Part two of a series discussing the vicarious life — a personal anecdote. Part one extensively detailed the historical framework leading up to our current state in regards to the vicarious life.
I met Irina on the Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg, Russia. She walked briskly next to her husband, Jim, who sported the cautiously situated orange hat on the crown of his head – a hat forever seared into my memory. It was a young marriage of old lovers: a gentle retired US navy man joined to a fiery native artist.
Irina was reared and educated in Soviet Russia under Stalin and those who followed him. In the 20th century, Russia was experiencing an identity crisis (I guess you could argue they still are). Were they going to follow the philosophical and economic norms of the advancing west or cling to the mythic Russian-ness of their fathers?
As the proletariat, the peasants, the poor folks struggled for a fair way of life, they hitched their wagons to the enlightened Marxist philosophy adapted by Lenin. Those in leadership attempted to merge the pre-modernist philosophy that inherently marginalized traditional core values (Orthodox Church) with the famed culture saturated with religious iconography and allusions. Over time, this system failed the proletariat and turned into an oppressive vehicle used to suppress those it intended to free. On a personal, individual level, the economy of Soviet Russia fed upon the rich faith of the Russian people; it masterfully subverted it, and directed it unto itself.
While this sets in contrast to some of the western notions of the post-modern world developing after WWII (destabilization of meaning, questioning of reality, high value for parody and irony, distrust of theologies and ideologies), one large parallel remains: the deconstruction of religion, one through irony, the other through force.
Irina attended school in atheistic Russia and was ironically required to read the great spiritual works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Pushkin. Somehow, someway, these theological treatises on the psyche and sanctification of man were stripped pedagogically from their very essence. Nonetheless, she absorbed her Russian-ness in the midst of her enlightenment, unaware of the Truth oozing from the ink stained pages.
During her youth, the only people teaching the faith of her ancestors were the babushkas — the older women at the tail end of their life. Overwhelmed with the peace of Christ and on the brink of Glory, they had nothing to fear in opposing the nationalistic gods. Yet, while regarding their words of love with care, to risk her life and join the babushka ranks did not appeal to her.
She dabbled with Christianity in college. College seems to breed rebellion of one sort or another in every student. Naturally, those forced to adhere to an anti-religion construct, the rebellious fad was to experiment with Christianity. But, for Irina, it was just a phase, a series of transactional moments void of any real transformation.
Later in life, the books of her youth reappeared. She began to pour over the Russian kings of culture and spirituality. As she immersed herself in these stories and characters, forgotten fragments of her childhood and young adulthood assembled themselves into a desirable whole. The passionate words of the babushkas, the condescending discourse from the secret meetings in college – the temptuous siren song of Orthodox Christianity through the heart of fiction compelled her to belief in the midst of disbelief. These works of fiction brought life to the Life in Christ. The Vicarious Life.
David Foster Wallace, in his brilliant essay, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”, discusses the power of Russian literary figures, and in particular, Dostoevsky:
[He] wrote fiction about the stuff that’s really important. He wrote about identity, moral value, death, will, sexual vs. spiritual love, greed, freedom, obsession, reason, faith, suicide. And he did it without ever reducing his characters to mouthpieces or his books to tracts. His concern was always what it is to be a human being – that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal.
Dostoevsky and his contemporaries confronted Irina in the midst of a philosophical black hole – one that devalued man and raised the government to god-like authority. They forced her to face her humanity for the first time, in all its bleakness and grace. In truly seeing humanity and its relation to something outside of it – the divine – she found herself in the traditional church of her homeland – the Russian Orthodox Church. While individually transformed by a solo encounter with solitary souls in particular stories, she united with a vicarious form.
A foundational sacrament in the Orthodox Church is baptism. Baptism is a covenantal act binding an individual to a community with the expectation that God will sanctify them through the body. In contrast to the evangelical notion of an individual baptism representing a strictly personal faith perpetuated at the turn of the 20th century, Irina finds God in the union with a people and church predicated on the triune principles of co-inherence – the principles Sam discussed in his recent post.
Her faith was inherently related to that of Christ, his people, and his Church. The power of a well told story brought her into the vicarious life.
Currently, in the 21st century, we find ourselves in a myriad of places in regard to the vicarious life:
- Modernism and Post-Modernism has had no effect on us. We are strictly products of the Enlightenment – rationality and scientific understanding is the only means to truth. This was Irina pre-conversion.
- We are de-constructivists. We tear down any and all ideologies, but build nothing in its stead.
- We are relativistic. Instead of tearing down or choosing rationality as our god, we gorge on the buffet of spirituality.
All three of these lead to a radical form of individuality – that in and of myself, I determine the truth either through my use of cognitive systems, ironic wit, or seasonal whims of desire. In other words…
The antithesis of the vicarious life.
There is, though, another option…