If You Love Dostoevsky


If you love Dostoevsky as I do, then you must read this article (actually a lecture) by Donald Sheehan. That’s his picture (which made me want to read the article in the first place – sort of ZZ Tops and Dosteoevsky) Forgive me. But it is exquisite. His own story and Memory Eternal is worth whatever time you give it.

It’s hard to read too much Dostoevsky.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





19 responses to “If You Love Dostoevsky”

  1. Mary Avatar

    Thank you for this article. Perfect timing, actually. I read “Brothers Karamazov” in a whirlwind week (or less) the summer after I graduated from high school.
    To say I need to re-read it would be an understatement.
    I have the Garnett translation/Matlow revision. Is it a bad one? I don’t want to miss anything when I’m reading. If I can help it, that is.

  2. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Penguin Classic’s translated by McDuff is the most accurate that I own, especially on Church vocabulary. I bought it cheap at McKay’s.

  3. Fatherstephen Avatar

    I just looked at 8th day books and they recommend volokhonsky translation. I don’t think I’ve looked at that one. But 8th day is pretty good when it recommends.

  4. Mimi Avatar

    Father, bless,

    I read that essay last year when I re-read “The Brothers Karamazov” and agree, it was incredibly well written.

    I also have the Garnett translation, which is what I’ve read both times. I hear that the Volokhonsky translation is much better, but I already own the Garnett one.

  5. Fr. Andrew Avatar

    I think I must be the only Orthodox Christian in America willing to admit not liking Dostoevsky, at least the little I’ve been able to slog through! I’m an avid reader, and I’ve tried perhaps four times to read The Brothers Karamazov, but after a few hundred pages of nothing at all happening, I’m afraid I lose heart. Perhaps I’m too American, but that’s not something for which I can apologize with much gusto. 🙂

    Prof. Sheehan used to live three doors down from me when his son was one of my fellow seminarians. A fantastic fellow. He also put together the Psalter (a correction of the NKJV by way of the LXX) for the incipient Orthodox Study Bible including the OT. I got a preliminary electronic copy, and it’s quite good.

  6. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Perhaps Dostoevsky is a matter of taste – and being a Russophile doesn’t hurt. I’ve rarely read any Russian novel that I disliked. But there’s no absolutes in it. There is a small book called The Gospel in Dostoevsky that has a collection of excerpts from his work that is quite good. Those excerpts can be read on their own to a large extent and see some of the best of Dostoevsky. I’ve taught classes using it.

  7. Jack Avatar

    Warning. This is not an attack on a person but on that person’s words. The person who said such words may be an absolutely beautiful person and a saint. That is not the point of said attack. I was just so bothered by this statement that I couldn’t keep my mouth closed:

    “We are persons because we know ourselves as foundationally free, under not even the tiniest bondage to, or limitation of, either earthly history or the material world – a freedom even prior to and greater than the Church herself because (as Zizioulas says) such freedom “constitutes the ‘way of being’ of God Himself””

    Our freedom is not God’s freedom nor is it anything like God’s incomprehensible freedom. I am not foundationally free. I did not choose to exist, nor did I choose my parents, my name, the place I was born, my hair color, my race, that dogs exist, how they exist, how they urinate, that oranges exist, how they taste, that the light of the sun is warm, that hot air moves upward, that stars twinkle, that beer is good, that anything exists, how anything exists, etc. I do, however, have the freedom to accept God’s creative love which alone generates me and allow that creative love to move through me, mirroring or imaging it to others. That is my freedom, to image God. If and when I become “God by grace” it will still be God who is the actor and me who is the recipient for I can only be what he gives. There is no other source for being but He who is beyond being. I am and will remain in the “image” and not the archetype. I will never be the creator ex nihilo. Thus, my freedom is not, in even the most slightest degree God’s or analogous to God’s. I am not foundationally free.

    Zizoulas, Florensky, Soloviev, etc., are on the margins, more or less, of traditional Christian thought, which is a great place to stop and have tea but not always a great place to set up shop. I shudder when I hear them recommended, especially to interested Prots, when such better, much more deeply scriptural and traditional, theologians like Father Behr or Schmemann are so readily availible. Sorry if this has little to do with the essay. I couldn’t read any further.

  8. Fatherstephen Avatar


    Yeah, your reaction was a bit over the top. Florensky, Soloviev for sure, are on the fringes, though I’m not sure I’d say quite the same for Zizioulas. And when Z speaks of freedom – it’s not correct to say that it’s foundational in the sense of part of my essential being – but freedom is utterly essential to personhood. And you can’t be a little free and not just free. Of course not free to do anything you want – but still free.

    Fr. Sophrony has written on the freedom of the person in a way that is helpful for me. But I generally like Zizioulas, though he’s far from a place to start for most inquirers about Orthodoxy (as well as most non theological students of Orthodoxy).

    Behr has some good critique of Ziz., but he should not be marginalized. He is an important figure in contemporary Orthodox theology whatever one might think. Of the major figures whom I do know (Kallistos Ware, Hopko, and a few others, none of them would as easily dismiss Zizioulas). Having said that, I would agree that Sheehan may have stated things poorly.

    But there is a stream within Orthodox theology that precisely draws connection between our freedom as persons and our being conformed to the Divine Image.

    But I would ask that in the future you respond and disagree with less vehemence. I don’t want the site to be a place of vitriol. Just point to the problem and why it is a problem and that will be helpful. Also, no profanity. Come on. It’s Lent.

  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    Forgive me but I took the editor and site manager’s liberty of removing profanity. Your points remain. But my rules are my rules.

  10. Jack Avatar

    As you so brilliantly indicated earlier, Father Stephen, even my repentence and forgiveness are not created by me ex nihilo, but rather are received or participated in. God is the creator from whom all good things, ALL things other than sin, come. I am the receiver. I ask for such graces and even my asking requires that God first inform me that such graces are availible for the asking. The Word must be preached. I am free to ask and to recieve or to refuse, a freedom that God respects, albeit in the shamelessly scandalous way of the Cross. That is the extent of my freedom, to choose to be totally normed by the Good.

    Whatever existence I have requires God’s ontologically prior initiative. Whatever “creativity” I have requires God’s ontologically prior initiative. Whatever “synergia” means, it definitely does not make me-n-God the owners of some kind of joint venture. I am the moved not the mover. God gives the ability to do and the things done. I am not foundationally free. Even my limited contingent freedom is received without my input. I do not freely create myself. To the extent that I am me, the manifestation of the true me, is the extent to which I have accepted God’s grace.

    Sorry for the tirade. The good news is not that we are foundationally free or that we are Beings in Communion, persons just like the divine hypostases, but that we are free from the determinism of “the [fallen and deeply disordered] world.”

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    I don’t think I disagree, Jack. Though I would still think long and hard about Personhood (our hypostatic existence) which is a dynamic not a static event. But that I will always be utterly contingent I completely agree. I’m not sure Ziz. would disagree with that either, or I’ve not read him in that direction.

    But I have no argument that we are utterly dependent upon God. Can’t be otherwise. Even the freedom we have is itself a gift. As I said, I thought that Foundational Freedom was a poor choice of words (and I don’t recall Ziz. ever using them.).

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    A few extra thoughts. Hope I don’t get myself in trouble. But the way we are called to exist in Christ, is precisely the way of the Cross (this Behr would quickly agree with). It is this emptying of the self, the pouring of ourself out (our following Christ himself into the depths of hell as we go where only love would go) is the act of freedom the is properly constitutive of personal freedom in the Orthodox sense – not freedom as a property of something else. We have to lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. The way of the Cross is the way of God’s being (I think we can say – if I read Behr correctly). It certainly reveals God to us as who He is. He is the God who loves us like that. Christ on the Cross is not just a side trip of God to rescue us, it is Christ in His glory, the fullness of the revelation of God (and I do not separate it from the resurrection).

    If you look at my articles on the Ecclesiology of the Cross, I’ve tried to do something of this (greatly influenced by Behr, I’ll admit, but I’m not sure I perceive as much distance between Behr and Zizioulas as rumor tells me Behr himself perceives.

    It was interesting to me to spend time this summer at St. John the Baptist Monastery in England. Zizioulas has always been a frequent visitor there. So has Louth. I think Behr may have spent as much as a year there. I know of a number of others as well. I think there is a common thread of sorts, despite differences (I don’t think Zizioulas is nearly as “anti-foundational” or comfortable with post-modernism as Behr is. They belong to two very different generations.

    But there are common threads.

    By the way, Behr is one of the places I suggest people start in their studies – also Ware, Florovsky (I think he is terribly neglected by the way).

    Mostly I think people should go to services, pray, fast, and slowly come to doctrine. Most people read too much and pray to little. They have too much in their heads and do not have the hearts to support it. This can do positive harm to us.

    I’m reading less now than probably at any time in my life, though I still read. But my first reading is in the service materials for liturgies and vigils. We sing more theology at a vigil than other Christians engage in over the course of a year. It’s too rich.

  13. Jack Avatar


    To the extent that I need it, please forgive. I mostly agree with you.

  14. Fr. Andrew Avatar

    I think part of the disconnect in some of the conversation above is that freedom is being conceived by some in terms of making choices, but this is not the freedom of the Fathers. In fact, they (especially Maximos the Confessor) identify making choices, the wavering, decision-making process, as one of the results of the Fall! This is the gnomic mode of the will, an imperfection from which we suffer that Christ did not share, since He is sinless and perfect.

    Freedom for the Fathers is rather the power to do what is natural to us, that for which we were created by God.

  15. Dixie Avatar

    Father Andrew,

    You are not the only one who has difficulty slogging through Dostoevsky. I have a friend who says the same. I honestly suspect I would have difficulty “reading” The Brothers Karamazov as I am not a strong reader…but I greatly enjoy “listening”. Have you considered listening? If you spend a lot of time in the car it’s a good way to go.

    I have the unabridged version in audio form, over 58 hours of listening. I keep the text at home and make mental notes of the parts that I want to go back to and read. Anyway, it’s a thought. And quite possibly an audio copy could be had at the local library.

    In my experience some authors’ works are better suited for listening than others. CS Lewis, for me, is better read than listened but Dostoevsky is good on the ears!

  16. Fatherstephen Avatar

    Jack, If there be any need, I forgive and may God forgive us all. Please forgive me, as well. I have had some of this conversation with my children (two of whom have husbands in their senior year at St. Vladimir’s) all of whom have studied well at Fr. Behr’s feet. I am very excited about what Behr is doing and think it extremely helpful (I think his work can help us return to doing some of the Scriptural work in an Orthodox manner that has been too often neglected in past years, for instance).

    But when Z. talks about freedom as essential for the person (even foundation) he doesn’t mean at all that we are free in our essence (thus free and uncreated). But free in the sense of able to love (love must be free to be love). We are not so much born into this freedom (as a natural thing) in Z.’s writings, as we are Baptized into this freedom (what he then calls the ecclesial hypostasis). But even the freedom that this hypostasis has is the freedom to give itself back to the one who gave it life in the firstplace.

    No where, in my reading, does Z. speak of a human freedom that is independent of God, or autonomous from God. Indeed, it can only exist if it is directed towards God. We become (in a timeless sense) persons by an act of being in communion with God.

    I do not find this to be non-Scriptural, though it’s not as rooted in the Scriptures as Behr.

    On the other hand, I have no doubt that Behr knows Zizioulas’ writings better than I do.

    What I would like to see (and I think this is the proper way for these things to be done academically) would be for Behr (for example) to publish a scholarly article or book with his critique of Zizioulas if he has one to make.

    Met. Zizioulas is a Metropolitan Bishop and a Professor of Orthodox Dogmatics. I am a parish priest. I cannot speak lightly of him or his work. If he has problems, it behooves the Church to correct them. The Church did so with Bulgakov and that was helpful. And provides a guide in reading Florensky, for example.

    But in the area of patristics and the like, both Behr and Zizioulas are giants, while I am only an ant. May God give us all a good Lent, full of forgiveness, love and longing for the resurrection of Christ.

    May he keep all of the theologians of the Church from error and may her Bishops rightly divide the word of truth.

    Thanks for the kind note. You are obviously (as we say in the South) a Christian and a gentleman. May God bless!

    And forgive me!

  17. Matthew the Curmudgeon Avatar
    Matthew the Curmudgeon

    Who IS Donald Sheehan? Never heardof him-AND HOW DID HE GROW THAT BEARD!?!
    Life is SO not fair. In the 60’s & 70’s I couldn’t get my
    hair to grow the way I wanted for anything (down my back to my waist!). In the 80’s, 90’s and the new century I haven’t ever been able to grow a decent beard. Just not right I tell you,JUST NOT RIGHT!
    Blessed Lenten season to all.

  18. Roland Avatar

    I’ll second Dixie’s suggestion. I also listened to a recording of The Brothers K, occasionally returning to the book to check details. I guess my reader read faster than Dixie’s – this version is only 36 hours long:


    Also available at Barns & Noble.

  19. fatherstephen Avatar

    In the recordings of Fr. Arseny, one of the narrators has a thick Russian accent. Lends a proper flavor to such things. I could think of several people whom I like to hear read Dostoevsky.

    For a while a couple of years back, I had a Russian woman who came in to work on her English with me. She read Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment) aloud, and we would stop and work on problem pronunciations. I found it most pleasant.

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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