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  In a large part this introduction is already out of date since the publication of many works of Bulkagov in English in the last few years, thanks in no small part to the effort of Eerdmans and the tireless labor of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