Love People, Not the Idea of People: A Lesson from Ivan Karamazov

Series: The Lord and Literature 

by Ronni Kurtz May 18, 2021

A Fictional Conversation about a Real Problem

Near a window in a Russian café sit two fictional brothers—Alyosha Karamazov and Ivan Karamazov. These two brothers, who make up two-thirds of the Karamazov brothers, share the same DNA but differ substantially in their worldview. Alyosha Karamazov, four years younger than his older brother, is a Monk and devoted to the religious life. His brother, however, wavers somewhere between atheism and religious doubt.

While the two younger Karamazovs dialogue frequently in the volume, I want to focus on the conversation at the café. While I intend for this brief article to be “spoiler free,” a bit of ambiguous context may help. The brothers’ meeting is occasioned by Ivan Karamazov’s eventual departure for Moscow. The brothers, who Dostoevsky uses throughout the novel to represent differing philosophical and theological poles, are lamenting the fact that they do not truly know one another. Of course, they have spent much time around each other, but they fear they are not actually well-acquainted. Their desire to press into greater relational depth and brotherly fraternity causes them to move into weighty subjects, including the relationship between love and religion.

During this fictional conversation, Ivan Karamazov makes a great confession which real life folks may not admit as readily but, nevertheless, functionally embody. In short, Ivan confesses to his younger brother Alyosha that he completely understands loving the idea of people in general, but has never really loved actual people in particular.

Before turning to the topic of the problem of evil, the two discuss love, and Ivan Karamazov tells his younger brother, “I never could understand how it’s possible to love one’s neighbors. In my opinion, it is precisely one’s neighbors that one cannot possibly love. Perhaps if they weren’t so nigh.” He says later, “It’s still possible to love one’s neighbor abstractly, and even occasionally from a distance, but hardly ever up close.”

Ivan’s Problem is Our Problem

While it may be tempting to scoff at Ivan’s proposal as being simply a silly and ignorant position, take a moment for self-evaluation and see if, while denying the principle of Ivan’s argument, its remnants live within you. For, Ivan is making no mere joke in this conversation; he is sincere. In his own way, Ivan Karamazov feels a genuine love for mankind. In fact, he has even demonstrated this love by bending his intellectual career toward the good of others and often constructs ethical essays for the betterment of his fellow man. However, that is where Ivan’s love reaches its limit—the idea of others.

While Ivan is animated, and even passionate, about love of mankind in general, he finds that as he gains proximity to real flesh-and-blood “neighbors,” tangible love becomes increasingly difficult. The problem with loving people is that people are involved. Often, the command to love our neighbor involves an unavoidable inconvenience. The problem with people is that they take time, energy, money, and even threaten our own well-being. A quick calculation of the situation may lead you to the conclusion that it is simply too costly to get involved in the business of loving your neighbor—your actual neighbor.

Christ, the Better Karamazov

For this reason and others, it is often easier to discuss love of mankind instead of love of a particular man or woman. However, we have a better model than Ivan. And, while we could look to the noble example of his younger brother, Alyosha, we have a better model than even the youngest Karamazov.

Christ’s cosmic display of love—the redemption of sinners—is not the tale of love in general. On the contrary, Christ stepped into the inconvenient mess of humanity. Surely the God of the universe could have conceived of a measure of love which would have allowed him to stay at arm’s length. However, the “hound of heaven” came near to us. His love was not a general love, but a love of great particularity.

The particularity of his love caused the omniscient one to take on ignorance in his humanity. The particularity of his love caused the omnipresent one to take on limitations in his humanity.

The particularity of his love caused the a se one to have a birth date in his humanity.

The particularity of his love caused the eternal one to experience successive moments in his humanity.

Ultimately, the particularity of his love caused the Lord of life to taste death in his humanity.

The scriptures tell us that “greater love has no one than this, that he would lay his life down for his friends.” (John 15:13) However, Jesus takes the tale of a friendly sacrifice an important step further and lays down his life not just for his friends but even his enemies. For, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8) and “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Ephesians 2:4)

In the end, Ivan Karamazov may actually be correct—loving particular people can indeed be a burden. But thanks be to God, Christ looked upon our helpless estate and embraced the burden of loving you and I in all our inconvenient brokenness.

Editor’s Note: The Lord and Literature series is a collection of articles and resources which work at the intersection of theology, Christian living, and literature. Our hope with this niche series is to leverage the beauty and power of great novels and poetry to turn our gaze towards the grandeur and grace of our triune God.

Enter to Win the Puritan Paperbacks This July!

Charles Spurgeon once said, “By all means read the Puritans, they are worth more than all the modern stuff put together.”

The Puritans offer their readers a comprehensive, gospel-centered view of the Christian life where all of Christ matters for all of life. In recent years, Banner of Truth has published a 49-volume set called the Puritan Paperbacks where Christians today can glean from the Puritans of the past.

During the month of July, we’re giving away the entire 49-volume Puritan Paperback series for free to one providentially favored participant who enters. Enter today for your chance to win!