Ways of Russian Theology

The Crisis of Russian Byzantinism

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1. The Crisis of Russian Byzantinism.


The history of Russian thought contains a good deal that is problematical and incomprehensible. The most important question is this: what is the meaning of Russia's ancient, enduring, and centuries long intellectual silence? How does one explain the late and belated awakening of Russian thought? The historian is amazed when he passes from the dynamic and often loquacious Byzantium to placid, silent Rus'. Such a development is perplexing. Was Russia silent, lost in thought, and wrapped in contemplation of God? Or was it mired in spiritual stagnation and idleness? Was it lost in dreams or in a semidormant existence?

No historian today would agree with Golubinskii that prior to the revolution wrought by Peter the Great,[2] Old Russia possessed no civilization or literature and hardly even any literacy. At present such sweeping generalizations seem only curious, lacking either polemic or passion. Moreover, few historians would still repeat Kliuchevskii's [3] statement that for all its seeming intensity and power, Old Russian thought never exceeded the limits of “ecclesiastical and moral casuistry.” Yet in addition to the Questions of Kirik [Voproshaniia Kirika], [4] there is also the Instruction [Pouchenie] [5] of Vladimir Monomakh.[6] A good deal was tested and experienced during those pre-Petrine centuries. And the Russian icon irrefutably testifies to the complexity and profundity, as well as to the genuine beauty, of Old Russia's religious life and of the creative power of the Russian spirit. With justice, Russian iconography has been described as a “theology in colors.”[7] Still, Old Russian culture remained unformulated and mute. The Russian spirit received no creative literary and intellectual expression. The inexpressible and unexpressed quality in Old Russia's culture often appears unhealthy. Many have viewed it as simple backwardness and primitivism and explained it by Old Russia's fatal ties with a pitiful Byzantium. This, in essence, was the view of Chaadaev (la miserable Byaance).[8] In any case, such an interpretation is insufficient. Byzantium of the tenth century was certainly not in decline. On the contrary, the tenth century was a period of renewal and renaissance in the Byzantine Empire. Moreover, strictly speaking, in the tenth century Byzantium was the sole country of genuine culture throughout the entire “European” world, and it long remained a source of living culture, whose creative tension even survived a period of political decline and collapse. Byzantine culture and religious life experienced a new advance, which colored the entire Italian Renaissance.[9] In any event, communion with Byzantine culture could in no way cut off or isolate Old Russia from the “great families of the human race,” as Chaadaev believed. In general, one cannot explain the difficulties of Old Russia's development by its lack of culture. The crisis of Old Russia was one of culture, not the lack of culture or non-culture. The undisclosed intellectual aspect of Old Russia's spirit is a consequence and an expression of inner doubts or aporia. This was a true crisis of culture, a crisis of Byzantine culture in the Russian spirit. At the most decisive moment in Russia's effort at national and historical self-definition, Byzantine tradition was interrupted. The Byzantine legacy was set aside and remained half-forgotten. The core and essence of this cultural crisis consisted of Russia's rejection of the “Greeks.”

It is no longer necessary to prove that there is a “chronology” in Old Russian culture and letters. The attentive historian now has in sufficient clarity before him all the multifaceted and mutually incommensurate and separate historical moments and formations, so that he need no longer search for a general “formula” or designation for all of “Old Russia,” as if it was of one piece from St. Vladimir's[10] times to the reign of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich.[11] In reality Old Russia was not one world but many. Moreover, it is impossible to construct and interpret Russian history as some peculiar and self contained process. Russia was never isolated and separated from the “great families of the human race.”

The Pagan Era.

Russia's cultural history begins with the baptism of Rus'.[12] The pagan era served only as a threshold. This certainly does not mean that the pagan past was of no significance. There remained faint (although sometimes quite visible) traces of paganism whose memory was long preserved in the popular mind, customs [byt'], and style. Moreover, Vladimir Solov'ev[13] justifiably described the baptism of Rus' as a form of national self-rejection, an interruption or break in the national tradition. Baptism does indeed signify a break. Paganism did not die, nor was it rendered powerless. As if through some historical underground, this hidden life, simultaneously of two minds and of two faiths, flowed through the troubled depths of the popular subconciousness. In essence, two cultures-one by day and one by night were intertwined. Of course the adherents to the “day” culture were the minority. However, as is always the case, an equation of spiritual potentials does not indicate any historical formation's capacity for life and growth. The newly acquired Byzantine Christian culture did not instantly become “popular” culture; it long remained the property and possession of a literate and cultured minority. This was an inescapable and natural stage in the process. However, one must remember that the history of this “daytime” Christian culture did not constitute the whole of Russia's spiritual destiny. A “second culture” developed in the subterranean regions, forging a new and unique syncretism in which local pagan “survivals” melted together with borrowed ancient mythology and Christian imagination. This second life flowed underground and frequently broke through to history's surface. Yet one always detects its hidden presence as foamy and tempestuous lava. The barrier between these two social and spiritual strata was always fluid and diffuse and constantly permeated from each side by the process of osmosis. But these strata were not fully independent of each other. Their different spiritual and religious qualities were more important and might be defined as follows: “daytime” culture was the culture of the spirit and the mind. This was an “intellectual” culture. “Nighttime” culture comprised the realm of dreams and imagination.

In sum, the inner dynamic of cultural life is always defined by mutual interpenetration of such qualities and aspirations. The unhealthiness of Old Russia's development lay foremost in the fact that its “nighttime” imagination too long and stubbornly concealed itself and fled from the examination, verification, and purification of “thought.” Early polemists and sermonists had already noted the strange durability of such syncretic “fables.” They thereby detected in this capriciousness of popular imagination one of the fundamental traits of the Russian national spirit. While accurate, this statement must immediately be qualified. In any event, we are dealing here with an historical quantity, not a pre-historical or extra-historical one. In other words, syncretism is a product of development, the result of process, an historical concretion, and not only or merely an inherited trait or characteristic preserved despite the interplay of historical forces.

The defect and weakness of Old Russia's spiritual development in part consisted of its defective ascetic temperament (certainly not of any excess of asceticism) and in part it consisted of its soul's insufficient spirituality, excessive “piety” or “poetics” as well as its spiritual amorphousness. If one prefers, it consisted of its spontaneity.

This is the source of that contrast which might be described as the counterpoint of Byzantine “aridity” to Slavic “plasticity.” It must be noted that this does not refer to some lack of “scientific” rationalism (although the disjunction of “piety” and reason or rational doubt is no less a sickness than dreamy imagination). But what is under discussion here is spiritual sublimation and the transformation of piety into spirituality through “intellectual” discipline and through the achievement of insight and contemplation.

The path is not one from “naivete” to “consciousness,” from “faith” to “knowledge,” or from trust to disbelief and criticism. But it is a path from an elemental lack of will to willed responsibility, from the whirl of ideas and passions to discipline and composure of the spirit; from imagination and argument to a wholeness among spiritual life, experience, and insight; from the “psychological” to the “pneumatic.” And this long hard road, this road of intellectual and inner achievement, is the imperceptible road of historical construction.

The tragedy of the Russian spirit was first performed amidst such spiritual and psychological aporia. The split between these two strata is only one very formal expression of that tragedy. And it will not do to ascribe it to some formal categories, mythology, or structure of the Russian spirit. Historical destiny is fulfilled in specific events and acts, in the willingness or refusal to make decisions when confronted with concrete living tasks.

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