Religion in Russia/Religion in history

The Encounter of the Intelligentsia and the Church
100 Years since the opening of the Religion and Philosophy meetings
in St. Petersburg, 1901-1903

Igumen Veniamin Novik
Published on 17 December 2001

These sessions provided an opportunity for a meeting between a part of the Russian intelligentsia, the bearers of the “new religious consciousness,” and representatives of the traditional Church. By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries the more sensitive segment of the intelligentsia felt that there was a need to make contact with the “historical Church” as they called it. The idea for the meeting came to Z. N. Gippius and D. M. Merezhkovsky in the fall of 1901. Having received the consent of Metropolitan Anthony Vadkovsky and the Chief Procurator of the Synod K. P. Pobedonostsev, the Religious and Philosophical sessions began on 29 November 1901. The Council of the sessions included Bishop Sergii Stragorodsky of Yamburg as chairman, V. A. Ternavtsev, a Synod official, V. V. Rozanov, D. M. Merezhkovsky, V. S. Mirolubov editor of the “Journal for Everyone”. In all there were 22 sessions.

At times these were attended by A. A. Blok, A. N. Benois, V. Bryusov, I. E. Repin,  and other cultural activists. At the inaugural session, held at the Geographical Society’s premises, Bishop Sergii said:

“Our remoteness and the resultant lack of mutual understanding is a burden. We are drawn towards an awareness of this destructive estrangement and for our accountability for it. We need a path towards unity so we can begin to live and work together in that unity towards the benefit of Russia as a whole.”

Ternavtsev’s report, “The Russian Church in the face of a great task” set the tone and delineated the problematics of the sessions. The speaker noted the main obstacles for the renaissance of Russia in the absence of a religious social ideal among the Church’s activists. D. M. Merezhkovsky spoke on “Leo Tolstoy and the Russian Church.” During the discussion of the “Dogmatic development of Christianity” the representatives of the “new religious consciousness” called the official theologians to recognize dogmas as hindrances. V. V. Rozanov described contemporary Christianity as stone-hard and not vital, and contrasted it with the living Gospel. By common consensus the aim of the session was not achieved: the coming together of those seeking God by the new paths of the intelligentsia, and the representatives of the Church, did not take place. The intelligentsia representatives felt that the Church was not sensitive to their anguish and did not express “the truth about the world.” The Church’s representatives felt that the intelligentsia simply refused to bring themselves into the Church properly. But the religious sessions were interesting not so much in their answers but  in their questions. They laid the beginnings of the religious and philosophical themes in the “Silver age.” Just as these sessions began to develop a great interest in society they were ended by the authorities in April 1903.

Three of the sessions (7-9) were devoted to the theme Freedom of Conscience.

A developing interest freedom of conscience grew as the result of the missionary assembly in Orlov which took place in September 1901, where a report by M. A. Stakhovich, in which he articulated a demand for freedom of conscience, generated a spirited discussion:

“I am asked: What is it that you want? Permission for an unrestrained falling-away from Orthodoxy, and the unrestrained right to propagate your faith, i.e. the conversion of others? Is this what you mean by freedom of conscience? I will categorically state to you, the missionaries: Yes, only this can be called freedom of conscience. What should be restrained is not faith but deeds. Not feelings but actions, constraints, bigotry; everything that criminal law punishes.”

The lay theologian S. Nilus called Stakhovich “Robespierre” in the Moskovsky Vedomosty.  In the same issue Bishop Nikanor said that the very meaning of the term “freedom of conscience” is absurd since conscience acts as a judge and a judge is subject to law.

Even Archpriest Ioann of Kronstadt came out against Stakhovich:

“In our evil times, blasphemers rose up against the Holy Church, such as Count Tolstoy, and recently someone called Stakhovich, dared to befoul the teaching of our Holy Faith and our Church, demanding the right of an unrestrained changeover from our Faith and Church into any other kind of belief. No, one cannot conceive of  a person exercising freedom of conscience precisely because he is a fallen and corrupt being. . . “

Prince S. M. Volkonsky, in his report: “Towards a characterization of social opinions on the question of freedom of conscience” which designated a point of departure for the discussion without rejecting the highest Christian truths, drew the listeners’ attention to the fact that in Russia a kind of a naturalization of Orthodoxy took place, a co-mingling of national and religious factors which engendered an unwritten but a very popular imperative: “A Russian must be Orthodox”. This resulted in numerous restrictions to the rights of the non-Orthodox. Force and compulsion in matters of faith are foreign to the spirit of Christianity. A Church into which one can enter but is forbidden to leave, loses her internal strength. The mandatory requirement to belong to the official religion results in a  weakening and a degeneration of the social consciousness. The concern of the person becomes the fulfilment of external requirements rather than a deeper understanding of the faith. Forbidding a departure from Orthodoxy results in a growth of hypocrisy

Prince Volkonsky felt that one should not confuse freedom of conscience with an elementary lack of discipline and unrestricted license.

In the discussion which followed the principal presentation, Archimandrite Antonin Granovsky, employing the full force of his powerful rhetoric, affirmed that

“. . .there is no truth in the Bible which is not stated with such emphasis as: “I am the Lord your God, there shall be no other gods before Me” This monotheistic principle is in contrast to pagan polytheism. Freedom of conscience will result in the restoration of elementary paganism. Christianity is a Divine inoculation which establishes  spiritual health and well-being. What right are we talking about? About the right to be ill? Such a sad and tragic right. You are allowing the freedom of belief, whatever one wants to believe. Listen, this is your egotistical goal, but don’t try to sanctify it in the name of the Gospel. The idea of solidarity in its depth is not Christian and the establishment within the same borders of altars to the True God and next to it to some kind of Baal cannot be permitted. . .The principle of arbitrary freedom is found in a demonic source. Here rises the question of a compromise between Christ and the demon”

D. S. Merezhkovsky responded to this by saying that things are exactly opposite: the principle of compulsion lies in the demonic source. If we take up the sword of compulsion we step away from Christ and fall into falsehood.

Later Archimandrite Antonin admitted that he confused two different points (the truth of Christianity and the acceptance of Christianity, which can only be done freely) and that he did not address the subject but fell into apologetics. In his subsequent remarks he spoke in favor of freedom of conscience and against compulsion in matters of faith, pointing, out to be sure, that speaking about freedom of conscience outside the Church signifies a misunderstanding of the Church. In his last comment on the subject he added:

“If the State takes upon itself to defend the Church’s interests which stand above it and does not enter into its proper function, it will engender an opposition and lose its competence”

The conclusions of the opposing sides did not exclude but rather complemented each other. Some expressed an uncompromising faith (in the dogmatic sphere), others, for  the need to respect an individual’s freedom and his right to other views (in the ethical sphere). Faith can only be free and cannot tolerate any compulsion. Archimandrite Antonin would have been completely correct had he spoken only of the truth of Christianity and did not touch upon questions of the rights of a person to select the path towards the Ultimate truth.

The presentations made by the presiding Bishop Sergii were significant. Not rejecting the very principle of the freedom of conscience, the foundations of which from a purely theoretical point presented no special difficulty, he cautioned what a straight-forward and immediate application of that principle could lead to in practice. Millions of immature souls could become tempted by such freedom which they would view as absolute permissiveness which, in turn, could lead to unpredictable results. He also called the listeners’ attention to the historical and spiritual role of Orthodoxy in Russia.

V. V. Uspensky, a docent at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy said that freedom of conscience is an unavoidable condition of the existence of Christianity itself. Some fear the destruction of the Church in its separation from the State. But the Church is a divine institution. Should it not remain firm, what would weak human forces do? Some say that to allow freedom would demolish the Church. But if a significant part of the population belongs to the Church only under the fear of punishment, does that kind of belonging have any value? If the Church was able to withstand the first centuries of Christianity, it would stand even more firmly today. Freedom should not be feared.

V. A. Ternavtsev (an official of the Synod) subjected Prince Volkonsky to severe criticism, accusing him of historical irresponsibility. But V. A. Ternavtsev in his very restrained presentation spoke not so much about the principle of the freedom of conscience but more about the historical role of Orthodoxy. The debate about freedom of conscience is a debate about the State and its religious calling and should not be directed to the sacerdotal Church but to the civil authorities as Christians, and to their conscience. The Church should not even consider such a subject. V. A. Ternavtsev rejected any religious content in this subject. This is a matter for secular authorities. It is not coincidental that freedom of conscience is one of the main principles of the revolution. But could a movement which would root out Faith be able to present a question about the religious calling of the secular powers and the State?

       To imagine that the New Testament would tolerate pagan freedom as well as the right to preach in favor of new gods is simply mindless.
       “. . .whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and be drowned in the depth of the sea “(Mt. 18:6)

This is Christ’s teaching! Ternavtsev even proposed that if the State government was in the hands of the early Christians, they would have employed force to guard society against tempters. But he did agree that no other serious questions of faith faces such difficulties as that of freedom of conscience and that it is not sufficient here simply to propose its theoretical solution.

V. M. Skvortsov (official for special projects for Chief  Procurator of the Synod, K. P. Pobedonostsev and editor of the “Missionary Survey”) attempted to turn aside the liberal position of no compulsion in matters of faith by citing Scriptural texts:

St Paul said:“But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8)
“If any one has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Cor 16:22)
Apostle Peter spoke of the need “to put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.”
He also spoke about false teachers “who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1). The Apostle Paul blinded Elymas the magician (Acts 13).

Here it is not that the freedom of conscience is rejected, but it is the activity of Christians which is endorsed. The whole point is, by which method should the true faith be preserved. Where is the boundary between conviction, coercion and compulsion?

Strictly speaking only the last example of the blinding of the magician can be seen as one which would support compulsion in matters of faith. But it is important to note that the magician’s blindness comes about not so much by the will of Apostle Paul  as by “the hand of the Lord” (Acts 13:11)

Here examples from the Old Testament would have been more to the point. For example, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the ten Egyptian plagues, the destruction of 450 prophets of Baal by the Prophet Elijah, the destruction of 3000 Israelites who worshiped the golden calf, by the sons of Levi , or the general destruction of the pagan idolaters who occupied Palestine, by God’s chosen people.

But in those days there was an unusual level of relationship between God and his people. The destruction of the enemies of Israel took place with God’s direct help, as  the conflict with the Amorites, when stones fell upon them from the heavens “. . .there were more who died because of the hailstones than the Israelites killed with the sword (Joshua 10:11). Further on Joshua stopped the sun “. . .for the Lord fought for Israel” (Joshua 10:12, 14).

It is to these circumstances that the attention of the session participants was drawn by Professor A. V. Kartashev in his closing remarks, bringing out a vivid example from Russian history:

The problem of freedom of conscience was a subject which first came up during the ecclesiastical and social conflict with respect to the “Judaiser” heresy in the beginning of the XVI century. The conflicting parties were represented from one side by Iosif Volotsky, an ideologue of the State Church, defender of external methods for fighting the heretics; and from the other side, a group of Belozersky elders, “non-possessors”, the followers of Nil of Sora and preachers of comparative freedom of conscience. Iosif Volotsky wrote: “To kill a sinner or a heretic with your hands or by prayer, is the same thing”, because external means had been  used by holy people. In addition to the noted examples from the Old Testament, Iosif Volotsky recalled Bishop Leo of Catania who, tying up the magician Iliodor with his epitrachilion, burned him with a miraculous fire, himself remaining untouched by the engulfing flames. The Belozersky elders replied to this: “And you, Lord Iosif, why didn’t you test your sanctity, why didn’t you tie up Archimandrite Cassian (burned for heresy) with your mantle before he was burned up, and held him in the flames? How much difference is there between Moses, Elijah, Peter, Paul, and yourself?”
The Belozersky elders demonstrated what is to this day the most important argument in support for what we call”freedom of conscience.” No one has the right in the name of God, to “gather the weeds in the wheatfield” (Mt 13:24-30), nor to be indiscriminate in the employment of methods.. There is a definite line over which no one should step.
Continued A. V. Kartashov: “If the Lord Himself wanted to for whatever it was worth, even in opposition to individual, to subject all mankind under the banner of a single saving faith, then he would have shaken up the earth with thunder, lightning and the sound of trumpets long ago. Nonetheless, millions of people in the past, the present and the future died, and will die, without Christ and apparently the Lord of the world is not concerned with these souls. He is long-suffering apparently, because he does not desire an involuntary allegiance to himself. This is an example for the Church, which must restrain her from the temptation of being indiscriminate in missionary methods. . .In this way on the question of the legitimacy of external means to limit religious conscience, is decided completely in the negative. Practically, the solution of the problem is extremely difficult and almost impossible. There are too many ecclesiastical, State and national questions enmeshed here. The result is that even the most fervent advocates of the religious responsibility of authority, admit today that  the interference of the State in the affairs of the Church would not be as impartial or holy in comparison to what, hopefully, the authority might achieve if it would advance to the heights of divine sonship.”

The discussions on the freedom of conscience at the Religious and Philosophical sessions was of a sufficiently high level. All basic positions “for” and “against” the principle of the freedom of conscience were presented.

In summarizing the discussions the question may be raised thus: How can truth be compared to freedom, assuming a possibility for the rejection of truth?

In approaching this problem, the human intellect, not possessing the fulness of truth, must accept limits to its sovereignty, especially with respect to deciding the fate of other people. The recognition of a right to one’s views (meaning, contrary views), one’s world-view, one’s confession of faith (meaning, a different faith), must be accepted as true. In matters of faith, as in matters of world-view, there can be no compulsion. Any legal discrimination is compulsion. The truth of faith is that it can only be accepted freely. The solution of this problem on the social level can only be based only on some kind of a compromise (religious tolerance). It is important to understand that such a social compromise has nothing in common with a departure from belief within the confines of a particular confession. Here it is important to distinguish the confessional level and the social level. Those who oppose the ‘liberal” principle of freedom of conscience are pounding  on open doors., attempting to prove that truth and order are better than lies and disorder, that freedom from sin is is better than freedom for sin. It is also important to understand that any other principle of the freedom of conscience (other than liberal) does not exist. The word “liberalis” means “free”. God Himself granted this freedom to mankind. People should not take it away from each other.

In conclusion, here are the views on the principle of freedom of conscience of two  outstanding Christian thinkers: Professor of the St Petersburg Theological Academy Vasili Vasilievich Bolotov (1854-1900) and the Professor of the Moscow University (until exile from Russia in 1922), Boris Petrovich Vysheslavtsev (1877-1954):

  [Bolotov] “An enlightened religious understanding will rise to the conviction that God does not demand involuntary obeisance. A humble awareness shows that we cannot nor are we capable of proving the truth of our faith to others so clearly and convincingly, unless they freely choose to worship our God - is the hopeful basis for religious tolerance, and the problem of the freedom of conscience thus remains a problem in that not all people have achieved so high a level of understanding.”
[Vysheslavtsev] “The high value of freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly is unquestionable from the   Christian point of view, since  these  directly grew out of Christianity.  This is a value which lies at the foundation of the free relations between souls, the basis of spiritual unity and consequently, the basis of “sobornost’” and of love. To deprive mankind of any one of these freedoms, is to deprive it of the possibility to manifest “sobornost’” and to exercise love in other words, to strive towards the realization of God’s Kingdom. These values, defended by today’s democracies, are eternal values which, from the Christian point of view, will go over into the Kingdom of God. They are already a part of the very idea of the Kingdom of God, since that is freedom, relationship and unity.”

Translated by Alvian Smirensky