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Sergius Bulgakov’s “Religious Materialism” and Spiritual Hope

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Yesterday in First Things’ daily “On the Square” column, Matthew Cantirino highlighted Sergius Bulgakov’s theology of relics, recently translated by Boris Jakim.

Cantirino writes,

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…. As he sees it, all relics take part in (and, in some sense, become) aspects [of] the greatest of all “relics,” the bread of the Eucharist. And it is for this reason, he notes, that altars include… relics at their core. Like the Eucharist, saints’ relics “are not corpses; rather, they are bodies of resurrection; and saints do not die.”

He goes on to state, “For Bulgakov, the flesh is good, and through transformation, can become divine.”

While there may be some legitimate reasons to be hesitant about accepting Bulgakov’s interpretation of the Orthodox sacramental worldview (Cantirino notes the rejection of his sophianism by the Russian Orthodox Church), nevertheless his basic insight remains valid. The modern world rejected the spiritual. As odd as it may seem, veneration of the relics of the saints goes a long way to instilling in us an awareness of the spiritual destiny of the material world. It is, I think, akin to the statement of Vladimir Solovyov (which I have quoted before): “[M]atter has a right to be spiritualised.”

Indeed, this conviction leads Bulgakov to elsewhere conclude,

Economic materialism is the reigning philosophy of political economy. In practice, economists are Marxists, even if they hate Marxism.

Again, this sentiment finds a parallel in Bulgakov’s precursor Solovyov:

Socialism really stands on the same ground as the bourgeois régime hostile to it, namely, the supremacy of the material interest. Both have the same motto: “man liveth by bread alone.”

When we fail to see the material world as sacramental, when we limit it to being merely material, we lose hope for transformation, focusing our gaze upon the earth beneath us, never noticing the heavens above. In denying the spiritual side of the world, in refusing any sort of “religious materialism,” we deny the most noble part of ourselves, even when done for noble reasons (such as seeking to provide each their daily bread). Inevitably, as Jordan Ballor and Todd Steen have recently noted in their analysis of The Hunger Games, purely material ideologies are unable to offer any real hope.

You can read the full article by Matthew Cantirino here.

In addition, if any of this has piqued your interest in Bulgakov, Volume 11, Issue 1 of Journal of Markets & Morality contained a translation of his work “The National Economy and the Religious Personality,” which contains perhaps the first Orthodox critique of Max Weber’s famous work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. You can read the translation here.

Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.

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