Sergius Bulgakov, widely regarded as the greatest Orthodox theologian of the twentieth century (calling him the von Balthasar of the East would not be wide of the mark), was the kind of religious thinker only that century could produce. A blend of martyr, mystic, and missionary, he sought to defend the deposit of faith while upending its traditional modes of expression.
As a priest in Russia at the time of the 1917 Revolution, he opens his essay on relics, now translated into English for the first time by Boris Jakim, with a depiction of the Communists’ vulgar and callow attempts to “disprove” religious dogma by smashing chapel crypts and exhuming the bodies of long-buried saints: “there, where in their pious humility, believers did not raise their eyes, and where a holy darkness reigned, electric lights were insolently brought in and filthy paws began to take apart the content of the holy raka.” The expectation was that once benighted believers saw the corruptibility of the ‘incorruptible,’ their faith in peasant illusions would melt under the sun of a liberated consciousness.
Even today, it must be admitted, the subject of relics is an often-overlooked one in theology, and especially in popular apologetics. To the minds of many the topic remains a curio—a mild embarrassment better left to old ladies’ devotionals, or the pages of Chaucer. Yet, for Bulgakov, this awkward intrusion of the physical is precisely what religion needs in modernity. Fortunately, orthodox (in both the lowercase and capitalized senses—he was staunchly Eastern and yet does not reflexively dismiss the Western) Christianity has offered it for a long time. As he sees it, all relics take part in (and, in some sense, become) aspects the greatest of all “relics,” the bread of the Eucharist. And it is for this reason, he notes, that altars include a relics at their core. Like the Eucharist, saints’ relics “are not corpses; rather, they are bodies of resurrection; and saints do not die.”
For Bulgakov, the flesh is good, and through transformation, can become divine. The ‘Body of Christ’ is a literal statement, and something which we, through the process of theosis, become. His concern for the intensely personal, human manifestations of the divine belie his phenomenonological approach. Over and over again, he emphasizes that the fundamental character of Christ’s miracles was the establishment of friendship through simple acts. In this regard, Bulgakov seeks to stress the natural and human character of these works, and so brings miracles (the subject of his second essay) to a nearly mundane level. The takeaway? Miracles happen constantly, and believers must feel the presence of God around them rather than wait to be led by a pillar of cloud. “In the life of every man,” he says without a hint of daintiness, “there are constantly occurring miracles.”
One of the real delights in Bulgakov’s work, apart from its theological heft, is to be found in his coy appropriation of secular, even anti-religious philosophy and terminology for his own purposes. In one section of the essay on miracles sure to inflame devotees of Heidegger, for example, he repeatedly identifies Creation as synonymous with “becoming.” In another passage, alongside the percipient claim that “only saints have true individuality,” he terms the heroes of the Church history’s “true supermen.”’
Though this freshly translated volume is slender, the writing is remarkable for the depth of satisfaction its answers give, or at least suggest. Dismissing or merely parrying the affronts of the modern world, as some apologists are content to do, would not have been enough for Bulgakov. He seeks nothing less than a new expression of Christianity for a new era. So his underlying program, termed “religious materialism,” is his attempt to articulate a vision that is simultaneously innovative and familiar, wonder-filled and surprising.
Yet here, understandably, is where some readers (even those who greatly respect his deep vision) may be compelled to part company. Some of his solutions, as his critics correctly pointed out, venture far into novel and perilous territory. In the Orthodox Church itself he was condemned for the heresy of “Sophianism”—the assertion that Mary had become divine upon her reception of the Holy Spirit. For Bulgakov believed that a genuinely satisfying religious answer to the rise of materialism and the circumscription of the Western imagination would have to baptize these trends rather than resist them. To Kant’s assertion that “the noumenal cannot be the phenomenal,” Bulgakov offers this counter-proposal: “all that is spiritual is material.” The ultimate end of his system, then, is nothing less than “the Deification of the world”—not merely the sanctification or evangelization of “these passing things,” (1 John 2:17) but the literal transformation of here-and-now matter into the Mystical Body of Christ. To this end, Bulgakov cheers “the conquest of nature,” something at the core of the modern project that is often maligned by traditionalists as an alienating or hubristic “playing God.”
This unifying tendency inevitably stumbles into some of philosophy’s most elementary fault lines, and opens a far broader debate about the nature of reality, the character of salvation, and locus of our telos. It is likely a debate too basic to resolve without falling into syncretism. Nevertheless, by sliding theology into what Charles Taylor has called “the immanent frame,” Bulgakov’s cry—that our God is not a god of history but an eternally-immanent Being—subversively but brilliantly blows this point of reference open from the inside out.
Matthew Cantirino is a junior fellow at First Things.
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