“In a world without God, everything is permitted.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky was a 19th Century Russian novelist, best known for Crime and Punishment. His final novel was The Brothers Karamazov, which tells the story of Fyodor Karamazov and his three sons, Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha. Fyodor is a thoroughly selfish man, a sensualist openly unfaithful to his two successive wives and neglectful of his children. Dmitri is a military officer, who shares some of his father’s qualities but has a moral compass. Alyosha aspires to live a holy life, living as a novice at the nearby monastery. Ivan is the intellectual of the three. He becomes an atheist, and seems to revel in telling people that, “In a world without God, everything is permitted.”
Dostoyevsky explores the ramifications of Ivan and Alyosha’s beliefs in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan wins some people over to his point of view, with disastrous consequences, and Ivan himself descends into fever and madness. And while Alyosha faces many hardships, his persistence in his faith brings reconciliation and spiritual healing to others.
No one would mistake The Brothers Karamazov for a Hallmark movie. Dostoyevsky grapples with the reality of suffering and the consequences of sin on every page. He himself had suffered much: his mother died when he was 15 and his father died when he was 17; he suffered from epilepsy and struggled with poor health throughout his life; accused of being a revolutionary, he spent four years in a Siberian prison (and at one point, received a last minute reprieve before a firing squad); he struggled with a gambling addiction; and lost two children before they reached their fourth birthday. Yet despite everything that happened to him, and even while wrestling with doubts and the problem of evil, Dostoyevsky maintained his faith. On his deathbed, he asked his wife to read the story of the Prodigal Son to his children. His tombstone is inscribed with John 12:24: Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.
Let’s consider Ivan’s statement for a moment. “In a world without God, everything is permitted.” Why would that be the case? Can’t we do good and avoid evil without God being part of the equation? The truth is, we cannot, because we cannot discern what is good without some ultimate standard of goodness to appeal to. We cannot discern it on our own. Human beings are fallen creatures. This is a theological point, but its truth is apparent every time we turn on the news, witness the behavior of those around us, or reflect honestly on our own choices. Every attempt by human beings to create a utopian society has failed. We cannot discern, much less act upon, what is good without recourse to the absolute source of good, which is God. It is only through His grace, received particularly through prayer, the Bible, the teachings of the Church, and above all the sacraments, that we can come to know His will (which is the ultimate good) and act upon it. Conversely, if there is no God, or if we reject Him, we are left with no moral standard, or a fluctuating and error-riddled human standard driven by whoever gains power. As rejection of and indifference to God becomes increasingly commonplace in the West, this is quickly becoming the society we are left with.
Image: a sketch of the Petrashevsky Circle mock execution, where Dostoyevsky was nearly executed (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).