Friday, April 30, 2010

Living Icons, Chapter 3

The third chapter of Fr Michael Plekon’s book is dedicated to the memory of a man of no small controversy, Fr Sergius Bulgakov, “Political Economist and Priest, Marxist and Mystic.” I went into this chapter wanting to have my mind changed about Fr Bulgakov. I’d always taken the side of those who judged him a heretic, and I was prepared for a solid defense. Indeed, there is much to admire about Bulgakov as a man, a priest, a spiritual father, and a teacher. But my mind was not changed about his doctrinal errors, largely because any such accusations are simply dismissed by the author. We read, for instance, that his life of prayer and holiness have “long since been overshadowed by condemnations, most of them without ground, of his theological work.” Quite frankly, I find such a characterization mind-boggling. All three Russian jurisdictions at his time condemned his Sopholology – Bulgakov’s own Paris Jurisdiction, ROCOR, and the Moscow Patriarchate – and one would be extremely hard pressed to find anyone today who would endorse this doctrine. It is not, as Fr Plekon writes, “hard to understand how a theologian who had written so much, who had been so active in ecumenical work and in the students’ movement and more broadly in both emigre and French intellectual life, was forgotten so quickly and so totally ignored in the half century or more since his death.” It is likewise ingenious to write that one “cannot simply attack Father Bulgakov for what was already in the Old Covenant, a rich, complex, and mysterious figure, that of Wisdom” – as if Bulgakov went no further in his Sophiology than what is found in Scripture.

Fr Plekon by choice largely sidesteps the issue of Sophiology, but presents a subchapter on Bulgakov’s ecumenism. Bulgakov wrote that “heresies and schisms are manifestations taking place only within the life of the Church,” and that, consequently, “eucharistic communion could be a means toward the restoration of unity, not just its final goal.” In fact, Bulgakov “went so far as claiming that in our time there were no longer heretics in the general use of the term.”

In a subsection called “Father Bulgakov and the Deans,” Fr Plekon reflects on the tributes and criticisms from three Deans: Fr Alexander Schmemann, Fr Boris Bobrinskoi, and Fr Thomas Hopko. Plekon writes that Schmeann, in a tribute in 1971 presented his estimation in “three images”: as priest, as man of prayer, and as celebrant of the Liturgy. It’s my estimation that if we are to have a positive appreciation of Bulgakov we should follow the lines mentioned by Schmemann, ignoring largely Bulgakov’s theological legacy, the hubris of which is considerable: “His was a theological mind bold enough to try to formulate in positive terms the Incarnation, which the Council of Chalcedon over a millenium and a half earlier could only describe as ‘without separation, division, confusion.’” I generally distrust those who try to go beyond the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils.

Let us accept Bulgakov the man, and leave aside Bulgakov the theologian.

For more on Bulgakov, see my posts here and here.


David.R said...
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David.R said...

I have read elsewhere that the Sophiology theological movement started by Fr Sergius, has deeply influenced St Sergius Institute in France, and many students of that University. Is this charge true? I would also like to know if the Sophiology movement influenced Fr Placeide Deseille and Fr Sophrony in any way?? I hope they were untouched by this. Would you please comment? Thanks

Felix Culpa said...

There was no Sophiological "movement." Fr Bulgakov really had no disciples, though he did have a few popularizers, like Constantine Andronikoff, who translated his works into French. I am quite certian that Fr Placeide is entirely unaffected, and while Fr Sophrony had a large and largely unacknowledged debt to Fr Sergius, this did not include Sophiology.

Felix Culpa said...

Have a look at my post from April 9, 2008:

aaronandbrighid said...

Hear, hear! I thought the treatment of Fr Bulgakov in Andrew Blane's biography of Fr Georges Florovsky was very helpful, and much better handled than this one.

David> I don't know about Fr Placide (though I'm fairly certain he is untouched by Sophianism) but Hieromonk Nicholas's study of Elder Sophrony goes into great detail about this. Fr Nicholas makes it clear that Elder Sophrony was very much influenced by Fr Bulgakov, but not by his Sophianism. In fact, as the controversy came to a head, Elder Sophrony made less use of Fr Bulgakov's works. In Fr Nicholas's words, Fr Bulgakov's Sophiology is 'alien to Fr Sophrony'.

David.R said...

Thank you! What a relief!
Would it be correct to say that Fr Sergius is a significant influence at St Vladimir's Seminary?
What about Sophiology? Where does St Sergius Institute stand concerning sophiology?

David.R said...

I read your post, "Paris School, Myth or reality".
All my questions have been answered including your impression of Dr David Hart. From what I have read so far, I agree with you...and Aaron by the way :-)

Felix Culpa said...

I myself studied at St Vladimir's, and can confirm that Bulgakov is completely ignored there. As for St Serge, see the link in my earlier comment.

Taylor said...

>>>It is not, as Fr Plekon writes, “hard to understand how a theologian who had written so much, who had been so active in ecumenical work and in the students’ movement and more broadly in both emigre and French intellectual life, was forgotten so quickly and so totally ignored in the half century or more since his death.”

It seems that more people actually read Fr. Bulgakov than many other theologians of that period, including Fr. Florovsky. Florovsky, especially outside the Orthodox world, lies in unfortunate obscurity, partly due to the fact that his works are so hard to find. Meanwhile Bulgakov is seen as representative of Orthodox theology by non-Orthodox, and his works are available in a handsome paperback format from Eerdmann's!

Elijahmaria said...

After having read translations of several of his books, I of course think Father Sergius failed in part because he never read St. Thomas Aquinas accurately and in purposefully distancing himself from Aquinas he distances himself from the classical roots of most all systematic doctrinal development, east and west, legitimate development of the concepts used to best express the indicated truth, that is.

Had he read Aquinas more clearly and THEN set out to knock him down, his own theo-philosophy would not have been as easy to develop. As it was it was tortured enough, as someone noted here.

I also spent about a year on the large Internet list of Bulgakov scholars and that did nothing to change my mind either. I don't know how it would have been possible for Father Plekon to do any better. Of course hope springs eternal.

And that kind of fuzzy thinking would not necessarily have twisted his spiritual practice. So it is entirely possible that his liturgies and prayer life saved him and others. He was not so far out so as to be a Thoroughly Modern Sergius, though his work has been used toward that end...something that could never be said about St. Thomas.

If anyone has a copy of David Hart's book The Beauty of the Infinite that they might be willing to trust the USPS and allow me to read I'd be grateful.

Also what is the reaction to his history of Christianity. I haven't been looking to see.


Anonymous said...

Father, I'd be interested as to your impressions of the work of Fr. Paul Florensky if you've read him.

Felix Culpa said...

I've not read enough of Fr Pavel Florensky to have a considered opinion.

Anonymous said...

Not that I really understand most of it that well but I found The Pillar and Ground of the Truth very enlightening. I have a little over 50 pages of excerpts that I typed up if you're interested. (I just looked and it's also on google books:

Elijahmaria said...

I thought Bulgakov's Bride of the Lamb was well worth reading, actually: the sections on Creaturely Freedom, and Evil caught my attention and kept it. There wasn't much that I found new in it but there was a real robust freshness in its telling.

Anyone of the academic set here have an opinion on Boris Jakim as a translator?


Gabriel said...

I actually own all of the Bulgakov books Eerdmans has published (six total). When I go back to Grand Rapids (where Eerdmans is headquartered), I typically drop by their bookstore to see what they have in stock. One of the benefits is that they have a few shelves for factory damaged books; you can typically land titles that run $30-50 for under $10. Anyway, I went about and snatched up the Bulgakov texts (all for under $50). I can’t say I’ve read them all carefully, but I was surprised that they weren’t the corrupting cesspools of heresy they are oftentimes made out to be. This isn’t to say that Fr. Sergius’s speculations on “Sophiology” aren’t there; they certainly are (in small doses). But most of the books read as restatements of Orthodox theology which even “traditionalists” could accept. There’s no attempt to “sneak in” some outlying teachings and pass them off as “mainstream.” That’s really for the best, of course. As wrong as he may have been, at least he was explicit where he was going wrong.

The funny thing about Bulgakov’s works being in print from Eerdmans is that I can’t imagine anyone but Orthodox caring. The theology, despite having blends of more contemporary intellectual currents which have been picked up on in Catholic and Protestant circles, is decidedly “Eastern”; it’s not in a Catholic/Protestant “key” at all. I can’t imagine a Protestant of any stripe picking up Bulgakov’s books and not being repulsed for the same reasons they would be repulsed by picking up, say, a work by Fr. Michael Pomazansky or Fr. Andrew Louth. Maybe there is more “wiggle room” for Catholics, but I have no knowledge of any Catholic theologian (even in Unia circles) picking up on anything Bulgakov wrote and running with it. Judging from the promotional blurbs on the back of the books, Fr. Sergius’s greatest contemporary admirer is Orthodox, namely David B. Hart. And even there Hart’s admiration is ambiguous; he never comes out one way or the other for “Sophiology.”

Personally, I’d be interested to know more about what Fr. Sergius was “up to,” that is, why he went down the path that he did. A man doesn’t expend that much intellectual effort (and let’s be honest, agree or disagree with him, he had a mighty intellect) for “the heck of it.” He wasn’t a typical academic; he wasn’t looking to get tenure at a university by being “original”; and by the time he arrived in Paris and penned his most notorious works, he was well embedded in the ecclesial and cultural life the Russian émigré community he threw his hat in with. There was nothing for him to “prove” except, I suppose, what he believed was right (or the truth) concerning theology. But why “Sophiology”? Even if he was sympathetic to it, he could have backed off in public; he could have left many things unsaid and still adhered to the “doctrine” or, perhaps better said, “orientation” of “Sophiology.” But he didn’t. He went public; he wrote many books; and he ended his life in controversy and turmoil. Even if you want to call him a heretic, it’s not enough to say he was a heretic for heresy’s sake; there was something else going on there.

On a closing note, I certainly don’t believe there’s any great need to rehabilitate the man or his thought. Maybe the Eerdmans volumes will do that, particularly Churchly Joy which is comprised of Bulgakov’s sermons (none, which I can recall, ought to cause any ire). I agree with Fr. Dcn. that Bulgakov had a number of commendable personal attributes. I also have no reason to believe he engaged in his line of theology out of malice or contempt for the Church.