He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague…Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men…
Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible.— Raskolnikov’s dream, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Raskolnikov in Prison
Towards the end of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the protagonist Raskolnikov is in Siberia after his conviction and has disturbing dreams while recovering from illness in a prison hospital.
Raskolnikov is a convicted murderer. He had developed his “extraordinary man” theory, which he believed gave him license to act as though everyone else was expendable, while he was free to act as a superior being. Acting on his theory ended with murder and prison, the place he eventually began to see things in a new light.
He was in the hospital from the middle of Lent till after Easter. When he was better, he remembered the dreams he had while he was feverish and delirious. He dreamt that the whole world was condemned to a terrible new strange plague that had come to Europe from the depths of Asia. All were destroyed except a very few chosen. Some new sorts of microbes were attacking the bodies of men, but these microbes were endowed with intelligence and will. Men attacked by them became at once mad and furious. But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know how to judge and could not agree on what to consider evil and what good; they did not whom to blame, who to justify. Men killed each other in a sort of senseless spite. They gathered together in armies against one another, but even on the march the armies would begin attacking each other, the ranks would be broken and the soldiers would fall on each other, stabbing and cutting, biting and devouring each other. The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned. Men met in groups, agreed on something, swore to keep together, but at once began on something quite different from what they had proposed. They accused one another, fought and killed each other. There were conflagrations and famine. All men and all things were involved in destruction. The plague spread and moved further and further
What happens when we all know we’re right?
As every person argues for their own perspective, utterly convinced of their own rightness, the world crumbles. When we believe that everyone else is wrong, society loses its ability to distinguish between good and evil and doesn’t know what is worthy of honor and what is worthy of blame. Since all believe they are intellectually and morally superior, they are therefore justified in fighting all the more feverishly for their convictions.
While today we may not be literally killing each in senseless spite, many of us Christians are guilty of virtual murder. Who has not felt tempted towards anger, disdain, or outright contempt when talking about (or typing about) the legitimacy of impeachment or the reliability of the national media or the reasons for the gulf between rich and poor or testing procedures and mask policies for coronavirus?
What if we are wrong when we believe that we alone have the truth? And how can we all be right when professing Christians have such strongly divergent views on the subject? We are all at risk of going mad from the same infection.
The Extraordinary Man (and Woman) Theory
Rasknolnikov is in prison for the murder of an old pawnbroker and her assistant. He’s in prison because he had a theory about the world that he called the extraordinary man theory, and he tried to put that theory into practice with his crime. Raskolnikov’s theory is quite similar to Nietzche’s later Ubermensch theory, that divides the people of the world into two classes. There are the regular people and there are the “extraordinary” or “super” among us, who can set their own rules in their pursuit of greatness. For the Ubermensch, the ends always justify the means.
The practical problem, of course, arises as it does in Rasknolnikov’s dream. When we all believe that we alone have access to the truth there is only disorder and hatred and chaos. The deeper problem is that on some level we all have hearts that crave justification.
We are proud and broken people. Even those of us who call upon the name of Jesus have proud, stubborn hearts that are desperately seeking justification, identity, and security through our own efforts, abilities, and achievements. That’s why we can still manage to sin even after coming to faith and it’s why we desperately need him. Without perpetual renewal, we will tend to convince ourselves that we are extraordinary. We will be just like God’s chosen people who, despite miraculous provision and supernatural guidance, were often described as a “stubborn and stiff-necked people” with hard hearts.
What’s My Problem?
I have a proud heart that left to its own devices will make me into a world class Pharisee. The particular brand of Pharisee has evolved throughout life. While my beliefs have changed, what hasn’t changed is that underlying each of those phases was an ironclad assurance of my own “rightness” and a feeling of superiority to all others who weren’t enlightened enough to share my views.
And I still have plenty of blind spots today. But I’ve begun to see a common thread: there is pride at the center of nearly all of it.