Christianity against Ethics


[T]he human being must be able to rise above even ethics.

Fr. Sergius Bulgakov

I tend to work my way through several different texts at once. Lately I have been picking my way through Bulgakov’s Unfading Light. This was the book that got Bulgakov accused of heresy by some in the Orthodox Church, the outcome of which was a split-decision in Bulgakov’s favor. History seems to be on the side of Bulgakov, especially since those who continue to insist on his heresy typically have read very little of him, whereas those who read him “get” what he is doing. Unfading Light was Bulgakov’s first attempt at a philosophy of divine-human communion in the idiom of a school of thought known as “sophiology,” which attempted to understand how the absolute God could relate to that which is not God. In his mature theology, you might say the question of sophiology is, “How is Christ possible?” To some, this question is hopelessly speculative, but for Bulgakov and his “fans” (a word that never means 100% agreement) this question is essential for an Orthodox theology of culture.

Enough background. This morning I read a section in which Bulgakov deals with the relationship between Ethics and Religion, particularly in the thought of Kant. In a nutshell, Kant said that, though it was impossible to prove the existence of that which is Transcendent (i.e. God), it was still a good idea to believe in God if you wanted people to behave themselves. God was thus a postulate of practical reason, to wit: ethics. In a passage somewhat reminiscent of Søren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Bulgakov responds as follows (49):

Moreover, religion, which some wish to reduce entirely to ethics, in its integrity is higher than ethics and hence free from it: ethics exists for the human being in certain bounds such as law, but the human being must be able to rise above even ethics.

This is not as terrible as it sounds. Bulgakov agrees that ethics begins with the sense of the divine, the sense of being judged, but ethics is a human construct and is therefore fallible. For Kant, ethics was a matter of duty. Do the right thing for the right reason. But if ethics comes from God, then sometimes one has a right reason to do the wrong thing. In other words, when the Nazis come to your home and ask if you are hiding any Jews in your closet, lie!

Bulgakov further agrees that “Morality inevitably breaks down together with the decline of religion…For, although ethics does not cover religion with itself, yet it finds its foundation in it an only in it” (51). But with this statement, he seems to back-peddle against his main claim, at least implicitly. One often hears pundits on the right talk about religion in terms of the breakdown of culture (because, you know, culture was a lot better when we had slaves and married off our teenage daughters to older, often philandering, men). While I do not want to adopt the idiom of theologians who tend to conflate-out words like “liberal,” “Kantian,” and “nihilist,” in one sneering breath. I agree that Kant does not make a very good case for religion – true religion – as “divine-human communion” (to adopt Aristotle Papanikolaou’s term for theosis). The problem with saying things like, “We need prayer in schools so that children learn to be moral!” is that it gets religion backwards. It puts the Christian faith to the service of our ethics by turning the love of God into a kind of marketing gimmick, which ironically obscures the fact that only religion makes ethics possible. So if we want people to be ethical, then we must treat ethics the way that Abraham treated Isaac. We must resign ourselves to the loss of the “good society” that we want. We must stop taking our kids to church because it will be good for them. We must stop pushing religion as a way to recapture some 1950s ideal (that we confuse with the whole of history). I will not even say that only by ceasing to focus on ethics can we truly be ethical. If faith is higher than ethics, then that is an impossible statement. Instead, the only thing a Christian can do is to love God for God’s own sake, which means we must bind our ethics, place them on the altar, and make them a sacrifice to God.

3 thoughts on “Christianity against Ethics”

  1. It wasn't exactly a split decision in Fr. Sergius Bulgakov's favor. The Paris jurisdiction went into schism from ROCOR, rather than submit to its decision, which was that he was in heresy. The Moscow Patriarchate likewise declared his sophiology to be alien to the teachings of the Church. The Paris Jurisdiction merely decided that he was just in grave error that needed to be corrected. That is not a split decision in his favor.

    1. I have read the wiki article you mostly wrote, and it is frankly a bit outdated. ;-)

      You are right about the events surrounding the Sophia Affair itself, but I was referring to the judgment of history. I guess that was more clear in my head than it was in print. This issue was dealt with at great length by several articles in a special double-issue of St. Vlad's in either 2002 or 2003. I would recommend giving them a close read.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.