10 September 2014

Taking part in the Divine community
and the mystery of the Resurrection

At Orthodox Vespers in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Patrick Comerford

In Orthodox theology, theosis (θέωσις) or deification is a transformative process in which the goal is the attainment of likeness to or union with God. As a process of transformation, theosis is brought about by the effects of katharsis (κάθαρσις) or purification of mind and body and theoria (θεωρία).

In Orthodox theology, theosis is the purpose of human life. It offers a very different approach to thinking about salvation than the western theological thinking about redemption and atonement.

This morning [10 September 2014], at the international summer conference in Cambridge organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, we were introduced to theosis in the thinking of Russian philosophers and theologians.

The conference in Sidney Sussex College, which began on Monday morning, is looking at “Horizons and Limitations of Russian Religious Philosophy.”

Dr Ruth Coates speaking at the IOCS summer school in Sidney Sussex College this morning (Photograph: IOCS)

Dr Ruth Coates, senior lecturer in the Russian Department in the University of Bristol, spoke on “Nikolai Berdyaev and the Silver Age Reception of the doctrine of deification.” Dr Clemena Antonova of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, spoke on “Seeing God ‘Face to Face’: the visual implications of theosis in Byzantine Theology and Russian Religious Philosophy.”

Ruth Coates specialises in nineteenth-century Russian literature and 19th and early 20th century intellectual history. Her research interests are in the work of the 20th century philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin; in 20th and early 20th century Russian thought; and in Russian Orthodox culture and its influence on secular Russian thought. She has edited The Emancipation of Russian Christianity, and is the author of Christianity in Bakhtin: God and the Exiled Author.

In 2009 she organised the “Vekhi Centenary Conference 1909-2009.” She is the co-organiser, with Dr Sarah Hudspith of Leeds University, of the BASEES 19th century Study Group. Her current project concerns the reception of the doctrine of deification in Russian culture, with a focus on the thought of the late imperial period.

The Russian theologian and political philosopher Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev (1874-1948) was born near Kiev into an aristocratic military. He spent a solitary childhood at home, reading widely in his father’s library and learning many languages.

In 1904, he moved with his wife Lydia Trusheff to Saint Petersburg, then the centre of Russian intellectual and revolutionary life. In 1913, after criticising the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, he was charged with blasphemy, but the trial never took place because of the outbreak of World War I and the subsequent Bolshevik Revolution.

Surprisingly, Berdyaev was able to continue writing, lecturing and publishing for another five years after the October Revolution of 1917. In 1920, he became Professor of Philosophy at the University of Moscow, but he was soon arrested for conspiracy soon after and jailed, and in 1922 he was expelled from Russia in September 1922 with a select group of 160 prominent writers, scholars, and intellectuals.

From Berlin, Berdyaev moved to Paris in 1923, where he continued to write, publish and lecture. He never returned to Russia and died in 1948 in Clamart, near Paris.

Berdyaev was an often critical but practising member of the Russian Orthodox Church. He wrote in Dream and Reality: “When I became conscious of myself as a Christian, I came to confess a religion of God-manhood [Orthodoxy]; that is to say, in becoming a believer in God, I did not cease to believe in man’s dignity and creative freedom. I became a Christian because I was seeking for a deeper and truer foundation for belief in man.”

He was an existentialist and a mystical philosopher, and he felt it was the mystics of the world who came closest to understanding the role of spirit. Many of the philosophers he drew on were mystics, including Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme, and he was deeply influenced by Dostoevsky.

The concept of theosis is a central theme in Orthodox theology and spirituality. For Berdyaev, the mystical experience reveals the specific status of humanity as created in God’s image. In our creative life, we can be divinised and, consequently, participate in the divine community.

Berdyaev analyses the process of theosis referring to the most perfect example of Christ. Theosis, in his view, is the aim of human existence. He wrote:

“The idea of theosis was the central and correct idea, the Deification of man and of the whole created world. Salvation is that Deification. And the whole created world, the whole cosmos is subject to Deification. Salvation is the enlightenment and transfiguration of creation and not a juridical justification. Orthodoxy turns to the mystery of the Resurrection as the summit and the final aim of Christianity. Thus the central feast in the life of the Orthodox Church is the feast of Pascha, Christ’s Glorious Resurrection. The shining rays of the Resurrection permeates the Orthodox world.

“The feast of the Resurrection has an immeasurably greater significance in the Orthodox liturgy than in Catholicism where the apex is the feast of the Birth of Christ. In Catholicism we primarily meet the crucified Christ and in Orthodoxy – the Resurrected Christ. The way of the Cross is man's path but it leads man, along with the rest of the world, towards the Resurrection. The mystery of the Crucifixion may be hidden behind the mystery of the Resurrection. But the mystery of the Resurrection is the utmost mystery of Orthodoxy. The Resurrection mystery is not only for man, it is cosmic. The East is always more cosmic than the West. The West is anthropocentric; in this is its strength and meaning, but also its limitation.

“The spiritual basis of Orthodoxy engenders a desire for universal salvation. Salvation is understood not only as an individual one but a collective one, along with the whole world…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. And this is characteristic of (contemporary) Russian religious thought. 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 Cloisters in Sidney Sussex College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2014)

Later this morning, Dr Clemena Antonova spoke on “Seeing God ‘Face to Face’: the visual implications of theosis in Byzantine Theology and Russian Religious Philosophy.” She has studied at Edinburgh and Oxford and lectured in England, Bulgaria, Scotland and the US. Her most recent book, based on her PhD thesis at Oxford, is Space, Time, and Presence in the Icon: Seeing the World with the Eyes of God (Ashgate, 2013).

She asked why the corpus of writings on theosis is so often conceptualised in visual terms and through visual metaphors and terms that describe human vision. And she tried to reconstruct a concrete model for the way divine perception works.

She drew on the work of Pavel Alexandrovich Florensky (1882-1937), including his Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art. Florensky was murdered on the night of 8 December 1937 in a wood near Saint Petersburg, and is listed as a New Martyr and Confessor.

She also drew on the writings of Archbishop Rowan Williams on icons and theosis.

She spoke about “vision beyond vision” which is beyond pure aesthetic experience.

Dr Antonova illustrated her lecture generously with icons, and compared perspective in iconography, which invites us to move beyond time and space, and the use of perspective in the work of the Cubists, especially Picasso.

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