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Fyodor Dostoevskys Notes from Underground: A Study in Humility, Irrationality, and

Spiritual Friendship as an Expression of Christian Eschatalogical Hope

Tyler Hill
THEO 496: Senior Seminar
December 7, 2014

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I am a sick manI am a spiteful man.1 These are the opening words of Fyodor
Dostoevskys, Notes from Underground; words that are echoed throughout literary history
by authors such as D.H. Lawrence, and words that immediately set the tonal framework
for understanding one of the most complex protagonists in all of literature.2 Notes from
Underground expresses and explores many of the tensions at the root of existentialism;
among these are the paradox of human connection and the confrontation of the absurd.
The following essay will be a reflection upon Dostoevskys existentialist reasoning in
regards to human relationship synthesized with the thoughts of the philosophers and
theologians whom have been examined throughout the course of this seminar. It will
ultimately express the necessity for spiritual friendship and community in working to
achieve peace and restoration. In addition, it will emphasize the importance of friendship
not only as evidence of Gods love for the cosmos, but also as an expression of the
challengingly hopeful and beautifully irrational mystery of Christian eschatology.
Prior to exploring the relational implications of Notes from Underground, one must first
familiarize oneself with its historical and philosophical context, as well as with the
biographical context of its author. The following paragraphs will aim to provide a
necessarily over-simplified description of the intellectual and social milieu within which
the book was written. In addition, relevant life events of the author will be discussed
before delving into the ideas offered by the novel in regards to Christianity, friendship,
and the combination thereof.
Fyodor M. Dostoevsky lived from 1821 to 1881, a politically tumultuous time for
his native Russia and an equally turbulent era in terms of intellectual atmosphere across
1 Fyodor M. Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground (New York: Everymans Library, 1993) p.6
2 Michele Frucht Levy, D.H. Lawrence and Dostoevsky: The Thirst for Risk and the Thirst for Life,
Modern Fiction Studies, 33:2 (1987): p.281.

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the globe.3 Russia has historically been a nation plagued by the tension between Eastern
and Western thought, and at the center of Russias embrace of Western ideology was Czar
Peter the Great, who ruled from 1682-1785.4 Dostoevsky grew up in the wake of both
the Enlightenment, and Peters influence. In his youth, Dostoevskys familial
circumstances instilled in him a deeply rooted sense of compassion for the Russian
peasants though the Dostoevsky family themselves were technically considered nobility.5
This sympathy for the marginalized was one of several factors that contributed to Fyodor
falling in with the nihilistic, young intelligentsia of 19th century Russia. As he matured,
he was increasingly influenced by the ideologies of French utopian socialism and rational
egoism, which permeated the intellectual milieu of the day.6 Eventually, Dostoevsky was
arrested for being part of radical political groups concerned with, among other things,
eliminating the Russian institution of serfdom.7 After the emotionally scarring ordeal of a
mock execution, followed by nearly a decade in Siberian labor camps, Dostoevsky was
given his freedom, and returned with drastically different political and religious views,
though he had always maintained a surprisingly firm Christian system of belief.8
This brings us back to the intellectual and philosophical culture of the mid to late 19th
century to which Notes from Underground, and existentialism in general, was largely a
reaction. The Russian intelligentsia of the 1840s and 1850s was heavily influenced by a
combination of the French and German romantic and idealist movements, as well as

3 David J. Colley, Three Acts of Love: Fyodor Dostoevskys Social Ethic as Authentic Christian
Brotherhood, Center for Advanced Theological Studies, School of Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary
(2013) p.20.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Colley, p.26
7 Colley, p.31
8 Ibid.

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utopian socialism and rational egoism, all of which were gaining traction in the wake of
the Enlightenment and Russias embrace of Western ideologies.9 One of the major
characteristics of Notes from Undergrounds unnamed protagonist, whom critics call the
Underground Man, is his vehement opposition to the aforementioned hyper-rational,
deterministic mode of thought. In part, Notes from the Underground is an argument
against Chernyshevskys What is to be Done?, in which the author imagines a future of a
programmatic utopian society brought about by mans scientific progress.10 Another
ideology that goes hand in hand with the utopian socialism and rational egoism of the day
is a specific category of determinism in which humankinds actions are thought to be
completely pre-determined on a biological level. One implication of this theory is the
hope that it would eventually be possible to map a persons entire life every decision
and event on some sort of table.11 Unprecedented scientific progress in the mid 19th
century had much of the Western world convinced that humankind no longer had any
need for God. The Underground Man rails against these ideologies in the first half of the
novel, which is written as a type of manifesto laying out his intellectual and political
beliefs.
When reading Notes from Underground, it is not difficult for a reader to feel
overwhelmed by the plethora of philosophical ideas being considered. The fact that the
Underground Man is an extremely unreliable narrator, who constantly contradicts himself
and indulges in all manners of self-deprecating rants, does not make it any easier.
However, this essay will attempt to focus purely on the elements of Dostoevskys
existentialist thought which pertain to human relationship and connection. Though these
9 Colley, p.28
10 Dostoevsky, p.xiv
11 Dostoevsky, p.xv

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ideas may not initially seem interconnected, the root of the Underground Mans resistance
to the previously mentioned ideologies and -isms lies in what he believes to be a basic
human desire for irrationality and control. This also is a key component of many concepts
surrounding spiritual friendship.
As has been previously mentioned, the first half of Notes from the Underground is a
manifesto in which the Underground Man lays out his character to the reader, he claims
that he is writing only for himself, yet he consistently refers to his readers and anticipates
their objections.12 The Underground Man is approximately 40 years old, and has been
living in his Underground apartment on the outskirts of St. Petersburg Russias great
Western city for nearly 20 years since receiving a modest inheritance and resigning
from his post as a civil servant.13 He characterizes himself as a spiteful, insecure, overly
sensitive man.14 He also describes himself as hyper-conscious and intelligent; a man
who is constantly mistreated and misunderstood; a bookish man who is pushed to the
margins of society because he lives a life of the mind rather than being a man of action.15
From the beginning, the reader can sense the Underground Mans self-loathing and the
conflict within his heart in a way that is difficult to pin down even when one reads the
book, let alone within the limitations of a brief summary such as this one. The
Underground Man is, in an ironic way, quite vain, which not only conflicts with his
pathetic state but also serves to increase his isolation.
The second half of the novel is comprised of the descriptions of three separate events,
each of which captures the self-inflicted torment of the Underground Man. These
12 Peter Roberts, The Stranger Within: Dostoevskys Underground, Educational Philosophy and
Theory, 45:1 (2013): 398.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Roberts, p.399

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anecdotes are prime examples of Dostoevskys masterful ability to describe events that, at
first glance seem ridiculous, but actually speak eerily familiar truths about human nature,
resulting in a biting self-awareness as the reader recognizes his or herself in a
purposefully loathsome protagonist.16 The first of these episodes is the story of the
Underground Man plotting revenge against a coworker whom he feels has slighted him.
In an uncomfortably comedic and trivial inner-dialogue, he decides the best way to do
this is to bump into his enemy on the sidewalk. He plots for months, and even borrows
money to buy a new outfit solely to bump into the official. He tries to gain the courage to
walk into his foe, backing out several times before finally achieving his goal. Much to
his chagrin, the official seems not to notice, and the Underground Man convinces himself
that his coworker must be truly ashamed, and is merely feigning indifference to his
comically petty attempt at revenge.17
In the following episode, the Underground Man runs into some of his former
schoolmates, and invites himself to a farewell party they are planning for a member of
their friend group. After not being able to pay in advance for his share of the expenses of
the party, he crashes the event, only to experience a series of excruciating and humiliating
interactions.18 The friends eventually leave to spend the remainder of the night at a
brothel, while the Underground Man is left behind at the restaurant. After wallowing in
his humiliation for a period of time, the Underground Man decides to chase after them
and challenge one of them to a duel in order to regain his honor. Once he gets to the
brothel, he meets a young prostitute named Liza.19 His interactions with her make up the
16 Roberts, p.398
17Roberts, p.399
18 Roberts, p.400
19 Ibid.

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third episode, and these events, along with the course material, will be the basis of this
essays commentary concerning spiritual friendship and human connection.
The Underground Man sleeps with Liza before ranting extensively to her about
the horrors that await her in her profession.20 This all happens in a way that is
reminiscent of the classic literary trope of the redeemed prostitute, another indication of
the Underground Mans blurred reality between books and real life. He expresses to his
readers his desire to dominate Liza, to be cruel to her, to make her suffer, but
simultaneously expresses being drawn to her and wanting to save her. She bursts into
tears as he expounds on the terrible things that happen to prostitutes in St. Petersburg, and
he feels guilty for the way he has made her feel.21 He leaves, ashamed, but invites her to
come visit him at his house. Back home, in the comfortable and safe isolation of his
Underground, he waits anxiously for Liza to come see him. For three days he obsesses
over her and plans exactly what he will say, laying out elaborate speeches and
romanticizing the situation as if it were a story in one of his books.
Finally, while he is in the midst of a heated argument with his servant Apollon
over the delivery of an apology letter written to his school friends for the earlier nights
antics, Liza visits the Underground Mans decrepit apartment. He takes out his
frustration on her in a string of verbal abuse, but, she receives this with compassion and
understanding.22 His complicated feelings of both love and hate for Liza conflict the
Underground Man tremendously. After collapsing in tears into her arms, and what some
scholars believe to be an implied sexual encounter, his hate gains the upper hand. He
lashes out again at Liza, telling her to leave and placing a crumpled wad of money in her
20 Ibid.
21 Roberts, p.401
22 Ibid.

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hand as if to imply that he is merely paying for her services; that the caring friendship
and relationship that had been expressed over the past few days meant nothing to him.
She throws the money back at him and the still unnamed protagonist is left to indulge in
the comfortable self-pity and solitude of the Underground.23
Among the countless philosophical issues brought up in Notes from Underground
and the difficult-to-decipher theses of the story is the theme of isolation. The
Underground Man is painfully lonely, yet also finds comfort in this loneliness because it
is easier than trying to get along with people. He rails against the determinism of the
rational egoists, preaching the necessity of irrationality, yet remains a man of inaction,
trapped in his books and incapable of committing to the ultimate expression of
irrationality: relationship. When the Underground Man finally happens upon somebody
who is willing to care for him and who understands him, he rejects her love, unwilling to
put aside his own pride and the naturally human, yet selfish, desire to wallow in despair.
Though there are many contributing factors to the Underground Mans isolation,
two of the most prominent are pride and vanity. In order to further understand how pride
and vanity prevent meaningful human connection, it is important to contrast these
qualities with the qualities of spiritual friendship that have been explored throughout the
course of the semesters seminar discussions and readings.
Aristotle places a great deal of importance upon virtue and similarity within
friendship. This is made evident in Nicomachean Ethics where he defines complete
friendship as, the friendship of good people similar in virtue.24 This does not bode
particularly well for the Underground Man, because he does not seem to be an especially
23 Ibid.
24 Michael Pakaluk, editor, Other Selves: Philosophers on Friendship (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991) p.33

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virtuous person. On the other hand, the reader does see glimpses of virtue in actions such
as his desire to save Liza from the brothel. Additionally, in his masochistic spite for the
system, the Underground Man a self-proclaimed unreliable narrator may intentionally
depict himself in a poor light. On the last pages of the novel he claims,

To tell long stories of how I defaulted on my life through moral corruption in a


corner, through an insufficiency of milieu, through unaccustom to what is alive,
and through vainglorious spite in the underground is not interesting, by God; a
novel needs a hero, and here there are purposely collected all the features for an
anti-hero.25

Once again we see that the Underground Man is convinced he is unlovable, and in the
vanity of self-pity, refuses to swallow his pride in order to accept any sort of
understanding or affection.
Another characteristic of spiritual friendship is the idea of common goals. In De
Amicita, Cicero says, the one element indispensable to friendship [is], a complete
agreement in aims, ambitions, and attitudes.26 Aelred of Rievaulx Christianizes this
idea, claiming, those who share the same view on everything human and divine and
have the same intentions, with good will and charity, have reached the perfection of
friendship.27 For Christians to have meaningful spiritual friendship, the common goal is
obvious: the peace and justice of Gods Kingdom. We see in the Underground Mans
isolation that he does not have common goals with the people in his life because he
25 Dostoevsky, p.118
26 Pakaluk, p.85
27 Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2010) p.57

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refuses to assimilate to the intellectual milieu of his time. This causes him to be pushed
to the margins. It is hard to negatively attribute this stubbornness to pride, because from
a Christian perspective, the Underground Man is correct in his refusal to indulge in the
nihilism and rational egoism of his surrounding culture. Nonetheless, he displays an
amount of arrogance and perhaps takes too much pleasure in his marginalization, again
out of vanity.
Also essential to a Christian understanding of spiritual friendship is the idea that
friends are timely, providential gifts from God, and they serve as an expression of Gods
love for creation. This concept is mentioned by Wadell in his chapters on Augustine.
The following, necessarily-long, excerpt captures the beauty and poignance of these
ideas:

Friendships are concrete, highly personal expressions of how God loves us


insightfully and redemptively in the actual circumstances of our everyday lives.
They are blessed manifestations of how God, like all skilled lovers, knows what
is best for us and works, with much grace and creativity, to bring timely gifts
into our lives. If benevolence is an attribute of all true friendships, the friends
God gives us are examples of the very practical, ingenious, and care-filled ways
God befriends each of us. Sometimes we wonder if Gods love is real. Or even
if we believe in the reality of Gods love, we wonder if God loves us. How can
we ever be sure? Augustine answers that we know Gods love for us is real

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through the real friends who love us. They do not enter our lives accidentally,
but providentially.28

It is somewhat unclear whether or not the Underground Man believes in God, but it
is apparent in his interactions with Liza that his pride certainly gets in the way of
allowing himself to be loved.
In regards to the negative effects of pride on Christian community, Bonhoeffer argues that
self-justification and the desire to dominate others both stemming from vanity are
incredibly harmful to relationships. From the first moment when a man meets another
person he is looking for a strategic position he can assume and hold over-against that
person.29 This is seen in the Underground Mans desire to dominate Liza both
physically and intellectually despite the fact that he cares for her. In the moment that he
decides to cut her down for his own sadistic pleasure by giving her money after she tries
to comfort him, the Underground Mans desire for domination triumphs over his hunger
for connection. He makes it clear throughout the novel that his insistence on irrationality
is, in part, a means of maintaining some sense of control and free will.
Notes from Underground is considered one of the frontrunners of existential literature,
and as such, deals with the idea of what is referred to as the absurd. Absurdity is not an
easy concept to define, but it can be said that it is the tension within which humankind
lives as a result of being faced with a seemingly indifferent universe and meaningless life.
In short, absurdity is the collective puzzlement of humans at the fact that life rarely
happens the way they expect. Christian existential thinkers (Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard,
28 Paul J. Wadell, Becoming Friends: Worship, Justice, and the Practice of Christian Friendship (Grand
Rapids: Brazos, 2002) p.79
29 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper One, 1954) p.90

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etc.) offer a surprisingly hopeful alternative to the aforementioned meaninglessness:
relationship with God, and with people. This is a difficult concept for many to grasp
because society is still enraptured with an obsessively empirical epistemology. A key
tenet of Christian existentialism is the necessity of risk, irrationality, and faith for the
achievement of a flourishing life.
As it pertains to friendship, the dangerous act of setting vanity aside and rendering
oneself vulnerable by entering into a relationship with people or with God is completely
irrational. However, by taking a leap into seemingly illogical behavior, one finds that as
one learns to love God better, one discovers more about the nature of people; similarly, as
one learns to love people better, one discovers more about the nature of God. In the
seminar discussions, this has been summed up by a quote stating, Friendship is a
school. This school educates its students in virtue, love for their neighbors, and love for
their Creator.
Wadell states, we cannot separate intimacy with God from intimacy with
others,30 going on later to add:

If God is a communion of persons joined together by generous, life-giving,


mutual love, then we will grow and flourish only insofar as we practice such
love in our own lives. If we imitate the friendship love of God, we will
affirm the dignity and identity of one another. We will draw each other
more fully to life and, through the love we share, shall become one not
despite our differences but in them.31
30 Wadell, p.78
31 Wadell, p.82

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Carol Flath claims that in Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky makes the point that
the only solution to isolation (and perhaps absurdity as well) is Christs transformative
love and the way it teaches people to connect with others.32 Hovering solitary in the
void, such a soul [that turns away from God] finds no true access to men for only in
God can man truly be known by man.33
According to Colley, Dostoevsky suggests that though relationship defies human reason,
it is in fact the embodiment of a higher kind of reason with God at its center.

Love is contingent upon God, and reason, in turn, is contingent upon love. So,
even for Dostoevskys infamous antihero the Underground Man existence
that is ignorant of the existence of God as a benevolent Creator is not only
devoid of love, but of reason [] If God is ultimately a being of divine love,
then reason is an understanding of and participation in that love.34

It has been mentioned in the seminar discussions and this essay that spiritual friendship
and intimate connection with human beings can result in all involved parties coming
closer to God and being made more virtuous. It has also been suggested in the discussion
of Notes from Underground that friendship is often a means to overcoming lifes
perceived meaninglessness and finding a way to flourish. Additionally, it has been
proposed that some of the key traits responsible for preventing one from making the
32 Carol A. Flath, Fear of Faith: The Hidden Religious Message of Notes from Underground, The Slavic
and East European Journal, 37:4 (1993): 510-529.
33 Flath, p.510
34 Colley, p.88

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beautifully irrational leap into the fulfilling vulnerability of friendship have their roots in
pride and vanity. It could be argued that in addition to bringing people closer to God,
spiritual friendship and intimate relationships within Christian community serve the
purpose of Gods Kingdom itself.
In the act of having faith in something irrational, embracing vulnerability, and
swallowing ones pride, there are profound implications concerning the establishment of
Gods peace, justice, and restoration on the earth. The Underground Man lives in
isolation. He is tormented, angry, bitter, and full of hate. We see evidence of tenderness
in his interactions with Liza, but his lack of connection has created in him a lack of hope,
and in the end, his love for the comfort of despair outweighs his desire for relationship.
The inherent hopefulness of Christian theology demands that one take advantage of the
opportunity to step out into relationship.
Though it is uncomfortable and at times even painful, friendship changes its
participants as it enables them to learn more about connecting with people and
connecting with God. The restoration that results in their own lives from embracing the
risk of vulnerability creates in them a passion for the things that God is passionate about.
As they are given the ability to love better, they are also given the means to work towards
bringing restoration into the lives of others. Spiritual friendships between Christians
should always be built on the foundation of working towards knowing God better.
Hence, Christian community, by its very nature, fosters the peace and justice of Gods
Kingdom.
It is easy, and even natural, in friendships to become fixated on what one can get
out of them. In fact, the line between Aristotles friendship of utility and the truly

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spiritual Christian friendship that has been discussed so far is surprisingly thin. It would
not be out of the ordinary for one to think that they were in a friendship that was bringing
them closer to God, but in reality, to have their focus purely on the ways in which they
might benefit from the relationship by feeling closer to God. Many societies teach their
children that they are in some way special, unintentionally creating egocentric
individuals. This can lead to serious problems when learning to connect with others
because it conditions people to believe that their own individual happiness is the most
important thing in a relationship. To bring up another quote from class discussions, the
purpose of friendship is not to make us happy, it is to make us holy.
The Underground Mans need to maintain control over his life and to create
meaning by being spiteful is an indication of the same kind of vanity.35 He is convinced
that he is individually important and special; a delusion that, though easy to scoff at, is
systematically taught in the institutions of nearly every Western society in the world, not
least of these being the American Evangelical church. To refer back to Bonhoeffer,
humility is a fundamental characteristic of Christian community, not only in avoiding
pride, but in being aware of the reality that, as humans, we are creatures. As such, our
highest calling is not to create our own meaning out of spite but to be a part of the larger
restorative plan of our Creator. Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus
Christ will rightly think little of himself. He will know that his own wisdom reached the
end of its tether when Jesus forgave him.36 This does not, however, give members of
Christian community permission to indulge in the strangely comfortable and pleasurable
self-loathing which the Underground Man has perfected. In fact, Bonhoeffer adds later,
35 Linda L. Williams, The Underground Man: A Question of Meaning, (Ohio: Kent State University,
2002) p.136
36 Bonhoeffer, p.95

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You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner; now come as the sinner that you are, to God
who loves you. [God] wants you as you are; [God] does not want anything from you, a
sacrifice, a work; [God] wants you alone [] [God] wants to see you as you are, [God]
wants to be gracious to you.37
Lastly, it is important to acknowledge Christian friendship and community as an
expression of eschatological hope. The Underground Man, living in a culture of nihilism,
is desperately trying to find a way to convince himself that life has meaning. As
mentioned in the previous paragraph, one of the main ways he does this is by being
spiteful so he can feel that he has control. He catches a glimpse of meaning in the
moment that Liza acknowledges his humanity, but his pride will not allow him to engage
in the riskiness and vulnerability of relationship. As Christians, our hope is not for
control, domination or even worldly happiness. Nor is our hope contrary to popular
belief in the nave dualism and pagan escapism of our disembodied souls living in
heaven, far, far away from anybody and anything that is different or makes us
uncomfortable.
Ultimately, our hope is in the resurrection of the dead of which Jesus is the first
fruit and in an eschatological leveling of the playing field: a restoration of the material
and spiritual worlds, and of the entire Cosmos; in which peace, justice, harmony, and
equality conquer all our brokenness. Truly intimate spiritual friendship is an expression
of our Christian hope for transformation, redemption, and restoration. As we are friends
with people, we learn to be friends with God, and as we are friends with God, God
teaches us to love people. In this way, friendship is an active way of working towards

37 Bonhoeffer, p.111

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bringing the harmony of Gods Kingdom here to earth, and a way of encouraging one
another to hope for the coming reign of Christ.
In terms of current events, this semester has presented reason after reason to
believe that humankind is beyond redemption. These feelings are hardly unique to our
time and it has never been difficult to convince oneself that life is meaningless. This is
where the human desire for illogical behavior, which is expressed so viscerally by the
Underground man, is redeemed and fulfilled: in choosing to hope. We maintain the
beautifully irrational belief that Jesus is returning, that Gods restoration will one day
come to Earth, and that the Holy Spirit is with us now, making all things new. We take a
leap of faith by engaging in the painful vulnerability and the complete abandonment of
reason required for friendship with people and with God. In so doing, we not only
express any hope we might already maintain, but are given the strength to overcome our
unbelief so that we may continually increase that hope. We move with our brothers and
sisters toward a way of life that displays optimism. Not in the nave, neo-liberal,
hedonistic happiness of Western culture, but in an earthy, gritty, passionate, and
practical way; in a way that is steeped in humility and selflessness, just as the incarnation
came not in a blaze of affluent, violent, political, glory, but in a subversive and servanthearted peace. In this season of Advent, as we are presented daily with the brokenness,
violence, and atrocity of which humankind is capable, let us remind ourselves through the
sacrament of friendship that this is our hope: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will
come again.

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References
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Life Together (New York: Harper One, 1954).
Colley, David J., Three Acts of Love: Fyodor Dostoevskys Social Ethic as Authentic
Christian Brotherhood, Center for Advanced Theological Studies, School of Theology,
Fuller Theological Seminary (2013).

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Dostoevsky, Fyodor M., Notes from Underground (New York: Everymans Library,
1993).
Flath, Carol A., Fear of Faith: The Hidden Religious Message of Notes from
Underground, The Slavic and East European Journal, 37:4 (1993): 510-529.
Levy, Michele Frucht D.H. Lawrence and Dostoevsky: The Thirst for Risk and the
Thirst for Life, Modern Fiction Studies, 33:2 (1987): 281-288.
Pakaluk, Michael, editor, Other Selves: Philosophers on Friendship (Indianapolis:
Hackett, 1991).
Rievaulx, Aelred of, Spiritual Friendship (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2010).
Roberts, Peter, The Stranger Within: Dostoevskys Underground, Educational
Philosophy and Theory, 45:1 (2013): 396-408.
Wadell, Paul J., Becoming Friends: Worship, Justice, and the Practice of Christian
Friendship (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002).
Williams, Linda L. The Underground Man: A Question of Meaning, (Ohio: Kent State
University, 2002).