Further on Christian Pessimism and Optimism

Journal  Put’, juil-sept. 1935,  No. 48,  p. 69-72.

Further on
Christian Pessimism and Optimism

(Reply to Archpriest S. Chetverikov)

(1935 – #401)

In answer to the new rejoinder to me by Father Sergii Chetverikov once more it bears repeating, that to me is nowise characteristic that unenlightened pessimism, which he is inclined to ascribe to me. My pessimism in any case is active, and not passive. Worldly evil does not exclude for me faith in God, on the contrary, it the sooner indicates, that the world is not self-sufficing and that God exists. With this I concluded my first reply. Jesus Christ for me does not exist merely in the past, He is our eternal contemporary. The deed of Christ continues upon the earth and will continue until the end of the world. Being not a theologian, but rather a secular thinker, I speak a language different, from that, which they employ in the churchly medium, and I recourse to speak specifically about church in differential a sense of this world. But in my book I by no means subject to doubt the uninterrupted existence of the Church of Christ in the world and its inner significance within the historical process. The question involves something quite other, the question involves an understanding of the Church and its boundaries. Is there a delimitation to the sphere of the Church, as mystical an organism, in contrast to the visible enclosure of church and its belonging to this or some other confession? And is everything, that was historically acknowledged as sacred, does it actually belong to the Church of Christ as innate to it? The sphere of the Church has to be simultaneously both broadened and narrowed. For a cleansing of the understanding of the Church it seems to me important to be aware, that the Church be under consideration not only as the Mystical Body of Christ, but also as social an institution. As a social institution, acting within history, the Church becomes subject to being fallible and bears upon itself the limitedness of everything historical, of all the social aspects, it has served earthly interests, has gotten itself sullied, has proffered the temporal as the eternal. And in this sense, from its historical aspect, the Church can expect and demand repentance, the consciousness of its own sins and its partial betrayal of Christ. To be conscious of its own sins and be penitent is possible only for the Church in its human aspect, in the person of church hierarchy and church people. It is needful to repent of betrayal towards God, towards Christ and the Holy Spirit. And the matter involves not the personal sins of hierarchy and laypeople, but rather churchly sins, the distortions of Christianity. Christians as hierarchs and Christians simple laypeople, esteeming themself as church people, are quite culpably to blame in the godlessness of the modern world and it ill behooves them to assume the posture of accusers, of preservers of truth. Father Sergii Chetverikov says, that the Pharisees are situated outside the Church. And yet herein is a very difficult question. Modernly it would be a mistake to think, that the stigma against the Pharisees, with which the Gospel is filled, relates only to the remote past, to the teachers of the Jewish people. Phariseeism is eternal an element, which plays an enormous role in the life of the historical Church, stifling for Christian theology and Christian morals. The Pharisees are possible, certainly, in all spheres, there are even the Pharisees of Communism. But the churchly Pharisees dwell within the visible enclosure of the Church, they are not outcast from the Church, but rather cast out others from the Church. The Publicans and the sinners ever and anon have gotten situated outside the visible enclosure of the Church. The self-smugness of those dwelling within the churchly truth can with great a basis be defined, as Phariseeism. Being placid, stolid and bereft of tragic a sense, I ascribe as those Christians, who consider themself bearers and preservers of the fullness of truth and therein its protectors from the evil of the world. Disquieting to me is the question, does the Church save only situated formally within its enclosure or does the matter of salvation extend also upon that visibly situated outside it, i.e. the greater part of the world? It is difficult for me to understand a spiritual mindset, amidst which oneself and one’s own are preserved from evil, whereas the greater portion of the world, the larger part of mankind are consigned to perdition. I would think, that the parable about the Prodigal Son can receive far broader an interpretation. The Prodigal Son wanders the world outside his Father’s house. But suchlike is not only one, who seeks happiness and the pleasures in life, but frequently also one, who seeks for truth and right. Many have departed the house of the Father, because they have sought for truth and right, because they could not reconcile themself with falsehood and injustice, they departed in the name of knowledge or social justice. Many have left the visible church out of lofty motives of love for what is right, and not for craven motives. Impertinent in regard to them is the Pharisaeical self-smugness of people, dwelling in the house of the Father, within the enclosure of the Church, guarding themself from evil. My question herein is this: whether the Christian Church ought simply to attract to itself by the old methods people having fallen away from it and experiencing the torment and anxiety of the world, or rather to give creative a reply to this torment and anxiety, to give answer to the modernly new questionings and by this attract thus to itself? Here is the point I wanted to make, by saying, that it is insufficient to propose to people, experiencing the tragedy of the world, merely to return to the Church. And this is all based upon the hope, that there is possible a new era in Christianity. This hope has never vanished in me. Father S. Chetverikov has not turned his attention on this and therefore has taken me to be an hopeless pessimist.

It seems to me first of all necessary to make a distinction between the factum of revelation, the factum of a religio-mystical order and the theological and philosophical interpretation of this factum, as belonging to the order of thought. There has occurred a splicing of revelation with a theological interpretation, which always includes within it either this or some other philosophy, albeit subconsciously. The problems of the origin of evil, of freedom etc., having their source within spiritual experience, in their intellectual resolutions, relate to the sphere of religious philosophy. To this sphere relates also, what I tend to say concerning uncreated freedom. The freedom, by which they have attempted to explain the Sin-Fall and the arising of evil, is always not only a freedom of good, but also a freedom of evil. And indeed it is impossible to understand freedom, as a choice between good and evil, since the very distinction between good and evil is already a result of the Sin-Fall.1  Primordial freedom and the arising of evil — are penultimate mysteries and in the sphere of thought and knowledge we have here a matter, which in philosophy is termed as at the limits of conceptualisation. But whatever the dialectics, herein is the problem. If God allots freedom to man, then He knows, that He allots man not only a freedom for good, but also a freedom for evil. It remains completely inconceivable, why the freedom for good ought to be ascribed to God, whereas the freedom for evil be ascribed exclusively to man. We are beset with an ungraspable mystery of the arising of evil from the freedom, bestown by God. Evidently something ought here to be acknowledged, as possessing a source other, than God, than being, as determined by God. This also in the final end has to be admitted by Fr. S. Chetverikov. And I also suggest this, as something bordering upon a mystery, which theology has attempted to rationalise. It is not possible to ascribe to God foreknowledge of that evil, which has its source outside of being and outside of the world created by Him. Nowise is this from matter as in the Greek sense of the word nor is it an evil god as in the sense of Persian Manichaean dualism. This — is a dark and irrational principle external to created being, and upon which are extensible no sort of rational concepts. About this it is impossible to think, about this it is possible to speak only mythically, only in symbols. And the Sin-Fall cannot be rationally comprehended, it is a myth, that nowise however signifies an opposition to reality. The world creation can be interpreted, as a struggle against non-being, which encounters hindrances within the dark element of non-being. The freedom of sin and evil, issuing forth from non-being, is unconquerable in the initial act of the world creation, wrought by God the Father, but it is conquerable by God the Son, descending down into the dark entrails of non-being, conquerable not by power, but by sacrificial love. In this is the whole of the mystery of Christianity. Father S. Chetverikov says, that it is impossible to grant, that evil should be unconquerable for God. But that traditional teaching, which allows for the existence of an eternal Hell, does affirm this namely, does affirm the necessity of evil for God. Or the adherents of this gloomy and hopeless teaching have to say, that an eternal Hell is good, and not evil, since it would signify a triumph of Divine justice. Thomas Aquinas in essence also asserts this. The projection of this inhuman teaching into our earthly life also is given to justify a quite sharp division of the world into a camp of the good and a camp of the evil, into a world saved and saving itself and of a world of the perishing, which seems to me something anti-Gospel and a matter for indignation.2  This is a most unreconcilable and unacceptable form of pessimism, providing some the possibility to sense themself optimists. But profoundly deeper than what we say, concerning God and concerning His relationship to the world and to man kataphatically, positively and recoursing to the rationalism of concepts, lies rather the inexpressible mystery of God, concerning which it is possible to speak only negatively, apophatically. Therein already obtains no sort of dualism, no sort of opposition of light and darkness, therein is the pure Divine light, which is darkly obscured for reason, and therein is impossible already Hell nor is there possible any sort of pessimism that can be spoken of. This is at the borderline of thinking, the sphere of mystical contemplation and unity. I fear, that my reply will not satisfy Father S. Chetverikov, since his approach to the questions raised is first of all pastoral and pedagogical, whereas my approach is otherwise.

Nikolai Berdyaev.


©  2009  by translator Fr. S. Janos

(1935 – 401 – en)

ESCHE  O  KHRISTIANSKOM  PESSIMIZM  I  OPTIMIZM.  (Otvet protoiereiu S. Chteverikovu). Journal Put’, juil.-sept. 1935, no. 48, p.69-72.

1 Vide concerning this in my book, “O naznachenii cheloveka” [English title: “The Destiny of Man”].

2 Vide my book, “O naznachenii cheloveka” [Engl. title: “The Destiny of Man”].