Solovyev: Gnostic or Orthodox?

November 1991By Charles A. Coulombe

Charles A. Coulombe is the author of Everyman Today Call Rome, The White Cockade, and Catholic Without Apology. He is a film reviewer for the National Catholic Register.

Russia and the Universal Church.  By Vladimir Solovyev. Help of Christians Publications. 274. $6.50.

War, Progress, and the End of History.  By Vladimir Solovyev. Lindisfarne Press. 206. $14.95.



The apparent downfall of Communism in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union has coincided with renewed Western interest in religious thinkers from those regions. Of these, none is more fascinating than Vladimir Solovyev (1853-1900); it is particularly appropriate that two of his most basic and illuminating works should recently have been reprinted.

While perhaps better known in Europe than in this country, Solovyev nevertheless is claimed as one of their own by Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and neo-Gnostics alike. Certainly, there is much in his work to attract all three groups: Catholics (at least of the believing sort) applaud his attachment to the papacy; Orthodox see in his rejection of Western 19th-century philosophies an affirmation of his Russian religious heritage; neo-Gnostics find his kind of interest in sophiology, cosmology, and eschatology congenial. Reading these two books together goes a long way to solving the Solovyev conundrum.

Russia and the Universal Church, published in France (due to Russian censorship) in 1889, and appearing in English the first time in 1948, is an exposition of Solovyev's religious and political ideas. In his Introduction, Solovyev lays down his religio-political credo: "The fundamental truth and distinctive idea of Christianity is the perfect union of the divine and the human individually achieved in Christ, and finding its social realization in Christian humanity, in which the divine is represented by the Church, centered in the supreme pontiff, and the human by the state." The state to which he refers is the sort of Christian state demanded by his contemporary Pope Leo XIII, in Immortale Dei. While Solovyev was careful to maintain the distinction between Church and state, he derides the separation thereof as idolatry, raising up an authority independent of and unrecognizing Christ.

Part one of the book is entitled "The State of Religion in Russia and the Christian East." In this he condemns the Orthodox Church establishment for its Caesaro-Papism, its refusal to apply the faith to social problems, its arrogance, and its insistence that it alone is the true Church of Christ, despite its continued separation from Rome. He also lambastes the Russian imperial government for shackling the Church. But, since "for lack of an imperial power genuinely Christian and Catholic, the Church has not succeeded in establishing social and political justice in Europe," the Russian emperor may find his true role in attempting to succeed where his Holy Roman and Byzantine counterparts failed. This, however, can only be done if the Orthodox Church which he dominates, and he himself, return to union with the pope.

The next part, "The Ecclesiastical Monarchy Founded by Christ," deals specifically with the papacy. He demonstrates that papal primacy of jurisdiction as well as honor was always accepted in the East, and lays great stress on the events surrounding the Council of Chalcedon. Solovyev shows, for example, that in the opinion of St. Flavian, the then (451) Patriarch of Constantinople, no council was needed to define a dogma if the Bishop of Rome had already done so. But while he goes on at great length to define and defend papal prerogatives, he is no naif. He mentions that there have been on the papal throne men "of diabolical character." He maintains that even the human errors of individual popes are necessary, in the sense that they force Catholics to defend the faith for its own sake. But none of this, in Solovyev's view, lessens either the infallibility or divine nature of the papacy.

The last section is, in many ways, the most startling. "The Trinitary Principle and its Social Application," as it is called, deals with a great many topics, from the creation of the world to the sacraments and social teaching. Showing how the triune nature of God has repercussions throughout creation, he demonstrates that sacraments, Church, and the Incarnation are naturally related. In all of this he triumphantly refutes the double truth theory (that what is true in theology may be false in philosophy), which underlies so much of our present day chatter about religion. For Solovyev, the compartmentalization of moral, dogmatic, and mystical theology, and of social teaching, does not exist, except for convenience's sake. Transubstantiation, for example, is as much a part of reality as the ocean, and no philosophy that does not reflect this can be completely valid.

War, Progress, and the End of History is a very different book. If Russia and the Universal Church reminds one of Joseph de Maistre's Du Pape, this companion text resembles the same author's Les Soirees de Saint Petersbourg. As in that work, the writer's ideas are brought out through conversations between representative characters. In this present case, there are, taking part in three conversations, the Prince, who follows a Tolstoyan and pacifist Christianity-as-ethical-system-without-myths-like-the-Resurrection; the General, an old-style Slavophile Russian conservative; the Politician, who is an etiquette-venerating atheist with a plan for world peace not unlike George Bush's New World Order; the Lady, who is a well-intentioned fuzzy-thinker, not perhaps unlike most of us; and Mr. Z., something of a mystic who is spokesman for Solovyev's opinions.

Where the other book treats of the ideal, this one is concerned with what actually is, and what may be -- in a word, with the problem of evil. The Prince's Christianity he excoriates as false because non-incarnational; the Politician's views are of course almost as noxious -- almost, because to Mr. Z., open atheism is much better than Christianity without Christ. The General's opinions he is in sympathy with, although he does not believe they go far enough. To the Lady, gallant that he is, he is very helpful in clearing up misconceptions.

At the end is attached the "Short History of the Anti- Christ," a chilling account of the last days. The work of the Anti-Christ is everything the Prince is for -- the supposed "values" of Christianity: social justice, tolerance, fair play, and so on, sans the Savior. He is even willing to aid the Church, if only it will be this-worldly.

There are also in this edition (the work was originally published in 1900, coming out a month before its author's death) a Foreword by Czeslaw Milosz, and an Afterword by Stephan Hoeller. Milosz's piece downplays Solovyev's philo-Catholicism. Hoeller, a noted scholar of Gnosticism, emphasizes congruences between his field of study and Solovyev. Beyond that, however, he also goes far in pointing out the importance of Solovyev to the intellectual world at large.

The question that remains is this: Was Solovyev a Gnostic? But before one can answer that question, it must be decided just what Gnosticism was and is. Some, like Eric Voegelin, tend to apply the word to anyone who claims to know the nature of things more clearly than others. Often this degenerates into labeling anyone you don't like a Gnostic, in much the way that "fascist" was used in the 1960s and "Communist" in the 1950s.

Many would define Gnosticism as a belief in salvation through knowledge. But during the second century, "gnosis" was a buzz-word claimed by orthodox and heterodox alike, much as "democracy" and "freedom" are coveted by all sides today. Indeed, St. Clement of Alexandria maintained that Christian orthodoxy was the true gnosis, the knowledge necessary for salvation.

In reality, "Gnosticism," like "Protestantism," is a word that has lost most of its meaning. Just as we would need to know whether a "Protestant" writer is Calvinist, Lutheran, Anabaptist, or whatever in order to evaluate him properly, so too the "Gnostic" must be identified as a Valentinian or an Orphite, and so on. What, then, was Solovyev? He was no Docetist, for the physical Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity was the cornerstone of his thought. He was no Marcionite, for he did not reject ecclesiastical hierarchy in favor of a purely "spiritual" church.

He was certainly no dualist. In a word, he held to none of the various schools of beliefs we so blithely lump together as Gnostic.

The truth about Solovyev is that he was orthodox, so orthodox, indeed, that we who are heirs to a rationalized theology find much of his thought peculiar. But even his veneration of Sophia, the feminine personification of Divine Wisdom, which in no small part accounts for the recurrent labeling of him as Gnostic, has always been well known in the East, and was not entirely unheard of in Patristic and medieval Latin Christendom. His train of thought is easy to trace, really. The mystical Slavophilism of 19th-century Russia and such Catholic Romantic writers as de Maistre and the great Franz von Baader stand immediately behind him in his intellectual genealogy. Further back, one would encounter Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon, and Bl. Raymond Lully. At last, the trail brings us to St. Clement of Alexandria and the Gospel of St. John. As with these "ancestors," mysticism was not merely a curiosity, nor the Church just an organization. Rather, they are living realities which offer the only solutions to the problems of human existence. Although radical in terms of today's philosophical climate, there is nothing in this which is heretical; rather, it is the heart of the Christian message.



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