Letter to a Kind Youth
To a Kind Youth,
Your letter, not in spite of but because of your youth, is so sincere and serious that it is difficult and somewhat awkward for me to respond to it in such a short letter-- but I will still try to do so.
You write that you do not want a defense of the need for faith, that you already recognize the need.
Excellent! Thank God for that much. You already have what no one can give you.
As Christ said: "No one will come to me except one who is already drawn to the Lord."
But you ask: "In what am I to believe? In Christianity, but in what kind?"
There are two possible understandings of Christ: Christ as the Son of God who came down to earth to save and enlighten mankind, and Christ as a man, one in whom was contained the highest and most divine wisdom, who lived 1800 years ago and whose teachings gripped humanity, transformed it and still are transforming it.
First let us believe the second alternative, which I have never been able to admit fully and which, I would think, you also find unpleasant to admit. Let us accept it.
Christ is a great sage and teacher not only in words, but a sage and teacher also in matters of life and death.
Is it at all possible to distort the teachings of such a man?
How can one distort, for example, the teachings of Socrates?
Let people distort and reinterpret his teachings to their hearts' content. If you understand the spirit of Socrates' teaching, then you will be able to cast off, without a second thought, everything which distorts it and you will be left with what constitutes the essence of his teaching.
A great teacher then is only great to the extent that he is simple, clear, unambiguous, and incapable of being misinterpreted-- just like a diamond cannot be scratched by anything weaker than itself.
By this principle there cannot exist differing interpretations of a great teacher. He is great because he brings together all that is splintered, scattered, and spreading away from the center.
So how can his teachings give rise to different sects?
If a great teaching gives rise to different sects, then it means only that what lies at bottom is not the great teaching itself, but something false which is being propagated in the name of the great teacher.
If a teaching has been distorted and has given rise to many interpretations, then there are two possibilities: either the teaching itself is worthless or I have not understood its greatness.
Therefore, if we admit the second alternative-- that Christ is a great sage-- then it is absolutely necessary to read freely the Gospels, to read them without smugness or false pride, just as we would read the books of a wise man. And if we do that, the greatness of Christ's teaching will be evident, the distortions of it will fall away by themselves, and it will become clear to us that the differing interpretations of Christ are not contained in His teachings, but are artificially imposed on His teachings from external sources.
The necessity of reading the four Gospels, simply as a child might read them, picking out Christ's words in the process of reading, is even more evident if we admit the first alternative.
Christ-as-God came down to earth, once in the whole history of life on earth, in order to reveal salvation to mankind. He came out of love for men. He lived and taught, and he died, loving people.
We are all humans. We suffer, searching for a means of salvation-- which we do not find. Why then did Christ come into the world?
There is something wrong in this understanding.
Could God come into the world for our benefit, and then forget about us?
Was Christ unable to say what he wanted to so that we could understand Him?
But he did speak, and we have His words before us. They are before us just as they were before those who heard His sermon on the mount.
Those people didn't say Christ was unclear. They didn't ask Him for explanations. They all understood Him and said that they had never heard anything like what He was teaching.
So why is it unclear to us, and why are we afraid of breaking off into different sects?
Evidently because we are not listening to Him, but to others who stand in place of him.
Even if we accept the first alternative, there is still only one thing to do: listen to His words with child-like simplicity. A child listens to his mother with full assurance that his mother, who loves him, will explain everything to him clearly and completely, and that only his mother will tell him the whole truth and give him everything he needs for his well-being.
We must learn to read like a child, to cast off, if only for a short while, all those things that other people believe are holy, just, and righteous. Then it will become utterly clear that God has not deceived us, that He has given us salvation and opened up to us the truth, just as mathematical truths are perfectly clear to us once we manage to understand them...
Christ's teachings are as simple, clear, and doubtless as the fact that all right angles are equal to each other.
In order to understand them, we must above all tell ourselves that what we are studying is the highest law, the law of God-- the law by which everything else that we know is measured, and not think the opposite, not search in God's law for that which gives support to human laws, which we believe in advance are sacrosanct.
Christ said: "He who will not renounce everything cannot be my disciple."
But Christians such as these have never been, are not, and will never be.
The Kingdom of God always comes about through effort; it cannot be otherwise. It is impossible to serve both God and Mammon, to be a little bit Christian, to believe in Christianity for self-satisfaction or for the sake of form or for comfort in hard times.
Christianity is the teaching of the true life.
Christ said: "He who believes in me is reborn, he who does not believe does not know life." Belief in Christ changes a person's whole life...
I don't know if I've managed to say something useful to you. I fear not, although I would very much have wanted to do so because your letter has made me very fond of you...
All the needs of men find fulfillment. How can it be that man's highest need, his need for faith, is left unfulfilled?
Finding faith in Christ only requires casting off false interpretations.
- Leo Tolstoy