Nikolai Berdyaev
1874 - 1948

 
 

Unifying Christians of the East and the West

by Nikolai Berdiaev

(1925/1926 - #73bis) 1

translated by Fr Michael Knechten


 

The separation of Churches or, better said, the schism of Christianity is the greatest failure of the Christendom in history. This failure testifies, how much freedom the Providence of God has given to man, and how much man has misused this freedom. In the Church there cannot be separation, because the Church is One, and it is homogeneous. Its oneness is determined through the fact that Christ is living in it, that it is mediating the gifts of Grace, and that in it are administered the sacraments. It is not the Church that is divided, but rather Christian humanity. The separation happened within the kingdom of Caesar which became interweaved with the Kingdom of God, but it is not in the Kingdom of God, in which there cannot be separation. The selfsame and eternal Truth of the Christian Revelation is individualized in different races, nations, personalities. The absoluteness of Christian Truth is in no way contrary to an individuation of this kind. There are no excluding oppositions between the universal and the individual. The universal and the individual have herein a concrete sameness. The absolute Truth of Christianity has a human recipient. The human element is not passive but rather active, and it reacts with a creativity different to that which is revealed from above. It creates a multiplicity of forms. And in this should be seen nothing bad. There are many mansions in my Father's house [John 14:2]. Thoroughly justified is the existence of an Eastern and of a Western Christianity, just as there is of a Romanic(2) Christianity and of a Germanic Christianity. It must be said that already in the first centuries the difference in the types of Eastern and Western Christianity had become apparent. The patristics of the East was very different from that of the West; different forms of spirituality developed in the both parts of the Christian world. One part of Christendom adopted the heritage of Greece, the other the heritage of Rome. And even if there had not occurred the catastrophe of the formal separation of the Church, which first then happened when the differences of the both types of Christianity had sufficiently grown apparent, there would in spite of that exist still these types of Eastern and Western Christianity, sharply individualized and different from each other. From the Orthodox standpoint one could admit that there would be a Latin Christianity even while maintaining Christian unity, but that this Latin Christianity would be very strange to Russian Orthodox people. Russian Orthodox in hostility to Catholicism sometimes say, that they cannot bear Latin language and the shaved faces of the Catholic priests, and they are inclined to see a very heresy even in this Latin language and in these shaved faces. So strong an effect have national prejudices! With a more insightful view on the processes of religious individuation it must be admitted also that the German Catholicism never adopted that Latin spirit which pervades the Catholicism of the Roman peoples. It is enough but to remember the great German mysticism, which is in its essence Catholic, and to compare it with the Spanish, Italian or French Catholic mysticism. Tauler, Suso and Jan van Ruysbroeck or Angelus Silesius, who was a passionate and intolerant Catholic, belong to entirely different a spiritual world from that of St John of the Cross, St Theresa, Blessed Angela or St Francis de Sales. German Catholic theology is less rationalistic than French or Italian theology, and in it rules less the Latin love for clear forms. A theologian like Scheeben would be impossible in France. St Thomas Aquinas was a typical Italian, a Latin genius, a genius of form and measure. The German spirit created Meister Eckhart. Protestantism was mostly a product of the German and Anglo-Saxon race, of its individual forms of religiosity. This was a pathological protest against the constraint of the Latin universalism. Individualization is very distinct within the Christianity of the Western world and is active also in Catholicism, but these individualizations and differentiations are yet deeper when comparing the Christianity of the East and the West. The primary and fundamental issues are not the dogmatic and ecclesiastical canonic differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, but rather the differences of spiritual type and of spiritual experience of the mystical way. Howsoever much Orthodox and Catholics fight about the filioque and the infallibility of the pope, they will never come near to a mutual understanding. Here collide worlds which have walked different paths and have collected different experiences upon these paths. It has become difficult for them to understand each other. The stipulation for an abstractly-formal agreement on differences of thinking cannot contribute anything for mutual understanding. This question cannot be decided upon a formal-dogmatic or formal-canonic scope. For the East the infallibility of the pope and the outward unity of the ecclesiastical organization were superfluous while for the West they were essential, because East and West had walked different historic paths and had collected different spiritual experiences. 

Early Christianity was eschatological; it had no historic perspective; it awaited the immanent end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ. But Christianity was destined to become a historic world power. It could not for long live upon those exclusively charismatic gifts, upon which lived the early Christians; it had to have an organ for continued historical life and for the struggle. Eastern Christianity, which inherited the hellenistic spirit, was more meditatively disposed, it concerned itself more in discussing dogmatic questions, and the essential work of the Eastern Patristics was in shaping the dogmas. In the East issued forth both the heretical and a Christian gnosis, beginning with St Clemens of Alexandria. The West was more practical; it inherited the Roman spirit; is was more busy with questions of organization of the Church and with moral theology. In the West, Christianity came more quickly to a consciousness of its historical tasks. The Western Church proved itself to be primarily a fightingly active Church. It took upon itself immense governmental and historical tasks, because the Empire in the West had collapsed. In the East, the Church maintained always the eschatological character. Orthodoxy was more inclined to eternal life and the Kingdom of Heaven than to earthly life and to the historical victories of Christianity in the world. The Church in the West became an immense historical power; it understood completely the bellicose task involved in world supremacy, of ruling over the world. The Western Church saw itself as the Kingdom of God upon the earth, beginning with St Augustine. The historical perspective was overshadowed the eschatological perspective. Christianity in the West was by its type more active and bellicose, it was striving after power upon the earth, after deeds in history. This led to a very high valuation of the principle of organization. For the Catholic consciousness it is characteristic, that all must be organized and put under the outer unity, -- the soul, the society, the culture must be organized; the Church -- in a sense of external universal unity -- must be organized; the religious thinking, the system of theology and philophy must be organized. Instruments of the battle, with which the Church is called to fight in the world, must be trained and ready everywhere. The Church must have its own armies and fortresses. All must be transformed into an army and a fortress, -- soul, social life, thinking. Scholasticism is only the arming of thinking for battle, defense and attack. The theological and philosophical system of St Thomas Aquinas is an immense, wonderfully built fortress, like the whole Catholic Church overall. 

I know that the Catholic world is very rich, complex and manifold, that there are many currents in it. But it is no accident that in the Christianity of the West Aristotelianism prevails. The way of Western Christianity can be expressed in the categories of the Aristotelian philosophy, in the Aristotelian doctrine of form and matter [forma et materia], of potentiality and act [potentia et actus]. The form organizes the matter of life, the matter of the world; the world must be assigned finally to the organizing form. The ecclesiastical hierarchy which is assigned to a uniform highest center, the ecclesiastical doctrine is a forming, organizing principle, which must rule and cannot tolerate that matter which would flow chaotically or separating itself off. Potentiality is imperfect, is non-expressed being which has not yet found its expression, half not-being, -- only the act is true and full being. God is pure act [actus purus], and in Him there is no potentiality. So the Catholic Church is longing to be on earth pure act and not to tolerate the dominance of the potentiality, the not-coming to expression with all its manifold possibilites. In this regard the Christianity of the West, Catholicism, has inherited antiquity’s thinking: it is classical, it fears infinity, it sees in finiteness, in definiteness the sign of the perfectness of being. In Christianity of the East there prevails another spirit. For the East Platonism is far nearer than is Aristotelianism. Orthodoxy is more meditative and eschatological, less bellicose and actual. In the Orthodox Church one finds more the potential, the historically not yet worked out, and it does not regard this as a sign of imperfection or a half not-being. The eschatological perspective of life must maintain moreso the potential possibilities. 

Energy will not be spent on an organized act of history, the spiritual forces remain concentrated in the interior. There is a great eschatological and apocalyptical expectation, a turning to the end of the world, the Second Coming, the celestial Jerusalem, which is to come into the world. Orthodoxy is less built up than Catholicism; characteristical for it is more the insight of intelligent beings, the world of ideas, the world of wisdom, the sophiotic character of the creature. It does not conceive of life as form ruling over matter. The life in the world is not organization but rather organism, and the Church is first of all an organism, the Body of Christ. The element of organization is not so important, it is secondary. The inner unity of the Church is not to be defined by the external organization of ecclesiastical unity. Ecumenicism is not something horizontal, but rather vertical, qualitative not quantitative. An immense freedom of spirit finds definition in Orthodoxy by the fact, that Orthodoxy has not first of all the aim to be world organization, to give form to matter by force, to actualize the life of the Church. The Kingdom of Heaven comes unseen [cf Luk 17:20]. Orthodoxy is in no way aims at a victory upon the earth at all costs. This also gives freedom to it; the organized army cannot feel free in the war, on the battlefield, in the fortress; it must be strongly disciplined and assigned to a warlord. But life is not only war, and the Christian people is not only an army. This can be seen also in the Catholic Church, in which developed a more complex creative life, a richer culture than in the East. But the idea of an organized, bellicose Church still predominates. 

Orthodox thinkers frequently use to fight against the filioque, because in this formula there is so to speak expressed the subordinated position of the Holy Spirit, a "subordinatianism" (3) in conceiving of the Third Hypostasis, and a pretensive Christocentrism which hinders the Holy Spirit to pour freely into the world and over mankind. Orthodoxy is basically a Christianity which reveals the nature of the Holy Spirit. Therefore it looks to the mystery of Resurrection and the Transformation of the creature. The most important feast of Orthodoxy is the feast of the Resurrection of Christ. In Western Christianity, at the center is the Cross, Golgotha. The spiritual type of Eastern Christianity, of Orthodoxy, presents great difficulties for historical life, for the creation of a culture in itself. The eschatological attitude of Orthodoxy, its inclination to the eternal life, to the end of the world, had the consequence that the reconstruction work of life was imposed exclusively on the state, the czar who was anointed by the Church for czarism. The Church was not identified with the state, and it did not fulfill the tasks of the state, but externally it was subjected to the state, as was the case in Byzantium and also in the Russia of the Petrine period. The eschatological feeling sometimes paralysed the creative energy of the Orthodox. But certainly the apocalyptic consciousness of the Russian religious thinkers of the XIX century assumed not rarely a more active, creative character, and it was connected with the faith in the beginning of a new pneumatological epoch in Christianity. Paracletism is characteristic to many Russian religious thinkers. Orthodoxy has maintained unaltered the truths of the old Church more than has the Christianity of the West, and it is nearer to early Christianity. On the spiritual grounds of Orthodoxy there is more possible an apocalyptic consciousness, a prophetic presentiment, because it is less busy with historic activity which obscures the perspective of the final destiny of mankind. Catholicism has too much actualized itself in history. In Orthodoxy there are hidden immense, not yet expressed and not yet lived-out spiritual forces. I as an Orthodox must recognize the spiritual superiority of my Church. But I think however that the individualized spiritual types of Eastern and Western Christianity have a raison d’etre and must remain to the end of the world. Neither of these types and ways is the fullness of Christianity. The ecumenicism of Christianity remains potential, it has not been actualized fully and expressed externally. But when expressed, there will begin a new epoch of Christianity, a greater fullness in the life of the Church, a more integral, a more concise, a more cosmic understanding of the Church. The individualized types of Christianity must remain because they contribute to its richness, but the hatred and hostility must stop. We pray for a unifying of Churches, for unity of the Christian world. But which path have we to traverse, to arrive at this unity? 

The effect of unity of the Christian world, the final triumph of the ecumenical Church, used to be conceived of in the form of a unifying of the Churches. One tended to believe, that the striving of Christians of the East and the West to unity must be expressed in the form of a unifying of the Churches. But the idea of unifying the Churches is essentially an insincere, a wrong idea. Both Orthodox and Catholics believe that Church is one, that it cannot be separated and therefore not united. Religious-ecclesiastical life is not a matter of politics; inside of this life there cannot be something like political blocs, treaties, mutual concessions, diplomatic tricks of all kind. And ultimately Catholics think that unifying Churches means to annex the Orthodox to the one true Catholic Church, and the Orthodox -- to annex Catholics to the one true Orthodox Church. Only the expression "unifying the Churches" proves to be a stratagem which is recognized quickly by both sides. Vladimir Soloviev maybe was the only really upright bearer of the idea of unifying the Churches, because he saw the insufficiency of each Church and the possibility of a mutual completion. But he was too much inclined towards external unias. In reality the unity and unification of the whole Christian world cannot be matter of ecclesiastical governments, of their negotiations and treaties, of insincere unias, -- it has to be realized in depth and not on the surface. This unity can be attained only in the mystic sphere, in the sphere of spiritual life and spiritual experience, not on the trappings of church politics. For Christian unity there is necessary the reducing of the importance of church politics which was always a source of all quarrels in Christianity, and it is necessary to suppress the sinful striving for power. For us Orthodox this is easier, because church politics has played a relatively minimal role with us. All the speaking and all the negotiations about unifying the Churches is the worst possible method for a unification of Christians of the East and the West, -- it normally only leads to more discord. It is not on the surface, not horizontally, not spatio-geographically that there needs to be movement on, but in depth and on high, -- e.g. vertically. The unity of the Christian world can be reached in depth and on high, where all Christians are united, but not on the horizontal surface, where discord and separation rule. The Orthodox and the Catholics can remain in their Churches, in their confessional type, yet in the dimensions of height and depth they can come to unity and fraternity, and overcome the separation. The unification of Churches can only be a work of the Holy Spirit, and this work would become a wonderful fact of world history. We cannot impute to us this task, putting politics in the place of pneumatological. But we must set ourselves another task -- the unity of the Christians of the East and the West, of the Orthodox and of the Catholics, also of the Protestants, for whom the question has not the same ecclesiastical actuality, of spiritual community, of mutual acquaintance and an attitude to each other which is full of love. That is not a formal question, but rather a dogmatical and ecclesiastical-canonic question, it is a question of spiritual direction, a question of spiritual experience. The aim is not the unification of Churches but rather the unification of Christians, a mutual acquaintance and more mutual love of Christians of all Confessions, and overcoming the mutual hostility and quarrel. Enmity and hatred between Christians of various Confessions is one of the most shamefull facts of world history. Considering the unification, the concentration and immense activity of anti-Christian forces in the world, this fact must be called outright a crime. The Antichrist is gaining more and more the world, but the Christians live in quarrelling, strife and discord. Maybe the credit for promoting the unification of the Christian world will go to the spirit of the Antichrist. Interaction and an unification, a sincere, open unification, for the Orthodox is indeed easier than for the Catholics, because the idea of an external authority is strange to the Orthodox ecclesiastical consciousness. We are more free. Sometimes one wrongly conceives of the difference between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, in thinking that the Orthodox see the external ecclesiastical authority in a council of bishops, e.g. imagining it as aristocratically constituted, while the Catholics see the ecclesiastical authority represented in the pope, e.g. perceived as a monarch. But the reality is far different, than that Orthodoxy negates completely the idea of external ecclesiastical authority, as was explained excellently by the very significant Russian theologian Khomiakov. According to the Orthodox consciousness it resides in the people of the Church, in the spirit of Sobornost’, as the authentic protector of Truth. The ecclesiastical organizational question for the church government was therefore never the most important question for the Orthodox ecclesiastical consciousness, on the contrary, the most important question was always that for spiritual experience. For Orthodox and Catholics it is always possible to pray for a unification of the Christian world, to become more carefully acquainted with the foreign Confession and to study it, to transcend discord and hostility, to increase benevolence and mutual love, and to come to a spiritually-fraternal ecumenical relationship in Christ to each other. Outwardly, the Orthodox know badly little about Catholicism; Catholics know about Orthodoxy hardly at all. The Orthodox react with mistrust about Catholicism; whereas Catholics feel contempt for Orthodoxy. Such a spiritual atmosphere cannot be tolerated in future. We must admit that any relationship with the official Catholic governing structure is difficult for us; the ruling sytem of the Catholic theology is strange to us, strange to us also is the church policy of the Vatican. But we can get to love the Catholic saints, the Catholic mysticism, the beauty of the Catholic cult and the genuineness of the Catholic piety in the people, we can also appreciate the social importance of Catholicism. 

The Kindom of God comes unseen [cf Luk 17:20]; it is created out of the depth. Each of us can work together in creating basic units of the one Christian spiritual organism. The Orthodox can remain Orthodox and the Catholic -- Catholic. But from inside one’s confessional type each can strive for unity and ecumenicism, understanding ecumenicism therein as inwardly and spiritual, not externally organizational. The time has come for a greater unity of Christianity. The situation of Christianity in the world has changed decidedly. It is no more an externally ruling power. Persecutions have begun against Christianity. The struggle of the Catholics and Protestants or of the Orthodox and Catholics is not the determining historical impetus, or that the heathen must be subjected to Christianity, but rather the struggle of the Christian powers against the anti-Christian powers, against the Antichrist. For the Christian world of the West what is important is the question of overcoming the historical protest, which is connected with the Reformation, and for which not only Protestants are responsible, just as the question of overcoming the historic raskol (schism) is likewise important for the Russian Orthodox world, and for which are responsible not only the Old-Ritualists. These are the inner questions for the Christianity of the West and for the Christianity of the East. But both these spiritual worlds also must learn to know each other better, and unite spiritually, not politically. But up to now there has been little striving for a spiritual unification. The Orthodoxy lived a closed, isolated existence. II has in it immense spiritual richnesses which have not yet found their expression and are not known to the world. These spiritual richnesses are needful also to the world of the West. Russian religious thought, in which many a creative religious idea has arisen, remains almost unknown in the West. We ourselves are guilty in this. But it seems that we do not recognize, that the time for the Orthodoxy has come, to break out of this closed circle. Our spiritual forces are not so exhausted in too much historical activity and being organization, in the Russian people there is the great capability to give birth to a Christian renaissance, just as there is also the capacity,  to fall under the spirit of the Antichrist. But we must however overcome the historic hostility and the suspicion towards Catholicism. This hostility and this mistrust was fanned by the politics of conquest of the Catholic Church. The fundamental condition for a solidarity and a unification of Orthodox and Catholics is that the politics of conquest must be ended. The Catholics must stop seeing the Russian people as an object which must be converted to the true Faith; they should see in it a religious subject, should be attentive to the inner spiritual life of the Russian people and to the positive spiritual richnesses of Orthodoxy. The greatest hindrance on the way to spiritual community and unity between Orthodox and Catholics is the fixation on the relation to the Orthodox exclusively from the point of view of a conversion to Catholicism. The self-contentedness of the Orthodox, just as also in the Catholic world, must be gotten over. These worlds lack the whole fullness, and they need completion. One ought not strive for unification at any price nor resort to arbitrary means. Forced external unity, which does not correspond to an inner spiritual unity, is only of little worth. It requires a free and open association without any mistrust and without ulterior motives. I repeat yet again, the Holy Spirit will unify the Churches, when the hour for it has come, and which the Providence of God has determined. But Christian mankind must prepare the spiritual soil for this and create a favourable psychical atmosphere. Such a spiritual soil, such a psychical atmosphere can only be a spiritual unifying in love, mutual acquaintance, prayer for the other and a living in brotherhood in Christ. Maybe the unification of Churches and the ecumenicism of Christianity will only be visible and totally actualized when there is an end to time, when the apocalyptic epoch is come (so thinks Vladimir Soloviev in his "Narrative of the Antichrist"); but it is our duty in each moment of our life to strive innerly for it, to prepare spiritually for it. 

Capareton / August 1925.
 
 

Notes

(1) "Aehren aus der Garbe. Christi Reich im Osten. Die geistige Bedeutung Wladimir Solowjews und die inneren Voraussetzungen zur Wiedervereinigung der Russisch-Orthodoxen und der Roemisch-Katholischen Kirche" ("Ears from the Sheaf. The Reign of Christ in the East. The Spiritual Meaning of Vladimir Soloviev and the Inner Conditions to Reunification of the Russian Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches"). Mainz: Matthias-Gruenewald, 1926, pp. 185-200. The Russian original was not published. Translated from Russian into German by Reinhold von Walter. 

(2) Erratum in the printed German text: "romantic" for "Romanic"; here corrected. (M.Knechten) 

(3) Erratum in the printed German text: "subordinationalism" for "subordinatianism"; here corrected. (M.Knechten) 
 
 

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