I have just completed reading Leo Tolstoy’s classic, War and Peace. It was like feasting at a fifty course banquet. There is so much more in the novel than could ever be captured in the movie version. Apart from the innumerable characters, and the historical events it covers, War and Peace, is full of the author’s reflections upon the meaning of life and the search for purpose and fulfillment.
I was impressed by the character of the commander-in-chief of the Russian army, Kutuzov, who embodied, for Tolstoy, the people of Russia. His motto was Patience and Time. He was willing to let Napoleon and the invading forces under his command destroy themselves rather than waste the lives of his own soldiers. He resisted the desires of his commanders to seek glory by launching attacks on the retreating French army. He was content to let General Winter do his work. So often in life we are tempted to force issues rather than let them take their own course. We think we are doing God’s work for him rather than let him work out his purposes. Patience and Time are two virtues we find difficult to accept. We want results too soon.
Throughout the work (Tolstoy does not call it a novel) there are reflections on Destiny. In his Second Epilogue Tolstoy philosophizes on what causes such vast movements of men from west to east and then from east to west. He argues that it cannot be just because Napoleon was a genius and people obeyed him. Nor does he think that it was the result of the ideas of liberty, fraternity and equality spawned by the French revolution. Neither does he think that it was caused by new economic and trade issues. He discusses whether we have free will, or whether all these movements are determined, and we are dependent upon some predestination. He even has some interesting things to say about God and evolution. Nothing that we argue about today is anything new. In the end he believes that we are all dependent on forces that are beyond us, just as the planet on which we live is dependent upon the place it occupies in the solar system. We are not aware of the rotation of the earth, and yet it is happening as we speak. Similarly we are not aware of our dependence upon the forces of history. We are called to act morally, using our free will, but we are also predestined by God, or fate, or circumstances, to fulfill our destiny. We are called to love God and one another in whatever way we can. In that way we discover the mystery and beauty of life.
After taking several weeks to read War and Peace, I read in one day Erik Larsen’s new book, In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. Larsen has taken the lives of William E. Dodd and his family to tell the story of the beginnings of Hitler’s rise to power. Dodd was appointed by FDR as the American ambassador to Germany in 1933. Through his, and his daughter’s eyes, we learn of the intrigues and the terror of the Nazi machine and what it did to Germany. It also reveals the anti-Semitism of the Roosevelt administration, American society at the time, and particularly the State Department. There was a great deal of naiveté, denial, and just plain cowardice at play.
Of course, it is easy for us retrospectively to see these things, and to feel superior to the contemporaries. It reminds us that, when we are in the midst of such movements of history we do not see how blind we are to the forces controlling us and others. How would we have behaved? Would we have been as blind and obtuse and they were? Probably. Most of us refuse to believe the worst of people. Dodd’s biggest problem was that, as an academic (he was professor of history at the University of Chicago), he believed in people working together in a rational fashion. But Hitler was irrational. Reason only takes us so far. The forces of evil stalk the earth and finds ready hosts to inhabit, whether they are the Nazi leadership or Napoleon.
It makes me wonder what is happening today that I cannot see? Am I too sanguine about world events? Is there more evil in our political leadership at home and abroad than I am willing to admit? Are the forces that are controlling the history of our period leading us to yet another time of terror? I am not given to histrionics but I sometimes wonder whether we have too many Neros’ fiddling away while Rome burns. President Roosevelt was not willing to come out and condemn Hitler’s detestable acts. Dodd’s successor in Berlin was Hugh Wilson who emphasized the positive aspects of Nazi Germany and carried on a one-man campaign of appeasement. He accused the American press of being ‘Jewish controlled’ and praised Hitler.
Are there parallels today in our refusal to condemn the evils of foreign leaders, and to play down the precarious state of government debt here and in Europe? Will the house of cards come tumbling down around us as our culture becomes more immoral, and marriage and family disintegrates? Is all this predestined, as the Bible warns us?
Philip Yancey writes: “Biblical history tells a meandering, zigzag tale of doglegs and detours. God’s plan unfolds like a leisurely opera, not a Top 40 tune. For those of us caught in any one phrase of the opera, especially a mournful phrase, the music may seem unbearably sad. Onward it moves, at deliberate speed, and with great effort. The very tedium, the act of waiting itself, works to nourish in us qualities of patience, persistence, trust, gentleness, compassion – or it may do so, if we place ourselves in the stream of God’s movement on earth… Faith calls us to trust in a future-oriented God…No matter how circumstances appear at any given moment, we can trust the fact the God still rules the universe. The divine reputation rests on a solemn pact that one day all shall be well.” (Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? p.238)