Monday, 8 September 2014

Discussing ‘Sophia’ and a ‘Theology of the Body’
while celebrating the Nativity of the Theotokos

Icons of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) on sale in a shop in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

The Nativity of the Theotokos, celebrating the birth of the Virgin Mary, is one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the liturgical calendar in the Orthodox Church. This feast is celebrated today [8 September].

According to Orthodox tradition, the Virgin Mary was born in Nazareth to the elderly couple Joachim and Anna, who previously had no children, in answer to their prayers. Joachim was descended from the Prophet-King David, while Anna was descended from the first priest Aaron.

The tradition says Saint Joachim and Saint Anna were elderly but had not lost hope in God’s mercy. The story bears many parallels with the story Abraham and Sarah and the birth of Isaac.

When the elderly Joachim brought his sacrifice to the Temple in Jerusalem on one of the feastdays, it is said, the High Priest refused to accept it, considering Joachim to be unworthy since he was childless.

Orthodoxy teaches that the Virgin Mary surpassed in purity and virtue not only all of humanity, but also the angels. She was manifest as the living Temple of God, so the Church sings in its festal hymns: “the East Gate ... bringing Christ into the world for the salvation of our souls.”

Her birth marks the change of the times when the great and comforting promises of God for the salvation of humanity are about to be fulfilled. This event brought to earth the grace of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom of Truth, piety, virtue and everlasting life.

We were reminded of today’s feastday this afternoon when the themes of incarnation, sexuality, sacramental marriage and the understanding of the body as key concepts for Christianity were emphasised by Professor Artur Mrówczynski-Van Allen, of the Institute of Philosophy Edith Stein, ICSCO, Theological Institute Lumen Gentium, Granada.

A Roman Catholic theologian and philosopher now living in Spain, he was speaking on “The Body of Freedom. Theology of the Body as Political Philosophy. Modernity through Saint Ephrem the Syrian and Vladimir Solovyov” at the annual conference or summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies opened in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

He drew extensively on the work of the Russian theologian and philosopher, Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov (1853-1900), including his book The Meaning of Love, in which he introduced the concept of syzygy to denote “close union.”

Solovyov described his encounters with the entity Sophia in his works, Three Encounters and Lectures on Godmanhood among others. His teachings on Sophia, conceived as the merciful unifying feminine wisdom of God is considered unsound by many Russian Orthodox theologians. He never married or had children, but pursued idealised relationships as immortalised in his spiritual love-poetry, including with two women named Sophia.

Solovyov’s thinking was a major subject later in the afternoon when the Russian theologian and philosopher, Dr Natalia Vaganova of Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox University, Moscow, spoke on “Russian Sophiology as religio-philosophical synthesis of culture noveau.” She asked whether Sophia is a metaphysical being, but also recalled that Solovyov’s idea of the “embodied Sophia” was popular among his contemporaries and how, during his own lifetime and to his great surprise, there were many applicants for the role, including Anna Schmidt, who proclaimed herself to be Sophia.

Solovyov looked to the establishment of the “perfect social organism, the Church,” and he believed that the universal religion would be the “real embodiment” of Sophia. This religion would have “positive love” as its foundation and this is infinite, universal, absolute love.

Solovyov’s thinking strongly influenced the Russian Orthodox theologian and philosopher Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov (1871-1944), whose teaching on sophiology was highly controversial. Saint John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai (1896-1966), in his The Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God, condemned Bugakov’s sophianism, saying it was as destructive as Nestorianism, and he accused Bulgakov of attempting to deify the Theotokos.

Which brought me right back to considering today’s feastday as we prepared to celebrate it at Vespers in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College this evening.

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).

Late summer sunshine in the Master’s Garden in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 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 Mrówczynski-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)

A week in Cambridge looking at the relevance of
Russian religious philosophy to the world today

Strolling past Sidney Sussex College in the heart of Cambridge earlier this summer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

As Western Europe continues to drift further and further from Russia, isolating itself from Russian social, economic, political and intellectual life, I am back in Cambridge this morning [8 September 2014] and spending the next week thinking about the way Byzantine thought was modified and developed by Russian philosophy, what 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.

This is my third time back in Cambridge this year, and I am staying in Sidney Sussex College, where I am taking part in the annual conference of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies. The conference opens this morning and continues until Wednesday evening [10 September 2014.

This year’s conference is addressing the topic: “Logos – Cosmos – Eros: Horizons and Limitations of Russian Religious Philosophy.”

The aim of the conference is twofold. First, it aims to discuss and evaluate the reception of Byzantine theology and philosophy by Russian religious thinkers in the 19th and 20th century. The conference investigates the way Byzantine thought was modified and developed by Russian philosophy, and what role Western philosophy played in this process.

It also addresses the question of how far the contribution of Russian thinkers can be regarded as a philosophically and theologically convincing continuation and development of the Byzantine tradition. One of the main tasks in this respect will be to establish the precise relationship between the sophiological tradition and the Byzantine essence-energy distinction.

Secondly, the conference will examine the relevance of Russian religious philosophy to the contemporary world. The characteristic features of this tradition are: all-unity (всеединство, vseedinstvo), epistemological realism, catholicity (собо́рность, sobornost’) and integral knowledge (цельное знание, tsel’noe znanie). These ideas are employed to envisage the transformation of the world towards its ultimate end and constitute a challenge to both modern and post-modern thought.

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.

After registration and coffee, the opening speaker this morning is Professor Evert van der Zweerde of Radboud University, Nijmegen, who is speaking on “Sobornst between Theocracy and Democracy.”

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

Later in the afternoon, the Russian theologian and philosopher, Dr Natalia Vaganova of Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox University, Moscow, will lecture in Russian 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).

On Wednesday, the speakers are: Dr Ruth Coates (University of Bristol), Dr Clemena Antonova (Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna), and Dr Christoph Schneider (IOCS).

The conference comes to an end on Thursday morning with the annual visit to the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex.

Outside Sidney Sussex College in Sidney Street, Cambridge, earlier this summer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)