Ways of Russian Theology



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Alexander I; Prince A.N. Golitsyn; The Coming of Pietism.


Emperor Alexander I may justly be termed the eponym of his age. He typified the epoch in his spiritual formation and style and in his tastes and inclinations. Alexander was reared in the influences of sentimental humanism. From there the step to the mystical religion of the heart was neither long nor difficult. At a very early age, Alexander became used to living in an atmosphere of dreams and expectations, in a peculiar intellectual mimicry, in aspirations and dreams for “the ideal.” That pathetic oath sworn by the two monarchs over the grave of Frederick II occurred as early as 1804.10 In any event, Alexander entered the sphere of mystical enthusiasms long before “the flames of Moscow illumined his heart.”

Speranskii, 11 writing from Perm, reminded the tsar about their conversations on mystical themes: conversations, which clearly reveal a “subject matter corresponding to the emperor's innermost feelings.” However, an even stronger influence was exercised by Rodion Koshelev (1749-1827),12 an old Mason personally acquainted with Lavater, Saint-Martin, Eckartshausen, 13 and even more closely with Prince A. N. Golitsyn. 14 In 1812 Alexander composed a revealing memoir entitled On mystical literature [O misticheskoi literature] for his favorite sister, the Grand Duchess Catherine. He repeats, or reformulates, the advice and program of others, yet one instantly realizes that Alexander has fully assimilated that program, acclimated himself to its style, and that he had already formed definite tastes and preferences. He preferred St. Francis de Sales, 15 St. Teresa of Avila, 16 The Imitation of Christ, 17 and J. Tauler. 18

The Great Fatherland War served only as a catalyst for Alexander, resolving older tensions. He read the New Testament for the first time on the very eve of Napoleon's invasion. The Apocalypse most greatly affected him. Similarly the prophets attracted him most in the Old Testament. From that moment onward, Alexander became curious and credulous of every manner of interpretation and any interpreter of the enigmatic and symbolic Book of Revelation. Precisely such curiosity drew him to Jung-Stilling (J. H. Jung), 19 Baroness Krudener, 20 Pastor Empeitaz, 21 Oberlin, 22 the Moravian Brethern, the Quakers, and the Herrnhutters. 23 Later, two priests from Balta, Feodosii Levitskii and Fedor Lisevich (who considered themselves “two faithful witnesses” from Revelations) were summoned to the capital specifically in order to interpret the Apocalypse. 24 Apparently Alexander was prepared to listen to Archimandrite Fotii 25 because Fotii interpreted Revelations and prophesied and threatened in the name of the Apocalypse and all the prophets. In such historical circumstances, it was not strange to believe that the end was approaching.

Alexander neither loved nor sought power. But he acknowledged that he was the bearer of a sacred idea and revelled in that fact. This belief constituted the source of his moral and political obstinacy (rather than tenacity). Many of that generation detected in themselves a special sign of predestination. The Holy Alliance 26 was conceived and concluded in precisely such a mood. In a way similar to the theories of the Age of Enlightenment, this alliance presupposed a faith in an omnipotent and benevolent Lawgiver, who designed or established an ecumenical peace and a universal happiness. No one had to suggest this idea to Alexander; he discovered it for himself in those events, which seemed so cunningly devised. “The Redeemer Himself teaches the idea and the precepts which we have announced.”

The Holy Alliance was conceived as a preparation for the Kingdom of a Thousand Years. As Golitsyn put it: “It will be apparent to anyone who wishes to see, that this act can only be understood as a preparation for that promised Kingdom of the Lord on earth even as it is in Heaven.” The act of “Fraternal Christian Alliance” was signed “in the year of Grace 1815, the 14th/26th September,” and the fact that the day coincided with the feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross 27 according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar is scarcely an accident. The Holy Synod ordered that the Act of Holy Alliance be displayed on walls and in every city and village church. And each year on the feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross the act was to be reannounced from the ambo, along with an accompanying manifesto, “so that each and every person might fulfill his vow of service to the one Lord and Savior, who speaks through the person of the Sovereign for the entire people.” A special “combined ministry,” a Ministry of Religious Affairs and Public Enlightenment, was established specifically in order to fulfill that vow. 28 According to Speranskii, it was “the greatest governmental act since the introduction of the Christian faith.” Strictly speaking, this was to be a Ministry of Religio Utopian Propaganda. The combined ministry was founded “so that Christian piety would always serve as the basis for true enlightenment.” In other words, this was a scheme to place religion at the head or center of culture as a whole: “a redemptive union of faith, knowledge and authority.” The latter element of this synthesis is the characteristic one, for the idea was to use the power of “authority” to reconcile “faith” and “knowledge.” To a significant degree the new ministry served as Prince A. N. Golitsyn's personal department. Perhaps personal regime would be more accurate. With the fall of Golitsyn, the combined ministry was abolished and its departments once more established on separate footings.

Prince A.N. Golitsyn (1773-1844) is perhaps the most characteristic man of that age. In any case, he was certainly its most sensitive and expressive representative. His ability to absorb impressions nearly constituted a sickness. He suffered from an outright mystical curiosity. A man of the Enlightenment no longer in his youth, Golitsyn suddenly experienced a turning of the heart. Yet the sensitivity of this newly converted heart combined with an insensitive and somewhat arid intellect. Prince Golitsyn's dreamy and authoritarian religious temperament rather unexpectedly grew into an organic unity. An aristocratic grandeur sharply pierced his sentimentalism. A man with a trusting and sensitive heart, Golitsyn could and wished to be a dictator, and actually became one for several years. His peculiar “dictatorship of the heart” proved very tiresome and intolerant. Fanaticism of the heart is especially prone to, and easily combined with, a sneering compassion.

Golitsyn converted to “universal Christianity,” to a religion of tender imagination and experience of the heart. These were the only qualities in Christianity, which he prized. Hence his interest in sectarian “conversions” and “awakenings,” which for him revealed the essence of religion stripped of all its useless trappings. He valued and understood only the symbolism, only the emotional-mysterious inspiration of ritual in “formal” worship and church life. Within that context Golitsyn was totally sincere and sensitive, for to the end of his days he was a man on a quest. The spirit of propaganda or proselytism is very characteristic of such forms of piety. As head of the combined ministry, Golitsyn discovered himself.

At the same time, the combined ministry represented a new link in the chain of Peter I's church reform, a new step toward the realization of that novel ecclesiastical-political regime established at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Still earlier, on the strength of the intimacy and favor bestowed upon him by the emperor, and as friend and “imperial confidant,” Golitsyn, as Over Procurator, succeeded in becoming a sort of governor-general of the “Synodal Department.” True, in individual cases he defended the church against state encroachments, as for example, when he rejected Speranskii's proposal to turn over to the secular authorities the right to grant divorces. With the establishment of the combined ministry, his earlier demonstrated success took on the full force of law. The Synod became formally integrated within the state administration for “religious affairs,” as a special “division for the Greco-Russian confession.” The manifesto establishing this new administration expresses the matter as follows:

Of course the affairs of the Most Holy Governing Synod will be attached to it (i.e., the ministry) in order that the Minister of Religious Affairs and Public Enlightenment will have exactly the same relationship to the Synod in these affairs as the Minister of Justice has to the Governing Senate, except, however, in judicial matters.

Fundamental to the design of the combined ministry, as well as to the entire conception of the Holy Alliance, is the religious leadership or supremacy of the “Prince,” ruling and administering not only “by the grace of God,” but also by Divine authority. As the “treatise” on the Holy Alliance phrased it, “thus confessing that the Christian world, of which they and their subjects form a part, has in reality no other Sovereign than Him to whom alone power truly belongs.” The definition provided by Novosiltsev 29 in his “Statutory Charter” makes an interesting comparison: “As the Supreme head of the Orthodox Greco-Russian Church, the Sovereign is elevated to all the honors of the church hierarchy” (Article 20). Such a step forward went beyond Peter and Feofan. The Petrine State subordinated the church from without, and in the name of a secular cause, “the common good,” extorted toleration for secularized life. During Alexander's reign, the state once again conceived itself to be holy and sacred, proclaiming religious leadership and imposing its own religious ideas. The Over Procurator seemingly “joined the clergy of the Church” as the “locum tenens for the external bishop” [mestobliustitel' vneshniago episkopa], as Filaret, the future metropolitan of Moscow, greeted Golitsyn on his appointment; or “the great chimera of universal Christianity,” as Joseph de Maistre 30 sardonically put it.

The Emperor Alexander professed a mongrel form of Christianity, and pretentiously claimed the right to rule in the name of this “universal” religion. All confessions within the Russian Empire were urged to accommodate themselves to a particular place within the overall system. The combined ministry was to join, if not unite, all confessions or “churches” not only in a common task but with a single inspiration. In this regard, the very complex and highly symbolical plans for the cathedral of Christ the Savior drawn up by A.L. Witberg 31 are very instructive. “I did not wish to raise up an edifice to God, but rather a prayer.” This cathedral was not to be merely an Orthodox one, but was also to embody and express “an all-embracing idea.” As Witberg himself said: “Its very dedication to Christ proved that it belonged to the entirety of Christianity.”

The combined ministry became a cruel and coercive regime. Religious mysticism was invested with the full force of law, with fully decisive sanctions against those who disagreed or who simply acted evasively. Simple lack of sympathy for the ideas of “inner Christianity” was considered a crime, and consequently an act of opposition to the views of the government. One article from a contemporary statute on censorship reads as follows: “Any act is condemned which, under the pretext of defending or justifying one of the Christian churches, reproaches another, thereby destroying the unity of love which binds all Christians together in one spirit in Christ.” On the strength of such a statute, analysis of Protestant beliefs from the Orthodox point of view became impermissible. Such a prohibition had existed earlier under Peter and Biron.

The regime of the Holy Alliance signified the ensemblement of conscience and spirit, and constituted the most pretentious form of statism: theocratic statism. Too frequently, the combined ministry proved to be a “Ministry of Obfuscation,” as Karamzin dubbed it. And yet, an awakening occurred in this extremely confused and ambiguous historical setting. The state attempted to strengthen and augment the religious needs of the mass of the population. “The efforts of Prince Golitsyn,” writes the historian Chistovich, 32 “were directed toward arousing the Russian people from the slumber and indifference which he seemed to find everywhere; awakening in them higher spiritual instincts; and through the distribution of religious books implanting in them the living stream of an inwardly comprehended Christianity.” That same historian notes that “the period of unrestricted existence of the Bible Society marks the only time since the outset of the eighteenth century when secular society, applying itself to religious subjects with a lively and intense interest, gave first priority to the moral and spiritual development of the people.” The message of “inner Christianity” did not pass away without a trace; it sented as a summons to moral and religious self-reliance. In any case, it acted as a dialectical counterweight to the enlightened secularism of the previous century. At that time a conscious effort had been made to force the clergy into the lower social classes and dissolve it in “the common sort of men.” 33 Now the ideal arose of an educated and enlightened clergy occupying a place in higher society. The new regime's program allotted the bearers of religious ideas and inspiration a greater place or role in the entire system of state and national life. Discipline was the hallmark of Peter's reign education that of Catherine's; now creativity became the sign of the times.

Roman Catholic elements also existed in the prevailing mystical syncretism. In an important sense, Joseph de Maistre belongs to the history of Russian mysticism. As a youth he experienced freemasonry, and his outlook owes a good deal to Saint-Martin. During his years in Russia, he continued to believe that in non-Catholic countries freemasonry posed no danger for religion or for the state. However, the Bible Society, whose working operations he could observe firsthand in Russia, he considered quite dangerous. These impressions found a place in his theocratic synthesis. As G. Goyau 34 perceptively noted, when de Maistre wrote On the Pope, he had two countries in mind: France and Russia. De Maistre exercised a considerable influence in Russian aristocratic circles. 35

During the first years of the new century, the influence of the Jesuits could also be strongly felt. One need only recall the names of Abbes Nicole 36 and Rozaven. 37 For a short time, from 1811 to 1820, the Jesuits even managed to achieve the creation of a special educational district for their schools within the empire. Polotsk Academy served as its administrative center. To the south, Odessa became a hotbed of Roman proselytism and its College des Nobles raquo; , was soon reorganized as the lycee Richelieu with Nicole as director. However, by 1815 the Jesuits had been expelled from both capitals, and by 1820 they were dispatched beyond the empire's frontier. Their schools were either closed or reformed. However, such measures did not entirely eliminate Latin influence.

The Alexandrine era consisted of contradictions, ambiguities, and duplicities. Life and thought became divided. An open (if not free) social and religious debate arose for the first time. Such was the beginning of a new, stormy, and significant era.



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