"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, December 15, 2017

Robert Slesinski on Sergius Bulgakov

Robert Slesinski is always worth reading, and has established himself as a leading and wide-ranging scholar of several of the noteworthy figures of the Russian Silver Age and of her theological renaissance from the end of the 19th through the middle of the 20th centuries. He has published a number of articles and reviews in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies over the years. And now, I'm delighted to tell you, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press has just published his newest study, The Theology of Sergius Bulgakov (2017), 280pp

Following my usual practice, I e-mailed some questions to Fr. Bob about the book, and here are his thoughts.

AD: Tell us about your background

RS: I am a Ruthenian Byzantine Catholic priest (Eparchy of Passaic, NJ) of over 40 years, but my surname gives me away as something else.  On my paternal side, I am Polish, but not insignificantly on my maternal side I am German-French-English.  In sum, I'm a hybrid.  But growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, there was never a time when I did not have to pronounce and spell my last name!

Going on to college I would have liked to have taken Polish as a "foreign language" requirement course, but few colleges offer Polish as a subject of study.  But Russian was offered--and that was the beginning of my interest in all things "Russian."

Having discerned a possible vocation to the priesthood, I was accepted as a candidate by the RC Diocese of Worcester--my pastor at the time, by the way, was a Melkite turned RC and I was his first vocation to the priesthood. I was sent to the North American College in Rome with the understanding I could frequent the Russian College. Well, after a year at NAC I transferred to the Russicum and subsequently was accepted by the Eparchy of Passaic...the beginning of a life's journey.

AD: Your 1984 book was a real scholarly landmark, devoted to Pavel Florensky. Are there connections you see from him to Bulgakov?

RS: My first book, Pavel Florensky: A Metaphysics of Love, my doctoral dissertation was, indeed, published by SVS Press, and now they are publishing my fourteenth book, The Theology of Sergius Bulgakov.  The two figures are intimately connected, the former serving as a "spiritual father" to his "spiritual son."

There is a famous painting of the two, "The Philosophers," by M. Nestervov in the Saint Petersburg, Russia, Art Museum of the two walking in Florensky's garden at Sergiev Posad.  The whole composition has Florensky as a "Plato," as it were, and Bulgakov as an Aristotle. (AD: the photo is on the cover of the book at left.)

AD: There's been a huge upswing in studies devoted to Bulgakov over the last couple of decades. Why do you think he continues to command such a wide interest?

RS: Bulgakov has surprisingly been neglected in Orthodox circles--after all, he was "convicted" of "heresy."  Westerners--like Hans Urs von Balthasar--who were interested in possible insights from the Christian East rediscovered him.

AD: Your introduction seems to suggest that Orthodoxy did not pay much attention to Bulgakov until and after Western Christians began doing so. What led the West--among whom you single out such luminaries as Rowan Williams, Aidan Nichols, and John Milbank inter alia--to Bulgakov? Was it a perceived gap in the Western tradition that he somehow filled, or was it something else?

RS: This continues your next question: people like myself--Westerners--are, indeed, interested in gaining insights into our common Christian tradition from the East.

AD: Your first chapter notes "some truly eye-opening statements" about Bulgakov's openness to the Catholic Church, not least about the papacy and the filioque, about which he said "I am a 'filioquist'." What do you think he meant by that?

RS: Bulgakov as a person was deeply, indelibly, steeped in Orthodox tradition, but was devastated by the Bolshevik Revolution. Just as at the time of the Council of Florence as the Turks were overwhelming Constantinople, Bulgakov flirted with a possible help from Rome.  Now he remained a confirmed Orthodox, but still affirmed certain "Catholic" beliefs like the filioque, embracing Augustine's paradigm of love to explain the Holy Trinity.

AD: My perception of Bulgakov (admittedly it's been a few years since I read T.A. Smith's translation of The Burning Bush) is that he often finds a way to accept or even agree, broadly speaking, with the substance of Catholic doctrine, but finds ways to disagree methodologically--either the categories of definition, or the papal mechanisms of definition of the modern Marian dogmas. Is that a fair distinction?

RS: To continue the discussion...the esteemed late Alexander Schmemann, an actual student of Bulgakov, made the observation that however "Orthodox" Bulgakov was, he always wanted to put his original stamp of "things"--novelty being his mode of action.  Catholic doctrine/dogma he was wont to characterize in his own terms--not necessarily of those of Catholics themselves.  Curiously, as "opposed" as he was to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (he was a partisan of Aquinas in this matter), he fervidly argued in favor of the Theotokos being a "Co-Redemptrix."

AD: You note at the beginning of ch.7 that Bulgakov's understanding of the Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception "is found to be wanting" but the rest of his Mariology is not. Tell us more about that.

RS: My answer to this question is to repeat what I say in response to the last question--only to add that Bulgakov was utterly convinced in his sophiological understanding of May, she truly was the Pneumatophore--the Bearer of the Holy Spirit!

AD: In ch.8 you note Florovsky's influence on modern Orthodoxy's turn to history and patrology at the expense of more systematic theology such as Bulgakov's. Why is that? What is behind the focus on history and the fathers--and also behind the fear of Bulgakov's more speculative and systematic work?

RS: Florovsky's influence, to my mind, became paramount after the indictment of heresy.  He was an historian--hence patristics.  And we all know of the centrality of the Divine Liturgy for the Christian experience of God, hence liturgical theology.  Speculative theology/philosophy of the likes of Bulgakov did not, alas--to my mind--find a resonant ear in the Orthodox.

AD: Having done some work in both Orthodox and Catholic ecclesiology, I naturally read your 14th chapter, "Ecclesiological Musings in Bulgakov," with great interest. The word 'musings' is especially noteworthy, as you go on to suggest that Bulgakov may have been a bit sloppy with the scriptural texts, claiming they give no "'indications concerning the Church as an organization'" (p.209).  Later on you speak of his rather 'cloudy' approach to the Church's sacramental character. And once again his love-hate relationship to Catholicism returns in his discussion of papal infallibility. What lies behind these rather conflicted views?

RS: There is no doubt in my mind that the weakest theology of Bulgakov is in the area of ecclesiology.  I would surmise he was reading too much of German Protestant theology.  Catholics and Orthodox are truly one in this area.

AD: Tell us what your hopes were for this book, The Theology of Sergius Bulgakovand who should read it.

RS: Well, my book is intended to inspire any philosopher-theologian to consider Bulgakov as an area for insight in coming to terms with understanding God and the cosmos.  Now that ALL the major works of Bulgakov are in English translation, I would hope that my "modest" monograph may assist in appreciating the theological genius of Bulgakov.

AD: Having finished this, what projects are you at work on now?

RS: Over the ten years I worked on my Bulgakov book I have written seven other books in "mystagogical catechesis;" I am now working on another one The Holy Mysteries: Celebrating Christ's Sacramental Presence.

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