Excerpts from “The Sophiology of Father Sergius Bulgakov and the Living Tradition” by Andrew Louth (printed in The Wheel, Summer 2015, pp. 5-9):
Bulgakov had felt this danger, and it was his sense of this danger that gradually led him from the Marxism he had espoused as a young man back to the faith of his fathers. Marxist economics could not see nature as God’s creation, and tended to regard nature as material for human consumption and use. Bulgukov’s sense of the fundamental wrongness of such an attitude to nature came to him as an experience about which he wrote in his Autobiographical Sketches, passages from which he—signiﬁcantly, I think—included in the early pages of Unfading Light. Let me quote a few passages:
“Evening was falling. We were traveling along the southern steppe, covered with the fragrance of honey—coloured grass and hay, gilded with the crimson of a sublime sunset. In the distance the fast-approaching Caucasus Mountains appeared blue. I was seeing them for the first time My soul had become accustomed long ago to see with a dull silent pain only a dead wasteland in nature beneath the veil of beauty, as under a deceptive mask; without being aware of it, my soul was not reconciled with a nature without God. And suddenly in that hour my soul became agitated, started to rejoice and began to shiver: but what if it is not wasteland, not a lie, not a mask, not death but him, the blessed and loving Father, his raiment, his love? …God was knocking quietly in my heart and it heard that knocking, it wavered but did not open. …And God departed.”
But it didn’t end there. Bulgakov goes on to speak of renewed experiences:
“Before me the first day of creation blazed. All was clear, all became reconciled, replete with ringing joy. …And that moment of meeting did not die in my soul; this was her apocalypse, her wedding feast, the first encounter with Sophia.”
…Bulgakov’s sophiology, whatever its intellectual antecedents, grew out of his pondering on what man achieves through his re-creative activity, and his realization that he could only make sense of his experience of the beauty of nature by accepting its sophianic foundation, which entailed accepting the reality of God.
From this realization, we can, I think, begin to understand the fundamental role of sophiology in Bulgakov’s theology. It is, and this is not incidental, related to the way his theology is rooted in the Liturgy. This was something that Fr. Alexander Schmemann saw, even though he was somewhat averse to Bulgakov’s theology. In an article called “Trois Images,” he speaks of Bulgakov celebrating the Divine Liturgy:
“My third memory of Fr. Sergius, the third image, is … of Fr. Sergius before the altar, celebrating the liturgy …He was not ac- complishing a well-established rite, traditional in all its details. He delved down to the very depths, and one had the impression that the Liturgy was being celebrated for the first time, that it had fallen down from heaven and been set up on the earth at the dawn of time. The bread and the chalice on the altar, the ﬂame of the candles, the smoke of the incense, the hands raised to the heavens: all this was not simply an “office.” There was accomplished here something involving the whole created world, something of the preeternal, the cosmic—the “terrible and the glorious” [strashnoe i slavnoe], in the sense these liturgical words have in Slavonic. It seemed to me that it is not by chance that the writings of Fr. Sergius are very often laden—so it seems—with liturgical Slavisms, that they themselves so often resonate with liturgical praise. It is not just a matter of style. For the theology of Fr. Sergius, at its most profound, is precisely and above all liturgical.”
The Liturgy, like Sophia, negotiates an “in-between,” relating man to God.
…What is creation like, if God indeed created it (through Wisdom)? As we ask these questions, we ﬁnd ourselves asking questions that have exercised Christians for centuries, and perhaps most acutely at the beginning, when, in the second century, Christianity faced the manifold challenges of Greek philosophy and Gnosticism. Christianity was not consonant with just any View of the universe. Christians agreed with the Platonists over the existence of a transcendent divine, divine providence and human free will, and adopted Platonist arguments against other Greek philosophers—Aristotelians, Stoics and Epicureans—who rejected one or other of these positions. They completely rejected the view, held by most of those whom scholars now call Gnostics, that the universe was the product of a god or gods who were either malevolent or negligent. At one point Irenaeus defends the Christian view of a universe, created out of nothing by a good God who rules it through his providence, by appealing to the Christian Liturgy:
“How can they say that ﬂesh is destined for corruption, the ﬂesh that has been nourished by the body and blood of the Lord? Either they must change their opinion, or cease to offer him what they have said they do. Our opinion is consonant with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist confirms our faith. We oﬂer him what belongs to him, harmoniously proclaiming the communion and union of ﬂesh and spirit. For taking from the earth bread, after the invocation of the Lord it is no longer common bread, but Eucharist, joining together two realities, the earthly and the heavenly, so that our bodies, receiving the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, but possess the hope of eternal resurrection. We make an offering to him, not because he needs anything, but to give thanks for his gifts and to sanctify the creation.”
For Irenaeus, to take bread and wine, to offer them to God and invoke the Holy Spirit to transform them into the Body and Blood of Christ, entails a certain View of creation: that it is good, that the one to whom we offer the Eucharist is the Creator. In the same way, for Bulgakov, to celebrate the Eucharist entails that creation belongs to God, that it is not alien to him, that to be a creature is already to be graced, something that Fr. Schmemann’s “third image” seems to suggest: Bulgakov’s celebration of the Divine Mysteries seemed to him something autochthonous, something rooted in the very being of creation. It is this intuition that lay at the heart of his sophiology.