Russian Sophiology has returned. For decades, speaking of Fr. Sergius Bulgakov or any of the Russian Sophiologists was usually to invoke a niche interest. Yet today, judging by translations and secondary literature, Fr. Bulgakov in particular has emerged as a force in systematic theology that far exceeds mere historical or confessional interest. His contemporary relevance as a daring theologian and religious thinker par excellence has not only caught the eye of contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologians, but (arguably even more so!) from Roman Catholic and Anglican thinkers as well. And while the major works of his systematic and experimental thought are now largely translated, we are only now getting the first glimpses of the more personal writings.
Roberto De La Noval has previously translated Bulgakov’s harrowing encounter with terminal throat cancer in The Sophiology of Death: Essays on Eschatology, and now he has teamed up with Mark Roosien to present Bulgakov’s spiritual diary from 1924-1925, a time of exile for him and his family, in translation and theological context. It should provide, even if implicitly, one of the greatest possible defenses of Fr. Bulgakov’s theology. The spiritual diary does not paint a portrait of someone addicted to novelty; it paints a remarkably ordinary picture of conventional spiritual topics and moods. He records the cycles of the spiritual life assiduously, marking all the difficulties of cultivating gratitude, patience, and forbearance. He speaks constantly of love for God and the great labor and joy that is prayer. He encounters the same cycles of joy, tedium, despondency, and contentment that would be familiar terrain in most spiritual writers East or West. This diary presents a man of extraordinary intellectual gifts and vision encountering the same everyday duties and tasks of any husband, father, and priest.
Much of the criticism currently directed at the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church for supporting Russia’s war against Ukraine is organized around the idea that the Moscow Patriarchate is ideologically compromised and theologically unsound. With few exceptions, scholars, journalists, and opinion writers condemn leaders of the Russian Church as apologists for the Kremlin’s “Russian world” ideology, an expansionistic, chauvinistic worldview which makes prelates like Patriarch Kirill, Metropolitan Ilarion, and others complicit in a “new Nazism,” partners in an “unholy alliance,” peddlers of a “quasi-religious agenda,” and advocates of “blood and soil” nativism. Similarly, and often in the same breath, charges of “heresy” are leveled against church leaders, mainly on the grounds that supporting Russia’s war with calls to defend “Holy Russia” under the banner that “God is with us” is a form of ethnophyletism, that is, the heresy of aligning and conflating Orthodox Christianity with ethnic nationalism.
In making these assessments about the Moscow Patriarchate, critics regularly identify some moment in the past when things went wrong, a deviation from true Orthodoxy which has brought the Russian Church to this ignominious moment in its history. While often highlighting recent events, such as the Patriarchate’s public, if somewhat circumspect, support for Russia’s invasion, occupation, and annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine, several critics look further into the past for the moment when the Russian Church went astray. One such event is thought to be Joseph Stalin’s reinstatement of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1943, an event which taints Russia’s post-Soviet Patriarchate as a relic of the Stalinist past. Another moment identified in the shift from good Orthodoxy to bad Orthodoxy is the 1920s, when some Russian Orthodox emigres began to embrace conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism, and reactionary politics. The implication of this analysis is that those who really care about Russian Orthodoxy should excise those institutions and ideas which embody and promote ideological and theological aberrations in today’s Church.