- Deification in Russian Religious Thought: Between the Revolutions, 1905–1917 by Ruth Coates
Studies of deification have gone viral. Since non-Orthodox scholars stopped practicing intellectual distancing from deification long ago, there is a growing epidemic of monographs looking for the traces of the theme in every possible direction: scripture, the Greek and Latin Church Fathers, medieval theologians, those who labored on every side of the Reformation and our side of modernity. Surprisingly, however, a complete story of the doctrine of deification’s coming to its own in modern Orthodox theology remains to be written.
Ruth Coates’s book fills an important lacuna in this larger story. The subtitle of the book—“Between the Revolutions, 1905– 1917”—establishes the Sitz im Leben and provides the temporal limits of the study. The “revolutionary situation” in Russia led to a considerable amount of social turbulence, which provided fertile soil for spiritual and religious awakening: the Russian religious renaissance. The narrow temporal window chosen by Coates allows for a fine-textured, focused synchronic assessment of the four main sources or “case studies”: Tsar and Revolution (1907), a collection of essays by Dmitry Merezhkovsky, his wife Zinaida Gip-pius, and their friend, Dmitry Filosofov (the three are conventionally shortened to “the Merezhkovskys”); The Meaning of Creativity (1916) by Nikolai Berdyaev; The Philosophy of Economy (1912) by Sergei Bulgakov; and The Pillar and Ground of the Truth (1914) by Pavel Florensky. The “case study” approach illustrates the intellectual daring of the Russian religious renaissance by considering the implications of deification not only for theology (Florensky), but also for political theory (the Merezhkovskys), economics (Bulgakov), and personalist philosophy (Berdyaev). The book also includes two background chapters on deification in the Greek Church Fathers and in the nineteenth-century Russian religious thinkers.
The ordering of the main four chapters is not chronological, since Berdyaev’s book was written and published after the rest of the works considered. Rather, this book’s argument seems to move from the works the least indebted to the patristic understanding of deification (the Merezhkovskys) to the works that show a more robust engagement of the Church Fathers (Florensky). To put this differently, the Merezhkovskys focused on the wrong ways to go about deification (idolatrous sacralization of the person and office of the Russian Tsar), whereas Florensky described the ecclesial way of going about deification (virginity and asceticism). For the Merezhkovskys the abrogation of the office of the patriarch by Peter I was more than a secularizing move based on the Protestant models; it was, at least in the minds of many Russian Orthodox believers, a blasphemous usurpation of the sacred authority of the Church by the Tsar, who accepted quasi-divine honors reminiscent of the pagan Roman Emperors. The [End Page 223] Merezhkovskys proposed an anarchist solution to the problem of the idolatrous and demonic divinization of absolute monarchy. In fleshing out this solution, they creatively drew on the imagination of Russian sectarian groups, which held that all their religious adherents, with due divine assistance, could become Christ. The Merezhkovskys located this form of deification in the sanctification of the flesh and criticized “historical Christianity” and “institutional Church” for unduly negative attitudes towards the body. Coates notes sectarian tendencies in the “new religious consciousness” espoused by the Mere-zhkovskys and points out that their critique of the Church was not grounded in a careful study of the Orthodox tradition.
Berdyaev wrote The Meaning of Creativity at the time when he parted with the Merezhkovsky circle and the “new religious consciousness,” but as Coates astutely observes, much of his former sensibility, especially the suspicion towards the “institutional Church,” still remains in this book. Berdyaev compares a genius and a saint (in his example, Pushkin and St. Seraphim of Sarov) and claims that the creative act of a genius is as valuable in the eyes of God as the ascetic struggle of the saint. For Berdyaev, the creative act has a redemptive value inasmuch as it aligns human agents with the creative power of God and with divine freedom. As Coates carefully...