without Christ (in reliance upon Paul's dictum to obey rulers):

"Now their faith is in what they are told to do. The faith of those who deny religion is in a religion of obedience to the will of the ruling majority; in a word, submission to established authority." Id., at 231.

And thus believers in Christianity and skeptics end up with the same religion:

"Ask the believers or sceptics of this age, what doctrine of life they follow. They will be obliged to confess that they follow but one doctrine, the doctrine based upon laws formulated by the judiciary or by legislative assemblies, and enforced by the police — the favorite doctrine of most Europeans." Id., at 232.

Tolstoy says it is ironic that the only exceptions to these rules are a group of those resisting the current order and who continue the message of Christ but hate his name. (They hate his name because they confuse Christianity as it exists in the Pauline-deformed version of today with the Christ-version which was founded by the true apostles.) Tolstoy explains:

"Fortunately there is a remnant, made up of the noblest minds of the age, who are not contented with this religion, but have an entirely different faith with regard to what the life of man ought to be. These men are looked upon as the most malevolent, the most dangerous, and generally as the most unbelieving of all human beings, and yet they are the only men of our time believing in the Gospel doctrine, if not as a whole, at least in part. These people, as a general thing, know little of the doctrine of Jesus ; they do not understand it, ....; often they have nothing but a hatred for the name of Jesus ; but their whole faith with regard to what life ought to be is unconsciously based upon the humane and eternal truths comprised in the Christian doctrine. This remnant, in spite of calumny and persecution, are the only ones who do not tamely submit to the orders of the first comer. Consequently they are the only ones in these days who live a reasonable and not an animal life, the only ones who have faith." Id., at 235.

The necessity at this juncture is to consciously restore the doctrines of Jesus which are unconsciously being followed by a dissenting but egalitarian movement. Tolstoy encourages us to abandon the church which is devoid of Christ's doctrines:

"The truth of the doctrine of Jesus, once unconsciously absorbed by humanity through the organism of the Church, must now be consciously recognized; for in the truth of this doctrine humanity has always obtained its vital force. Men must lift up the torch of truth, which has so long remained concealed, and carry it before them, guiding their actions by its light.

"The doctrine of Jesus, as a religion that governs the actions of men and explains to them the meaning of life, is now before the world just as it was eighteen hundred years ago. Formerly the world had the explanations of the Church which, in concealing the doctrine, seemed in itself to offer a satisfactory interpretation of life ; but now the time is come when the Church has lost its usefulness, and the world, having no other means for sustaining its true existence, can only feel its helplessness and go for aid directly to the doctrine of Jesus." Id., at 238.

Tolstoy in the next chapter says following just Jesus's doctrines is the path to happiness and salvation:

"I BELIEVE in the doctrine of Jesus, and this is my religion: — I believe that nothing but the fulfilment of the doctrine of Jesus can give true happiness to men. I believe that the fulfilment of this doctrine is possible, easy, and pleasant. I believe that although none other follows this doctrine, and I alone am left to practise it, I cannot refuse to obey it, if I would save my life from the certainty of eternal loss; just as a man in a burning house if he find a door of safety, must go out, so I must avail myself of the way to salvation. I believe that my life according to the doctrine of the world has been a torment, and that a life according to the doctrine of Jesus can alone give me in this world the happiness for which I was destined by the Father of Life. I believe that this doctrine is essential to the welfare of humanity, will save me from the certainty of eternal loss, and will give me in this world the greatest possible sum of happiness. Believing thus, I am obliged to practise its commandments." Id., at 245.

Tolstoy was the greatest modern proponent of what I call the Jesus' Words Only principle.


Study Notes

In Wikipedia's article "Pauline Christianity," it records that Tolstoy in Church and State (1882) wrote: "This deviation begins from the times of the Apostles and especially from that hankerer after mastership Paul." We have preserved Church and State on our website at this linkFor a PDF version of Church and State, see this link. For a text version from Internet archives, see this link. For a face plate from the 1891 edition, and a copy of the text, see this link.

In Church and State, Tolstoy teaches that Jesus did not teach church was in a building, subject to hierarchies, nor that it should focus on dogmas such as the immaculate conception, Jesus' relation to the Father, etc., subjecting to punishment and judgment those who do not believe like the hierarchy insists they should. Tolstoy said this system of dogmas is a delusion of faith, and is not true faith in the doctrines of Jesus - which only do us good, while dogmas put us under power - either of the church or state. Tolstoy blames this change from original Christianity upon the influence of Constantine who first offered support, but in time imposed dogmas as the focus of attention. The clergy was created, and it succumbed because if the moral teachings were any longer taught, the clergy would have to give up their powers. So the church, now a building filled with dogmas and power, focused upon dogmas that do no good, and ignores those that would, if applied, destroy their power. Tolstoy says this condition afflicts both Protestants and Catholics. The germ of this power system, Tolstoy says, can be found in the words and practices of Paul.

See also our other article, Tolstoy: On Jesus v. Christianity - Christ's moral principles that shine to the world a more egalitarian brotherhood of man.