Nikolai Berdyaev: the Primacy of Freedom

For the Russian philosopher Berdyaev, freedom is absolutely fundamental. And freedom is connected with subjectivity and Spirit, rather than the objective (measurable) external world.

All attempts to locate meaning and value in things outside the human soul are doomed to fail. Thinking of the universe as an organism, for instance, seems like an improvement over thinking of it as a dead mechanism. It turns the cosmos into a living entity with a purpose, but it also means thinking of people as mere cells in this organism to be subordinated to the larger whole. Nationalism turns the nation into a false idol to be worshipped. Neither “history,” nor “progress,” nor “the human race,” nor Platonic Forms are particularly significant or even real. They are hypostatizations and abstractions. For Berdyaev, the concrete individual personality is the full locus of reality and value. Anything else renders the personality a meaningless nothing to be used as a means to some other end.

Kant, who also saw human beings as ends in themselves, pointed out that freedom must be a fundamental aspect of human subjectivity because morality exists. [1] This is known directly from experience. We know that we are morally responsible for our actions and we have experienced the guilt of failing in our moral duty. Conversely, other people have let us down and behaved unjustly towards us. Morality cannot exist without freedom. We should let the datum of morality determine our theories and speculations about ultimate existence. If morality is possible, and we know it is, then freedom exists.



This does not explain freedom. Freedom remains a mystery. This can be compared to the existence of life or of consciousness. How life emerged is unknown, but that does not stop us from acknowledging its existence, and something similar applies to consciousness.

With regard to freedom, at times, Berdyaev uses the mystic Jacob Boehme’s word the Ungrund which means the abyss of eternity that is absolutely indeterminate subjectivity which comes before everything. Tsoncho Tsonchev, a Bulgarian Berdyaev scholar studying at McGill University, writes “this is the primordial abyss from which God creates the world (Being) and from which Being, even God, the Supreme Being, emerges as Being.” However, “freedom is not  the source of God, since God Himself is freedom (but a realized one, not the abysmal darkness); this freedom is rather a shadow, a potentia, a capacity, that becomes partially revealed only after the act of  creation.”[2]


Tsoncho Tsonchev



Thus there is a something rather than a nothing that precedes the very first act of God. And this something is freedom.

Freedom is fundamental and comes before all. Without it there can be no creativity. Without freedom all is mechanical and dead. There could be no love, no goodness, no friendship, and no meaning.

Anyone compelled to act is responsible neither for the good nor the evil that he causes through his actions.

Creativity requires agency. An agent is a center of consciousness, of decision-making, embodying intentionality and purpose. Determinism removes agency from the individual and effectively ascribes it to the Big Bang or the laws of nature, making human agency an illusion. Determinism reduces humans to the steel balls in a pinball machine that have no control over the spring-loaded mechanism that starts the ball’s journey around the machine, nor are there paddles that can be manipulated to alter the ball’s trajectory once the trip has begun.

Freedom is the alternative to nihilism. A certain kind of younger person sometimes imagines that nihilism is the truth and that the failure to acknowledge this comes from fear. Ivan Pavlov, who was immature at heart perhaps, is claimed to have said “There are weak people over whom religion has power. The strong ones – yes, the strong ones – can become thorough rationalists, relying only upon knowledge, but the weak ones are unable to do this.”[3]

It seems a shame to embark on the journey of life with a premature cynicism and rejection of existence. This attitude itself seems to come from fear; possibly a fear of disappointment. It certainly comes from hatred of life and being.

It is true that without freedom, there would also be no hatred, evil, enemies, nor the embrace of nihilism. From freedom come both darkness and the light. All these things have to be possible to enable choice to exist. There must be no God-derived punishment for choosing these things because that would be a manipulation and a derogation of human autonomy. There can only be a metaphorical punishment – one without a punisher – and that is the consequences that flow from those choices.

In his excellent book on Dostoevsky,[4] specifically centered around the Grand



Inquisitor section of The Brothers Karamazov, Berdyaev directs some of his remarks at the nay-sayers. Nihilists may dispute the existence of love but, in their pessimism and misery, they seem likely to acknowledge the existence of evil. But if evil exists then morality exists. And if morality exists, freedom and God exist.

Berdyaev writes: “The existence of evil is the proof of the existence of God.  If the world consisted wholly and uniquely of goodness and righteousness there would be no need for God, for the world itself would be god. God is, because evil is. And that means that God is because freedom is.”[5]

In Berdyaev’s view, human beings are co-creators with God; God in his macrocosm and we in our microcosm. We need God and God needs us. “The idea of God is the only supra-human idea that does not destroy man by reducing him to being a mere means.”[6]


The Three Temptations of Christ

If God ceased to exist, so would man. If man and creation ceased to exist, then so would God. This seems to be because God is in all, through all and above all. If you die, I die. If I am to be saved, then all must be saved. I am my brother’s keeper and he mine. Man has an immortal soul and participates in eternity with God and thus he never dies.

Avicenna points out that if God exists then nothing can happen that is not in accordance with His will. What is His will? Complete uninterrupted freedom to love or to hate, to create or destroy, to befriend or renounce, to deny His existence or to believe.

Faith does not exist nor does it mean anything if it is not a matter of free choice – just like everything else. If you are not my friend from your own untrammeled free will, then you are not my friend. It would be the end of a friendship were someone to threaten to harm someone if he were ever to decide not to be a friend anymore. Certainly God could never justly punish anyone who refused to love him.

There must be no knowledge of God’s existence. There can only be belief, faith and hope. If God’s existence could be proved in an irrefutable manner, faith and hope would be destroyed. Each of us must have the choice to believe or not to believe. The possibility of atheism is a precondition for theism. Love exists because not love exists.

Dostoevsky alludes to the Biblical story of the three temptations of Christ in The Brothers Karamazov. They include Satan suggesting that Jesus turns stones into bread: that Jesus throw himself down from a tower and have God send angels to break his fall; and lastly, Satan offers  Jesus the sword of David to rule over the earthly kingdoms. Jesus rejects each temptation. Providing food to the masses would turn them into slaves who would do anything to keep the bread coming. Having angels come to save him would force God to reveal his existence in an overly indubitable manner (thou shalt not tempt the Lord), and taking up earthly power would deprive Man of political autonomy; arranging Man’s life and political circumstances in a way that would be dictated by God.


The Three Temptations of Christ

Those who claim to know that God exists are Gnostics. Gnosticism comes from the word “gnosis” meaning knowledge – in this case secret knowledge belonging to the elect only. This appallingly smug attitude is actually nihilistic. And, in fact, historically Gnosticism has typically regarded all Creation as evil and something to be escaped.


Gnosticism: the glamour version

The Gnostic is correct in one regard. Reality as conceived of by him would be something we should all wish to escape. When faith in God is made impossible, then morality and everything else ceases. There can be no naturalistic foundation for morality. Morality requires that human life have intrinsic value; that it is sacred. Science can only ever provide extrinsic value – showing that something is useful for some other end. But even extrinsic value can only exist if intrinsic value exists. For instance, if human happiness has no intrinsic value, then nothing that contributes to human happiness has any extrinsic value either.


Gnosticism: the ugly reality

The Gnostic, as the possessor of the secret knowledge, has contempt for all non-Gnostics and all Creation and for God Himself. God is freedom and knowledge removes that freedom to believe or not. Again, without freedom there is nothing. Certainly no Creation. You do not create a work of art if I am forcing your hands to do what I wish. The Gnostic is the great nay-sayer.

Volunteerism is crucial and fundamental to everything.

Of equal importance to freedom for Berdyaev is the human personality. Human subjectivity is the path to freedom. We are made in the image of God and are Divine creations participating in Creation, love and freedom. But this all depends on the existence of God.

This road of liberty can only end either in the deification of man or in the discovery of God; in the one case, he is lost and done for; in the other, he finds salvation and the definitive confirmation of himself as God’s earthly image. For man does not exist unless there be a God and unless he be the image and likeness of God; if there be no God, then man deifies himself, ceases to be man, and his own image perishes.[7]

Without God, man oscillates between dreams of his own godhood, and self-disgust as a machine or animal. Man in fact exists in the metaxy – the inbetween; neither God nor animal.

Man’s immortal soul confirms his value. Each person, no matter how unimpressive he looks and how limited his capacities is a world unto himself. To save a person is to save a world. To kill him is to destroy a world.

If the human personality is not of supreme value, then something else will be elevated to that status; happiness, the social good, the nation, social justice, equality, history, science, progress, the Enlightenment. If any of these things occupy the position of supreme value, then human beings are reduced to mere nothings. All will be regarded as potentially expendable nullities to be sacrificed for the higher ideal.

Russians I know claim that this is still the situation in Russia. The greater good of society is paramount and the individual nothing. It is this kind of thinking, together with a paranoid and scheming psychopath as a leader, that gives rise to the Gulags. Collectivism is a mechanical and involuntary forcing together of people and it fails on multiple levels, including economically. Private farmers outperform collectivized farming.

Berdyaev’s exaltation of the human personality above all is not the same as individualism. Individualism is a kind of external and objective point of view that can end up promoting egocentrism and isolation.

9For Berdyaev a flourishing person voluntary reaches, out of his own volition, to live in communion with other humans, with God and perhaps all nature. The impetus has to come from within.

God is not a king and he is not a judge. If he made the rules at all, the rule is that we make the rules. As Avicenna writes, the secret of destiny is that we make our own destiny.

There will be negative consequences for hatred, alienation, nihilism, murder, fraud, rape and the like but they are not something imposed by God. They are the natural consequence of behaving and feeling in this manner or the human-imposed punishment of prison meant to discourage such things.

If the only reason someone is not engaging in hateful behavior is because of fear of punishment, whether human or divine, then that person is in fact an amoral individual.

God and Jesus is the Friend; the nonjudging, noninterfering companion.

In John, 15: 15, Jesus describes himself as a friend, explicitly denying the status of master, to the disciples: “For I call ye not servants, for the servant knoweth not the doings of his master. Ye however I call friends, because all I have heard of My Father, I have made known to you. Ye have not chosen Me, but the rather I have chosen you”….[7a]

Jesus befriends prostitutes and tax-collectors. His parables are not commandments or threats; they are questions. The unconditional love of the Father is described in the parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke, Chapter 15.

Then he said, “A man had two sons,

12 and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them.

13 After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.

14 When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need.

15 So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.

16 And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.

17 Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger.

18 I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.

19  I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”

20 So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.

21 His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’

22 But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.

23 Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast,

24 because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began.

25 Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing.

26 He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.

27 The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28 He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him.

29 He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.

30 But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’

31 He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours.

32 But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”

This is similar to the parable of the lost sheep, also in Luke, Chapter 15.

1 The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to him,

2 but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3 So to them he addressed this parable.

4 “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?

5 And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy

6 and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.”

7 I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.


The curriculum in hell?

Berdyaev’s God is not the God of Deism. Deism imagines God as setting up the universe, creating the laws of nature, and then withdrawing from Creation. This is a God who absconds and the Deus otiosus who retires from the world.

Berdyaev’s conception of God is a God with whom communion is possible. He is closer than your own tongue. He is in all, through all and above all. He is the Friend permanently waiting to be loved and embraced. It is in Him in whom we move and breathe and have our being.

Imagine a potential friend who said “If you do not accept my friendship I will condemn you to hell for all eternity.” Or, in a more human context, “I will burn down your home and incinerate you and your loved ones after destroying your career, perhaps through false accusations, and getting your children to hate you.”

With friends, we want nothing from them except to share their love and companionship. It is a joy to be in their presence. Their existence improves our own.

To borrow from my own writing (Sam Harris: the Unconverted):

“Daniel Dennett, a fellow-traveler with Harris, once commented that “I adopt the apparently dogmatic rule that dualism is to be avoided at all costs. It is not that I think I can give a knock-down proof that dualism, in all its forms, is false or incoherent, but that, given the way that dualism wallows in mystery, accepting dualism is giving up.[8]  Harris and Dennett reject mystery as a matter of principle.

Berdyaev, on the contrary, argues for the absolute necessity of accepting it.

If freedom does not exist as a mystery behind all creation then we can admit neither the verity of this suffering world nor of a God who could create so horrible and meaningless a thing. Under the influence of the euclidean mind man thinks he can make a better world, wherein evil and misery and the tears of the innocent shall have no part. Thence comes the logical development of the campaign against God in the name of the love of good. …The world is full of wickedness and misery precisely because it is based on freedom – yet that freedom constitutes the whole dignity of man and his world. Doubtless at the price of its repudiation evil and suffering could be abolished and the world forced to be “good” and “happy”: but man would have lost his likeness to God, which primarily resides in his freedom.[9]

“The only way to eliminate evil would be to eliminate freedom of choice and action – to enslave all of mankind and destroy its dignity – which would be far more evil than whatever it is hoped will be fixed. A compulsory good denies the possibility of goodness. The more convinced someone is that evil exists, the more he implicitly acknowledges the full reality of God.”[10]

Ivan, the cynical older brother in the Grand Inquisitor story states that most people are weak and they do not want to be responsible for their actions. They would rather be slaves. This is the fate determinists choose. Some of them choose it because their physicalism compels them in that direction. Contra-Pavlov, the weak have an incentive not to believe in a God who grants complete freedom of thought and action and thus moral responsibility. The weak might prefer instead a vision of reality without mystery – a reality where all action and decisions are based on knowledge. Such a vision denies the mystery of freedom and thus offers absolution for all sin, hatefulness and failure to love. But it also rules all goodness out of existence.

There is an infinity of things we do not know. There are reasons to think that even if the universe were deterministic it would remain unpredictable (see The Halting Problem). It is impossible to live and act merely on the basis of certitudes and scientific knowledge. To the extent that a purely scientific conception of reality seems to indicate determinism, it also imaginatively destroys all things that make human life desirable.

[1] Berdyaev comments that Kant has too limited a conception of freedom and only introduces it as “free will” enabling morality to exist. Freedom plays a much bigger role in Berdyaev’s thinking.

[2] Personal communication, 2/24/2019.


[4] Just called Dostoevsky.

[5] Berdyaev, p. 87.

[6] Berdyaev, p. 99.

[7] Nikolai Berdyaev, Dostoievsky, p. 56.

[7a] Thanks to nictoosobenno for pointing this out.

[8] Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained, p. 37.

[9] Berdyaev, pp. 85-86.

[10] Richard Cocks, “Sam Harris: the Unconverted.”

23 thoughts on “Nikolai Berdyaev: the Primacy of Freedom

  1. Thank you for this excellent (and for me, timely) essay. In particular, I thank you for reminding me that if God were to reveal himself in full to the world we would have no choice but to fall upon our knees: and so if we are to retain our humanity and dignity as we enter into this most important of all possible relations — if we are to be free and not slaves, men and not machines — then love and knowledge of God, if they are to be worth having at all, must come through faith and voluntary choice.

  2. Pingback: Nikolai Berdyaev: the Primacy of Freedom | Reaction Times

  3. Awhile back I had this very long argument here with Kristor, during which he advanced the view that God is an eternal and timeless mind that comprehends everything in every instant of time, past, present, and future. (see and on and on and on).

    Now, you are not Kristor and maybe your metaphysics is different, but it seems that his view is incompatible with yours. You say freedom is primary and irreducible, but we can’t be free if God already has determined all of our actions. That view is just as deterministic (perhaps more so) than those of materialists like Sam Harris.

    Perhaps the answer is just that this is religion we are talking about, and so it admits paradoxes and mysteries and doesn’t have to be logically consistent. I would accept that, but I don’t think Kristor would — he thinks he’s put God on a sound logical consistent footing. I’m curious how these position are reconciled, or if they can be.

    • Hi, a.morphous – I suspect that Kristor and I have a different metaphysics. But, having said that, I tend to think that foreknowledge does not imply determinism, if that is the issue. God’s foreknowledge is consistent with agency and free will.

      I’d be surprised if Kristor thinks God has determined all our actions but I haven’t examined your exchange yet.

    • I’m not a mathematician so I just skimmed some of your discussion. I might be open to the idea that God is not completely omniscient and/or can change his mind. If He has not decided what man is, but we decide, then it seems He would have to respond to whatever we came up with in a way that would be undetermined and even unexpected, if that is possible. Whatever preserves freedom as fundamental is going to have to be the case.

      • Hi Richard. If God is omniscient, he can’t change his mind, because he always and eternally knows it perfectly. If he isn’t omniscient, then he isn’t ultimate, and therefore is not God, properly speaking. So if God as properly conceived exists, he must be omniscient.

        God does respond to – does know – whatever we come up with. His knowledge is not determined, either by his nature or by our free acts. Of all beings he is most free; other beings are conditioned in their freedom by his being and nature; he himself is entirely unconditioned.

      • Hi, Kristor: Can God grow and develop? Is he already perfect and ultimate as you say? Is that why he needs creation? I don’t want to end up feeling sorry for God. I guess the reason I want to be able to change my mind is because I am sometimes wrong. If I’m never wrong, then there is no need. But then, what do you do all day? I guess you could change your mind for variety, not because you are wrong.

        So long as freedom is given its due – I don’t particularly care how any of that plays out exactly, but I wouldn’t mind reading your thoughts on the matter!

      • God is eternally perfect and ultimate, so he cannot grow or develop: he is already, as the Schoolmen put it, fully in act: fully actual, complete (in Latin, “perfect” means what we mean by “complete”). In other words, he is grown and developed to the maximum extent possible. Nor, as perfect, does he need creation (or anything else); for, as perfect and ultimate, he cannot lack any perfection or excellence, cannot suffer or exhibit any defect, cannot want for anything.

        Creation is one of the ways that his perfection is manifest. It is an effect of his overwhelming goodness that he should will to create goodness.

        His perfection means God cannot be bored, and so cannot find himself with nothing to do. This, not just because in logic he cannot suffer any defect, but because, as omniscient, he cannot fail to enjoy all the enjoyments that there are to enjoy, all at once, in all their variety – i.e., an infinite set of enjoyments, among which is his perfect and infinite bliss at the apprehension of himself.

      • Thanks, for that Kristor. It always seems a bit strange to me to speak with great assurance on ultimate matters. It makes me want to beat a hasty retreat into apophaticism, and things like The Cloud of Unknowing. Temperamentally, I prefer things like the transcendental argument which starts with things a bit closer to home. To an outsider, the Thomist can seem like someone with a giant book of answers, which apparently the Summa Theologica was intended to be.

      • It is indeed a bit strange to negotiate metaphysics. But one gets accustomed to it after a while, and begins to feel more confident. I think it’s like whitewater boating from the outside, as a first-timer, versus from the inside, as a master. I was once a rank beginner at whitewater. It was then almost totally mysterious to me, and quite terrifying. Then I became a master (not without some hard knocks!). Now it is a matter of logic, and of skill, and of strength. It is still terrifying, at times; indeed, far more terrifying than when I was a novice, *because I now understand all the dangers so much better.* But then, I also understand that many of the things that once terrified me are no big deal. And, what is far more: I know now what a good run is, and how to try to make one, and whether or not I have made one; and, so, I am able to enjoy success – yes, and failure – in a whole new realm of excellence. Excellence being the realization of beauty, that’s a pretty gorgeous thing.

        I don’t consider myself a master of metaphysics, but after 45 years at it I’m pretty far along in my training. There are certain ideas I have tested so much and so often that I feel pretty confident in them.

        Often it boils down to a series of pretty simple questions, such as: Of x and y, which is better or greater (along the relevant dimensions of goodness or greatness)? Usually such questions answer themselves. If you ask a series of such questions in the right order, and then let the answers that force themselves upon you guide your next steps in the inquiry, why then the whole thing unfolds before the eye of the intellect. This has been the procedure of philosophy, properly so called, since Socrates.

        When things don’t unfold, it’s generally because you are asking an inapposite question.

        One of the things Aquinas and his Scholastic colleagues so wonderfully added to this procedure was to ask the questions, consider all the credible alternative answers, and then provide an explanation of exactly how each of the credible alternatives is correct (and, implicitly, how it isn’t). That’s what makes reading Aquinas so exhilarating: he shows you how all the earnest honest answers, that so much seem to diverge from one another and to disagree, can all by the recollection of the proper distinctions be reconciled and brought to terminate upon a beautiful central truth.

        Notwithstanding all that, as Aquinas himself testified near the end of his life, all the answers to all such questions terminate ultimately upon an ultimate that, as ultimate, is utterly beyond our comprehension, before whom the only appropriate response is apophatic worship.

        An ultimate that we might possibly comprehend could not possibly be the true ultimate (this is the obvious answer to one of the aforementioned questions). So, philosophy and cataphatic theology are at their best and most honest as it were mere psychopomps, who lead us to the sanctuary where the really terrifying stuff happens. “Here is the boat,” they say, “here the oars; sit just thus and take them just so; good; now, row out into the central current and let the smooth mighty tongue take you into the maelstrom, wherein you and your frail little boat shall be utterly overwhelmed; fare well.”

    • Hi a.morphous. Richard suspects correctly that I don’t think that God has determined all our actions. If he had, they would be his actions, rather than ours. He would not then have created us as beings disparate from himself. I.e., he would not have created us. We would in that case be *nothing but* aspects of him. We would not, in that case, actually exist.

      We do actually exist, ergo, etc.

      So, yes, creaturely freedom is as Berdyaev insists basic and essential to creaturely being. So it is ineradicable. No freedom -> no agency -> no actuality. The only way in logic that God can create an actual thing is to create it free.

      It is no harder – and no easier – to reconcile divine omniscience with creaturely freedom than it is to reconcile our own knowledge of what has just happened with the freedom that those past events had as they transpired. Say you had a sip of whiskey just a moment ago, that you are now tasting. Does your taste of that past fact mean that you had at the time no freedom to do otherwise than to take that sip when you did? No, of course not.

      From God’s perspective, everything that ever happens is to him as past events are to us.

      This is not to say, NB, and does not mean – does not entail – that the events of our cosmogony happen in God’s past. As eternal, he has no past, and no future, but is rather always. It means only that all our historical moments are present to him at once, in just the way that we can apprehend things that happened at different cosmic epochs simultaneously – e.g., the taste of the whiskey as it was a millisecond ago at our tongue, and the sight of the star as it was millions of years ago.

      • It is no harder – and no easier – to reconcile divine omniscience with creaturely freedom than it is to reconcile our own knowledge of what has just happened with the freedom that those past events had as they transpired. Say you had a sip of whiskey just a moment ago, that you are now tasting. Does your taste of that past fact mean that you had at the time no freedom to do otherwise than to take that sip when you did? No, of course not.

        But omniscience means that I (or God) would have already known at the first instant exactly what I was going to do. Hence no freedom – I could not have done otherwise as I actually did, and was foreordained to do.
        If all moments of time really exist together in the eye of God, or of a physicist, then all actions are predetermined and there is no real freedom. It was foreordained in the beginnings of the universe that (eg) I would be writing this sentence now, and I had no real freedom to do otherwise.
        Perhaps I don՚t. This is one area where science and your brand of religion agree (even if you won՚t accept the obvious consequences of your beliefs). They both posit an eternalistic point of view that is outside of time and comprehends all moments equally, and as a result both are inimical to any concept of individual freedom. In one case the course of the universe is dictated by god, in the other, by disinterested laws of nature, but in both cases there՚s no real room for freely chosen action.
        But since you and I feel like we do have a degree of freedom, perhaps they are both wrong in the same way.

      • I totally sympathize with your argument, because for decades it was my own.

        I was stuck in a temporal perspective, and did not therefore quite understand what the classical philosophers and theologians were talking about when they discussed eternity. I took eternity to be an endless and beginningless sequence of events. That meant that God had a life a lot like ours, except without beginning or end. At some point in that divine life, creation started, and has been proceeding for a while, and perhaps will proceed henceforth forever. And if at every moment of his life God knew everything that was going to happen in the future – his future, and ours – why then nothing other than what he knew was going to happen could possibly happen. Everything would be foreordained.

        But it doesn’t work that way, because eternity is not like that. It is a single moment.

        Eternity, then, is the complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life; this will be clear from a comparison with creatures that exist in time. … for it is one thing to progress like the world in Plato’s theory through everlasting life, and another thing to have embraced the whole of everlasting life in one simultaneous present.

        Boethius: Consolation of Philosophy, V.VI., translated by VE Watts 1969

        From God’s perspective – the ultimate, perfect, omniscient, and thus most accurate perspective, NB – there is no such thing as before or after. There is rather, and what is much greater, everything all at once. What this means – this is the shocking bit, terrifically hard to conceive – is that the moment of God’s perfect eternal act – his act, that is, *of being himself* – is taking place at this very moment of your life. It is also happening at every other moment of your life. Thus, he knows what you do at this moment right as you do it. He did not know what you were about to do before you did it, because for him there is no before or after. He found out about it when you did it. And this is true of every moment of creaturely life: his now is the now of each such creaturely moment. So: *every creaturely event transpires at the same moment that God himself transpires.* No moment then, of any life, whether divine or not, is foreordained.

      • Thus, he knows what you do at this moment right as you do it. He did not know what you were about to do before you did it, because for him there is no before or after. He found out about it when you did it.

        To think you were chiding me recently about the non-contradiction principle.

        If “he found out about it when you did it”, then he՚s embedded in time like the rest of us. But you also say “for him, there is no before or after”, so I guess not? If everything that happens is part of “god՚s perfect eternal act”, then individual humans are not themselves acting, are not free, and ultimately aren՚t really individuals at all, since they are just one part of god՚s eternal and all-comprehending act. But if we are truly free, then our agency is separate from gods and thus god is not omniscient or omnipotent.

        Look, some of what you wrote is just lovely, but it falls apart like tissue paper if you try to take it seriously. It՚s literally incoherent, desperately trying to have things both ways, frantically ignoring the glaring contradictions with a single sentence.

        There՚s a place in religion for the incoherent, the inconsistent, the contradictory, the paradoxical, and the mystical. Those can be used as techniques to communicate the kind of truths that are otherwise incommunicable, that transcend language and logic. Eg, God can be both temporal and atemporal, despite it sounding contradictory, because he passeth understanding.

        That՚s cool, but it doesn՚t mix well with rigorous logic and formal reasoning, which (as you like to point out) relies on the principle of non-contradiction. God may both be eternal (timeless) and simultaneously experiencing all moments of spacetime, even though the very idea of “experience” implies passage through time – because our limited concepts of time and eternity and experience are simply inadequate to the task of understanding the infinite and the absolute. But you can՚t contemplate the divine mystery and at the same time claim to draw out logical inferences from it.

      • If “he found out about it when you did it,” then he’s embedded in time like the rest of us. But you also say “for him, there is no before or after,” so I guess not?

        You guess right. That God finds out what you do when you do it, and thus knows about it at the very moment you know about it, does not mean that he is embedded in time. It means that his singular moment is simultaneous with every present moment of every creature. It means that he is *not* embedded in time.

        It would be more accurate to say that time is embedded in God, although that statement, too, must be qualified and clarified.

        If everything that happens is part of “god’s perfect eternal act” …

        I didn’t write that everything that happens is part of God’s eternal act. That would be tantamount to saying that everything is part of God. I wrote that:

        … the moment of God’s perfect eternal act – his act, that is, *of being himself* – is taking place at this very moment of your life. It is also happening at every other moment of your life.

        You see the difference – the immense difference, the categorical difference – I am sure.

        But if we are truly free, then our agency is separate from god’s, and thus god is not omniscient or omnipotent.

        Is the free and separate agency of your baby ruled out by the fact that you know of his acts and are able to constrain them? Of course not. Nor likewise are your knowledge or power ruled out by his free and separate agency. Ergo, etc.

        God’s omnipotence does not enable him to perform logically impossible acts, such as creating stones he cannot lift or enacting acts of beings other than himself. There are no things as such acts out there for anyone to perform.

        … you can’t contemplate the divine mystery and at the same time claim to draw out logical inferences from it.

        That’s true only if God is both illogical and completely unknowable. We can’t comprehend him entirely, of course; but if he were *completely* unknowable, we couldn’t know whether he was completely unknowable; and if he were illogical, he wouldn’t be God, properly so called; nor a fortiori could he in that case be the source of cosmic order – which is to say, the creator of the cosmos. But God is both logical and, at least in part, knowable. He’s rather like math, that way. No man can comprehend all of math at once, but almost any man can comprehend some bits of math, and draw out logical inferences from what he has comprehended.

  4. “amici Dei”: “Iam non dicam vos servos, quia servus nescit quid faciat dominus eius. Vos autem dixi amicos: quia omnia quaecumquae audivi a Patre meo, nota feci vobis. Non vos me elegistis: sed ego elegi vos,”… (Jn. 15: 15)…
    “friends of God”: “For I call ye not servants, for the servant knoweth not the doings of his master. Ye however I call friends, because all I have heard of My Father, I have made known to you. Ye have not chosen Me, but the rather I have chosen you”… (Jn. 15; 15).
    Reading the Gospel in Latin back in my college years (1968), this passage opened the path for me to become a “believer”, where Nietzsche had served as healthy a tonic against the typical parochial-schooling numbness…
    I stand in deepest awe and moreover humbled by the pervasive flights of insight by Profs. R. Cock and T. Bertanneau (and Tsoncho) in their writings regarding Berdyaev; I suspect I am major a culprit to the Berdyaev mischief on this forum…
    Berdyaev in various of his writings on “spiritual aristocratism” makes the insightful distinction between the true “sons” and the mere “step-sons”, echoing the spirit to Christ’s choosing to open the most famous prayer in all Christendom, as “Our Father”. Why “Our Father”, rather than “O Heavenly First-Cause” or whatever? In this, is a Person-dynamic operative in the MostHoly Trinity. It is all there in the Sermon on the Mount. A true son/daughter is zealous and jealous for the dignity of one’s lineage, unlike typically the step-child, uncertain of parentage. In a “normal” world, we love a parent/child/spouse/friend “just because” and no strings attached. If our love for God is predicated merely upon a fear of death and promise of a ticket to Heaven, well no wonder the mess modern Christianity has become, just like the modern “dysfunctional family” which reflects and contributes the further to it…
    Berdyaev in other places makes a caustic distinction between a “brother” (which Prof. Cocks alludes to in his article), and a “tovarisch/comrade” — a “comrade” is a temporary tactical ally for the moment, and then off to PC Gulag with him…
    When I think of a “friend of the Lord”, I am reminded of Lazar/Lazarus “the 4 day Entombed”,
    over whom “Jesus wept”… Lazarus of Bethany was brother of Martha and Mary Magdalene. But the name of Lazarus also comes up in the Parable of the nameless rich man and the poor man Lazarus (Lk. 16: 19ff.). Why did Our Lord pick this name for this bednyaka / beggar of a fellow?? I suspect Christ was narrating this tale, and looking around to pull a name out of the air, His glance fell upon His buddy Lazarus…
    Many of the great miracles of healing by Christ occur where the healed person first hears the Voice of the Son of God, before first opening the eyes to His wondrous Visage: we see this in both with the “woman taken in adultery” (check out the old silent version of King of Kings) and also at the Pool of Siloam and the Orthodox “Blind Man Sunday” account (Jn. 9: 1ff)… Hearkening to this Voice within…
    Tragically, what one chooses to emphasise in the Holy Scriptures too often serves as a mirror into the state of person’s soul. Way back when in the “catholic tradition” I was taught that the red-letter words of Christ in the Gospels stood at the very apex of Revelation, and the Epistles and the OT stood on lower rungs of confirmation. But nowadays it is all the mishmash, where in the spirit of the Pharisees and the knizhniki/scribes/scholastics the teachings of Christ have become an embarrassment and it is only rules that matter… What Christianity historically has done with the meaning of the word “love” would make Orwell blush…. A Christianity without Christ is an abomination…
    Years ago, in translating Lives of the Saints, there was one of the early Russian Pechersk Lavra monastics, whom the devil inspired to speak with great knowledge on all matter of subjects, except Christ and the Gospels. The monk in time suffered a grievous illness, healed thru the prayers of his brethren, healed also from diabolical delusions. The metaphor is perhaps apt… Christians are too inclined to give the devil his due in their attention…
    Pardon herein that I am a priest, religiously elucidating some of Berdyaev’s thought. in the Gospel, there is an apparent lacuna between Mt. 19 verses 25-26: “Who then can be saved?” and Christ’s answer, “…with God all things are possible”. (“Quis ergo poterit salvus?” — “Apud homines hoc impossiblie est: apud Deum autem omnia possibilia sunt”).
    Prof. Cocks, kindly if you would, pls, send me your e-addr via “contact”.

    frsj (aka nikto osobenno, “nobody special”)

    • Thank you very much FRSJ/nictoosobenno for this erudite and interesting comment. I have added the wonderful and apt John 15:15 quotation to my article. It is scary to think how much more you know and understand about Berdyaev than I ever will. With the help of Google I had translated your pseudonym as “Especially winking” – Nictu is “winking” in Latin and sobenno is “especially” in Russian. Though wrong, it seems appealingly playful and joyful.

      The fact that you don’t object to my article must mean that I am not misconstruing Berdyaev too badly.

  5. I hope this excellent summary will lead those not familiar with Berdyaev’s ideas to read further. My first exposure to Berdyaev was in graduate school when a friend gave me one of his books (The Destiny of Man, to be precise), but I didn’t get far into it. Perhaps it was his aphoristic style of writing, but I grew impatient with it and set it aside. About ten years ago or so, I picked it up again on some impulse or other, and was unable to put it down. It’s gratifying to see that interest in him remains strong.
    I’ve often thought of the same question a.morphous poses. My tentative answer would be that, inhabiting a timeless dimension, past-present-future are all before God, but his seeing what we do does not force us to do those things, any more than my seeing someone cross the street does not force that person to cross the street; I am simply reporting what I see. To time-bound creatures like ourselves, this feels like compulsion, but it is not.

    • @Roger – I’m glad you liked the essay. Your answer to a.morphous was also my answer. Boethius addresses the issue in The Consolation of Philosophy but it seemed the least interesting to me for the reason to which you allude. I knew one professor for whom that was the ONLY chapter in which he was interested which represents a radical undervaluation of that excellent work.

  6. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 04/14/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores


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