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  • Thinking Orthodox in Modern Russia: Culture, History, Context ed. by Patrick Lally Michelson, Judith Deutsch Kornblatt
  • Josephine von ZITZEWITZ (bio)
Patrick Lally Michelson and Judith Deutsch Kornblatt (Eds.), Thinking Orthodox in Modern Russia: Culture, History, Context (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014). 303pp. Index. ISBN: 978-0-299-29894-4.

This collection, comprising eleven essays, is in many respects a sequel to Russian Religious Thought, the volume edited by Judith Deutsch Kornblatt and Richard F. Gustafson in 1996. Russian Religious Thoughtexplored the work of a group of thinkers whose names have become synonymous with that term: Vladimir Solov’ev, Pavel Florensky, Sergei Bulgakov, and Semen Frank; there are a few others who could join this list. Thinking Orthodox in Modern Russia has set itself a different task: to redress the rigid division of Russian religious thought into “lay” and “ecclesiastical.” The collection provides historical, social, philosophical, and ecclesiastical context, placing well-known texts into a web of relations and cross-influences and introducing less well-known voices from within the Russian Orthodox Church and the Spiritual Academies to the English-language reader. The commitment to context is reflected in the division of the book into three sections – “Thinking Orthodox in the Church,” “Thinking Orthodox in the Academy,” and “Thinking Orthodox in Society and Culture.” Thus the volume presents a more balanced picture of the origins of religious ideas, complicating the simplistic binary opposition that locates “thought,” as opposed to “dogma,” outside the Church or at its fringes. This goes some distance toward weakening the prejudice that, in the absence of a scholastic tradition within the Orthodox Church, Orthodox thought was developed by lay thinkers who were, strictly speaking, philosophers rather than theologians. Composition is a strong point of Thinking Orthodox in Modern Russia. Within the sections, the essays are ordered chronologically; moreover, the individual contributions are in sustained dialogue with each other, and there is also dialogue between the sections. The sense of cohesion this imparts to the reader is rare for an edited collection. And yet, the book implicitly confirms the primacy of the early twentieth-century religious philosophers, whose names recur in most of the essays.

The very first essay sets the tone, identifying a key theme that runs through the entire volume. This focal point is the relationship between Orthodox theology and the eighteenthcentury Enlightenment. Indeed, seven out of eleven essays focus on this relationship in one form or other. The concern with the Enlightenment and the challenges it posed to traditional [End Page 542] religious faith means that the unlikely protagonist of the volume is a German – the idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose attempts to ground religious faith in human reason tried to cement religion’s place in a changing worldview. Kantian theism – a vision of morality that depended on a particular conception of God and posited moral perfection as the goal of human life – forms, in one sense or other, the backdrop for all essays that deal with Orthodoxy and the Enlightenment.

In the first essay, Elise Kimerling Wirtschafter reads a cycle of sermons by Metropolitan Platon (Levshin, 1737–1812), by all accounts a traditional eighteenthcentury churchman, for his attempt to provide Christian answers to questions raised by the Enlightenment, in other words, to find a “reasonable faith.” The conclusion Wirtschafter reaches is provocative – not only was the Orthodox Church after the Petrine reforms a much more dynamic environment than commonly assumed, but the efforts of Enlightenment churchmen prepared the ground on which Russia subsequently adopted Western cultural models. A more explicitly Kantian reading of Metropolitan Platon is provided by the late Oliver Smith in the third section. In “The Theological Roots of Russian Hermeneutics,” he elaborates on Platon’s adaptation of Enlightenment beliefs in the autonomy of reason for the purpose of developing an Orthodox hermeneutics that became influential beyond the confines of theology and the Academy (more below).

The section on thought originating in the four prerevolutionary Spiritual Academies (Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, and Kazan) contains two essays that function as thesis and antithesis. Sean Gillen, in “V. D. Kudriavtsev-Platonov and the Making of Russian Orthodox Theism,” details how Kudriavtsev-Platonov (1828–91) uses Kantian theism in order to...


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