Lev Tolstoy is regarded as one of the best novelists ever. He was born in 1828, raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, and excommunicated in 1901. Surely there have been others who abandoned Orthodox thinking to a degree much worse than Tolstoy, but usually such people disappear into ambiguity without their thoughts being recorded. Tolstoy, on the other hand, left behind some of the world’s most epic works along with diaries and even posthumous publications that tell us where things went wrong.
His influence is still felt today. There are still a few surviving groups from the Tolstoyan Movement here over a century after his death. Moreover, he was a contributor to the greater shift toward liberal theology that took place in the late 19th/early 20th century, which is currently a big topic in Christian academia across the world.
Let’s take a brief look at some things Tolstoy wrote to see if we can glean any lessons from his departure.
False faiths are such faiths, which people accept, not because they need them for their souls, but only because they believe those who preach them.1
The plain definition of “faith,” is “that which someone believes.” That means that practically everything I learned in kindergarten was a false belief. The teacher said that George Washington was America’s first president and I believed her based on her credentials, ergo it was a “false belief.” But in context, Tolstoy is talking about bigger things than this:
In order for a person to live well, he needs to know what he should and should not do. In order to know this, he needs a faith. A faith is the knowledge of what a person is and what he lives for in the world. And all reasonable people had and have such faith.2
Perhaps a better word than “faith” for what Tolstoy is describing might be “religion,” or maybe a less provocative word might be “worldview.” But even a worldview is not necessarily false if someone believes it based on the authority of a teacher. If something is true and someone believes it, then his faith is truth; he has the true faith. It matters not whether the topic is a trivial matter or a life-changing worldview, in the end, the question is, “Is this true?” not “Why do you believe it?”
This does not change the fact, though, that teachers of falsehood outnumber teachers of truth. This is evidenced by the fact that of all mutually exclusive worldviews, there is not one that the majority of teachers believe. Regardless of which particular worldview is true, its teachers are outnumbered. Tolstoy is close, then, because we should not accept a worldview simply because it has a teacher; we should constantly be asking, “Is this true?”
Likewise, we cannot accept a worldview simply because it is necessary for the soul (which is the other side of Tolstoy’s definition of a false faith). As Tolstoy himself said:
If people live in sins and temptations, then they cannot be at peace. The conscience convicts them. And therefore, such people need one or the other: either admit that they are guilty before men and God and stop sinning, or else continue living the sinful life, doing foolish deeds and calling their evil deeds good. This is why some people have invented doctrines of false faith, so that they can live foolish lives and consider themselves right.3
A picture of Tolstoy roasting in hell on a wall of a church in the Russian village of Tazov.
…I kinda wonder who else is on that wall
A person may invent a worldview to find freedom from his own conscience, as a self-medicated therapy for his own soul, but this does not mean that his religion is true, regardless of how sincere he may be. Tolstoy goes a step further by saying: