I was eager to read this book, because I have absorbed much information about Tolstoy’s religion second-hand, and was glad to hear it from the man himself. I really wanted to like this book.

There are two-thirds or three-fourths of this book that I can endorse without qualification. Tolstoy writes compellingly about the virtue of simple obedience to the commands of Christ. There are entire quotable paragraphs. So in that sense the books contains the a strong evangelical strand: simple delight in the commandments of Christ, coupled with a desire to obey them. (There is a comparison to be made with William Law, though the books more more dissimilar than similar.)

Unfortunately I cannot find any organizing principle to the book. The organizing principle of an orthodox Christian (and Orthodox Christian) approach to the Bible is a love for Christ and a desire to be His disciple. I cannot find that in this book. I hope it was in evidence elsewhere in Tolstoy’s life. What I find instead is a desire to identify a gospel-within-a-gospel. Tolstoy selects five commandments of Christ, and claims that these represent everything that Christ had to say, and all that is needed for the world.

Why these five verses rather than another five verses? Tolstoy does not explain. What significance is there that these five things were spoken by Jesus rather than, say, being found on a calendar of inspirational sayings? If we’re going to cherry-pick verses to live by, how do I decide between Tolstoy’s five verses and Joel Osteen’s five verses?

The obvious thing to say is that this is not Christianity, but a selection of Christian teachings—so that the title of the book, My Religion, is apt. It bears the relationship to Christianity that a sprig of baby’s breath bears to a bouquet of roses.

Tolstoy claims that the ethical core of the New Testament is the core of the gospel, and that the metaphysical claims about Christ were basically subsequent accretions. I cannot endorse that view historically, and I cannot believe any system of thought to be coherent that separates what Jesus said and what Jesus did. “Love your enemies” is at best hyperbole and at a worst a platitude, unless it’s spoken by the same person who can say this and back it up:

The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.

And, I won’t go into it in detail, but holding Christ up as an ethical teacher—even with the metaphysical claims granted—is a mockery if one doesn’t consider the other side of the equation: 1) where it is that we’re supposed to get the ability to, for instance, love our enemies; 2) what it means when we fail to do so, and what implications that has for God and for the world.

That is the fundamental problem, but of course there are intellectual implications as well.

In the first place, Tolstoy is clearly embittered against the Orthodox Church, to the point where it clouds his judgment. I cannot dispute his critiques. The relationship between church and state has been a perennial issue for Orthodoxy. I share Tolstoy’s pacifism, and so I share his frustration with the church’s lack of a peace testimony. (It’s frustrating in 2022 with Russia and Ukraine, and it was frustrating in 2001ff with America and Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, etc.). But that frustration over particular church teachings has no bearing on the truth of other church teachings. So when Tolstoy goes after the Resurrection (chapter 8), he evidently doesn’t feel the need to make a full case against it.

Nor does he even acknowledge that the very charge he makes against the Orthodox Church, namely that they read the Bible selectively, is a charge that can be laid at his feet.

There are further unforced errors, such his weird claim that δόξα means not “glory” but “doctrine of life” (Chapter 9), a claim that seems not to have gained traction, to say the least. Still stranger is his claim that “son of man” refers to humanity in general (Chapter 7). These odd redefinitions allow Tolstoy to make particular verses say what he wants them to say. But they will not read a coherent reading even of a paragraph, much less of an entire Gospel. Jesus at Caesarea Phillipi is asking what people say about humanity in general? Jesus uses δόξα in John to talk about his teaching? (And His use of δοξάζω can somehow be interpreted this way as well?) These are the kinds of cringy eisegetical blunders one tries to overlook on Christianity Stack Exchange; one expects a bit more from Tolstoy.

There are less theologically weighty problems. He claims that someone who follows these teachings will not starve to death, because an economically useful person will always be kept alive:

With regard to work there is a difference between the doctrine of Jesus and the doctrine of the world. According to the doctrine of the world, it is very meritorious in a man to be willing to work; he is thereby enabled to enter into competition with others, and to demand wages proportionate to his qualifications. According to the doctrine of Jesus, labor is the inevitable condition of human life, and food is the inevitable consequence of labor. Labor produces food, and food produces labor. However cruel and grasping the employer may be, he will always feed his workman, as he will always feed his horse; he feeds him that he may get all the work possible, and in this way he contributes to the welfare of the workman.

I keep re-reading this paragraph, trying to detect intended irony. Somehow there was a lack of imagination about what it would be like to be anything but a rich landowner.

In any event, it pains me to criticize a great author. I’m emboldened by my own literary insignificance, and by my admiration for his other works.