Democracy in Russian Religious Philosophy: A Political Theology of Participation

In: Politics, Society and Culture in Orthodox Theology in a Global Age
Nathaniel Wood
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This essay will offer a broad overview of three major “democratizing” themes within Russian religious philosophy, themes that gesture toward an Orthodox theology of democracy. The first is the ecclesiological theme, centered on the doctrine of sobornost’ as the ideal shape of community life, both within the church and within broader society. Second is the anthropological theme, or perhaps more correctly the theo-anthropological theme, which considers the deification of the human person as the basis of human dignity. Third, there is the incarnational theme, wherein the Chalcedonian formula of Christ’s two natures becomes a model for divine-human relations generally and, by extension, for church-state relations. These three themes are united by a broader motif that runs throughout much of Russian religious philosophy: the participatory theme. As will be demonstrated, the ecclesiological, anthropological and incarnational themes all center on the free participation of human beings in the coming of the Kingdom of God, whether in humanity’s collective participation in God’s work of redeeming fallen creation or in the unique participation of all persons in the transformation of social life. The present essay will focus on the theme of participation as it was developed in four major sources of Russian religious philosophy: early Slavophile thought (active 1830s–60s), the religious philosophy of Vladimir Soloviev (1853–1900), and the political theologies of two of Soloviev’s intellectual heirs, Father Sergei Bulgakov (1871–1944) and Semyon Frank (1877–1950).

The thesis presented here is that these themes “gesture toward” democracy. There is no fully formed democratic political theology in Russian religious philosophy, and not all of the thinkers who contributed to the development of these themes endorsed democratic politics at all. Soloviev, for example, never abandoned the basic framework of Christian monarchy even after losing faith in the most ambitious articulations of his “free theocracy,” while others like Bulgakov who at times voiced high praise for democratic politics were also at times ambivalent toward it, recognizing democracy’s potential to devolve into a kind of pseudo-theocracy. The most explicit theological endorsements for a particular mode of governance within these thinkers’ works tend to be pro-monarchy and even pro-autocracy; support for democracy tends to be much vaguer, more conditional, less explicit, and often mentioned only in passing. Regula Zwahlen rightly observes that the main focus of much of the political thinking in Russian religious philosophy was the negotiation of new kinds of relationships “between the Church and any kind of state, not necessarily” to offer a “Christian justification of democracy.”1 Therefore, it would be an overstatement to suggest that a democratic political theology follows unambiguously from the major voices of this tradition. Nevertheless, all historical observations about their immediate intentions aside, the three themes examined in this essay, together with their unifying motif of free participation, have a democratizing thrust. As such, they can serve as a point of departure for further development toward an Orthodox democratic political theology, especially as contemporary theologians reflect on these themes in new democratic contexts. This essay will thus present an outline of these themes with an emphasis on their democratic resonances.

The Ecclesiological Theme

The first “democratizing” theme of Russian religious philosophy is linked to what Vasily Zenkovsky referred to as the rebirth of “ecclesiastical consciousness” in 19th-century Russia, a spiritual reawakening that sought both to liberate the church’s self-understanding from the secular prerogatives of the tsarist state and to make the shared experience of ecclesial life the point of departure for a comprehensive Christian theological understanding of society and culture.2 Instrumental in this reawakening were the early Slavophiles, including Alexei Khomiakov, Ivan Kireevsky, and Konstantin Aksakov. To locate the Slavophiles within the development of an Orthodox theology of democracy might initially seem strange. When addressing the question of governance directly, Slavophile political thought – which rested, initially, on an idealized account of the traditional way of life of the Russian obshchina or peasant commune – was typically explicitly anti-democratic. The anti-democratic rhetoric is perhaps strongest in Aksakov, who insisted that the Russian people have “no aspiration toward self-government, no desire for political rights” – this disregard for democratic governance being, in his view, one of the great strengths of Russian culture.3 It was devotion to the obshchina that led Slavophile thought to reject the rights of the people to participate democratically in government and instead to defend the legitimacy, even the necessity, of autocracy. In this understanding, it was an advantage of autocracy that it excluded the common people from such participation. But an advantage in what sense?

The answer to this question helps to illuminate, ironically, the positive role of participation in the Slavophiles and thus the democratizing thrust of their theology. The problem with democracy is that, as a form of politics, it belongs to the domain of the state, which for the Slavophiles is always associated with the dualism of coercive external authority and superficial, artificial social relations. State politics, as the Slavophiles understood it, is inseparable from conflict, and as such it stands in tension with the sort of harmonious communion that they idealized in the obshchina. Democracy is dangerous precisely because it draws the common people into the politics of the state and thus entangles them in conflicts that risk eroding the communal bonds between them. Democracy risks debasing communal relations into merely contractual relations; or, as Andrzej Walicki describes it, borrowing Ferdinand Tönnies’ terminology, democracy risks transforming the Gemeinschaft into the Gesellschaft.4 The Slavophiles’ support for autocracy was not a celebration of state power for its own, nor was it an uncritical defence of the actually existing Russian autocracy of their time, but instead reflected their desire to shield the Russian people from the potentially corrosive effects of democratic politics on social life. Ultimately, its purpose was to “depoliticize” social relations. This desire is reflected in Slavophile advocacy for a principle of “mutual non-interference” between the state and the common people, according to which the people freely renounce democratic political rights and entrust the necessary work of state governance entirely to the autocrat, while at the same time narrowly restricting the proper scope of autocratic power essentially to that which is necessary to preserve the conditions for community life, without interfering in that life. This principle, which barred the people from democratic participation, was thus intended to free the people from absorption into the state, carving out a space for community to flourish outside the conflictual realm of the political.

A specific bugbear lurked behind this rejection of democracy: namely, the contract-based society founded on competition between self-interested individuals, typically associated in Slavophile writings with “the West.” Their critiques of Westernization and their valorization of the obshchina were in part a resistance to the infiltration of this type of society into Russia. In substance, their polemics against “the West” share much in common with critiques of liberal democracy by later Western Christian theologians such as John Milbank, William Cavanaugh, and Stanley Hauerwas,5 along with others who draw sharp contrasts between liberal democracy, with a supposed foundation in the Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes, and the peace of ecclesial communion. The similarities are especially apparent, for instance, in Kireevsky’s diagnoses of the West’s (alleged) excessive individualism and rationalism. Kireevsky traces the emergence in the West, through its feudal history, of what would later become known as “possessive individualism,” the conception of the human being as sole “owner” of him- or herself.6 Kireevsky argues that “the whole of West’s social and personal life is based on the concept of the individual and private independence” – most fundamentally, the individual’s right of private ownership, to the extent that even “personhood itself […] is no more than an expression of this right.”7 This is why, for Kireevsky, the feudal lord ruling absolutely over his own estate is the representative symbol of Western society. In this feudal context, however, relations among individuals are fundamentally antagonistic, since rival lords always present themselves as potential threats to one’s property. Modernity did not eliminate this feudal personhood but democratized it, transforming social relations along the lines of self-ownership, conflict, and rights claims. Modern society thus maintains the basic character of feudal relations: “The first step taken by each individual entity upon entering into communal life is to surround itself with fortress walls, from behind which it conducts its relations with other equally independent powers,” Kireevsky writes.8 Social relations become strictly formal and contractual, rooted in self-interest, without reference to a higher common good, and rest on the threat of coercive power; thus, they do not reach the level of authentic community.

The rejection of political democracy therefore stems in part from its association with this flawed individualist anthropology and its erosive effects on communion – placing their critique in the company of later theological critics of liberal democracy, who in similar fashion understand the contractual liberal order as resting on an atomistic individualism and primordial conflict. Yet, just as for these later critics, the critique of the democratic state can be seen as an effort to make space for a different kind of “democracy” realized outside the state, one not based on the external coercive power of the state or on conflicting individual rights claims but instead based on kenotic communion and consensus. Initially for the Slavophiles, this alternative democracy was to be realized within the obshchina, which exchanged the “feudal” right of self-possession for a Christian ethic of self-renunciation – including, importantly, the renunciation of individual property, severing the feudal link between personhood and private ownership.9 Along these lines, Aksakov imagines the citizens of the obshchina not as feudal lords but as singers in a choir: ones who freely renounce their self-sufficient individuality to sing, with a greater collective voice, a common song in harmony with others.10 Thus, even while rejecting democratic participation in state politics, Aksakov envisions a community shaped by its own sort of participation, one in which persons freely donate their diverse gifts as unique and essential contributions to the realization of the common good and in so doing become something more than what they were on their own.

Eventually, the marks of this “democratic” vision of the obshchina would be transferred to the Church, primarily through Khomiakov’s contributions, in the ecclesiological doctrine of sobornost’.11 It is in the Church that true democracy is realized. The sobornost’ doctrine offered an account of ecclesial life as a perfect communion based on the kenotic renunciation of individual egoism and the harmony of consensus. In place of democratic politics, it promised a deeper sort of participation in ecclesial communion and in enacting Christian truth. For Khomiakov, Christian truth is an event of communion, because it is dispersed throughout the whole ecclesial body, such that this truth must be realized “democratically” through the free participation of the Church’s members in the Church’s life of mutual love and prayer: “The knowledge of divine truths was given to the mutual love of all Christians, and it has no other guardian but this love.”12 Truth is realized in a kind of democratic “gift exchange” wherein each person offers up his or her unique insights and, liberated from the limits of individual egoism, receives back a fuller participation in the truth that is impossible on one’s own. The result is a stark contrast from the autocratic nature of the state. The life of the ecclesial community is radically democratic, requiring the free participation of all its members, with no room for coercive power or monarchical authority – even God is not an authority over the Church, Khomiakov contends, because God is known by the Church from within the Church’s own experience of communion.13 The necessity of democratic exchange and the inadmissibility of monarchy in the Church found expression in, among other places, Khomiakov’s anti-Catholic polemical works, which attacked papal supremacy as a sin against the mutuality of sobornost’ – an attempt by one part of the Church to claim a monopoly on truth and thereby establish itself as a monarchical authority over the others.14

There is significant resemblance here to many later political-theological critiques of liberal democracy. For many contemporary theologians, the critique of liberal democracy is not a critique of democratic modes of life as such, but, first and foremost, an attempt to recover an independent social identity for the ecclesial community outside the terms set by liberalism, empowering the Church to be the Church more faithfully. Their aim is to realize a more authentic ecclesial communion, freed from the prerogatives of the secular state, so that the Church might serve as a “counter-polis” or alternative order to the conflict and violence of the liberal state. The goal is not the rejection but the perfection of democracy, based on the assumption that the most authentic democracy is achieved not in the liberal state but in the Church. Milbank, for example, is clear that he sees the Church as the higher realization of democracy: the Church is, in his words, a “deified democracy.”15 His Church is a non-liberal democracy community that offers more than the “uneasy peace of contract”16 but – expressed in various ways – “the perfection of concordantia,”17 the “harmonious blending of diverse gifts,”18 “peaceful consensus”19 or “perfect social harmony.”20 The resonances with the Slavophiles’ emphasis on consensus, communion, and gift exchange are no accident; Milbank explicitly invokes sobornost’ as inspiration for his democratic vision of the Church.21

Milbank’s concept of “deified democracy” is helpful for making sense of Khomiakov’s ecclesial community. But if this higher democratic life belongs to ecclesiology, what does that mean for democratic politics? On the one hand, because of their strong separation between the state and the people, the Slavophiles do not offer a real democratic political theology; their ecclesial “democracy,” as we have seen, is entirely compatible with political autocracy, even supportive of it. On the other hand, the Church’s democratic principles were not meant to remain locked within the Church’s walls but were meant to shape the wider society. Khomiakov expresses hope that the sobornal spirit should “penetrate man’s whole being and all his relations with his neighbor,” thereby becoming Russia’s “highest social principle.”22 Likewise, Kireevsky writes that his “only wish” is that the Church’s sobornal life “should become part and parcel of the beliefs of all estates and strata of our society; that these lofty principles, in dominating European culture, should […] engulf it in their fullness, thus giving it a higher meaning and bringing it to its ultimate development.”23 Christians are called to transform the social order in the direction of ecclesial democracy; but, given the constraints of their larger “depoliticizing” project, there is in the end no clear role for democratic politics to play in carrying out this transformation. The Slavophile path is one of ecclesial withdrawal from the political; sobornost’ as “deified democracy” simply takes the place of democracy as it is normally understood.

Nevertheless, the basic shape of sobornost’ would serve as a foundation for subsequent, more developed Russian political theologies – such as those presented by Soloviev, Bulgakov, and Frank – infusing them with a spirit of “democratic” participation even when they retained some commitment to institutional monarchy. The doctrine would continue to provide the general social ideal toward which Christian social action is to be directed. For these later thinkers too, the essential task of Christian action was to “church” the social order, moving it in the direction of sobornost’. Soloviev, for instance, described the mission of politics as “bringing the principle of love present in the church into civic life and state affairs.”24 Frank likewise argued that central purpose of Christian politics is to “creatively christianize the general conditions of life” by “introduc[ing] into all orders of life and relations between people the spirit of love” found in the Church.25 The same is true for Bulgakov: “Social life is to be organized according to the postulates of Christian love, so also the whole of political life […]. We must seek for a state of things in which the Church may penetrate as with inward power the whole of human life.”26

The Anthropological Theme

This notion of sobornost’ as the social ideal is closely linked to the second “democratizing” theme in Russian political theology: the revitalization of the doctrine of deification as part of a defense of the dignity of the human person. Soloviev’s famous doctrine of bogochelovechestvo, “Godmanhood” or “Divine-Humanity,” is central to this second theme. Soloviev’s interest in creatively retrieving the patristic doctrine of theosis was driven largely by the urgency defending the “absolute significance and worth” of the human person, which was under threat, in different ways, from both the tsarist regime and its radical secular alternatives. Soloviev believed that modernity had brought about a greater recognition of what he referred to as the “negative absoluteness” of the human person or the intuition of the human person’s moral freedom and perfectibility. However, “positive absoluteness,” the actual attainment of perfection, requires union with God – deification.27 In this way, Soloviev tied Orthodox soteriology directly to a political program centered on the liberation and the dignity of human persons, offering an Orthodox theological rationale for several political values commonly associated with modern liberal democracies: freedom of conscience and freedom of the press, a degree of church-state separation, welfare rights, freedom from cruel punishments and so forth.

More directly pertinent to the question of democracy, however, is the importance of participation in Soloviev’s project. On the basis of theosis, Soloviev pointed to the necessity of broad participation in the transformation of the social order – and this despite his formal support for monarchy. The key move here is Soloviev’s recognition of the vocational character of deification, the linking of deification to humanity’s “common task” of preparing the way for the eschatological arrival of God’s Kingdom.28 Soloviev, like so many others of his time, had a progressive view of history; in his case, the end toward which history is progressing is the perfect communion of the divine and the human, the universal incarnation of Christ – the “materialization of spirit” and “spiritualization of matter.”29 This is to say that the end of history is a relationship, and as such, it must be brought about through personal freedom rather than by some immutable law of historical necessity. Therefore, even though God has been luring creation toward this end from the outset, the end is attained only as the movement toward it becomes “more and more conscious and free, i.e., really personal – that each should more and more understand and fulfill the work [of universal incarnation] as if it were his own.”30 In other words, deification – which here includes the transformation of the social order in line with sobornost’ – depends utterly on the full and free participation of humanity, not only collectively but also as individuals. There is thus a “democratic” undercurrent to Soloviev’s theology that tempers the monarchism of his politics, since it is precisely the capacity of the human person to participate in the common task of working toward the Kingdom that grounds his or her positive absoluteness. It is only in this capacity that “the absolute significance, dignity, and worth of the human personality consist, and this is the basis of its inalienable rights.”31

This vocational dimension of deification remained in the next generation of Russian political theology. Bulgakov made it central to his critique of positivism and theories of progress that instrumentalize and cannibalize actual human persons. As for Soloviev, the defense of the human person was central to Bulgakov’s religious philosophy and one of the sources of his disillusionment with Marxism;32 this defense rested on divine-human communion and humanity’s call to participate in God’s redemptive work. Frank, too, in his response to the horrors of the Russian Revolution, likewise appealed to deification as human vocation to defend the dignity and freedom of the person. For Frank, it is precisely the obligatoriness of this vocation, the imperative for human persons to become co-workers with God, that transforms mere individual demands into genuine human rights – the right to participate in constructing the divine-human future, to freely contribute one’s gifts to the common task.33 Frank sees a clear link between human vocation and democratic principles: He writes that “democracy has as its genuine foundation the commonality of the aristocratic nature of all people as the children and free collaborators of God.” The equal dignity of all people is based in this common task; in the sphere of politics, therefore, equality entails “above all […] the universal right to participate in the construction of the society.”34

This democratic impulse arises from one of the core principles Frank shares with Soloviev and Bulgakov: namely, that a fundamental aim of Christian politics is (in Bulgakov’s words) “the creation of the conditions for the free development of personhood.”35 To paraphrase Soloviev’s approach, the Christian state aims to interfere as little as possible with the inner moral and spiritual lives of the people (preserving here a degree of the church-state separation upon which the Slavophiles had insisted) while working to order the external conditions of life – the economy, political systems, etc. – in ways that maximize opportunities for personal development.36 But if personal development is rooted in human beings’ vocation to participate in the deification of the world, then it follows that the conditions for personal development must include the opportunity for participation in the redemption of the social order. The implications of this view of deification are sobornal and thus democratic: I develop my own personality, and struggle toward my own deification, by participating in God’s redemptive work, and this means assisting others in their deification by empowering them also to become co-participants in God’s work. The social dimension of deification entails a continual expansion of the scope of democratic participation in society, drawing all in as free collaborators in the common task.

None of this, however, suggests that just any sort of democracy is adequate from a theological perspective. The Slavophiles’ reservations about individualistic, contract-based democracies remain, and the democracy that emerges here is instead one based on the common pursuit of deification. Genuine democracy continues to be the “deified democracy” of ecclesial sobornost’, and it is therefore little wonder that Soloviev and those who followed him continued to locate the culmination of human personality not in the state (democratic or otherwise) but in the sobornost’ of the Church. Human personality reaches the height of its development only when it “takes its place in the Church,” Soloviev argues.37 He maintains that it is “through the universal Church alone that the individual person can obtain positive freedom,” and it is only through integration into sobornost’ that “the unconditional significance of each human being” is realized.38 Christian democracy in this view cannot ground itself in the subjective self-assertion of self-sufficient individuals, but instead holds as its objective aim the infusion of the social order with the deifying spirit of self-emptying ecclesial love. Yet this outcome is precisely one that democratic politics, in its standard secular forms, can never guarantee. For this reason, it might seem that the “democracy” in question here is really something else altogether, and in the end just another word for the Church. If that is the case, then result might be an ecclesiastical triumphalism, one that might justify the ecclesial “democracy” being non-democratically imposed on the society – for instance, by a Christian monarch. In this case, support for monarchy – whether by Russian religious philosophers or by contemporary political theologians, such as Milbank, who invoke them – might be considered the natural conclusion of the “democratic” themes so far described. But does it need to be?

The Incarnational Theme

The third major “democratizing” theme of Russian religious philosophy has the potential to challenge the monarchical temptation: namely, the incarnational theme, the new understanding of the relationship between Christ’s divine and human natures, based on a deepening of the Chalcedonian formula. This new approach, first given a somewhat detailed articulation in Soloviev’s Lectures on Divine-Humanity, offers a framework for a modern Orthodox understanding of the Church’s relationship to the political order: neither a withdrawal from the political nor a domination of it.

In keeping with the themes covered above, this approach to Chalcedonian theology places central emphasis on participation, specifically the free, active participation of Christ’s humanity in his incarnation. In this understanding, divine action does not bypass human freedom but operates in and through it as “divine-human” action. In the incarnation, Christ acts divinely only insofar as he acts humanly, that is, in accordance with the properly human capacities of the nature he assumes. Soloviev laid the groundwork for this approach in his discussion of a “double kenosis” in the Lectures: in the incarnation, Christ, as God, renounces his divine power so that, as a human, he can freely renounce the self-sufficiency of his human will and harmonize himself with the will of God, thereby deifying his humanity.39 Bulgakov’s Lamb of God expands on the meaning and significance of this double kenosis in much great detail. There Bulgakov argues that the incarnation, as the union of the two natures, should not be understood as a single event accomplished at one moment in time (such as the conception of the Christ child in Mary’s womb), but – in keeping with the larger notion of bogochelovechestvo – as a dynamic relationship that is progressively realized in the development of Christ’s consciousness across the whole course of his earthly life. There is no point in this process at which Christ’s divinity outstrips or outpaces his humanity, since Christ “actualizes His divinity for Himself in inseparable union with the human nature, as a function of [that nature’s] receptivity,” or, in other words, “only to the extent of the deification of His humanity.”40 Christ’s divinity is kenotically “submerged,” so to speak, within the limitations of his humanity, exerting no coercive control over that humanity, and comes progressively to the foreground only as his humanity learns to freely renounce its separate independence from God and conforms itself to the divine will – that is, only to the extent that his humanity makes itself transparent to divinity by participating in it.

What does this have to do with democracy? To begin with, it shapes the way Bulgakov conceptualizes God’s reign. Because of the incarnation, he argues, “God is enthroned in a new way over the world: in man and through man in the God-Man.”41 Christ’s humanity is drawn up into his sovereign governance of the world, such that the divine and human natures “co-participate in the sitting at the right hand of the Father, for God and man are seated there in the one God-Man.”42 God does not reign over humanity but within humanity, as human – a humanity that makes the divine reign present in the world only to the extent that it freely consents to and participates in that reign. The incarnation explodes the concept of monarchy as “the rule of the one”; the theological prototype of monarchy, its divine-human foundation, is already inescapably democratic: “the rule of the many” human persons who are knitted together as Christ’s collective divinely-human Body.

In practical terms, this general picture of the incarnation offers a model for the Church’s relationship to the state and society that rules out any kind of triumphalist theocracy that would place the Church, or its secular proxy, in a position of domination over secular society. As Soloviev explains, the Church can no longer impose itself on society through external political compulsion; rather, “The Church embodies herself in the state only in as much as the state becomes spiritualized by Christian principles. The Church comes down to temporal realities by the same steps up which the state climbs toward the Church’s ideal.”43 In an incarnational politics, the Church, like the divinity of Christ, would have to be in some sense “submerged” within the limitations of human freedom, working within those limitations to move the social order progressively, little by little, toward ever greater transparency to the sobornost’ that lies at its ontological foundations.44

This Christological approach has democratic implications in a couple of different ways. First, it ties into a notion Bulgakov used in relationship to atheistic socialism, namely that of “inward overcoming,” according to which Christian politics does not simply resist rival political systems but sublates them, drawing them up into ecclesial life and “deifying” them as Christ did with his human nature, fulfilling their righteous but one-sided humanistic impulses in a higher divine-human synthesis.45 This means that for Christians who find themselves already living in secular democratic contexts, the shortcomings of liberal democracy – its failure to embody the genuine democracy of sobornost’ – need not be a call for the complete withdrawal or denunciation of democratic politics. Instead, it can be an invitation to lift up what is right and true in liberal democracy and use it to establish, in piecemeal ways, better conditions for personal development and new opportunities to cultivate and express sobornal love. Second, however, an incarnational political theology lends support for democracy in a more robust way, as the very ideal toward which Christian social action aims. The Church, if it seeks to make God’s reign present to the world, should do so in a manner befitting the character of that reign, which no longer confronts humanity from the outside. Unsurprisingly, then, for Bulgakov, “The work [of Christian politics] is no longer done outside, from above, but from within, below, from the people and by the people. The Church influences society in a democratic way.”46

Finally, it is helpful to take note of Frank’s emphasis on so-called “Christian realism.” There is no doubt that an immense gap exists between all presently existing democratic politics and the sobornal ideal. On this point, Frank offers an especially valuable use of incarnational imagery for political theology: the Johannine metaphor of the incarnate Word as a light shining in the darkness.47 Democratic politics are darkened by sin in many ways, and Frank stresses the importance of recognizing that, on this side of the eschaton, this darkness will not be fully overcome. But as Frank understands, it is precisely within the darkness that the light of Christ shines. He therefore distinguishes between the tasks of perfecting and protecting in Christian politics. Although the perfect realization of sobornal love is the goal of Christian politics, this perfection is for the age to come; in the present age, this love must usually find much more humble political expression in the more modest work of protecting the dignity and freedom of persons, which are necessary if insufficient conditions for their participation in constructing the order of love. Christian politics should recognize the ways in which democratic principles offer such protection and seek to strengthen those principles; but above all, Christian politics cannot seek to impose perfection by force. “Deified democracy” is the guide for Christian political action in the world yet remains, for now, an eschatological hope.


This essay has sought to illustrate how three key features of Russian religious philosophy – ecclesial sobornost’, the call to deification and the incarnation of Christ – are united by a common thread: the theme of free participation. Although this focus on participation does not lead Russian religious philosophers to an unambiguous endorsement of democratic politics or a clean break from the Orthodox heritage of Christian monarchy, the present essay has attempted to amplify the inchoate democratic gestures in their thought that might inform further Orthodox theological reflection on democracy. From what has been shown in the preceding pages, a theology of democratic participation that draws on Russian religious philosophy would not simply provide a theological rubber stamp for liberal democracy, but neither should it simply reject democracy as antithetical to Orthodox faith. Rather, such a political theology should recognize the essentially democratic shape of God’s coming Kingdom, which stands in judgment of the democracies of this world. The present task is to understand how Christians are to participate in the democratic communities in which they find themselves in light of this tension.


Regula M. Zwahlen, “Sergii Bulgakov’s Reinvention of Theocracy for a Democratic Age,” Journal of Orthodox Christian Studies 3, no. 2 (2020): 176.


Vasilii Vasilevich Zenkovsky, A History of Russian Philosophy, vol. 1, trans. George L. Kline (New York: Columbia University Press, 1953), 187,


Konstantin Aksakov, “Memorandum to Alexander II on the Internal State of Russia,” in Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology, ed. Marc Raeff (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1978), 231.


Andrzej Walicki, Legal Philosophies of Russian Liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 34.


For more on the comparison between the Slavophiles and these critics, especially Cavanaugh, see Nathaniel Wood, “Sobornost’, State Authority, and Christian Society in Slavophile Political Theology,” in Religion, Authority, and the State, ed. Leo Lefebure (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).


The concept of “possessive individualism” was developed by C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962).


Ivan Kireevsky, “On the Nature of European Culture and Its Relation to the Culture of Russia: A Letter to Count E. E. Komorovskii,” in Russian Intellectual History: An Anthology, ed. Marc Raeff (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1978), 199.


Ivan Kireevsky, “A Reply to Khomiakov,” in Documentary History of Russian Thought, trans. and ed. W. J. Leatherbarrow and D. C. Offord (Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, 1987), 82.


See Kireevsky, “European Culture,” 199; “Reply to Khomiakov,” 83; also see Paul Patrick O’Leary, O.P., The Triune Church: A Study in the Ecclesiology of A. S. Xomjakov (Dublin: Rollebon Press, 1982), 48.


See Zenkovsky, A History of Russian Philosophy, 236.


For Khomiakov’s main statement of the doctrine, see his “The Church is One,” in On Spiritual Unity: A Slavophile Reader, trans. and ed. Boris Jakim and Robert Bird (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Books, 1998).


Alexis Khomiakov, “Some Remarks by an Orthodox Christian Concerning the Western Communions, on the Occasion of a Letter Published by the Archbishop of Paris,” in On Spiritual Unity: A Slavophile Reader, trans. and ed. Boris Jakim and Robert Bird (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Books, 1998), 112.


Alexis Khomiakov, “On the Western Confessions of Faith,” in Ultimate Questions: An Ontology of Modern Russian Thought, ed. Alexander Schmemann (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1965), 50.


Khomiakov, “Western Communions.”.


John Milbank, Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (New York: Routledge, 2003), 133.


John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd edition (Malden MA: Blackwell, 2006), 367.


Milbank, Being Reconciled, 128.


Milbank, Being Reconciled, ix.


Milbank, Being Reconciled, 128.


John Milbank, The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture (Malden MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 1997), 154.


Milbank, Being Reconciled, 132.


Aleksei Khomiakov, “To the Serbs: An Epistle from Moscow,” in A Documentary History of Russian Thought from Enlightenment to Marxism, trans. and eds. William J. Leatherbarrow and Derek C. Offord (Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers, 1987), 93–94.


Kireevsky, “European Culture,” 207.


Vladimir Soloviev, “On Spiritual Authority in Russia,” in Freedom, Faith, and Dogma: Essays by V. S. Soloviev on Christianity and Judaism, trans. and ed. Vladimir Wozniuk (Albany NY: SUNY Press, 2008), 18.


S. L. Frank, The Light Shineth in Darkness: An Essay in Christian Ethics and Social Philosophy, trans. Boris Jakim (Athens OH: Ohio University Press, 1989), 220.


Sergei Bulgakov, “Social Teaching in Modern Russian Orthodox Theology,” in Sergii Bulgakov: Towards a Russian Political Theology, ed. Rowan Williams (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 282.


Vladimir Soloviev, Lectures on Divine-Humanity, trans. Peter Zouboff, revised trans. Boris Jakim (Hudson NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1995), 17–23.


Soloviev’s focus on the task character of Christianity was influenced by the thought of Nikolai Fedorov. See Fedorov, What Was Man Created For? The Philosophy of the Common Task, trans. and ed. Elisabeth Koutaissoff and Marilyn Minto (Lausanne: Honeyglen Publishing/L’Age d’Homme, 1990).


Soloviev uses this language in God, Man, and The Church: The Spiritual Foundations of Life, trans. Donald Attwater (Cambridge, UK: James Clarke, 1937), 23. For more on this theme, see Oliver Smith, Vladimir Soloviev and the Spiritualization of Matter (Boston MA: Academic Studies Press, 2011).


Vladimir Soloviev, The Justification of the Good: An Essay on Moral Philosophy, trans. Nathalie A. Duddington, ed. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), 176–7.


Soloviev, Justification, 176–7.


See Sergei Bulgakov, Karl Marx as a Religious Type: His Relation to the Religion of Anthropotheism of L. Feuerbach, trans. Luba Barna, ed. Virgil R. Lang (Belmont MA: Nordland Publishing, 1979).


See Semyon Ludvigovich Frank, The Spiritual Foundations of Society: An Introduction to Social Philosophy, trans. Boris Jakim (Athens OH: Ohio University Press, 1987), 136.


Frank, Light Shineth, 176.


Sergei Bulgakov, “Basic Problems of the Theory of Progress,” in Problems of Idealism, ed. Pavel Novgorodtsev, trans. Randall A. Poole (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 104.


Soloviev, Justification, 394.


Soloviev, Spiritual Foundations of Society, 171.


Soloviev, Justification, 374.


See Vladimir Soloviev, Lectures on Divine-Humanity, trans. Peter Zouboff, revised trans. Boris Jakim (Hudson NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1995), 159–61.


Sergius Bulgakov, The Lamb of God, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), 256.


Bulgakov, Lamb, 418.


Bulgakov, Lamb, 399.


Soloviev, Spiritual Foundations of Life, 180.


Frank speaks of sobornost’ as the often-hidden foundation of all social relations in Semyon Frank, The Spiritual Foundations of Society: An Introduction to Social Philosophy, trans. Boris Jakim (Athens OH: Ohio University Press, 1987). At a deeper level, society has its ontological basis in the Divine Sophia, in what Bulgakov refers to as the “universal cosmic sobornost’” (Lamb, 104) and Frank the “universal sobornost of being” (Spiritual Foundations, 61).


Sergei Bulgakov, “The Soul of Socialism,” in Sergii Bulgakov: Towards a Russian Political Theology, ed. Rowan Williams (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999). Bulgakov uses the language of “inward overcoming” in relation to the two natures throughout The Lamb of God.


Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church, trans. Lydia Kesich (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), 163.


This is the theme of Frank’s The Light Shineth in Darkness.

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