Rowan Williams (ed.), 1999, Sergii Bulgakov : Towards a Russian Political Theology, Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 310 p.


Too rarely have theologians conceived of it as their duty (and pleasure) to leave the beaten track and become explorers, steeping themselves both in the diversity of world Christianity and in the wider complexities of religion and culture at home and abroad. That is one reason for the gratitude and reassurance one feels in contemplating the work Archbishop Rowan Williams, a Patristic scholar and a churchman of wide pastoral and ecumenical engagement, who is at the same time tuned in to the most sophisticated philosophical and ideological discussions of today.

Roman Catholics are likely to feel in addition a keen sense of envy and regret as they ask, ‘ Why can we not have bishops like that in our Church ? Why can we not even have theologians like that ? What might we not have been if we had not so often killed the goose that laid the golden egg ? ’ The deepest lesson of Dr. Williams’s career is that freedom of thought is the surest defense of orthodoxy. The lesson is not only for Roman Catholics. At Marburg, in 1997, the Lutheran faculty were dazzled as Williams expounded a vision of orthodoxy as an open-ended creative project, recalling that ‘ the unity of " orthodoxy " for Origen is always precisely what is under construction in the work and the ascetic and spiritual witness of the spiritual exegete ’ (Origeniana Septima, Leuven, 1999, p. 9). As Origen was misunderstood and rejected by a panicky Church, it is probable that fearful Churches are continuing to generate many a mute, inglorious Origen as they gravitate toward the worst of heresies, namely fundamentalism.

By all accounts another Church that needs this message of open and creative orthodoxy is the Russian Orthodox Church. Dr. Williams, writing as ‘ a friend of the Russian Church ’, presents the message this time through the figure of Sergii Bulgakov (1871-1944) from Russia’s Silver Age, a period of modernist culture and religious renaissance on which Williams wrote a doctoral thesis in the seventies. The idea that freedom is the foundation of Christianity has flourished in the shadow of Orthodoxy, in figures such as the Slavophile lay theologian A. S. Khomyakov (1804-1860), the sublime Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), as denouncer of inquisitorial totalitarianism, the persecuted Theodor Bukarev (1829-1871), who sought the face of Christ in secular culture, Vladimir Solovyev (1853-1900), who launched the Russian obsession with the theme of Sophia (p. 117), and Bulgakov’s friend Nikolai Berdyaev, philosopher of freedom. But it is an idea that seems to have little appeal in traditionalist Orthodox circles. Searching the Internet for background information on Bulgakov, I noticed much fear and rancour among traditionalists, often disciples of Georges Florovsky, the ‘ brilliant and combative polymath ’ (p. 173) who was Bulgakov’s sharpest critic. Scholarly appreciation of the visionary heritage of Russian Orthodox thought is perhaps the best antidote Western theologians can offer to the poisons of sectarianism. To fight fundamentalist narrowness head on is counter-productive, for one is letting the enemy dictate the agenda. Williams shows a more excellent way : to step outside one’s parochial rut and open up to understanding of the other. If Christian theologians could study Islam in this spirit, they would make an invaluable contribution to world peace (and perhaps win a Nobel prize).

Williams finds analogies between the situation in which Bulgakov wrote and the one created by the recent upheavals in Russia. One interesting point is that ‘ Anti-Semitism was widespread and violent — then, as now, an index of social panic ’ (p. 2). He is perhaps thinking of the shocking Anti-Semitic utterances of the Metropolitan of St Petersburg a few years ago. Bulgakov’s discourse on Judaism has the ambiguities typical of theology at the time, in which ‘ what Judaism is always about is Christianity ’ ; Bulgakov shows ‘ disregard for the interiority of Jewish practice and sensibility ’ and ‘ crass insensitivity ’ to the situation of Jews in 1942 (p. 299). Williams also finds links to many themes of contemporary theological discussion in the West and sees Bulgakov as representing a wider traditional perspective for dealing with these themes. Whether theologians respond depends on their curiosity, not only about this particular thinker but about the rich, heavy fabric of Russian religious thought in the last two centuries. The agenda of theology has been shaped to an excessive degree by Germanic sources ; a turn to Russia would let in some welcome fresh air. Of all foreign literary cultures, Russia is the most accessible, so that average educated persons will feel that they enjoy, thanks to Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Turgenev, Chekhov, Goncharov, and the Pushkin of opera, an intimate access to the Russian soul. It is ironic that Russian religious culture should in contrast almost remain terra incognita.

Well-versed in economics and sociology and open to the literary and philosophical culture of his time, Bulgakov became a priest in his forties (in 1918 (p. 163), not 1917 (p. 3)) and developed a theological vision that is both rooted in Byzantine tradition and marked at every turn by the spirit of exploration and creative questioning. Though his sophiology was condemned by the Russian bishops in 1935, that made little dint in his status as one of the authoritative theological voices of the century. He was a compulsive and often compelling preacher, but his homiletic essays on biblical themes, available in French translation from L’Age d’Homme, Lausanne, are not represented in the present selection (see p. 167-188). Of the seven essays given here, five may be classified as political theology, leaving ‘ The Unfading Light ’ (1917) and ‘ The Lamb of God ’ (1933) to represent Bulgakov the speculative theologian.

At first his speculation looks like that over-ambitious tinkering with God that has been a German specialty from Eckhart to Moltmann. German figures such as Boehme may lie behind the claims that the generation of the Son is a kenosis for God : ‘ the Father generates the Son in an act of " self-devastation " ’ (p. 194), and that the creation of the world is an analogy of that kenosis : ‘ The Son, the Lamb of God, is from all eternity " sacrificed " in the creation of the world, as the hypostasis specifically " cosmic " in nature, the demiurge in the Godhead ’ (p. 195). This kind of theology ascribes to mythical representations and dogmatic terminology an undue degree of solidity and stability, while at the same time subscribing to the totalizing systematic projects of German idealism. Today it is perhaps best viewed as an instructive dead-end, to be overcome by a return to basic phenomena and a chastened language, a process begun when Bulgakov’s student and critic Vladimir Lossky stepped back to critical historical study of the Greek Fathers. The comprehensive vision of God and humanity, rooted in Chalcedon, which Russian thinkers enjoyed, can be appreciated and appropriated today only if we trim their speculative extravagance and bring a more critical hermeneutics to bear on the reception of Nicea and Chalcedon.

Though Bulgakov’s audacious system is intended as an alternative to the pantheism of Boehme, Schelling and Hegel, his account of the Trinity and the enigmatic ‘ fourth hypostasis ’, Sophia, derive principally from ancient Neo-Platonic conceptions. How Platonic his way of thinking is can be seen from his reflections on time as the image of eternity (p. 197-198). Though he asserts that we know eternity only from within the depth of temporal experience, his account of the Trinity is very much a ‘ theology from above ’ and many of its declarations seem quite arbitrary. ‘ The Trinity is turned towards Sophia, the " divine world ", in the immediacy of the Logos who is in this sense identical with Sophia, the personal center of Sophia, the demiurgic hypostasis ’ (p. 202). This ‘divine world’ is correlated with the divine substance. For Bulgakov the Nicene consubstantial is a ‘ sealed book […] for in a religious sense it has been neither assimilated nor unfolded ’ (The Wisdom of God, London, 1937, p. 46). One might almost say that the notion of God is a sealed book, to be replaced with the warmer, more motherly notion of Sophia. ‘ It is the one Sophia that reveals itself both in God and in creation ’ (p. 191) : there is a faint suggestion here that Sophia somehow comes before God or is the foundation or rationale of God. In the later texts, Sophia is no longer a fourth hypostasis, as in 1917 : ‘ Ousia-Sophia is distinct from the Hypostases, though it cannot exist apart from them and is eternally hypostatized in them [...] Ousia-Sophia is the life of an hypostatic spirit, though not itself hypostatic [...] Its own being in relation to the Divine Persons cannot be defined as no more than the mere fact of being their common possession [...]. [It is] certainly not a fourth hypostasis ’ (The Wisdom of God, p. 57-59). Sophia does not name the unnameable divine essence but it does name ‘ God ’, considered as ‘ the One who emerges from transcendence to be the God and maker of a universe ’ ; this ‘ emergence ’ of God is a revelation of Sophia and so is the universe God makes. Bulgakov champions ‘ the idea that God is in process of becoming ’ (p. 200), but unlike Berdyaev he does not embrace the intuition of a nothingness beyond God, an Ungrund of uncreated freedom. Such ideas, notes Williams, ‘ are likely to drive a strict scholastic to drink ’ (p. 168). It may be said in their favor that they are closer to an Eckhartian sense of the phenomenality of God than are comparable constructions in process thought.

Human beings are images of God in God’s hypostatic aspect and the world is a created Sophia that is the image of the eternal Sophia, or the divine nature. Thus ‘ man, as the world’s spiritual hypostasis, possesses within the natural order the image of the heavenly God-man, Logos within Sophia ’ (p. 205). Bulgakov’s play with the ‘ natural ’ and ‘ hypostatic ’ aspects of God, as when he declares that in creating God does not act from ‘ natural or hypostatic necessity ’ (p. 183), again suggests a fixation of conciliar terminology. The immanent Trinity that can be constructed from the conciliar definitions is taken as a secure given, rather than a provisional auxiliary construct or remainder-concept needed to deal with the wealth of the New Testament language. Doubtless, Bulgakov would claim to discover the sophianic and hypostatic aspects of God from within the worldly experience of being created and from the coming of the Son into the world. But it is doubtful if there is any phenomenological basis that warrants such ambitious and probably meaningless declarations as the following : ‘ For him to go out from himself in what is other to him, to posit himself in extra-divine being, to " repeat " himself, so to speak, to reproduce himself beyond himself, this is the proper work of the divine Absolute ’ (p. 186). Williams sees a parallel with Barth in ‘ the conviction that the thinking of God outside the relations God has in fact established is impossible, even blasphemous ’ (p. 169), but it may be doubted if even Barth’s speculations have a secure biblical basis.

Some old-fashioned aspects of Bulgakov’s thought might deter contemporary students, though Williams takes them in his stride with exemplary but not uncritical generosity. Bulgakov knows nothing of demythologization. He thinks racial differentiation and national identity have to do with the guardian angels assigned by God to different regions (p. 294). He takes literally the fall of Satan and his ambition to seduce the human race from God, and the idea that the fall of nature is the result of the fall of Adam (p. 218-22). When he writes that ‘ the forces of nature [...] become receptacles of demonic activity ’ as a result of the fall (p. 224), one begins to suspect that he is living in a mediaeval world. In the absence of Bultmannian critique, he attempts instead a speculative enrichment of the doctrines : the fall is not due to external temptation but realizes a possibility inscribed in human freedom as such. Bulgakov shows an even greater ‘ tone-deafness ’ (p. 300) to non-Christian religions than to Judaism. A God without temporality would be ‘ the static absolute of Hinduism, in which all concrete forms of existence are extinguished and the whole world becomes illusory ’ (p. 199). Later he rejects ‘ the " suicide " of the world which has deluded various pessimistic philosophers like Schopenhauer, Hartmann or the Kantian Renouvier, with its echoes of the nirvana of the Buddhists ’ (p. 217). Buddhism is a ‘ pessimistic philosophy of asceticism ’ based on the postulate ‘ that life with all its pleasures is evil ’ (p. 36). This may be a source for the negative vision of Buddhism expressed by John Paul II in Crossing the Threshold of Hope. The influence of Russian thought on the Polish Pope might be a fruitful research topic. He mentions Bulgakov’s colleague Pavel Florensky in his ‘ Letter to Artists ’ and (along with Solovyev and Berdyaev) in Fides et Ratio. One aspect of Bulgakov’s thought on social and political themes is his enmity to Enlightenment secularism. He claims a robust role for religion in the public arena and is sceptical toward modern secular discourses about society and politics : ‘ It is only the Church that possesses the principle of true social order ’ (p. 264). The Protestant distinction between the kingdom of Christ and the secular sphere ‘ has put in train the secularisation that is now suffocating the world ’ (p. 256). This, too, could count as old-fashioned were it not for the similar claims now being made by Radical Orthodoxy (p. 233). Bulgakov dislikes the mediations built into modern life : ‘ a new social mythology is constructed, in which abstract generalisations are accorded a more significant level of existence than is the concreteness of personal life ’ (p. 259). Many readers will be quick to dismiss this as integrist phobia against the autonomous achievements of modernity. When definitions of the Church’s social mission are premissed on the bankruptcy of the Enlightenment, seen as a pagan or heretical deviation from Christian vision, there is a danger that the Church will lose the context within which her identity might be more richly and intelligently defined. Bulgakov’s rhetoric of communion and sobornost (conciliar harmony) would be more fruitful if it were less tinged with nostalgia for an older ‘ patriarchal-organic form of life ’ (p. 261). Bulgakov sounds more dualistic than Augustine when he asks whether socialism belongs to the city of God or the city of the devil (p. 237), for Augustine was sufficiently steeped in the values of Roman republicanism to leave room also for the earthly city. Augustine draws on secular values to criticise the Roman empire, whereas Bulgakov reaches immediately for specifically religious values in his critique of communism. However, the value of his thought is seen not in particular emphases but in the total achievement of his lifelong debate with changing political realities. On this score few theologians can match him. That is another reason for saluting Dr Williams’ book, despite appearances, as a timely one.

Joseph S. O’Leary

Sophia University, Tokyo