Paul Evdokimov was in the first class to graduate from St. Sergius Institute and had Bulgakov, the institute's first dean and professor of dogmatic theology, as his teacher. Yet Bulgakov was not the only influence on him. The radical philosopher Nicolas Berdiaev was an acknowledged shaper of his thinking, as were friends and colleagues such as Fr. Lev Gillet, Fr. Nicolas Afanasiev, and Olivier Clément, among others. Evdokimov's life experiences also played a decisive role in forming his social and political thinking as a theologian. He arrived as an immigrant in Paris in 1923 and studied at both the Sorbonne and the St. Sergius Institute, earning his first doctorate at the University of Aix-en-Provence in 1942 and a second at St. Sergius in 1958. During the Second World War he was active in the French Resistance. At the war's conclusion and for more than a decade thereafter, he directed ecumenically sponsored hostels for refugees, foreign students, and other people in need. Evdokimov writes with untypical emotion about how he was more than an administrator, acting also as counselor, lay pastor, and friend to the residents, with their complicated, often damaged existences. When he later taught at St. Sergius and other theological schools, the experience of this service was always present. Consistently, Evdoki-mov sought to bring the suffering God who loves absurdly, but without coercion, into contact with the person of our time, with his questions, her rage, with the range of modern human experience.
In an essay entitled "Church and Society" (Evdokimov 2001: 61-94), he synthesizes a dialogue that extended through virtually all of his writings, from his early studies of the theology of Gogol and Dostoevsky to his discerning look at the history of spirituality. What is truly new in the New Testament, he argues, is the ultimate destiny of humankind in the "humanity of God," in the consequences of the Incarnation, life, death and Resurrection of Christ. Though they did not call it this, even the earliest of the fathers, like the apostles and New Testament authors before them, envisioned a "social ecclesiology." The church, being the body of the Risen Christ, drew all to itself, raising everything into the kingdom. The divisions so often seen between Mary and Martha, between action and contemplation, between the sacred and the profane, are illusions. One cannot really love God without loving and serving the brother and sister always present before us. Evdokimov was especially fond of the saying of the desert fathers: "If you want to see God, look at your brother." This does not exclude numerous other possibilities of encountering God in the world, but emphasizes the singular presence of God in the neighbor in need. He even cites Tertullian and Origen on the unique experience of God in the encounter with the neighbor. Repeatedly in his writings, as in his own life, Evdokimov emphasized the truth of the claim in the first letter of John (4: 20), that if we cannot love the brother whom we can see, we cannot love the God who is invisible - or, better, most visible - in the neighbor.
Like Bulgakov, Evdokimov tracks the history of the church's solidarity with the state, with society and culture. While there are indisputable high points in this history, there are great stretches of tragedy and evil resulting from the union. The desert fathers and, after them, the monastics understood the action of Christ to mandate an "ecclesial evangelism" or an "evangelical ecclesiology." The Lord is the one who stands at the door and knocks, waiting to come in to our table, to share the bread of our suffering and of our joy. Evdokimov repeatedly quotes the thirteenth-century Byzantine statesman and theologian Nicolas Cabasilas, describing God as Philanthropos, the one whose love for us is without reason, force or measure (eros manikos) (Evdokimov 2001: 175-94). Such a God is the core of the Christian attitude toward the state, toward all the institutions of society, in international relations, even with respect to the natural world. It is far from being distinctively Eastern or Orthodox, but is the shared vision of the undivided church of the first millennium. "Beauty will save the world," wrote Dostoevsky, and this was his credo amid the lowest forms of human degradation, springing from his own imprisonment and near-execution by firing squad. Evdokimov, who did his first doctoral dissertation on Dostoevsky, constantly found the evidence of God's presence and love in the beauty surrounding us: that of the natural order, that of the saints as captured in their icons and words, but particularly that of men and women, bearers of the image and likeness of God (Evdokimov 1990). So Evdokimov urged a reclaiming of the radical spirituality of the mothers and fathers of the desert, but in the hidden ordinary, everyday lives of "ecclesial beings" today. "One does not just say prayers, one becomes prayer" (Evdokimov 1998). The appeal is straightforward. If human beings have brought suffering and destruction, then it is also through human action, transformed by the beauty and love of God, that God will accomplish the overturning of this evil. God will be acting through them, as the Bible recounts.
In his own life in the hostels at Bièvres and Sèvres and Massy, and as remembered by those for whom he cared, Paul Evdokimov's vision, like that of the church fathers and the desert fathers and mothers, was always realistic and personal. The distance between the developed and undeveloped nations, he wrote in 1967, could come down to this: an electric toothbrush in the North should not deny a container of milk to a child in the South. He has the patristic quotes at hand too. "Money and all other goods are the common property of all just as the light and air we breathe." This bit of Christian socialism came from Simeon the New Theologian (949-1022). "Women who embroider biblical scenes on their clothing would do better to live out these stories," wrote John Chrysostom, whose "golden mouth" earned him a death march at the end of his life. Basil the Great argued, "You are a thief if you transform into your possessions what you had received only as a steward." It is hard to miss the radical political yet escha-tological perspective in the teachings of these fathers and other saints. Evdoki-mov concludes his meditation on the social and political perspective of the church by arguing for a tax by which the affluence of wealthy nations would be redistributed to reshape the situation of the third world. In an encyclical about the same time, Progressio populorum, Pope Paul VI had also called for the setting up of a global fund established by taxes derived from conspicuous consumption, waste, and the buildup of armaments. Only the recent proposal by numerous humanitarian and religious leaders for the Group of Eight leading nations to stop making interest-bearing loans, write off debts, and make outright grants to the poor countries comes close in radicality.
Evdokimov, a man of both the world and the church, understood that no law could affect the interior change of heart that leads to different action. Conversion cannot come through compulsion. Yet traditions of faith can plant the seeds of such personal and then communal transformation. Thus he called for a kind of summit meeting of the leaders of the world's great traditions: the Pope, the Orthodox patriarchs, heads of the churches of the Reformation, rabbis and imams, the entire "family of Abraham." A smaller version of such a gathering has indeed occurred, in 1986 at Assisi, at Pope John Paul Il's invitation. Amid outbursts of violence there is still peaceful protest by many groups at meetings of the World Trade Organization, and even celebrities have called for forgiving of debts and gifts of aid to impoverished countries. Evdokimov recognized that, in the words of Paul Eluard, "Everything was not needed to make a world, just love, and nothing else." But he also saw that such change of heart then required action. Affluent nations sharing their wealth was just a beginning; the world community had to go further to cooperate in a plan for a truly global economy, a world society where resources would be managed by all, used by all. Only this would approach the justice of which the Bible speaks.
Was this article helpful?
Download this Guide and Discover How To Find And Monetize on Your Expertise And Strengths. Inside this special report, you'll discover: How positive thinking is one of the key factors in a successful life. Five ways and tools to help you stay positive. Use these to help you keep on track. Case studies that'll inspire you to stick to your dreams. Plus much, much more.