How is one to live in a world plagued by imperfection, randomness and death? Given the unchangeable fact of chaotic order lived out through immutable scientific laws, what is the individual’s proper interaction with nature, with society (State, Church, institutions, the media, etc.), and with others? This is the answer that philosophy (within which I include religion) seeks to provide. We should not think of these efforts as mere mental gymnastics. Unspeakable horrors occurred and millions in the 20th century alone died because of philosophies put into action. Human institutions are driven by one form of doctrine or another, and sometimes combinations of them. Great good has also been achieved based upon how we view the world and our place in it. Life lived out every day for every person is based ultimately on a philosophical mindset of one kind or another. We look to religion or a personal moral code to help us make our way through; to help us understand what it is we are experiencing in this present perception of reality.
At the beginning of the 20th century there was a great flowering of philosophical thought, particularly in Russia. Much of it was cut down or transformed by the catastrophic events of human history that took place after 1913. In Russia, and soon in other countries, Marxism and its philosophy of materialism was the only acceptable point of view. Interestingly, quite a few Marxists eventually came to change their beliefs to conform more to a Christian or explicitly Orthodox perspective. As Marxism came into actual practice, the devastating effects on the human being – objectifying and making Man part of the great machine – became obvious. The great failure of the theories of dialectical materialism as a way to live a real life should be a tremendous lesson.
While I do not agree with many of his views, Nikolai A. Berdyaev came to view the ill of this world as rooted in division and objectivization. The whole of life has been divided, and we continue to divide it up into separate parts, rather than thinking of life as a unified world. When life is divided into its parts, we then look at those parts as objects to be pursued, possessed, used, all to the detriment of personalities existing in wholeness with life.
Nikolai O. Lossky discussing Berdyaev’s views in the 1952 book “History of Russian Philosophy” noted:
The society, the nation, the state are not personalities; man as a person has a higher value than they. Hence it is man’s right and duty to defend his spiritual freedom against the state and society. In the life of the state, the nation and society we often find a dark, demoniacal force which seeks to subordinate man’s personality and make it merely a tool for its own ends (Solitude and Society, 177). In social life man’s conscience is distorted by the process of objectivization and by conventional rules. The pure, original conscience can only manifest itself in and through personality; everything must be submitted to the judgment of that ‘existential’ conscience, unspoiled by objectivization.
As a result of objectivization, the only things we regard as “real” are those that are rationalized to a conventional philosophy, and in truth the objectivized and rationalized characters are secondary to the actual essence of personality. We fail to see that which is truly real in personalities because we view everything as an object that conforms to our worldview. Thus, the world has become a “system of relations between objects.” This system that we view as reality consists of these characteristics: “(1) the object [i.e. not thou] is alien to the subject [i.e. thou]; (2) the personal, the unique and individual is submerged by the general, the impersonally-universal; (3) necessity, determination from without is predominant, freedom is suppressed and hidden; (4) life adapts itself to mass movements in the world and in history, and to the average men; man and his opinions are socialized and that destroys originality. In this world of objects life is lived in a time which is divided into the past and the future, and that leads to death.” In Berdyaev’s view, regeneration of fallen man would mean deliverance from the objectifying process.
There is the danger of reading Berdyaev’s notions of “freedom” as “license.” On the contrary, license is the use of freedom when still viewing things in an objectified manner, in other words using freedom for one’s own profit or enjoyment. Freedom in the context of respect for personalities means the exercise of freedom for the good of all personalities existing in a wholistic sense. It is also true that social life provides a moderating essence that prevents chaos, destruction and all sorts of ills. “Berdyaev does not by any means propose to cancel the ethics of law or the legal forms of social life. He merely demands tolerance in the struggle with evil and points to a higher stage of moral consciousness than the ethics of law. The higher stage is expressed by the ethics of redemption and the love of God….” Furthermore, he rejects irrational freedom as being separate from God, which is ultimately overcome through eternity. As life pertains to individual relations, Berdyaev traces “all concern for the ‘far off’ at the expense of the ‘neighbor’ [i.e. others] to a lack of real love, namely of the love for the concrete individual person and to replacing it by a love of abstract theories….”
Freedom from the bondage of the objectifying process then is found in the two First Principles of Christianity which are not abstract theories, but are actions: Love God; Love Others. Regardless of all of the theological doctrines and debates that surround this religion, a person would do well to spend their life exploring just these two principles in action. One would never run out of the means to do so. In them we find the necessities of personhood: prayer; worship; forgiveness; non-judgment; bearing one another’s burdens; substitution; co-inherence and exchange; etc. Of all these, the acts of forgiving and acceptance of being forgiven hold extraordinary power as acts of love in fulfillment of the good.
If one were to accept that objectivization is the mode in which we live and that this must change, the difficulty would come in how to put First Principles and their concomitant parts into practice. Berdyaev does not seek to destroy existing forms, but merely asks for tolerance. But an example of the society acting as a system operating on or against personalities as if they were objects is our concept of justice. A system of justice is necessary to social order, so it is said. But how we see justice, and how we use it, are other matters. In his July 1940 article in The Dublin Review titled, “The Image of the City in English Verse,” Charles Williams (one of the finest theologians of the 20th century), writing about Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” notes:
How far, in this order which holds and is a necessity of the City in this world, are the executants of that order prevented by their own faults from judging or compelled by their own faults to show mercy? Angelo, in answer, takes the strictest view. We must carry out the law, he says to Escalus; the guilt of the judge has nothing to do with it; if that is ever discovered, then let him also die. When, however, he says something of the same sort to Isabella, she makes a reply which is one of the most familiar speeches in Shakespeare and has, by being dragged out of its context so often, half lost its terrible force. ‘If we lose this justice’, Angelo says, ‘the form of the State will break down.’ Isabella, exclaiming on ‘man, proud man, Drest in a little brief authority’, makes justice almost unjust; at least she makes it ridiculous. It becomes one of the fantastic tricks played before high heaven. She does not deny its validity; she merely makes nonsense of it. Justice must be: and what is justice? This—the angels weeping.
As imperfect, fallen human beings, Christian theology prohibits us from judgment, lest we be judged. But in carrying out a system of justice in the present reality, we are imposing what we view as a necessary system on the objects of existence. Williams continues, “The issue to which the play is touched is the reconciliation within the City of the justice which both must and must not be. Chastity invoking a mercy beyond that justice has become itself a temptation and a danger to the all but chaste, the all but just, soul. May the possibly guilty condemn the guilty?—all secular government asserts it. Ought we to excuse it because the sin is natural and we may commit it or have (in intention, at least) committed it?—all secular government denies it. The temporal City would fall; ‘it must not be’.” Mercy would be dangerous, in our view. This, despite that fact that in the Christian liturgy, there are repeated communal-personal appeals to God: “Lord, have mercy!” What we would ask of God we will not, must not, offer to our brothers. In the end, for Williams, the only workable solution is an oddity: for the offender to seek punishment, and for the offended to offer mercy. He returns to this question raised in “Measure for Measure” in a review of symposium on “War and Christian Ethics” noting the need for the offender to seek punishment and the on offended to offer pardon: “Pardon—that is, the renewal of love—ought, of course, to exist always as a state of soul. …. That it will be denounced as compromise is equally obvious. But compromise it is not—it is the effort to mean by love, in the City militant upon earth, something greater and not less than justice.”
The mutuality of exchange of personalities, through mercy, pardon, forgiveness and acceptance of forgiveness sets the world aright, and the terrible judgment of system or subject upon object is avoided. But as systems and objects play out here in divided and objectified everyday life, there is no truer definition of “justice” (or any manifestation of system or subject set in opposition to object – as differentiated from the interrelationship of personalities in the context of First Principles) than the words written by Williams: “the angels weeping.”
Life in this world must not rest on mere theories but must be manifest in action. Again, in Lossky’s discussion of Berdyaev: “Knowledge about the spirit is attained not through concepts of reason or logical thought but through living experience.” It is in the living where belief is put to the test and where we must decide how to interact with the world in which our journeys play out. Do we see objects, or do we see personalities? Loving the discussion on how one shall live, is nothing like living out the discussion on how one shall love.
“Ain’t it like most people? I’m no different,
We love to talk on things we don’t know about.” – The Avett Brothers
Rdr. Timothy, a sinner