Ways of Russian Theology

The Revival of Russian Freemasonry

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The Revival of Russian Freemasonry.

A mystical intensity can be detected from the outset of the century. Masonic lodges revived and reopened. Publication of mystical books resumed, providing a renaissance in the Novikov tradition. 38 Men such as Lopukhin, E. Karneev, Koshelev, I. Turgenev and Labzin, 39 who had been formed in those earlier years, came forward to renew their activities.

The work of A. F. Labzin (1766-1825) most characterized the early years of the century. By 1800, while conference secretary for the Academy of Arts, he opened the St. Petersburg lodge “The Dying Sphinx,” an exclusive and separate circle of Rosicrucians. For a time he had been an ardent follower of Schwartz, 40 and during Paul's reign he translated the history of the Maltese order from German 41 Labzin now tried to repeat the experience of Moscow in the 1780's, and actually did so in publishing. By 1803 he had revived the printing of translated mystical works, especially those of Jung-Stilling and Eckartshausen. Along with Boehme, Saint-Martin and (in part) Fenelon 42 served as authorities or “models.” In 1806 Labzin undertook publication of Messenger of Zion [Sionskii hestnik]. The political climate of those years did not yet favor such publications, and Labzin was compelled to suspend his journal. Labzin indicates the models on which he fashioned his own journal: Pfenniger's Sammlung zu Einem Christlichen Magazin 43 and Ewald's Christliche Monatsschrift. 44

The real swing toward mystical literature occurred only after the Great Fatherland War in connection with the activities of the Bible Society. Only “by Imperial order” in 1817 was Messenger of Zion reopened. By that time there was a sufficient demand for such “mystical books.” Judging by the statements and memoirs of contemporaries, many people possessed such books. Characteristically for that period, mysticism became a social movement and for a time enjoyed governmental support. A strong mystical type was created. Contemporary biographies usually contain a mystical period or episode.

Labzin's message was simple and typical: a mixture of quietism and pietism; above all, a message of “awakening” or “conversion.” He called for introspection and reflection, concentrating full attention on the moment of “conversion:” The new teaching acknowledged as real the sole “dogma” of “conversion.” Renunciation of proud Reason led to agnosticism (sometimes practically aphasia) in theology. All religious experience diffused into waves of captivating and oppressive enthusiasm. “In the Holy Scriptures we find absolutely no guidelines for the understanding of Divine matters.” Reason, with its insights, is contrasted with Revelation; not so much a historical or written Revelation as an “inner” one (that is, a certain “enlightenment” or “illumination”). “Holy Scripture is a mute instructor, using signs to inform the living teacher who dwells in the heart.” Dogmas, and even the sacraments, are less important than this life of the heart. In fact, one cannot please God with “opinions.” “We do not find the Savior providing any explanations of dogmas, only practical axioms teaching us what to do and what to avoid.” Thus, all confessional divisions stem from the pride of Reason. The true church is greater than these superficial divisions and consists of all true worshippers in the spirit, encompassing the entire human race. Such a truly ecumenical or “universal” Christianity becomes for Labzin a peculiar supratemporal or suprahistorical religion. Such a religion is one and the same for all peoples and all times. It is found in the book of Nature, in the Scriptures, among the Prophets, in the mysteries and myths, and in the Gospel. A single religion of the heart. Each man possesses a secret chronology of his own era from the day of his rebirth or conversion, from the day when Christ is born or begins to dwell in his heart.

A sharp distinction in steps or degrees characterizes all of this mysticism, as does the unrestrained and impetuous aspiration to seek or acquire “higher” degrees or initiations. Only the “lowest orders of men, those barely catechumens,” could be satisfied with the pious rituals in the historical churches. Dream and reason strangely intertwine in a mysticism which contains a romantic simplification of all questions and an excessive transparency and lucidity. “His reason presented everything clearly and simply, basing everything on the laws of necessity and on the law which unites the visible and the invisible, the earthly and the heavenly. This, I thought, is a science of religion; a great and important discovery for me.” 45

Opinions divide on Labzin. His polemical and resolute attacks on Voltarianism and all forms of freethinking attracted and reconciled many to him. Even Evgenii Bolkhovitinov 46 remarked that “he detected many, if not from the depraved life, at least from those depraved ideas which combat religion.” Filaret admitted that Labzin had pure intentions. “He was a good man, with certain peculiarities in his religious views.” Others render a much harsher and utterly implacable judgment. Innokentii Smirnov 47 regarded Labzin's translations as completely harmful and dangerous. Many were of a similar mind. Fotii saw in Labzin one of the chief instigators of heresy. In fact, Labzin's propaganda was extremely immodest, willful, and annoying. Intolerant, he had a pathos for conversion. Moreover, he achieved success. Apparently even clergymen (the archimandrites Feofil and Iov 48 have been named) joined his lodge. Witberg, too, became a member. Curiously enough, Kheraskov composed his famous hymn “How Glorious” 49 precisely for Labzin's lodge “The Dying Sphinx.” The hymn is a typical example of the prevailing mystical and pietist poetry.

Mikhail Speranskii (1772-1834) is another representative of the mystical mood. Like Labzin, Speranskii was in essence a man of the preceding century. The optimist and rationalist of the Age of Enlightenment is strikingly evident in him. Speranskii surprised and even frightened his contemporaries by his extremely abstract manner. Forceful and bold in the realm of abstract constructions, schemes, and forms, he quickly tired and became lost in life, occasionally even failing to observe moral decorum. Not only did Speranskii never liberate himself from this innate rationalism, even through many years of reading mystical and ascetical books, but his thought grew still more arid, if more developed, in this ordeal of meditations. He achieved insensitivity, not impartiality. Speranskii derived his great strength as well as his weakness from this rationalism. He became an inimitable codifier and systemizer, and he could be a fearless reformer. But his thoughts lack vitality: they were frequently brilliant but even then they retained an icy chill. There is always something intolerably rhetorical in all his projects and speeches. His clarity and lucidity possessed an offensive quality, which explains why no one loved him and why he could hardly love anyone else. A highly directed and deliberate man, he had an excessive passion for symmetry and too great a faith in the omnipotence of statutes and forms. (Both Filaret and N.I. Turgenev 50 concur in this evaluation). Despite the daring logic of his many proposals, Speranskii had no original ideas. He possessed a clear but superficial mind. His outlook lacked timbre and fibre; he had no living muscle. He even accepted suffering in a dream-like manner. Speranskii simply was not a man of thought. It is all the more characteristic that a man of that style and type could be attracted and drawn into a maelstrom of mysticism. Speranskii came from the clergy. He went through the usual curriculum of an ecclesiastical school, became a teacher and then a prefect in that same Aleksandr Nevskii Seminarys where he had studied. However, he developed an interest in theology at a later date. About 1804 he became acquainted with I. V. Lopukhin and began reading mystical books under Ms guidance. His reading during those years was largely comprised of “theosophical” books, including Boehme, Saint-Martin and Swedenborg. 52 Only later, when in exile in Perm and Velikopol'e, did he shift his interest to “mystical theology,” that is, partly to quietism and partly to the church fathers. He even translated The Imitation of Christ. At the same time he studied Hebrew in order that he might read the Bible in that language. Still later, in Penza, he began learning German.

Speranskii makes the typical distinction or dichotomy of those years between “outer” and “inner.” He possessed more than a mere indifference to history and sharply and maliciously described “historical” and “external” Christianity as “that disfigured Christianity adorned with all the colors of a sensual world.” Once Speranskii wrote to his former schoolmate P. A. Slovtsov, that “to search the Holy Scriptures for our fruitless and empty historical truths and for a useless system provided by the logic of our five senses is to act the child and amuse ourselves with pointless scholarship and literature.” Speranskii viewed the Bible as a book of parables and mysterious symbols; he considered it more a mythical or “theoretical” book than an historical one. Such an approach to the Bible generally characterized the prevailing mysticism and pietism. Speranskii's visionary paternalism, his juggling of abstract schemes, and even his lack of images are surprising. Curiously, he maintained a reserved attitude toward Jung-Stilling and all apocalyptical literature. There was too much that was apocalyptical in life and history to suit him.

Speranskii was a Mason, adhering to Fessler's “scientific” system rather than to Rosicrucianism. De Maistre, on insufficient grounds, considered Speranskii “an admirer of Kant.” Fessler's invitation to Russia is a symptomatic episode. A prominently active Mason who had reformed German freemasonry on more rationalistic and critical lines, he was summoned by Speranskii to occupy a chair in the newly reformed St. Petersburg Theological Academy. Subsequently Speranskii emphasized that Fessler's invitation came “by special Imperial instruction.” He was offered a chair of Hebrew, which Fessler had previously held in Lvov. 53 Upon Fessler's arrival, Speranskii discovered he possessed an outstanding knowledge of philosophy and entrusted him not only with the chair of Hebrew, but with that of philosophy (Speranskii considered himself the “patron” of that chair). Baron Korf, Speranskii's early and official biographer, guessed that there may have been ulterior motives for Fessler's appointment. 54 Since that time, the interesting comments by Gauenshil'd, who served for a time under Speranskii in the Commission on Laws, have become available. 55 Gauenshil'd tells of a Masonic lodge organized by Fessler in St. Petersburg in which Speranskii became a member. Meetings were held in Baron Rosenkampf's home. 56 “A proposal was made to found a central Masonic lodge with filial branches throughout the Russian empire, in which the ablest spiritual people of every station would be obliged to join. These spiritual brethren would be required to write articles on various humanitarian questions, deliver sermons, and so on. Their writings would then be submitted to the central lodge.” Gauenshil'd recalls that at their first meeting Speranskii spoke of “reforming the Russian clergy.” One may infer that Fessler had been brought to St. Petersburg and appointed to the Nevskii Academy for that purpose.

Fessler was a freethinker, not a mystic. He subscribed to the ideas of Lessing and Fichte, 57 and he suggested that the goal of a true Mason could be found in the creation of civic consciousness and in reeducating the citizenry for the coming age of Astrea. Moscow Rosicrucians greeted the news of Fessler's appointment with indignation and fear, for “he is a stealthy enemy who rejects the divinity of Jesus Christ and acknowledges him merely as a great man” 58 Fessler also met with hostility in St. Petersburg. However, prominent people joined his lodge, including S. S. Uvarov, 59 A. I. Turgenev, 60 a group of Carpatho- Russians from the Commission on Laws (Lodi, Balugianskii, and Orlai), 61 the court physician Stoffregen, the famous doctor E. E. Ellisen and the philanthropist Pomian Pezarovius, founder of the Russian Invalid and Alexander's Committee for the Wounded. 62

Fessler did not teach long at the academy. His Socinian cast of mind soon became apparent. The syllabi for his proposed course were found to be “obscure.” Fessler was quickly transferred to the position of “corresponding member” of the Commission on Laws. Subsequently Speranskii, who had defended Fessler and his syllabi, and who until then had been the most active member of the Commission on Ecclesiastical Schools, stopped attending its meetings altogether and even asked permission to resign. These events occurred in 1810. The following year, Fessler was required to visit the Herrnhutters in the southern Volga region. In 1818 he returned once more to St. Petersburg in the capacity of Lutheran General Superintendent. By that time he was enjoying the favor of Prince Golitsyn. The whole episode well characterizes those troubled years. The complete confusion and ambiguity of religious views is so eloquently expressed.

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