Twentieth Century Theology

Nicolay Berdiaev and Dostoevsky's Credo

Almost all theologians of the twentieth century were fascinated by the depth with which the mysteries of freedom and grace, sin and redemption through charity appear in Dostoevsky. That is why Dostoyevsky, although he died in 1881, can almost be considered a theologian of the 20th century.

Juan Luis Lorda-July 24, 2023-Reading time: 7 minutes

Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Wikimedia)

In the winter between 1920 and 1921, in the midst of the Russian revolution, Nicolay Berdiaev, always bold and unpredictable, gave a course on Dostoevsky at the Free Academy of Spiritual Culturewhich he founded in 1919. 

At that time, Western thought and theology were beginning to discover and admire Dostoevsky's enormous genius. And Berdiaev's book would provide clues. Berdiaev (1874-1948) had always been a radical and indomitable spirit, with an ecstatic side. He had been a Marxist and revolutionary, and tasted the Tsarist prisons and banishments, but he had also been interested in German mysticism and came into contact with the tradition of Soloviev, and he was revolted by Bolshevik totalitarianism. The title of his Free Academy of Spiritual Culture was a declaration of principles, a challenge and a provocation. And indeed, after several arrests, he was interrogated for one night by the terrible founder of the Soviet cheka, Dzerzhinsky, before whom he exhaustedly defended himself and was let go, as Solzhenitsyn recalls in his Gulag Archipelago.

From Moscow to Paris

But in communist Russia there was no place for a free and spiritual culture. He was put on the famous "philosophical ship" ("Philosophers' ship"1922) and disembarked with the clothes on his back and 48 years old in Stettin, then a German port. He was accompanied by some philosophers and theologians, friends of his, such as Sergei Boulgakov, and the Losskys: the father, Nicolay, historian of Russian philosophy, and the son, Vladimir, who would shine as the most important Russian Orthodox theologian of the 20th century. He tried to found an Academy of Russian thought in Berlin, but it proved impossible in the harsh conditions of the German post-war period. 

So, like other Russian intellectuals and families, he ended up in Paris, where he would spend the rest of his life. Berdyayev was from a noble and military family, on his father's side. And he had French ancestry on his mother's side. At home they spoke French, the language in vogue at the time. Russia of the 19th century. He already knew France and arrived at a time of intellectual effervescence, also Christian, in which he would participate very actively. All his life he was a great organizer of conferences, gatherings and dialogues.

He has a very extensive oeuvre. He feels he is the depositary of the Russian spirit and, in particular, of the "spirit of Dostoevsky", which for him would be a fascinating discovery and a great light. Writing was like another way of speaking, and an extension of his conferences, gatherings and dialogues. Much of his work has been translated into Spanish. His most outstanding works are Spiritual autobiography (1949), Dostoevsky's Creed (1923), The meaning of history (1923), Christianity and the problem of communism, y Kingdom of the spirit, kingdom of Caesarhis latest book.

A dizzying spirit and big questions

Berdiaev always had a whirlwind of ideas in his head, which he took notes of, and then put down in writing, vertiginously, building his books as if in waves, without going back and without correcting. This is how he remembers it. Everything made him think, and he had vividly raised the great questions about the meaning of human life, the mystery of freedom and the "eschatological question", which run through his life. 

He was interested in Russia, with its tense history and paradoxical spirit. He was interested in the revolution, in which he saw a terrible Christian heresy based on the distortion of hope and an unearthly eschatology. He was especially interested in the mystery of human freedom and its clash with the abysses of personality, so well reflected in Dostoevsky's novels; and he felt it in his own flesh, for he was a passionate spirit, mystical in his own way, and also choleric. All very Russian, if we add to it a deep sense of mercy in the face of human abysses.

Spiritual Autobiography

He tells all this in this broad and passionate spiritual portrait, less concerned with biographical anecdotes than with the characteristics and evolutions of his spirit. He begins by describing the traces of his temperament, at once sanguine and melancholic, with a curious "repugnance to the physiological aspect of life." (Miracle, Barcelona 1957, 42), which seems vulgar to him, especially the smells. 

He continues with his discoveries: "Between my adolescence and my youth, I was agitated by the following thought: 'It is true that I do not know the meaning of life, but the search for such meaning already confers a meaning to life and I will devote my whole life to this search for its meaning'." (88-89).

She recounts the various steps in the process of her conversion and approach to Christianity, also provoked by her marriage. Although he will feel spiritually distant from a Church that is too established or routine, a bad sign of the strength of the tremendous realities it represents. He does not feel comfortable with an orthodox Church that, at times, seems to him uneducated and too inclined to command or organize life. At this point he perceives all the tragedy that appears in the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. By contrast he will appreciate the vital signs of piety and charity, which he also perceives in Catholicism. 

He resents what he feels as too organized in any field. And, after the idealistic wave that has reached him through Marxism, he is a determined enemy of abstraction, of the objectification of reality. In this he connects with other personalist authors, such as Gabriel Marcel. He calls himself an existentialist, and develops a keen sensitivity to theorists, to those who like to replace the real with the theoretical or the "objective", which is largely an abstraction of the real and a reconstruction made by the spirit. He also appreciates this in the materialistic pretensions of the modern sciences. And, in an eminent way, in the Marxist ideology, which calls itself "scientific".

He feels himself a determined researcher of human freedom, with all its personal and social contradictions, with its historical expressions and pretensions, with its renovating and revolutionary impulses, with its ecstasies and its vertigo. But also with the great personal transforming force when freedom is a force at the service of the Truth that is eternal. The book ends: "The fundamental contradiction of my life is constantly manifesting itself again: I am active, apt for the struggle of ideas, and at the same time, I feel a terrible anguish and dream in another world, in a world totally different from this one. I still want to write another book on the new spirituality and the new mysticism. The main nucleus will be constituted by the basic intuition of my life about the creative, theurgical act of man. The new mysticism must be theurgical". (316).

The spirit of Dostoevsky

The lectures of the 1920 winter course were brought on the ship, and were published in Russian in 1923, and later in French. In 1951 there was a Spanish translation directly from Russian (ed. Apolo) and there is a more recent reprint (Nuevo Inicio). The book is not wasted and, as usual in Berdiaev's style, there are apodictic sentences that are sparks of brilliance. 

In the first chapter, The spiritual portrait of Dostoevskyhe declares: "He was not only a great artist, but also a great thinker and a great visionary. He is a formidable dialectician and the best of Russian metaphysicians." (9). "Dostoevsky reflects all the contradictions of the Russian soul, all its antinomies [...]. Through him one can study the very peculiar structure of our soul. Russians, when they express the most characteristic lines of their people, are either 'apocalyptic' or 'apocalyptic' [...]. [as Berdiaev himself]. or 'nihilists'. This indicates that they cannot remain in a fair middle of soul life and culture, without their spirit moving towards the ultimate and towards the maximum limit." (15-16). "Dostoevsky has made a profound study of both tendencies - apocalyptic and nihilistic - of the Russian spirit. He has been the first to discover the history of the Russian soul and its extraordinary inclination to the diabolical and possessed." (18).  "In his works he presents us with the Plutonian eruption of man's subterranean spiritual forces." (19). "Dostoevsky's novels are not proper novels: they are tragedies." (20). 

And this marks a great contrast with the other great novelist Tolstoy, moderate, restrained, formal, more finished but less profound. The Apollonian versus the Dionysian, but also the Christian rationalized and devoid of its tragedy versus the paradoxes of the annihilation of sin and the cross and the gleams of resurrection and redemption. 

In the end, he declares: "Dostoevsky has been able to reveal to us the most important things about the Russian soul and the universal spirit. But he has not known how to reveal to us the case in which the chaotic forces of the soul take hold of our spirit." (140).

What Dostoevsky has yet to tell us

"All Christianity must be resurrected and renewed spiritually. It must be a religion of future times, if it is to be eternal [...]. And the baptism of fire that Dostoevsky makes in the souls, facilitates the path of the creative spirit, the religious movement and the future and eternal Christianity. Dostoevsky deserves to be considered a religious reformer more than Tolstoy. Tolstoy overthrew religious values and groped for the creation of a new religion [...]. Dostoevsky did not invent a new religion, but remained faithful to the Eternal Truth and the eternal traditions of Christianity." (245). 

"For a long time European society has remained on the periphery of Being, content to live on the outside. It has pretended to remain eternally on the surface of the earth but, even there, in 'bourgeois' Europe, the volcanic terrain has revealed itself and it is inevitable that the spiritual abyss will arise in it. Everywhere a movement must be born that goes from the surface to the depths, even if the events preceding that movement are purely superficial, such as wars and revolutions. And amid their cataclysms, listening to the voice that calls them, the peoples of Europe will turn to the Russian writer who has revealed the spiritual depth of man and prophesied the inevitability of the world catastrophe. Dostoevsky represents precisely that priceless value which constitutes the reason for the existence of the Russian people and which will serve for their apology on the Day of Judgment." (247). 

This is how the book ends. It is worth considering that the situation in Europe has moved away from the tragic sensations of the post-war period and, wrapped in a shell of commercial propaganda, it moves away every day from the tragedies in which a great part of humanity lives, while it unravels with a generational and demographic problem caused by the trivialization of sex. Dostoevsky remains a way out, a landing in reality, for the spirits that do not want to get stuck in consumerism and the new politically correct single thought.

Theological impact

In the 1930s and 1940s, Berdiaev was a close friend of the Russian theologians who emigrated to Paris (Boulgakov, Lossky) and dealt with Congar, Daniélou, De Lubac, and the group of Espritby Mounier. In his eyes, Berdiaev represented the spirit of Dostoevsky, at a time when the Christian depth of the great Russian novelist was being discovered, and there was a desire to know his biography, his context and his soul.

De Lubac dedicated half of The drama of atheistic humanism Dostoevsky, described as a Christian "prophet", in the face of the nihilism that tries to impose itself in a society that wants to separate itself from God. On the advice of Max Scheler, Guardini dedicated to Dostoevsky's characters his first course on the Weltanschauung Christian (worldview) in Berlin, Dostoevsky's religious universe. Charles Moeller used Dostoevsky's works to show the contrast between Christian and Greek culture, on essential themes, in Greek wisdom and Christian paradox.

Almost all theologians of the twentieth century were fascinated by the depth with which the mysteries of freedom and grace, sin and redemption through charity appear in Dostoevsky. That is why Dostoevsky, although he died in 1881, can almost be considered a theologian of the 20th century, such has been his impact. And that is also why, The spirit of DostoevskyBerdiaev's book was and still is a reference book.

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