Theology

Sergei Bulgakov and the Economics of Tradition

Published on: December 7, 2021
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by Daniel Nicholas | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

Written in 1912, Sergei Bulgakov’s Philosophy of Economy: The World as Household surprises in its embrace of a certain kind of materialism. Giving credit largely to the heavyweights of the German idealist tradition with an occasional nod to Marx, it quickly becomes evident that this materialism is rooted in a sense of embodied action and historical metamorphosis that might have characterized some of the revolutionary politics of the earlier half of the nineteenth century. Eschewing the armchair philosophizing of post-Kantian idealism and relying especially upon Schelling in order to articulate a yet highly original vision of the relation forged between the subject and the object through purposive activity, Bulgakov’s philosophy of economy can offer us some surprising insights toward developing an understanding of tradition as a living process.

Organicist thinking with regard to tradition and ecclesiology is of course nothing new. The romanticist reaction against the assertoric dogmatism of medieval ecclesiology is well documented in the work of Möhler, Khomiakov, and, to some extent, John Henry Newman. But how many of these organicist theories were so bold as to consider a theory of metamorphosis under the aspect of the human being as a creature of basically economic activity, who realizes itself through a complex interplay of pragmatist models and idealist projections in the vivification (or resurrection) of dead mechanism through a living process? Herein lies Bulgakov’s special relevance for us today.

Much of the current discourse on tradition revolves around an apriorism similar to the armchair idealism mentioned above. Self-styled armchair “traditionalists” (whether the credentialed apologists of postliberal thought, Benedict Option declinists, or the digital inquisitors of the new integralism) are generally prepared to subordinate themselves to the authority of the church’s dogma as a matter of existential import. Human beings, it will be suggested, are creatures of tradition and can flourish most properly when situated within a “thick” or “robust” tradition of time-tested communal practices and canons of the understanding. Tradition, thus construed, constitutes an internally coherent Weltanschauung, a worldview, which involves itself as more or less an a priori category of the understanding, which makes profound, meaningful human experience possible.

This presuppositional schematization of tradition is a basic part of what Bulgakov considers economic activity. For Bulgakov, economy is not simply a matter of dollars and cents, markets and exchange rates, but a holistic process whereby the human being struggles for the sake of life and overcomes the isolation of subjectivity in concrete relation to the world of nature and objects through action as the various shades of either consumption or production. Whereas consumption is best exemplified in the act of eating (“communing with the flesh of the world,” as Bulgakov phrases it), production can take the form of either artistic play or the development by the sciences of the methods and means for the development of technologies toward the “expansion of life.” Even raw logic is a technology in this way, insofar as it requires the subject to become absorbed in the object as a mechanism. According to Bulgakov, all objects of nature must eventually be murdered in this way, removed from their living context, in order to be schematized and understood by the subject and eventually “consumed” or assimilated back into the consciousness of the living process in such a way that promotes creative human endeavor. Science and logic thus possess a pragmatic basis in this process of nature becoming conscious of itself in history through economy. That is to say, the postulates and principles that govern our knowledge are only a means to an end. We ought thus to consider the basis of tradition as pragmatic rather than dogmatic in the sense that its boundaries are presuppositionally determined.

For herein lies the risk: when tradition becomes schematized as a data set of canons or presuppositions against which to test our interpretation of reality (and thus as a kind of tool for the shaping of the real), it is as if we are attempting to reanimate a corpse in a laboratory full of abstractions amputated from their living context. No one among us is capable of truly inhabiting a single tradition in this way. If we were to carefully examine all of our day-to-day decisions and actions, we would likely find that, with Dostoevsky’s Dmitri Karamazov, we are committed to ideals that are not always compatible with one another—some lofty, some carnal, and everything else in between. A single human being, in the words of Whitman, “contains multitudes,” recapitulating an entire history of porous initiations and transformations. The only thing capable of uniting these various strands of oneself is meaningful action, the tangible projection of oneself into the world. Tradition requires a praxeology in order to make oneself more than a monstrous motley of mutually contradictory schematizations.

The absurdity of armchair traditionalism is thus readily apparent upon reflection. One might shop for traditions within which to affiliate, and in doing so consciously adopt a prefabricated set of postulates—metaphysical, political, moral—wherewith to color one’s experiences of the world with meaning. But there is a not-so-hidden psychologism built into this unhappy subordination: tradition is reified as determinative of self-consciousness, as if there is a tradition out there existing independent of those who inhabit it. One is led to wonder whether or not this self-conscious belonging to a given tradition is, in reality, a hyperconsciousness, a projection of a false self into an epistemological shadowland?

What, then, makes tradition possible? How are traditions to be known and differentiated? It has to be only through the concrete individualities of those who embody a tradition through praxis. The thought of economy as a living process bears a strong theological resonance, for what is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church if not a creative economy of self-realizing activity, Logos becoming conscious of itself? Tradition lives not in the double-minded assent of her various members but in the wisdom of an ever-moving and ever-active productive dynamism. Tradition is known and experienced only in her energies ad extra. Holy tradition, properly speaking, is the praxeology of the people of God. 

This is not to suggest that doctrine is of no importance. Bulgakov is no crude materialist; economic activity can be cognitive. And so long as the postulates of tradition remain schematized and abstract, they are not an obstacle but a means to more life. The postulates of tradition—the creeds, the canons, the hymns, and so forth—are like prodigious artworks or icons within the framework of a theological economy, so much materia dogmatica that inspires and nourishes the expansion of the life of the Holy Spirit as the chasm between living subject and objective mechanism is closed in meaningful Christian praxis. There can be no room for the empty formalism of such abstractions as traditional morality, traditional liturgy, or even traditional theology, but all must reckon with the radical concreteness of the Mystery of Golgotha as the already victorious struggle of life over death. As Boris Pasternak writes in his poem “Mary Magdalene”: “Those three days will pass / but they will push me down into such emptiness / that in the frightening interval / I shall grow up to the Resurrection” (“Mary Magdalene II,” trans. Manya Harari and Max Hayward, [ Knopf: New York], 504-505).

The pathway to the renewing of the mind is through the divine-human creative power that transforms our bones into holy relics. To be “pushed down into emptiness” is the vocation of no armchair allegiance to a tradition. It is the one holy necessity to keep the mind in hell and despair not; it is the wisdom of active love crying out to those who must not just hear the word but do it.


Daniel Nicholas is a graduate of Eastern University with a BA in philosophy and currently an Master of Education student at Antioch University New England. He works as a Waldorf teacher in southern Oregon and serves as a reader at Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church (OCA). He is an essayist and poet and has published elsewhere, including Orthodoxy in Dialogue and Macrina Magazine. 

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