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God and an economist

31 May 2013

Rowan Williamson on Bulgakov's wisdom

Unfading Light: Contemplations and speculations
Sergius Bulgakov
Eerdmans £31.99
Church Times Bookshop £28.80 (Use voucher code CT152)

SERGIUS BULGAKOV was one of the giants of the early ecumenical movement, a familiar figure in inter-Church meetings, a founding father of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, and universally recognised in these circles as a saintly and brilliant, if sometimes impenetrably obscure, personality.

Non-Orthodox who knew his theology primarily through one or two short books in translation and a scattering of articles and lectures sometimes struggled to see quite why he was such a massively controversial figure in his own Church - although they would have appreciated that his pleas for limited intercommunion were not perhaps best calculated to make him popular with some of his Orthodox colleagues.

They would also have known relatively little of his remarkable intellectual history before his exile from the Soviet Union - a leading Marxist economist, whose reconversion to Christianity, and spirited and sophisticated polemic against Bolshevism, attracted personal attacks from Lenin himself.

Until fairly recently, not much of this had changed. But in the past 15 years or so there has been an explosion of interest in Bulgakov throughout Europe and North America. Much of this has been fuelled by a series of English translations of his main works; and the present book is the latest in this succession. It represents a crucial period in Bulgakov's evolution, the bridge between his immediate post-Marxist work (which included a brilliant and idiosyncratic Philosophy of Economics, which could do with some intensive study just at the moment), and the great volumes on systematic theology which he wrote in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s.

It is his first really substantial exposition of the idea that he was most associated with, the metaphysics of "Sophia". It was this that triggered his condemnation for heresy by the Patriarchate of Moscow in 1936 - although the condemnation had at least as much to do with politics as it had with theology. Recent discussion has done much to clarify the complexities of his thinking on this. Most would now agree that the more extravagant accusations are unfounded. This book is essential for understanding what he is about.

The "Sophia" philosophy is a way of speaking about God's self-giving involvement in the world, divine love generating its image not only in humanity, but in the whole scheme of the order and interdependence of creation. Divine wisdom exists in both eternal and cosmic shape; when we engage in art, economics, politics, or liturgy, we have at least a potential share in this cosmic energy. The book offers a very full and rich anchoring of this in Patristic and Byzantine thought, and an exposition of its application in all these aspects of human life.

Written in a dense and rather Germanic style, with plenty of excursuses on the history of philosophy and theology, it is, none the less, a work of real intellectual and spiritual excitement. It is a cause for celebration that it is at last available in English. The translator has done a heroic job - although there are passages that still read a bit awkwardly or mechanically - and provides a very good introduction to Bulgakov's evolving thought.

This is a welcome addition not only to materials on Russian Christianity, but to resources for a new theological metaphysic capable of dealing effectively with issues around the sacredness of the material, the part played by the imagination in the life of faith, and the imperatives of political and economic justice.

The Rt Revd Lord Williams of Oystermouth is the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and a former Archbishop of Canterbury.

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