by Charles Andrew Gottshall
As John Milbank perceptively pointed out in his paper “Sophiology and Theurgy,” the Russian sophiologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were far ahead of the West in theologically responding to modernity, including forging a renewed intersection of science and faith. From the mystical poet and father of Russian Sophiology, Vladimir Solovyov’s profound and penetrating writings on the cosmogonic process in its incessant struggle to incarnate the divine principle in matter, to the otherworldly intellect of the polymath Pavel Florensky—the Russian da Vinci—in his vastly ranging reflections on dreams, psychology, physiology, physics, biology, evolution, geometry, general relativity, etc., to the towering dogmatic theologian, Sergius Bulgakov’s meditations on the metaphysical foundations of science, the essence of the economic process, the nature of miracles, and his focused, but brilliant ruminations on original sin and evolution, the integration of science and faith is indubitably one of the august hallmarks of Russian Sophiology. The latter is an important, but lamentably neglected theological voice, whose two trilogies are among the greatest accomplishments of twentieth century systematic theology. Bulgakov deals most comprehensively with original sin in his magnum opus, The Bride of the Lamb, where he provides a supratemporal and sophiological solution to the problem evolution poses to the traditional understanding of original sin as a historical act of the primordial pair of humans in a paradisal garden in the Ancient Near East. I realize that the fall is a difficult and controversial matter in our times, and all the more so in the work of Sergius Bulgakov with his views on Sophia and the world soul (i.e. Sophia in its creaturely aspect), without which his elucidation of the doctrine make little sense. Nonetheless, I think he provides a cogent account of the fall that takes the doctrine seriously, that makes sense of our phenomenological experience of the world, and that is not only consonant with, but also supplies a metaphysical and theological rationale for the evolutionary process itself.
Distinguishing between dogmatic and theological achievements, as Bulgakov often did, one can say that while Christian thought from the beginning has possessed the correct dogma or doctrinal convictions concerning the fall—broadly understood as human (and angelic) agency as the cause of evil and death in humanity and all of nature—only in recent generations has a truer and fuller elucidation of the doctrine emerged. In what follows of this two-part paper, I will begin with a historical–theological vignette of various views on the fall in order to set the context for my discussion of Sergius Bulgakov’s contribution to theological speculation on the matter. Additionally, I’ll offer my own corrective of Bulgakov’s position, which at one point, I believe, devolves into internal contradiction with disastrous theological implications.
The intellectual landscape of Christian thought has, at its best, always claimed a universal domain. This comprehensive vision arises from the conviction that the created order is an intelligible and integral expression of Divinity; the whole of it points beyond itself to the invisible God in whom all things “live, and move and have [their] being (Acts 17:28).” Thus theology is not and can never merely be one discipline among others, for its “object” is Infinite. Operating as a sort of formal and final cause, theology in-forms and directs all disciplines of knowledge back to their supersensible Source from which they originate, on account of which, no separation of thought into secular and religious spheres is finally possible. The contemporary split between science and faith is merely a cultural and contingent pathology of our age, a falsehood that Christianity can serve only to its utter detriment. Pavel Florensky prophetically attested to this a century ago in his brilliant work, At the Crossroads of Science & Mysticism (i.e. the English translation of part of his multi-volume project, At the Watersheds of Thought). Although there are serious questions that theology must attend to, especially the plethora of moral and metaphysical questions that surround evolution, these can become epiphanic occasions for heavenly light to descend anew upon age-old theological doctrines. Some of these questions have already been sufficiently answered. Conor Cunningham and Michael Hanby, for instance, have masterfully demonstrated that evolution and creation are not in the least antithetical, given that ecclesial dogma constrains Christian theology to profess creatio ex nihilo, which merely expresses the difference and dependence of creation on the Creator.1 This is a metaphysical rather than an empirical claim about the world’s relation to God, not a scientific theory of the processes by which life unfolds within a finite universe. Furthermore, they have exposed the self-destructive philosophical presuppositions often undergirding evolutionary accounts. Evolutionary processes cannot be coherently understood or defended within the mechanistic or materialist philosophies in currency, for a mindless, fortuitous process could never produce an intentional and rational consciousness within which the theory of evolution could itself be comprehended or trusted. This is only one of many insurmountable problems that arise from reducing being to a random coalescence of natural forces, the blind interaction of stochastic processes, or to a fortuitous concrescence of disparate components. The very possibility of evolution presupposes that the order of finite existence is ontologically insufficient to produce or sustain itself; or stated positively, contingent being is radically dependent upon Absolute Being. And thus we have circled back to the understanding of creation as an ontological relation of reliance on God, not a physical or empirical theory of how life emerges or ascends within a contingent order, which the doctrine of creation is manifestly not.
In contrast with the doctrine of creation, the doctrine of the fall still poses major questions for theology, and inevitably theodicy along with it. It is often assumed that the question of the fall, and the presence of evil in nature, is a more difficult problem today than it was in pre-modern times before the scientific revolution, and in particular, prior to the discovery of evolution. But this is a fata morgana, a mirage in the theological desert. While the fall of mankind, and nature along with it, did occupy some great speculative minds such as Origen, Augustine, and Maximus the Confessor, it did so with great difficulty and, arguably, with as much detriment as benefit to theology. Origen, or more probably, his infamous followers,2 despite correctly perceiving the fallenness of matter, falsely concluded that the physical world constituted a diremption from fleshless bliss, a realm to which the soul was destined to return after ages of purification. Augustine, although rightly but dimly perceiving all of humanity’s participation in Adam’s sin, constructed his hideous doctrine of the inherited guilt of Adam’s lineage, and arbitrarily deduced from this the just damnation of the vast majority of the race, unelected by grace to inherit the kingdom. Maximus, although brilliantly intuiting that motion and not stasis belongs to the original state of creation and that the fall took place virtually simultaneous with the act of creation, imprudently inferred—following Gregory of Nyssa—that the bifurcation of humanity into male and female genders was merely a divine provision for the preservation of the race due to God’s foreknowledge of the fall. Each of these towering figures saw different aspects of the fallenness of the world and humanity both correctly and defectively with differing theological implications. But conspicuously left unexplored was the metaphysical connection between the fall of humanity and the presence of evil in nature (except to some extent, in Origenism), yet even if it had been no viable solutions could have been proposed within the static cosmology and biology of the ancient world. The insurmountable theological difficulties the antique worldview raised can be ascertained from the heretical views of the garrulous rhetorician and apologist Arnobius of Sicca. Although a stranger to orthodoxy, Arnobius evinces an enormous sensitivity to the presence of evil in the world, which led him to conclude that God was not its Creator.
We … deny that flies, beetles, and bugs, dormice, weevils, and moths, are the work of the Almighty King. Without incurring criticism we can be ignorant as to who gave them their beginning and at the same time maintain that not by the Higher God were they brought forth such useless, pointless, purposeless creatures.2
As mundane as Arnobius’ ruminations might appear, his moral and metaphysical intuitions are doubtless rightly guided and pose a serious question to dogmatic theology. Can the presence of evil in creation be due to an isolated act of disobedience in a perfect world, and if so, how to explain such “pointless, purposeless creatures?” The static view of creation implied that God had immediately created all species, but the theological implication of this—that God thus was the direct Source of a defective world—was left unacknowledged, or at least remained unnoticed. But common sense indicates that the world we inhabit simply cannot be the direct creation of the Absolute, which appears devastatingly imperfect and thus irreconcilable with God’s goodness. Faced with such a theological difficulty the Origenist understanding of the fall of souls into heavy material bodies, and the creation of the physical world to lead them back to celestial unity, makes much sense as a way of reconciling how the Absolute could also be the Creator of the physical world. Further removed from Christian orthodoxy, these problems provide a partial background to the Gnostic myths of the creation of the world by a malevolent demiurge, and the Platonic myth, Timaeus, of the creation of the world by a benevolent demiurge, who, working with matter incompetent to assume the perfection of the eternal forms, absolves the Good of the world’s inherent deficiencies and intrinsic distortions. Of course, one could also have recourse to voluntarist explanations that picture God as a vindictive anthropomorphic deity who becomes enraged with the primordial pair of humans in their act of disobedience, and so arbitrarily decides to curse them, their progeny, and the entire creation. Such a picture of God is metaphysically incoherent and morally loathsome, while the Origenist account slanders God by understanding the finite, physical world as a declension from a more original, pristine condition unburdened by physicality, whereas the Gnostic and Platonic subordinationist accounts—obscuring an originary antimony between the finite and the Infinite—posit a secondary cause for the creation, falsely thinking that the First Cause will thereby be exonerated. All of these options are ultimately untenable for Christian theology, which understands the creation of the world to be an act of freedom and love on the part of a Creator who has no need for a finite order to fortify his infinity. Given that creation—not in its foundation, but in its manifestation—is quite obviously not a perfect origination from the Absolute, the static ontology of the pre-modern world is irreconcilable with a Christian understanding of creation. Only a dynamic ontology can lead us to an explanation of the universal presence evil in creation, and subsequently to humanity’s connection with it. Origenism was somewhat close to coming up with a dynamic ontology, insofar as it posited a defectiveness in creation as a departure from a truer form of existence to which it was necessary to return, but it ended with dualism, while subordinationism, as a theory of the world’s creation, sought simply to deflect the dilemma raised by the presence of evil in nature given the infinite goodness of God, whereas the implicit voluntarism of what is arguably the traditional perspective was largely content with its dogmatic convictions without seeking a proper theological explanation that went beyond voluntarism to establish an integral metaphysical connection between the presence of evil in nature and the fall of humanity. Despite the latter’s widespread currency in theological tradition, it seems logically impossible to think of the created order as originating in universal perfection, directly departing from God, only then to be universally shattered by an isolated act within its seamless whole. Such a view is now entirely untenable given the discovery of evolution (not merely biological, but the evolution of the entire universe). As Vladimir Solovyov so well expresses the matter:
If we consider the terrestrial world as it is and especially its geological and paleontological history, so well documented in our days, we find depicted there a laborious process determined by heterogeneous principles which do not achieve a firm and harmonious unity except after much time and great effort. Nothing could bear less resemblance to an entirely perfect work issuing directly from a single divine artificer. Our cosmic history is a long and painful parturition. We see in it clear signs of internal struggle, of shocks and violent convulsions, blind gropings, unfinished sketches of unsuccessful creations, monstrous births and abortions. Can all these antediluvian monsters, these paleozoa—the megatherium, the plesiosaurus, the ichthyosaurus, the pterodactyl and so forth—form part of the direct creation of God?4
Leaving aside Solovyov’s understanding of the fall because of its correspondence with Bulgakov’s, it is important to consider an important viewpoint that has attempted to reconcile the theological issue of evil in creation with the goodness of God in the context of an evolutionary or dynamic ontology. One option that has arisen in modern Christian thought for understanding the fallen condition of the world is that, owing to its finitude, the world must pass through the fires of temporal sorrow, privation, and loss, the narrow and necessary path of creation groping its way to the everlasting kingdom. In essence, although perhaps not in theological consequence, this view must be properly distinguished from the Calvinist notion of the fall (election aside, which has different implications) as an eternal decree enfolded within the divine council that unfolds with unobstructed necessity in time. The obvious problem with this view, observed, for instance, in the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, is that the goal of creation is necessarily realized through processes of death and decay, and thus is only possible through the emergence of evil. His famous essays on original sin are essentially reducible to the claim that the shadows of evil, darkness, and death are the inevitable barnacles that anchor themselves to the vessel of finitude in its initial stages of becoming, futilities unavoidably fastened to the world process until the fullness of time when they will be broken off at the end of history.5 The theological implications of this view are quite severe if carried through to their logical terminus. Evil becomes necessary for God’s greater ends and glory in creation, the dark underground that must accompany the expression of divine goodness upon the surface of finitude. And the bad dream grows more gruesome, quickly turning into a nightmare haunting every conceivable corridor of theological consciousness. Sin and death become not the self-enslavement of humanity to its vices and lust, but inexorable consequences of its existence as such, of its creatureliness. Salvation ensconces the dark face of God; the economy of redemption veils divine caprice, for God becomes, in some sense, directly responsible for our moral and biological death, and thus salvation is no longer deliverance from the regime of creaturely rebellion, but from the condition in which God defectively created us. The Incarnation and the cross are reduced to emptiness, for the world is constrained to its “bondage to decay” on account of its finitude, and then summoned to rise again from the ashes of time’s relentless vagaries and vanities into the beauty of infinite bliss. The outcome may be glorious, but the kingdom is purchased at the monstrous price of a hellish torture chamber; the creation is subjected to futility and vanity, and history to unimaginable wreckage and carnage, the necessary birth pangs of the world writhing in labor, before true life is born. And thus Paul’s rapturous truth is reduced to a falsehood: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is revealed to us (Rom. 8:18).” An incompetent demiurge, or, still worse, a malicious demon replaces the Creator of infinite goodness, for creation is only possible through temporal devastation before its eternal elevation. Such is the insufferable cost for eliminating original sin. It pains me to criticize Chardin so harshly given the immensity of his contribution to the intersection of science and faith, and the exquisite grandeur of his masterpiece, The Phenomenon of Man, which has justly been lauded as one of the greatest spiritual works of the 20th century. Nonetheless, it seems impossible to emerge with a different theological outcome. Although Chardin’s portrait of the world comprises an indispensible and dynamic ontology and teleology, it becomes quite revolting lacking a true notion of the fall conditioning the entire process. Simply stated, it is inconceivable that the universe could only unfold from the Absolute, who is infinite Goodness and Triune Love, in such violent spasms through a long, tortuous history of sin, death, and evil. The actual history of the world appears as a false pathway to the kingdom, a contingency that need not have arisen. The protological path the world has taken cannot be the course that God intended creation to tread in its march towards eschatological consummation.
Each of the views explored above, while having a degree of merit, pay the miserable price of either forfeiting the goodness of finitude or sacrificing the goodness of the Infinite. 1) That the world fell through the primordial progenitors of the race in a historical moment in paradisal garden in Mesopotamia some millennia ago accords neither with the actual history of the world, where man arose last in the evolutionary process, and thus enters the world already fallen, nor with a coherent metaphysical understanding of the matter: such a universal rupture of the created order is logically impossible as an isolated event in the history of our world. Patristic and medieval theologians were largely unable to conceive of the metaphysical connection of humanity’s fall and the presence of evil in nature leading either to dualism or voluntarism. 2) On the Gnostic fringes of Christian thought, and on the Platonic purlieus of pagan philosophy, subordinationism was unwilling to acknowledge the Absolute as the Creator, and thus was unable to proclaim the inherent goodness of finitude. 3) If it was somewhat inevitable that the antique world would be unable to provide an adequate theological explanation of the fall, given the intrinsic limits and distortions of ancient cosmology, the discovery of evolution and the fact of humanity’s appearance in the last stage of the world process has enabled the doctrine of the fall and the presence of evil in nature to be seen in a radically different light, from an angle that exposes all the more clearly the insurmountable problems that arise from understanding the fall as an isolated, historical act in a perfect world. Hence, with the indispensable dynamic ontology posited by Chardin an answer lies closer at hand, but without a doctrine of the fall his account ends up with catastrophic theological consequences. 4) While it is permissible, and even advisable, for religious thought—in divining the truth—to maintain allegiance to the doctrine of the fall while remaining agnostic on the adequacy of its various theological explanations, this is impossible for dogmatic thought, which must seek rational ratification of religious intuition of truth. Therefore, another solution is required. The biblical accounts of the fall of rational creation, and with it of the whole created order—read within the Christian exegetical tradition in contrast with historical-critical findings—attest to a supra-historical fall that is clothed in the language of history, a metaphysical rupture of the entire created order wrought by humankind.
It is, of course, possible to recapitulate the crude, and at times irrational, invectives against Sergius Bulgakov’s manifold deployments of sophiology to dogmatic questions, and in particular to dismiss his account of the fall as the construction of a metaphysical mythology, a peculiar and pathetic attempt to save the doctrine by conveniently sequestering the fall of rational creation behind the curtain of history, and thus safely outside the bounds of empirical research and, to wit, of falsification. Such dismissive reactions belong to the fabulous and odious lore that collects around Russian Sophiology, bedizening it with gilded and gaudy accusations, such as inducting a fourth member into the Trinity, fashioning a theological system that is little more than a thinly veiled pantheism, or worse, worshiping a literal eternal feminine in a form of syncretistic, Christian paganism. These adornments are unbecoming raiments cloaking a philosophical epoch that sought to array itself in the manifold splendor of divine Wisdom. However, serious engagement with Bulgakov’s thought, and Russian Sophiology more generally, indicates a profound endeavor to penetrate into the essence of Christian dogma in order to respond to the range of questions posed by modern philosophy and science. What emerged, at least as an ideal, was a renewed Christian synthesis not only of faith and reason, but of theology and science. One of the great theological achievements of the Russian sophiological synthesis is the clarification of the metaphysical connection between humanity and creation, the former being the spiritual conductor of the latter’s principles, the choragus of creation’s manifold themes. Accordingly, Sergius Bulgakov’s (following Vladimir Solovyov) theological explorations into the essence of the fall in relation to evolution comprise what is possibly an unprecedented attempt to elucidate how it is that the fallen, physical condition of nature and the fallen, moral condition of rational creation are ineffably wedded. The fall of humanity (and the angels) in Christian thought is the cause for the lamentable state of creation, but how this is so has not received adequate theological explanation. The question has become ever more present and palpable, as it was, to some degree, prompted and brought to the fore by the advancement of scientific knowledge. We will presently explore Sergius Bulgakov’s supratemporal and sophiological solution to the matter, while also altering his account slightly, but significantly, to save it from internal contradiction.
It would be interesting to trace the dependence and divergence of Bulgakov’s account of the fall from those of Friedrich Schelling and Vladimir Solovyov who exerted great influence on his thought, but to do so would take us too far afield. Still worth mentioning is that both of these figures posit an ontological rupture of humanity—or at least the world soul in the case of Solovyov in his revolutionary Lectures on Divine Humanity, and the primordial “will” concealed from Eternity in the case of Schelling in his unfinished masterpiece, Ages of the World—at the foundation of creation, not as a historical event, but as a supratemporal event above time, conditioning and permeating the entire world process. This gives the fall the universal character that a historical fall could not.6 At any rate, Bulgakov’s thoughts on the matter are more systematically and dogmatically developed than his philosophical forebears. Perhaps Maximus the Confessor was also somewhat close to conceiving the fall of humanity in these terms, but his account remained underdeveloped, as his crucial concern was to combat Origenism, and not to explain the universal effects of the fall or its relation to historical time.
In order to understand how Bulgakov connected the fall of rational creation and its universal implications for all of nature, we must trace back his thought to that misty morning of creation in the primordial past, into a “time” before time when the first light of creation was just dawning. Here at the foundations of all becoming lie the answers to the metaphysical enigmas that impose themselves upon the consciousness and conscience of all humanity. Why is the world thus? How is it that the entire creation was ontologically torn asunder, its metaphysical seams unraveled? From whence does this immense sense of guilt derive, and from wither does this inexplicable feeling of responsibility for the world’s past and future arise? These interrogative intuitions arise in the soul of all, even if only breaking forth to the forefront of consciousness in a few. This universal intuition of creation’s fragmentation is the existential discovery of Sin slumbering in the bosom of our being, and sickness in the womb of the world, the recollection of an act of humanity as a whole that occasions the birth of all into sin, and induces the groans and labor pains of all creation (cf. Rom. 8:22).7 This act lies above our world and for this reason it contains force for the whole world. The current condition of our world has its causal roots “in the beginning.” Bulgakov posits a dynamic understanding of the creation of the world as an act in which creatures themselves participate. When God called all things forth from nothingness the world received itself actively or with active receptivity. The world determined itself in relation to the gift of its own being, and without this response to the Creator, the world would not exist. This determination is the condition of creation’s incarnation in time, and thus can only take place on the border between eternity and time, in a liminal supra-temporality. This is the “frame of time”8 in which the fall occurs, the “event” in which becoming comes to be in a false and fleshly manner. (Bulgakov states that the angelic fall occurred in time in distinction from humanity’s supra-temporal fall, but angelic temporality is more a “series of inner events” and “self-determinations” due to the difference of angelic nature from human nature.9 I’ll briefly touch on that matter below.)
For Bulgakov, there are essentially three created realms: the angels or fleshless spirits, humanity as the hypostasis of the world soul, and the world soul itself, or creaturely Sophia, which is the non-hypostatic, productive and unitive life force of the world that contains within itself all the diverse principles of nature. Because creation is not a dead mechanism, it can only come to be by a synergistic act. The world is summoned into being by the divine call, and the world exists as a response, is its response; love answers Love. In order to emerge from nothingness, each of these three spheres of creation must actively determine themselves in relation to God’s creative act, but only the first two (humanity and the angels) can determine themselves rationally or morally in relation to the Creator. The angels, the fleshless spirits, were created with a relative fullness and maturity, lacking the element of discursivity characteristic of humanity, due to their nature as created intelligences. The nature of their being is to be immersed in Divinity, submerged in ceaseless participation in the eternal glory of God. Thus, their fall could not be occasioned by deception or error; their fall takes place with full knowledge as pure rebellion, the dark flame of self-love. Their fall, according to Bulgakov, takes place within angelic time, an inner temporality that is distinct from but connected to the temporality of the physical world. Humanity, on the other hand, was created with a dual nature, which bestows upon its active reception of the creative act a dual character. Having its roots in both eternity and time, spirituality and physicality (unlike the angels), there lies within humanity the possibility of deception, the lure of looking to the lower world in seeking to satisfy its nature. Illusion can arise within an untested humanity not knowing how to stand in both worlds at once, the prospect of a choice wherein the divine summons to life hearkens unto humanity as an inner call pulling its spiritual principle upward in the direction of the higher world, as a principle of unity for the lower, while its physical principle pulls its gazes downward, desirous of the fruit of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” Upon this threshold of time and two worlds the destiny of humanity and nature is determined. “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil (Deut. 30:15).” In this state at the foundation of creation, all humanity is present as a multi-unity, as Adam, the all-human. Humanity, for Bulgakov, shares a single nature, which is hypostatically realized or actualized in the entire race. The individuality that we know after the fall is unnatural, egotistical, whereas true personhood and individuality is found only in community, in multi-unity. Here lies the possibility of original sin as the universal transgression of all humanity. Adam, as the fullness of race, the pleroma, is every individual, whose lapse from multi-unity into ego-centricity, from sophianicity into cosmicity, is the act of all alike. Humanity, in a single, supra-temporal determination of its existence, which had the force of fate for the whole natural world, forsook “the tree of life” for the forbidden tree and fell into error and fragmentation, and thereby subjected the world to futility (cf. Rom. 8:20). Humanity’s bond with nature, the world-soul, was ruptured; instead of subduing nature as creation’s king, it became its slave, being subjected to the shackles of nature’s pitiless processes of life and death, eventually emerging within the evanescent cycles of evolution.
The metaphysical connection between the fall of humanity and the presence of evil in nature can only be understood in the context of humanity’s relation to the world soul, or “creaturely Sophia,” to use Bulgakov’s alternative expression. The notion of the world soul, the anima mundi, is often either ignored or considered an un-philosophical musing of mystical mythology, but Bulgakov understood it as a necessary metaphysical presupposition for the integral unity of the created order. As the world is a unified and interdependent system, an organized whole that arranges itself by mysterious, autopoetic forces rather than a lifeless mechanism composed of disparate parts, the world is, in some sense, a single organism. Creaturely Sophia comprises the content of all creation, and is the productive and unitive force, suffusing all matter. “She is the life of the world.”10 The world soul is the life-giving Wisdom of God in creation. The temporal world is modeled on the eternal world; creaturely Sophia is the resplendent reflection of Divine Sophia, which is the non-hypostatic nature of God, the content and glory of Divinity possessed by each of the three co-eternal, consubstantial Hypostases. Analogous to non-hypostatic divine Sophia, Bulgakov maintains that creaturely Sophia is a non-hypostatic life force. Lacking its own volitional center the world soul is incapable of both rebellion and deception, and to a large degree is characterized by a sort of innate striving, an instinctive drive, which can be possessed by demonic malice and poisoned by human sin. Presently, the ontological connection between humanity and the world soul is faintly perceptible because the spiritual powers of humanity over nature were weakened in its fall and nearly reduced to a state of potentiality that is unnatural and catastrophic for both humanity and the world. The hypostasis of the world soul is humanity, the spirit of nature, the coryphaeus of creation, whose fall left the world soul “orphaned,”11 abandoned to blind striving, gradually and laboriously realizing the divine principles of creation through evolutionary processes. Humanity was to subordinate the world soul to the divine principle (the Logos acting upon the world in the power of the Spirit by the will of the Father), and so lead creation out into life and liberty, to hypostasize the world soul transforming nature into a universal organism.12 The fragmentation and heaviness of matter, its impenetrability for spirit is the non-spiritual or fallen condition of matter, its “bondage to decay” that shall prevail until the fetters that bind humanity’s freedom are broken. The transfiguration of the world is impossible apart from the redemption of humanity, and only thus will creation be “set free… and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:21).” Without its human hypostasis, “the guardian of the universe,”13 the world soul wanders in the dark and nature turns wild. Bereft of its glory and sophianicity the world became a wilderness for humanity, a place of spiritual exile where even God and the fall can be doubted; creation as a region of life and light became a realm of moral depravity and physical mortality. Instead of obtaining its body in spiritual manner from nature by subduing the creative principles of the world soul, by exercising dominion over nature, humanity became enslaved to its lower principle and thus emerged within the evolutionary process as natural, fleshly humanity in an un-spiritual state. So shall it be until the end of this age, and we must live with the haunting truth that “the whole world would be other if it were not for the sin of Adam.”14
The only major difficulty I perceive with Bulgakov’s account of the fall of humanity—one that I did not highlight above—concerns its relation to the world soul, and specifically humanity’s arrival at the end of evolutionary history to hypostasize the world soul. In The Burning Bush, Bulgakov sets forth a systematic anthropology wherein he rightly shows how the sin of humanity and the presence of evil in nature are inextricably interwoven. But this account lacks the integration of evolution into the doctrine of the fall and original sin,15 which is set forth in The Bride of the Lamb, chapter 3. There he introduces what I think to be a serious contradiction into his account that leads to monstrous theological implications. On the one hand he holds to a supra-temporal fall, but on the other he holds that evolutionary history up until the arrival of humanity was the natural course of the world—and he does not consider this a fallen state.
Man comes into the world last, on the sixth day. Prior to and without man, the world evolves toward him. All that is called into being by God bears his blessing, the divine “it was good.” But this cannot remove the limited character of the world’s proper being. This limited character can be transcended only by man. As long as the sophianic instinctiveness of the world soul reigns in creation, the latter remains unfinished, for it is incompletely humanized. Therefore, the evolution of the world within its proper limits also presupposes its relative imperfection, which by no means contradicts the “it was good” of the divine plan, the sophianic content of being. Geological periods, the “struggle for existence,” mortality in the animal world, in which there is no immortality of individuals but only of the species, could all have been present to a certain degree (a degree impossible to define with precision) in the world of the six days of creation, prior to man.16
Continuing this stream of thought, he says that un-fallen humanity arrived last on the stage of the world with an “edenic perception,”17 and that the wildness and blindness of nature was from that point on to be overcome by humanity; nature was to be humanized, that is, the world soul was to be hypostasized thereby elevating and spiritualizing matter. But instead of achieving this spiritual mastery over nature humanity fell into sin, and was enslaved along with the rest of creation to the cycles of life and death.
Two possibilities were marked out in the life of creation: (1) the “evolutionary”-instinctive development of creation before man, but one that later, under man’s rule, was to acquire the light of reason and become liberated from the power of nonhypostatic elementalness; and (2) the development of creation with man [that is, man becomes enslaved to the natural evolutionary process], who was called to become created god, the protector and cultivator of Eden. But instead of humanizing nature, man himself became the slave of nature and a prisoner to its necessity.18
The problem with this portrait is, to me at least, quite obvious and suffers from a logical incoherence. Bulgakov pictures the scenario of humanity arriving in the world to hypostasize the world soul in terms that necessitate a temporal fall, rather than the supra-temporal fall that he adamantly advocates. He here assumes (as it appears he does not elsewhere) that the world process was unaffected by the supra-temporal fall of humanity and places the supra-temporal fall at a specific point in the history of the world, i.e. in the arrival of humanity after the long evolutionary epochs of life on earth. But this is precisely to temporalize a supra-temporal “event.” This is a flat contradiction of his statements concerning humanity’s fall as determining and affecting the entire course of nature’s development, and it could not be otherwise. As the supramundane principle of the world, the hypostatic spirit of nature, it is inconceivable that the fall of humanity would have no implications for the unfolding of creation itself. Eden, as the protological purity of creation in anticipation of its eschatological perfection, must have been possible “in the beginning” as the peaceable pathway to the kingdom. Humanity, as the ontological center of the world process, was to subordinate the world soul to the divine principle, hypostasize it from the beginning. There can be no middle ground here as Bulgakov tries to establish, an eruption of Edenic humanity into a world where death and decay have already taken hold. Furthermore, this precarious move necessarily leads to undesirable theological consequences. It appears, at the last, theologically impossible to entertain the idea that evolutionary history is a natural and necessary course of development, an unbroken and un-fallen cosmic cycle, for the processes of life are intrinsically bound up with death, and thus indicate not simply a non-eschatological or un-deified state of matter, but the fallenness of matter that Bulgakov elsewhere speaks of so unmistakably. As God is in himself the Good, the order of finitude which emerges from Him, must from the beginning be capable of purity, must of necessity be able to unfold peaceably without death and decay nourishing themselves as a shadow empire in the kingdom of beauty. This possibility was foreclosed at the foundation of the world through rebellion and deception; and that world which inhabits our dreams and illumines our deepest aspirations confronts the falsehood in which the present world lies, for that world lies above ours as its unrealized ideal until the end of this age. For now the first day of creation is closed off until the last. But the glory of that first day, in all its radiance, purity, and possibility shone again in the Taboric light of Easter morning, the dawning of the last day that casts back its light on that other world that was, that should have been, the world that will be when “God will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).”
The ultimate rationale of this paper, and of the doctrine of the fall, is the conviction that the actual history of the world in its fallen condition need not have been, that this history of sin and death was not the only possible one. It is inconceivable that the world in its current condition conforms to the intention of God, and thus the cause of creation’s lamentable state can only be located on the side of the creature. There have been diverse attempts to capture this indispensable religious intuition in conceptual thought, but I find Sergius Bulgakov’s account of original sin most compelling because it provides a coherent explanation for the universal presence of evil in creation in relation to humanity’s sinful self-determination. Bulgakov takes very seriously the unity of the world, and the unity of humanity, neither of which are merely an aggregate of components fortuitously cobbled together, but a living organism that can only be realized as the world God intends through free union with God. Freedom truly is, for Bulgakov, the liberating principle that unifies and harmonizes the diverse principles of the world, or the enslaving principle that disintegrates and deforms it, because creation is a living unity. Despite the theological spasm that entered into his theological speculations on the fall, with devastating theological consequences, Bulgakov (and Solovyov) has arguably offered us an unprecedented panoramic view of the matter, which descends to us as a gift from the lofty heights of his colossal mind in its mighty exertions.
￼ See respectively Darwin’s Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get it Wrong (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010); and No God, No Science: Theology, Cosmology, Biology (Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).
￼ It is not my purpose here to weigh in on the debates over Origen surrounding the doctrine of pre-existent souls that he purportedly espoused, but for a recent defender of Origen against such claims, see Ilaria Ramelli’s “‘Preexistence of Souls?’ The ἀρχή and τέλος of Rational Creatures in Origen and Some Origenians” in Studia Patristica Vol. LVI, ed. Markus Vinzent (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2013), pp. 167-181.
￼ Arnobius of Sicca, The Case Against the Pagans, trans. George E. McCracken (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1949), p. 158.
￼ Vladimir Solovyev, Russia and the Universal Church, trans. Herbert Rees (London, UK: Geoffrey Bles, 1948), p. 164.
￼ Chardin’s essays on original sin are collected and translated, along with many others, in Christianity and Evolution, trans. René Hague (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1969).
￼ Hence, Chardin’s judgment that a historical fall, as an isolated event within a perfect world, would have had a more circumscribed scope seems certain. Cf. Chardin’s essays “Fall, Redemption, and Geocentrism” and “Reflections on Original Sin” in Christianity and Evolution. Connected with this is the fact of humanity’s arrival last in creation, instead of initially, which seems proper to humanity as the guardian and priest of the world, the hypostatic spirit of nature. This fact implies that the fall of humanity took place supratemporally. Of course, the fall could have taken place after a prolonged period of purity, and so perhaps the extent of catastrophe within the world could have been reduced, although it would be impossible to determine or quantify the concrete characteristics of such a schema. If it seems that we have here meandered into a realm pure mythology, one must recognize that the only alternative is the more haunting myth of determinism. There can be no necessity in humanity’s fall, and thus the pathways of the world in its gradual realization of union with God are contingent upon human freedom. Denial of these differing possibilities of freedom in the world process is tantamount to determinism with all of its horrific theological consequences.
￼ Anticipating misunderstanding and doubts to this supratemporal act Bulgakov replies: “But perhaps some will inquire: why then does the soul not know and not remember its own accomplished self-determination, its agreement to incarnation in a sinful body, an act of the will towards life? Is this not a fantasy and a dream? This question would be pertinent if the discussion were about a separate act of life, or its occurrence in time which could either be remembered or not remembered in a series of other events… But in the given case the discussion is not about an event but about a beginning and consequently not about a temporal act but about a pre-temporal act. It cannot be remembered as an event of the temporal life, but the soul does preserve a recollection of it, an anamnesis, and wears its seal. In this sense the soul always remembers it and unceasingly recalls it in consciousness of the impropriety and impairment of its being, of its personal responsibility for this and of its sinfulness (The Burning Bush, 31).”
￼ David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), p. 102.
￼ Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), p. 156.
￼ Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, p. 80.
￼ Sergius Bulgakov, The Burning Bush: On the Orthodox Veneration of the Mother of God, trans. Thomas Allen Smith (Grand Rapids: MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2009), 18.
￼ See the second section of Sergius Bulgakov’s philosophical work, Unfading Light: Contemplations and Speculations, trans. Thomas Allen Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2012), II.3, where he briefly discusses the divinization of matter.
￼ Bulgakov, The Burning Bush, p. 20.
￼ The Burning Bush, p. 20. In chapter 2 of that book Bulgakov sets out his anthropology and has a detailed discussion of original sin, but does not speak of evolution.
￼ Cf. also Sergei Bulgakov, Philosophy of Economy: The World as Household, trans. Catherine Evtuhov (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 148-154.
￼ The Bride of the Lamb, p. 173.
￼ The Bride of the Lamb, p. 178.
￼ The Bride of the Lamb, p. 179.
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Andrew Gottshall is a graduate of Beeson Divinity School and is presently working on his doctorate at Durham University.