The great Russian author Leo Tolstoy is a monumental figure in the world of literature. His epic novel War and Peace is unrivaled in its breadth and scope. But Tolstoy was more than just a fiction writer. He was a keen observer of the human condition and arguably the most progressive Christian in Russia during the 19th and early 20th century. His later writings on the Christian faith influenced spiritual progressives in the both the West and the East, including famous figures such as Martin Luther King and Gandhi.
Leo Tolstoy’s most influential work on Progressive Christian faith is The Kingdom of God is Within You. The following passage is a one of the book’s most eloquent statements on modern Christian life, as equally true today as when Tolstoy wrote it:
Everyone today who has assimilated Christian principles involuntarily into their conscience, finds themselves in precisely the position of someone who is asleep, and who dreams that they are obliged to do something which even in their dreams they know they shouldn’t do. They know this in the depths of their conscience, and all the same they seem unable to change their position; they cannot stop and cease doing what they ought not do. And just as in a dream, their position becoming more and more painful, it at last reaches a pitch of such intensity that they sometimes begin to doubt the reality of what is passing and make a moral effort to shake off the nightmare that is oppressing them.
This is the condition of the average person in our Christian society. They feel that everything they do themselves and that is done around them is something absurd, hideous, impossible, and opposed to their conscience; they feel that their position is becoming more and more unendurable and reaching a crisis of intensity.
It is not possible that we modern people, with a Christian sense of human dignity and equality permeating us soul and body, with our need for peaceful association and unity between nations, should really go on living in such a way that every joy, every gratification we have is bought by the sufferings, by the lives of our neighbors, and moreover, that we should be every instant within a hair’s-breadth of falling on one another, nation against nation, like wild beasts, mercilessly destroying other people’s lives and labor, only because some benighted politician or ruler says or writes some stupidity to another equally benighted politician or ruler.
It is impossible. Yet everyone of our day sees that this is so and awaits the calamity. And the situation becomes more and more insupportable.
And as the person who is dreaming does not believe that what appears to them can be truly the reality and tries to wake up to the actual real world again, so the average person today cannot in the bottom of their heart believe that the awful position in which they are placed and which is growing worse and worse can be the reality, and tries to wake up to a true, real life, as it exists in their conscience.
Just as the dreamer needs only to make a moral effort and ask themselves, “Isn’t it a dream?” and the situation which seemed to them so hopeless will instantly disappear, revealing a peaceful and happy reality, so the men and women of the modern world need only make a moral effort to doubt the reality presented to them by their own hypocrisy and the general hypocrisy around them, and to ask themselves, “Isn’t it all a delusion?” and they will at once, like the dreamer awakened, feel themselves transported from an imaginary and dreadful world to the true, calm, and happy reality.
To do this, we need not need accomplish great feats or exploits. We need only make a moral effort.
The Kingdom of God is Within you is available to read free online (here).
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