Hansen Wendlandt's Reviews > A Confession and Other Religious Writings

A Confession and Other Religious Writings by Leo Tolstoy
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's review
Jul 26, 2011

really liked it

Of the three pieces here, two are interesting, but What Is Religion is one of the best things ever written about religion! Chapters 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 13 and 14 should be carefully read by everyone who has graduated beyond a Sunday School faith. Whether it makes you want to defend religion as praxis or the personal persona of God, or offers a realization or confirmation of reasonable belief (contrary, say, to the New Atheists), this essay is worth moving to the top of your list.
The summary is a single definition, alternately expressed, but generally: "True religion is that relationship... which man establishes with the infinite world around him, and which binds his life to that infinity and guides his actions." (89) Simple enough, but what defines that "true" against "degenerated"? Clergy, take note here. Tolstoy's explanation of 'relationship' isn't particularly cosmological (he offers little basis for what infinity is or a relationship with it, but he nicely searates the expression of the relationship from its actual meaning. Religious systems, the expressions that change through time, have their failures, but "every religion in its true meaning always establishes a relationship between man [sic] and the infinite, which is one and the same for all people." (91) The ellipses of his definition--"in accordance with reason and knowledge"--might be done without for purposes of classification, but Tolstoy's relig-utopic vision of reasoned belief does help one understand how he can so appreciate peasant lifestyle in his novels while abasing their mental simplicity in his academics. 'Infinity' is not clarified, but on the relative assumption that we know what he means, "the representatives of infinity" leads to God's place in belief. (The third essay, The Law of Love, does a better job of comparative religion on this point, but this piece, What Is Religion, stays near to the deeper question of comparative theology.) And the sections on guidance from that relationship, Tolstoy's ultimate concern, beg for radical inclusivity as the supreme law of faith. This law, Tolstoy supposes, is most clearly expressed in Christianity, not of course in its application, but in the founding values. He is naive (or just a hopeful 80 year old man) to think Christendom is getting closer to accepting that law, but nonetheless his ethical motivation is great.

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