20 May 2018

Prison or process?


HAH ŒP Bartholomew of Constantinople

Earlier this year I had the disorienting experience of reading a book by an author I deeply admire, which left me feeling rather cold. The Divine and the Human, by Nikolai Berdyaev, was the first book of his that I failed to be impressed by. Now, this was just after having read a selection from the Orations by Saint Gregory the Theologian. Saint Gregory is a tough act to follow, and perhaps any comparison I could possibly make between the two would be grossly unfair to Berdyaev. Even so, the nature of what I was thinking about in the wake of reading Saint Gregory led me to see some of the profound blind spots in Berdyaev’s work.

I do not say any of the following, by the way, to denigrate Berdyaev as a thinker. The man’s philosophical work is still immensely valuable, and was, as I have said numerous times on this blog, one of the key influences in my turn toward Orthodoxy. His deep and compassionate Christian personalism and his respect for the human creative impulse sparked life and fire in my soul, even as I was intellectually and spiritually floundering in my after-college years. Playing a key rôle in my political formation were his deep suspicions of the great Enlightenment divorce of material and spiritual questions, and his preferences for both left-anarchism (à la Kropotkin, among others) and traditionalist conservatism (à la Leont’ev and Bloy). The fortitude and fearlessness with which he faced and fought the most fundamental dehumanisations of the harrowing early 20th century, from chemical warfare to concentration camps to capitalism, were a blazing inspiration. So it is not with ease or with lightness that I make the following assessments – some of them quite hard – of The Divine and the Human.

Berdyaev has a strong and visceral dislike of those religious traditions which place too great an emphasis on the sacral importance of nature. He sees such ‘magic’, such ‘animism’, as being driven by a spirit of ‘necessity’ opposed to the Jewish-Christian-Islamic spirit of creative freedom. In such nature-worship he finds the kernels of sadism, of apologetics for naked power, the beginnings of totalitarian logic. Normally, I would find that this parallels the Khomyakovian distinction between iranstvo (the ‘Iranian’ civilisational principle, the principle of fire and sunlight and the spontaneous poetic spoken word) and kushitstvo (the ‘Kushite’ civilisational principle of divisibility and earth-totemism and despotic statuary). In the human world and the life of the mind, there is a strong and living kernel of truth in this distinction. But applied here, to a realm touching on the physical and material world rather than merely the intellectual one, it strikes me as ‘off-key’.

I understand Berdyaev’s point, which concerns human creative freedom in the face of the ‘given’ and ‘constraint’. He sees human freedom at work in history as over-against nature; and that is where he looks for the work of the Divine. But even that formulation nonetheless relies on a quasi-Cartesian intellectual foundation that degrades, howbeit ever so slightly, the mystery and the scandal of the Incarnation as the Greeks would have understood it. To be fair to Berdyaev, I think he understands at least in part the paucity of his own position. Though he teeters on the edge of a kind of misarchism he never quite falls into it. He falls back, rather frustratingly, upon an emotivist point to back away from the Gnostic precipice he’s edged himself onto. He will not accept a God whose salvific work cannot ultimately extend to his cat.

Saint Gregory, on the other hand, beholds nature and speaks thereof from a position of awe, from whence the only response could be, not intellectual speculation and mental division, but poetry. The song of the Divine. What Madeleine L’Engle would call ‘the Old Music’. When Saint Gregory the Theologian writes in his Orations of nature, of the seas and the mountains, of the birds and the fish, of the grass and the stars, he sees it all as transparent, illumined, pregnant with the grace of God, breathing with the spirit and personality of Christ. In the wake of such meditations it struck me as profoundly ungrateful, that Berdyaev could look at the same nature as Saint Gregory, and see in it something akin to a prison.

Here, oddly enough, I find the voice of my father speaking to me. Though I wonder if he would use this precise term, Dr Reid Cooper, the engineer and gæologist, beholds nature with the same kind of reverence that Saint Gregory does. He observes the natural order, the cosmos: from systems like anthills and cities to the patterns of earthquakes and the spread of the galaxies. What he sees in them are not constraints that preclude creativity. What he sees instead are a set of boundary conditions that enable all the diverse and spectacular structures and systems we observe in the cosmos to flourish.

On the earth which he studies, he sees an overabundance of energy, an outpouring of the sun’s radiance, being channelled and consumed within and through those boundary conditions. We – the living beings in the earth’s biosphere – receive only the most infinitesimal fraction of that star’s output, and that at a modest level. And yet even that modest level of energy, that ‘constraint’, sustains every single thing that all us living beings breathe and eat and do. The universe is constantly pouring itself out, in outrageous overabundance, for our sustenance. (The Greek term is kenōsis; it connotes precisely the same thing.) For him, there has never been a conflict between religion and science, because even though scientific method is grounded in certain operational assumptions about the created order which are necessarily material, his discipline itself points to a cosmic reality which is sustained by grace, which is grace. As well as for Gregory, for my father – though again, he might not use this term for it – the cosmic order not only reflects but expresses the personality of Christ.

Though for very obvious reasons I have a strong personal bias in the matter, I feel my dad draws far nearer to the truth on this question than Berdyaev does.

One of the benefits of my liberal peace-church and Anglican religious upbringing is that it embraced a practice and ethic of care for the environment. Thankfully, one of the ‘perks’ of my embrace of Eastern Orthodoxy – unbeknownst to me when I was chrismated – was that it expresses this same ethic of care in a visceral, physical way. I’ve spoken before of the Blessing of the Waters on the feast of Theophany, and how it consecrates and treats as sacred not only the waters used in the Liturgy, but all water. All water becomes holy water. All of nature is transparent to Christ, and as such is holy and to be treated with reverence. The holiness of œcology and the need for an ascetic ‘curb’ on our consumer demands on that œcology, is a topic on which as liberal a Greek as His All-Holiness Œcumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, and as conservative a Russian as Fr Vsevolod Chaplin, can find themselves in perfect agreement.

On the other hand, the most trenchant religious voices in the West on the topic of œcology – those who stand beside and inform the work of Bill McKibben, for instance – are Dr John Cobb, Jr and Dr Herman Daly. The latter is a disciple of the Romanian œconomist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and the British Quaker religious philosopher Kenneth Boulding; while the former is a student of the ‘process theology’ developed by Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. Hartshorne, fascinatingly, also cites Nikolai Berdyaev with deep respect and approval in his own writings, and I’m very eager to understand precisely what insights Hartshorne recovers from Berdyaev and how he uses those insights. This is clearly a stream of modern religious philosophy that would be worthwhile to engage.

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