Now, in this story we hear Psalm 14:1, more precisely the first line of it (“The fool says in his heart ‘There is no God’”). One can be tempted to take Fyodor as a fool or buffoon because he acts as such. We may reason that Fyodor belittles the sacred space and its monks because he does not practically believe in God. (Pyotr Miusov’s thoughts hint at that, and Fyodor’s own actions in previous chapters strongly suggest his sardonic approach towards religion.) Therefore, he is the prototype of the fool that the scripture speaks about. But we can’t pass judgment on him or make a case for or against him so soon because as a reader we have been left in limbo without crucial knowledge for such a judgment. Dostoevsky gives us the thoughts of Miusov and of some other characters but never that of Fyodor. In other words, we readers know what’s going on in Miusov’s heart, but all we have to go on for Fyodor is his outward behavior and speech, which is neither here nor there. So by taking Fyodor for a fool and without knowing the character’s heart, we may pass judgment on ourselves and expose our own foolishness in hasty judgment.
This is where Dostoevsky’s move to hide the character’s heart and force us to take the risk of being fooled in our judgment links to the Psalm’s exposing the fool’s heart and simultaneously warning us to be cautious in our judgments. Since both of these texts are multi-layered, I will explore only one layer. There is a reason that Psalm 14:1 says that the fool is the one who denies God in his heart and lives a life of what God-denialism might imply (doing evil and oppressing the poor). The inwardness of denial is crucial for apprehending the verse, Dostoevsky’s scene, and the theological understanding of the chief intellectual hypocrisy (bear with me — I will tell you what that is).
First, by going after the heart of a person, the scripture passes judgment based on a person’s beliefs and inner world, that which matters most for who the person is. As we know from other stories of the Bible, God looks into our heart (into our most private thoughts, feelings, and ways of being) unlike people. Second, the scripture indirectly warns us humans because none of us have access to the heart of a person to pass judgments that are impeccably just and spiritually mature. Passing judgment about someone else’s faith and relation to God can be done by looking into that person’s heart (as God does), but that’s outside of our reach. Dostoevsky’s description exemplifies the scripture’s stance on passing judgment only based on a person’s heart.
Dostoevsky shows that through outward behavior, we can have some glimpses into the human soul, but even that is not enough. The case is before us; we can pass judgment on Fyodor’s immoral life and behavior as exemplified in his actions only by also passing judgment on ourselves. Despite the fact that Dostoevsky consistently (and from the first page of the novel) describes Fyodor as an evil, immoral, and irresponsible debauchee at the crucial scene where such judgments are routinely passed (in a monastery cell in the presence of monks), he denies the right to pass judgment to his readers, hiding the inner world of the character from us and coloring the character’s behavior with ambiguity.
In the context of the whole novel, Fyodor Karamazov is an unmistakably evil character; we know this because as the novel develops, Fyodor’s heart is exposed, and his heart is no better than his behavior. The author Fyodor Dostoevsky — who bears the same name as Fyodor Karamazov, and that opens up another layer for reflection — has already passed judgment on him. But this makes matters more ambiguous and more complex. Is it the case that by referring to Psalm 14:1, Fyodor Karamazov prophesies about and exposes himself unwittingly? Is it the case that in the context of the whole novel, the ambiguity of Fyodor’s actions are neutralized, and the author does not see the need to guide the reader through this inconsequential ambiguity? No matter how you look at it, dear reader, there is a tension between the whole novel’s context (in which Fyodor is an evil buffoon) and this scene (in which the ambiguity of his character offsets and delays the expected judgment that a reader would pass on him). This is all to say that at the level of the whole novel, the character is clearly an evil person because of his heart and evil behavior as the Bible would judge him, but just like in the Bible, Dostoevsky cautions us in our passing judgment due to the ambiguity of a given scene.
Third, the mention of only the heart (בְּלִבּוֹ) in the Psalm leaves other options open and invites us to explore what was left unsaid. One option is that an individual may deny God through his behavior but not inwardly, believing in God deep down in his heart. Another option is that a person may deny God inwardly but affirm outwardly, pretending to be a believer. The third option is that he may deny God both inwardly and outwardly. The one who denies God in his heart and acknowledges it publicly may not be a fool because he lives according to what he believes to be true; he may be delusional or even evil (if he does evil in addition to his unbelief) but not necessarily a fool. This also seems to be the case with Dostoevsky’s approach in the aforementioned scene because when Zossima, the monk, makes a brief comment, he focuses on not lying to ourselves and points out how it alienates us from ourselves and others. Interestingly, Zossima does not judge Fyodor either. Put simply, in a Dostoevskian interpretation, the scripture suggests that a consistency between the inner beliefs and the outer behaviors of a person matters for that person’s life even if what he believes might be a mistake or delusion. Another interpretation that follows from the ambiguity so prominently emphasized in the aforementioned scene is that without regard to a person’s heart (assuming that Fyodor really believes in God), there will always be some level of inconsistency between the inner beliefs and the outer behaviors of a given person. Because of these ambiguities, we can’t judge a person simply by his outward behavior, and that’s why the Bible singles out the human heart (the most private, innermost side of a human) as the object for God’s attention.
And yet Psalm 14 gives a terse sketch of a fool; perchance some may recognize themselves in the mirror of God’s revelation. The fool — the real fool — is the one who thinks he fools people by playing the nice religion game for his own end because “there is no God” to begin with. Outwardly, he acts as if he believes in God (for whatever reason), but internally he denies the reality of God. In and of itself, such hypocrisy may be harmless (which I doubt). However, the scripture declares a person to be a fool when this internal disbelief combines with outwardly religious behavior and evil intention that the pretender displays.
Why I would assume and consider the possibility of a discrepancy between the inner God-denialism and the outwardly pretentious religious behavior as one of the defining features of the fool while Psalm 14 really doesn’t say anything explicit about that? Simply put, Psalm 14 seems to assume that there is no way a God-denying person would be able to hide his disbelief because it would manifest itself in some form of outward oppression and evil. Hence, principally, any inner God-denialism can be spotted.
While that might be true, the reverse is manifestly untrue: we can’t simply assume that because of an evil behavior, someone denies God in his heart. The Bible gives us examples. King David did evil by sleeping with Bathsheba and killing her husband, but we can’t conclude from that fact that David didn’t believe in God. Moreover, we need to take into account the social context of Psalm 14. In ancient Israel, you wouldn’t find too many people, especially those who had the power and wealth in their hands to oppress the poor, deny God’s existence explicitly and publicly. Too much was at stake for them, and society would not take their open God-denialism lightly. OT law prescribes harsh measures for such things. So it’s reasonable to think that the majority of those who really didn’t believe in God would pretend to believe, and some of them would make their outward faith into a game and play it to manipulate others. Hence, Psalm 14 also addresses the people who deny God in their hearts, all the while professing a belief in God outwardly in order to manipulate others. Thus, the fool is the one who really (that is, in his heart) denies God.
This is judged to be evil by definition, and I call it the chief intellectual hypocrisy. But in the context of the scripture (which takes the reality of God for granted), he is fool for another reason also; he fools himself by convincing himself that God does not really exist and that the beliefs and norms of religious people can be utilized for his own ends. Such a person deludes himself about the ultimate nature of reality and goes on to live according to that self-delusion. Dostoevsky forces us to confront that reality from another angle and in one particular case: only by passing judgment upon ourselves can we pass judgment upon others who we deem to be godless. In Fyodor’s case, it is more pointed: we risk being fooled by thinking that Fyodor is actually a fool despite the fact that the novel explicitly characterizes him as an evil buffoon.
In the scripture, the fool is a fool by virtue of the discrepancy between his belief in the absence of God and his outwardly manipulative faith-affirming behavior that tries to fool those who believe. Hence, by doing evil and oppressing the poor in the context of disbelieving God’s existence, faith can easily be rationalized and made meaningful more often than not as a tool for power. Obviously, this is not the case for every disbeliever in God. But for many whose highest source of meaning is their ego and whose strongest drive is the material gains of the world.
Now, after all this, I want to ask you this question. Who do you take Fyodor to be? Is he a fool who tries to fool others? Is he a prodigal son who hides his nervousness behind playing the fool?
Who is he?
Have you seen prototypes of Fyodor in your life?
I hope this post will help you refrain from rash and fast judgments about someone else’s relationship with God. Also, I want this post to encourage you to probe the depths of the scripture and put it in dialogue with many a great book out there that savor the unsettling images, judgments, and discernments of the Bible.
If you liked this post, please share it on social media. Let those who dwell in the scripture and tackle the depths of it find value. Also, check other posts (linked below) that may help you to understand the scripture more.