Editor’s Note: In May of 1923, one Mr. Coulton of the American Red Cross met with Florensky in Moscow. Florensky gave him an article, which does not seem to have been published in the original Russian, but only in the English translation below, prepared by Coulton and published in vol. 4, no. 4 (1924) of The Pilgrim, edited by William Temple, the future Archbishop of Canterbury. A “slightly adjusted” version of that translation was published by Robert Bird in 1995 in a small monograph called Culture and Christian Unity. The following version preserves the original translation, but omits a second part of the essay that is of lesser relevance to contemporary concerns. The portion below, in contrast, addresses Russian issues of the time in a way that seems prescient in its bearing on the situation of Christian culture in Western Europe and North America.
The editors of Another City are delighted, in this and future issues, to help contemporary audiences discover the writings of perhaps the most brilliant Orthodox philosopher of the century, whose thought was suppressed in Russia and until recently woefully slandered and ignored in the West.
- The epoch just ended was exceedingly remote from all higher spiritual interests and from an integral spiritual culture. On the other hand, however, it was characterised by a generally increasing need for both, and by a realisation that humanity and culture are bound to remain in a state of disintegration if not inspired by the higher demands of the spirit. But it was not by mere accident, nor just yesterday, that the civilised world fell into such a state; it had been moving in this direction unswervingly for many centuries, devoting its greatest efforts, most of the time only half-consciously, to the erection of a barrier between itself and the supreme fountainhead of eternal life. This long process of corruption makes the malady especially virulent; but it also permits us to gain a clear insight into the nature of the disease and thus to hope for a cure.
- There may be direct and open rebellion against God, an attempt to declare oneself independent of God and, therefore, opposed to Him. This would be an acute spiritual infection, leading either to swift death or, on the contrary, passing quickly and leaving in the heart a feeling of profound amazement that such rebellion should ever have taken place at all. There may be, however, a chronic infection of the same virus when a man, while not willing to admit even to himself that he has become an apostate, and while outwardly defending religion, is trying, as a matter of fact, step by step, to wrest away from religion a certain amount of personal autonomy for himself, and, consequently, presumes to blot out from religion such of its elements as he may imagine to be nonessential and mere historical, fortuitous accretions. One after another, various phases of human activity are dropped from the religious system, until at last it is reduced to the basic truths of religious ontology, upon which Christian morality is founded. When this foundation, too, collapses and religion is brought down to the same level with morality, then morality itself ceases to be a living and vital inspiration to righteousness, and it becomes merely a set of outward rules of conduct, lacking cohesion and being, therefore, purely fortuitous in character. This is not moral selfdetermination but pharisaical morality, and its fate is, of course, sealed in advance. The logic of history has undoubtedly brought us face to face with this dilemma: we must either repudiate the last shred of Christianity, i.e. “Christian morality,” or else turn our backs upon the entire course of the preceding antiChristian culture and admit candidly that a God to Whom we are willing to assign within ourselves and in our daily lives merely one little corner, letting everything else take its own course, is no longer God to our mind.
- The falsity of the whole course of modern civilisation did not consist in the fact that the representatives of culture have been sinning. We realise, of course, that no man can live without sinning. We are aware beforehand that, whatever course the civilisation of the future may follow, every one of us is bound to sin and to fall, and at times even to fall away from God. We also know that the sin of assuming for ourselves a personal autonomy pervades our whole being and threatens to crop up in all our actions. But the fundamental error of the past course lay in our regarding this state of mind as natural and, therefore, right. Culture thus not only failed to oppose sin, but also led our conscience astray by approving of autonomy. When Laplace made his famous reply—“I have no need of that hypothesis”—to Napoleon’s question as to why the name of God was mentioned in Newton’s Principia and not mentioned in La mecanique celeste, Laplace expressed quite exactly the very spirit of modern European culture. Indeed, to him, God was not a living personality “without Whom nothing of what has happened has ever happened, “not the Truth without which there is no truth whatever, but a mere hypothesis, to be used in bridging the gaps of our knowledge and our culture in general. The higher our culture the less room in it for this hypothesis. Perfect culture should be entirely without God. For the culture of modern times, He for Whom “the soul panteth as the hart panteth after the water brooks,” He Who is like a bridegroom to the soul of man, is merely an intolerable abstract idea, merely another name for the imperfection of our culture, and suffered only so long as our culture is really not yet perfect. High time that we stop deceiving ourselves with examples of the individual piety of many great leaders of culture and of the beneficence of their works! It were time for us to recognise clearly the controlling idea of the new culture. Individual personalities and their individual accomplishments may indeed be excellent; but, on the whole, our modern culture is nothing but a state of chronical rebellion against God. Without clearly realising this, it will be impossible to alter the course of culture.
- The conception of culture is defined by the spiritual law laid down by God Himself: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” This treasure consists of spiritual values, that which we recognise as the objective meaning and justification of our existence. The heart, in Biblical language, is the central point of all our spiritual resources and capabilities, the knot which binds together the strands of our personality. The Saviour said that our personality, and therefore all its manifestations, are determined exclusively by our treasure; thus our cognition is determined by that which we affirm to be the truth—contrary to the Kantian subjectivist philosophy of modern times, according to which it is not the truth that determines our cognition, but cognition which determines the truth. Modern culture, in proclaiming the autonomy of the individual, has decreed that we ourselves shall be the “treasure,” the indisputable object of faith. In the place of God was enthroned an idol, Man self-deified, after which it was inevitable that the further course of culture should be what it was, calculated all along the line to justify this human self-deification.
- We are so accustomed to believe in culture, instead of God, that most of us find it impossible to draw a line between the meaning of culture in general and the particular culture of our own day; so that, whenever we suggest the need of altering the current of culture, we are looked upon as if we were inviting people to revert to the existence of troglodytes. Historically considered, such an interpretation is grossly erroneous, for culture always did have, and may have, various constructions. Thus most cultures, according to their etymological meaning (“culture” being that which is supposed to develop out of a “cultus”), represented precisely a sprouting of the grain of religion, a mustard tree grown up out of the seed of faith. This historical fact is readily conceded by practically every investigator to hold good for all religions, and perhaps even for Christianity, in so far as it is regarded merely as a historical fact. It is only to Christianity in the present that our contemporaries deny a vital organising power, were it but to the same extent as in the case of other religions.
When one hears of so many modern doctrines ostensibly in sympathy with Christianity, but actually proclaiming openly the alleged impotence of Christianity and its inability to branch out into the tree of life, and insisting that it should surrender all spheres of life, except our inner consciousness, to some self-sufficient activities “after the rudiments of this world,” one’s heart feels heavy and oppressed indeed. For that is really worse than a direct challenge by militant atheism, which hates Christianity, thus obviously crediting it at least with some power. This kind of theology is nothing short of the obsequies of Christianity, when the heat of battle is already past and one may say a good word even for the foe, already annihilated. These teachings, in praising Christianity, without allotting to it any domain of life, destroy it also as our inner possession: for if Christianity is to be driven out everywhere on the ground that a different order, having nothing in common with spirituality, is now to reign on earth, and that there is to be an autonomy all of its own henceforth, then the same thing will have to be said of the life of our soul, which is also subject to laws of its own, also autonomous, leaving no room for grace. If the world is autonomous throughout, it must have an absolute immanent stability and must in itself be God.
- “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon.” Belief in God does not permit any belief in a self-contained world and does not conceive of the world as a “noumenon” but as a “phenomenon.” If we have at least a spark of faith in Christ we cannot but admit that “the fashion of this world passeth away” and that it changes through the power of Christ into the image of Christ. This image is, first of all, the active force of the Christian religion; next, Christian culture; and lastly, the sanctification of nature. No sphere of life, art, philosophy, science, politics, economics, etc., can be considered a selfsufficient substance, being merely conceptions which, although they are actually fashioned after the patterns of this world, are so only because culture in general is not fashioned in the image of Christ. If, in the domain of culture, we are not with Christ, we must be inevitably against Christ, for there is not and cannot be in life any neutrality in our attitude towards God. Christianity cannot remain passive with regard to the world and take anything from it in a crude state, as if it needed no further elucidation. The spirit cannot be passive: it may take and utilise anything, but not unless it transforms it into the image of Christ. Western Christianity of the baroque period committed a grave error when it attempted to incorporate crude fragments of anti-Christian culture, and, without spiritualising them from within, to gloss them over with the varnish of piety, or daub them with the paint of Churchdom. The scholarly and cultural endeavour of the Jesuits may be worthy of profound respect as far as its object was concerned, i.e. to endow Christianity with a Christian culture. Nevertheless they are radically wrong, because theirs are not solid structures, but flimsy exposition pavilions and mountains of plaster. Such a pseudo-culture may be built only to dazzle the unthinking novice, but by no means for one’s own consumption.
Mankind today needs Christian culture; not an imitation, but genuine culture actually rooted in Christ. In any case every man should honestly decide whether he really wants and thinks such culture at all possible. Otherwise there is no sense in talking about Christianity and deluding ourselves and others with vague hopes for something that shall never be. In this case Bolshevism would be right in demanding that some other system of life be found. In this event the unavailing protests against the Bolshevist negation of the ideals of Christian morality would be naive, for without Christian faith these ideals are nothing but vain dreams, merely standing in the way of life. “And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain: Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
- Culture, both in its broadest aspects and minutest details, is determined by the way in which our cognition is fixed, i.e. by that lodestar by which we become cognisant of our place in life. The Christian world has the will to orient itself after Christ, the Son of God, incarnate. It wills it sincerely, or at least formally proclaims it so; but in most cases it does not seem to desire it. Having formally proclaimed their orientation after Christ, the believers, in every denomination, find it still permissible to make further concessions to earthly desires, and they devote their labours, not to the building of the City of God, but of the Tower of Babel. Compared with the overwhelmingly important and saving nature of the fundamental trend of our consciousness towards Christ, the minor disagreements between Christians become inconspicuous, just as, on the other hand, they become inconspicuous also in the course of the actual devotion of the Christians to the things of this world. Both in their ascent and descent all Christians become alike. If Christians of one denomination would only trust that Christians of other denominations sincerely orient themselves after Christ, there would probably not exist any schisms—even though this would by no means preclude the possibility of variety. And, conversely, neither would there be any religious differences in the event that we should definitely pronounce the fundamental belief in Christ to be merely an impotent relic of the past, imposing no obligation whatever on us.
However, Christians are divided and warring among themselves precisely because they are distrustful of one another’s orientation after Christ, and yet do not deny the importance of such orientation, as a matter of principle. And this applies not only to different denominations, but also to various tendencies within these denominations, and even to the mutual relations between individual Christians. The Christian world is filled with mutual suspicion, ill will, and enmity. It is rotten at its very core, for it lacks active faith in Christ, without having the courage and candour to admit the rottenness of its faith. They are glad to discuss the details, niceties, and delicate precisions of dogmatic formulas, church rituals, and economic organisation; these things they debate without end, absolutely unable to come to terms one way or another. Is not the fact that they approach questions of belief from the outside, like archeologists, and not from within, like true believers, and that, losing sight of the spiritual reality, they are, like blind men, unable to grasp the problem in its entirety—is not this fact responsible for the failure of all their efforts? The theologians of our own day are the least of whom we may say that they “speak as one having authority.” But if they themselves admit that they have no authority, how dare they grapple with problems that must be solved either by authority or not at all ? No church administration, no bureaucracy, no diplomacy will ever infuse integrity of belief and love where there is none. All outside attempts at patching it up will not only fail to unite the Christian world, but may, on the contrary, only aggravate the isolation of the various denominations.
We must admit that it is not so much this or that difference in the doctrine, ritual, and church organisation which is the real cause of the disintegrated state of Christendom, as rather a deep, mutual distrust as regards the fundamental truth, the belief in Christ, the Son of God, incarnate. We have to concede that this suspiciousness is not entirely without reason, seeing that faith, in its deepest spiritual essentials, has actually been weakened, this being apparent in the fruits of halfhearted belief—anti-Christian culture. This applies to no particular denomination exclusively, but to the entire Christian world, whose only unity today consists in the common decline of faith. In the face of the impending crisis of Christianity, all who call themselves Christians ought to make a final choice and repent “with one mouth and one heart,” saying: “Help me in my unbelief.” Then the question of a union of the Christian world will for the first time emerge from the chancelleries into fresh air, and what seems difficult and impossible to men will prove to be quite possible to God.
1 See The Pilgrim, April 1924.