Why Tolstoy Rejected The Church
Everyone knows there are innumerable sects of Christianity. Yet nearly all denominations have some sort of church. Have you ever wondered, “Why do we need a church at all?”
Leo Tolstoy was not only the most famous and revered of Russian authors, but also one of the most devout Christians of his day and one of the fiercest opponents of his church. How could a man at once honor his faith yet hate his church?
I now present to you one of the more interesting arguments you will ever read.
In this [living as a Christian] consists the difference between the teaching of Christ and all other religious teachings, — a difference consisting not in the difference of demands, but in the difference of the way of guiding men. Christ gave no definitions of life. He never established any institutions, he never established marriage. But people who do not understand the peculiarities of Christ’s teaching, who are accustomed to external tenets, and who wish to feel themselves in the right, as does the Pharisee, contrary to the whole spirit of Christ’s teaching, — have out of the letter made an external teaching of rules, and have substituted this teaching for Christ’s true teaching of the ideal.
The bolded above is indisputable. Both marriage and places of worship existed long before Christ, and many of Christ’s disciples were asked to leave their families to instead seek God.
But even if Christ never advocated a church, it doesn’t mean he was opposed to one either. How can Tolstoy make the leap from Christ’s agnosticism of the Church to full blown heresy?
The church teachings, which call themselves Christian, have in all manifestations of life substituted for Christ’s teaching and ideal the external injunctions and rules which are contrary to the spirit of the teaching.
Thus Tolstoy claims that the Church offers rules when instead true Christians must only concern themselves with ideals, as rules are contrary to Christ’s teachings. From earlier in the essay, Tolstoy writes,
An ideal is only then an ideal when its realization is possible in the idea only, in thought, when it presents itself as attainable only at infinity, and when, therefore, the approach to it is infinite. If an ideal were not only attainable, but we could imagine its realization, it would cease to be an ideal. Such is Christ’s ideal, the establishment of the kingdom of God upon earth…
Because ideals can never be realized, any attempts to make “rules” about how to achieve an ideal will automatically fail. Therefore Christian Churches which give rules to its members are misleading them from Christ’s true teachings. Tolstoy continues,
The church teachings, which call themselves Christian, have in all manifestations of life substituted for Christ’s teaching and ideal the external injunctions and rules which are contrary to the spirit of the teaching. This has been done in reference to government, courts, armies, churches, divine service; this has also been done in reference to marriage. Disregarding the fact that Christ nowhere established marriage, — on the contrary, whenever he mentioned an external rule it was to oppose it (“Forsake thy wife and follow me”), — the church teachings, which call themselves Christian, have established marriage as a Christian institution, that is, they have established external observances which make sexual love sinless and entirely lawful for a Christian.
Only because over a small part of the persons united the clergy performs a certain ceremony, called church marriage, people of our world naively or hypocritically imagine that they are living in matrimony.
There cannot be and never has been such a thing as Christian marriage, just as there has not been and cannot be a Christian divine service (Matt. vi. 5-12; John iv. 21), nor any Christian teachers and fathers (Matt. xxiii. 8-10), nor Christian property, nor army, nor courts, nor state.
Thus the early Christians always understood it.
The Christian’s ideal is love of God and his neighbour, self- renunciation in order to serve God and his neighbour; carnal love, marriage, means serving oneself, and therefore is, in any case, a hindrance in the service of God and men, and, consequently, from the Christian point of view, a fall, a sin.
And so Tolstoy justified his departure from the Church, for not being Christian. Amidst the discussion on the necessity of the Church, Tolstoy touches upon many other subjects relevant to Christians, including why Christianity is superior to other religions, why chastity is such a high virtue, and the moral failings of Russia (which oddly enough sound just like criticisms many would make of American culture).
I recommend this essay because it shows a powerful way of thinking while giving the reader an insight into one of the most brilliant minds who ever lived. You can read the essay in it’s entirety here.
Read Next: Eating From The Tree Of Wisdom