Why I am Not a Sophiologist

I like Sergei Bulgakov, but that doesn’t mean I always agree with him. Let me put it this way: I also like Ke$ha.

My point is that it is possible to appreciate genius without endorsing all of its propositions. Sergei Bulgakov is that person to me. I guess you could say he is my theological Ke$ha.

By Fr. Damian (St. Sophia mission), via Wikimedia Commons
By Fr. Damian (St. Sophia mission), via Wikimedia Commons

Why do I read Bulgakov? One reason is that I am inspired by his life, maybe because I see some of myself in him. Bulgakov left the church for a time, aligning himself with Marxist materialism, but he confessed later that it fit him “about as well as a saddle fits a cow.”[1] I can relate to that feeling. I have said before that I wish I knew how to be an atheist, but I find myself gripped by faith. I also appreciate his reasons for leaving, namely his concern for social and economic justice. The church in Russia, at the time, was basically a department within a corrupt state. When he did repent and return to faith, he did not repent of his reasons for leaving. A concern for the poor and marginal continues to permeate his writings, even when it seems like that is not what he is doing at all. Bulgakov also seemed to place himself on the margins. He was a bit of a rebel. An active member of the ecumenical movement, he proposed limited communion with the Anglicans. I have even read that, for a number of years, he would secretly remember the pope in his prayers at the altar. You might say that he was Orthodoxy’s gadfly, and I like gadflies.

I also think Bulgakov was right about a lot of things. I think he was right to see Holy Tradition as a living tradition, which engages in dialog with, and criticism of, itself. He was also right to stress that, even though the church can, and often does, act in authoritarian ways, at its best decisions get made through an informal exchange between hierarchs and laity. (See my post on the way authority works in the Orthodox Chruch.) I also think he was right about the mission of the church in the world. Sophiology (so I argue in my forthcoming book) was Bulgakov’s attempt to update and expand the Orthodox political ideal of a “symphonia” between church and state. (That is not quite what symphonia meant, but I do not have time to get into that right now.)

But he was wrong about a lot of things. Here are a few of them.

Sophia – I do not think there is a quasi-hypostatic personality spanning the difference between God and creation (to put it very simply). I get what Bulgakov is trying to do with Sophia. But it seems to me that he get can the same results by following the universal practice of identifying the biblical figure of Sophia with the Logos.

Souls – Bulgakov points out that God apprehends all of time and space as a unity. Therefore, as far as God is concerned, we always exist. (Those who accuse him of Origenism on this point are suffering from ignorance and/or a failure of imagination.) My problem with this, apart from the quasi-mythical quality of his view of the soul, is that Bulgakov feels so compelled to defend the idea of free will that he insists that souls, to a certain extent, choose the circumstances of their temporal origins. So, basically, when it comes to the problem of evil and human suffering, Bulgakov inadvertently blames the victim.

SpongePanentheism –I used to believe that the universe was contained within God (not to be confused with pantheism, which maintains that God is the universe). More than once, Bulgakov compares divinity to an “ocean without any shores.”[2] I loved this image. I still do. It made panentheism make sense to me. God surrounds and exceeds us. But then, by what I can only assume was an act of divine providence, I needed to look up a passage in Augustine’s Confessions at the same time I was writing something on Bulgakov, and I happened upon this passage. Augustine writes:

I visualized you, Lord, surrounding it [creation] on all sides and permeating it, but infinite in all directions, as if there were a sea everywhere and stretching through immense distances, a single sea which had within it a large but finite sponge; and the sponge was in every part filled from the immense sea. This is the kind of way in which I supposed your finite creation to be full of you, infinite as you are…[3]

Did y’all see that? Bulgakov’s panentheism is basically Augustine’s sponge. Those words challenged me. They led me eventually to conclude that panentheism presupposes, and thus reinscribes, the very thing it tries to overcome, namely that God’s transcendence competes with God’s immanence. But, as Augustine realized, God is not a force that permeates matter because God is not a force at all. God is God. God’s difference from us is precisely what makes God, as Augustine put it, closer to us than we are to ourselves.

So why do I keep reading Bulgakov, and why do I recommend others read him? Because we can learn from him. As Miroslaw Tataryn said, Bulgakov’s sophiology makes history matter.[4] The church needs to take history seriously, particularly the Orthodox Church. To hear some of us talk, you might think that the only important things that happened to the church took place between 313 and 1368. When confronted with intellectual, social, and doctrinal challenges, we often just chant louder and talk about Justinian. This attitude can keep us not only from appreciating the diversity within our own tradition, and other traditions, but it also make us confuse fidelity with irrelevance. The Church needs to be relevant (which should not be confused with “hip”) because we are the continuation of the redeeming work of Christ. I like Bulgakov because he understood that we need to engage culture, to listen to it and take it seriously, because wisdom is not the exclusive property of the church. It happens in the world too. So, let us attend!

[1] Sergius Bulgakov, “Autobiographical Notes,” in A Bulgakov Anthology, ed. James Pain and Nicolas Zernov (London: SPCK, 1976), 4.

[2] See Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 43–44, also 59, 96.

[3] Augustine, Confessions (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), VIII.vi.8.

[4] Myroslaw I. Tataryn, “History Matters: Bulgakov’s Sophianic Key,” St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 49, no. 1–2 (2005): 203–18.




8 thoughts on “Why I am Not a Sophiologist”

  1. Sorry for the delayed response. I am not sure that there is a "middle." I would be better able to respond to your first question if I knew a bit more about what is behind it. The conclusion seems pretty obvious to me, which does not mean that I am right, only that I am having a hard time explaining it without a bit more context. How does panentheism *not* presuppose a competitive relationship between God and creation?

  2. Regarding the appropriateness of panentheism, doesn't it depend on how it is defined? What a process theologian means by it is going to be quite different than what an Orthodox theologian might mean. Consider, e.g., this quotation from Met Kallistos Ware:

    "If, however, we wish to use the term 'panentheism,' then this is a label that may legitimately be applied to Palamism. Whereas the pantheist states that God is the world and the world is God, the panentheist states that God is in the world and the world is in God; and it is obvious that Palamas is affirming the second of these two positions, not the first. But, as we are all aware, there are many varieties of panentheism; it all depends what is meant by the word 'in.' Applying the distinction used by Arthur Peacocke, the panentheism of Palamas is 'weak' rather than 'strong.' For while he believes that the being of God embraces and penetrates the universe, he also believes that the divine being is in no way exhausted by the universe, for God remains utterly transcendent in his imparticipable essence. While within, he is also above" ("God Immanent yet Transcendent," in *In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being*, ed. Philip Clayton and Arthur Peacocke).

    Would Bulgakov disagree with St Gregory Palamas, as interpreted by Ware?

  3. David, I agree with you that the radical "difference" between the world and the Creator is the proper way for us to think about the transcendence and immanence of God. In that sense I suggest that transcendence is logically prior to and enables God's intimate presence to the world. I do not mind the panentheistic language, as long as we remember that we are talking figuratively.

    One day I really will need to wrestle with Sophia and try to understand why Bulgakov found it so necessary to his reflection on God. Why, e.g., did he not turn, as Lossky and Florovsky did, to Palamas's distinction between the essence and energies? Or is that distinction also part of the problem, as Bulgakov saw it? Or perhaps more specifically, is the radically apophatic assertion of God as beyond Being part of the problem? It strikingly asserts the divine transcendence, yet it also seems to suggest distance, too. The problem then becomes how to also assert the divine immanence, which Palamas solves by his divine energies and Bulgakov by the divine Sophia. Yet are not the Father, Son, and Spirit equally transcendent and immanent?

    Just some random thoughts.

  4. Thanks, David, for this post. Can you say more about how the passage from Augustine led you to a disavowal of Bulgakov's panentheism? I'm trying but I can't quite see how panentheism presupposes a competition b/w divine immanence and transcendence. Also, what do you think a true "middle" might be?

  5. I agree with the sentiment (though I am not sure "force" is the best way to describe the energeii). I just think it is theologically inadequate. Bulgakov was right about the problems inherent in dualistic and monistic cosmologies, but panentheism is a false middle.

  6. God is not a force… however, God's *energies* are a force permeating and infusing all of creation. Orthodox theology insists on the energies' being uncreated… I like the way Lossky expresses it: "The energies might be described as that mode of existence of the Trinity which is outside of its inaccesible essence. God thus exists both in His essence and outside of His essence." Looking at it that way makes it possible, I think, to affirm panentheism in an Orthodox sense. Which is why I was warmly struck by a statement from Met. Kallistos Ware I came across recently: "I cannot accept any worldview that identifies God with the universe, and for that reason I cannot be a pantheist. But I find no difficulty in endorsing panentheism — that is to say, the position that affirms not 'God is everything and everything is God' but 'God is in everything and everything is in God.' God, in other words, is both immanent and transcendent: present in all things."


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