Over a Beer with Barth and Bulgakov: Cosmodicy

by Regula M. Zwahlen

Image: iStock.com/Chinnachart Martmoh

In September 1930, two of the greatest Protestant and Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century—Karl Barth and Sergii Bulgakov—met in the Kornhauskeller in the Swiss capital, Berne.[1] Although an elegant restaurant today, the Kornhauskeller was a famous “drinking hole” in a vaulted cellar hall then, especially popular among students. The genius loci is worth mentioning because today’s Russian Orthodox parish is located not far away in another of Berne’s old town cellars, namely the crypt of the Lutheran church. Hence, this is the story of how a rather insignificant encounter and seemingly parting of ways still reveal common ground for further ecumenical dialogue. Or, as Bulgakov put it in a letter to Nikolai Berdiaev of June 7, 1933, “Parallel spiritual lines, which do not meet in Euclidean space, will meet beyond Euclidean space, where ‘in the Father’s house are many dwellings.’”

After attending the Second East-Western Theological Conference in Berne, Karl Barth probably had at least one beer with Fritz Lieb, a Swiss theologian and Slavist known for his endeavors to engage East-West ecumenical dialogue, and Sergii Bulgakov, who had just given a lecture on the “Nature of the Russian Church”—including a passage about Orthodoxy’s cosmic character.[2] We know from Barth’s correspondence that the only lecture he found “fairly interesting and in its way plausible” was Bulgakov’s. Barth described him as a storybook Russian “pope [who spoke] with remarkable passion and not without speculative momentum,” and Barth “received further peculiar insights about the divine Sophia and other Russian theologumena.”[3]

However, Bulgakov hardly sparked Barth’s growing interest in Russian religious thought or Orthodox theology at the time. In a passage in the first volume of his Church Dogmatics from 1932, Barth complained about the Russian theologians’ and philosophers’ obliteration of “every boundary between philosophy and theology, reason and revelation, Scripture, tradition and immediate illumination, Spirit and Nature, Pistis and Gnosis (as well as the distinction between the economic and the immanent Trinity),” referring to Bubnoff’s and Ehrenberg’s German language sourcebook on Eastern Christianity that contains a chapter from Bulgakov’s Unfading Light, titled “Cosmodicy.” As Paul Valliere points out in the Oxford Handbook of Russian Religious Thought, “Russian religious thinkers [. . .] were engaged in a project of cultural engagement, the project of imagining how a creative Christian culture could be constructed in the context of modern civilization. [. . .] It was also the project Barth was dedicated to overthrowing” (663–64).

This dissociation was mutual. The Russian émigré journal Put’ contains several contributions discussing Barth’s dialectical theology. On the one hand, many Russian thinkers were excited about this Protestant countermovement to so-called “liberal” theology, according to Antoine Arjakovsky in The Way, but on the other, thinkers such as Nikolai Berdiaev, Vasily Zenkovsky, and Semen Frank rejected Barth’s strict “Non-Acceptance of the World” (Nicht-Annahme der Welt) in the early 1930s (169–70).[4] The same is true for Bulgakov, as noted in his work Unfading Light, in which he states, “World-denial, with which an insensitivity for history is connected, unfortunately steals altogether easily into Orthodox consciousness” (xli). In fact, this topic is one of the background layers of Bulgakov’s book for English readers published in 1937 in New York, as the following passage shows:

The acceptance of the world by humanism [. . .] was a reaction against its nonacceptance [[in reformation]], which only left it a right to natural existence. We are confronted in this process by a bad ‘dialectic’ of unresolved contradictions, which burdens and exhausts our time. But such a ‘dialectic’ in no sense represents the last word of wisdom. We need a true Christian ascesis in relation to the world, which consists in a struggle with the world out of love for the world” (20).

Bulgakov and other Russian thinkers, who already had developed a theology of culture,[5] what Andrey Shishkov has called a “short flash of orthodox political theology” in his recent article “The Nalvalny Protests,” raised objections against Barth’s early devaluation of culture, history, and social life. They wanted to figure out how to accept and act in the world as God’s creation.

However, we must keep in mind that, in the 1930s, the controversy about the “acceptance of the world” became an issue against the background of the rise of Fascism in Germany, especially with regard to the group of “German Christians” who “culturally adapted” to Nazism by talking about Christ’s incarnation in the German people—the reason for Barth’s fierce rejection of any “acceptance of the world” and criticisms of natural theology. However, in a brochure called “Nature and Grace: A Conversation with Karl Barth” from 1934, his friend Emil Brunner, another Swiss Protestant theologian, defended the concept of “natural grace,” insisting that God can reveal himself through nature, culture, and history. In the same year, Barth published his polemic answer “No! Answer to Emil Brunner” that—just as the famous “Barmen Declaration” issued against the German Christian movement in the same year—rejected “the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.”[6]

This controversy is yet again one more example of the exhausting “bad dialectic of unresolved contradictions” in modern theology that Bulgakov wanted to reconcile by his sophiology. He presented it as Chalcedonian theology about “the word made flesh,” in which God and the world, transcendence and immanence, divine and human natures, are inseparable and united without confusion. As Bulgakov states in Sophia “The roots of this dogma penetrate to the very heart of heaven and earth, in the inmost depths of the Holy Trinity and into the creaturely nature of human beings” (18).At least in this regard, as stated in his The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky stands on Bulgakov’s side: “the Eastern tradition knows nothing of ‘pure nature’ to which grace is added as a supernatural gift [. . .] since grace is implied by the act of creation itself” (101).

And Barth? In his later works, we are told, Barth stopped fighting natural theology and acknowledged “lights and truths” in the “created world,” even in the “cosmos.” He discovered “brightnesses, [and] glades and illuminations” in the world, which, according to him, were “not speechless and senseless,” and he wrote that “the world made by God” was “a readable and understandable text.” According to Frank Jehle in Emil Brunner, Barth even acknowledged that there are true words, extra muros ecclesiae, that have to be taken seriously (319). Jehle further reveals that, in 1966, when Barth heard that Brunner would probably die soon (they were still friends), Barth sent him this message: “All the same yes [“doch ja”], [. . .] since we all live by the fact that a great and merciful God is speaking to us his graceful Yes” (320–32). Upon hearing these words, a smile crossed Brunner’s face, and a few minutes later he lost consciousness, never to wake in this world again.

A theology of culture (including political theology and social ethics) and natural theology (e.g., “the sacramental nature of creation” or “living cosmology”[7]) are still controversial but important theological questions. Moreover, it has been shown that a comparison of Barth and Bulgakov is not an absurdity.[8] The above-mentioned encounters and controversies among Orthodox and Protestant theologians of the 1930s are examples of how respectful and open-minded disputes contain potential for both intradenominational and ecumenical reconciliation—even within Euclidian space.

[1] Brandon Gallaher, Freedom and Necessity in Modern Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 10–11.

[2] Sergius Bulgakoff, “Die Wesensart der Russischen Kirche,” in Internationale Kirchliche Zeitschrift 3 (1930): 181–85.  https://www.unifr.ch/sergij-bulgakov/de/assets/public/files/Dokumentation/Text_DE/1930_Die%20Wesensart%20der%20russischen%20Kirche.pdf

[3] Barth—von Kirschbaum. Briefwechsel 1925–1935, in Karl Barth Gesamtausgabe, Zürich 2008, Bd. I:45, 146–51.

[4] Exposed in more detail in Regula M. Zwahlen, Yes or No – Sergij Bulgakov’s sophiology in the context of protestant “dialectical theology” of the 1930ies, in: Русская эмиграция: церковная жизнь и богословско-философское наследие. Материалы научной конференции 10–12 марта 2021 г.. Moscow 2022, 29–48; https://www.academia.edu/82342974/ДА_ИЛИ_НЕТ_СОФИОЛОГИЯ_СЕРГИЯ_БУЛГАКОВА_В_КОНТЕКСТЕ_ПРОТЕСТАНТСКОЙ_ДИАЛЕКТИЧЕСКОЙ_ТЕОЛОГИИ_В_1930_х_гг_РУССКАЯ_ЭМИГРАЦИЯ_Церковная_жизнь_и_богословско_философское_наследие_Moskau_2022_29_48

[5] Paul Valliere, “Theology of culture in late imperial Russia,” in Sacred Stories. Religion and Spirituality in Modern Russia, ed. M. D. Steinberg, H. J. Coleman (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2007), 377–95.

[6]See also https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/article/karl-barth-and-the-legitimacy-of-natural-theology/.

[7] John Chryssavgis, Creation as Sacrament: Reflections on Spirituality and Ecology (London: T & T Clark, 2019), 2, 135.

[8] Brandon Gallaher, “A Supertemporal Continuum: Christocentric Trinity and the Dialectical Reenvisioning of Divine Freedom in Bulgakov and Barth,” in Correlating Sobornost, ed. Ashley John Moyse et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016), 95.

Regula Zwahlen is Head of the Sergii Bulgakov Research Center at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland).

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.