We Shall See Him as He Is: Bulgakov on Eschatological Conversion

by Roberto J. De La Noval, Ph.D.

“It is impossible to appear before Christ and to see Him without loving Him.”
~ Sergius Bulgakov ~

Universalists and infernalists argue.1 In the course of their arguments over the past dec­ades, a few key points of disagreement have come to the fore. Bracketing the methodo­log­ical issues, such as the normative status of ecclesiastical councils that have (or perhaps have not) spoken on the afterlife, and the exegetical questions concerning Scripture pertaining to hell, there are aspects of the debate that are strictly speaking theological—meaning, about God—and those that are anthropo­logical, which concern the nature of human persons and their choices. Universalists and infernalists alike disagree on what the doctrine of God and God’s divine attributes entails with respect to the final outcome of history: if God is goodness itself, and justice, and love, how can we understand these diverse manifestations of the divine nature in in a coherent, and not schizophrenic or contradictory, fashion when thinking about God’s actions at the Last Judgment? Similarly, infernalists and universalists disagree about what the anthropological data, especially with respect to human freedom, indicates about the possibility of post-mortem repentance, even if the doctrine of God we hold should imply that God could never refuse the sinner the opportunity to repent. There are quite fascinating and intricate discussions to be had about what kind of argument should secure rational assent one way or another (again, bracketing the more determinative questions about how we should relate to what sacred tradition teaches, if it teaches anything at all definitively, on this question), and whether the anthropological or the theological argument by itself should be enough to carry the day. As I see it, universalists have tended to argue on the theological side, while infernal­ists of the last century or so, espe­cially those who are Protestant, have landed on the anthropological as the preferred site of argumentation. (I suspect this has something to do with the primacy of the free will argument in 20th century discussions of theodicy, espe­cially in the American analytic tradition that is dominated by Protestant philosophers.) In any case, a full argumentation for either side must address both facets of this question, for in the end it is indeed God who saves, but it is we who are the saved, and so no infernalist or universalist account is complete without addressing both the theological and anthropo­log­ical questions.

​Sergius Bulgakov’s case for universal salvation accomplishes this two-fold task over the course of his many eschatological writings, but especially in the essays collected in The Sophiology of Death, in his commentary on the Apocalypse of John, and in the final volume of his “major trilogy,” The Bride of the Lamb (henceforth BOTL]). The theological side of the argument is well known, I think, and need not be rehearsed at length. In its main points it claims what all universalist theologies do: that God’s very essence is love; that the nature of love is to stop at nothing in the work of bringing the beloved to its ultimate good; and that in Christ, God has demonstrated that untiring love in flesh and in action. There is more to it, of course, but that is not the purpose of this brief essay. Instead, I want to focus on the anthro­po­logical side of Bulgakov’s arguments for universal salvation.

Bulgakov makes the striking claim that at the Parousia, all of humanity will be clothed in Christ by the Holy Spirit (BOTL, 456). The effect of this clothing is to trigger the Dread Judgment, the final separation of the sheep and the goats. Or rather, this clothing in Christ is the judgment, because in that most unique of moments, every human spirit will simul­taneously see Christ as He is and also see themselves as they are, when the Spirit illumi­nates the image of Christ to the point of universal visibility. It is this illumination that is identical with the judgment and the separation of the wheat from the chaff. But, and significantly, this final judgment is a self-judgment; it is we who will judge ourselves and our lives through the Spirit, in the light of Christ. Christ will impose no external sentence on us to which we do not ourselves assent.

While the imagistic language of Scripture suggests a truly heteronomous judgment in the eschaton, this language cannot be taken at face value. This would be unfitting for human personhood, which in its essence is self-positing freedom and is thereby constituted as an already accomplished assent to be God’s creature (BOTL, 114-115). If “a free spirit cannot be created by a one-sided act of God’s omnipotence as the entire visible world was created, that is, as a thing (in the ontological sense), for the spirit is personhood, possessing free­dom and self-consciousness in this freedom,”2 then a fortiori a free spirit cannot be judged as a thing whose measure is defined by some standard utterly foreign to itself.

​And so Christ’s role at the Dread Judgment is not hypostatic but sophianic. What this means is that the Parousianic manifestation of the meek and humble Christ (for he is the same yesterday, today, and forever), humanity will finally see, at last, its own true nature, and that vision will be a remembering, the “ontological anamnesis” of the apocatastasis.3 The human person will know her divine image by gazing on Christ’s perfected, human-divine likeness; and in that moment the person will grasp the meaning of her individual life in the pincer movement of knowing God and knowing herself. St. Augustine’s cry, “May I know You! May I know myself!”4 is fulfilled in that eschatological vision, in which every spirit will judge itself (in both the juridical and epistemological sense) by knowing God’s divine-humanity and thereby understanding the ratio between the Proto-image and the image of Christ that we are—or better, have failed to be. “This proto-image is Christ. Every human being sees himself in Christ and measures the extent of his difference from this proto-image” (BOTL, 459). This is why, for Bulgakov, the final judgment cannot be extrinsic, or transcendent, to employ the word he prefers; it is consummately immanent, though of course initiated and conditioned by the Parousianic and Spirit-perfected revelation of Christ as true God and true man.

I lean heavily here on the epistemological register to describe judgment because it helps us make sense of why Bulgakov thinks this self-judgment will be automatic, inevitable. Any act of self-judgment is fundamentally an act of insight: the coming together of what was pre­viously disparate, opaque, and unintelligible, into the blinding light of clarity and self-evi­dentness. Once an insight is had, and once it becomes part of the texture of one’s thinking and living, it is difficult to even to remember what it was like before one under­stood a par­ticular truth. The same is true at the eschaton, when the Spirit descends with illumination and fire to cleanse the eyes of all who have darkened themselves with sin. And the insight the Spirit brings concerns our success (or failure more likely) at living out the vocation to be God’s created image. As Bulgakov wrote in a 1924 diary entry, “What a heavy thing this is–to see oneself. Truly, one cannot bear this for long, he seeks to forget, to turn his back to him­self; only ascetics, men of strength, have endured this unremitting vision of their sins, this unremitting repentance.”5 Such perspicacity of judgment about ourselves is a rare thing, not often experienced in this life, precisely due to the pain of such a self-encounter. We resist it. When we manage not to, it is a gift of grace, whose natural fruit should be repentance.

​What occurs at the eschaton, and what distinguishes it from every other outpouring of the Spirit in history, is that in this moment when the Spirit clothes all humanity in Christ, humanity’s own Proto-image, the Spirit’s kenosis has ceased. No longer does the Spirit restrain its illumination of darkened minds so that fallen humanity may continue to exercise its deliberative liberty in the relative domain of creaturely freedom, to the degree that Providence’s currently inscrutable cunning desires. Whatever God’s reasons for unleashing the Spirit in history to a greater or lesser degree in the life of this individual or of this people (or whatever God’s reasons for apparently not doing so—divine grace remains a mystery), those reasons come to an end in the universal Pentecost.

​The power of this illumination is seen precisely in the fact that, in Bulgakov’s account, it alone can provoke the universal resurrection, when the redemption of the cosmos unfurls as a result of the glorious liberation—from sin, ignorance, and darkness—of the sons of God. Spirit has always been the reality that sublates and determines nature, and so it is inevitable that when the human spirit at last knows God and therefore knows itself, all of nature, including spirit’s own material body, must make visible this invisible (eu)catas­trophe by raising itself from the dead. The Spirit comes down here as it did on Mary, as it does in the epiclesis, to manifest Christ in flesh, and this is the divine side of the universal resurrection. But there is also the ex opere operantis aspect of the sacrament of resur­rec­tion (BOTL, 457), wherein we are raised precisely in raising ourselves with the body that most perfectly cor­res­ponds to the substance of our living: either straw, or hay, or wood, or costly stones, or silver or gold. The miracles of holy relics show us that the saints “already possess, even if only embryonically, the body of resurrection prior to the universal resur­rec­tion” (Relics and Miracles, 29): their bodies are sites of manifestation of what is true of their invisible spirit, namely holiness and grace. So too with the resur­rection, which becomes the moment of final and total manifestation: there is nothing hidden that shall not be revealed.

​Why Bulgakov thinks that this eschatological theophany—which is a complex Chris­toph­any, pneumatophony, and anthropophany in one—ushers in the final judgment and resurrection should now be clear. What remains to be explained is why Bulgakov thinks this revelation of Christ will make all of humanity, even the damned, love Christ, and love Him inexorably, with no exceptions: “It is impossible to appear before Christ and to see Him without loving Him” (BOTL, 459). This becomes more perplexing when we read that, “for many, this [resurrection] will be an unexpected and undesired transformation of their being” (BOTL, 455). How can this transfiguration be both undesired as well as moment of deep love towards the one who brings judgment, that is, Christ in his perfect humanity?

​What follows immediately in this essay goes beyond anything Bulgakov himself says.6 But I think it helps illuminate Bulgakov’s idea, to give some experiential correlate to Bulga­kov’s rather speculative claim that at the eschaton the damned will inevitably love Christ to the point of conversion. To make sense of this facet of Bulgakov’s eschatology, then, it will be helpful to consider the phenomenon of conscience.

Certainly it makes sense to think of conscience as the voice of God, and Bulgakov on occasion says even this.7 But we must be careful here, for con­science is not uniform, either in peoples or in individuals, and neither is it consistent throughout history, whether on the global or on the personal scale. And God does not lie. So if conscience is truly God’s voice, and these voices are not in harmony but in discord, this diversity must be accounted for.8 The manner in which God speaks in con­science should therefore be more precisely defined. I suggest the following defi­nition: conscience is the unremitting and unflagging demand that reason lays upon us when it asks us whether our doing is in fact the appropriate response to our knowing. Example: I encounter a homeless person who asks me for money, and I know that I have the money, and that this person is indeed destitute, and that I find it valu­able to help those in need; and yet I withhold. My con­science that tells me afterwards, “You should have given money,” is in fact simply trans­forming the question, “Would helping now be valuable?”—which arose within me upon grasping the facts of this person’s need—into a judgment of fact; it condemns me for not acting in accord with my knowing. And because human knowing differs vastly at different times in the lives of individuals and peoples, the dictates of conscience will vary too.

​But what will not vary is the following fact: it is a law written into the very structure of our being that the human person in his or her conscious performance strives for consistency.9 It’s not just that we spontaneously repudiate contradiction when we encounter it, seeking to resolve the problem or to sublate it within a higher viewpoint that distinguishes what was at first taken to be a direct contradiction.10 We also spontaneously aim for coherence between our knowing and doing; this is another contradiction that we cannot abide whenever it enters our consciousness. Indeed, that self-evidentness of the contradiction, whether merely possible in a future action we are contemplating or a contradiction brought into being through a past choice we’ve made, is just what we mean by conscience: simply the innate and unavoidable question within us that asks whether our knowing and our doing are in accord. Just as we spontaneously ask ourselves, “Is it true?” when we are confronted with something dubious, so too do we ask, “Should I? Is it valuable?” when we grasp the intelligibility of a certain situation.11 The options that present themselves to us in those moments are varied, and some correspond more closely to what we have understood to be the case than others. Conscience as a phenomenon encapsulates the entirety of that act, with its many stages, that aims to answer the question “Is it valuable?”

​When violated, conscience—which just is the self in a particular kind of inner and conscious performance—presents the self with two options: repent, and make my doing consistent with my knowing; or reject the insight of incoherence, and begin a spiral of moral perversion. This choice cannot be long delayed, because the repeated rejection of the judgments my con­science issues leads to an unbearable inner tension, such that either my knowing or my doing will have to be transformed so as to achieve psychic homeostasis once again; the see­saw of the self must attain balance in order to continue living. This is because the desire to know, as fundamental as it is in human consciousness, is always enveloped within the desire to be happy,12 and it is this failure of the self to will both truth and happiness as ultimate values that leads to the possibility of the self-deception. Repeated sin leads to the perversion of conscience, the silencing of God’s inner voice that is our very nature as rational. Hence the fact that our habitual sins becomes easier with time. Accordingly, many traditions of moral reasoning have judged that the addict is no longer morally culpable, since the fault is now to a large degree simply identical with the self that chooses it. God’s inten­tion that with our freedom we should mold our conscience in the light of further questions and further good choices, the epektasis of growth in virtue, is derailed as critical questions dry up in the mind of the one committed to overriding conscience. Truly, and often tragi­cally, our con­science remains under the control of our desire and freedom, and we can muffle it until it no longer remembers how to speak what it once declaimed.

​And yet for all that, the quest for consistency will not end, and when faced with intellectual or effectual resistance against our choices, we will begin the equally endless task of the rationalization of our evil; reason and its imperious demand for a coherent self will not finally be mocked. We will justify our perverse choices, our center of conscious attention (call it the “censor”) will ignore data that fits poorly with our self-conception as good and reasonable people, and so the feedback loop is strengthened, until conscience has been soothed because it has been transformed. Our doing is now in line with our knowing, because we have changed our knowing: we have seared the conscience, stiffened our necks, hardened our hearts. The epoch of fallen freedom is the time of rationalizations, of propa­ganda, of the tyrant’s self-soothing fictions. For reasons that cannot be fully dis­closed to us now, Providence permits this, permits the abuse of conscience, permits—to borrow an image from Maximus the Confessor—that the Logos not be properly incarnated in this moment, here and now, and instead be made only flesh instead of true Body and Blood. Yet this flesh can never be flesh without spirit, for it is defined in relation to spirit, in relation to the Logos our sinful reason fails to incarnate in a spiritual body; in this way vice pays its tribute to virtue, our rationalizations themselves obliquely confess the Good we would inevitably choose were we to have an unobstructed vision of it, for we cannot help but desire to act consistently, reasonably, even if our deliberated choices are in fact not such as to lead us to our true Good. Goodness, Truth: what is most primordial in human knowing and choosing is that fundamental appetite for these transcendental ends in whose ambit and for whose attainment we inevitably perform our conscious acts.

​Maximus called that appetite the natural will, and it is the condition for the possibility of conscience itself. It is what explains the structure of conscience. For note that in any instance that conscience speaks, a bifurcation necessarily occurs. I am the one who speaks, and yet I am the one who is spoken to. “You should have done this or that” is uttered by myself, about myself. If there is an inner conflict in this moment, and I do not readily desire to yield to the imperative summons of reason and its demand for coherence in my living, then I feel this bifurcation as a rending. To choose consistency in this instance is to choose the cross, to put the undesiring “me” to death. And yet it I who am the executioner. Who is this higher “I” who authoritatively commands, judges, and at other times coaxes and invites?

We are prone to identify this with the Holy Spirit whose unique hypostatic quality is to convict the world of sin. There is truth to this. And yet how can we understand the fact that the Spirit, when it does convict, appears to speak as me? Phenomenologi­cally, there is no apprehension of the Spirit’s con­vict­ing action in me that is not a judgment (both juridically and epistemologically) of my own sin. If the Spirit works here—and Christians affirm with­out hesitation that the Spirit does—then that oper­ation reaches a point of indistinction with the operation of our own spirit. More clear would be to say that the Spirit’s act of convicting sin is known by its effects, in the fact that now, after the Spirit’s illumination, we can see ourselves clearly enough to convict ourselves of sin. In other words, the Spirit does not accomplish this conviction of sin in conscience as a deus ex machina. The matter for this act of grace must be disposed, to borrow a scholastic idiom. And that matter is rational nature, consciousness itself. To exist as a rational nature is to intend truth and goodness, and insofar as that intending is not already a possession, to exist as rational nature is therefore to exist as a question, a desire for what is not yet attained and not yet made identical with the self in the act of knowing. The Spirit’s conviction of sin, therefore, must be understood as the Spirit’s liberation of rational nature to be what it already is, a participation in the Logos that actualizes all that is intel­li­gible and reasonable in this world. And this the Spirit accomplishes through the removal of impediments to judgments of Truth that would overflow into the attainment of the Good.

​Conscience, then—the me that utters the judgment against myself in the conviction of sin—just is the human spirit in its divinely intended operation, the spirit as pure and unadul­terated desire for God, unmixed but also undivided from the Logos and the Spirit whose eternal activity make me what I am at my core. Even more, this spirit that insatiably desires God constitutes, in Bulgakov’s terms, a finite divine procession, God existing in the mode of desire for God.13 This higher me that speaks in con­science’s unflagging demands would thus be me in my divine origin—call it the transcendental self—joined to that empirical or psy­cho­logical ego which in this world constantly faces the choice of good or evil, which has already tasted of the forbidden fruit and which must now live outside of Eden in a state of fallen freedom.14 This is the me that conscience judges, the one who was free to go left or right, the one who made the concrete choice; Maximus calls the capacity for such choices the gnomic will. But note that there is a fundamental asymmetry between these two wills, for it is the natural will or the transcendental self with its unrestricted desires that makes gnomic choosing possible for me in a fallen world, that makes the empiri­cal ego become a psycho­logi­cal fact constituted by innumerable choices over the course of a lifetime. This asymmetry and distinction within what we normally call a self allows for the possibility of that feedback loop noted above, which in turn allows for the empirical ego to grasp the transcendental self as always operative, as what is most funda­mental its existence. And this, finally, opens up the possibility of self-appropriation: choosing to identify with the dictates of that higher self which unfailingly raises the question of true value with respect to all our choices. The I can self-transcend.

​When I obey reason in its utterances of what is true, and of what is valuable to do, I thereby choose to submit the psychological or empirical ego to what is higher in me, to bring my image closer to my “Proto-image,” the Good that I cannot help but desire. Only the unal­ter­able and inviolable desire for Good can inspire the ego to make itself more like God, and only that same desire for God can judge the vacillations of the empirical self with its failures of knowledge and choice. When I find it difficult to align these two selves, but I also see the goodness of such an alignment and feel the pain of my own incoherence, then the uneasy conscience is already a self-judgment. “The wretched sinner is judged not by an external judge, not by a dictate from God, but by sin itself, by his very self.”15 And yet this self-judgment is ultimately the result of love, namely the love of Truth and Goodness that is my spirit as desire for God, the love that motivated the questions by which conscience operates: “Is it truly right? Is it valuable?” This desire for and therefore love of the Good is operative in every human act, even in those that constitute sin, insofar as sinful acts, in Bulgakov’s words, are always “accomplished in the name of an imaginary good” (BOTL, 462). The Good is always the intention of the human act, however deluded the psycho­logical ego might be about the true value of the means it has chosen to find that Good. That the empirical self can fail to judge truly with respect to the goodness of its actions makes room for self-deception; that the empirical self cannot fail but obey the tran­scen­dental self in its fundamental desire for God as the Good and Truth makes possible self-judgment.

To return to Bulgakov’s eschatology. The foregoing explains how Bulgakov can coherently say both that the final transfiguration is not desired by the sinner and that the sinner will ineluctably judge himself precisely in loving himself, that is, in loving Christ. The desire for truth and goodness that was trans­cen­dent, ‘behind the scenes’ in every act of self-judg­ment in conscience, or in every lie we told our­selves to quash the same, is the truest part of our human­ity. According to Bulgakov, it is our divine origin. And it is this that will become manifest and inescap­able at the judgment when the divine desire that we are will be satiated at last, when the obscure object of our search is made manifestly and luminously apparent. “Theomachy, blasphemy, and demonic possession no longer have a home in man. There is no place for the revolt against God, for, in the parousia, He is revealed as triumphant truth” (BOTL, 491). The reign of rationalization will end when the empirical ego is “clothed in Christ” by losing the ability to clothe itself with anything else. Then, the gnomic and natural will be one. Then, the love for the Good that motivated every action, that simply is us in our transcendent and innermost core, will allow the empirical self to look on its past with clean eyes, without no fog of dis­simulation obstructing the view, and in this insight we will understand how every concrete choice of our psychological self either brought us closer to or drew us further from our true home.

​“Love is the Holy Spirit, who sets the heart afire with this love” (BOTL, 459). All love is desire, and so we must affirm that the Spirit is the one who propels human desire, who is human desire in its transcendence as it operates in human spirits who constitute the “the progression of the Holy Trinity itself into the domain of the creaturely-hypostatic being of the ‘fourth,’ creaturely hypostases” (BOTL, 93), who are the “call of His breath to hypo­static being,” the “hyposta[tatization of] the rays of His own glory” (The Lamb of God, 92). At the final judgment, we cannot help but love Christ because the love of Christ that we are in our innermost being—albeit only obscurely now—will be set free of all constraints to its love, and it will render judgment on the incomplete or failed incarnation of Christ, of the Divine-Humanity, that our earthly lives represent. For most this will be torment, as it is the empir­ical ego, who has built up a husk of sin and flesh about him, who gives the name “Dread” to the Dread Judgment. But that ego is not the one who judges, but instead the one who is judged. For that One who judges, “there is no place for fear of [Christ] as the Judge terrible in His omnipotence and the fury of His wrath” (BOTL, 459)—how, after all, could love for Christ—could Christ in sophianicity—fear Christ’s own judgment? For no one hates his own flesh, and so “a human being cannot fail to love the Christ who is revealed in him, and he cannot fail to love himself revealed in Christ” (BOTL, 459), because that Christ is “all conquering love, irresistibly attractive and salvific beauty” (BOTL, 492).

​In this seeming paradox, Bulgakov has disclosed the transcendental heart of the eschato­logical judgment precisely in immanentizing it, for what is truly transcendent is never divorced from the immanent. He has given us a theoretical account of that vivid image from St. Isaac the Syrian, the image of the torments of hell as the scourge of the sinner’s own love, not of the deity’s external wrath. “[H]aving come to know himself in his sophianic form, the glorified human being will thereby also know himself in his deformity, will be horrified by himself. And this deformation of his likeness in relation to his proto-image is for him the scourge of love, the burning fire of love” (BOTL, 487). Only love can light the fires of hell, since for the ego that is deceived and still living in the domain of darkness and self-decep­tion, there simply is no experience of hell. This point—momentous in its theological significance but also open to verification simply by attending to our own experiences of self-deception and the pain that follows deception’s collapse—indicates the profound inco­her­ence at the heart of a free will defense of hell that can speak of the sinner “keeping the door of hell locked from the inside.” There is no experience of hell that is not already a trans­cending of it, for only the transcendent desire for Good, when it is allowed its free and unclouded operation, can make the psychological ego mourn its failure to incarnate God here below. At the Parousia, at the glorious manifestation of Christ our Proto-image, “[t]he dispute between the Creator and creation inevitably ends for creation when it recognizes that it is defeated” (BOTL, 492): like Jacob who concedes his loss to the angel he will never overpower, we limp our way out of hell, forever marked but eternally blessed.

It cannot, therefore, coherently be claimed that God’s eschatological grace abolishes human freedom, for it is we in our divine aspect who communicate grace to our nature when the Spirit brings into alignment the empirical ego, which makes the daily decisions for good or evil, with the transcendental desire for Good that is human spirit, God’s co-spirit. And the Spirit accomplishes this by removing the roadblock that renders the gnomic and natural wills two and not one. Yet eschatological grace does abolish deliberative liberty. If we ask why God allows for such a division between the wills to exist, between liberty and freedom, we are simply asking why God chose to create an ‘other’ at all. For on Bulgakov’s account, the human person is nothing other and nothing less than Father’s immersion of his nature, the Divine Sophia, the Sophianic (but not hypostatic) Christ, into nothingness, upon which the Spirit hovers as its creaturely hypostases. And it is this “nothing” that makes the creature created with relation to its divine source. Creaturely freedom, the potential to conform to the Proto-image or not, is simply the “inertia of the nonbeing, the nothing ‘out of’ which human beings (and angels) are created” (BOTL, 151); when this freedom is consummated at the eschaton through the elimination of creaturely ignorance of God, nothingness comes to an end. God is “then” all in all, in the multiplicity of his finite manifestation that has turned the meonic potential of “Sophia plus nothing” into the eschatological body of the totus Christus, head and members forever conjoined.

Several conclusions should be drawn from this exposition. First, for all his indebtedness to the German idealist tradition and its diverse accounts of the nature of freedom, Bulgakov remains committed to the classical intellectualist account of human freedom, in which the will has as its formal object the Good, which Bulgakov takes to be identical with God. With­out this piece, his vision of universal eschatological conversion cannot be made compre­hen­sible. Indeed, and this is the second conclusion, such a picture cannot make sense unless we take that intellectualist account seriously and begin to inquire into how the transcendental desires that constitute human spirit are essential to the temporal construction of the empiri­cal ego. The condition for the possibility of an empirical ego is precisely a transcendent desire plus “matter,” the material that becomes the bridge that our transcendent desire—here below at some “distance” from its ultimate object—traverses to discover its home and thereby to uncover itself in its true nature. God is Spirit, but spirit that is not God in se is always spirit ensouled and, in our case, enfleshed, or worlded; Bulgakov’s insistence that his anthropology is anti-Origenistic is not mere lip service.16 All these are diverse ways of saying that we are spirit that must know itself through making itself a body—“a body hast thou prepared for me.”

​Thirdly, it should also be noted that only such an account of the relationship between the transcendent or the empirical self, or between the natural and gnomic wills, can explain why the Parousia does not constitute a cruel interruption of the time God grants for repentance (2 Peter 3:8-10), any more than God’s taking an individual soul in death—our personal Parousia—is a violation of God’s mercy in giving days for repentance. For if it is not human freedom that will judge itself, then God’s interruption of the individual and world-historical process must be seen as the vicious retraction of His patience that might have, with more time, led to conversion; instead, Christ comes to externally impose a judgment to which fallen humanity cannot consent. Yet Bulgakov’s understanding of the Final Judgment as Spirit-inspired self-judgment in Christ resolves this difficulty. Bulga­kov’s understanding of the immanent and universal judgment does not, of course, explain why the eschaton will take place at the “moment” that it does. No account could do that, for that is a mystery hidden with the Father, and it remains for us to understand its wisdom at the end of days, together with the wisdom of the limited Pentecosts of the Spirit that Christ sent in history upon those whom he converted, whether publicly or in the depths of their hearts. But Bulgakov’s understanding at least lets us see how created liberty and freedom are to be distinguished and yet not opposed, for the latter brings an end to the era of the former.

​Yet this point depends, crucially, on Bulgakov’s Christian panentheism. His theology of the origin of creaturely spirit is not incidental to his universalism, even if universalists who wish to argue for universal reconciliation on the basis of theology proper, on the character of God, may draw much from Bulgakov without also importing his anthropology. But the sophiolog­ical system hangs together on this point. It is within this matrix that Bulga­kov achieves what every anthropological universalist argument must: explaining how universal reconcil­iation is not a violent coercion of freedom. To be sure, explanatory frameworks other than Bulgakov’s can accomplish this, but within sophiology, this only makes sense in light of the ultimate identity that generates the difference between Absolute Spirit and created spirit.

​Furthermore, Bulgakov’s notion of eschatological conversion makes the body visible as the glorified matter that the divine assumes in God’s complex incarnation, both for the divine hypostasis of the Logos and for the myriad human hypostases that proceed from the Father. The diversity of eschatological states—infinite kinds degrees of damnation and beatitude in individual empirical egos that are being transformed from glory to glory17—shines resplen­dently in a providentially ordered Body fit for Divine Wisdom’s finite manifestation. Each part of that Body has its limits, its border, and what each one has made of herself in her life is revealed in that moment of self-evaluation, when the human spirit embodies that self-judgment by reconfiguring its matter, either as mere flesh or as truly spiritual Body and Blood. We do not know exactly what from our empirical selves will be carried over into that final Body of Christ, but we know that it was precisely to make of that self an image of Christ that God first poured out his Spirit into finitude and nothingness.

​Finally, Bulgakov’s theology of the judgment makes sense both of patristic testimony of self-judgment and of our own experience of conscience as the scourge of love for God as the Good. It brilliantly elucidates the eschatological meaning in Irenaeus’ distinction between the divine image and the divine likeness. What is more, in the Christological and Pneuma­to­logical configuration of his sophiological universalism, Bulgakov brings together in a synthetic stroke a multitude of doctrines into one coherent and stunning vision of God’s exitus and reditus that, in temporal becoming, brings the whole body of Christ into the full life of the Most Holy Trinity,through the Divine-Human judgment of humanity at the end of time.



[1] And annihilationists too, but this argument is not directly relevant to the question of conditional immortality.

[2] “The Problem of ‘Conditional Immortality,” The Sophiology of Death, 68.

[3] “On the Question of the Fallen Spirits in Connection with the Teaching of Gregory of Nyssa,” in The Sophiology of Death, 90.

[4] Soliloquies 2.1.1.

[5] Spiritual Diary, 1924-1925. Entry: 27.IX/10.X.1925. Translated by Mark Roosien and Roberto J. De La Noval.

[6] And in a few instances goes against some of Bulgakov’s own ideas, specifically with respect to the universal validity of the principle of non-contradiction. But those aspects in which I differ from Bulgakov are not integral to the broader point of the phenomenological excursus that follows, which does in fact accord with Bulgakov’s ideas about human desire.

[7] “Conscience is the voice of God in the human heart. How subtle it is, how it denounces falsehood and sin, tears off masks, strikes at vices. It cannot be bought, and it cannot be fooled. But when there is confusion in the soul, and when the soul itself lacks the strength to sort itself out in a sea of contradictions, then ask the Lord to pour His light into the darkness of ignorance and to show the right path.” Spiritual Diary, 1924-1925. Entry: 23.VI/6.VII.​1924. Translated by Mark Roosien and Roberto J. De La Noval. Here Bulgakov implicitly distinguishes between conscience in its proper function, when the soul is in order, and conscience as defective, when ignorance blocks it proper operation.

[8] It is precisely this diversity of moral judgments that provokes such scandal in young people today who are thoroughly initiated into the historical turn by growing up in a post-modern culture. Having a clear account of the structure of conscience is necessary to answer these concerns about pluralism that so often devolve into an affirmation of relativism.

[9] See Mark Morelli’s Self-Possession.

[10] “By that coherent presence to self is meant no more than the conscious experiential fact that, when faced with what we know to be a contradiction, we repudiate it. We sponta­neously reject the proposition ‘Ireland is both and island and not an island.’ That sponta­neous rejection is ourselves intelligently and rationally at work. That is why I wrote that we are the principle of [non]-contradiction.” Garrett Barden, After Principle, 66.

[11] This is the answer, incidentally, to Hume’s concerns about drawing out an ought from an is. It is true that, speaking logically, no ‘ought’ can be drawn from a series of ‘is’ state­ments. But human deliberation is not a system of logical deduction but a system of insight founded on the spontaneous and ordered questions that drive conscious intentionality to higher, sublating viewpoints. Hume, after all, drew the conclusion that one ought not pull an ought from an is because it is logically impossible; but how did he make that judgment reasonably and responsibly if there is no connection in our cognition between what we judge to be the case and what suggests itself to us that we should do about the facts of the case? His spontaneous performance indicates the incoherence of his stated view, because Hume had failed to attend to the self in its conscious performance of intellectual and moral inquiry.

[12] We can coherently ask the question, “Why do you want to know that?” and end up eventually in the answer, “Because (I think) it would make me happy.” But there is no coherence in asking the question, “Why do you want to be happy?”, because the desire for happiness is the why that answers all questions about our choices; it is its own why.

[13] For a brilliant exposition of this idea in a grammar distinct from but deeply inspired by Bulgakov’s sophiology, see David Bentley Hart’s forthcoming You are Gods: On Nature and Supernature (University of Notre Dame Press).

[14] See Nikolai Berdyaev’s illuminating reflections on fallen freedom in The Destiny of Man.

[15] Spiritual Diary, 1924-1925. Entry: 17/30.IV.1925. Translated by Mark Roosien and Roberto J. De La Noval.

[16] Taking “Origenistic” in the traditionally understood sense, not in light of new interpretations of the sort offered by John Behr, for example.

[17] “Both life and death are intensive values possessing an infinite quantity of diverse, complex, and fluctuating spectra—from a fading extinguishing (which is not, however, equal to non-existence) up to new birth (which does not, however, violate the continuity and identity of personality).” “The Problem of ‘Conditional Immortality,'” The Sophiology of Death, 64.

* * *

Roberto J. De La Noval is a translator and systematic theologian, specializing in the thought of Sergius Bulgakov and Bernard Lonergan. He teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. You can find more of his writings at robertojdelanoval.com.

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35 Responses to We Shall See Him as He Is: Bulgakov on Eschatological Conversion

  1. David says:

    What a fantastic array of insights! I’m afraid I lack the chops to get into the detail of this all, and this query is perhaps a little tangential to the substance of the piece – but the reliance on conscience does raise one question in my mind: how does one negotiate the seeming reality that some of us find ourselves with a rather overactive conscience – i.e. scrupulosity and its relatives.

    I’m thinking here not only of the imagining or exaggeration of sins – but also of those who have perhaps committed some genuinely serious sins, have then attempted to set things right and move on, perhaps been assured of forgiveness by a priest, but still find themselves haunted by what they did and questioning whether there is some additional reparation they should make, legal retribution they should endure, prayers to pray – whatever – before they are ‘properly’ forgiven (but if they ever do any of those things, the dial for what counts as ‘enough’ would likely shift yet again….)

    Obviously there can be cases where that nagging feeling of conscience is indeed the voice of God saying something like ‘you need to do more’ – but I wager that what I am describing – people mistakenly thinking they need to account for every detail of such and such a past sin, an ‘obsession with doing the right thing’ paradoxically leading to them doing the wrong thing (obsessing over options to theoretically make some past wrong right rather than actually living and doing good in the present) is a genuine phenomenon. What is the cause of these failures of conscience, how can they be put right, and how does it all fit into Bulgakov’s scheme?


  2. Tom says:

    Great piece Roberto.

    Just a question. I’m curious about the SB quote leading off: “It is impossible to appear before Christ and to see him without loving him.”

    In English this could mean either (1) ‘Only those who love Christ are able see him’ (in which case loving him is the condition of seeing him), or (2) ‘All see him, and if any don’t also love him at that point, they shall love him from having seen him’ (in which case, for the wicked, seeing him is the condition of coming to love him).

    You’re the Russian expert, Roberto, so I’ll leave that to you.

    My sense has always been that the former (No 1 above) is the more accurate. Seeing Christ is the result of loving him. One loves one’s way increasingly into an ever-transformative vision of God, consummated in the beatific vision. In this case the vision of God just is love’s vision, what love for God sees. Those who don’t love God don’t see him (Heb 12.14).

    But I got the sense from my first quick read of your post that SB holds that this vision is had by all whether all love him or not, but that (a) this vision has the effect in the wicked of transforming them into love for God and that (b) this effect (if I’m following ya) is not the result of any deliberative willing on the part of the transformed. If I’ve misunderstood ya, sorry. I wanna make a 2nd more careful read of it.



    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Tom, hopefully Rob will check in and answer your question; but FWIW I do believe that Bulgakov believes that the parousial revelation of the risen Christ will ultimately, efficaciously, inescapably effect the conversion of the wicked. To see the Good is to love the Good. What I find most interesting, and important, is that this revelation of the Good in Christ is simultaneously a revelation of who we truly are and want to be (or something like that–hopefully Rob can clarify).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tom says:

        Ah, I see it’s Rob as well, not Roberto! Sorry Rob. ;o)

        As you know, Fr Al, I’m all about the revelation of Christ ultimately converting us. I’m on board. It just seemed to me that SB (as Rob describes him) reduces this ‘ultimacy’ down to the an ‘immediacy’ which permits no ‘ultimacy’ – the immediacy of a calculus (to borrow from Brian below) which is void of a certain mystery. In other words, if it’s as simple a matter as seeing Christ and loving him, it’s difficult to imagine what suffering there would be at all. One is raised, sees Jesus, and immediately loves what one sees. What is suffered if the will does not traverse some minimal deliberative distance in ‘coming to see’ (through suffering) the truth of one’s choices, etc.? But as I understand SB, this very distance (which is the capacity to learn, awaken, and in awakening, to take responsibility, etc.) is removed and ‘immediacy’ of perception in us is all there is. There is no space to suffer.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Tom, I think you’re going to have to acquire ‘The Bride of the Lamb’ and read the chapters on eschatology. I think you’ll find that your concerns are more than fulfilled.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Tom, you also seem to have overlooked this paragraph from Rob’s piece:

          At the final judgment, we cannot help but love Christ because the love of Christ that we are in our innermost being—albeit only obscurely now—will be set free of all constraints to its love, and it will render judgment on the incomplete or failed incarnation of Christ, of the Divine-Humanity, that our earthly lives represent. For most this will be torment, as it is the empir­ical ego, who has built up a husk of sin and flesh about him, who gives the name “Dread” to the Dread Judgment. But that ego is not the one who judges, but instead the one who is judged. For that One who judges, “there is no place for fear of [Christ] as the Judge terrible in His omnipotence and the fury of His wrath” (BOTL, 459)—how, after all, could love for Christ—could Christ in sophianicity—fear Christ’s own judgment? For no one hates his own flesh, and so “a human being cannot fail to love the Christ who is revealed in him, and he cannot fail to love himself revealed in Christ” (BOTL, 459), because that Christ is “all conquering love, irresistibly attractive and salvific beauty” (BOTL, 492).

          This is judgment that leads to the conviction of sin and repentance. Why think it will be easy and painless? On the other hand, if it should turn out to be easy and painless, who are we to complain? 😁

          Liked by 1 person

          • JBG says:

            “On the other hand, if it should turn out to be easy and painless, who are we to complain?”

            Hear, hear Father! I for one will not object to the prospect that the final judgement may be relatively free of suffering. I think most of humanity has had just about enough.

            Anyway, if a ruthless murderer like St. Paul can be transformed in an instant with an invading, revelatory lightning bolt of insight and awareness, it is at least conceivable that this might be possible for all, no? It seems arguable that his own transformative experience was a basis for his confident proclamation that “we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.”

            I hold out that hope for all.


          • Tom says:

            No complaint on my part about less suffering for anyone. I was just wondering whether there were grounds for thinking any would suffer at all, since Hell is traditionally (even by universalists) taken to be a place of unspeakable suffering.

            This clarifies what my understanding has been: “For most this will be torment, as it is the empir­ical ego, who has built up a husk of sin and flesh about him, who gives the name ‘Dread’ to the Dread Judgment. But that ego is not the one who judges, but instead the one who is judged.”

            This helps. But as I ponder this, it seems clearly to imply that there’s no unambiguous revelation of Christ that immediately upon resurrection reduces ignorance to zero and floods the consciousness with perfect clarity re: divine love, for that would undoubtedly end (more accurately ‘prevent’) all suffering (since suffering is the suffering of ‘not knowing’ or ‘not perceiving’ the truth of God’s love). But I hear (maybe I’m hearing wrongly) it being suggested that all relevant ignorance is immediately banished upon resurrection. But if banished, whence suffering at all? Talk of an empirical ‘ego’ implies an experience of one’s self and one’s world ‘in terms of’ that ego. There is no empirical ego except as it exists in its constraint upon perception. And that implies some abiding epistemic distance, some ‘ignorance’ about the benevolent nature of Christ revealed, ignorance which one will have to suffer through in coming to ‘trust’ that the brilliantly revealed Christ one cannot escape or deny does in fact love and forgive one.

            Hope that helps clarify my struggle. I’m not suggesting the raised wicked have no clue about their plight, or that God simply sits on the sideline waiting for us to figure it out on our own. Obviously, those in such a condition will know they’ve been raised, and Christ will be unavoidably present. But if the empirical ego is judged, and if this judgment is suffered, then that ego is not simply eviscerated upon resurrection by the glory of Christ without any creaturely engagement whatsoever, which means all relevant ignorance is not immediately banished from one’s consciousness. I would think this has implications for other aspects of SB’s thought being described here.


          • JBG says:

            “For most this will be torment, as it is the empir­ical ego, who has built up a husk of sin and flesh about him…”

            “a human being cannot fail to love the Christ who is revealed in him”

            These quotes touch on the dual-aspect nature of the person: the empirical ego (false self) and the spiritual core (true self). The spiritual nature will feel no sting of judgement and yet the ego will be in torment. This implies that each self has—or is the conduit of—its own set of experiences.

            If the false self is the seat of delusion and suffering, and also the aspect of the person that experiences suffering, it would seem that it has nothing to offer in the transformational process. On the contrary, the degree of transformation would be proportional to the diminution of this false self. The transformation is precisely the clearing away of the false self to reveal the true self. The sinful false self needs to be eradicated and it won’t act to eradicate itself.

            All of this may make the notion of the reformative hell of the universalists a bit problematic. It would seem that our spiritual self doesn’t need to be reformed and that our false self cannot be reformed but rather needs to be obliterated.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. JBG says:

    “ But, and significantly, this final judgment is a self-judgment; it is we who will judge ourselves and our lives through the Spirit, in the light of Christ. Christ will impose no external sentence on us to which we do not ourselves assent.”

    Very interesting, This notion of self-judgement is consistent with the reports of those having undergone a “near death experience”.


  4. brian says:

    I wanted to think about this article for a bit before attempting to articulate a response. I agree with much of what is asserted, yet there’s something in it (I am unsure I shall be able to pinpoint it accurately) that causes a feeling of ambivalence in me. So, I’m not engaging dialectically here, per se, simply trying to get at a sense that hovers on the border of linguistic approach. To begin, I would posit the Christological as the “place” where the theological meets the anthropological. The divine is the secret intimacy of the human. In this regards, heteronomy is an equivocal term. Kantian autonomy is implicate in guilty aversion to heteronomy and I believe Bulgakov sees this. So whatever authentic refusal of heteronomy is happening in terms of the unique person that cannot be coerced from without, there is still what William Desmond calls the passio essendi, what Augustine encounters as that “true self,” Teresa of Avila’s interior castle, Edith Stein’s “seventh chamber,” the uniquely personal transcendent self that is the measure against which the ego is judged. I mention all this because I suspect those who continue to opt for a “hell with doors locked from the inside” are not going to be immediately struck with the existential cogency of Bulgakov/ De La Noval’s argument from conscience. You probably have to be on the old side to get an obscure cultural reference. I recall the reboot of one of the classic scifi shows, Twilight Zone, where Bruce Willis played a character of dubious moral habits who one day is confronted with his own double. (The episode is called Shatterday.) As the plot proceeds, it is apparent that the double is the affable variant, a person of integrity who is virtuous and well liked by his family and friends. From the POV of the character’s others, the “sinful” incarnation has turned over a new leaf. The existential drama depicted in the episode, however, discerns a kind of usurpation, though in the end the failure Willis resigns himself to his fate and even concedes the better nature of his double. Likewise, the double bids farewell with a compassionate nod at the inevitable transfer of powers. The portrayal of this psychomachy at least asks one to consider whether the transcendent self (the vision of Christ) is self-evidently going to be interpreted as a purely lovable other that is not other. And if so, what is the relation between this non-Euclidian variant and the Silenus husk that harbors the spiritual child?

    And here is where I want to try and touch on that something that I find hard to say where I encounter some perplexity in terms of an argument I find largely persuasive. Desmond speaks of a finesse that defeats a more “geometric” calculus. It seems to me Goodness is mysterious, fecund, coming from an excessive light that we normally grapple with as darkness or indeed as almost nothing. Now, I am not convinced that the Parousia is a form of Enlightenment that radically obviates that distance. Indeed, I don’t see how one can argue for epektasis into eternity if the distance is not perduring. Further, isn’t this distance “always already” anticipated by Christology and also the distance of the immanent Trinitarian relations that ultimately founds the distance between God and creatures or even the distance between a transcendent, unique eidos of the person and the imperfect instantiations of fallen time? This is not unacknowledged in the article, the movement from glory to glory adverts to some such movement, but it’s not dwelt upon. The end of gnomic deliberation does not mean the end of adventurous progress into dynamic plenitude. The reason I am bringing it up is it seems to me there is a subtle moralizing going on in the conscience model that appears to come close to a kind of bad “Platonism” whereby the temporal can only appear as a defatigation of the robust, eternal forms. Thus, naturally, we can all anticipate an element of the goat or abundant tares amidst the wheat, a whole lot of wood, hay, and stubble that constitutes the bulk of our earthly lives. And who can really dispute that? Nonetheless, I want to also affirm that there might be a mysterious good as well that is not adequately addressed in terms of conscience as merely moral arbiter of our actions. What makes the appearance of Christ lovable, if it is this “heteronomy that is more deeply ourselves than the figurations of a psychic ego mired in the chiaroscuro of temporal affairs” is, I surmise, a Good “beyond Good and Evil,” that is, beyond the typical forms of moral evaluation that hold the intentionality of conscience as we normally experience it. Sophianicity prompts the selfless desire of the “moment of beauty” that cannot be commanded (as Balthasar says.) And while this frequently prompts an acquisitive grasping in the fallen world, there is discernible to reflection that primal “moment” of astonishment that comes before any subsequent turn towards craven “possession.” If one wishes to say, and I am fully sympathetic to this, that Bulgakov argues for a bodily, “enfleshed, worlded” transcendence, I think one needs to tease out the entire cosmic implications. Christ’s body is the whole cosmos renewed, and so the resurrection of the flesh, any unique singularity, entails the renewal of all flesh, the relation doesn’t tap out at the limits of some purported merely mechanical being that is immune to spirit. There is a creative dimension that is lacking if one sticks only to conscience as it is frequently understood. If one ultimately equates the Holy Spirit with conscience, if our existential experience is a participation of that sort, it is well to remember the Holy Spirit is that wildness that blows where it will, that the Spirit is artistry, surprise, the discoverer of novelty in the depths. In short, one needs to integrate the aesthetic more profoundly into the forefront. The beauty of the Christ of the Parousia is an opening of borders, the freedom of an undiscovered country that is paradoxically the home of the Origin. The union of truth and goodness pushes us towards this consummation of desire where plenitude is never satiation.

    Liked by 2 people

    • JBG says:

      Brian, regarding the virtuous double, have you come across this work? Yes, I remember that episode. In fact, that is the sole episode of the 80s reboot of that series that stuck in my mind.

      Liked by 1 person

      • brian says:

        No, and I just made my big book order for the foreseeable future. I’ll have to put it on my list for future perusal. Thanks for the reference. The reboot of Twilight Zone was largely forgettable. The original is rather creaky and predictable. It’s not deep and some episodes are needlessly cruel, but it still has compelling images and storylines.


  5. brian says:


    Responding to this quote: “All of this may make the notion of the reformative hell of the universalists a bit problematic. It would seem that our spiritual self doesn’t need to be reformed and that our false self cannot be reformed but rather needs to be obliterated.”

    I was trying to get at this with regards to the previously indicated Twilight Zone episode. Regarding the doubling, there are two Heracles, for instance. One in Hades, and one on Olympus. Pavel Florensky asserts there are effigies of sinners in hell, whilst the redeemed experience celestial bliss. Florensky equates the effigies with finger nail clippings, so, non-sentient, discardable “material.” Adrienne von Speyr, in her mystical readings of eschatology, espouses a similar view. All that is perhaps suggestive, though it begs the question regarding the nature of the effigy. A little known work that offers an implicit, caustic rebuttal is a novel by R. A. Lafferty, Not To Mention Camels. In that novel, Lafferty narrates a kind of multiverse where the same persona endures various incarnated lives. There is a “world” where X is “in heaven,” whilst there is another where X is “in hell.” However, the infernal X is not at all a senseless collection of nail pairings, but very much a conscious entity. It’s quite a little horror story. Now, here is the rubber hitting the road. The glorious Christophoric self is not actually a redemption of the self that experiences our “mixed” world if one simply relegates the tare infested to the dust bin of falsity. Let us say, that convenient scape goat, there is a perfected Hitler in heaven, whilst the murderous demagogue properly languishes in miserific solitude or is annihilated as just sentence on his habitual evil. One has conceptually allowed both infernalists and universalists to eat cake, but whether either side is satisfied is doubtful.

    There is a scene in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce where an ordinary venal little man struggles to accept the love of his glorified wife. He can’t repudiate the imposture of his “tragic” puppet which assumes a grandiose mask and ultimately swallows up the fella, the parasitic idol consuming to the point of annihilation the living being. One can, of course, reverse the drama and then salvation is the destruction of the vain, self-protective lies that are forms of Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles.” For all that to be persuasive as art, let alone existentially as ontological transformation, there has to be a vital continuity of the living being from a state of fallen weakness to perfected theosis or salvation becomes a mere semantic cover for a radically other universe with no intimate connection to that which is purportedly “made new.”


    • JBG says:

      Brian, very fascinating. Thank you.

      You write: “…there has to be a vital continuity of the living being from a state of fallen weakness to perfected theosis…”

      Exactly. It is almost as if one needs to posit a “third self” that traverses the chasm from the false self to the latent transcendent self. Might consciousness itself, reduced to the barest of its attributes, qualify as this intermediate, migrating self?


      • brian says:

        JBG: I suspect the positing of a “third self” could quickly descend into an infinite regress. I don’t think the mediation is of that sort. A participation metaphysics as one finds in the neoplatonists can be theologically adapted to address the mysteries of a trinitarian ontology. (All this requires a book length exposition, so this can be little more than cryptic assertion, I’m afraid.) I believe David Hart is working on a large opus regarding consciousness. I suppose that will be highly elucidating. My own cautionary preliminary concerns on consciousness are that in the western tradition, idealism tends to absorb the particular uniqueness of the other in a manner that is disincarnational. The incommunicable center of personhood, however one ultimately stipulates its “structural” integrity, has to allow for a dynamic porosity whereby the soul is gifted in dramatic encounter with the other which is paradoxically constitutive of the “self.” Roughly speaking, the “false self” is not ontological, but a violence, a bad “relation” that disappears when the proper loving connection is realized.

        Liked by 1 person

        • mercifullayman says:

          I might agree, except there is a bridge between an idealist like Schelling and say, a church father like Maximus. I’m currently diving into HUvB’s “Cosmic Liturgy” and one can’t help but acknowledge the idea of a third unity in both of them. The A(cubed) of Schelling and the “thrice unity” of Maximus are not that far off. The unity that emerges from difference that is found within both being and non-being (one could say no-thing) is an interesting point. People see Hegel and Maximus in commonality, but the more I read Schelling, later on especially…..he’s found a way into what Maximus already seemed to gather. It isn’t as precise, but there is an idealist way to fit into the whole, with some semantic shifts. How we define unity….that’s the key. One must travel all paths to be able to find the unified whole, we just travel them in different speeds and times.


          • brian says:

            I admire Balthasar, like his book on Maximus. Bulgakov thinks Schelling tries to derive the person from nature in a manner that is not consonant with a trinitarian ontology. I do think Schelling is interesting, but I suspect Bulgakov is correct here. Regardless, the person is a rich and difficult subject. You literally cannot get to the end of it; there are eschatological depths that will require an eternity of epektasis to explore. In that, I surmise we agree.

            Liked by 1 person

          • mercifullayman says:

            I agree with you in a multitude of ways. As we’ve kinda backed each other on things before. However, I think that’s a terrible reading of Schelling by Bulgakov. You have to remember, the whole point is to express that Nature is not what it seems objectively only. There is a subjective element that brings being into itself as a becoming, which Maximus also reifies. There is a hidden depth that objectivity doesn’t allow, and as such, we’re trying to balance the phenomenon that we see as it relates to what can ultimately be known. And yet to be fully known, it must match the depth of the thing that grounds it. The depth of the person, of Existenz, can only ever be found in an actual other, of which, the creature must reflect. It’s why his impulse on freedom goes even further than Kant in that it isn’t merely duty, or a categorical imperative, but rather love itself. Ontologically, humanity is only ever fully human when, to Schelling, it acts as the divine. It has no other option to be fully free in any other way. Nature, is merely the conduit for finding understanding, or a lack thereof. It is the arena of the immanent, which, even Maximus would agree. Also Maximus if you remember , following Pseudo-Dioy. et al…..as HUvB points out, articulates the trinity is neither three nor one, but both….and explains why numbers don’t work. It’s missing the forest for the trees.

            I do agree about the depth of us though, and also, if we can’t figure out ourselves, then how could we ever figure out the divine. So in that, we do agree!

            Liked by 1 person

        • Tom says:

          Brian: “…but whether either side is satisfied is doubtful.”

          Tom: Indeed. I can’t imagine it will be.

          I don’t know if you recall, but we once chatted about Fr John Manoussakis’s attempt to use Florensky to argue on behalf of eternal conscious torment (https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/11/09/huis-clos/ in the section toward the end: ‘Hell is the coincidence of salvation and condemnation’).

          I’m not sure Manoussakis gets Florensky’s view to begin with. I’m sure I don’t. But your description of Lafferty’s novel seems related (discrete embodiments for the true self and its natural will on the one hand, and then separate embodiments for each false self we managed to construct throughout life on the other). As you say, the false self is not ontological. The enduring embodied subject suffers its dissolution and is redeemed in the surrender of falsehood for the abiding gift of filial union with God in Christ which is the true Self – a single movement of the indivisible subject.

          As I think any here who has suffered the reforming, healing process of dying to self (or many false selves, in my case) can attest, there is a good deal of painful, deliberative choosing that defines that process. Seeing God (transformationally) is (perhaps I should say ‘has been for me’) as volitional as it is perceptive. I get mixed messages re: SB on this.


          • brian says:

            In the thread comments you reference, Tom, DBH chimes in to correctly note that Manoussakis has badly misread Florensky.


  6. mercifullayman says:

    Bulgakov, seemingly, riffs theologically on what Schelling discusses throughout “Die Weltalter” or The Ages of the World. In the introduction, no less, Schelling goes to great lengths to discuss how the memory of our intended end is already embedded deep into the fabric of who we are. Evil, and our machinations, are in a sense, a forgetting….a corruption of freedom that tries to elevate self-hood above Being. This echo or call never fully dissolves, but the lower principle(as he calls it) covers up and hides the higher principle…that sublime memory. Yet, even in the darkest of night, there is still a longing for knowledge, which is really what the soul is…The highest clarity of all things…To fully know. I see theosis, in a sense, with Bulgakov, Berdyaev, Maximus, et al….in a way
    as us really becoming both subject and object. To be fully known and yet also to fully know. The distinction allows for the one and the many to be unified. Schelling goes on to discuss the exact reason why an Other must appear…and in the eschatological end, that Other can only ever be the Divine. As we fall and cover up what we are intended for, God becomes the Other that “returns us home to our original freedom and reveals itself to itself.” The Other, is free from everything and is what brings back the memories of divine intention, holding us to ourselves to show the distance by which we have fallen, and forcing us back into the intended aim. Schelling calls this moment the “cision” or Scheidung…..the literal cutting of our fake selves away from what should be our actual selves. As, the article so eloquently says, the immersion of all must be sophianic precisely as the wisdom of the Ground must necessarily awaken us all. Spirit becomes Wisdom. Wisdom becomes knowledge. And to Schelling, as well as the others, knowledge leads to understanding. Understanding is our fusion into the divine life. When this occurs, in whatever way it occurs, we shall all become the principle that is embedded deep within us. Our end will become our beginning, and vice versa.


    • brian says:

      Bulgakov engages the German idealists in a nuanced way. I recommend a perusal of Bulgakov’s The Tragedy of Philosophy. John Milbank’s forward to that book is excellent as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      • mercifullayman says:

        I have read bits of it. It’s been awhile though. I always wonder if Schelling’s need to find a philosophical theology helped at least force the discussion that the Russians took upon themselves to try and complete. I just got done reading a book on the thought of Khomiakov, who Bulgakov et al were driven by. There is the view that the “Idealist” experiment could only be completed theologically. It was a nice background text for the Silver Age guys.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. John H says:

    Thanks for this Rob. I was wondering whether Bulgakov offered any insights as to why Providence permits the intellects and natural wills of so many persons to be clouded with ignorance?

    In addition, I have the following comment in reference to your excellent summary of the phenomenology of the conscience. It seems that the lower self/psychological ego is much more complex than an unfettered desire for lesser material/physical goods. The ego is also formed by the external voices of our parents, society, religion and culture. Freud referred to the internalized voices of our family and culture as the superego, which actually acts as a censor to unrestrained physical desire. But the superego surely is not the same as the conscience that is described in the article. And it is frequently very difficult to discern the voice of true conscience amid the cacophony of internalized voices from our culture directing us to act in a certain way. So how does one tell the difference between conscience as the true voice of our natural will for the good as opposed to the multifarious legion of lesser demands arising from existence in society?


  8. brian says:


    Yes, I appreciate your voice here. The metaphysics of personhood is too complex a subject to tackle in this forum. You can’t do it with brevity. Bulgakov is not at all denying the subjective element; indeed, he links the hypostasis (person) specifically as relation to nature, though also as unique, transcendent source of freedom. His critique of Schelling is touched on in The Tragedy of Philosophy. He deals more thoroughly with Schelling’s thought, apparently, in Philosophy of Economy, but I have yet to read that text. Anyway, it’s not merely dismissive, so I would not wish my pithy allusion to give that impression. In any event, as you know, there are multiple Schellings and his later thought in particular is certainly intriguing. A book that is worth your time that insightfully discusses Schelling along with Schiller and Hegel is D. C. Schindler’s The Perfection of Freedom. (Schindler in general is sound, imo. His most recent texts, The Politics of the Real and Freedom From Reality would elevate the conversation on cultural issues if read and understood.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • mercifullayman says:

      I’ll definitely have to check the Schindler out. Thank you for that recommendation. I do think older Schelling was allowed a 2nd chance to kind of pivot into a more sound position, where say someone like Hegel ran out of time. The fascinating link between Maximus and Schelling has been interesting to see. I’ve always read Hegel, but I think that’s missing the boat. Albeit, I think Maximus is a more grounded way of viewing everything, even paradox/contradiction, yet….Schelling does make sense of some of the “how” for us that gets incredibly technical.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Tom says:

    Brian, tell me if I’m crazy…

    What I think is the case is not that there’s a ‘true’ self in one corner and every false ‘empirical’ self in one or another corner. What’s false are the masks and despairing identities and narratives whose paths and conclusions we reach independent of willing Christ as end. But Christ must be willed in/as embodied self, i.e. empirically. That’s its ontology. The ‘true self’ has no actual hypostatic identity (no realizable personhood) apart from the empirical. I’m guessing you agree.

    This suggests not two ‘selves’ (one true and one false), but one, indivisible desire-laden, embodied capacity for concrete personal existence. This ‘one desire’ for God may labor (and fail) to intend the Good so long as it must take aim under the constraints of an infant finitude, but when fully formed and free of those constraints, we will then have not this true self (as opposed to that false self). We shall have the one capacity satiated empirically. We are saved from false selving, but not from selving, not from concretely embodying some irreducibly unique expression of the Good, True, & Beautiful.

    This has to end sometime! My point relevant to SB’s eschatology is that I have some doubt whether what I’ve described here is possible in SB’s eschatology.

    And I’ll stop there. It’s just past 7:30 and I haven’t eaten.


    • brian says:

      I am still working out my understanding of selving, Tom, but overall I would guess that my take is more “Platonic” than what you seem to be proposing here. It is true, I think, that the Form is not separate from empirical instantiation and also that the temporal moment is a necessary unfolding that not only displays the form but is part of the flourishing realization of the eternal form. Nonetheless, I suspect that the eternal archetypal identity that I am called to fulfill “always already” has an ontological root that is proleptically realized. (In Bulgakov, I think this is identified with the Guardian angel.) So, while there is a “gap” between potential and actuality that has to be realized on our part, there is also an identity “waiting for us” so to speak. How that plays out dramatically is a task for philosophy, theology, and art to explore.

      Liked by 2 people

      • mercifullayman says:

        Jaspers is kind of a cool voice here on potency and act and makes me scratch my chin. We always think of potential as sheer ability to bring forth whatever could be (even if we want to set some limits). But what if our actual decisions actually define our potency? In a sense, potential is always seen from the end backwards? It isn’t strictly defined as in not doing otherwise, but in that the meaning of what we could have been is only seen by what we actually move? So in a sense, the end motivates and gives meaning to the beginning…not as a forced determined end, but as an exploration of what we could have always been. Our future actions define our past in such a way that even years removed, actions in our past only begin to find meaning so much later. Kind of a cool thought about how the present is truly unknown and allows ourselves to be, and yet seemingly vacillates between past and future.

        Liked by 1 person

        • brian says:

          You should give a look to Catherine Pickstock’s Repetition and Identity. I also like Caitlin Smith Gilson’s emphasis on the non-linearity of time in her most recent works. But see below: just as there are very different forms of phenomenology, there are different forms of existentialism. My own proclivities combine the phenomenological and the metaphysical (ala John Paul II) along with the Platonic and the existential.

          Liked by 1 person

          • mercifullayman says:

            I’ve been working through essays by Scheler and can see where you have some similarities there. It’s definitely something that has been an interesting dip into. I’ll check out Pickstock for sure. She’s been recommended to me by a couple different people. Still working through all the Maximian impulses right now. Seems like a good stop gap for me, personally.


      • Tom says:

        Brian: I suspect that the eternal archetypal identity that I am called to fulfill “always already” has an ontological root that is proleptically realized…So, while there is a “gap” between potential and actuality that has to be realized on our part, there is also an identity “waiting for us” so to speak.

        Tom: I agree. However, the proleptic realization of created possibilities cannot itself be anything created (which excludes guardian angels), for any created reality would itself require the very proleptic actualization for itself which it supposedly provides us. The proleptic realization of all the possibilities of creation can be nothing other than Christ the Logos who is his own uncreated logoi. But since the realization of these possibilities is the gift of personal existence (it could be nothing else), that realization requires a free and temporal movement of created wills. My conviction (as you know) is that the ‘deliberative’ mode of this temporal movement of created wills is the metaphysical price tag of that realization (wherever and whenever that realization is located on the eschatological timeline). There simply is no sidestepping it (as it seems to me SB attempts to do, about which I may be wrong).


        • brian says:


          Bulgakov’s sophiology comes into play on this topic, as well as his understanding of the angels. That’s too much to have to explain. You can find some helpful discussion in Jacob’s Ladder and The Bride of the Lamb among other places in Bulgakov’s oeuvre. I don’t find what you say above insofar as I follow your line of thinking self-evidently refuting of his views. What you are after, in any event, would entail a whole investigation of the relation between nature and person, how that might be understood in the light of a specifically trinitarian ontology, how one is to understand the relation between time and eternity . . . and much else. I can only touch on some highlights here. Bulgakov’s teaching on angels is intricate, intriguing, perhaps strange, but worth reflecting upon. Angels participate in their own unique fashion in bringing the Kingdom to fruition. If you think of Platonic ideas as possessing hypostases and imagine that each unique person springs from an incommunicable idea, one can entertain something of Bulgakov’s notion of a guardian angel. Angels do not have their own world, they are part of the creative process of the human world (Bulgakov speaks of their “co-humanity.”) Answers to a series of fundamental questions may direct you inquiry. Is your existential identity simply the cumulative effect of temporal decision? Even if one dissents from the “spontaneous, indifferent freedom” of modern libertarian provenance and recognizes the Good as the horizon in which choice is operative, do you understand that Good “for you” as the determination of an abstract human nature or is each person specified more acutely so that there is providential care involved in where and when one is born, etc.? In other words, do the details of your placement implicate a singular mission? What does Christology suggest about the grounding of personal names and what relation might that have to the dynamism of history personal, historical, and collective? I think it is worth connecting the Arabic, neoplatonic idea of the world of the imagination with Bulgakov’s angelology. The name, in my view, is a unique task, the angel carries the “fictive” identity one is meant to fulfill. In short, if you do not posit something like this as an ontological root, you approach an understanding of human freedom that is grounded more in an abstract nature than a unique hypostasis.

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