Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dostoevsky: Moral Relativism

Book Review: Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Picture:Located at the Moscow Metro stop, "Dostoevskaya"

Note: I will be using the word "crime" to refer to an offense against the law and the word "evil" to refer to an offense against humanity and God.

"What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1:9

While moral relativism boomed in the 20th century, it was not pioneered at this time. Moral relativism had been explored many times before. It can be traced back to India in the sixth century BCE, and maybe before that. While it seems to be a harmless and ideal philosophy, what happens when we take it to its logical end? Dostoevsky tastefully and quite brilliantly does this in his novel, Crime and Punishment.

Raskolnikov, Dostoevsky's protagonist, suffers from being a poor student in St. Petersburg. He starts dealing with a certain pawnbroker when he starts selling off his possessions in order to survive. Raskolnikov, we gather, very passionately hates this woman. We take a disliking to her as well. We sympathize with her sister, however. She is innocent of all the pawnbroker's vices.

Raskolnikov decides that he must kill the pawnbroker. It is for the benefit of society that he would do such a thing; therefore, he is justified in his crime. He is of a higher class of humanity, so he is able to do such things and get away with them.

At first, we disagree (when I use "we," I am really referring to myself) that he is justified in killing her and putting the law into his own hands, but we are not so broken up about it since she was not a great person. We, despite any possible adherences to moral absolutism, begin to practice moral relativism unintentionally. We are challenged in this when he kills her sister on accident, but moral relativism wins again. It was an accident. Accidents happen.

The entire book we sympathize with Raskolnikov as he begins to feel guilty for his crime. We think, "Can he ever live a normal life again?" We hope he can. All the while, we are being tormented with every tedious thought of Raskolnikov as he moves about during the subsequent days. It is as if we could do the same thing and feel the same thoughts.

It is not until the very end that we are faced with the horrific conclusions that come as a result of the psychological adventure we took part in with Dostoevsky. In the end, Raskolnikov confesses. We side with him as he is feeling guilty. We hope everything will work out. Feeling guilt, however, would be adhering to moral absolutism. It would be admitting that there was an evil committed. The confession, however, was a result of emotion. Raskolnikov, after everything, still believes he is of a superior make and has every right to do away with those who are inferior. Sound familiar? Like some ideology from the World War II era? I had once hoped this man would get away with his crime. Dostoevsky had committed a psychological assault on my mind.

The emotional aspect of his confession, however, does not explain everything. He was also running from the punishment his conscience had been inflicting on him during the course of the novel. We must take a moment and address this. Raskolnikov would rather take the punishment of the law over punishment from his conscience. There seems to be three things at work here: his mind, the law, and his conscience. The justification of the crime before it was committed originates from his mind. This is subjective. The black and white letter of the law originates and is enforced by the government in place. It can be subjective, depending on who makes up the government, or based on an objective, natural law. Lastly, Raskolnikov's conscience seems to be outside of him. In this instance it agrees with the law, but acts separately from the law. All his rationalizing before and after the crime fails to hold up to the sickness he suffers. He, in an act of desperation, seeks out retribution for his crime. After this act of desperation, he still returns to his own rationalization that he is of a superior make. Regardless, his conscience is at rest, because justice was paid.

Here are a few quotes from the end:

"'How,' he pondered, 'how was my thought any stupider than all the other thoughts and theories that have been swarming and colliding in the world, ever since the world began? It's enough simply to take a broad, completely independent view of the matter, free of all common influences, and then my thought will surely not seem so...strange. Oh, nay-sayers and penny philosophers, why do you stop half-way!'"

"In his illness he had dreamed that the whole world was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. [...] But these creatures [from the pestilence] were spirits endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakeable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgments, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakeable. [...] Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate. People killed each other in some sort of meaningless spite. [...] In the cities the bells rang all day long: everyone was being summoned but no one knew who was summoning them or why, and everyone felt anxious."

Another article on moral relativism:

Womanizing vs. the "N" Word


You know how in America we keep our livestock in pastures with a fence around it to keep them from running away or being stolen? In Russia, I found that you build fences to keep livestock out. This means cows, pigs, and sheep are all walking around like they own the place. If you want to keep them out of your garden, put a fence around it. They probably have a similar concept in Ireland, because in every Irish movie, there are sheep that block the road. I once asked a Russian about this and how people keep track of their animals. How come you aren't afraid of people stealing your livestock? The response: they know where to come home to eat! Even if someone stole a cow, that cow would go home to its original owner to eat that night and sleep.

But what happens when they take over the bus stop and convert it to a manger?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Trust and Obey

While with the Lord this morning, an old children's song came to mind. Shows what kids retain and bring to mind ten years later! The song is "Trust and Obey," which summarizes the two things I am wrestling the Lord with right now. But the song holds true:

Trust and obey
For there's no other way
To be happy in Jesus
But to trust and obey

Here's the entire song:

Thank you all for your prayers!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hannah and Her Sacrifice

I Samuel 1

I tend to justify myself when clinging to gifts the Lord has given me. I tell myself that the Lord has given to enjoy, and until he takes it, it is mine to take without question. You can see how this can turn into idolatry pretty quickly, and an unchecked idolatry.

We can see in 1 Samuel that Hannah pleaded with the Lord to the point that Eli came upon her weeping "bitterly" and thought she was drunk. She told the Lord if he heard her and granted her a desire for a son, she would give his life to the Lord.

When Samuel was born, she indeed gave Samuel to the Lord. But my experience in situations like these have been, "Lord, you granted me this desire, so I was mistaken in saying I would give it back. You want me to keep it and enjoy to the fullest." This usually is in the form of me telling the Lord that I can give back something at any given time, but when the time comes for me to give it up, I cling. Woe to me for my insincere promises.

Promise (n)- a declaration or assurance that one will do a particular thing

"When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay." Ecclesiastes 5:4-5

My purpose is not to condemn myself, but to learn to take joy in fulfilling promises. After all, I want the Lord to take pleasure in my actions.

After Hannah weaned Samuel, she took him to the house of the Lord. She did this in thanksgiving for the answered prayer, and not out of reluctance from giving up her long-awaited desire. We joyfully fulfill promises.

"For this child I prayed, and the Lord has granted me my petition that I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord. As long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord." 1 Samuel 1:27-28

Then she worshipped the Lord, her heart exulting in him.

There was no room for idolatry. Our hearts should always be in a state like Hannah's--ready to give all back to him, all our blessings whether they be people or things.


Fleshly offenses have emerged in my heart and actions, and I am brought low. But truth tells me that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus and also that:

"God[...] has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." 1 Corinthians 4:6-7

Lord, help me to claim my shortcomings and my unworthiness. I want to display your power and strength. Any reservation towards this is some meager attempt to show the world that I have succeeded at "Christianity." But if I am perfect I do not need Christ or the gospel, and by my actions am undermining Christ work on the cross. Teach me to say with Paul, "I am the worst among sinners." I need Jesus.

"Whoever conceals his transgression will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy." Proverbs 28:13