Gregory Bienstock 1940

Church and God-Manhood in Russian Religious Philosophy

Source: The Nineteenth Century and After, February 1940. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Religion is faith in God and at the same time faith in man. If life is to have meaning for man he must believe in his own absolute dignity. He must learn to believe in himself as a potential partaker of the divine eternal life. – Vladimir Soloviev

The term ‘Russian religious philosophy’ is a pleonasm, as the whole of Russian philosophy is penetrated by the religious idea. The exponents of this religious philosophy are not ecclesiastical but secular, and the philosophy itself has developed in a direction opposed to the spirit of the official Greek Orthodox Church. The central conception of God-manhood is given by the philosophers, in contradistinction to the official Church, a cosmogonal and not a soteriological meaning. According to the Church’s interpretation the incarnation of Christ has as its object the salvation of man from original sin. Thus the incarnation appears, fundamentally, as an accident evoked by Adam’s fall. This soteriological interpretation makes man himself an accident, a mere object of the Grace of God. Russian religious philosophy, however, rests fundamentally upon another standpoint. The Divine Incarnation here appears as included from the beginning in the plan of creation; a cosmogonal process and at the same time the content of the history of mankind.

An equally fundamental difference exists between the conceptions of official dogma and of religious philosophy on the subject of the Church. The official idea of the Church is of an institution created by Christ which, in spite of her mystical origin, bears an essentially mundane character. For religious philosophy, however, the Church is less an institution than a living organism. In this organism the mystical process of Incarnation is taking place. ‘For the Church’s life the most significant thing is the inseparable union of the Divine with the human... the Church is the ladder between heaven and earth, upon which God is descending to earth and man is ascending to Heaven.’ (Rev S Bulgakov)

Finally, the eschatological mood, the ‘Expectation of the End’ is characteristic. And here again this philosophy is distinct from the conception of the official Church, to which this mood is fundamentally alien.

These three central ideas – God-manhood, Church and Expectation of the End – represent the essential content of Russian religious philosophy. Our task cannot consist in examining the sources of this philosophy. It can be traced back on the one hand to early medieval Gnosis, on the other to German mysticism (Jakob B÷hme, F Baader). German idealistic philosophy, above all of Hegel and Schelling, has exercised influence on the formation of religious thought in Russia. Decisive, however, is the fact that Russia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries produced a galaxy of persons of exceptional religious gifts. Khomyakov, Soloviev, Fedorov, Bulgakov, Berdyaev – to mention only those writers especially concerned with theology. Besides these must also be mentioned poets such as Lermontov and Dostoyevsky, whose influence on the development of the religious Weltanschauung and the deepening of the religious consciousness was of decisive importance.

It would be false to overestimate the significance of Russian positivism particularly in its last Marxist phase, or to regard positivism as the dominant Russian ideology. In reality a struggle has for centuries been going on in Russia between rationalism or positivism and mysticism. Basically one can trace this struggle between rationalism and mysticism to the controversy which raged inside the Byzantine Church in the fourteenth century between the Hesychasts [1] on the one hand, who depended on Plato, and the neoplatonists, and, on the other hand, Western religious rationalism which employed Aristotelian methods. This peculiar controversy between the ‘Easterns’ and the ‘Westerns’ inside the Greek-Byzantine Church had a decisive effect on the destiny of this Church and her relationship to Roman Catholicism.

On Russian soil this age-old dispute, in direct connection with the discussions in the Byzantine Church, first appeared in the struggle in the fifteenth century between Nil Sorskii, the ascetic, mystic and rebel on the one hand and Josif Volotski, the rationalist and Caesaro-papist on the other, then between the patriarch Nikon and the ‘Raskolniki’ in the seventeenth century, between the Voltairists and the Freemasons in the eighteenth century, the Slavophiles and Westerners in the first half of the nineteenth, and the idealists and Marxists in the twentieth. This ancient dispute appeared in many disguises and perhaps reflected the eternal contradiction between the primitive elements in the human soul – reason and emotion. At the moment rationalism and materialism have the upper hand, at least outwardly. What is happening in the depths of the people’s soul can only be surmised. But it may safely be assumed that it has little in common with the official ideological fašade.

The central idea of Russian religious philosophy is the idea of God-manhood. This idea formed the chief subject of the greatest Russian thinker, Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900). God-manhood is the complete unification of the Godhead with Man and through him with the whole creation. There are three phases of God-manhood: the creation of man as the crown of the Universe; the incarnation of God in Christ, and finally the union of the Godhead with humanity and the whole creation at the end of the ages. The first theophany is Adam, the second theophany is Christ. The whole of Nature strives towards Man, the whole history of Mankind strives towards God-manhood.

Here, however, the Platonic character of Russian religious philosophy becomes manifest. The realisation of the idea of God-manhood in human history is only possible because this idea existed before all history and before all experience. For this idea is contained in the personality of God as Trinity. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity reveals its ontological content first in the idea of God-manhood. God the son as the second Person of the Trinity already represents the urge of the Godhead towards self-realisation or self-revelation. God the Son has existed before all eternity, but his fulfilment he finds only in his incarnation as Christ. ‘And the Word was with God and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God... And the Word was made flesh.’

The theory of the Logos as the bridge from God to Man is characteristic of Russian religious philosophy. By its means the idea is expressed that God is not only transcendent but immanent in the world and especially in man. God, it is true, is conceivable without man, but not man without God. Fundamentally man can only imagine God in a relationship to himself. God, world and man are through a mystery bound up with each other. God has created the world for man, but God created man in order to have a friend, in order to make him a son of God and partaker of the Divine Life (Rev S Bulgakov). Speaking subjectively, man represents the union of the Divine Logos with earthly nature; the task of mankind, however, consists in realising objectively, in the material world, this union between God and his creation.

In the Christian philosophy of Soloviev the humanising of the Godhead and the sanctification of humanity receives its final expression. Here one feels most deeply the opposition of modern Russian religious ideas to the Western Catholic Thomism, and also to the neo-Thomism of our days as expressed, for instance, in the works of Maritain. There is for us, says Nicholas Berdyaev, no hard and fast boundary line between the natural and the supernatural (as it exists in Thomas Aquinas); we believe rather that the world and man and all real Being is rooted in God, that the divine energy penetrates the natural world.

This doctrine affirms in the first place the impossibility of a godless humanitarianism such as has been preached by positivism since the eighteenth century. Soloviev thus sums up, sarcastically, the dogma of Godless humanitarianism: there is nothing beyond force and matter; the struggle for existence first brought the pterodactyl and then the ape, from whose variation men appeared; therefore let every man lay down his life for his friends! Inside this syllogism the attempt is disclosed to establish humanitarian morality apart from the God idea and that of the immanent union of man with the Godhead.

The doctrine of God-manhood receives its final completion in the doctrine of the Sophia. In the German mystics, from whom Russian philosophy has borrowed this conception, Sophia appears as the ‘jungfrau der Weisheit Gottes’ (Jakob B÷hme). Baader sees in the Sophia, in purely Platonic form, ‘the world of prototypes’, but at the same time he speaks of the Sophia as of the ‘true and eternal manhood’. Here the relation to God-manhood is already indicated. For Soloviev the Sophia is first the expression of the humanity of the divine. Logos is the direct expression of the Absolute as the unconditionally existing; Sophia on the other hand is in relation to the Absolute its eternal Otherness, in other words Sophia is the expression of the Logos, the realised Idea. Sophia, Soloviev remarks in another place, is the matter of the Godhead. It is the feminine principle of the cosmogony in opposition to the Logos which represents the masculine principle. Sophia exists from all eternity, like God. It is fundamentally nothing other than the ideal humanity as conceived by God, the ideal society consisting in absolute oneness between God and men, the final embodiment of the eternal wisdom.

The doctrine of the Church was first formulated in Russian religious philosophy by A Khomyakov (1804-1860). It is in closest connection with his whole philosophy. The foundation of this philosophy is the doctrine of the Soul. According to it there is in the soul of man a kernel which is of much more value than the understanding and the consciousness. It is through the channel of this kernel that man becomes united to God. The highest knowledge is the recognition of absolute Being, but it is no logical recognition but a mystical. The logical recognition is ethically indifferent, it is beyond good and evil. Therefore the internal ordering of human personality cannot be achieved through the development of logical thought. On the contrary logic leads us away from absolute Being. Russian folk-culture is completely based on the Soul, while occidental culture is purely formal. The West is rationalist and individualist, while the Russian people is emotionally and collectively constituted.

All these ideas represent the common property of that Russian School which is generally designated Slavophile, although this name is partly misleading. Khomyakov is the most important representative of this school, which has been exceptionally significant in the development of Russian ideology, and which has been characterised above all by its emphasis on the close connection between the national and the religious motive in Russian life. The Church appears in this doctrine as the ideal society in which the national and at the same time the human peculiarity of the Russian people is coming or must come to its full unfolding.

The Church, says Khomyakov, is neither a system nor an institution. The Church is a living organism of truth and love, or rather it is itself truth and love as an organism. The greatest mystery is the union of the absolutely free human personality with the Church which is itself a living and free personality. Freedom, according to Khomyakov, is not a right but a duty. Freedom is a burden which must be carried for the sake of the highest dignity and Godlikeness of Man. To be able to achieve oneness with God, to be partaker of the Divine nature, man must be free.

The absolute freedom of man will suffer no subjection to any sort of earthly authority, either of Priest or of human understanding. Therefore Khomyakov refuses ecclesiastical doctrines both Catholic and Protestant. The union of man with the Church is realised in the Sobornosti, which represents the actual content of ecclesiasticism. Sobornosti is a mystical society, consisting of all believers, living and dead, and is penetrated by the Holy Spirit. In the Russian word Sobornosti are two ideas: on the one hand the idea of the Council, Sobor, by which is emphasised that the highest authority of the Church community is embodied in the ecumenical councils, in as far as these councils truly comprise the whole of Christendom and not just one part of it. Thus they must be considered as manifestations of the Holy Ghost. On the other hand a further idea is included, that of Community, of collective thinking and vision. Thereby the idea is expressed that the vision of the Godhead and union with Him is no individual affair. The mystery of Love is indicated. Love, Khomyakov teaches, is a category of knowing. Love has for so long been preached to the nations as a duty, man has forgotten that Love is not only a duty but also a Divine Grace, by which man receives the knowledge of absolute truth. The Church is not an authority but it is the Truth which is perceived by the love of men who are united in the Church.

Khomyakov’s doctrine of the Church accords with certain Protestant ways of thought. He is one of those modern Russian religious thinkers who place the least emphasis on the other-worldly character of the Church and at the same time understand least of its eschatological and prophetic significance. With Soloviev and his pupil Bulgakov, however, this character and this significance are particularly emphasised.

The mystic character of the Church is best expressed in the following formula of Bulgakov’s: the Church is the oneness of transcendent and immanent Being. For the Church as a mystical organism three elements are essential: liberty, love and the Divine Grace. The Church is there where men, united in mutual brotherly love and free like-mindedness, become worthy vessels of the Divine Grace which is the true essence and living Principle of the Church and which makes her a unified spiritual organism (Soloviev).

The world is created for the Church, yes, the world must become the Church, otherwise it has no meaning at all. Man as Priest has the task of sanctifying the world; as God’s Son man is a mediator between God and his creatures.

The doctrine of the Church represents the connection between the doctrine of God-manhood and that of the end of the world. God-manhood finds its fulfilment in the Church as a mystical organism, but the Church is at the same time the consummation of human history and the cosmogony in general. The eschatological idea is the third and probably also the most intimate conception of Russian religious philosophy. The idea that human history must have an end is immanent in Christian doctrine, but the official Church of all three Christian denominations, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Protestant, takes a purely superficial attitude to this idea. In the official Church is necessarily inherent an optimism, an affirmation of life and of the Here, and therewith a refusal of the ‘End’, which can mean nothing but the destruction of this world. On the other hand the eschatological idea as it is expressed, say, in 2 Peter iii:10, is fully congenial to Russian religious philosophy: ‘But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burnt up.’ The end of the world is the necessary condition of that ‘new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness’ (2 Peter iii:13).

The end of this world is necessary so that the mystic Kingdom of love and truth may begin. Destruction is the necessary condition of resurrection. Without eschatology no ethic is possible. The Christian ethic has as a condition the belief in the conquest of the greatest evil, of evil itself, namely, of death. For him who does not believe in the resurrection of Christ and in his future Kingdom, the conquest of death remains an impossibility. As long, however, as death reigns, this greatest of all evils, life cannot triumph, and so long, too, man cannot believe in the final victory of the Good. Without this belief, however, every ethic is untenable. Evil, death, is there to be overcome. At the end of history the final struggle between life and death, good and evil, Christ and antichrist, will take place. The historical process consists in preparing man for this final struggle by spiritualising him through the inner assimilation of the Divine Principle.

The Expectation of the End is a characteristic not only of Russian religious philosophy but also of the whole spiritual make-up of the Russian intellectual. Russian thought in all its shades has always been unfriendly to this present world. The Russian nihilist, however, opposes to this world his own godless eschatology. The end of history here synchronises with the beginning of anthropocracy, the reign of the godless who pronounces himself a god. The collectivist idea is inherent in this anthropocracy. The individual appears as an atom of nothingness, but through some godless mystery collective humanity is deified. That is the religion of collectivism, the worship of the godless, that is the soulless, humanity.

Russian religious philosophy, particularly Soloviev, emphasises the universal character of the Church. Christendom cannot be national; national limitation contradicts the divine-human and eschatological character of the Church. The Russian people were honoured by the Slavophiles and later by Soloviev and his school as the people who most adequately expressed the universality of the Christian spirit, and was therefore chosen by God as His special instrument. Actually, according to the Slavophile K Aksakov, the Russian people was no nation, but humanity itself.

The nation is something that must be superseded, but not by a soulless cosmopolitanism representing the carrying over of the godless anthropocracy into the universal, but through Christian universalism, that is through the realisation of the Church on earth. The two Christian civilisations – the Roman occidental and the Russian oriental – are perishing through mutual estrangement and contempt. Occidental Christianity is deadened by rationalism, Russian Christianity is under the yoke of a godless anthropocracy. But the universalistic idea remains alive in the Russian man, only there is a danger that this idea may receive a false and unchristian direction. The Russian Orient bears in itself two opposite possibilities. It can become the Orient of Xerxes or the Orient of Christ. Soloviev placed this alternative before Russia at the turn of the century in a wonderful poem. The tension between the rationalistic Occident and the mystical Orient is a basic element of world history. This tension is probably the most fruitful known to human history and perhaps even the existence of humanity without this tension would have been so impoverished that it would be able to lay no claims to attention. The greatest danger for the destiny of European humanity lies in the attempt to dig a great gulf between the Romano-Germanic Occident and the Russian Orient. Stalin-Xerxes seeks to divide Russia from the West and make it an Asiatic country. Thereby he will cut off the Russian people from its transcendent mission which draws Russia to the West, and will make this God-inspired people into a prophet of a godless anthropocracy in Asia and throughout the world. Stalin wants to make Central Europe, above all, Germany, an outpost of a Russian Orient robbed of its Christian soul. Hitlerism is merely another form of the same anti-Christian and anti-European power. Will Western Europe, in face of this last danger which quite apart from the issue of the present struggle is threatening her civilisation, realise her duty towards the Russian Orient and Christian universality?


1. The Hesychasts continued the great tradition of Greek mysticism, particularly Simon of Studion (died 1092). According to it the highest aim of life is union with God by means of a mystical contemplation of the Godhead. Characteristic of Hesychastic doctrine is the distinction between Essence (ousia) and Emanation (energeia). The essence of God cannot be seen by any man, what can be seen is the ‘Uncreated Light’, which is no other than the manifestation of the Divine Essence [Author’s note].