November 7th 2015

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Machines getting too clever for our good

CANBERRA OBSERVED Labor on the offensive against all argument

EDITORIAL El Niño caps tragic results of water deregulation

LIFE ISSUES Altruistic surrogacy leads to baby trafficking

CLIMATE CHANGE U.S., EU have hot air in store for climate gabfest

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Best marriage research backs Church's teaching

FAMILY AND SOCIETY Symptoms of a civilisation in crisis

THE DRUGS DEBATE An introduction to navigating the "ice" age

RELIGION IN RUSSIA Soloviev and the great vision for religious unity

PUBLIC POLICY Asia-Pacific conference sees through drug push

CINEMA Martian botanist left to cultivate his garden: The Martian

BOOK REVIEW Progress in the dock

BOOK REVIEW ASIO in the early years


Bishops being prosecuted for supporting man+woman marriage Here is what you can do

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Soloviev and the great vision for religious unity

by Lawrence Cross

News Weekly, November 7, 2015

The initiator of the Byzantine Catholic Church in Russia, Vladimir Soloviev, could be regarded a saint, but without question he was a genius and the most creative and influential Russian intellectual of the 19th century. He lived a deeply virtuous life, noted for exceptional generosity to the poor, and he was notorious for giving away his wealth , even to those who were clearly fraudulent.

John Henry Newman and

Vladimir Soloviev.

Soloviev created an extraordinary circle of intellectual friends, including the novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In the first part of his adult life he was very friendly with the nationalistic Slavophile movement, but later he eased off from his association with them because he had a bigger and deeper matter to attend to. He wished to re-examine the relationship of God and Creation in a universalist vision that went far beyond nationalism and ethnic interests.

Deep spiritual wounds in West and East

Soloviev realised that Russia, and the Western world, needed to deal with deep spiritual wounds which had been suppurating since Classical times: this included dualism, the severe splitting of spirit and matter, of mind and body, of created and uncreated. This split in the European psyche gave rise to religious fanaticism on the one hand, and caused men and cultures to lurch between materialisms, whether communist or capitalist, on the other.

As we witness modern Russia emerge from the communist horrors of dialectical materialism through the travails of neo-liberal capitalism, characterised by the overweening greed of the oligarchs, it is evident that Soloviev’s concerns have remained as pertinent as ever.

And it is not just Russia. The world is in the grip of the two extremes. On the one hand, materialism – Pope Francis has called capitalism “the dung of the devil” – and, on the other, various forms of religious and political life-denying extremism.

In Soloviev’s time, the Russian intelligentsia not only was lacking in religious intensity, but they exhibited a deep cynicism. Often the greatest spiritual and human insights came from the artists rather than from the philosophers: Dostoyevsky and Gogol, for instance. From about the 1840s Russian literature tended to serve extra-literary purposes. It was not just to give pleasure but was also meant to make a positive contribution towards individual and social wellbeing.

The majority of critics saw literature and literary criticism as instruments to express historical, cultural and religious opinions; or even to be used as weapons in the political arena. As was his friend Dostoyevsky, a thinker like Soloviev was expected to act as a guide and teacher, and not just indulge literary tastes. It was an attitude expressed (perhaps ironically) by Dostoyevsky in The Idiot: “Beauty will save the world.”

The most pivotal figure in this dynamic was Soloviev. He explored these ideas philosophically. But he was no cold philosopher. He was a true visionary. He is often described as the Russian Newman.

His work and mission are best characterised by the words of American Orthodox writer David Bentley Hart in his book, The Beauty of the Infinite: “The story of mankind is a story of violence, which excludes the Christian story of peace, the Christian story can encompass and indeed heal the city that rejects it; because that city too belongs to the peace of creation, the beauty of the infinite and only its narrative and its desires blind it to a glory that everywhere pours in upon it.”

No better words can be found to describe Soloviev’s mystical insights.

Visionary in every sense

Soloviev experienced a series of visions of Sophia (Wisdom) that set him on a path to explore the nature of God and the cosmos. His first attempt to give a coherent theological explanation to the All-Wisdom of God was a theological inquiry that was at once full of promise and of unsolved problems. It was the visionary pursuit of the Divine Sophia, understood as Eternal Womanhood.

His first vision came in the midst of the liturgy, when he was only 10 years old. The second vision was in London, where he had gone to study Indian, Gnostic and medieval philosophy. In this vision, Sophia summoned him to Egypt, where, in the Thebaid, in the dawn light, he had a third vision of her, the culmination of his experience.

He wrote a poem about them, called Three Meetings:

All that was, and is, and ever
shall be
My steadfast gaze embraced it
all in one.
The seas and rivers sparkle blue beneath me,
And distant woods and mountains clad in snow.
I saw it all, and all was one
fair image
Of women’s beauty; holding all
as one.
The boundless was within its
form enclosed –
Below me, as in me is you alone.

Soloviev’s ideas evolved as his experience deepened. At first he enthusiastically tried to explain Sophia as “God’s body, the matter of divinity”, but this brought him into difficulty with Orthodox theology, which holds that the Divine Son is the Logos: the Word made flesh. Indeed he entered some perilous theological paths when he interpreted the humanity of Christ as being both the Logos and Sophia. The problem was that if this line was followed, Christ could be seen as something other than human.

Then he called Divine Sophia the flesh of Christ. This, too, created problems. It left the Logos as only spiritual, which would have repeated previous theological mistakes. He recognised his error and divided Sophia into the divine (Christ’s humanity) and creaturely parts (what he called the World Soul). He was struggling with the mysteries that he had apprehended and the theological explanations were not entirely satisfactory.

Soloviev then took a sideways step, developing an idea of God-Manhood. What he meant by this was that the world, and not just mankind, is suffused with the presence of God. But this is not pantheism. Rather, he saw the divine world, which he called the Real, descending to embrace the created world. The dominant idea was Unity.

The Russian Newman

Because he was dealing with questions of beauty and truth – many saw them as inseparable – he was led into insights that paralleled the great thinking of John Henry Newman, who was responsible for re-introducing Western theology to its Eastern foundations in his rediscovery of Justin. In his essay to a fundamentalist Protestant, Mr Milman, Newman presented a vision of Christ in dialogue with human wisdom, the Logos in dialogue with Wisdom. It was almost conceived as Soloviev’s dialogue between the Logos and the created Sophia.

Soloviev’s thinking has other significances. The lack of Unity is at the heart of many of the travails of the modern world. The principal problem with materialism is not that it entails a focus on matter; it is that it is a focus only on matter. The unity of the whole person is rejected.

Likewise, with religious extremism the problem is that there is a too aggressive imposition of what is believed to be the non-material on the mundane world. It is the tearing apart of the seamless robe of Christ.

Soloviev wanted to create what he called a synthetic and integrated philosophy: God, Man and the World in a seamless relationship. It is not the pursuit of a higher, remote ideal. It is the understanding and experience of the Real in all its facets.

Transcendent referent

Soloviev’s position also offers some­thing that is sorely lacking in modern society: a transcendent referent for human existence, a universal and shared meaning. This lack is evident in surprising places. Too often the Catholic Church does not assume its position as the Universal Church; the voice for the whole world. Instead, there can be a “Catholic position”, just part of the tapestry of viewpoints in society. It was this partiality that Soloviev was trying to counter. If Christ is incarnate in the world, there is only one truth, not many.

There needs to be greater Unity too in the Church itself. The schism between the Eastern and Western Churches is the greatest tearing apart of Christ’s robe. Recent attempts to repair it have done little. Pope John Paul II did make it a priority, but progress has been spare at best.

We must turn to Soloviev to see what has to be done. His was a vision of true Church unity. During his time, Catholic believers were scattered throughout Russia but they were priestless. They were Catholic Russians, but under the Tsars they had been forced underground.

These Russian Catholics were the fertile soil in which Soloviev’s thought would flower. In Soloviev’s reasoning, the Russian Orthodox Church is separated from the Holy See only de facto because there was no formal breach. So it was possible to profess the totality of Catholic doctrine and be in communion with the Holy See while continuing to be Russian Orthodox.

He loved the Orthodox Church and regarded himself as a member of both Churches, but he believed the Orthodox had lost their freedom under state domination and had been Lutheranised by Tsar Peter the Great. Orthodoxy could only regain her freedom through union with Rome.

Soloviev was received into communion with the Holy See as a Russian Byzantine Catholic on February 18, 1896, by Father Nicholas Tolstoy, the first Russian Byzantine Catholic priest. His thought went on to influence Russia’s intelligentsia, aristocracy, the growing middle class and, later, farmers and workers. It led many Russians to seek communion with the Holy See.

Over a century later, the challenge to create Church unity is even greater. Russian Byzantine Catholics now find themselves back in pre-revolutionary conditions, forced underground.

They have become a pawn in the ecumenical chess game that Rome has been playing with Moscow over the last 30 years. Scandalously, this little Church has suffered martyrdom since 1917. The need to embrace Soloviev’s supreme vision of Church unity has never been greater.

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