The son of a priest and a seminarian, like many other intellectuals of his generation Sergius Bulgakov left the church and Christianity to follow the Marxist vision of the transformation of society and the individual. Trained in sociology and political economy, he challenged Plekhanov's ideas about the restructuring of Russian society and economy, particularly agriculture, understanding (like Max Weber) the importance of the family, the village, cultural customs and individual motivation. Eventually, with the tragic experience of the Second Duma and the revolution, Bulgakov returned to the faith and the sacramental life of the church, first as an important lay leader in the Great Council of Moscow in 1917-18, which proposed reforms in the Orthodox Church, and later as an ordained priest and theologian. Almost the last twenty years of his life were spent as Dean of the St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, where he finally arrived after expulsion from Russia in the early 1920s. Under conditions of poverty and duress, due to criticism and then official examination of his writings under the charge of heresy, Bulgakov nevertheless produced a prodigious body of writing. Paul Valliere (2000) and Antoine Arjakovsky (2000) have argued in their recent studies that Bulgakov's central concern in writing of divine wisdom was to clarify the relationship of God to creation and of humankind to the divine. This he sought to examine in the light of modern thought and experience and principally through the consequence of the Incarnation, namely the "humanity of God" (Bogochelovechestvo) as earlier Russian thinkers such as Soloviev had framed it.
For Bulgakov it was axiomatic that it was necessary, indeed urgent, not only for the Orthodox Church but for Christianity as a whole to engage in conversation with the modern world, its institutions, consciousness, and inhabitants. All of the rapid developments that had produced modernity were diagnosed by Bulgakov not as evil but as the present situation of God's working with and in creation. Like the Greek fathers of the church more than a millennium before him, Bulgakov recognized the human capacity for destruction and evil but - being a kind of theological optimist, in the best, deepest sense - he saw God as stronger, the ultimate victor in Christ's Incarnation, death and Resurrection. Like, among others, Gregory of Nyssa and Origen before him, Bulgakov considered the final restoration of all creation (apokatastasis) as at least the object of prayer and hope; and, while not appropriate for dogmatizing, such restoration was nonetheless more consonant with the boundless compassion and forgiveness of God and the desire for the ultimate (re)union of the divine with creation, when God would be "all in all." Much of his vision is summed up in his last book, The Bride of the Lamb, the final volume in his great trilogy.
While Bulgakov did not offer a book-length discussion of the events of his era, such as the Russian Revolution, the destructiveness of state socialism, the Great Depression, the rise of the Nazis, the Second World War, and the Holocaust, he nevertheless did touch upon all of these in his writings (Bulgakov 1999: 229-67, 293-303) and presented what might be called a summary of his social and political thinking in presentations he made while on visits to America in 1934 and England in 1939. These were the sermon he was invited to preach at the chapel of Seabury-Northwestern Seminary, "Social Teaching in Modern Russian Theology," and the paper read by another for him at the Fellowship of
SS Alban and Sergius, "The Spirit of Prophecy" (Bulgakov 1999: 269-92). It is not just Eastern church thinking in general but Bulgakov's own creative and radical vision that is offered in these texts.
He notes that in the early church there was no particular concern with the social world and politics other than living peaceably, obeying the law and the rulers, and living according to the Word of God. The sense of the imminent Second Coming of Christ also played a significant role in the early church's perspective. But the adoption of Christianity as the official cult of the Roman Empire under Constantine did not only end persecution: it also introduced all kinds of problems, principally the confusion of imperial political interests with ecclesiastical status in the Empire. Only rarely were bishops and teachers such as John Chrysostom and Basil the Great able, as noted above, to speak against the power of wealth and prestige. The monastic movement did begin to raise a continuous note of protest against the world's penetration of Christian thought and practice; but in the long run, even in its time of flourishing, the monastic movement was marginalized and the radical inversion of cultural values found in the Gospel routinely softened or ignored. Marx and other critics were correct in perceiving the church to be on the side of the wealthy and powerful; the church often supported the state blindly and with destructive consequences for ordinary people. But, rather than the extremes of church-state unity or the opposition of the church to any this-worldly activity, Bulgakov sees a third path, one for him aptly expressed by the figure of Wisdom, from the Book of Proverbs 8: 22-31, who is both the creature of God and his co-worker in the making and sustaining of the world (Bulgakov 1993). The destiny of all creation, particularly of humanity, is to be deified, to be in communion with the Creator, filled with the life of God and radiating the glory of this life. All are to be "prophets," messengers of the Lord, not only in word but in action.
Thus the Pentecost event of the descent of the Holy Spirit is a kind of icon of the mission of the church, not only toward the political realm but also toward the rest of the natural and social world. The church is not an institution of the state or society, but is the body of Christ and temple of the Holy Spirit, thus the presence and door into the kingdom of heaven here and now, in the world (Bulgakov 1988: 1-99). The "churching" of the world is not merely its being made more religious but its transfiguration, its full "humanization" and "divinization." Bulgakov imagines the completion of what all creation was meant to be, united again in love with the Creator. The church, therefore, is not the moral arm of the state (Bulgakov 1988: 156-175). It should not use any fear-provoking tactics to scare souls into goodness. Neither is the church the punishing arm of God. The church is healing, forgiveness, resurrection, new life. The very purpose of the church is creative, revealing the "humanity of God" and the divine possibilities of humanity, bringing humanity and everything else back into union with the Lord. For this relationship Bulgakov employs imagery of the Book of Revelation: "The Spirit and the Bride say 'Come'" (Rev. 22: 17). The church, and through it the world, become the spouse of the Lamb. Time becomes eternity. The antipathy between the city of God and the city of the world is abolished, not all at once but in a cumulative, compassionate process (Bulgakov 2002: 379-526).
This is not a naive, "rosy" Christianity. Bulgakov in other essays recognized the peculiar power of the modern state to enslave and destroy human beings. He recognized the specific inhumanity of modern totalitarian regimes, not only that of the Bolsheviks but also those of Nazi Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Bulgakov underscored the need in the modern world for the gift and the vocation of biblical prophecy, the fearless, strong proclamation of God's word, and the witness to the kingdom in the midst of the world not just by a few specialists but by all Christians.
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