Guest Post: What is Christian Politics? (Part I)

nod - into the land of nod

Cain leads his followers into the Land of Nod

The following is Part I of the essay “What is Christian Politics?” by Tsoncho Tsonchev, currently a graduate student at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, where he is writing a doctoral thesis on Nicolas Berdyaev. Mr. Tsonchev hails from Bulgaria, but has been living in Canada for a bit more than a decade.

For to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Gen. 33:10)

Christianity is political, but does not have a “political program.” It is revolutionary, but does not call for a change of political regimes. Christian politics is not the secular politics, the politics of power competition and fight for rights and privileges. It is “unconventional” by the standards of contemporary political theory and practice. The Christian understanding of politics is neither paradoxical nor perplexing, yet many fail to admit the adequacy of its concepts and prescriptions, many would argue that to be political means to have a political program, and to be revolutionary means to strive for a change of the political order and power. These are the arguments of those that have no clear sense of the nature of politics and that have no knowledge of the nature of Christianity as the most political and revolutionary teaching in human history.

Jesus advised, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” (Matt. 22:21) What is the meaning of these words? The secular mind would quickly interpret them as a command for obedience to State and Church, as an example of the Christian social and political conservatism. This command, many have argued, asks the people to have a slavish, apolitical behavior; it legitimizes the autocracy of kings and priests. We find this interpretation in the works of great political minds like Mill, Nietzsche, and Marx, but this does not mean that we should accept it uncritically. Because, as it has been said, if Christianity is the most political and revolutionary teaching in history, then, it cannot ask for slavish obedience nor it can legitimize a regime, temporal or spiritual, that is against the freedom of personal conscience.

So, what is the meaning of Jesus’ advice, according to the Christian interpretation? First of all, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” means that man should respect authority. What is authority? Authority is the power that serves the common good. As power serving the common good, the authority should respect man. The authority has the same obligation as the man (or people) under authority. It should “render unto Man (or people) the things that are man’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” As authorities, both God and Caesar, who is a man, are servants of man.[1] The authority has no other goal but to promote justice. Authority is authority only as an act of justice. Authority without justice is autocracy—the rule, the will, and the individual good of autos kratos (self-power). Autocracy is not authority because it does not care for the common good. It is a despotic self-containment and self-sufficiency. Justice, as Aristotle says, is always about the “other,” it always includes more than one person. It is about common good. Justice is possible only in society, under authority, not under autocracy. Justice, in authority, has no other goal but to promote the equity in human society. And equity has no other goal but to defend the dignity of each person in society.


St. Luke

The dignity of each person is nothing but the authority and the value of each person in the eyes of others and the capacity of each person to act justly under his or her own free will, i.e., to act autonomously with authority. Dignity is dignitas, the “worth” that comes with the love and the respect of others and the freedom to act justly, i.e. with love and respect, in society; dignitas means to be free and worthy, i.e. to have the authority to judge, in yourself, your neighbour—”Why don’t you judge for yourself what is right?” (Luke 12:57)—not in a court, but in your very heart (“Make every effort to reconcile with your adversary while you are on your way to the magistrate.” Luke 12:57). So, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” means that each man should respect the dignity and authority of each man and of God. Each individual man is a Caesar for his neighbour as each neighbour is a Caesar for his brethren. Each man should say, as Jacob had said to his brother Esau, “For to see your face is like seeing the face of God.” (Gen. 33:10)

If human authority, my authority and your authority, the authority of the Caesars, fails to respect the dignity of each human being, of each “Caesar,” then God Himself will bring justice, because God serves man even crucified. In his sin and injustice, man kills God and Caesar only to discover that God is alive for Caesar, and that Caesar is alive for God, if not for the sinful man. In his justice, the “living” God asks the firstborn Cain, the first autocrat and founder of the temporal city, “Cain, where is thy brother Abel?” and Cain replies “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9) That is, “Am I my brother’s authority?” Yes, Cain is his brother’s “keeper.” As firstborn, he is obliged to render unto Abel the things that are Abel’s, and to God the things that are God’s. He had the autonomy to judge freely in the society of his brother and God, but did not use his authority to judge rightly. That’s why, at the end of history, when all equity is restored, God will ask, as Berdyaev rightly observed, “Abel, where is thy brother Cain?”[2] Cain, Adam and Eve’s firstborn, failed to respect the authority of his little brother, and challenged the authority of God; in this sinful act, he served nobody but himself, he employed self-power, he acted as an autocrat, not as an authority. That is why God will finally ask, “Abel, where is thy brother Cain?” Because Abel, not Cain, was the one who had his authority intact, although losing his temporal autonomy. Abel’s autonomy might have been destroyed by the criminal act of Cain, but Abel’s authority, and dignity, were still alive in the mind of God. Cain wasn’t punished with death by God. But he punished himself with hell, making his life a desert. Killing his brother was killing his own self, because, as the classical Aristotelian theory teaches, man is a man only in society. Cain was excommunicated, living in the east of Eden, in the land of Nod (which means “to wander”). Man, as Aristotle says, should be either god or a beast to survive in the desert, so to preserve his life Cain finally took a wife and built his own society, the first earthly city, Enoch. This biblical story tells us that the act of autocracy, of self-love, condemns man to the hell of social nihilism. “Hell,” Berdyaev wrote, “is the state of the soul powerless to come out of itself, absolute self-centredness, dark and evil isolation, i.e. the final inability to love.”[3]

What is, then, Christian politics? Theological and moral speculations with little practical significance? To paraphrase the Kantian question: Is this all that we could take from the speculative thinking of the pure and religious mind: a simple maxim that says that one should respect God and neighbour as oneself? [4] Yes, this is all that we should take. We should also remember that it is not “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” that is the supreme command of Christian politics, but “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Mark 12:30-31) This maxim, according to the Christian dogma, is the firm foundation for every good politics and act, the foundation on which the entire law rests. With this command, one is asked to see in the face of each human being the face of God. “For to see your face,” as Jacob said to his brother Esau, “is like seeing the face of God.” But how practical is this command? Could it be applied at all in reality and how it could be used for the aims of political theory and praxis?

bulgakov, sergius

Sergius Bulgakov (1871 1944)

In the beginning of a lecture, entitled Social Teaching in Modern Russian Orthodoxy (1934), Fr. Sergius Bulgakov argued that the early church neglected the question of social organization and economic order.[5] This is a widespread opinion today as well. He explained this neglection with the “apocalyptic” character of the early Christianity. The early Christians, he argued, did not expect the world to last too long, so they did not consider the social and political questions as important. This, however, is not the entire truth. It is true that the early Christians expected the end of the world, but they knew, as the Gospel and the Apostles had taught them, that only God knows the end of time, and that this end will come when nobody expects. It is also true that the early Christians were in fact engaged with social, economic, and political questions. There is plenty of evidence for this assertion. One just has to look at the social function of the early Church, its organisation and praxis, or to read the letters and the writings of the first bishops and learn about their well informed opinion on the functions of state power and society. Almost all of the so-called Church fathers, from Justin to Ambrose and Augustine, were as much engaged with social and political questions as with theological. The thing that prevents us, the modern people, to see and understand the politics and social engagement of early Christianity, is our perverted perception of politics as exclusively related to something that we call a “political program,” i.e., a specific ideology and plan for action that supports a particular political and social order.

Today, politics means elections, coup d’états, parties, competing for rights and privileges, groups and individuals, political regimes, political and social programs promoting special interests. Politics for us is not about authority, as explained above, but about belonging to a group with a particular political, social, and economic interest. Christianity is also about belonging, but not on the basis of shared interest, but on the “rock” of shared faith; its political engagement is not about gaining political power, but about teaching how political power should be used, what is its proper function and aim. So Christianity is not, and should not be, concerned with the support (or opposition) of political regimes and groups. It may support (or oppose) one or another policy as beneficial (or not) for society in general, but it does not support (or oppose) the specific group with its particular interest that promotes this policy.

The main political function of Christianity is education. This function was realised early in Church history. The third century author Lactantius, who served as an adviser of Emperor Constantine, was, for example, one of the most eloquent proponents of Christian mass education. With the growth and influence of the Church, a huge number of bishops advised and educated emperors and rulers in the art of governance. Instead of telling them how to rule, they taught them how to perceive rightly the office of kingly service, trying to instill in them a sense of duty towards people and God. Through education, Christianity aims to correct the autocratic, monist tendencies in the political process, and through education, it finds itself both far from the active political life and close to it as a reforming power working from “within.” In other words, the genuine Christianity is politically “neutral,” it does not support liberals, conservatives, socialists, nationalists, monarchists or democrats, and yet, it is politically engaged, trying to show these same liberals, conservatives, socialists, nationalist, monarchists and democrats, that each human person has an intrinsic value that surmounts any group or private interest. It does this mainly through presenting to their individual conscience the universal truth of the Christian gospel. It should be noted that early Christianity did not aim to destroy or undermine the foundations of the empire, as it does not want to destroy the modern state and political order today; it did not have a political program that promoted a specific political and social order. Its only activity was the conversion of society and the emperor to Christianity, so the society and the emperor could better resist the temptation of autocracy and direct their will towards God, “neighbour,” and justice. In this sense, Christianity was a truly revolutionary force: having no political program and goals, but nevertheless transforming the structure and the character of the empire from within.


“A legion of evil spirits has entered Russia.”

Fr. Bulgakov spoke about the “traditional” Christian disengagement with the affairs of the world, not to encourage social asceticism, but on the contrary, to convince and inspire the modern Christians to participate more actively in political life as educators. In his article Heroism and the Spiritual Struggle (1909),[6] published in the now legendary collection of essays in social criticism Vekhy (“Landmarks”), Bulgakov argued that there is a need for an “ecclesial intelligentsia” uniting the “authentic Christianity” with the “enlightened and clear grasp of the cultural and historical” tasks of the current time.[7] In his appeal, the apocalyptic spirit of the apostolic Church was not lost, as it was not lost for the Church’s specific forms of social and political action. Borrowing from Dostoevsky’s Devils, Bulgakov presented the importance of Christian education as a roadblock against the spiritual evil that took root in pre-revolutionary Russia. “A legion of evil spirits,” he wrote, “has entered the massive frame of Russia, shaking it with convulsions, torturing it and maiming it. Only by spiritual struggle, invisible but of great proportions, is it possible for it to be healed and set free from this legion.”[8] Now, a century later, we may say that such an “ecclesial intelligentsia” was formed in Russia, and despite being suppressed and abused, socially and politically marginalized, imprisoned in the camps of Siberia, or exiled, its prophetic and educative work, although invisible in the public square, succeeded to win over totalitarianism, and continues to struggle against the new “evil spirits” of modernity.

As Berdyaev said in the aftermath of the Bolshevik coup d’état, Christianity, considered from the perspective of politics, is a “philosophy of inequality.”[9] This claim, again, should not sound “perplexing” or “paradoxical.” St. Paul’s advise “Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called” (1 Cor. 7:20) means that every man should be “a good slave for the sake of God, or a good lord for the sake of God.”[10] Hearing such an advice, stripped from its context,[11] or worse, such an interpretation, put in the social context of modernity, many would be appalled or shocked by the word “slave” and would probably fail to notice the importance and significance of the word “good.” So they would probably conclude that St. Paul, or Christians in general, are just accepting the anti-humanistic philosophy of ancient paganism, especially the Aristotelian theory of “natural inequality.” This would surely be a rash conclusion and judgment. First of all, in this sentence, St. Paul does not discuss directly the problem of inequality. The emphasis is on calling. And second, this sentence, as it was grasped and explained most eloquently by Luther,[12] is about freedom in service. One, thus, may ask: What calling? And what freedom in service?

Max Weber explained in his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, that the calling of man is his profession, given, as the pious Protestants believed, by God; it is what man professes in life through his appointed by Providence labor and service. We are all called to do something in life and society. And our calling is best revealed in our natural talent that should also be accepted as our profession, or service. The natural profession, or calling, is service because if followed, it is done without expectation for an earthly reward; as far as it is natural, it is given, and as far as given it has no other meaning but to be consumed. In consuming our calling we are acting, working, and since this is a gift, it should not cause hardship, but only enjoyment; the aim of the gift is not to be sold for another gift but consumed with content and thankfulness. With the consummation of our calling, we serve others, and we do this with gusto and freedom, because we expect from them neither reward nor thankfulness. In the calling is vested the reason and meaning of life, its unique joy and happiness, and the callings, the talents, the joys are as many and diverse as the people are. Paul advises that everyone should accept and abide in the calling that God had entrusted on him. He advises so, because he knows that the source of greatest unhappiness for individual man is not to accept his natural inclination or to be constantly troubled by his momentary situation.

Modern people, generally speaking, are confused about their calling and situation, they sometimes think that they do not know what they want, their needs and desires shift constantly, as most often they know only what they do not want, and the thing that they do not want is precisely their situation and calling. We would understand that their confusion is complete and disastrous, if we take into account the influence of society, in which they are reared and brought up. Modern society is so organized that it does not usually help individual person to find and accept his or her calling and situation with contentment. It is not a new problem, we should admit: society distorts human wills and suppresses people’s true callings from the age of the “fallen Adam.” It is not without reason that Plato, in his Republic, argued that the greatest evil for the city is the confusion of duties and roles among citizens and especially the rule of the naturally unfit for the office monarch.[13] The Bible says, “Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child and thy princes feast in the morning!” (Eccl. 10:16) But if we speak of today, we should admit that nothing has changed for better and everyone is exposed and distracted by values, social roles and models, coming from an outer, miracle-making “Leviathan”—the utilitarian “market” society.


“There is no Caesar in this land… only Sisyphus.”

The modern man (again, generally speaking) is a wanderer, like the exiled Cain, in the land of Nod, trying to achieve these exasperating “common standards” for a “good” and “successful life.” He is depressed and perpetually anxious, pushed in competition against his own true self and against his no less wretched “brothers.” In his life, he feels constantly punished and rewarded, not according to his true merits, as he often believes, but according to some invisible and powerful force that has two names—”gain” and “utility.” The modern social environment is a perversion of truth. So instead of “gifts,” this environment promises “gains”; instead of “common good,” it aims at “private utility”; instead of “service,” it offers “servitude.” Men are taught today, by this new Leviathan, who aspires to capture the educative function of the Church, that man’s profession has worth only, and above all, as a “gain,” not as “service,” and that it should be earned with toil, not received as a joyful gift. It teaches that each man is a consumer, gain, and utility for each other man. Man is lured to consume foggy dreams, not real gifts. The Leviathan’s spell is a perfect circle—a labyrinth with manifold turns and twists, doors and levels of “success,” that always lead to the dead end of an ever-repeating beginning. There is no Caesar in this land of Nod, only Sisyphus; no Authority, only autonomy; no Freedom, only choices; no Good, only goods. This world makes of human beings an unhappy, anonymous, half-conscious, mechanized, always daring puppet: a fruit and product of abstract numbers, schemes, and calculations. In the 21st century, it seems that there is only one social class left, the consumerist class, the class of the universal “have nots.” It is the class of the international spiritual pauperism.[14] A class produced not of evil capitalists, multi-national companies, or financial lords, but of a weakened Christian education, of Christianity cut of its political function.

The Marxist theory of class society is now obsolete. The society is classless; after the 19th and 20th century war of social classes, a fourth player towered above aristocracy, bourgeoisie, and the workers—the class of the international consumer. Consumerism united and pacified the world. Now all are invited to live in a constantly regenerated utopia. Berdyaev predicted this result, the appearance of this classless world, arguing in many of his works, that there is no essential difference between capitalism and socialism, between “bourgeoisie” and “workers,” because both were fighting for the same “material bread,” both served and fought for their “stomachs,” both wanted to consume not their natural gifts, but, as Cain and his father Adam, to till a barren land for meager fruits (“When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.” Gen. 4:12). Berdyaev intuitively predicted that socialism would fall back again into the cradle of liberal capitalism. So now, after the end of the bi-polar world, it seems that there is no other vibrant ideology, no other political and economic system, except the system of economic gain. Consumerism, today, has no class enemy. There is universal human agreement, shared by poor and rich, that to possess and consume more is better than to have less and be content. We live in apocalyptic peace. That’s why Christianity should act as a “prophet” in the world, should voice its gospel from the “Leviathan’s belly,” to use Darko Suvin’s expression. It should say loudly: it does not matter today whether you are a “worker,” a “bourgeois,” a “professional,” a “capital owner” or a “nobleman,” if you are unconscious of your gift as service, if you are not content with your natural inclinations and the reality of Creation, you are in the rank of the “have nots,” in the rank and class of the ever-daring, dissatisfied, unhappy Consumers, who devour each other along with themselves.

The modern man is not very different as a human being from the Corinthian that received Paul’s letter. His environment and social role, however, have changed immensely. For that reason, Paul’s admonition is more urgent for him than for the Corinthian. If the Corinthian lived with a fixed social status and a proper social role in the patriarchic and intimate society of Greco-Roman civilization, if his mind was not distracted by dreams of success and prosperity, if his debts were paid with the work of his hands, and not with his soul, then the modern man, in contrast, is a phantom with shifting social roles, inflated (or deflated) self-esteem, expectations, and disappointments amidst the riches of his material prosperity. In contrast to the Corinthian, the modern man considers upward “social mobility” as an absolute value and good. It is true: to move in order to set yourself on the path of your proper calling is good. Paul says, “Were you a slave when you were called? Do not let it concern you, but if you can gain your freedom, take the opportunity.” However, to make of “social and economic success” a Dream is to open the field for every crime that presents itself as virtue.

[To be continued…]


[1] Mark 10:45; John 13:8; Acts 17:25; Psalm 50:15

[2] Berdyaev Nikolai. 1948. The Destiny of Man. 3D ed. London: G. Bles. p.277

[3] ibid.

[4] Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason, A831/B 859

[5] In Bulgakov Sergiĭ, and Rowan Williams. 1999. Towards a Russian Political Theology. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.

[6] Geroism i Podvijnichestvo.

[7] Bulgakov Sergiĭ, and Rowan Williams. 1999. Towards a Russian Political Theology. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. p.109

[8] ibid. p.111

[9]  See Nikolai Berdyaev, 2015. The Philosophy of Inequality. frsj Publications

[10]  Bulgakov Sergiĭ, and Rowan Williams. 1999. Towards a Russian Political Theology. Edinburgh: T & T Clark. p.276

[11] And here is the context: “[…] 17 Regardless, each one should lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is what I prescribe in all the churches. 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man still uncircumcised when called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commandments is what matters. 20 Each one should remain in the situation he was in when he was called. 21 Were you a slave when you were called? Do not let it concern you, but if you can gain your freedom, take the opportunity. 22 For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman. Conversely, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 Brothers, each one should remain in the situation he was in when God called him.” (1 Cor. 7:17-24)

[12] See Martin Luther’s On the Freedom of a Christian

[13] In the Republic, Plato argued that if “someone who belongs by nature [the emphasis is mine] to the class of artisans and businessmen is puffed up by wealth or popular support or political strength […] and tries to do the Auxiliary’s job [i.e. soldier’s job] […] tries to take on the functions of a Ruler […] or if a single individual tries to do all these jobs at the same time […] spells destruction of our state [city, community] […] Interference by the three classes with each other’s jobs does the greatest harm to our state.” The confusion of duties, the change of duties, Plato believed, was “injustice.” But “when each of our three classes [Artisans and Tradesmen, Auxiliaries, and Guardians or Rulers] does its own job and minds its own business, that, by contrast, is justice and makes our city just.” See for short commentary T.S. Tsonchev, Discourses on Rights,  ¶ 219-221

[14] Visheslavtsev is right to notice, almost hundred years ago, that in an “irreligious capitalist civilization man inevitably becomes an economic materialist” and that his culture consists only in the exhaustion of his needs, life, and world. “In its critique of irreligious capitalism with its banks, markets, newspapers, parliaments, parties, the Christian conscience and Christian consciousness go farther and deeper than the socialist critique. It denounces this order not because some have and others have not (which, of course, is unjust and unloving), but because all people thirst only for possessing, only for satisfaction of their needs, and as much they bog down in their exhaustion as much they extinguish the spirit and as much the connection with the primary sources of being relinquish. And, at the end, from the depth of the spirit questions arise: Why? For what? In the name of what? The irreligious capitalist civilization does not have any great “in the name of” as it is with the irreligious socialist civilization as well.” (Visheslavtsev, Boris. 1924. Religia i Bezreligioznost (Religion and Atheism) in Problemoi Russkago Religioznago Soznania (Problems of Russian Religious Consciousness). YMCA Press, p. 37); my translation.

9 thoughts on “Guest Post: What is Christian Politics? (Part I)

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: What is Christian Politics? (Part I) | Reaction Times

  2. Dear Tsoncho: I would like to know — and I am certain that readers of The Orthosphere would like to know — how you came to your appreciation of Nicolas Berdyaev and how, generally speaking, you escaped indoctrination in the pervasive liberal-modern creed of “Our Times.” (They are “ours” seemingly whether we claim them or not!) Perhaps you would sketch for us the outline of your intellectual pilgrimage.

    I read Berdyaev for the first time in the mid-1980s, when I was doing my graduate studies, but I doubt whether I understood him adequately in those days. I returned to him in the last decade after reading a book on existentialist writers by a man named Herberg, who was apparently a mentor to my friendly acquaintance Paul Gottfried. On revisiting what I had read by Berdyaev and in reading what I had not yet read (thanks in part to Father Stephen’s Herculean effort to render in English everything by Berdyaev that had not yet been rendered in English) — I felt overwhelmingly that this was an author who spoke profoundly and prophetically to the present moment, despite the fact that the year of his death was 1948.

    I would also be interested in what you might say about Berdyaev’s style. In any other author known to me, the repetitiveness would be annoying, but somehow in Berdyaev repetitiveness acquires a refrain-like poetic quality. And with whom else related to Berdyaev intellectually (you have mentioned Bulgakov) might Anglophone readers acquaint themselves — supposing that translations were available?



  3. Dear Tom, thank you for the questions and the interest. Apologies for the late answer. And thank you for posting my essay. I think that Christians (and in fact, all who sincerely search for the truth) are to a certain extent immune from the truisms of the day. Moreover, I even think that most of us understand, deeply within themselves, what is right and wrong in the “liberal-modern creeds of our times.” The problem is that the majority (myself included) doesn’t have the guts to follow completely their right sense. The environment, the habit, the care for survival, if you like, makes this huge illusion that we witness today to seem real and unshakable (in its existence and progressive direction). I had the opportunity to live and witness the life in a communist, totalitarian country: in communist times, the majority was in a boisterous and noisily (i.e. publicly) expressed agreement that the world in which they all live is the best of all possible worlds. Publicly, all shared the same principles (formulated by the Communist Party), all had the same sense of right and wrong, all knew the “enemy” and the “friend.” Privately, the reality was different–for the majority. As it turned out, privately all shared the same principles (completely opposite to the Party’s direction), all had the same sense of right and wrong, and all knew the “enemy” and the “friend”… In communism, public and private were two irreconcilable worlds. Paradoxically, the public that was far less real, presented itself as the only reality, while the private that was far more real, and way more reconciled with the truth, did not present itself at all as existing, of course, if we do not count the few solitary, dissident voices, the most popular in the West–Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov. All I want to say is that there is no escape from the truth; soon or later a person or an entire society will face it, and any kind of indoctrination should pass or fail its test.

    About Berdyaev’s style. I read Berdyaev in both Russian and English. The strange thing is that in Russian, he doesn’t sound as repetitive as in English. And you are very right to observe that there is something “poetic” in his “prose.” I remember that Evgenii Lampert (I might be wrong for the exact author) explained that Berdyaev’s way of expression was like “carving” a stone, he is like a sculptor who is slowly shaping the form from the shapeless, chaotic mass of information and meanings. The repetition could be explained also with some desire in Berdyaev to make the reader to understand, remember, and digest his philosophy. In his philosophy, Berdyaev employs a basic concept of “nothingness,” of Ungrund; this concept is very difficult to comprehend, it reaches the edges of human logic and understanding, and it is interwoven in his social and political thinking. But the social and political philosophy should be easy to comprehend, and when you have Ungrund behind them, within them, you have actually a problem to ground your claims on a firm soil and communicate them. The repetition, it seems to me, helps Berdyaev to “ground” his political and social observations and communicate them, it helps him avoid the effects of his mystical and highly speculative worldview.

    In my opinion, Berdyaev should related to the entire 19th century Russian intellectual tradition. He is first and foremost a Russian thinker. All Western influences (including Boehme) should take a step back. Berdyaev was deeply influenced by Dostoyevsky, Soloviev, Khomiakov, but also by Chaadaev, Herzen, the Russian Symbolists. Very close to Berdyaev are Semyon Frank (I quote him in the second part of the essay), Mother Maria (Skobtsova), Bulgakov; he borrowed from N. Fedorov, N. Mikhailovsky… The majority of the contributors of the magazine (Journal Put/The Way) he edited for almost 20 years were also his intellectual friends.

  4. Dear Tsoncho: On picking up a paperback copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World not too long ago, I noticed (what I had not noticed the last time I read it some two or three decades ago) that the novel begins with a fairly substantial epigraph from the works of a certain N. Berdaieff. That is a variant spelling, of course, of the more familiar Berdyaev. Berdyaev’s name must have been sufficiently current in Britain in 1932 that one could, by invoking it, summon an aura of seriousness and respectability. I own several of Berdyaev’s books in hardback editions that were printed in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s; and I recall seeing his name on paperback reprints as late as the 1970s in the big campus bookstore at UCLA. A few people at least must still have been reading him – and perhaps understanding him – in those days. I cannot remember, however, that any of my professors ever mentioned his name although most of them made frequent references to mid-Twentieth Century philosophers like Sartre and Camus and Husserl and Heidegger. Will Herberg included extracts from Berdyaev in his Four Existentialist Theologians: A Reader from the Works of Jacques Maritain, Nicholas Berdyaev, Martin Buber, and Paul Tillich (1958), where the Russian keeps impressive company. But generally, it appears, Berdyaev’s currency waned rather swiftly after his death. I am absolutely certain, for example, that none of my departmental colleagues have ever heard the name Berdyaev, much less read anything by him.

    As I remarked to Richard Cocks recently, I doubt whether any of my departmental colleagues could understand Berdyaev even if he or she made the attempt to read him. There would be several explanations of such incomprehension. The basic assumptions of the contemporary academic mentality are those of the reigning secular Puritanism; academic types are uniformly hostile to religion and in particular to Christianity; humanities graduate schooling consists nowadays for the most part of inculcation in the materialistic point of view; and what most of the members of the professoriate regard as thinking is merely the rearrangement of a few clichés and prejudices. Never mind the Ungrund – Berdyaev’s assertion that Christian Revelation contains not only theological but also anthropological truths would immediately bring out the mulish stubbornness of the postmodern mind. (Because there are no truths.) On the other hand, when I gave a copy of The End of Our Time to a well-read but non-academic friend, he made his way determinedly through it and grasped its argument quite clearly. We subsequently had a number of mutually informative conversations about Berdyaev’s assessment of modernity. I might characterize the friend in question as a healthily open-minded person, not particularly religious, but also not hostile to religion or to a religious point of view.

    Lest these musings seem to meander, I actually have a point: An age – our own, in the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, for example – stands adjudicated in part not only by what it professes, but by what it cannot grasp. In this sense, the dwindling currency of Berdyaev since his death is by no means a judgment on him, but on the diminished capacity of the prevalent socially representative type to open itself to truth or simply to unfamiliar points of view. That type’s unwillingness to transcend its own limited intellectual horizon is an item of evidence, moreover, favoring the validity of Berdyaev’s prognosis. Nevertheless, judging by the renewed availability of Berdyaev in translation, there appears to be something of a revival of interest in him. There is Father Stephen’s website and there are his translations of hitherto untranslated titles by Berdyaev. I wonder whether you have any notion what the extent of the “Berdyaev Revival” might be. And have you any notion of where that revival originates? Does it originate in Russia, in France, or is it mostly an Anglosphere phenomenon? To me, the reappearance of Berdyaev has something of the providential about it, as he speaks to contemporary trends, which are quite totalitarian, with as much relevance as he spoke to the catastrophic events of his own lifetime. Sincerely, Tom.

    P.S. Will Herberg might interest you. He started out as a Marxist and a Communist but he experienced a metanoia in mid-life and became a conservative and something of a traditionalist.

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  8. Dear Tsoncho Tsonchev,

    Let me congratulate you on your subtle grasp of the great thinker Berdyaev. Your essay is a pleasure to read. What you write seems profoundly true concerning the proper attitude towards the individual and one’s place in society.

    Your statement in the comment above that the liberal worldview is far less set in stone than it appears, with less far less popular support, due to strictures against contravening any of its doctrines in public (hence the outrage against Trump ruining American “ideals” as I have read it claimed) seems both true and thus a reason for a certain level of optimism.

    Would you mind elaborating a little on the exact nature of the Leviathan? Is it simply a synonym for societally derived ideas concerning “success” and the like?

    I’m also a little uncomfortable about the phrase “The dignity of each person is nothing but the authority and the value of each person in the eyes of others” since it seems dignity is inherent in the human personality without need for confirmation from others e.g., dying with dignity in a prison camp, or Russian gulag. In “The Gulag Archipelago” there is a strikingly memorable scene where Solzhenitsyn describes a prisoner (I think he might have been a General) doing his morning push-ups as usual despite knowing he was about to be executed that day. Such a person seems to have his dignity intact despite the state doing its best to make him a non-person.

    I myself am not quite sure what to think. On the one hand, someone like Plato or Boethius writes that we are all “powerful” if what we want is to do the good. We don’t need anyone’s assistance. But then in Aristotle has the rather repulsive notion of moral luck that claims that if a person is not well-born, rich, good-looking with children, with friends and children of the same nature, then a person cannot be said to be happy. (Eudaimonia) Since Socrates mostly had the opposite of these, then he would not qualify as a flourishing person for Aristotle.

    On the other hand, no man is an island. Since we are intensely social creatures we are not self-sufficient and need friends who offer moral support, particularly if we hope to challenge the worldly attitude inherent in the Leviathan.

  9. Dear Tom and Richard,

    Thank you for the interest and the questions!

    Tom, I agree with your observations. I hope that the theological departments will not bent under the pressure. In my opinion, the best scholars in humanities are still the ones (both believers and atheists) who know first hand the passions of faith and religion. Yes, indeed, there is a revival in the interest in Berdyaev, and in the Russian theology and political thought in general. The Radical Orthodoxy movement (that is not so new anymore), for example, with John Milbank, takes very seriously Sergius Bulgakov and the 19th-20th century Russian Orthodox thought. In Eastern Europe and Russia there is a natural return to religion and rediscovery of the work of the expelled (or killed) by the Bolsheviks Christian thinkers. Perhaps, the impressive post-communist recovery of the Russian Orthodox Church and the support it receives from the Kremlin also plays some role in renewed interest. But the bottom reason is exactly as you say: the truth in Berdyaev’s work and its timeless meaning.

    Thank you for suggesting Herberg. I haven’t read any of his books, but I will certainly read them. I read, however, his introduction in the mentioned book/anthology. A few years ago, I found “Four Existentialist Theologians…” in the McGill Library, a small volume, published in the 1960s, if I am not wrong. The book, as it seemed, was donated to the library by Gregory Baum, a popular faculty member of our RS department; I saw his signature on some of the pages. I remember that I agreed with Herberg on one key point: that Berdyaev could be described as “theologian” (not as usual, or as he preferred, as a “religious philosopher” only).

    Richard, thank you for the questions. About Leviathan. It is not so much “success,” but rather “utility” and “gain.” And this leads us to the second question: Dignity. The intrinsic value of a human being is lost when measured with the criteria of “utility” and “gain.” You mentioned Aristotle. The most beautiful pages in his Ethics, in my reading, were on Friendship: the only human relationship that does not rest on utility and gain… This “Leviathan,” the monster of profane utilitarianism and materialism, in whose “belly” we all seem to live, tries to make us believe that everything should be utile, that every person should serve (should be a means) for a purpose that is not the person itself… I argue in my essay that, if one does not respect each human being, his neigbour, as a “Caesar,” i.e. as an authority and value in itself, then God would respect this neighbour anyway… In this sense, yes, the “dignity” should be confirmed, if not by man (which often happens), then, by God. That’s why, I think, we need, on a very basic, fundamental level, faith in God. Faith in Christ, who, as we believe, dies for each one of us, is a source of faith in the dignity of each person; and through this faith, we confirm and make of human dignity not simply an idea (something that “secular humanists” tend to do), but a reality…

    …Oh, I remember this part of Archipelago Gulag! It impressed me as well…


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