Hope Itself   /   Fall 2022   /    Thematic: Hope Itself

On Hope and Holy Fools

There is nothing very sexy about hope.

Tara Isabella Burton

“Alyosha and Vanya,” illustration for The Brothers Karamazov, 1971, by Mikhail Rojter (1916–1993); The Gamborg Collection/Bridgeman Images

When I was a teenager, I used to believe—fanatically—that the greatest thing you could do with your life was live it as art. I’d read a lot of Oscar Wilde, and I was easily moved by novels and easily seduced by beauty. A life that was not ordinary or domestic, but poetic, felt like the only enchanted way to be. I wanted a life that was a novel, with a clear narrative line—a bildungsroman, probably, not exactly tragic (I had my limits), but at least indulgently melodramatic. I wanted a life with rising actions and satisfying denouements, with outcomes thematically, if not always morally, justified. I could not divorce my inchoate belief in a God of some kind and my belief in life as art. (Hadn’t Oscar Wilde become a Catholic on his deathbed?) Both seemed, then, to spring from the same source. There was ordinary, unexamined life, in which nothing meant everything, and then there was the charged life of the novel: the life in which everything mattered, everything was a kind of poetry.

The irony was that, by my early twenties, my favorite novel—and by far the most formative in my ultimate conversion to Christianity—was wonderfully, vexingly, narratively unsatisfying when it counted. And my favorite scene in that favorite novel was the most unsatisfying of all.

That scene comes in “Pro and Contra,” Book V of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in a chapter called “The Grand Inquisitor”: a story within a story—often published, rather reductively, as a standalone book—told by the neurotic, intellectually inclined second Karamazov brother, Ivan, to his saintly younger sibling, Alyosha. Ivan has spent most of the chapter trying to explain to Alyosha why he does not, cannot, believe in God.

Ivan’s doubts are twofold. There is the problem that belief in God seems impossible and irrational according to the structures of earthly reality. “If God exists and if He really did create the world,” Ivan ruminates, “He created it according to the geometry of Euclid and the human mind.… Yet [some]…even dare to dream that two parallel lines, which according to Euclid can never meet on earth, may meet somewhere in infinity. I have come to the conclusion that, since I can’t understand even that, I can’t expect to understand about God.” Then, too, there is the problem of human evil. How, Ivan asks Alyosha, can a good God allow the horrors of the world—murder, rape, the abuse of children? Even if Ivan could conceive of the existence of a divine creator, he could not bring himself to morally accept Him. He would have to, in his own words, “return the ticket.”

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