I finally finished this book. For a while I was going through chapter by chapter and writing my summaries and reactions. See my Tolstoy Series if you want to see some of these more detailed posts. I intend to finish this process and possibly create a study guide. This book is definitely worth studying. The next Tolstoy book on my list is The Kingdom of God is Within You. I can’t wait!

What I BelieveWhat I Believe by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What I Believe is Leo Tolstoy’s follow-up to A Confession in which he describes his profound existential crisis: at age 50 and at the height of his worldly success, Tolstoy became so depressed that he wished to commit suicide. In desperation he turned to the Church of his childhood and discovered the saving power of a true belief in God. Reading A Confession led me to read his final novel Resurrection, which in which an aristocrat has a spiritual awakening of his own and discovers the far-reaching dysfunctions of the Russian justice system and the evils of bureaucracy. I had read his two great classics, War and Peace and Anna Karenina in the past, but Tolstoy’s post spiritual crisis phase produced writings much different in content, tone, and purpose. What I Believe turned my world upside down and I can’t wait to read his The Kingdom of God is Within You, a book considered so radical it was banned in Russia for many years.

Tolstoy begins What I Believe by explaining how he began to feel uncomfortable with the doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was attracted to Christ’s teachings about love, forgiveness, and the brotherhood of man, but he found the Church, while never denying Christ’s doctrine of love, put a tremendously disproportionate emphasis on ritual and ceremony and gave scant attention to how Christians should behave toward other people in their daily lives. Also he was disturbed that the Church supported such things as persecution of certain populations, serfdom, capital punishment, and war. Tolstoy read the gospels over and over, with special attention to the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5 through 7. Then, reading through all the church’s commentaries on the gospels, he found that the church seemed to ignore or distort the clear teachings of Jesus whenever they conflicted with the established systems of civilization. It was as if the world’s system were the default, and the teachings of Jesus, who they claimed to believe is God, had to be made to fit into that mold.

By the end of the book Tolstoy comes reluctantly to the conclusion that for centuries the Church has been teaching a form of Christianity far different from what Jesus intended. Jesus was teaching the eternal law that leads to life: real life on earth and life that continues after death. He also teaches how this law, based on love, is incompatible with the world’s law, which is based on fear and competition and is really just a sophisticated version the predatory law of the beasts. Tolstoy saw that Jesus’ primary message was that to be truly human, to rise to a level higher than a talking animal, or in other words, to be born into the new life of the spirit, you must stop living according to the law of the world and embrace the law of love. This is the only way to break the cycle of violence. Sure the world will probably not like you and may even crucify you, but you will be truly alive, and actually happier, both before and after your physical death.

The part of the book I found most fascinating is Tolstoy’s interpretation of the five commandments of Christ, all of which are clearly taught in the Sermon on the Mount. For each one he explains the research he did into the original texts and how he reached each conclusion. The key commandment for Tolstoy, the one that really opened the floodgates of light, is that followers of Christ are not to return evil for evil. That’s means no violence to anyone, including enemies, and not just personal enemies, but also those populations that your government calls enemies. When he realized that Christ did not mean this statement as an unreachable ideal but a practical lifestyle, all the pieces of the puzzle began falling into place. Here are the five commandments of Christ as interpreted by Tolstoy:

1. “Be at peace with all men, and never consider your anger as just. Never look upon any man as worthless or a fool, neither call him such. Not only shall you never think yourself justified in your anger, but also you shall never consider your brother’s anger as causeless; and therefore, if there is one who is angry with you, even if it is without cause, go and be reconciled to him before praying. Endeavor to destroy all enmity between yourself and others, that their enmity may not grow and destroy you.” Matthew 5:21-26

2. “Take no pleasure in concupiscence; let each man, if he is not a eunuch, have a wife and each woman a husband; let a man have but one wife, and woman one husband, and let them never under any pretext whatever dissolve their union.” Matthew 5:32

3. “Never take an oath under any circumstances. Every oath is extorted from men for evil.” Matthew 5: 33-37

4. “Never resist evil by violence; never return violence for violence. If anyone strikes your, bear it; it anyone takes away what is yours, let him have it; if anyone makes you labor, do so; if anyone wants to have what you consider to be your own, give it up to him.” Matthew 5: 38-42

5. “Never consider men of another nation as your enemies; look upon all men as you do toward your fellow-country men; therefore you shall not kill those whom you call your enemies; love all and do good to all.” Matthew 5:43-48

Tolstoy believes that these commandments are not intended to be impossible ideals but are in fact Christ’s instructions on how his followers ought to live. If we would only try them, we’d find they actually result in a happier life. In Chapter 10 he identifies the ingredients of a truly happy life: being in touch with the natural world, family, peaceful and unrestricted fellowship with all classes of people, and surprisingly, labor: working to supply our own needs and enjoying the fruits of our labor. A life lived according to Jesus’ commandments would produce to all of these ingredients.

Jesus said “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” and “Ye shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” The law of love that Jesus taught, according to Tolstoy, is more in accord with our real nature than the world’s law which tells us we are obligated to kill total strangers if the State tells us to take up arms and go to war. I am not so sure about it being more in accord with human nature. The law of love appeals to me but I am a peaceful person who does not find the least pleasure in killing living things. However I know plenty of people who say they sincerely enjoy killing animals, watching ultra-violent films, and even claim to relish the thought of killing certain people. And some of these people are Christians.

I understand none of us made this world and most of us feel stuck in its tangled web of systems. We are born into a world where we don’t have access to enough earth to grow our own food and are dependent from birth on government and complicated economic systems to obtain food and water. So I don’t know that God would hold us accountable for the situation we find ourselves in, and I am glad that one of the rules is that no one gets to judge anyone else. Maybe we could just not assume that the way the world is necessarily the way it has to be. Human systems are not set in stone. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to ask ourselves why we do the things we do every day: are we acting out of fear or out of love? Or have we somehow mixed the two concepts in our minds – as in I go to a job I hate because I love my children and am afraid I won’t be able to feed them. It’s more complicated than you think, Mr. Tolstoy, when you are not a world-renowned Russian nobleman. Also I am puzzled about how this doctrine of non-violence relates to crazed terrorists and keeping child predators and psychopaths off the streets. However, that said, I think Tolstoy is onto something here, namely the truth. It changed his life and it may yet change mine.

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TorrentsofSpringIn honor of the season I have read a book I have heard much of over the years, one I have wanted to read for a long time: The Torrents of Spring by Ivan Turgenev, published in 1872 when Turgenev was 53 or 54. His age is important because this novelette is largely autobiographical and the hero, when we first meet him, is 52. Although the subject is first love, this is an especially rewarding book for those who are middle-aged, especially those living with regrets and perhaps feeling discouraged and burnt out. It is the story of a memory of lost youth and first love but it is also about redemption, coming to terms with the past, and finding peace, or at least, finding a way to keep fighting another day for your life’s meaning.

As the novel begins we meet our protagonist, Dimitri Pavlovich Sanin, a Russian landowner, who is suffering a case of insomnia after attending some fancy upper-crust social event. We get the impression there is nothing outwardly wrong with his life: he is not ill, is financially secure, has a social life, and lives in a nice home. But his spirit is in ashes: he is empty, embittered by the nonsense of humanity, and haunted by the fear of impending old age and the lurking abyss of death. In this tortured state of mind, Dimitri imagines an allegory for the state of his existence:

“He himself sets in a little tottering boat, and down below in those dark oozy depths, like prodigious fishes, he can just make out the shapes of hideous monsters; all the ills of life, diseases, sorrows, madness, poverty, blindness…. He gazes, and behold, one of these monsters separates itself off from the darkness, rises higher and higher, stands out more and more distinct, more and more loathsomely distinct…. An instant yet, and the boat that bears him will be overturned! But behold, it grows dim again, it withdraws, it sinks down to the bottom, and there it lies, faintly stirring in the slime…. But the fated day will come, and it will overturn the boat.”

Deep water. Photo by Aaron Apple.

Deep water. Photo by Aaron Apple.

Such are the thoughts passing through this man’s mind at 2:00 am. We see that he is going to need some serious psychological intervention to get to a better place. In this depressed state he rummages listlessly through drawers full of papers and discovers an small old-fashioned box. Opening it, he finds a cross set with garnets and the object transports him to a time in life 30 years in the past, when he was 22….

Of course as always when I read Russian literature I so wish I could read Russian. The original title of this novelette is Veshnie Vody – or Вешние воды. However my 1897 translation by Constance Garnett is lovely: simple, direct, and lyrical. The main characters: Dimitri and all the members of the Roselli family are so genuine, warm, and sincere, that I not only feel I know them intimately, but I want to hang around their kitchen table drinking chocolaté and playing board games. In Dimitri’s memory it is 1840 and he has just arrived in Frankfort from Italy, ending a European tour. He has a few hours to kill before his coach leaves for Petersburg where he plans to begin his working life in some government post.

But his plans are suddenly altered when he wanders into a random confectioner’s shop and meets Gemma, a beautiful 19-year-old girl who, at the moment, is in a panic. Running into to the shop from a back room, she begs the young stranger to come save her brother. Emil Roselli, age 14,has fainted and no one can get him to wake up. Dimitri has no medical experience but he quickly loosens the boy’s clothing, calls for some hair brushes, and begins brushing his body. I take it that brushing was a technique used at that time in such cases. Anyway, miraculously enough, it worked. The boy opens his eyes and wakes up. Gemma, her mother, and their loyal family friend, Pantaleone, a retired opera singer, are so grateful they insist that Dimitri stay for dinner. He becomes so absorbed in the stories, the games, and the discussion, that he misses his ride back to Peterburg and decides to hang out in Frankfort a few more days. Although he does yet fully realize it, he has already fallen in love with Gemma and she with him.

There are complications of course. Gemma is already betrothed to a stiff arrogant bore of a merchant named Karl Klüber. Once Dimitri recognizes the magical feeling he is experiencing for what it is and he and Gemma acknowledge their love, Gemma’s mother becomes an obstacle because, as a widow, she sees Herr Klüber as the family’s financial salvation. But as the kinks are worked out, Dimitri becomes the betrothed and is accepted by all. It seems like this sweet love story is going to work out happily for everyone…except we know it isn’t. The suspense is in finding out what could have gone wrong to mess up something so good and so beautiful?

What does happen is so senseless, so ridiculous, so stupid, so typically human. But I don’t want to spoil the story so let’s just say Dimitri gets swept up into some torrents of spring. Does this trip down memory lane help the middle-aged Dimitri emerge from his funk? Sort of. No one can change the past, but you can make an effort to make peace with it, and there are sometimes things you can do to actually transform it.

The Torrents of Spring is deliriously happy, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful: a genuine life story to which many of us can relate. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets old….but you’ll have to read the book to find out what else.

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now is the first book I have read by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I did a little background research and I believe this brave woman is an important voice in world affairs. The tone of the book is calm and factual, yet urgent and unflinching in the face of unpleasant truth. I would recommend it to anyone over the age of 13 who lives on Planet Earth in the 21st century.

Heretic is an appeal for a sane realistic response to the rising tide of violent jihad that is currently destroying the lives of millions living under the domination of what the media calls “Radical Islam” and casting an ominous cloud that reaches every part of the globe. Human rights violations are growing dramatically in many Islamic majority countries and westerners are no longer surprised, though we still may be shocked, by near daily brutal acts such as stonings and beheadings.

In this remarkable book Hirsi Ali presents her case for an Islamic reformation. Her main point is that the root cause of Islamic terrorism is not poverty or lack of education, but is firmly rooted in Islamic doctrine itself. Until the western world recognizes the truth and begins at least supporting those like herself who are brave enough to dissent and call for reformation, the violence will continue. Using Martin Luther’s launching of the Protestant Reformation as a working model, she nails five theses to a virtual tree, each thesis challenging an aspect of Islamic doctrine that she says is unsustainable in the modern world.

Rather than constant war or pretending the problem is something other than what it is, Hirsi Ali proposes that those of us who don’t like the idea of universal sharia law support a massive social and cultural campaign in support of doctrinal reformation. ISIS and several other major jihadist organizations are using social media with great success to recruit thousands of young people from all over the world. Why can’t those of us who want to promote peace, tolerance, and freedom use social media and publications even more effectively? It’s not like we don’t have the resources. Sure there would be violence, but there is going to be violence anyway. And a social media campaign is better than all out holy war, right? A few years ago, says Hirsi Ali, she wouldn’t have thought this could work, but due to some recent developments such as the increase in courageous Islamic dissidents, popular protests for civil rights throughout the Islamic world, and the fallout from the Charlie Hebdu massacre in 2014, she now believes there is chance the tide could turn.

Rather than using the usual media terms “moderate” and “radical” to describe divisions between Muslims, Hirsi Ali employs a different, and she says more accurate, identification method. She identifies three groups: Medina Muslims, Mecca Muslims, and dissidents. In order to explain her reasoning she goes into a bit of the history of the prophet Mohammed and the origins of Islam. In his younger years Mohammed wrote the more peaceful verses of Qur’an while living in Mecca. Later, after settling in Medina, Mohammed became more powerful warlord type person and the verses become more violent. The Medina period is where the concept of jihad originated as well as other violent verses that dictate sharia law and harsh discipline. The majority of practicing Muslims are peaceful Mecca Muslims but most of the terrorism originates with the Medina Muslims. Long ago theologians, noticing contradictions within the Qur’an, created the doctrine of “abrogation”: when verses are contradictory, later verses negate the earlier verses. Hirsi Ali’s identification makes it clear that jihadists are not simply misguided souls who have fallen under the influence of those who would “hi-jack” the “religion of peace”; rather they are believers who are fully supported by a long established Islamic doctrine.

Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia where she began her Islamic education reciting verses from Qur’an at an outdoor school that met in the shade of a lone tree. From the very beginning she was told repeatedly by teachers and her devout mother that she must behave in certain ways and not do certain things or she would go to hell. The most frequent reason she was admonished was her persistent habit of asking questions. When she was eight years old the family began moving around, first to Saudi Arabia, then to Ethiopia, and finally settled in Nairobi, Kenya. At the age of 16, under the influence of a teacher named Sister Aziza and a wandering self-appointed Imam named Boqol Sawm, Hirsi Ali embraced the Medina brand of Islam, donned the head-to-toe traditional hajib, and joined the Muslim Brotherhood. When, in 1988, the Muslim Brotherhood announced a fatwa against Salman Rushdie for publishing The Satanic Verses she did not even question the idea that he deserved death for his blasphemy.

But under the hajib Hirsi Ali continued to observe and ponder, and eventually, to doubt. A few years later, to avoid a forced marriage to a Muslim man in Canada, she fled to Holland and sought asylum. Outside of her closed community she observed the shocking difference in western culture and attitudes, studied political thought from all cultures, and went to college. After about 10 years of trying to rectify her belief system with what she understood to be true, she left the faith, thus becoming an apostate, a crime punishable by death in many places. She began teaching and writing, became a member of the Dutch Parliament in 2003, ands 2004 collaborated with filmmaker Theo Van Gogh on a short film called Submission, about Islamic treatment of women. Soon after the film’s airing on Dutch public television Van Gogh was assassinated on the street. Hirsi Ali herself has of course lived with death threats for years as a result of her speaking, writing, and teaching.

I was especially struck by Hirsi Ali’s detailed descriptions of the horrendous treatment of women is many Islamic communities and how Islamic doctrine supports it. From time to time I hear or read about one of those women who live with a controlling husband or boyfriend: one of those obsessive guys who is constantly suspicious that she has been unfaithful, questions her every move, and does not want her to have a life independent of him. I once ghost-wrote the true story of a woman who had lived through one of these miserable relationships and years later, was still dealing with the aftermath. Short of life in a gulag, I could hardly imagine a worse fate.

Well just imagine living in a culture where the whole community was full of angry obsessive controlling men who think it is their religious duty to control not only their own wives and daughters but all women. With passion and purpose they patrol the streets of your town wielding sticks or swords, hell bent on punishing any woman they catch who is not behaving with adequate subservience or is dressed in any way outside a set of narrow acceptable parameters. Imagine that this spirit-breaking culture of oppression is fully supported by the government and all higher authorities. That is the situation millions of women and girls wake up to every day. That Ayaan Hirsi Ali was able to escape that life and live to tell about it makes me want to read and applaud every word she has written. She surely speaks for many who cannot speak.

Toward the beginning of the book Hirsi Ali tells about receiving an offer from Brandeis University to confer an honorary degree. But in April 2014 she was notified that Brandeis had revoked the offer after a petition against it, circulated through Change.org, received thousands of signatures. The student newspaper and Council on American-Islamic Relations ganged up and sent a letter to the university president calling Ayaan Hirsi Ali a “notorious Islamophobe.” Apparently saying the violence against women has something to do with Islamic doctrine is offensive and not in keeping with the values of Brandies University. I so admire her truth telling, courage, perseverance, and optimism, but this incident indicated to me what her ideas of reform are up against, not only from hostile Medina Muslims but also from western liberals.

Today I am pleased to introduce guest blogger Ruthann Gray Grabowski. Ruthann is an old friend that I have known for – oh my gosh! – it must be at least 25 years. Over the years Ruthann has discussed her rabbit rescue activities with me from time to time, so I asked her if she’d be willing to guest blog for Animal Week. I love what she has written. If I ever had the notion of surprising a child with a cute live bunny for Easter this piece would definitely cause me to think twice about that idea.

Ruthann spent a number of years as a nationally certified educator and fosterer for the National House Rabbit Society. She has fostered well over 100 bunnies, most of which were placed for adoption after being neutered or spayed. She has been published several times in Rabbits Magazine, a publication available in most pet and book stores. She currently shares her residence with a nine-year old bunny named Twinkle.

Now here’s Ruthann Grabowski on the reality of rabbits…….

Two bunnies

Two bunnies

Easter and bunnies go together like Christmas and Santa. Except Santa isn’t real and bunnies are. The reality is Easter is one day of a child’s squeals of delight holding a tiny ball of fur, and photos of adorably dressed children clutching a basket with a bunny inside. The next day, the bunny poop, hundreds of little dry round pills, are everywhere. The bunny, now fearful of being picked up like the prey of a predator, or squeezed, or dropped and injured, nips the child. The child now wants nothing to do with the bunny. “It’s mean.” It poops and pees. The bunny chomps on electric cords to the TV and lamps or gnaws on the wood furniture. Easter is over.

no easter bunnyLike a stuffed bunny tossed to the side, the live baby bunny, probably taken from its mother at only 5 weeks old to be cute enough to be sold, is now alone. Its cage is too small and it is eating pellets mixed with all kinds of additives. The child, too young and disinterested to care for a living animal, forgets to give it fresh water. The cage gets filled with poop and urine, but the child doesn’t want to clean the cage. Mom threatens to get rid of the bunny if no one is going to clean up after it.

At about 4 months old the bunny is now sexually mature. It is spraying urine and marking territory to attract a mate. Instead of being spayed or neutered, the bunny finds itself moved outside to the backyard or garage. Flies lay eggs that hatch into warbles in their fur. Ticks and fleas make a home on their skin. There is no escape from the heat and the cold. Predators stalk the cage at night, including neighborhood cats, owl and raccoons.

At about 6 months old, the family decides the bunny would be better off being set free in the woods or in a field. The domestic bunny, having no camouflage from predators or ability to fend for itself soon finds itself a meal for a sharp-eyed owl, hit by a car on the road where it was left, or perhaps even surviving for a while, a social animal alone, leaving in constant fear.

Ruthann's son (a few years back) with Buster,  the rabbit who inspired Ruthann's interest in rabbit advocacy.

Ruthann’s son (a few years back) with Buster, the rabbit who inspired Ruthann’s interest in rabbit advocacy.

Yet a rabbit is the third most popular house pet, behind dogs and cats, and the only one we as a society, also eat. A rabbit raised in the house with proper nutrition and spayed or neutered can live seven to ten years or more. Rabbits are very social animals and thrive with a companion to whom they are bonded. They need very infrequent vet care except for being neutered or spayed by an experienced rabbit vet, unless they develop other issues. They eat low protein high fiber pellets with unlimited timothy or oat hay, and leafy green vegetables like parsley, cilantro, romaine, red or green leaf lettuce, or kale. A carrot piece, apple slice or a few raisins makes a delicious treat.

Daily exercise is essential to good health with time to run, jump and explore in a bunny proofed environment. Bunnies can be litter box trained and can live cage free in the house. Many bunnies like having a place where they can sleep undisturbed, as they naturally sleep during the day and at night. They are active in the morning and evening when a predator’s eyesight is not as sharp. A bunny can live harmoniously with non predatory cats, dogs, and guinea pigs, but is happiest with a bunny friend.

The National House Rabbit Society maintains a web site that is an essential resource for anyone who is thinking about a pet rabbit at any time of the year. The site has a number of informative articles on topics that include deciding if a rabbit is a good choice, feeding, litter box training, and particularly reasons to avoid buying a rabbit at Easter.

“When a man has pity on all living creatures, only then is he noble.” -Buddha

“He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man…”–Isaiah 66:3

“If a man aspires to a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from injury to animals.” Leo Tolstoy

“Especially when it comes to animals used for food, humanity’s reasoning power and concern about fairness plummets.” Karen Davis

“Animals are my friends…and I don’t eat my friends.” George Bernard Shaw


One of the things I have wanted to do on this blog is feature a guest blogger or two. I am thrilled to have found the perfect guest blogger: René Foster, a young writer living in Atlanta. She also happens to be my niece. Rene writes about the worth and value of animals, and in doing so joins a long tradition: Leonardo Da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Arthur Schopenhauer, and of course, Leo Tolstoy are just a few of the great thinkers who drew a clear connection between being a moral human being and kindness to animals. It seems the most self-evident thing in the world and yet to hear people talk you’d think it is an unusual or even radical idea that animal cruelty has a connection with human moral character and that violence and callousness toward the suffering of animals affects human society. But enough of my ranting.

Please welcome René Foster, my second ever guest blogger….


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Last night, I stumbled in and one by one cut the lights off as I passed them. When I woke up, there were my clothes and boots strewn across the room – typical. I quickly jumped in the shower to rinse off the stale party. It wasn’t until I was laying down, procrastinating getting ready for work, that I realized how happy I was in that moment. Both of my dogs and cat were nestled against me, creating personal space heaters all around. It was almost like they sensed what a rough week I had.

A few days ago I read an article about a man named Naoto Matsumura. He stayed behind in the radioactive zone near Fukushima. When residents were evacuated many, many (I can’t stress how many) animals were left behind to starve and die. Matsumura refuses to leave even though the Japanese government urges him to. He lives a solitary life and has taken on the responsibility of feeding, nursing, and caring for the hundreds of animals so many heartlessly left behind. He witnesses the cruelty there, as one article mentions, “He is confronted daily by the harrowing results of the sudden evacuation — a cageful of withered canaries, or a calf that died horribly as it grew too big for the rope tied around its head.” Matsumura has appealed to the government for aid to help all of the animals in the radioactive zone, to no avail thus far.

With Henry

With Henry

Recently dumped, heartbroken, and depressed, I was at that “I give up. I am so over it” stage. Then I remembered Matsumura said, “There are lots of animals here, so I’m never really alone.” And I get it. As I was laying there this morning, I felt like the luckiest person in the world. They depend on me, but I think I depend much more on them. Their love is always there. We human beings are so completely, totally, and utterly indebted to these wonderful creatures we are fortunate enough to coexist with. They offer us the unconditional love that, I guarantee, no other human could fathom.

We should stop thinking of these animals as burdens and turning a blind eye to the suffering going on not only in Japan, but across the United States and world; to those who are shackled and left to die when a renter is evicted, or the mistreated in shelters, or to the dog or cat that could have been someone’s special companion that is on the euthanasia list for tomorrow.

I guarantee the next CEO or government official who goes home to ‘Fluffy’ or ‘Sprinkles’ and can’t wait to dote on and cuddle them, will not think twice about the less fortunate. Instead of turning these blind eyes, we all just need to sit a moment with one of these creatures and see how much love is in their eyes when they look at us and ask for nothing in return but the same. People need to step up and stop changing the channel when Sarah Mclachlan starts singing (ok mute it), that is reality!



Stop ignoring it. Join a group that builds fences free of charge for people who cannot afford fencing and have a dog chained up; unchain a dog! Foster dogs and cats at the top of euthanasia lists in your area. Just go sit in a shelter and spend time walking or petting an animal that may not have another chance to see that not all humans are bad, so they experience the warmth and love that we can provide, even if just for a little while. Most importantly: get your animals spayed or neutered, and if you already do, then sponsor someone’s pet for a low cost procedure. And, if you can’t physically or financially do these things, just give a buck a month to your local shelter or rescue group, it goes a long ways. You can spare the large fries one day.

When the government and other agencies see society get off its ass and start giving a damn, things can happen at momentous speeds. Naoto Matsumura is an example to live by. He is one man changing the world, against the government’s advice and the wishes of others. But he knows if he doesn’t help, no one else will. With more human involvement, Japan’s government and others alike would be more apt to aid the helpless animals, who know not what monetary value is, but only goodwill and kindness.

Henry and Friday

Henry and Friday

The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.
—Charles Darwin, English naturalist (1809–1882)

I am doing something a bit different here on my blog this week. Let’s call it “Animal Week.” I’ve always had a section on “animal philosophy,” but the focus this week will be people who actually live their philosophy and do things to help the cause of animals. Today’s post is an article I wrote recently for the company website where I work about one of my co-workers, John Freeman, who is involved in a very active local dog rescue program. When I told John I have a blog category devoted to animal philosophy he said, “Yeah I was just yesterday discussing Nietzsche with my Shih Tzu.”

Later this week I will be featuring a young writer with a passion for the welfare of animals, and then just in time for Easter, I’ll have another special guest blogger who will tell us about the real lives of Easter bunnies. For now please read about my friend John and his work with an amazing program that rescues dogs, who through no fault of their own, find themselves on death row.

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John with one of his foster dogs

John with one of his foster dogs

Back in 2001 John Freeman, who works as a technical writer, decided he wanted to do some community volunteer work. When he began looking around for opportunities he knew he liked animals but says, “I wanted to stay away from anything that would bring me distress. So I started by volunteering at the Old Dominion University library. However that wasn’t satisfying enough so I decided to look into working with animals. I found K-9 New Life, which was a no-kill facility in Virginia Beach. I started out by going on weekends to clean kennels and feed the dogs.”

John explains, “We get our dogs from kill shelters and we tend to take dogs at the end of their time. We’ll get an urgent plea that a dog has days or hours left and we’ll go get him. All the shelters try to place their dogs, even the kill shelters, so if a dog is at the end of his time, that in itself implies the dog is hard to place. It may be age or it is not a popular breed, or it doesn’t show well in a shelter, or it requires extensive medical treatment.” Many of the dogs that come to K-9 new life are hounds from rural facilities: fox hounds, beagles, and walkers. “In the rural shelters,” explains John, “more dogs come in and they have less foot traffic.”

K-9 New Life has about a dozen active volunteers. “Someone does our web page, someone answers the phone, someone does the home checks, and the rest provide foster homes.” John provides a foster home for at least one dog at any given time. He also attends adoption events and meets with prospective adopters. He and his wife Mary also have four dogs of their own, one of which they adopted from K-9 New Life. The others were rescue dogs from other organizations. Since 2001 John has had 34 foster dogs in his home and has adopted four of them himself.

“There are millions of dogs killed each year,” says John. “I can’t do anything for millions of dogs. But I can take on or two into my home and I can promote adoptions through the organization. There’s a general satisfaction in knowing I am helping the larger problem. Then there’s the personal satisfaction when someone who has adopted K-9 dog comes back and tells you a dog you fostered is the best dog they’ve ever had.”



Take Jimmy. Jimmy was a hound who was so thin his skeleton was visible when a shelter picked him up. He was so sick and malnourished that the shelter volunteers thought he was within 24 hours of either dying or being put down. The K-9 director saw Jimmy when she went to shelter to pick up another dog. The shelter staff begged Kathy not to take that one, to take a dog that had a real chance at life. But she insisted on taking Jimmy and John agreed to foster him. A local TV news organization even did a story on the Jimmy situation. “He was in my home for six or eight months and then moved in full health to a new happy home.” Jimmy’s owner later brought him to a reunion event and he was doing well.

Out of 34 foster dogs in 14 years John says only two have shown any signs of aggression. “These dogs are normal good dogs. They are so responsive to a loving home. That’s why I keep doing it.” If you are interested in fostering or adopting a dog or donating to this wonderful organization, be sure to check out the K-9 New Life website. The website features lots of dramatic before and after pictures and success stories called “Happy Tails.” Also be sure to “like” their Facebook page!

Three MusketeersFirst I should confess that I have never had sufficient interest in swashbuckling even to sit through one of the many film versions of The Three Musketeers. So what in the world could have induced me to read this book now, at this point in my life? Well I have run across quite a few references to Alexandre Dumas in my reading; so perhaps all the notes-to-self to read something by him had accumulated into an urge to do that. And then The Three Musketeers popped up in one of my book deal notices at a moment when I really needed a break from the intensity of Tolstoy’s theology. I needed something new and different; and this novel is about a time and place about which I knew practically nothing: 1625 France, starring King Louis XIII, Queen Anne of Austria, and Cardinal Richelieu, powerful adviser to the king who apparently became insanely powerful by the force of his own personality.

"Cardinal Richelieu by Robert Nanteuil 1657" by Robert Nanteuil - Bibliothèque nationale de France. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Cardinal Richelieu by Robert Nanteuil 1657″ by Robert Nanteuil – Bibliothèque nationale de France. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I did some background research and found that this Richelieu has retained a fairly good reputation as a great statesman despite having murdered, plotted, executed, and condemned people to the Bastille left and right. Several other major characters are based on real historical figures, so this qualifies as a historical novel, and because it inspired me to read up on the people and the period, I found it fascinating and educational.

Before I embarked upon this novel I had the impression it was going to be an action-oriented heroic adventure story, and I suppose on a surface level that is what is supposed to be. But the novel takes place in a culture where the ideas of what constitutes heroism and even what is meant by good and evil are vastly different from my notions of those concepts. I expected to at least like the heroes of the story; but I was surprised and little shocked to discover that all three of the title characters and their friend and aspiring musketeer D’Artagnan are, essentially, assholes.

Well, Aramis is somewhat likable. But even he began his career in the action hero business by murdering some dude over a mild insult. Okay it was a duel. It seems Aramis, who was a seminary student studying for the priesthood at the time, nursed such a grudge over a comment this guy made about him in front of a girl that he took fencing lessons for a year just for the chance to kill him. That’s what I mean about moral standards being different. In my day such behavior would be considered premeditated murder. And Aramis is the sweet one of the bunch! Porthos is a vain loutish braggart whose dishonesty crosses the line into criminality; and Athos, the brains of the operation, has a dark secret, that, when you find out what it is, does not exactly make him more likable.

So these Musketeers are apparently an elite military unit in the King’s service. There are more than three of them of course, but as young men often seem to do, Athos, Aramis, and Porthos have formed a tight little inseparable threesome. And yet outside of their interest in drinking and brawling with the forces of Cardinal Richelieu they don’t seem to know a whole lot about each other. They might brag about their romantic escapades but they never go out on group dates and they don’t seem to engage in a lot of deep philosophical discussion.

Along comes a new guy to town, an 18-year old kid from the sticks of Gascony named D’Artagnan. By immediately offending all three of the three of the musketeer buddies and arranging duels one after the other he makes a favorable impression and is soon one of the gang. Strangely, although Dumas says D’Artagnan is 18 years old at the beginning of the novel, his age seems to advance more rapidly than one birthday per year. Suddenly he is 19 and a few chapters later he is 20. And even though only about a year passes in the course of the novel, by the conclusion he is 21. It seems like Dumas sort of forgets how old his hero is. Maybe this quirk has to do with the fact that this novel was written as a serial for a periodical. He must have been writing at lightning speed to meet those deadlines.

A few chapters into the book I really thought I was going dislike The Three Musketeers. The characters seemed to be violent bootlickers whose main purpose in life is to please the king while treating their own lackeys badly. The most respected character in the book, instrumental D’Artagnan’s rise to prominence is Monsieur de Tréville, Head of the King’s Musketeers and a father figure to the young musketeers under his command. De Tréville is based on a real historical person names Jean-Armand du Peyrer, Comte de Troisville. He  is portrayed as being in competition with Cardinal Richelieu for the King’s favor, which is why his guys are always brawling with the Cardinal’s guys.  It seems the Cardinal, a Catholic bishop and adviser to the king, has his own military force. So apparently does the Pope and pretty much everybody else who has a lot of power in Europe. Apparently de Tréville has made his own exalted reputation by being clever and political – pleasing the right people and not pissing off the wrong people. The ability to maintain such a balance seems to invoke the highest level of respect “at court.”

After I got into the story a little more I did not hate the book as much as I thought I would. It is a well written story and I really wanted to find out what happened next. Besides, the novel can be read as an entertaining social commentary on the horrors of Statism, with everyone rising or sinking and living or dying according to how well they can access and please and play those in power. The war described in the novel happens because the Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers, is in love with the Queen of France, Anne of Austria, and finds he needs a war to arrange things to his liking.

Most of the actions of our heroes are done to A) please their lovers; B) show off to their buddies (or save face); or C) avenge someone’s supposed honor, either their own or that of a friend. I suppose the underlying hope is that through all their bravery, clever plotting, and adventuring, they might somehow do something to please the King or Queen enough to gain some recognition or perhaps some money and a better position in the social hierarchy. But they know they are just as likely to die before being rewarded for their efforts and seem to a have a cavalier attitude* toward staying alive.

Writing in 1844, Dumas seems perfectly aware of the craziness of these people and their culture. Throughout the novel He frequently mentions that customs were different in those times and morals were strangely loose. For example, early in the novel d’Artanian gets an audience with the King for having severely wounded one of the Cardinal’s soldiers. Instead of being angry about the incident, both de Tréville and the King are tickled and take a “Boys will be boys” attitude. When D’Artagnan makes a favorable impression, King Louis hands him a fistful of gold amounting to 1000 pistoles. Dumas tells us that back then it was a common thing for the King to simply give hard money to people who pleased him.

Rewards and favors were very direct and the reasons very open: if you want to get ahead in life you make the powerful people happy. If you make a mistake, if one of your schemes goes awry, or if the King or the Cardinal simply decides he doesn’t like you anymore, you go to the Bastille or get your head chopped off. The underlying principle was simple but the resulting politics were an intricate web of loyalties, plots, suspicions, and vengeance. At least within the plot of this novel. But my initial research indicates the real history was probably like that and more so.

This review would not be complete without some attention to the female characters. Our friend D’Artagnan quickly falls madly in love with Madame Constance Bonacieux, a highly placed lady in waiting to the Queen and through her gets sucked into royal politics. In the guise of helping his beloved, he gathers his friends Athos, Aramis, and Porthos, and embarks on a secret and dangerous mission to help the Queen out of a scrape involving her affair with the Duke of Buckingham.

Lots of actresses have played the plumb role of Milady de Winter. Here's my favorite picture of her.

Lots of actresses have played the plumb role of Milady de Winter. Here’s my favorite picture of her.

Madame Bonacieux seems like a spunky resourceful girl at first but later becomes little insipid. Of course her insipidity only shows up when she comes into contact with Milady de Winter. I won’t go into the plot around Milady because I don’t want to give the story away. Let’s just say that Milady is one of the most evil literary villainesses I have ever encountered. The male characters for the most part seem pretty psychologically shallow (simple motivations, not a lot of deep thought). Not so with Milady. At first I thought she had just been mistreated and gotten a raw deal but by the end I was convinced she is a true psychopath, as sinister, clever, and relentless a villain as you are likely to find. Lady Macbeth, the White Witch of Narnia, and Cinderella’s evil stepmother are sweethearts compared to Milady de Winter!

In the end I enjoyed the book more than I expected I would. In the guise of an adventure story it is really a dark but unfortunately realistic portrait of human nature. I enjoyed the peaks behind the curtain of the official historical narrative, even if they are fictional peaks – how movements of armies and the ruin of individual lives are set in motion by the personal desires and decisions of the people in power.

The characters in this book do not question how their world works. They just live in it with vigor, doing their best to work things to their own advantage. Dumas leaves it entirely to the reader to marvel over the corruption and stupidity of the early 17th century and perhaps feel grateful and superior that things are so much better now. Or perhaps, on second thought, to wonder if anything substantial has changed after all.

* * * * * * *

* I think that term cavalier attitude – as meaning “arrogant or offhand disregard; dismissive”(according to thefreedictionary.com) is somehow related to the Cavaliers who were supporters of King Charles I,  monarch of England during this time period of this novel.

U.S. Highway 36, Jamestown, Colorado. Sept. 13, 2013. Associated Press.

U.S. Highway 36, Jamestown, Colorado. Sept. 13, 2013. Associated Press.

I’m afraid I have hit a snag with my Tolstoy project. A couple of snags actually. Snag No.1 was I got sick and lost all desire to do anything, even write, for several days. The second snag was way more serious; even Amoxicillin could not cure it. I reached a mental roadblock except it is more than a mere traffic backup or having to wait 15 minutes for a train. A year or so ago there was a deluge in Colorado that lasted several days and when the Big Thompson Canyon flooded the main highway through the Rocky Mountains cracked in half. My roadblock was more like that.

In more exact terms, when I got to Chapter 8 of What I Believe I did not like what I read and found I just could not write about it. It was all fine as long as Tolstoy was trashing the world’s systems – government, wars, courts, laws, etc. – but when he started messing with the next world that’s when I began to get disturbed. Chapter 8 deals with the Church’s traditional doctrine concerning resurrection. Although Tolstoy does not say the Christ did not rise from the dead, he does question whether the gospels really say the rest of us will continue to live beyond the grave, at least in a form recognizable as our individual selves. He leans toward the idea that the promised eternal life will be in the form of some universal shared kind of existence, absorbed in the whole or God, as opposed to the cherished Christian belief that we as individuals move on to a sublime existence in a heaven where there is no disease, death, or any kind of evil.

I realize of course that this is just one man’s opinion and Tolstoy does not know any more about what happens beyond the grave than I do. Nevertheless, I so respect him as a writer, and up to this point I find his reasoning so well-considered, well-researched, and deeply thought out, that I cannot not simply disregard his ideas just because I don’t like them. I started to think about how dependent our beliefs must be on our desires and life investments: how far we will go to defend the truth of something because we want or need it to be true. But at the same time just because you want something to be true doesn’t mean it is not true either. As much as I don’t want to be, I am a child of the post-modern era and cannot avoid questioning the very nature of truth and the possibility of ever grasping the slippery thing. But I am certainly not ready to discard the doctrine of individual eternal life, even for Tolstoy.

The book had me going back to Tolstoy’s scripture interpretations and comparing his translations with other translations.  For example, Tolstoy paraphrases Matthew 22:29-32  like this: “‘You err, not knowing the scripture or the power of God….The raising of the dead is neither carnal or individual. Those who are raised from the dead become sons of God and live like angels (the powers of God) in heave (with God), and there can be no question for them whose wife she will be, because, being one with God, they lose all individuality.’”

The New King James Version translates the same passage as: “Jesus answered and said to them, “You are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures nor the power of God.  For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven. But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?  God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

youngs literal translationOnce again I was frustrated I cannot read ancient Greek. So I downloaded Young’s Literal Translation of the Bible, which translates the same passage as: “And Jesus answering said to them, `Ye go astray, not knowing the Writings, nor the power of God; for in the rising again they do not marry, nor are they given in marriage, but are as messengers of God in heaven. `And concerning the rising again of the dead, did ye not read that which was spoken to you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not a God of dead men, but of living.'”

Neither Young’s nor the NKJV nor any if several other translations I compared indicates to me that Jesus was in any way saying we lose our individuality. From the little I know of angels they seem pretty individual to me. So in this case and several others, I do not see what Tolstoy sees. However I do agree with him that Jesus taught that eternal or imperishable or “real” life begins in this body right here in this life, and not that we are to devalue our earthly lives in favor of sitting around hoping for something better after we die.

Anyway as I read further into the book, the water got deep and when I am in over my head I need time more time to work out my thoughts and want to tread carefully. I would tell anyone reading this book, or anybody’s interpretation of religious or any truth, that you and your reason are your best guide to what to believe. But I also think we all need to stand back sometimes from even our own reason because reason is always influenced by desires, needs, and environment. So we need to read a lot, think a lot, pray a lot, and frequently consider everything from different angles. Consciously or unconsciously we decide on a model of truth that works for us and we go with it as long as it keeps working.

I know that sounds a little post-modern. But my core belief is closer to Plato than post-modernism. I believe that absolute truth does exist no matter how distant or obscure it may seem. Something is true and whatever that is will always be true even if not a single human being ever knows it. Our ability to understand all the truth is ridiculously inadequate and therefore we find metaphors to create models of truth small enough to be encompassed by a human mind. The truth as taught by Jesus Christ seems to me not only the highest and most challenging, but the most attractive model, I can hope for.

So I guess I did end up writing something about Chapter 8 after all. I will end up writing a study guide to What I Believe, but I don’t think I will post all my commentary as blog posts. If you are interested, I will link all sections on my Tolstoy Series page (in the menu).

Stars in Suffolk. Photo by Aaron Apple.

Stars in Suffolk. Photo by Aaron Apple.

I will be coming back down to earth on this blog shortly. My son and I are going to be starting a new blog together about local folks, places, and events and I’ll be sharing a dog-related sample here from that new project. I will also be writing about my latest classic, The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas, and that book is about as opposite of heavenly as you can get.

Lent Day 19, What I Believe by Leo Tolstoy, Chapter 7 continued

We have been mislead by the world’s oracles of wisdom. The Church and secular institutions and all of our philosophy and science are all cut from the same cloth and are selling us a version of reality based on a false premise!  Is this a vast universal conspiracy? Probably not. But it is a big part of Leo Tolstoy’s worldview, as he explains in Chapter 7 of What I Believe. The world system’s false premise is that we are dependent on something outside of ourselves for happiness, improvement of our lives, and the redemption of our souls.

“Religion, science, and public opinion all unanimously tell us that the life we lead is a bad one, but that the doctrine, which teaches us to endeavor to improve, and thus make our life better, is impracticable.

The doctrine of Christ, as an improvement of human life by the rational efforts of man, is impracticable because Adam sinned and the world is full of evil, says religion.

Philosophy says that Christ’s doctrine is impracticable because certain laws, which are independent of the will of man, govern human life. Philosophy and science say, in other words, exactly the same as religion in its dogmas of original sin and redemption.

In the doctrine of redemption there are two fundamental theses on which all is grounded: (1) man has a right to perfect bliss, but the life of this world is a bad one and cannot be amended by the efforts of man, and (2) we can only be saved by faith.”

All the theories that justify the existing order or “the way it is” are based on these theses. The Church derives its doctrine of redemption from #2 and #1 is the underlying assumption behind all or social, philosophical, and political theories.

So says Tolstoy. At first I said, wait a minute: I thought that most of our political and social theories are all about the opposite assumption, the assumption that humans do have the power to change the world to better fit our visions of way it should be. But on second thought, I think Tolstoy believed that trying to change the world by applying some human theory is just another attempt at redemption from the outside. The kind of action he believed in is individual change by internal effort. Our social and political theories tend to focus on how some people should  impose rules and employ practices to control the behavior of other people, and thus create a world that better suits whoever  has the vision and the power to make it happen.

Tolstoy thinks that when it comes to improvement, the rightful domain of each person is limited to the self – one’s own body, mind, and soul. Our relationship with other people is to love them, speak kindly, and provide any help they might need in the way of material goods or sustenance.  “Neither believers or unbelievers ask themselves how we must use the reason given to us; but they ask themselves, ‘Why is our life not such as we fancied it to be, and when will it be such as we wish it to be?” The real mission of man, which all our false doctrines and philosophies help us forget, is to “endeavor to solve the contradiction between his rational and animal nature.”

What? Here is where it gets a little strange, although Tolstoy says most of wisest people who ever lived have taught the same thing. Most philosophic and religious traditions have focused on how the individual can live a better, more ethical life: Judaism, Buddhism, Brahmanism, Confucius, and Socrates and the other sages of ancient Greece. And then just when the wisest person who ever lived, the man we believe to be God Himself, comes along and gives us the key to our highest good, the Church, and Western civilization with it, started back-pedaling fast, saying in effect, “Yes, that’s all very nice Lord but no can do. It is not practical. But we’ll tell you what: we’ll tell everyone to worship You and to believe you will save us anyway, not matter how we conduct our lives. Anyway, we think that must have been what You were really telling us to do. Because You, being God, must know we mere humans can’t possibly do all that Sermon on the Mount stuff.”

But Tolstoy thinks Christ really was telling us to do these things and also that if we lived according to our higher reason and did not indulge our animal nature, it would not only make us happier, but would be the most natural thing in the world. (“For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew 11:30) Our reason, Tolstoy believes, is the light that is in us, the part of us that shares the nature of God. He believes that when Christ talks about “the son of man” He refers to this part of our nature. We first have to believe the son of man is within us. Once we believe this we can cultivate it, encourage it, and nourish its strength by living according God’s eternal law.

Christ speaks to Nicodemus at night. Copy of painting by Crijn Hendricksz (1601-1645)

Christ speaks to Nicodemus at night. Copy of painting by Crijn Hendricksz (1601-1645)

Tolstoy says the gospels best illustrate this principle in the story of the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus. This is the passage that is the main basis for the belief that being saved means to be “born again.” Here is Tolstoy’s interpretation of this passage:

“’Every man,’ He [Jesus] says, ‘in addition to his consciousness of an individual life, through is human parents, must admit His birth is from above’ (John 3:5-7). That which man acknowledges in himself as being free, is just what is born of the Eternal Being, of Him Whom we call God. The Son of God in man, born of God, is what we must exalt in ourselves in order to obtain true life. The son of man is of the same nature as God (not begotten of God). He who exalts in himself the Son of God over the rest that is in him, he who believes that life is in himself along, will not find himself in contradiction with life. The contradiction only results from men not believing in the light that is in them; the light of which John the Evangelist speaks when he says, ‘In him is life, and the life is the light of men.’”

Well that interpretation is quite a bit different from any I’ve ever heard before! Tolstoy read the Gospels many times and studied the Greek and he had no reason not seek the truth, so I think his interpretation is genuine and honest. But I don’t always see the same thing he sees when I read the verses. But I do agree with the part of his thesis that says any person’s most reliable guide to the truth is his or her own reason in combination with honest thought, prayer, and study. But we haven’t gotten to that part yet.

Lent Day 18: What I Believe, Chapter 7

Yesterday (Lent Day 17) I took a day off from writing about Tolstoy’s What I Believe. I needed time to process this astounding information, and although one day is hardly enough, tonight I will continue to most forward, even though I now enter into dangerous territory. Until the end of Chapter 6 I was pretty much in agreement with Tolstoy’s insights into the real meaning of the Gospels. His analysis does challenge traditional interpretations but his reasoning makes perfect sense.

I especially like his translation of the five commandments of Christ from the Sermon on the Mount, even though it is difficult to envision how I could actually live exactly that way when the rest of the world does not. I am hoping that Tolstoy will have some advice to offer on that problem by the time I reach the end of the book. Nevertheless, I can see that, however unlikely, if everybody did live according to these teachings, most of the world’s evil, at least that part of evil that is man-made, would go away.

As I venture into Chapters 7 and 8 I find myself more challenged and  sometimes in total disagreement with Tolstoy. However, he has spent a lot more time than I have studying the gospels, so I want to pay attention to his findings. And it’s possible I do not agree with his findings because I don’t like his findings. But if I am operating under any delusions, or if my mind is limited by ignorance, or if I am allowing my personal desires to obscure my understanding, the only way to move toward truth is to press on into territory outside my comfort zone.

But my gosh. Just when I thought he couldn’t get any more radical, he gets more radical.  I began to feel nervous about halfway through Chapter 7. Tolstoy had already turned my world around like a salt shaker and I just getting over the dizziness, and then he went and pulled the rug out from under my feet. He begins the chapter innocently enough by asking a simple question: “Why does man not do the things that Christ enjoins and can give him the highest earthly felicity – the felicity he has ever longed to attain?”

In answering that question Tolstoy gets into webs and layers of Biblical scholarship and reasoning but the short answer is that for a lot of us living by Christ’s teaching would mean more work and less stuff. If we adopted Christ’s method for living we’d have to share our stuff with others, even with others we don’t like and those we think don’t deserve our stuff. We could not consider providing for ourselves the highest priority.

Yet Christians claim to believe that Christ is God  and His words are good and true, and even many non-believers acknowledge that Jesus was a wise teacher. So if his words are so good and wise why don’t we want to do what he says will make us happy? Well for one thing, Tolstoy says, we expect the world to match up to certain expectations. These expectations may vary from age to age and culture to culture, even person to person, but we all have an idea of what we are entitled to. Our reality almost always falls short so we we put lots of energy into working toward that expectation and resent anything or anyone that seems to get in the way. God’s job, according to this assumption, is to help us get what should be ours, if not in this world, then surely the next.

Say you’re an American and your expectation is to live in a world of mowed green lawns in a four-bedroom house, have a high income for life, and college education for your children. You put a lot of effort into making your world fit that vision. Your community and even your church reward you for any success you may achieve toward maintaining that life. Schools, churches, retailers, and country clubs love rich people with green lawns. You get invited to events and get your picture in the paper, so you know you are doing things right. Anything or anyone that interferes with or causes any aspect of the vision not to happen is impossible and should not be expected of you. Tolstoy says that both Church believers and non-believers (such as materialistic scientific types) “….believe in the fundamental false assumption of the right of man to a life of perfect bliss….”

Tolstoy-change-yourselfIf we lived by Christ’s commandments we could not take anything for ourselves to the detriment of anyone else, we could not think of ourselves as better or more deserving that anyone else, and we’d have to look out for the needs of others as much as we looked out for our own. So what it would come down to is that a lot of us would have to work harder and and have less material wealth and could not exercise any power to make others do things for us. That’s right. It comes down to that nasty word: labor. Ugh. My favorite writer Albert Jay Nock flashes to mind. Mr. Nock is the one who introduced me to the theory that the great mass of humanity is motivated by the unquenchable drive to gain as much as possible of whatever they desire with as little labor as they can get away with; which usually means finding clever ways to benefit from the labor of others.

But here is where Tolstoy begins to say some uncomfortable things. Not only regular human beings, but the Church, meaning Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant, does not want to follow Christ’s simple commandments for how to humans should actually conduct themselves in our daily lives. So early on the Church worked into its doctrine that living according to Christ’s teaching is impossible because of our fallen nature and that the Gospel is all about redemption from above, outside of and apart from our own efforts.  And furthermore, Tolstoy’s analysis of the gospels indicated to him that Christ did not teach redemption the way the Church teaches it. Christ came to show us the way to eternal life – that much is true – but the way has much more to do with the way we choose to live our lives while on the earth than with the traditional conception of redemption from above.

This false idea that humans should expect to live a world that caters to our every desire came from the Church, according to Tolstoy, but it also laid the foundation for European civilization: “The teaching of the church gave, as the basis of life, the right of man to perfect bliss – bliss that is to be attained, not by the individual efforts of man, but by something beyond his own control; and this view of human life became the basis of our European science and philosophy.”

What exactly does Tolstoy think Jesus did teach about redemption and eternal life? What did Jesus mean by all those references to “the son of man”? What about that idea of having to be born again? That’s what I’ll talk about tomorrow.

Seeing the light. Photo by Aaron Apple. January 2015.

Seeing the light. Photo by Aaron Apple. January 2015.