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Trapped in our Bodies, Nowhere to Go: Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, and Luther

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Trapped in our Bodies, Nowhere to Go

Dr. Peter Krey, January 31, 2011

Reading Nicholas Berdyaev again after thirty-five years has been eye-opening to me. There are so many themes in his book on Dostoevsky that I also have in my dissertation and in my thought about Luther’s spirituality. I wonder whether my earlier reading of him actually came out in my writing unconsciously.

Writing from the perspective of the Orthodox Church, Berdyaev denounces the attempt of Roman Catholicism to want a temporal sword, an earthly kingdom among other earthly kingdoms. Because God wants humanity to come to freely love the Christ sent by heaven, no compulsion is allowed on the part of the church. That is precisely what I meant by denying the church the sword of iron, that is, its coercion, and allowing it only the sword of the spirit, thus my dissertation title, Sword of the Spirit, Sword of Iron.

As Berdyaev writes, quoting Dostoevsky, “Thou didst desire [a hu]man’s free love, that [s/]he should follow Thee freely, a willing captive.”[1] And further that Roman Catholicism’s conception was one “of the compulsory organization of an earthly kingdom” (page 145) and its system made “a denial of freedom of conscience and, [because of its] having misunderstood the mediaeval doctrine of ‘the two swords,’ [Dostoevsky] claimed that the Roman Church aimed at temporal dominion and had grasped the sword of Caesar”[2] (page 145).

I also forgot that I had read about “centripetal and centrifugal movement of human beings” in Berdyaev (page 44). Having forgotten about it, I discovered the concept again in a British historian[3] and it has become prominent in my analysis of Luther’s spirituality. His centripetal spirituality moves toward the center of community with involvement, participation, and commitment; not out of it and away from it, centrifugally, with detachment as in monasticism. Thus Luther’s theology is always centripetal, toward marriage, toward the source and center of community.

Another scholar also said something enlightening to this effect, helping me to understand Luther’s theology, i.e., that there were two kinds of abstractions, one that leads away and the other that leads toward the body and concrete realities.[4] Again the movement of the latter is centripetal and the former is centrifugal.

Berdyaev also champions a dynamic dialectical mind (Note how good a description that is of Luther’s mind!) and he criticizes static monolithic kinds of minds. (Luther is often criticized from a static absolute point of view that fails to take account of his nuanced, dialectical approach.) As Berdyaev describes Dostoevsky, to me he seems a kindred spirit with Luther. Both were dynamic dialectical thinkers. Luther also puts opposites together in tension with one another and finds that his opponents claim that his arguments are nothing more than a pack of contradictions, e.g., their response to being sinners and saints at one and the same time, being sovereign over all and enslaved to all at the same time, having freedom in faith and being enslaved in love.

Look at the similar way Berdyaev describes the thought of Dostoevsky: “There was a dash of the spirit of Heraclitus about him: everything is heat and motion, opposition, and struggle” (page 12) and “His conception of the world was to the highest degree dynamic and we must look at it this way; the internal contradictions of his work will then vanish, and it will verify the principle of coincidentia oppositorum,” that means, the coincidence of opposites (page 13) and “The battle between the divine and hellish elements is carried on deep down in the spirit of man” (page 58) and “[Beauty] is a terrible thing because it can’t be fathomed, for God makes nothing but riddles and in this one extremes meet and contraries lie down together…” (page 59) and “There is an antinomy in the nature even of God” (page 58).

Could the antinomy derive from deus absconditus, that is, the hidden God versus how God wished to be revealed in Jesus Christ? Or could it derive from the Creator and Redeemer’s diverse ways of ruling the world, – in the terms of Luther’s theology, through judgment and grace, the law and the gospel, command and promise?

Luther’s sense of freedom also often seems contradictory. Listen to Berdyaev write of Dostoevsky’s view. “Behind the renouncement of [freedom] there is also an excessive affirmation of freedom, of a [human’s] own arbitrary will. Here again is an ineluctable dialectic” (page 84).

Think of Luther’s manifesto against the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” i.e., “The Freedom of a Christian Person.” (Both were written in 1520.) Then he writes the “Bondage of the Will” in 1525. Berdyaev says that Dostoevsky finds all contradictions of freedom resolved in Christ: “In Christ freedom is given grace, wedded to infinite love, and no longer need it become its own opposite” (page 144). Finally, according to Berdyaev, Dostoevsky’s “system of ideas is highly dynamic and contradictory: it is no use stopping one in motion and asking for a plain “yes” or “no” about it” (page 154). Like Dostoevsky, Luther went deep into the spirit and found good and evil there, God and the devil struggling there.

Like Luther, Dostoevsky according to Berdyaev strides beyond Humanism. Before Humanism spiritual realities like heaven and hell were felt to be very real. Spiritual realities, however, were shut out by Humanism by its anthropo-centrism [man as the measure of all things], leaving the human being with psychological realities alone. Berdyaev puts it this way: “The ecclesiastical authorities’ hostility to all Gnosticism led to increased agnosticism” and “their attempts to make spiritual profundity external to [humanity] resulted in the denial of all spiritual experience and the shutting-up of all humankind in a material and psychological reality” (page 36).

I believe that Humanism often goes even further today into a materialism and biological naturalism, which becomes a reductionism of spirituality to psychology and that often, like the young Sigmund Freud, to a physiology that slowly evolved to a psychology. In biological naturalism, we can be trapped in our bodies, nowhere to go. This movement is very distant from a spirituality of personhood that is grounded in the eternal soul, based on the promises of the eternal God, who came down to receive a body (Hebrews) and celebrate our humanity in Jesus Christ our Lord.

To continue with Berdyaev and Humanism, “The human had been left with only his body envelope and the lesser faculties of the soul, s/he could no longer see the dimension of depth” (page 36). “The human [her or] himself became a flat creature in two dimensions – s/he had lost that of depth; his soul was left to him, but his spirit had gone” (page 48). “The Humanist conception of the world, a conception directed towards its psyche and not its spiritual aspect, turned away from the human’s ultimate spiritual self” (page 48).

Dostoevsky, however, opened up our human inward spiritual depths again. He “unveiled a new spiritual world; he restored to the human the spiritual depth of which s/he had been bereft when it was removed to the inaccessible heights of a transcendent plane” (page 36). Dostoevsky opened up the spiritual life imminent in humans; not at all, however, denying transcendence as well (page 50). “In the human himself an abyss opened [for Dostoevsky] and therein God and Heaven, the Devil and Hell were revealed anew” (page 49).

Luther was also influenced by Humanism and for a while he gave himself the name, Elutherius, meaning the Liberator, much like the Humanist names, Melanchthon, Schwarzerd in German; Agricola, Bauer, etc. but Luther’s intense religious convictions made him transcend Humanism and experience and confront spiritual realities. Berdyaev claims that Dostoevsky also opened up these spiritual realities again after they had been shut off for a long while for a great many.

Berdyaev points out that there are demonic forces at play in the Dionysian spirit of a Friedrich Nietzsche wanting to become God, a man-god, a superman. Luther had the slogan, “Let God be God,” meaning that our calling is to be human beings. Wanting to be God is a source of evil, perhaps the main source among others. In his Christian Existentialism, Berdyaev champions the God-Man, Jesus Christ, who taught us love of neighbor, as well as love of the other, even love of our enemy, our opposite.

Berdyaev now, not Dostoevsky, however, whose human being was ultimately male, believed that the final expression of human nature was androgynous (page 115). Berdyaev is thinking in spiritual terms, in terms of the spiritual body, not the psychological terms of Carl Gustav Jung. The latter had a theory of Syzygy, i.e., of opposites being yoked together, where in the union of a man and woman, there were two triads: the masculine subject opposite the feminine subject with a transcendent anima, i.e., a female soul in the male; while the reverse holds true for the woman: her feminine subject is opposite the masculine subject with her transcendent animus or a male soul in the female. Jung also speaks of a chthonic mother or Earth mother in the woman and wise old man in the man.[5]

Granted, when introducing the transcendent dimension here, Jung does not remain strictly psychological. But Berdyaev underscores the spiritual realm so much more when he speaks of an eternal person, because belief in God predicates a person being eternal and belief in God is the affirmation of human beings, while the rejection of God in atheism or the shutting out of God and the spiritual realm in agnostic Humanism, also becomes a rejection of the human being. Berdyaev interprets Nietzsche’s superman as a rejection of human beings as inadequate. As Berdyaev puts it, “Nietzsche…was dominated by the idea of the superman and it killed the idea of the real [human being] in him. Only Christianity has cherished and protected the idea of [humankind] and fixed the human image forever and ever. The human essence presupposes the divine essence; kill God and at the same time you kill the human [being] and on the grave of these two supreme ideas of God and the human [being] there is set up a monstrous image – the image of the human [being] who wants to be God, of the superman in action, of Anti-Christ” (page 64). Berdyaev writes, “Self-deification was the inevitable goal of Humanism” (page 64). Again Luther’s dictum rings the warning, “Let God be God!”

Thus in philosophical terms as opposed to psychological ones, Berdyaev speaks of the masculine and feminine principles, whose final human expression is androgynous. Androgyny then is taken in a spiritual sense for a spiritual union, a spiritual body that has become complemented by the opposite sex.

The way the final expression of humanity is male in Dostoevsky, some theologians maintain that men and women become sons of God and there is no such thing as a daughter of God. Rather than ultimate masculinity there may well be better arguments for ultimate femininity. Our traditional values (vir-tue, manliness versus being effeminate or a “sissy,” that is, “like a sister”) are reversed by divine light. A medieval artist depicting souls in hell, purgatory, and heaven unconsciously moved from the most masculine image of the soul in Hell to the most feminine looking soul in Heaven. Some theologians argue that angels are sexless. In sexual intercourse, Berdyaev’s androgyny can be maintained, because a man unites with his femininity in the woman and she unites with her masculinity in the man. Berdyaev’s saying the “final expression of human nature is androgynous” precludes it being male or female and argues for the children of God being complete men-women.

As far as I know, Luther does not say anything about androgyny. But returning to how deeply Berdyaev influenced my later thought, I can refer to the main thesis of my projected work on Luther and the Great German Peasants’ War of 1525, viz., that Luther was not conservative, but was involved in a more subtle and profound revolution than the peasants. I was going to write my dissertation about this subject after studying it for many years, but then had to change my subject at the very end of my graduate work.

Luther took a very harsh stand against this revolt. Listen to Berdyaev on this topic. He shares Luther’s stand against revolt and revolution and depicts Dostoevsky as being “revolutionary-minded in a deeper way” (page 135). Berdyaev maintains that “no one has denounced more strongly [than Dostoevsky] the falsehood and unrighteousness that make revolutions” (pages 134-135). Berdyaev, it seems, never read Luther on the subject. I sincerely wonder if Dostoevsky’s stand against revolution could match the harshness and vehemence of Luther against the revolting peasants! Interestingly enough, Dostoevsky saw in the revolutionary falsehood, “the mighty spirit of the Anti-Christ, the ambition to make a god of man” (page 135).

Of course, Dostoevsky is reacting to an earthly unbounded messianism, which depicts Thomas Müntzer’s position, but not those of many of the other very moderate peasant leaders in other arenas of the Peasants’ War. He also does not know the approximations of justice, a private personal ethic versus public collective ethic, and working out the fine art of the possible of a Reinhold Niebuhr or Max Weber. Nor does he know Bonhoeffer’s this-worldliness of Christianity that the apocalyptic spirit does not dissolve.

Be that as it may, I often argued that Luther was a more subtle revolutionary. Berdyaev’s words capture this thought: “Dostoevsky was revolutionary-minded in a deeper way” (page 135). Continuing with Berdyaev, the one who “marches with Christ with his face towards the last great battle at the end of time is a human [being] of the future and not the past, every bit as much as the [one] who marches with the Anti-Christ and fights in his ranks on the last day. Generally speaking, the conflict between revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries is a superficial affair, an opposition of interests: [Luther also said this in so many words!] on the one side the ‘has beens’ who have been supplanted, on the other, the supplanters, who now have the first place at the feasts” (page 135).

Here Paulo Freire comes to mind with the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The oppressed cannot just turn the tables and themselves become oppressors, but have to complete their mission of also liberating the oppressors. In Paulo Freire’s words: “As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressor the humanity they lost in the exercise of oppression.  It’s only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves can free their oppressors. That latter oppressive class, can free neither others nor themselves. It is therefore essential that the oppressed wage the struggle to resolve the contradiction in which they are caught; and the contradiction will be resolved in the appearance of the new human [being]: neither oppressor or oppressed, but human beings in the process of liberation.”[6] and  “This is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.[7] and “The authentic solution of the oppressor-oppressed contradiction does not lie in a mere reversal of position, in moving from one pole to the other. Nor does it lie in the replacement of the former oppressors with new ones who continue to subjugate the oppressed- all in the name of liberation.”[8])

In these citations from Freire, it is obvious that he is thinking in terms of social groupings, while Berdyaev is an existentialist. Luther also first made the mistake of thinking that the peasants were going to protect and carry out the Reformation. But they had not been conscientized enough, to use Freire’s terminology, i.e., they did not have “a deepened [enough] attitude of awareness of their emergence”[9] I would add, of the spirituality of grace. To use  Freire again: “the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed [is] to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well….Only power that stems from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both, the oppressor and the oppressed.”[10] As God answers the prayer of St. Paul: “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). In Freire’s conscientization, however,  I think he does not yet understand the apocalyptic notes that Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, and Luther are striking.

Thus Berdyaev continues, “A revolution of the spirit opposes a spirit of revolution. Dostoevsky was very much the apocalyptic man and the usual standards of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary cannot be applied to him. For him revolution was as near as may be to reaction” (page 136).

Luther’s apocalyptic stand again made him a kindred spirit in this regard. For example, in the pope’s naming himself the vicar of Christ on earth and very much wielding a temporal sword and fervently involved in aggrandizing his territorial monarchy in Italy, he was presenting himself as a man-god and hence, very much an anti-Christ, who destroyed human consciences. He could be seen in the ranks of those fighting against Christ in the last battles. He fits Dostoevsky’s description of the Grand Inquisitor very much more than the powerless Christ, who had “only” the Holy Spirit with him.

God becomes a human being in Jesus Christ. The kingdom cannot be taken; it can only be received when given by the hand of God. In Luther’s apocalyptic view, he saw the Peasants’ War as being fought on the wrong side of the future. It certainly locked the peasants into the past for several hundred years and perhaps it is the reason Mennonites and other representatives of the “radical reformation” have stepped out of history altogether.  And although Luther would say that people can be transformed while institutions can only be reformed; the incredible changes in the relationship of the church and state, the elimination of two ecclesiastical court systems along with the canon law, the secularization of price-bishoprics, and the end of monasteries to arise in new secular corporate transformations – are just some of the revolutionary changes brought about because of Luther’s concern with ultimate questions and the ultimate spiritual battle.

So the spirit of the revolution is the story of human beings trying to be God, lusting after the absolute power that corrupts them absolutely. In a penultimate sense, a limited this worldly sense, very much mindful of our accountability to the one at God’s right hand in Heaven, standards of living can be increased and greater approximations of justice can be achieved. But the revolution of the spirit is a revolution of hearts and minds, where in a centripetal sense, God became a human being in Jesus Christ, receiving a body, as Epistle to the Hebrews says, “a body you have prepared for me” (10:5). And in this spirituality we continue by becoming Christs to one another in the movement of the incarnation, realizing that “we are strangers and foreigners on earth” (11:13) who “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (11:16). “For here we have no lasting city, for we are looking for that city which is to come” (13:14). Thus in the spirit of receiving the New Jerusalem, all manner of good this-worldly changes do come about, while our direct grasping and man-handling such realities tend to shut out the spiritual realities for the sake of earthly ones. I dare say that Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, and Luther stand in the ranks of Christ fighting the last battle at the end of time.


[1] Nicholas Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, (New York: Meridian Books, the World Publishing Company, 1968), page 69. Page numbers in the text will hereafter be those of this book. Wherever possible, I have also changed quotes so that they contain non-sexist language. “Man” to “human” or “humanity,” then “he to “s/he.” Because this is very difficult, I’ve not in all cases been consistent.

[2] Ibid. Actually at that time I did not finish the book. I had read it only to page 94; but I could well have followed Berdyaev’s line of thought.

[3] In Francis Oakley, The Western Church and the Later Middle Ages, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1979).

[4] Bram Dijkstra speaking about his book, “Naked: the Compelling Role Nudity Plays in America,” Michael Krasny on Forum, NPR (January 25, 2011 at 10AM).

[5] Carl Gustav Jung, The Portable Jung, (New York: Penguin Books, 1971-1976), page 161.

[6] Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (New York: the Corinthian Publishing Company, 1970, 1993), page 38.

[7] Ibid., page 26.

[8] Ibid., page 39.

[9] Ibid., page 90.

[10] Ibid., page 26.

Thirty readers in one day. Thank you. I invite your comments!

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