Thursday, August 27, 2009

Christian and Communist (Stalinist) dogma

I found Andrei Gromyko’s Memoirs depressing. He writes about various events he personally witnessed as though the Soviet Union were still a viable entity (which it obviously wasn’t when his Memoirs were published). One can imagine him thinking and saying those same things at the time they occurred – at a time when the USSR was a viable entity. Why bother writing such a memoir, I wondered to myself, and decided to look for reviews. I discovered others reacted as I did, and while Gromyko’s Memoirs would suit the current thinking in Russia, it would hardly do in the US. The American publishers insisted on something unique from him; so he added a chapter, a chapter that does not exist in the Russian edition, on Stalin. I skipped ahead to that chapter. It was a surreal experience. In the early part of his book, Gromyko praises Stalin, but in his chapter “More about Stalin” he is extremely critical of him.

Imagine Stalin as head of a state religion, which in a real sense he was. At some point he decided it wasn’t enough for Russians to have faith in the state religion, Communism. They needed to have faith in him. Gromyko lost his faith toward the end of his life, but if he had retained it, he would still believe that those seemingly innocent people Stalin had killed, the cream of the officers’ corps for example, were in their hearts apostates. Perhaps Gromyko didn’t have evidence to that effect but Stalin, the anointed one, did.

Not everyone in Russia has lost faith. We can still hear and read comments from the faithful, praying eternal fealty to their master. And if you come across these people, these “faithful” and present an argument critical of Stalin, most will probably not mount a counter argument. They will simply declare you a heretic and cast you, figuratively, into outer darkness.

In earlier years I was heavily involved in theological discussions and was cast many times into outer darkness. In theory, Christians should be kinder to each other than people interested in politics or foreign affairs, but I didn’t find that to be the case, and if one looks at the reasons, one can see why: If one whole-heartedly accepts a dogma, by faith, then it is not subject to argument. It is an “assumption” a “presupposition,” something one begins with not something one ends up with as the result of a long argument that ends in a conclusion.

If Dogma is advanced in such a way that it shuts of debate, if it doesn’t permit argument, and if it denounces deviation without examining it, then I disagree with it. And of course my view would be consistent with my politics. I am a Liberal Democrat (enjoying the freedom of my opinions) rather than a Communist whom Stalin would most surely have objected to. If I was lucky I might have ended up in a Gulag, but I probably would have been shot – unless, of course I became a conformer like Gromyko; which probably would have been a temptation for anyone – if they could pull it off -- and if Stalin couldn’t really see into their hearts.

On page 16 of Faith and the Vitalities of History, Phillip Hefner quotes Ferdinand Christian Bauer to say, “The beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount express, in an absolute manner, what constitutes the inmost self-consciousness of the Christian, as it is in itself, and apart from external relations. The original and radical element of Christianity appears further in the form of absolute moral command in the controversial part of the discourse which is directed against the Pharisees, and in other parts of it. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus insists emphatically on purity and singleness of heart, on a morality which does not consist merely in the outward act, but in the inner disposition . . . .”

So what was in your heart, Andrei Gromyko? Outwardly you conformed to Stalinism, but were you inwardly a true believer? Did you have faith? Gromyko when he wrote his chapter “More about Stalin” believed he would not have to stand before Stalin in an afterlife and account for his lack of faith. We Christians, on the other hand, worry about our “inner disposition.” Do we truly believe? Are we honest in our belief? Have we the courage to put it to the test, read challenging works of theology, risk “outer darkness.” Or do we like Gromyko probably did pray “la, la, la, la, la” so loudly that we drown out the possibility of having a deviant thought?

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