"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).

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Walter Sisto on Bulgakov's Mariology

I first came across Walter Sisto's name several years ago after he published an insightful article on ecumenical method. Not long after, he submitted an article to Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, which we published after very strong recommendations from the reviewers.

Now he is out with a new book, The Mother of God in the Theology of Sergius Bulgakov: The Soul Of The World and following my usual custom I sent him some questions for an interview. Here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us a bit about your background

WNS: My name is Walter Nunzio Sisto. I am a Roman Catholic theologian and assistant professor of Religious Studies at D’Youville College in Buffalo, NY. I completed my master’s degree in theology at Seton Hall University and my doctorate at The University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. In both instances my research interest was the Orthodox-Catholic ecumenical movement. My doctoral work focused primarily on an ecumenist and Russian theologian, Father Sergius Bulgakov. I have written various articles in journals such as Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, Irish Theological Quarterly, Ecumenical Trends, and Marian Studies. Recently I published a book for courses that I teach called Death and the World Religions: How Religion Informs End-of-Life Decisions. The book was inspired by Bulgakov’s sophiology of death.

AD: What led to the writing of this book?

As a young man, I spent much of my time at our local Ruthenian Catholic Church as well as the local Roman Catholic Church. I have always had a fascination with Mary and how she is encountered in the Eastern churches as well as the Western. However, I was never fully able to reconcile our Lady of the Rosary with the Most Holy Theotokos.

As a graduate student at St. Michaels in Toronto, I recall having a conversation about this, and my professor, Dr. Jaroslav Skira, suggested that I read The Burning Bush by Sergius Bulgakov, which was then being translated by his colleague, Dr. T. Allan Smith—who later become my mentor, adviser, and thesis director. When I started studying Bulgakov, I was somewhat astonished by how little was written on his theology, and his Mariology. This led to my dissertation on Bulgakov’s Mariology that was eventually revised into this book.

AD: You note in the introduction that Bulgakov thought the Theotokos was the "hidden nerve of the whole movement towards reconciliation" among Christians. This will surely strike not a few people as very counter-intuitive: isn't Mary precisely one of the areas where we are divided? Tell us a bit more about what Bulgakov meant by this.

Bulgakov would agree that Mary is indeed one of the areas that divide. His point is that the Theotokos underpins the entire discussion of division. A Christian tradition that dismisses or ignores Mary falls into either the heresy of Apollinarianism or Doesticm. There is no possibility to reunite unless we accept the dogma of the Theotokos and the implications that dogma has for Christology and the life of the Church. Remember that Bulgakov lived at the beginning of the ecumenical movement before there were any bilateral dialogues on the Theotokos. His goal was to raise awareness of the importance of the Theotokos to Orthodox and Catholic theology, and to show that reunion was impossible without taking seriously her role in the life and theology of both traditions. For Bulgakov, Mariology is a litmus test for orthodox Christology: without a shared understanding of who Christ is, the ecumenical movement cannot bear fruit. 

AD: Tell us how you arrived at some of your interlocutors. E.g., what led you to Elizabeth Johnson's work on Mary as opposed to other modern RC theologians?

Bulgakov is generally ignored or unknown by non-Orthodox theologians. The interlocutors that I choose are those that are not only widely regarded as such but also have had an important influence on modern Orthodox thinking, particularly in the Western world. Because Bulgakov’s anthropology and Mariology rely on his understanding of gender and femininity, it was appropriate that I apply feminist theory to his Mariology.

Although there is no shortage of good research on Mary by feminist theologians, Johnson’s work, Truly our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (2006), is, in my opinion, the most comprehensive study of Mary from a feminist perspective. Johnson not only engages pneumatological Mariologies that share close affinity to Bulgakov’s, but Johnson also poses a challenge to the Marian tradition: it must engage the historical Mary, a Mary who was far from a passive vessel but a historical woman, actively engaged in salvation history. Johnson’s study was relevant to my research in these ways. I argue that Bulgakov’s Mariology does in fact meet Johnson’s challenge, but also offers a corrective to Johnson’s research that neglects Mary’s role in the life of the Church.

AD: Today, of course, debates about sexuality and gender are rampant. But you note that many of these conversations (especially about bisexuality and androgyny) were already happening in Russia while Bulgakov was a young man. What brought those questions to the fore in Bulgakov's time in Russia?

I cannot do justice to this question in the space provided. Much like the current cultural fascination with sex for which there is not a sole source, there is not a single source for the fascination with sex in Russia during Bulgakov’s youth. I think the emerging field of psychology greatly influenced Russian thinkers at the turn of the twentieth century on this topic. For instance, C.G. Jung's work treated bisexuality as the archetypal element of the human psyche. However, the influence of Otto Weininger’s text, Geschlecht und Charakter: Eine prinzipielle Untersuchung should not go unnoticed. Both thinkers stressed androgynous terminology to explain human psychology.

AD: Your second chapter, devoted to Bulgakov's methods and sources, begins by noting that one must grapple with his Sophiology. For some, that is a very intimidating prospect--either in itself, or because of what they've heard about Bulgakov's Sophiology. You, however, begin by calling that his theological methods "quite conservative and traditional," which seems to fly in the face of some people who allege he was an innovator or 'heretic.' Tell us how you understand the controversy that surrounded Bulgakov.

Bulgakov is to Orthodoxy what Karl Rahner is to Catholicism. He was a brilliant mind that pushed the boundaries of theological thought, and for these reasons he was controversial (as Rahner was) and condemned by many of his contemporaries. Nevertheless, he was unwaveringly faithful to the Orthodox Church.

Many of his publications have a polemical tone, as they were authored to explain Orthodox teaching in contradistinction to Catholic and Protestant theology. If you read Bulgakov carefully—although be aware that the English translations of his major trilogy drop many of his footnotes that function as proof texts—he was concerned about the fidelity of his thought to the liturgy, the Fathers, and Orthodox teaching. He certainly uses non-traditional sources and is influenced by various non-Orthodox philosophers, but these sources are tools that help him to better explain Orthodox theology.

Nevertheless, Sophia was not conjured out of the air, but was inspired by the Russian liturgical tradition and the Bible. Bulgakov uses all the sources you might expect an Orthodox theologian to use. He is generally viewed as the antithesis of the neo-patristic movement, but the reality is that Bulgakov did not want to leave the Fathers behind but used them as his inspiration to engage the modern world. Bulgakov takes pains to demonstrate that Sophiology is a development of Palamas’ energy-essence distinction. Bulgakov does not view his theology as something “new” but rather as making explicit the belief of the Orthodox faith.

I understand the controversy surrounding Bulgakov as primarily a debate over methodology. I found it interesting that Vladimir Lossky, who instigated the Sophiology controversy, in his pamphlet Spor i Sofii, primarily rejects Bulgakov’s method. He does not deny the validity of the sources Bulgakov uses, but in his estimation Bulgakov’s Sophiology is abstract speculation that cherry-picks from the Orthodox tradition and overemphasizes minor points in the theology of the Fathers, as well as overemphasizes minor Church Fathers. What is dangerous about Sophiology is that uses the veneer of Orthodoxy, but does not engage the Orthodox mindset for theology.

AD: In noting Bulgakov's rejection of the RC doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, you note that it was of several pieces, including an objection to it being declared by a pope alone, who lacks authority to define dogma on his own; but that it also based on a fallacious anthropology, and then a violation of Mary's free will. But a little earlier in this chapter you also note that "Bulgakov did not completely reject the teaching of the Immaculate Conception" (p. 116). Where, in the end, does Bulgakov come down on this?

Bulgakov views the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as an inappropriate expression of a correct teaching. He of course rejects the authority of the pope to define dogma. But his main issue is with the definition. Bulgakov considered it a great heresy to admit that Mary sinned in her life. Mary never personally sinned; this is an Orthodox dogma for Bulgakov. However, to say that God removed the stain of the original sin at the moment of Mary’s conception not only robs Mary of her accomplishment but also contradicts the scriptural presentation of God, who is always actively engaged with humanity, but rarely interjects directly and arbitrarily. Moreover, the Immaculate Conception assumes an understanding of the original sin and anthropology, which Bulgakov does not share. 

In the third chapter, I address the connections between Bulgakov, Florensky, and Soloviev. On the topic of the Immaculate Conception, Bulgakov follows Florensky closely.  I argue that not only did Bulgakov consider Florensky his friend and mentor, but after comparing Bulgakov’s Mariology to Florensky’s Mariology, the similarities in their thought suggest that it is highly probable that Florensky’s thought inspired Bulgakov’s Mariology. Soloviev was also an important influence for both Bulgakov and Florensky. He initiated the Sophiological theological movement that Florensky and later Bulgakov edit and systematize. Bulgakov had no qualms in publically admitting the influence of both men on his thought. For good reason, however, he is much more critical of Soloviev than Florensky. The topic of the Immaculate Conception is one point where Bulgakov follows Florensky and diverges from Soloviev, who embraced this dogma.

AD: Your last chapter, on Bulgakov's critics, notes that he's largely been ignored by "Orthodox feminists" with the exception of Elisabeth Behr-Sigel. Why do you think that is?

With exception of his students and disciples (Elisabeth Behr-Sigel was one of them), Bulgakov was ignored by most theologians after his death. There is no doubt that the condemnation of his thought by two major Orthodox patriarchates and the rise of the neo-patristic movement, as well as interest in patristics not Sophiology among Western institutions and academics contributed to this neglect. I also suspect that Orthodox feminist theologians may not be keen to embrace his Sophiology because Bulgakov was not sensitive to feminist criticisms of patriarchy; he uses androcentric language; and, as Behr-Sigel rightly noted, he tends to mystify women.

AD: Sum up your hopes for this book, and who in particular should read it.

My hope  is that it will contribute to the reception and discussion of Bulgakov’s theological thought, but also to a better understanding of the role and importance of the Mother of God for the life of the Church, theology, and the ecumenical movement. Everyone should read this book! However, persons who are interested in Bulgakov, Sophiology, or Marian studies from a non-Roman Catholic perspective may find this text particularly meaningful. 

AD: Having finished The Mother of God in the Theology of Sergius Bulgakov, what are you at work on now?

I am currently working on a few projects related to Bulgakov’s Sophiology. In addition to a new article that is in-press with the Irish Theological Quarterly on Bulgakov’s theology of  Christ’s Ascension, I am working on a few articles, including Bulgakov’s theology of the icon, the application of his theology of ancestral sin to the contemporary study of epigenetics, and the role of his near-death experiences in his mature theological works.

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