Ways of Russian Theology

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5. Struggle for Theology.


The full significance of the Alexandrine era l for Russia's overall cultural development still remains to be discerned and evaluated. An agitated and pathetic moment, a period of powerfully constructive tensions, the Alexandrine years, with bold naivete, witnessed and experienced the first joys of creativity. Ivan Aksakov 2 successfully characterized this formative moment in Russia's development as one in which poetry suddenly seemed for a time an incontestable historical vocation; poetry “took on the appearance of a sacramental act.” A peculiar vitality and independence, a “creative feeling and joy of artistic mastery” suffused all contemporary poetical work. Russia experienced an awakening of the heart.

However, one must immediately add that there was still no awakening of the mind. Imagination remained unbridled and untempered by mental struggle or intellectual asceticism. Thus, people of that generation easily and frequently fell under charms or into dreams or visions. Alexander's reign was generally an age of dreams; an epoch of musings and sighs, as well as a time of sights, insights, and visions. A disjunction of mind and heart, of thought and imagination, characterized the entire period. The age did not suffer so much from the lack of will as it did from an irresponsible heart. “An esthetic culture of the heart replaced moral precepts with delicate feelings,” in Kliuchevskii's words. The great frailty and infirmity of pietism provided precisely this defect in the heart.

The Russian soul passed through the ordeal or seduction of pietism at the outset of the nineteenth century — the apogee of Russia's westernism. Catherine's reign seems absolutely primitive in comparison to the triumphant face of the Alexandrine era, when the soul completely gave itself over to Europe. In any event, such a development occurred no earlier than the appearance of Letters of a Russian Traveler (1791-1792).3 Rozanov 4 once aptly remarked that “in the Letters of a Russian Traveler, Russia's soul turned to the marvelous world of Western Europe, wept over it, loved it and comprehended it; whereas in the earlier years of the century, her soul gazed on that world with dulled eyes fixing on nothing.”

But in immediately succeeding generations a “Slavophile” opposition, which was not so much a national-psychological opposition as a culturally creative one, began to take shape. The westernism of Alexander's reign, in a real sense, did not mean de-nationalization. On the contrary, this was a period of increased national feeling. However, at that moment the Russian soul took on a perfect resemblance to the Aeolian Harp.

Zhukovskii's with his ingenious diapson and sympathetic, creative ability at reincarnation, with his intense sensitivity and responsiveness, and with his free and immediate language, typifies the period. Yet Zhukovskii was and forever remained (in his lyrical meditations) a western man, a western dreamer, a German pietist always gazing, “like a poet, through the prism of the heart.” Hence his astonishing ability for translating German: his German soul simply expressed itself in Russian.

Quite characteristically, this attack of dreaminess broke out under wartime conditions. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, nearly the whole of Europe had become a theater of military operations. Europe was transformed into an armed camp. It was a time of great historical turning points and divisions, of epoch-making storms and stresses. The beginning of the nineteenth century — the era of the Great Fatherland War 6 and Napoleon — witnessed a new migration of peoples: “the invasion of the Gauls accompanied by the twenty nations.” Unrest highly charged the surrounding environment. Events acquired a feverish rhythm; the wildest fears and premonitions came to pass. Bewildered, the soul was torn between hopeful anticipation and eschatological impatience. Many believed that they lived in an ever-closing apocalyptical circle. “This is not the quiet dawn of Russia, but the stormy twilight of Europe,” Metropolitan Filaret 7 once said.

For a generation of dreamers possessing such unreliable and quite easily aroused imaginations, the ordeal of those violent days proved to be a very harsh trial. Apocalyptical fear awoke and the feeling spread widely that some tangible and immanent Divine guidance had assumed and dissolved individual human wills within itself. The idea of Providence acquired a superstitious and magical reflection in the consciousness of that generation. Men no longer believed in their own abilities. Many experienced and interpreted the Great Fatherland War as an apocalyptical struggle: “A judgment of God on the icy fields.” Napoleon's defeat was accounted a victory over the Beast.

Something majestic and almighty could be detected everywhere and in everything. I am almost certain Alexander and Kutuzov had gained the ability to see Him and that His wrathful countenance had shone even on Napoleon. (Vigel') 8

In the prevailing sentiment the spirit of dreamy withdrawal from and rejection of the “formal” or “external” in Christianity combined with the most unrestrained expectation of the visible approach of the Kingdom of God on earth. One must remember that Romanticism and the Enlightenment equally bear the mark of chiliasm. Romanticism's visionary utopianism is partially the heir to the eighteenth century belief in the imminent and immediate realization of ultimate ideals. Whether as an Age of Reason, a Kingdom of God, or as any number of designations, everyone expected a new Golden Age. The goddess Astrea 9 would return. Earthly Paradise once more would be revealed. “Then a genuine New Year shall descend upon the earth.”

The psychological history of that age and generation can be understood only from the perspective of these awakened socio-apocalyptical expectations and in the context of all those contemporary and universally stunning events and acts. The history of that age displays a streak of theocratic utopianism.

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