The Crucible of Doubt: Dostoevsky’s Faith

by John O‘Brien, OFM

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.



This book is written with such awareness and understanding of the work of Dostoevsky. I first read the Appendix that has the chronology of Dostoevsky. It is an amazing and meaningful journey. The painting on the front cover of the text was seen by Dostoevsky in 1857, he was mesmerized and troubled by the work. His wife had to draw him away from it so he would not have an epileptic fit. Dostoevsky takes us through pain and suffering illustrated in Holbein’s painting on his journey.


O’Brien in this work will look at Dostoevsky later works and faith. The sorrows of the disadvantaged are those found in his first novel ‘Poor folk’ (1846) It is in the post-Siberian fiction that suffering emerges as a major theme. Here we are confronted with physical distress through to the self =-tormenting agonies of Ivan Karamazov. We see suffering due to accidents and other suffering resulting from human cruelty. We see poverty, hunger, alcoholism, sadism, masochism, sexual abuse suicide and murder. Suffering is presented as a psychological, social problem as well as a religious one or a philosophical one.


In Dostoevsky’s noel “The Brothers Karamazov” Ivan Karamazov tells the story of a serf’s child who hit his master’s dog with a stone while he was playing. The master had the child torn to pieces before his mother’s eyes. Ivan says:” I don’t want harmony, I don’t want it out of the love I bear to mankind. I want to remain with my suffering unavenged. Besides, too high a price has been placed on harmony. We cannot afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket of admission. And indeed, if I am an honest man, I’m bound to hand it back as soon a s possible. This I am doing. It is not God that I do not accept, Alyosha. I merely most respectfully return him the ticket, I accept God, understand that, but I cannot accept the world that he has made.”


This is classic protest atheism. Dostoevsky said that this part where Ivan spoke was perhaps the most powerful justification of atheism that was written in Europe. He said it was ‘through the crucible of doubt that his own hosanna had passed.’ Dostoevsky uses cruelty to children to emphasis the brutality that exists in this world.


The term “Holy Spirit” is a term used in late Judaism (Psalm 51:11) In early Rabbinic :literature “Holy Spirit” refers to the Spirit of Sanctuary. When Christians speak of the Holy Spirit they come close to the ideas in the Western literature. The idea of God’s presence Found in the rabbinic use of the idea of the Shekinah. The root stem s-k-a is found in the Hebrew Bible. It means to dwell. The word Shekinah as dwelling does not occur in the Hebrew Bible, but is found in Rabbinic literature. The word Shekinah demotes the dwelling or settling of the divine presence of God.


The idea that God suffers with the people leads to the idea that god’s self-deliverance goes together with the deliverance of Israel. It was Franz Rosenzweig called the suffering taken on by the Shekinah ‘its wonderings; a kind of odyssey’ When Israel is healed the Shekinah is healed. ‘To acknowledge God’s unity the Jew calls it uniting God. For this unity is, in that it becomes: it is a Becoming Unity. And this Becoming is laid on the soul of man and in his heart. Through his presence God is with his people. This gives us a way into understanding the Holy Spirit. God loves his creation. God is bound to every creature in passionate affection. This love draws him out of himself. Because he is the lover of life, his eternal spirit is in all things as their vital force. We therefore encounter every creature and every human being because God dwells there. In our fellow human beings we encounter God who waits for our love. “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matt 25:43)Von Balthasar seen the suffering of holy ones as a sharing in Christ’s suffering and opens one to the incomprehensible God. He holds that the possibility of sharing the Christ’s passion is in the hands if the risen Christ, who by the power of the Holy Spirit shares with each person the form of the passion that is appropriate for them. The Prince is a type of such a person. Van Balthazar is convinced that the dark mystical nights of many saints and mystics give us vital clues and hints as to the interior reality of Christ’s suffering and death.


For Von Balthazar it is Therese of Lisieux who helps him understand Jesus’ journey into hell. She didn’t desire mystical experiences but abandoned herself into the hands of God. She doesn’t measure her progress but leaves all to God alone. Therese points at what mist be going on in hell, this unendurable transition, but Von Balthasar’s reading of Christ’s mission suggests that, for Jesus in such a state would mean more than Therese could know, a complete loss of any sense or assurance that what he is doing is of any value to God, or even recognizable to God as an act of self-giving love. Hell is that chaotic directionless, measureless absence of light or darkness, in which knowledge of one’s reality one’s identity and one’s accomplishment has apparently been lost. There suffers in solidarity with the crucified and dead Christ. At the same time our pain is his. That is why so many suffering souls saw in Therese a sister who gave her life to live in solidarity with the poor and broken.


This is a book filled with God’s love for each of us and how to truly be aware of the presence of God in the poor and marginalized. It is a book that all should read and stop for the meditation/contemplation that occurs.

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