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Tolstoy, Pride & Pastors

For some of my early summer reading I worked through a variety of smaller, early 20th century books I’ve picked up along the way. One such book is Henry Churchill King’s It’s All In the Day’s Work (Macmillan, 1916). Not everything in the little book is commendable, but it does contain gold.

At one point King enlists Tolstoy in order to address the “unconscious pharisaism of intellectual and spiritual pride.” King has in view those who want to help others but approach this “help” with the assumption that they are better than those they seek to help. King notes “how certain he [Tolstoy] is that it is highly probable that those who feel so competent to help, are themselves less and have therefore less to give than those they desire to aid…” (39).

The following quote from Tolstoy is long and a bit convoluted to modern ears, but it contains a valuable point. This comes from a letter in response to one who asked for Tolstoy’s critique of the ethical tone of a certain play.

“I refer to the opinion that men, provided or not provided with diplomas, as narrow-minded as they are uncultivated, but possessing great assurance, conclude, one knows not why, that since they are so intelligent and worthy, they need not try to govern themselves, but that their vocation and sacred duty is to enlighten, organize, and direct the lives of others.  Some of them would accomplish this with the aid of the old government, others with that of the new one, while still others, like your Peter, would bring this about by offering this ‘ignorant and stupid people,’ this same people, which, by its labor, feeds these good-for-nothings, the grand truths of Christianity which they imagine themselves overflowing with.”

“The condition sine qua non of all good and all useful activity is humility.  As soon as humility is lacking good becomes evil.” (40-41)

There is overstatement here, of course. People do need the “grand truths of Christianity,” but we distort those truths when we present them with such arrogance, or when we act like we need not govern ourselves. Let us have a gospel confidence, one rooted in God’s truth not in ourselves. Then boldness and humility can be joined.

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