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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.


  • RogerMcKinney

    Very interesting! History teaches that Christians have a tendency toward Platonism, or gnosticism in which the material world is evil. We need to see the material world as corrupted, but not evil. God sanctifies the material world.

    I agree with Bulgakov that mainstream econ is materialist, but Austrian econ rises above that by considering the whole man.

    • Thanks for your comment, Roger.

      As a student of early Church history, I would quibble that history actually teaches the opposite. Christians consistently distinguished themselves from the Gnostics and rejected their worldview, and Platonists, contrary to popular mischaracterizations, did not view the material world as evil inasmuch as it reflected the goodness of the One, the Good, and the Beautiful. To them, it was more of a nuisance—inherently imperfect and essentially transitory. In some cases they believed prime matter to be metaphysically evil, but that is different than viewing the fully formed material world as evil, and I know of no ancient Christians who agreed with them on this point.

      But whatever the case, I would love to hear more about how Austrian economics is not materialist.

      • Roger McKinney

         I wasn’t thinking of Church authority or scholars as much as the common man in the pew, who seems to me to have an enduring attraction for asceticism and suffering as spirituality.

        People are right to accuse mainstream econ of materialism because mainstream econ has to assume that people are interested in nothing more than optimizing their wealth in order for their equations to work. Mainstream econ is built on the math of general equilibrium.

        While Austrian econ uses math, math doesn’t dominate as it does in mainstream econ. Austrian econ starts with observations about human nature. Ludwig von Mises, the greatest proponent of Austrian econ, titled his magnum opus on economics “Human Action.” I highly recommend it. Austrian econ is more like a sub-discipline of psychology while mainstream econ thinks it is a sub-discipline of physics.

        Austrian econ is the true heir of Adam Smith’s econ, but people often misunderstand Smith. They equate his “self-interest” with selfishness. But a clear reading of Smith shows just the opposite. Smith taught ethics and would never have promoted selfishness, which he abhorred as much as anyone. Self-interest for Smith was nothing more than providing food, shelter and life’s necessities for one’s family. Self-interest could turn into selfishness, but competitors in the market would keep that from getting out of hand. 

        • “Human Action” sounds like a great read. I plan on diving into a thorough study of the history of economic thought this summer. I’ll make sure it is on my list.

          As for asceticism, this sort of thing?:

          • Roger McKinney

             I think the author stretches the meaning of asceticism beyond recognition. Morals aren’t asceticism. They empower people to flourish and be their best. Asceticism looks to pain and suffering to make people feel holier, even if they aren’t.

          • Re: Asceticism: Some forms may fit your characterization, but I would argue that it is a distortion of the traditional Christian position, as well as the common understanding of many from more traditional forms of Christianity today. The word itself is derivative of the Greek word for “exercise” and carries roughly the same meaning. Thus, along these lines several metaphors of the Christian life in
            Scripture liken it to athletes training and competing in their various
            sports (a runner, a fighter, etc.). Furthermore, all Christians are called to suffering and self-denial by Christ himself. If I struggle with anger, for example, I cannot simply will myself to quit being so angry all the time. I need to condition myself to be more self-controlled. Thus, spiritual disciplines like fasting, which teach me to be more self-controlled in something small (i.e. food), can foster the self-restraint I need to build a better habit of holding my tongue when I’m offended or forgiving others or humbly accepting criticism, etc. As St. Moses of Ethiopa characterizes them, from a Christian perspective ascetic disciplines are rungs of a ladder leading us to true charity.

            Re: Economics, there is a wonderfully large volume, _Readings in the History of Economic Thought_, which I figure will lay a decent foundation of the various schools, then I plan to focus more on the various favorites here at Acton.

          • Roger McKinney

             PS, what do you intend to read on the history of economic thought? Have you seen Rothbard’s book?

          • Roger McKinney

             PSS, a new book on the history of economic thought is getting some good press: Lawrence H. White’s The Clash of Economic Ideas. Check out this review:

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