The Kingdom is Within You : Leo Tolstoy – “My Religion”

So who is this tall, dark, and brooding aristocrat?


Hint: Heap 50 years on him, give him a crazy unkempt beard, and handsome young Count Leo Tolstoy morphs into one of those kooks howling incoherently about “The Kingdom of God” and terrorizing serfs in the Russian countryside.


I was browsing through one of Count Leo Tolstoy’s many book-length spiritual essays, 1884’s “My Religion,” in a Christmas-related bout of spirituality… It felt SO familiar! It struck me that

A) either Leo and I have a startling kinship when it comes to these matters, our equally brilliant minds colliding in harmonic agreement OR

B) (and accurate); I had already read this when I was a kid, and kind of forgot.

In any case, it must have been highly influential and formative, because I still lean on some of Leo’s points. And yet, re-reading “My Religion” as an adult, Tolstoy’s eager, overlong exploration seems sometimes naive. He wrote this at 58! How old should a person get before becoming  “woke” to the dissonance between a society’s jibber-jabber about Jesus and its active refusal to engage in anything resembling Christianity? 58 is too old for one of the wisest novelists of all time to grab the reader’s lapels for some truthful shaking that involves “mind-blowers” like: “If we REALLY believed in Jesus- We would refuse to have ARMIES! WAKE UP, SHEEPLE!”

Dude. We know. We read “War and Peace.” Or tried.

And yet that hideous disconnect between a society’s professed beliefs and its structures are always worth pointing out to the young because it hasn’t gone away and it never might, no matter how many Tolstoys write to expose our communal, pervasive conviction that, sure, Jesus had some cute ideas, but, let’s face it, no one has time for that hippie crap.

Tolstoy, a life-long believer of “faith-through-reason” who consulted with priests and rabbis, and who laboriously learned Greek so that he could dive into the unmediated Gospels, goes at length into the vexing paradox of how religion, by its existence, ensures that the teachings of Jesus go unpracticed. More interesting are Tolstoy’s Biblically-based conclusions that the ideas of Heaven and Resurrection are post-factum tacks. Jesus rarely brought up the topic and was far more interested in terrestrial justice and the under-privileged inheriting THIS Earth. As most rabbis of his time, he was likely to see the whole concept of the after-life as an intrusive non-Hebraic superstition dripping into the Scriptures by virtue of Roman rule. After all, it was the Romans who believed in some shade-laden Hades, not the more observation-based, “dust to dust” Jews. In his few pronouncements about Heaven, Jesus was either too evasively vague (“The kingdom of Heaven is like… A party that never ends?”) or so disappointingly clear that his followers bend over backwards to ignore his words ( Sorry, peeps, you do NOT get to meet up with your loved ones after you die. Not according to Jesus, anyway).

“The Kingdom of God,” (Tolstoy grows convinced) “is a place that exists right here, and right now, and within you.”

But you can’t get to it until you go looking for it.

As an adult, I see is that Tolstoy’s conclusions are predicated upon a number of fallacies. Chief among these are his unquestioning acceptance that the Gospels are accurate pieces of unbiased journalism – as long as he gets to chop out the lines he detects as obvious fabrications. This leads to some convenient, selective interpretations, such as several moments when, dissatisfied with Biblical verses, he decides that the half he agrees with is authentic divine wisdom, while the half he disagrees with is pure forgery, a human interpolation. Like St. Augustine- and truly, like most theologians- Tolstoy is torn between his overpowering need for faith, and the intellectual skills that allow him to see that the primary cultural source of his faith is… shall we say… of uneven literary merit.

Ultimately, Tolstoy becomes convinced that the greatest and most un-Christian of sins is believing that Earth God is NOT already Heaven: a Heaven we willfully prevent from existing by virtue of our refusal to listen to the Sermon of the Mount without condescension. Whether one agrees with the good Count or not, he walked his talk, and he did it on bare feet, if I accept this painting as Gospel:




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