Concerning  Sophiology

Journal  Put’, mai. 1929,  No. 16,  p. 95-99.


Concerning  Sophiology

(ArchPriest  Sergii Bulgakov.  Jacob’s Ladder.  Concerning Angels).

(1929 – #343)

There has come out the third part of the dogmatic trilogy of Fr. Sergii Bulgakov, “Jacob’s Ladder” (“Lestvitsa Iakovlya”). The first two parts were devoted to the veneration of the Mother of God, “The Unscorched Burning Bush”, (“Kupina Neopalimaya”), and John the Baptist, “Friend of the Bridegroom” (“Drug Zhenikha”). All three parts are in essence devoted to a revealing of the teaching about Sophia, about the Wisdom of God within creation. It is impossible not to sympathise with the attempts at creative theologising by Fr. S. Bulgakov, his intense thought. The thought of the Orthodox East for too long a while has been situated in a condition of slumber, from the XIV-XIX Centuries. Only in Russia in the XX Century did there cease the condition of unthinking and awaken creative religious thought, moreso the rather religio-philosophic, than theological. The theological efforts of Fr. S. Bulgakov bears to a remarkable degree a character visionary and experiential, and this is not the rational academic school sort of theology. This method might be termed iconographic in the sense, that Fr. S. Bulgakov attempts to sketch out a mental icon of the Mother of God, John the Baptist, angels. It is extraordinarily difficult to find an adequate style for such a sort of theologising. And it is impossible to say, whether Fr. Bulgakov is fully successful at this, for there is an evident jumbling together of some several styles — mixing together a style visionary and mystico-contemplative with a style schoolishly philosophic and even seminary-theological. In terms of style his most successful book is the “Friend of the Bridegroom”. The creative Russian theological effort is defined by an acutely set problem of religious cosmology and religious anthropology, which were not sufficiently revealed and worked out in the teachings of the holy fathers. And in Russian religious thought it is possible to note two basic trends — the primarily religio-anthropologic and the primarily religio-cosmologic, although they cannot be completely separated. For at the centre of the first trend stands the problem of man, the problem of freedom and evil, the problem of creativity and the problem of history. Fr. S. Bulgakov however tends to express the second trend, for which stands at the centre the problem of the cosmos, the sophianic aspect of the creature, the problem of Mariology and angelology. The positing and elaborating of the problem of a sophianic cosmology is an enormous service and great step forward along the path of the Christian wisdom of God. The cosmological problem within Christianity however is also a problem sophianic, of the wisdom of the creature, its pervading by Divine energies, of the uniting of heaven and earth. True, Fr. S. Bulgakov tends to regard the sophiological problem as a theological problem, and not cosmological, and he ties it in with his teaching about the MostHoly Trinity. But this nowise impedes, in spite of his specification, the uniqueness and acuity of this problem obtaining in regard to the creaturely world, to the cosmos, and it signifies the surmounting of a godless comprehension, i.e. in the final end, of a secularised understanding of creation. Western Christian thought has neutralised the cosmos. This neutralisation happened already with St Thomas Aquinas, who asserted a natural order of things in sharp distinction and opposition to the supernatural order and by this without deliberate intent he became one of the sources of European naturalism. But with St Thomas there was still a strong hierarchical coordination of the degrees of being, amidst which the Cosmos was preserved, as an integrated organism. The further step towards the neutralisation of the cosmos and the secularisation of the natural order transpired with Luther and Protestantism. For Protestantism, the cosmos has no sort of relation to the religious life, which is totally determined by the relationship between the human soul and God. Hence there obtained a denial of the cult of the Mother of God, as something pagan, and destroying of the Church as an integral mystical organism, and further on with the secularisation of all the natural world, which was rendered exclusively the object of a natural-science knowledge and technological activity. We see the limit of the denial of the Divine cosmos in the subjective idealism of Fichte, the reverse side of which is materialistic naturalism. The Orthodox with exclusively a monastic-ascetic a wont had a moralistic tendency to deny the cosmos, as of sin. But the Christian East, bound up with ancient Greece, was originally more cosmic than the Christian West. And this cosmic side of Christianity was most clearly expressed in Russian Orthodoxy. This found itself a liturgical expression and in the lives of the saints, though in thought however it obtained only in the XIX and XX Centuries. The cosmological problem in the Christian thought of the West in the so-called Christian theosophy — having nothing in common with the modern popular “theosophy”, was first of all with J. Boehme, the greatest Christian theosophist, and subsequent to him Pordage [John, 1607-1681], Fr. Baader and others. And here only did the repudiated and dislodged Divine cosmos find itself refuge, — in this enormous and still not appreciated significance of Christian theosophy. With J. Boehme we find a teaching of genius concerning Sophia, the first in the history of a Christian Divine-Wisdom, which proved influential also upon Russian thought. It is impossible to carry out a complete split between the Creator and the creation, a completely godless neutralisation and secularisation of the creation. The limits to this rift is revealed by naturalism, positivism and materialism, which have pervaded also the churchly consciousness, penetrated into the school theology. The sophiological theological efforts of  Fr. S. Bulgakov signify a return to the sacred, the Divine cosmos, the restoration of the organic-mystical connection between God and the creaturely world. In both the world and in mankind there is reflected and acts the MostHoly Trinity and it is foremost through the Wisdom of God. The summit of the sophianic aspect, of creation’s wisdom, is manifest in the Ever-Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. Without the sophianic aspect of the creature, without the manifestation of the wise, the virginal femininity, there would be impossible the Incarnation of God and God-Manhood. Sophiology carries over into Mariology. The teaching about angels, which has been so little worked out in theology, signifies a restoration of the ladder, connecting heaven and earth. This ladder was broken and done away with by the neutralisation of the cosmos. In connection with the sophiological problem within the Russian religious consciousness there has been acutely presented and experienced the religious problem of sex and love. The provocateur of genius here was V. V. Rozanov. And that, which was written by Fr. S. Bulgakov concerning love and friendship, belongs to the finest pages of his book.

But having acknowledged the enormous merit of Fr. S. Bulgakov and the boldness of his creative thought concerning this area of problematics, and with indignation repudiating the accusations against him by representatives of Orthodox mindlessness and obscurantism, it is necessary also to speak about the negative and dangerous sides of his sophiology. I see this danger in the tendency towards a swallowing up of anthropologism by cosmologism, in a weakened consciousness of the problem of freedom and the creative activity of man, in the possibility of an unperceived replacement of anthropology by angelology, and of God-manhood by a Mother-of-Godism. The feminine principle is primarily cosmic, and not anthropologic, and through it man is bound up with the cosmos and in communion with the mystery of its inner life. This was revealed with genius by Bachofen (“Das Matterrecht”). But man is called to a vocation of being the ruler of the cosmos. At the centre always there ought to remain the God-Man Christ, as the principle of sacred anthropology. The principle however of a sacred cosmologism, of a sophianic femininity, which can only be virginity, is a principle subordinate to the Logos. It is impossible to grant, that the divinely-cosmic, sophianic energies have muffled over the free spirit of man and subordinated him. A mystical animal-like warmth tends to weaken the spirit of man. According to the Platonising teaching of Fr. Bulgakov, the angel — is the ideational primal-image of man. But man in such form is rendered subordinate and deprived of freedom. The Platonic teaching concerning ideas can easily be conceived, as a denial of human activity, a denial of human creativity and freedom. In Russian popular piety, deriving from ancient pagan sources, there is a tendency towards experiencing the cult of the Mother of God, as a cosmic cult, overshadowing and obscuring the image of Christ. The cult of the Mother of God, of Mother of God-ism, of godly-matter, of sacred and sanctified matter, imperceptibly carries over into the cult of the Godly-begotten Russian Earth. Hence occurs the Russian tendency towards collectivism and a weakened awareness of the person and of the responsibility of man. In Catholicism there developed primarily a cult of the Virgin Mary, which enabled the creation of a chivalrant knighthood. Man sensed himself a faithful knight and defender of the MostHoly Virgin. In Eastern Christianity, and especially Russian Orthodoxy, developed the cult of the Mother, experienced as Mediatrix. Man senses himself strengthened and saved in the folds of the garb of the MostHoly Mother, Who amidst this is also “mother moist earth”. Hence is born not a chivalrant knighthood with strongly expressed person, but rather the people’s collective. (Bachofen demonstrated, that a matriarch signifies cosmic collectivism). In this Russian religious type there is moreso the warmth aspect, moreso the connection with the cosmos, and weakly expressed is the activity of man. Cosmologism and anthropologism, Mother-of-Godhood and God-Manhood themself per se manifest principles one-sided and incomplete. If the sophiology of Fr. S. Bulgakov situates itself along the lines of Russian cosmism, of sanctified matter, then it remains comparatively aside and apart from the other line of the Russian religious type, apart from Russian eschatologism and from Russian religious historiosophy. The greatest difficulties for Fr. Bulgakov arise in the problems of freedom and of evil, which are not dealt with by him sufficiently and do not stand at the centre of his attention. His sophiological understanding of Christianity can produce impressions of being too optimistic and lacking in pathos of the tragic. The problem about the downfall of angels, so central and difficult in angelology, is least successfully dealt with in the book of Fr. Bulgakov. The falling away of the first angel from God involves also the question concerning the origin of evil, a question foremost among questions. Everything that Fr. S. Bulgakov says about the initial and potential freedom of the angels is weak and contradictory. Evidently for him in general there is a difficulty with the problem of freedom, together with which is bound up the problem of evil and the problem of theodicy. A potential freedom is indeed not something sophianic. Amidst such an all general sophianic aspect it is inconceivable, from whence obtains freedom, determinative towards evil, and particularly inconceivable, from whence it obtains for the angel, possessing godly a nature and contemplating God. It is upon this question that we have the greatest clash of views with Fr. S. Bulgakov, and one place in his book (p. 150) is directed against my understanding of freedom, as having its own source not in God, but in nothingness, in non-being. The primordial existence of such a non-sophianic freedom (Ungrund) provides the basis not only for the origin of evil and the possibility of a theodicy, but also for the creative vocation of man, the possibility of creativity of the new from out of freedom. A consistent and extreme sophianism allows only for birth (from the womb), but not for creativity (from freedom). Most unsatisfactory it seems to me is the augmenting of the significance of Sophia, which becomes apparent in everything — whether the MostHoly Trinity, and in each of the Hypostaseis of the Holy Trinity, and the cosmos, and mankind, and the Mother of God. Amidst this the specific problem of Sophia becomes weakened. But despite all these insufficiencies in the sophiology of Fr. S. Bulgakov, it is impossible not to welcome his new book, just like all his recent books, having devoted to it considerable and thoughtful attention. There is the feeling, that the creative thought of Fr. Sergii Bulgakov cannot be fully developed out, it struggles under the pressures of theological legitimacy, but this also instructively.

Nikolai Berdyaev


©  2009 by translator Fr. S. Janos
(1929 – 343 – en)

O  SOPHIOLOGIYA.  Journal Put’, mai. 1929, No. 16, p. 95-99.