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8 “Soborny” Spirituality: Spirit and Spirituality in Berdyaev and Barth Ashley Cocksworth This volume is devoted to the intriguing task of correlating Karl Barth and Russian Orthodox theology. Such correlation is not without its difficulties. In a letter to German theologian and Russophile Fritz Lieb, prominent Russian philosopher of religion Nicholas Berdyaev commented on the “complicated Orthodox relations with the other two confessions” (Protestantism and Roman Catholicism). Responding to Lieb’s invitation to join the board of the ecumenical periodical Orient und Occident, Berdyaev writes: “I urgently ask you to accentuate the peculiarity of the Russian Orthodox views.”1 Later he claims that “the essential difference 213 between the Christian East and the Christian West is revealed in their different types of spirituality.”2 In thinking about Barth in relation to Russian Orthodoxy, it is important to take seriously those essential differences, though not in a way that closes down possibilities for correlation. In what follows I will take as my focus a cluster of issues that lie very much at the heart of what Berdyaev knew as sobornost but, conversely, are often seen to be problematic in Barth’s writings.3 The issues include participation, theosis, and pneumatology. These themes will provoke probing questions concerning the relation between prayer and the “political”—in terms the exercise of “power” by the divine and the human and the type of political action at stake in a “soborny” spirituality. But first, some scene setting. Scene Setting Nicolas Berdyaev ranks among the most creative, if speculative, of the Russian émigré that settled in Paris.4 Born in 1874 to Russian nobility (on his father’s side military, on his mother’s French royalty), radicalized during his student years, expelled from university for his outspoken socialism, sometime professor of philosophy at Moscow, specialist in theology, philosophy, history, and literature, he was placed under sentence of permanent exile in Siberia for his reformist 1. Letter dated Jan. 12, 1929. The letters to Fritz Lieb, edited by Klaus Bambauer, can be found here: (accessed November 2014). 2. Nicholas Berdyaev, Spirit and Reality (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1939), 156. 3. For one of Berdyaev’s most concise definitions of sobornost, see Nicholas Berdyaev, The Russian Idea (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1947), 162–66; see also V. Illyin, “The Nature and the Meaning of the Term ‘Sobornost,’” Sobornost 1 (1935): 5–7. 4. The translations of Berdyaev’s writings into English produced an initial bout of introductory volumes to this thought, including: Matthew Spinka, Nicolas Berdyaev: Captive of Freedom (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1950); and Oliver Fielding Clarke, Introduction to Berdyaev (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1949); and more specialized works, including: Carnegie Samuel Calian, The Significance of Eschatology in the Thought of Nicolas Berdyaev (Leiden: Brill, 1965). The recent reprinting of Berdyaev’s works by the Semantron Press might provoke a second round of engagement with his thought. CORRELATING SOBORNOST 214 agenda in tsarist Russia. His sentence was lifted under the revolution, only for him to be exiled again in 1922 (along with much of the Russian intelligentsia) for the threat he presented to the Soviet experiment. He emigrated to Berlin and finally to Paris, where he would live until his death in 1948 among a thriving émigré community. Free from the shackles of the institutional control of his homeland, Berdyaev was ferociously productive in Paris. Although friendly with the Russian religious renaissance in Paris, and making a sizable contribution to the productivity of that group, he was also critical of them and would not always self-identify as part of them. And perhaps because he did not fit neatly within the neo-patristic project that characterized much of the Parisian school, that group would not always identify Berdyaev as a fellow comrade.5 He lived, in this sense, a life of theological “exile”—not unlike Barth.6 Barth and Berdyaev engaged very occasionally with each other’s work, no doubt helped along by their mutual friendship in Fritz Lieb. Lieb would play an instrumental role in the mediation of Russian émigré theology to the German theologians.7 But before that he was, in 1921, deployed to cover Barth’s pastoral responsibilities in Safenwil to enable the completion of the second edition of the Romans commentary.8 Thereafter Barth supported Lieb’s application to a lectureship at Münster and then at Bonn, where he taught until his expulsion in November 1933 for his opposition to the 5. See Nicolas Berdyaev, Dream and Reality: An Essay...


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