Sunday, 1 November 2015

Of Nicholas Berdyaeff and his quest for a theology of Liberation

Of Nicholas Berdyaeff 
and his quest for a theology of Liberation

By Kat Ulrike

"The Russian people did not achieve their ancient dream of Moscow, the Third Rome. The ecclesiastical schism of the seventeenth century revealed that the muscovite tsardom is not the third Rome. The messianic idea of the Russian people assumed either an apocalyptic form or a revolutionary; and then there occurred an amazing event in the destiny of the Russian people. Instead of the Third Rome in Russia, the Third International was achieved, and many of the features of the Third Rome pass over to the Third International. The Third International is also a Holy Empire, and it also is founded on an Orthodox faith. The Third International is not international, but a Russian national idea."

- Nicholas Berdyaeff

At first, it seems that it is rare for an Orthodox Christian to speak of "Liberation". True that Orhodox Christianity are no strangers to liberation struggles as they have experienced hardship in totalitarian and oppressive regimes. It may find odd for a church known for tradition speaks heavily of "social liberation" and likely to find liberation theology as unacceptable.  
However, very few theologians afforded to tackle upon it, especially those who afforded to read what is deemed subversive, and whose writings were critical of the sociopolitical and religious status quo and sought to reconcile communism with Christianity. One of them is Nicholas Berdyaeff.

Born from a noble family and even engaged in Revolutionary action, Berdyaeff eventually studied religion, particulary his faith and his attempt to reconcile his earlier inclination. Like other proto-Liberation Theologians, he seeks the relevance of faith in contemporary life which is marred by social disturbance. However, such ideas may find it contradicting to the fundamentals of the Orthodox faith,  particularly the idea of action than contemplation. 

In fact, in this person's view on both Liberation and traditional Orthodox Theologies, there lies contradictions ought to understand if not trying to have a reconciliation of sorts. While liberation theology emphasises the immanence of God and the humanity of the suffering Christ, Orthodox theology, profoundly soteriological, emphasises the transcendence of God and the divinity of Christ. It described faith as “a personal adherence to the personal presence of God Who reveals Himself” while Theology “as word and as thought must necessarily conceal a gnostic dimension, in the sense of the theology of contemplation and silence.” And in practise, traditional Orthodox theology stresses contemplation, that “Nourished with contemplation, it does not become established in silence but seeks to speak the silence, humbly, by a new use of thought and word." Clergy and laity alike has emphasised actions meant to emphasise faith, particularly those of prayer and silence that made critics describing them as dealing with the afterlife than those of the present situation, what more that the Church during the era of Berdyaeff was controlled by an autocratic, reactionary state.
No wonder Orthodoxy's interpretation of faith, particularly those of contemplation is a far cry from the action-packed idea of liberation of some radical minded Christians, Catholic or Protestant alike, that seeks to overthrow unjust social and political structures with violence if necessary. 

But in case of Berdyaeff, the idea of having his faith as a revolutionary force stems on the idea of reconciling both some of Orthodox doctrines and those from his revolutionary background. Berdyaeff's initial connivance with Marxism, however, was eventually replaced with a remewed interest in Orthodox Chrisitianity and perhaps trying to make a radical as he, nonetheless, supports the idea of socialism as a basis for a government rooted on social justice. 

But besides him, there were religious radicals, influenced by Marxism, had accused the Orthodox Church of being too concerned with the afterlife and thereby neglecting to make the message of Christ relevant to the needs of people in this present life. They wanted the Orthodox Church, like its Roman Catholic and Protestant counterparts to be more involved in the lives of the common folk, in the social, economic and political transformation of the country. 
That according to Alexandr Negrov, he claims that “Russian theological thought at the end of the nineteenth century was very social in its focus (...). Hidden behind these social utopias was the search for the Kingdom of God."

Given that there are radical thinkers within the church, some of these were convinced that socialism could help to create a more equitable society, as they believed that socialism is not all-together incompatible with Christianity and that it could lead to the realisation of social justice where the exploitation of human beings will not be allowed. This means that Christians should promote the socialisation of society that would guarantee people’s right to work, to live life to the full and to promote justice. They also believed that only the church, because of its spiritual orientation, is able to create the New Man that Marxism promotes.
And as stated earlier, Berdyaeff was one of those thinkers who believed that it was possible for a Christian to be a socialist. He even insisted that a Christian “ought to be a socialist.” The featured quote in his post even stated the Communist "Third International" as also rooted on an Christian faith, what more of a Russian national idea, maybe because it was situated in Soviet Russia where it was began if not having the urge to create a society which is to be found in the scriptures such as a just society. 

It may find it strange that Berdyaeff's transition from Marxism to Christianity still kept his idea of a socialist society as any other radical envisioned. Echoing Karl Marx in his book "Theology of Hope", Moltman said, “The theologian is not concerned merely to supply a different interpretation of the world, of history and of human nature, but to transform them in expectation of a divine transformation.” Berdyaeff's radicalism and his renewed faith may served as a basis for attempting to make the Contemplative church into a pro-active entity especially in the course of human struggle for a better society. What more that he warns us that "if Christianity refuses to take social justice seriously on the ground that original sin makes us incapable of any good, then this task will be taken by others and the idea of justice will distorted" believing that the present order,despite its modern day trappings, is also a result of original sin as Christians insisted: unjust and inequitable.

Personally, Berdyaeff's idea, stemming from both Christian and Marxist roots also somehow meant recognizing faith as a driving force for revolutionary enthusiasm, especially that today's events involved churchpeople who are willing to break the stereotype and putting their faith into action such as fulfilling the task such as those of a revolutionary, in a way Christ himself, born of worker had to mingle with the oppressed peoples, bringing a sword against those, including those who takes pride in their religion yet actions far from their belief such as their corruption. He even favoured some form of socialism. With the fact that the writings of Berdyaeff reveal to us themes that anticipate the theology of liberation. 

Basing on existing theses related to one of proto-Liberation Theologians, as well as existing writeups on Liberation Theology itself, it may find it strange and hopeful that a once activist turned Theologian was trying to reconcile both ideas in pursuit of transforming the Contemplative church into a Church willing to be active in social and economic change, driven by the idea to serve the less fortunate in preparation for the final judgement. 
And come to think of this: since everyone, marred by issues should take their opposition into action, to the extent of getting beyond the parameters of "order", let's say, basing from the Bible scriptures describing the mission of Jesus Christ, as bringing a sword (social unrest), e.g. Isaiah 61:1, Matthew 10:34, Luke 22:35–38 — and not as bringing peace (social order) as others think about. The contemplative church may have deemphasised the idea that made Berdyaeff rekindle through those chapters knowing that his society as deemed unjust as well as thinking of what was his faith if it is not for the less fortunate.

Mentioning about the Third International, and its description as a holy empire, then yes, it is holy but not an empire in a classical sense, but rather a union of oppressed and dispossessed masses, given that the beatitudes said about "blessed are the oppressed, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"; and  seemed quite true that the oppressed really wanted a kingdom of heaven be set upon on earth and impose justice against those who for long oppressing the people and satisfying at their hardships imposed on them. Berdyaeff may have tried to elaborate further, only to be realised by those whom may be similar to his thought but much radical as Berdyaeff himself, such as the clergymen who had end immersed in the countryside carrying both the bible and the rifle, preaching while fighting against the system that is, evil and rottingly decadent to the core. 

God is disclosed in the historical ‘’praxis’’ of liberation. It is the situation, and with the passionate and reflective involvement in it, which mediates the Word of God. Today that Word is mediated through the cries of the poor and the oppressed. Yearning not just spiritual regeneration, but actual justice being promised to be practised.