Three years ago, Dr Rowan Williams wrote a book about the 19th-century Russian novelist, in part, he says as a reaction to the attacks on Christianity by Richard Dawkins and others. The Archbishop felt that when he spoke to atheists about faith they seem to be talking about something very different to him. In their eyes, faith was seen as “a rather second-rate theory to explain why the world is the way it is or a second-rate psychological crutch for people who can’t bear the weight of reality”.
Dostoevsky wrote that if you tried to get a group of people to agree that two plus two equals four, they were almost bound to say “why not five?” There was something stubborn and perverse in the human imagination that wanted to go beyond the obvious. Dr Williams says, “I turn to Dostoevsky and think, well that sounds more like what I think faith is than what Richard Dawkins thinks faith is.”
Eighteen minutes in, Dr Williams sums up the connection between fiction and faith:
Fiction helps you to understand that whatever the principles, whatever the sort of standing rules and perspectives on the moral and the spiritual life, human beings are every bit as unpredictable as Dostoevsky sets out, that they resist rational cataloguing and categorisation, and they often resist reasonable solutions. And you don’t begin to understand humanity unless you understand that thread of wildness that’s in it all.
Most people I know believe blatantly contradictory things. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; none of us are aiming to fit our lives perfectly under a system of rational organization. But most people don’t have the self-assuredness to stand proudly in the intellectual nude with Walt Whitman and let their non-sequiturs dangle in the breeze. They’ll still feel a sense of embarrassment if you point out those contradictions and will attempt to resolve them, something that probably wouldn’t happen if they were simply being creative or rebellious. Methinks the archbishop is refusing to distinguish the exuberance of imagination from the shame of incoherence.