08 September 2014

Looking at the influence of Russian philosophers
on Russian religious and political life today

The Great Court, Trinity College, Cambridge, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

The annual conference or summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies opened in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this morning with a paper by Professor Evert van der Zweerde of Radboud University, Nijmegen, who looked at “Sobornst between Theocracy and Democracy.”

This year’s conference is addressing the topic: “Logos – Cosmos – Eros: Horizons and Limitations of Russian Religious Philosophy.” As Western Europe continues to drift further and further from Russia, isolating itself from Russian social, economic, political and intellectual life, this week provides an opportunity to reflect on how Byzantine thought was modified and developed by Russian philosophy, the role Western philosophy played in this process, the relevance of Russian religious philosophy to the contemporary world and the universal scope of Russian religious philosophy.

As Dr Christoph Schneider, the IOCS Director of Studies, reminded us this morning, Russian religious philosophy is of universal scope. It not only joins theology with philosophy, but also emphasises the porosity between theology and all other academic disciplines such as cosmology, metaphysics, aesthetics, linguistics, anthropology, ethics, and the sciences.

The conference is expected to explore how far these vast but largely untapped intellectual resources can help us construct a genuinely Christian vision of God, of the world and of the self in the 21st century.

Professor van der Zweerde asked whether the Russian Orthodox Church has become an integral part of normal Russian political life.

Russia has changed dramatically since Soviet times, with greater freedoms and new generations of Russians who have travelled abroad and brought back new experiences.

Russia has returned to pre-Soviet realities, marked by the publication of philosophical and theological works by thinkers Professor van der Zweerde examined critically in his lecture, including Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev, Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov and Ivan Alexandrovich Ilyin, who have become popular again in Putin’s Russia.

The Russian religious and political philosopher Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (1874-1948) argued for personal liberty, spiritual development, Christian ethics, and a pathway informed by reason and guided by faith. Berdyaev was preoccupied with creativity and in particular with freedom from anything that inhibited creativity, and was opposed to a “collectivised and mechanised society.”

Putin has instructed regional governors to read Berdyaev’s The Philosophy of Inequality. He was a practising member of the Russian Orthodox Church, although often critical of the institutional church.

Berdyaev wrote: “The greater part of Eastern teachers of the Church, from Clement of Alexandria to Maximus the Confessor, were supporters of apokatastasis, of universal salvation and resurrection. ... Orthodox thought has never been suppressed by the idea of Divine justice and it never forgot the idea of Divine love. Chiefly – it did not define man from the point of view of Divine justice but from the idea of transfiguration and Deification of man and cosmos.”

The philosopher, poet and theologian Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov (1853-1900) played a significant role in the development of Russian philosophy and poetry at the end of the 19th century and in the spiritual renaissance of the early 20th century.

Solovyov sought to create a philosophy that could through his system of logic or reason reconcile all bodies of knowledge or disciplines of thought, and fuse all conflicting concepts into a single system. The central component of this complete philosophic reconciliation was the Russian concept of sobornost. He sought to find and validate common ground – or where conflicts found common ground – and by focusing on this common ground to establish absolute unity and or integral fusion of opposing ideas and / or peoples.

Solovyov was one of the sources for Dostoyevsky’s characters Alyosha Karamazov and Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov. Solovyov’s influence can be seen in the writings of the Symbolist and Neo-Idealist of the later Russian Soviet era. His The Meaning of Love influenced Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata (1889).

He also influenced the religious philosophy of Nicolas Berdyaev, Sergey Bulgakov, Pavel Florensky, Nikolai Lossky, Semen L. Frank, and the poetry and theory of Russian Symbolists, including Andrei Belyi and Alexander Blok. Hans Urs von Balthasar explores his work as one example of seven lay styles that reveal the glory of God’s revelation, in The Glory of the Lord (vol 3).

He wrote: “… if the faith communicated by the Church to Christian humanity is a living faith, and if the grace of the sacraments is an effectual grace, the resultant union of the divine and the human cannot be limited to the special domain of religion, but must extend to all Man's common relationships and must regenerate and transform his social and political life.”

The work of Ivan Alexandrovich Ilyin (1883-1954) influenced many 20th-century Russian writers, including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and the 23 volumes of his collected works have been republished in Russia in the past decade.

In the afternoon, Professor Artur Mr√≥wczynski-Van Allen, of the Institute of Philosophy Edith Stein, ICSCO, Theological Institute Lumen Gentium, Granada, speaks on “The Body of Freedom. Theology of the Body as Political Philosophy. Modernity through Saint Ephrem the Syrian and Vladimir Solovyov.”

Later, the Russian theologian and philosopher, Dr Natalia Vaganova of Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox University, Moscow, is to lecture on “Russian Sophiology as religio-philosophical synthesis of culture noveau.

The speakers tomorrow are: the Revd Professor Andrew Louth (University of Durham), Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia, the Revd Prof Nikolaos Loudovikos (University Ecclesiastical Academy of Thessaloniki), and the Revd Tikhon Vasilyev (University of Oxford).

Punts on the Backs, behind Trinity College, Cambridge, this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

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