"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).

Monday, March 2, 2015

Baker on Bulgakov

The recently ordained Greek Orthodox priest and scholar Matthew Baker was killed Sunday night in a car accident, leaving behind a wife and six young children.

After an e-mail correspondence going back several years, I finally only met him last October in Brookline when OTSA met at Holy Cross. I do not therefore pretend to know him well, but as a young father myself I am saddened at what an unspeakable loss this is for his family--to say nothing of the academy. It was clear he had a brilliant future ahead of him, and I was settling down to look forward to many years of fascinating books and articles from him in which we would learn, and re-learn, much to the edification of us all.

He was, I gather, driving home after Vespers on the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. I was taken aback therefore to learn, when I went through back issues of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, to discover one of the reviews Fr. Matthew wrote was of the recently translated works of Sergius Bulgakov, Relics and Miracles: Two Theological Essays (Eerdmans, 2011). As the publisher puts it about this book, "Both essays are suffused with Bulgakov's faith in Christian resurrection — and with his signature 'religious materialism,' in which the corporeal is illuminated by the spiritual and the earthly is transfigured into the heavenly."

Herewith I reprint Fr. Matthew's review of this book, which I was pleased to be able to publish in Logos 53 (nos. 3-4) in the Fall 2012 issue (pp. 353-358). May his memory be eternal!

This book represents another installment of translator Boris Jakim's prodigious efforts to make the works of Fr. Sergii Bulgakov available to English-speaking readers. Having given us the three volumes of his major trilogy, O Bogochelovechestve, Jakim turns his hand back to Bulgakov's shorter works. This publication collects two such essays: “On Holy Relics (In Response to Their Desecration)” and “On the Gospel Miracles.” Jakim renders Bulgakov's lyrical but often difficult prose in a highly readable English. The result is a volume possessing both dogmatic interest and devotional appeal.
            The first essay, “On Holy Relics (In Response to Their Desecration),” written in 1918, reflects the circumstances of its composition. Bulgakov takes the Bolshevik desecration of sacred treasures as an occasion for dogmatic reflection on the nature of saints' relics. Significantly, 1918 was also the year of Bulgakov's ordination to the priesthood. Compared with his voluminous abstruse speculations of the previous year, The Unfading Light, one glimpses here a more chastened, levitical sensibility, conscious of its responsibility as steward of the mysteries and guardian of the depositum.
            Recent scholarship has been deeply impacted by Paul Valliere's picture of Bulgakov as a model of “liberal Orthodoxy” (Valliere's phrase), to be distinguished from the neopatristic theologians' more contra mundum attitude towards secular modernity and their supposed “hegemonic traditio-centrism.” Whatever the significance of this characterization, the present work reveals its limitations. One is reminded of a certain Anglican clergyman who, upon meeting Bulgakov in the 1930's, described him as staunchly “conservative.” While Bulgakov's theologizing here is certainly “contextual,” it is not accommodationist. The communists attacking the Church are “God-haters,” “satanical gangsters,” filled with “the spirit of the Antichrist.” Marxism is an ersatz religion, masquerading “under the banner of democracy and socialism,” its “chief – and even unique – religious engine” being “hatred of Christianity.” The whole essay is marked by an acute recognition of the demonic at work in history, particularly under the guise of ideology. Assaults on the Church are “lessons,” posing “questions that demand our answer” – but an answer requiring an “internal opposition” on the part of Church theology.
            In the same connection, the essay offers interesting insights into Bulgakov's views on the hermeneutics of doctrine. Bulgakov resists any reduction of binding dogma to explicit conciliar definitions. Perhaps reflecting St. Basil's understanding of dogmata as the total complex of “unwritten habits” (ta agrapha tōn ethōn) passed down in the Church, Bulgakov stipulates that the Orthodox belief regarding holy relics is a “dogma” which “has not been the object of any special deliberation, but, like many important dogmas of the Church, it has been accepted through the Church's practice.” Above and beyond the arguments of scholars, “the incontrovertible authority” remains “ecclesial tradition and the ecclesial consciousness.” Speaking of the verification of relics, Bulgakov writes: “All 'reasons' are only occasions for the crystallizations of the ecclesial consciousness, which, strictly speaking, does not even require them.” Destruction of the relics demands that theologians rouse themselves from a “low level of dogmatic consciousness” to “find – first for ourselves and then for the whole community – clear and fundamental answers.”
            Insisting that “all things are organically connected in the Church teaching, and that it is impossible to remove a single part of it,” Bulgakov is concerned to show how relics are connected with the fundamental truth of Christ's incarnation and his deification of man. He does this by way of a rich account of anthropology, sacraments, death, and sainthood, drawn from reflection upon Scripture and the practical piety of the Church. It is interesting to note, for instance, how Bulgakov's treatment of the death of saints reflects an understanding found also in many contemporary accounts of holy elders: the death of a saint is a voluntary act, in which the holy soul willingly departs the body.
            The essay also reflects a deep engagement with Kantian philosophy. Bulgakov rejects Kant's sharp dualism between noumena and phenomena, proposing rather, like Vladimir Soloviev before him, “a positive doctrine of phenomenality as the sacrament of the noumenal.” This allows Bulgakov to admit that not all saints' remains display signs of physical incorruptibility – some simply decompose – while also insisting that incorruptibility is inherent in all relics, beyond the limits of scientific verification. This “antinomy” is resolved by way of eschatology: the saints' remains are not the relic, but its phenomenon; the noumenon is the resurrected body, the “seed” of which is present with the remains.
             In Kantian terms, the whole relic is never an object “for us,” within the limits of this world. However, given the inseparability of phenomena and noumena – distinguished but united – we venerate the remains as relics. Bulgakov draws analogies here with the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ's resurrected body. Like the Eucharist, relics are “broken but not divided”: the whole relic – and thus, the person of the saint – is present in the smallest particle. Bulgakov concludes: “the question of the veneration of holy relics . . . like all cultic questions . . . is indissolubly connected with the very essence of the Christian faith. To deny holy relics is to deny the power of Christ's Resurrection, and those who deny them are therefore not Christians.”
            The second piece here, “On the Gospel Miracles,” was written in 1932, the same period as Bulgakov's Lamb of God. Like that volume, to which it is perhaps best read as an appendix, this essay is a work of Christology. Bulgakov's stated aim is an understanding of “human activity” in relation to the work of Christ, by way of an interpretation of Christ's miracles in light of the dogma of the Fourth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils. Christ's miracles reveal for us the fullness of human possibility: finitum capax infiniti. In his effort to show that Jesus' miracles are fully and properly human acts – not just attributable to divine nature alone – Bulgakov offers a brilliant review of the miracles of the Old Testament, showing how each of the miracles of the God-man finds a parallel in wonders performed by the Israelite prophets (though always, he is careful to stress, in cooperation with divine grace). That Elijah raised the son of the widow in Zarephath, and Elisha raised the son of the Shunammite, is proof that even Christ's miracle of raising Lazarus was not a work foreign to human nature and its powers.
             Miracles are, then, a key expression of the “spiritual causality through freedom” governing human action, a principle which Bulgakov contrasts with “mechanical freedom through necessity.” This distinction, drawn from Schelling's Naturphilosophie but traceable back to Kant's second Critique, appears also occasionally in Florovsky (e.g., “Evolution und Epigenesis,” 1930); in more tacit form, it may also stand behind Zizioulas's interpretation of the Father as “cause” of the Godhead (precisely where Bulgakov would not admit “causality” of any kind). Like Florovsky, Bulgakov employs “causality through freedom” as a synonym for creativity. Bulgakov, however, shows a much greater stress on how this free creativity is exercised within the “given” order of created “nature” and its “laws,” as the entelechy of immanent potencies. Miracles “do not revoke natural laws but fully conserve them.” Informed readers will find here in Bulgakov a conception of nature and freedom starkly different from the one popularized by Zizioulas, with the latter's notion of personhood as a transcendence of the constraint of nature, unmoored by any reference to natural moral teleology.
            It might be argued, moreover, that in some ways Bulgakov approximates a notion of nature closer to that of the Greek Fathers than the concept Zizioulas claims to derive from the Cappadocians and St. Maximus. Bulgakov's robust conception of natural law hearkens back to St. Basil the Great's idea of the nomos physeos ordering creatures towards God. And though hardly acknowledged in 20th century appropriations of St. Gregory Palamas, the insight Bulgakov epitomizes with Aquinas' maxim, Gratia naturam non tollit, sed perficit, also finds support in that great hesychast Father.  Bulgakov's characterization of man as “a natural agent who perceives and awakens the reason of nature, and employs this reason for his own purposes – for the humanization of nature” further recalls at once St. Maximus the Confessor's concept of the logos physeos and its modern development by Dumitru Staniloae and, presently, Nikolaos Loudovikos.
            This point must not be overstressed, however, for these two more recent theologians offer both a stronger patristic support and a much-needed critical corrective to the metaphysical underpinnings of Bulgakov's teaching on natural teleology. Unlike the first essay in this volume, “On the Gospel Miracles” shows traces of the sophiology that caused Bulgakov so much trouble. “Creation is the implanting of the divine, sophianic principles of the world into nothingness,” an act which “establishes the domain of the extra-divine existence of these principles,” making the world “the extra-divine being of the divine principle, the creaturely Sophia, identical with the divine Sophia in her foundation, but different from the latter in the mode of her existence.” This statement can be explained by reference to Bulgakov's longer trilogy: where most Orthodox theologians, following the Greek Fathers, would draw a two-fold distinction between divine essence and logoi and, more sharply, between the uncreated logoi of creation and created nature itself, Bulgakov conflates all these categories, identifying the “sophianic principles” or logoi at once with created substance and with divine nature. Created nature, with its inherent entelechy, is an amalgam of divine “seeds” and the nothingness into which they were deposited; creation is thus a “mode” of divine being. This ultimate identity of divine and created stands also behind this essay's rather strident charges of “Monophysitism” and “Apollinarianism” in St. John of Damascus: though rightly insisting on the single personal agency of the God-man in all his “works,” the principle of sophianic identity leads Bulgakov to resist any distinction of certain works or energies as proper to the divine nature, qua nature.
            More approachable than his longer, more controversial works, this volume should appeal to readers of diverse backgrounds. Perhaps the strongest impression left by the book is its thorough sense of what Bulgakov calls “religious materialism.” Those familiar with the better-known work of Alexander Schmemann and his theological re-reading of Feuerbach (“man is what he eats”) will recognize an obvious source here in Bulgakov's sacramental counter-attack upon atheistic materialism. Some Roman Catholic readers may also be reminded of the “Christian materialism” of the founder of the prelature of Opus Dei, Josemaría Escrivá, and his teaching about “passionately loving the world,” sanctifying every walk of life and work in the name of Christ – a comparison already now explored by one Orthodox writer, Evgeny Pazukhin, author of a Russian biography of the Spanish priest, as well as by a member of that prelature, Alexandre Dianine-Havard. Protestant readers will be challenged by Bulgakov's basic claim: that iconoclasm is inconsistent with a Christocentric faith, and that this faith requires an especially “high” estimate of the possibilities of human nature under divine grace.
            In an unpublished interview of his later years, Fr. Georges Florovsky, a sharp critic of Russian sophiology, expressed his disagreement with the two 1935 condemnations of Bulgakov by Moscow and ROCOR, which he saw as politically motivated: in his view, the reports on which both were based were “wrong” in that they simply considered “phrases” apart from “context” and without analysis of the “principle” of Bulgakov's “system.” After the passing of nearly 80 years, even those who, like Florovsky, maintain reservations toward a full rehabilitation of Bulgakov as a “canonical” Orthodox theologian have reason to welcome the publication and study of his corpus, allowing Bulgakov's own voice to be heard. At the very least, such study promises a deeper understanding of the currents and controversies which shaped so much Orthodox theology in the last century. Bulgakov's strong but largely covert presence, palpable in the thought of distinct and more widely revered figures as Staniloae and Sophrony Sakharov, calls to mind St. Gregory Nazianzen's words regarding Origen: “the whetstone of us all.” With this recognition, as well as for its own inherent strengths, this volume is highly recommended.

Matthew Baker,
Fordham University

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