Friday, February 24, 2012

Tolstoy, Daniel Haddad and Christianity

Late in 2010 I wrote a post about my friend Daniel Haddad, who I befriended in college. We were both transfers into Rice, econ majors and had affinities for Volkswagens. After realizing those similarities, the rest was history. He was one of those guys so smart, he challenged you to be his equivalent and attempt to keep up with him. After we graduated, we lost a bit of touch but remained in contact through informal means of communication.

I discovered he was diagnosed with a severe form of bone sarcoma cancer, which quickly progressed and took his life last April. Religiously following his blog (excuse the irony), I realized how firmly he stood by his faith in God and his religious convictions, never losing hope that all pain he suffered was in the hands of God. As much as I was supportive of him and his battle, I couldn’t sympathize with this side of his blog posts, however, due to my lack of belief in the Judeo-Christian God. That never took away from Daniel’s integrity and character and if anything, it strengthened it.

After having just finished Anna Karenina, a book I consider one of the best I’ve ever read, I couldn’t help but think of Daniel. Tolstoy touches on the topic of religion frequently. He mocks religion as a refuge for characters such as Anna’s husband, betrayed by infidelity, to find comfort in God through his suffering and devise excuses to go back on his word after moments of magnanimity. This theme is tossed around through the meat of the book as Levin, apparently Tolstoy’s alter-ego, expresses his fervent atheism and impious insecurities prior to marrying Kitty, a woman of faith.

The theme of religion was like a hacky sack Tolstoy plays with throughout the book, not giving the reader a real indication of his feelings on religion and bringing it up time to time as an accessory. That is until the very end when Levin goes on his philosophical rants regarding his stance on God, religion and his fit into the cosmos. Levin is one of the only characters in the book I actually liked. The novel really is about learning from the character deficiencies. After reading numerous philosophical texts and unable to come to a conclusion, Levin contemplates suicide as a solution of release from a meagre existence. Levin then realizes that to avoid thinking and living simply with good ideals while satisfying one’s own desires is what makes for happy living. This conviction doesn’t last long, however. After a conversation with a peasant, Levin has an epiphany that living for oneself is futile and converts to Christianity, although he does not reveal his newfound faith to his wife. The book ends there. If his newfound faith is any indication of the other characters’ failures to find happiness through causes larger than themselves, Levin will ultimately not find happiness in his newfound faith and it may be the reason why he doesn’t share it with his wife. We’ll never know, however, but from all the wisdom Tolstoy imparts regarding human behaviour, this is the arena where he leaves us hanging. That’s what makes me appreciate the book even more. Tolstoy doesn’t provide any answers to those things he sees some value in but seems unsure of himself.

The reason it struck me so deeply is that while I, like the former Levin, am an unbeliever and in a phase of reading philosophical texts to understand the reasons for religiosity, I still see the good in religion and the purpose it gives people like Daniel.


Mink said...

I'm sure you've seen it but I think the "Why I hate religion but love Jesus" video is only awakening in many the shedding of organized religion and birth of personalized spirituality. I haven't read Anna Karenina, but based on your post I think Tolstoy might be saying that the characters/people will always change in their beliefs because in this arena there isn't just one answer. There are many. Or the pessimist might say that there are none. ;-)

Danimal said...

Thanks Mink.. I'll have a look at that video. Hope you're well and cycling hard.