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  In a large part this introduction is already out of date since the publication of many works of Bulkagov in English in the last few years, thanks in no small part to the effort of Eerdmans and the tireless labor of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.


Open Thread on Baptism

Joey, “The Charismanglican” recently made some comments and asked some questions in regards to baptism, especially Credo vs Paedo Baptism.  I think that perhaps it takes that particular post a bit off topic but I thought it a thread we might like to discuss and even though I do not currently have time to give a detailed response, I at least wanted to see if his comments would elicit any reactions.
Being soon to baptize my own children and having been raised a Credo Baptist, I think it would be fun to chat.
January 19, 2010 at 12:47 e

A slight change of direction. Let me give some background only to make sense of what I’m going to say at the end…which has everything to do with those personal experiences attributed to Christianity.

I come from a background where baptism is chosen by the baptized as an initiation into Christianity.

Now I’m in the Episcopal church, which baptizes infants.

I have a strong appreciation of catholic theology regarding the baptism of infants, but other theological hang-ups leave me unwilling to baptize my kids without their own desire. These stem from a stubborn belief that grace is big enough to not worry about their discipleship and a strong belief that baptism is an act of political allegiance…which can only be taken willingly.

I don’t want this to become a referendum on baptism and hijack this excellent post…all this was preface for this part:

My son Kyler just turned 12 and was telling me that he wanted to be baptized. I asked him if he understood what baptism is and talked to him about death, burial and resurrection. To be fair, I gave him as many reasons not to get baptized as reasons to get baptized. Counting the cost.

In particular, I told him this:

One day you will wonder why you got baptized. You will look out at the world and think to yourself: “I’m not sure God exists. I’m not sure that I’m willing to follow Jesus past this point.”

And that is when I and the rest of the Church will say to you, “It doesn’t matter. You are no longer your own. You made a promise and you are bound to keep it no matter how you feel. That’s the faith you signed up for…to die to yourself and to live by things unseen (or in this case, unfelt).”

This attitude of mine is probably a reaction (overreaction?) to the emotionalism of my youth…which never served me well in times of depression or serious paradigm shifts.

It’s time to see Christianity as something more like adoption or marriage or citizenship (metaphors that are scriptural). To break an adoption or a marriage or citizenship, it takes more than a vague feeling that you made a commitment that you no longer want to keep, or that you’re not sure you fit in.

No, it takes an act of will that says: “I’m not going to keep my promises anymore.”

Of course, there are reasons that certain promises can be broken. However, the very nature of all these promises (especially, in my experience, getting married or having children), are that you have NO idea what you’re getting into when you make them.

It is no small thing to break a promise. Especially in a Jewish religion such as Christianity. YHWH is a promise-making God.

He also added this:

Writing that out made me realize something funny…

Before someone is baptized, I see their feelings as fairly important in the equation. They are an individual, so to speak.

After someone is baptized, I see their feelings as secondary or tertiary. They are interdependent, so to speak.

It appears I believe that crucifying yourself high individualism might be a significant political meaning of baptism in this age.