Some Notes on Bulgakov’s Political Theology

Tony SigI’m taking a survey course this semester on the history and culture of Eastern Orthodoxy.  A fair amount of time has been spent on Russia and I used it as an opportunity to read up on some Sergii Bulgakov, though I’ve not read as much as I would’ve liked yet, and I’ll certainly need some help with his massive trilogy, The Lamb of God, The Comforter & The Bride of the Lamb, which is so far above my skill level it’s insane.

The primary book I worked with is +Rowan Williams’ book introducing Bulgakov’s political theology.  It consists in a group of texts edited and translated by +Williams himself and his own introductions to each reading.  The total effort is a minor intellectual biography focused more on politics than his larger works in theology.  In a large part this introduction is already out of date since the publication of many works of Bulkagov in English in the last few years, thanks in no small part to the effort of Eerdmans and the tireless labor of the translator, Boris Jakim.  But the introductions by +Williams are worth the price of the book.

Bulgakov, the son of a priest, went to seminary but dropped out and became an atheist Marxist.  But during his time working on his doctoral thesis about “Capitalism and Agriculture,” he found himself shifting from received Marxist orthodoxy.  This was eventually to put him in deep water and Lenin eventually shipped him and over a hundred other “rogue academics” out of Russia.  What’s the point of having an authoritarian state without using it to excommunicate heretics and political dissidents?

In The Economic Ideal, Bulgakov is critical of notions of the human being reduced to a homo economicus.  For him, it is fundamentally necessary to speak of the larger goals of wealth creation and distribution, that for which spirit is working.  There are two errors that theorists can fall into, according to Bulgakov.  The one is a hedonism, which he saw reflected in the bourgeoise pseudo-capitalism of Sombart.  “Naive hedonism is always allied to a conscious or unconscious economic philosophy, in so far as wealth and high consumption or demand are ultimately taken to be the absolute good” (31)  The other is a social asceticism as reflected in certain kinds of buddhism.  “asceticism strives for its complete liberation from matter…All pleasure is slavery for the spirit.  Life is a mirage, a malign deception, an illusion.” (35)  For Bulgakov, the historical task is one of labor, indeed the centrality of labor to his work is pervasive.  At the same time, he remains strident that freedom from poverty is the fundamental foundation for entrance into the moral life, the life of spirit.  Without it, one remains subject to the elemental powers of the world.  The fall was for him a sort of reversal; in the beginning humanity was the “master” of matter and nature, and the post-lapsarian condition is a kind of enslavement to nature.  Labor and creation, freedom from sheer survival, is the move toward salvation, the imitation and realization of the divine Logos/Sophia in the human and created sophia.  What here is mostly political commentary, eventually flowers into his full fledged work on the Divine-Humanity.

In fact I got the impression that Bulgakov’s dogmatic work was in a way an attempt to give a solid christological and dogmatic foundation to an understanding of human poetics, to supplant his former Marxism with a Christian vision of the world as a household.  (The whole series of works based on oikos is relevant)  There’s a lot of unworked potential in conversation with Bulgakov, and his hasty denouncement by the Russian patriarchate and men like Vladimir Lossky and Georges Florovsky, and the only very recent translation of his works into English, has pronounced this.  I for one can’t wait to read some more.


Three Notes on Non-violence


Last Christmas, Reed began a series on Theophiliacs about Non-violence.  It’s a really good series; you should read it if you haven’t done so.  This is one of those issues that haunts me.  It wakes me up in the middle of the night.  I brood over it.  The question of whether or not a Christian should use violence will not leave me alone.  So, here a few further ideas concerning Christian non-violence that have been rolling around in my head recently.  Maybe if I write them down I’ll sleep better tonight.   

John Howard Yoder

John Howard Yoder

Note #1: I recently had the opportunity to stay at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Centennial, CO.  One morning, I was waiting for the rest of my group to wake up and get ready to go (I was on a church trip with teenagers), and so I decided to avail myself of the church library.  One of the books I picked up that morning (I had to wait for a long time) was John Howard Yoder’s What Would You Do?  In this book, the esteemed Anabaptist theologian explores the “big” question that pacifists and advocates of non-violence are asked by those who wish to confound, confront, or shame them.  There are variations, but the basic question is this: “What if someone was trying to attack your _______ (insert wife, sister, mother, child, etc., etc.,), would you just let your loved one be killed or would you do something violent to stop the attacker.  Yoder notes that the question is designed to elicit an emotional rather than a rational response.  He exposes the presuppositions that the questioner almost always has when asking the question, namely that there could only be one possible outcome (a bad one)  if the person to whom question is posed would refuse to act violently.  Yoder then systematically lists all the outcomes, and weighs their probability of their being negative or positive.  Here they are:

1. Tragedy: Your loved one is killed, while you watch.  This, as far as the questioner is concerned is the only outcome available to those who reject violence.  But, in actuality, there are far more likely outcomes, especially since not acting violently rarely means not acting at all. 

2. Martyrdom:  2a:Your loved one is martyred for the sake of the peaceful Gospel of Christ and meets his/her reward on the Last Day.  2b: You are martyred by non-violently coming between the assailant and your loved one, and you receive your reward on the Last Day.

3. Another way out: 3a: A natural way out.  The police come, the assailant changes his mind, trips, drops his weapon, or one of a million other possibilities happen providing a nonviolent solution to the conflict without the loss of your loved one’s life.  3b: A providential way out, Yoder chides his violence-believing fellow Christians for their lack of faith in the possibility of God intervening in a situation, especially when the Christian involved in committed to being faithful to the peaceful Gospel of Jesus. 

4. Attempted killing of the assailant: 4a: Successful: There is loss of life, legal trouble, guilt, retaliation,  etc., etc.  4b: Unsuccessful: There is a high probability that the average person will be unsuccessful in an attempt to violently intervene in this sort of situation. Unsuccessful attempts of violent intervention almost always lead to an escalation of violence, more unnecessary loss of life is almost always certain. 

When weighed, especially from a Christian perspective, the possible positive outcomes from acting non-violently (2a, 2b, 3a, 3b) far outweigh the possible negative outcomes of  acting non-violently (1)., and the likelihood of something positive happening from non-violent action (2a, 2b, 3a, 3b) is much greater than the likelihood of good things coming from violence (4a, if you can count any loss of life as a “good thing”). 

This all reminds me of Pascal’s Wager, anyway, it’s an interesting book. 


Note #2: I have begun to wonder if Christians interested in acting non-violently can learn something from Buddhism.  I have questions.  If I understand things correctly (and there’s a fair chance I don’t) one of the ethical tenants held by some Buddhists is to “do no harm.”  Is this the same as doing no violence?  It’s a tricky question.  Can you, for instance, spank your child (a seemingly violent act), but do no harm to the child (if it theoretically teaches him a lesson and makes him a better person, yadda, yadda, yadda)?   A Buddhist monk developed the martial art of Aikido as a way to defend oneself without doing harm to the attacker.  Is this type of self-defense permissible to a non-violent Christian?  It’s not exactly “turning the other cheek,” is it?  I’d be interested in hearing other’s opinions on this, especially those who know more about Buddhism than I. 


Bishop Paul Jones

Bishop Paul Jones

Note #3: Episcopalians (in true Episcopalian form) do not necessarily agree on, or have a consistent stance on the issue of Christian non-violence.  An example of this is in the curriculum for the Sunday School class that I’m teaching.  One of the units is on non-violence.  A lot of time is spent in this unit examining what Scripture says, and after coming down firmly on the side of non-violence, it uses the examples of Martin Luther King and Gandhi to explore how non-violence can be put into practice.  The very next unit,  is about self-defence.  In this unit, students are encouraged to kick at the shins and groin, and elbow the face and neck of any one who even remotely looks like they could possibly be capable of rape or kidnapping.  Not surprisingly, disagreement on this issue in the Episcopal church has been going on for a long damn time.  One of the bright examples of Christian non-violence in the Episcopal church has made his way onto the Church Calendar, however.  This coming Friday is the day we remember the Blessed Paul Jones, bishop of Utah 1914-1918.  Here’s a good article about him, but I’ll give you the short version: he was very outspoken about how WWI (and all wars for that matter) was “unchristian” and was consequently forced to resign his bishopric.  He was an amazing man with an amazing witness to the peaceful Gospel of Christ; you ought to read up on him or at least give him and especially his cause a thought this Friday; you can rest assured I’ll be thinking about it.

Merciful God, who sent your beloved Son to preach peace to those who are far off and to those who are near: Raise up in this and every land witnesses, who, after the example of your servant Paul Jones, will stand firm in proclaiming th Gospel of the Prince of Peace, our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  AMEN.