On Christian Pessimism and Optimism


On Christian Pessimism and Optimism

(Regarding a Letter of Archpriest Sergii Chetverikov)


(1935 – #397)

  I am obligingly grateful to Father Sergii Chetverikov for his letter, occasioned by a reading of my book, “The Fate of Man in the Modern World”, for he provides me cause very openly and perhaps with greater clarity to express certain of my thoughts. I often am poorly understood and my world-view is given very contrary characteristics. And in this, I myself, actually, am to blame. I explain the misunderstandings by this, that I tend to think in terms of antinomies, contradictions, paradoxes, tragic conflicts. I do this in consequence of my absolute conviction, that only an antinomic-paradoxical thinking corresponds to the structure of the world and even the depths of being. And therefore it becomes impossible to think about the world exclusively in pessimistic terms, or exclusively optimistic terms. I ought also to mention, to avoid misunderstanding, that I am not a theologian, that I am a philosopher and my language is otherwise, than the language of a theologian.

In my book however there is not that ultimate inescapable and gloomy aspect, which Fr. S. Chetverikov ascribes to me. I have actually a very strong and tormentive sense of the evil of life, of the bitter lot of man, but I have still more powerful a faith in the supreme Meaning of life. I do not mince words on this, that for me is characteristic profound a repugnance to too saccharine, too pacific and placid, too untragic an understanding of Christianity. Such as in the final end tends to be based upon a dividing of the world into those saved within the enclosure of church, where everything is felicitous, cheery and bright, and into those perishing in the world, where everything is unsettled, tormentive and murky. Such a division and such a consciousness herein of dwelling within a walled-in enclosure seems to me as not corresponding to the spirit of the Gospel. The Gospel image of Christ teaches something altogether different. The following out upon the path of Christ leads to this, that we shall be with the publicans and profligates, with those perishing in the world and those convulsed in torments. It is difficult to understand, how it is possible to placidly and cheerily sense oneself as saved within the enclosure of church and not share in the sorrow and travail of the world. Always there lurks the danger of a pharisaeical self-smugness.

What astonishes me, is that Fr. S. Chetverikov has been left with the impression from my book, as though God does not act within history, that God has forsaken the world. In actuality everything, that I say in my book, has no sort of meaning, if there is no activity of God within history. Thereupon also would not be that ultimate fate, which comprises the basic theme of my book. But the activity of God within history is mysterious and not subject to rational interpretation. Within history God does act, but likewise also act both nature and man. And therefore history is a mutual interacting of the intent of God, of natural determinism and of human freedom. The judgement of God upon history is an exposing of the immanent results of a path, contrary to the path leading to the Kingdom of God. The judgement is not a chastisement from God, for this sort of understanding is very anthropomorphic and exoteric, the judgement rather is an experiencing of the consequences of a departure from God. Father S. Chetverikov as though reproaches me in this, that for me God is judging and punishing, but thus is not a God of love. In actuality the chastisement proceeds not from God, it derives rather from the faulty imperfection of our language. I believe only in the God of love and I do not believe in a God punishing and terrifying. But the love of God, refracted within the dark element, can act, like a fire, and be experienced, as a chastisement. The immanent judgement upon history is not the ultimate judgement over the world and humankind.

The problem, which torments me and which I regard as fundamental, is the problem of the origin of evil and of the responsibility for evil. It is difficult to reconcile oneself, with that God should be rendered responsible for evil. Wherein everything is in the hand of God, God acts everywhere, God utilises evil itself for the goals of good, no one and nothing possesses freedom in regard to God. And thus from whence Calvin made his consequent and radical deductions in the teaching about predestination. Does God act both within evil and through evil? If yes, then the responsibility for the evil and suffering of the world is imputable to God. If no, then there exists a freedom from God and relative to God, which limits the almightiness of God, which renders God as though a powerlessness (I understand all the limitedness of the language employed here) in regard to the freedom of evil. This is a most tormentive of problems and it does not permit of any felicitous and optimistic a resolution. It tormented Dostoevsky. The greater part of the thought on theodicy, from Bl. Augustine down through Leibniz, is not only unsatisfactory, but also outright an outrage, demeaning for God and for man. It is possible, certainly, to assume a purely agnostic point of view and admit, that we have herein a matter bordering upon mystery, which rationally is impossible to grasp. This point of view is better, than the rational theodicies, but in theology and in metaphysics it never holds up consistently to the end and always in the final end get constructed theories, repugnant to sensitive a conscience. Many teachers of the Church, as is known, have taught, that evil is non-being. But thinking this out to its end leads one to grant, that the sources of evil lie outside of being, of being over which the almightiness of God extends, i.e. in an uncreated freedom external to being. This is merely a philosophic interpretation and philosophic expression bordering upon mystery, connected with freedom and evil. This is also herein the wellspring of a tragic world-sense and world-contemplation. And with this is involved both the experience of evil and torment in the world, and also of the experience of creativity, a creativity of the new in the world. The egress from evil — is in the suffering of the verymost God, i.e. in Christ, not in God All-Powerful, but rather in God the Redeemer, the God of sacrificial love. I tend to think, that in this is the essence of Christianity.

Father S. Chetverikov depicts the participation of a loving God within human life, such that it as though applies only to those situated within the enclosure of church, in the Ark at the time of the Flood. But the greater part of the historical life of mankind, especially in our time, is situated outside this enclosure, not within the Ark, and it is drowning in the stormy ocean of the world. Does this mean, that God has retreated from the greater part of the world and mankind? Can believing Christians wall themself off from the agonies of the world and reckon, that these agonies and these torments nowise involve them, can they be optimists, despite the pessimism, such as derives from attention to the condition of the world? This would be a sin against the commandment of love. In the short story by André Gide, entitled “Le retour de l’enfant prodigue”, which represents a loose rendering of the Gospel theme, the prodigal son — to the question of what he had done in the world, outside his father’s house, replied: I suffered. This reply can be given both by those, who have departed their father’s house, in order to seek truth and right, and by those, who have departed, in order to seek happiness and the delights of life. Christians cannot be indifferent to the sufferings of those who have forsaken the house of the Father and experience the agony of the world. Attention to them cannot be confined merely to attempts to convert them to Christianity and return them to the Church, for Christians also have much to learn from them. There is necessary an especial attention to the human fate in the world, an assent to share in its tribulations and sufferings. Christianity can be of help to modern man, when disaster threatens him, only in this instance, if it be exclusively attentive to the anxiety, the tribulations and questionings of the modern soul. There is an insufficiency of this, evidently, in churchly circles, for these circles are insensitive to the stirrings of the times, and they continue to think, that with mankind everything remains the same, as it was five hundred or a thousand years back.

My book, disquieting as it is for Fr. S. Chetverikov, does not result in a denial of church. But the historical church is experiencing a crisis and over it likewise is wrought a judgement. The gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church, since they lack the power to prevail over Christ, but the powers of Hell do try to prevail and amidst this are not only powers outside church, but powers also within church, which have distorted Christianity into serving human interests. In the modern godlessness are hence to blame not only the godless themself, but even moreso, even more initially to blame are those, who constantly have said “Lord, Lord” and distortedly have proffered the faith in God and the worship of God. To defend the Church is possible only by admitting the existence of two understandings of church. The Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, a spiritual organism, as though a continuance of the Incarnation of God. But church is likewise a social institution, it possesses a sinful human composite, it is bound up with the social medium and its influences and impulses, it possesses its own law and economic structure, it possesses defined relationships to the state. In this second aspect church bears within it the limitedness and sinfulness of all the manifestations of the social order. And the greatest sin of the Church, as social a phenomenon within history, has been not the individual sins of its hierarchs and laypeople, but rather the sinful distortion, the warping, the assimilation to human interests of the very principles of Christianity, of the faith-teaching. Quite too much of the human and sinful has been accepted as Divine and sacred. And here over this is wrought a judgement. God always is active in the world and this graced activity never can come nigh in comparison to that of human judgement with its fierceness, its disregard for the human person, its pitilessness. But extraordinarily complex and for us incomprehensible is the acting by God upon the world in consequence of its correlationship with human freedom and with the dark elements of the world. This activity [by God] can never be an acting external and coercive. And the very judgement by God upon the world seems merciless namely in consequence of this, that God respects human freedom and desires not coercion.

The fate of man in his searchings, his torments and sufferings, is the fate of Job. And I am the most of all apprehensive, lest we become like the comforters of Job. Job in his God-struggling was justified by God, whereas the comforters of Job were condemned by God. Christians too often tend to judge, as did the comforters of Job. By this manner they reckon it possible to remain optimists, despite the immeasurable sufferings of man and the world. Let the “evil” writhe in torments, this is just, whereas the “good” separate themself from this evil lot and experience satisfaction. And here is what seems to me most unacceptable. No one can separate himself off from the common fate of the world and man, no one with self-smugness can say, that he goes righteous a path. I, certainly, distinctly know, that Fr. S. Chetverikov considers it a needful sign on the path to salvation in having the consciousness of oneself as sinful and unworthy. Regretably with many Christians the awareness of oneself as unworthy and sinful has managed to obtain in the Christian world but rhetorically — in conditional forms. Father S. Chetverikov, certainly, well knows this. The problem, which I posit, is otherwise. The matter involved is not about the consciousness of oneself as sinful and unworthy, for this, certainly, is inevitable for every Christian, but the rather about accepting upon oneself and sharing in the torments, the sufferings and questionings of the world and of other people. All are responsible, all are answerable, for all. When people previously have withdrawn from the world into a monastery, it was in order to go the path of asceticism. But at present life in this world is a path of asceticism. The God-contending can sometimes be more pleasing to God, than other forms of worship and piety. Job struggled with God, whereas the comforters of Job were pious. And at present there is Job and there are his comforters, i.e. reproachers. Job experienced a moment of pessimism, whereas his comforters were optimists, since they believed, that everything had happened justly. The judgement of God however always proves more mysterious, than we would tend to think, and it cannot be rationalised, even though it be a theological rationalising.

I am not an optimist, but it would be inaccurate to characterise me either, as a pessimist. An ultimate pessimism is not compatible with Christianity and would signify a betrayal of being, the tempting allure of the spirit of non-being. Most of all foreign to me is a passive pessimism, and that dram of pessimism, which is innate to me, can be termed an active pessimism, a pessimism in struggle. I more than most believe in man, believe in his God-likeness of nature, in the utmost dignity, in his calling of vocation to creative work in the world, a though a continuance with the world-creation. Everything written by me witnesses to this. But this is nowise the optimistic and pretty sort of faith in the sinlessness and blissfulness of human nature as in the spirit of J. J. Rousseau. The presence of freedom and creativity for the human spirit also render the life of man tragic. Man is situated facing an abyss of being or non-being. And he cannot surmount this chasm merely by his own particular powers, he is in need of help from above. This is a matter Divine-human. And if in our own era the very existence of the human image is subject to danger, if man is disintegrating, then it is namely because, that he has relied exclusively upon himself and his own powers. Man is at present perhaps passing through a very dangerous period of his existence. But I do not think, that the fate of man is totally inescapable. This inescapable aspect is merely this-sided, and not other-sided. We indeed believe, that the history of the world will continue not endlessly, the world will end, history will end. But this means, that we do not believe in the possibility of an ultimate way out in this world, upon this earth, within this our time. The this-sided inescapableness tends to affirm this. An awareness of this inescapable aspect ought not to hinder the creative effort of man and the realisation by him of truth as regards this side, since the creative efforts of man will issue forth, until the very end. The end is a deed Divine-human. And the final word, belonging to God, will include within it also the human word. An absolute and ultimate pessimism therefore would not advance the critique, that every judgement upon the meaninglessness and evil of the world and of human life presupposes the existence of an utmost Meaning, that every judgement and consideration of judgement concerning the lower aspects of life presupposes the existence of God. In this sense it can as though be said, that the existence of evil, recognised as evil, demonstrates the existence of God.

Nikolai Berdyaev.


©  2009  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1935 – 397 – en)

O  KHRISTIANSKOM  PESSIMIZM  I  OPTIMIZM.  (Po povodu pis’ma protoiereya Sergiya Chteverikova.)  Journal Put’, jan.-mar. 1935, no.46, p. 31-36.