The genius of Vladimir Soloviev (Fr Lawrence Cross)


It may seem strange to begin an article on the influence of the 19th century Russian writer Vladimir Soloviev by citing a remark of Thomas Merton, but Soloviev would agree with Merton who concluded that bad religious art is not a neutral entity but is, in fact, destructive of the spiritual life.

It may seem strange to begin an article on the influence of the 19th century Russian writer Vladimir Soloviev by citing a remark of Thomas Merton, but Soloviev would agree with Merton who concluded that bad religious art is not a neutral entity but is, in fact, destructive of the spiritual life.

Like many other Russian philosopher-theologians, Soloviev emphasises what they called the “sophianic” experience as an experience of beauty.

In contrast to corrupt and kitsch popular religious art, Soloviev and his circle proposed a new aesthetic principle.

Many of these thinkers, but particularly Soloviev, saw that a sophianic aesthetic of beauty had the power to carry man upon its wings into the world of the Real and towards the embrace of union with the Beloved, which is to say with God.

In asserting this they condemn any idea that flight from the material world into some ethereal, purely spiritual realm was necessary.

This insight is touched upon in Christianity, Judaism and in Islam, all three of which recognise that “beauty is the reflection of the Immutable in the stream of becoming”. (Knowledge and the Sacred, by Seyyed Hossein Nasar (Crossroads 1981) p.271)

As Rumi, the Sufi sage, expressed it: “Consider creation as pure and crystalline water in which is reflected the Beauty of the Possessor of Majesty although the water of this stream continues to flow the image of the moon and the stars remain reflected in it.” (ibid., p.271)

Divine creation

Soloviev understood the created world as a divine creation which longed for union with what he called the descending divine or ideal world (ideal for Soloviev meant divine).

He coined a term that other Russian thinkers embraced to describe the relation of the divine and the natural.

This term was Godmanhood, or the God-manly process. This term did not simply refer to the divine and human natures in Christ, but creates an holistic vision and understanding of all that exists.

Godmanhood implied the divinisation of the whole cosmos, of the whole created world.

Its deepest and central point is the divinisation of redeemed mankind united to Christ, but it offers a vision which steps past the old dualistic way of approaching the uncreated and created, the divine and the human, the spiritual and the natural.

Godmanhood should be understood as “not only the end of all evolution but also the very law of this evolution.” (V. Soloviev, Life and Teaching by C.V. Mochulsky (Paris 1936), p.135)

Not surprisingly Unity is the key to Soloviev's thinking and it particularly dominates his understanding of the deepest needs of the Church.

As his vision gazed upon the Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox communions, Soloviev both mourned the loss of unity, while emphasising unity as the fundamental ground of the Christian life.

For Soloviev the truly spiritual man is one in whom the divine and natural principles are united, who is a person who could actually show the presence of both of these natures and who as a God-manly person lives a harmonic union of the two natures in abiding spiritual freedom.

Freedom and Unity

Obviously the person who embodies this freedom and unity between the divine and human is the Godman Jesus Christ and it is at this point that we are at the threshold of understanding Soloviev’s fundamental convictions about the unity and disunity of the Church and the way in which to deal with it.

God the Divine Word, in order to redeem mankind, renounces the manifestation of His Divine Dignity and Glory.

This is precisely what all the Christian Churches caught in the darkness of disunity must seek to do. The Churches, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant, are called to imitate Christ in a mystery of self-abandonment.

If the Churches do not embrace this vision, the ecumenism that they espouse is mere posturing. They must all do as did the Saviour. Let Soloviev describe the process:

“By the free act of His Divine will or love [He] renounces the manifestation of His Divine Dignity; He abandons the peace of eternity, He engages in battle with the principle of evil and He becomes liable to all the agitations of the cosmic process. He appears in chains of external existence, in limitations of space and time; He then appears to the natural man, acting upon him in diverse infinite forms of the cosmic life which hide rather than reveal the true substance of God.” (Lectures on Godmanhood, t.III, by Vladimir Soloviev, pp.167-71.)

True unity will never be re-established among the Churches until the Christian community is prepared to walk the way of sorrow and renunciation.

As Christ God freely renounces the Divine Glory, and as man receives the possibility of receiving Divine Glory, so it is with the Church.

“Learn from me ...”

Any ecumenist following in Soloviev’s trail must make the words of Jesus their own: “Learn of Me for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matthew 11:29).

But the Church for Soloviev was not an abstraction or a theological proposition. The Lord had given it a structure grounded upon the Apostolic College gathered around the Chair of the Apostle Peter.

This vision of Soloviev’s was prompted by the circumstances of the Orthodox Church to which he belonged and he saw that the solutions to her problems were to be found both in Holy Scripture and the history of the Church so far.

Soloviev was enough of a realist to understand that almost all the offices and structures in the Church had suffered serious abuse in the centuries unfolding since the Lord’s Ascension.

The Churches East and West had suffered shipwreck on the reefs and shoals of power.

Soloviev saw that the so-called symphonic relationship of Church and state in Byzantium, and later in the princedom of Moscovy, was pure Caesaro-Papism.

The West spawned a princely papal domination in the Church, and in no short time the Protestant Churches and sects, in their turn, became chaplaincies to princes.

If the Church set out for renewal and to renounce the corrupting earthly liaisons, spiritual victory could only be achieved after the manner of Christ her Master.

He gained his victory through the hardships of His earthly life and especially when on the Cross, having taken upon Himself all human weakness, sin, suffering and death, Jesus cried, not “Father”, but with all of groaning creation He cried “My God, My God”.

It is time for us to use the technical theological word for this belief beyond belief. Kenosis is the term used to describe the radical self-emptying by the Son of God of all Divine privilege; and its fruits are obedience and humiliation.

No Christian tradition emphasises the radical humiliation of the Son of God as does the Russian, and for Soloviev, this provides the key to the restoration of the Churches’ fractured unity.

Only by pondering this mystery of the self-emptying, obedience and humiliation of the Godman, can the Churches East and West rediscover and forgive each other.

Soloviev’s hope was that the two branches of the Church, Catholic and Orthodox, would unite and give birth to a true spiritual mankind.

At the centre of this reintegrated and repentant Church Soloviev placed the person of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, to be the expression of perfect humility, a servant of the servants of God, whose love and charity should embrace everyone in his care.

The primacy of the Bishop of Old Rome would not be the primacy of dominion, but of humble service, a kenotic primacy. It is this conviction that led Soloviev to seek admission to the Catholic Church in 1896.

In this he saw no conflict with his continuing membership of the Russian Orthodox Church, rather, in a visionary manner, he sought to create a kind of Christian unity and communion in his own self.

Soloviev’s fundamental note of the being of the Church was based on St Paul’s vision in Philippians 2:1-11, and it was structured by the ministry given to Peter by Jesus in John 21:15-18 and Luke 22:31-32.

Although he never really left the Russian Orthodox Church, Soloviev, through his thought and personal presence unquestionably provided the foundational elements of what became the Russian Byzantine Catholic Church.

Called to God in 1900 he did not live to see the brief years in which that fledgling Church emerged from underground and even began a dialogue with its mother, the Russian Orthodox Church.

Humanity restored

For Soloviev, the Church is a seeking of restored human unity, while the state, the Church’s converted companion, is organised compassion.

But what came after 1917 was a demonic parody of this vision. What materialised was a vision not suffused by beauty, but by art become propaganda, and the state operated, not from compassion, but with brutal compulsion, by force.

Soloviev is the kind of thinker who reminds us that ideas matter and that perverse ideas can be deadly. Indeed the most deadly enemy of mankind is not atomic weaponry, but ideology.

Soloviev and Feodor Dostoevsky, his friend, shared a very similar eschatology. It is an open question as to who inspired whom for the very famous passages in The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan encounters the anti-Christ.

Soloviev published his The Story of Anti-Christ in 1899 to 1900 in which the similarities to Dostoevsky are particularly striking.

Both raise the problem of temptation as it appears in the temptations of Christ and explore how the same allurements call modern man to the demon’s destructive delusions.

The same temptations face mankind with the same choices of flesh, power and glory.

Soloviev was no mere theorist. He recognised that errors in human choice – human refusal of humility and obedience, lead to ruin in the most concrete of manners.

The post-1917 events present the prophecies of both Soloviev and Dostoevsky on the stage of Russia’s 20th-century experience.

It is worth noting that in his visionary story, Three Conversations, which is a vision of the last days of the world and the appearance of the anti-Christ, Soloviev portrays the anti-Christ establishing his power over the masses of men and women through a beauty of sorts: through displays of power wrought by illusion and technology.

His anti-Christ resembles Simon the Magician from the Acts of the Apostles and from Christian pseudepigrapha. But his is only an appearance of beauty.

Behind the illusion is the abyss and the deepest hatred for mankind. Soloviev advises our contemporary culture in the manner of our highway signs: Wrong Way Go Back.

(Fr Lawrence Cross is priest of the Trinity-St. Nicholas Russian Catholic Church, located in St Kilda East, Victoria.)

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