Summary. At the Threshold of the Third Millenium
Humanity has approached a glorious and symbolic date: 2000 years of the Christian era. All the course of contemporary history, the analysis of Christian culture and particularly the 20th-century culture indicate that we are approaching a certain global transition to an essentially other quality. To be precise, we have been in the state of this headlong – according to the standards of history – transition already for a rather long time. And in this case one speaks not only about Christian culture, but about Culture as the main carrier and means of expression of the Spirit in the form of the created world in general – as well as about humanity in the whole. In this case my presentiments and reactions are based on my attempts to get an insight into Christian culture over the 2000-year period of its existence in the Orthodox world – and moreover sub specie aesthetica, i.e., from the point of view of the Orthodox artistic and aesthetic mentality.
This aspect has not been selected by chance. It is precisely the aesthetic point of view at culture that allows to bring forward most efficiently, as well as internally re-live, the system of that phenomena in which the essential features of the Face of culture – its universal eidetic soul – manifest themselves most fully. In any case the example of Christian culture confirms this in the most substantial way.
Aesthetic currents penetrate Christian culture in all its aspects and dimensions during the whole history of its existence. Having received the revelation of the New Testament from the mouth of God himself and having tragically experienced his shameful death – far from having believed at once and univocally in his Resurrection in the flesh and Ascent to heaven – that portion of the Mediterranean people which was more open to the spirit of the new period of cosmourgy begins to build the new culture. The main stages of this building process are realized, in many aspects, within the sphere of the aesthetic. This process starts from an uncompromizing struggle against the anarchy of sensual pleasures which had taken over pandemically the whole population of the oecumene. Among the main accusations cast by the early Christianity against the pagan Antiquity was an accusation of the limitless and oppressive domination in the society of unbridled sensuality and fleshly hedonism in all its forms. It was expressed in the pagan cults of numerous, for the most part sexually oriented deities, whose worship was often accompanied by bacchanals and erotic orgies; in the enjoyment of power which was taken to the limits of senseless cruelty (sado-masochism, as we would say now), and of riches which were used to satisfy refined sensual needs which trampled under foot all moral principles; in the cultivation of the cruel and gory spectacles of the circus and amphitheatre; finally, in the creation of an enourmous industry of low-grade ails which were oriented, in the late Ancient period, towards kindling sensual passions in the spectators (nowadays we would call it porn production).
Hence the «aesthetic of negation» of the early Christians, their striving for moral purity, aesthetic simplicity and naturalness in everything. At the same time the fleshly element in the human being was far from being negated or denigrated: it was simply assigned its natural place. To the late Ancient cult of the body, fleshliness, thing, artificial object, priority of sensual pleasures Christianity opposes pleasures spiritual which are based on a new system of values according to which in particular the human being holds a secondary position after God, being his image and likeness in its unity and harmony of both spiritual and bodily elements. It is the spiritual element that holds the priority, however granted that it is understood as inseparable from the bodily element. It was not the body itself – without which the human being itself would not exist – that was considered sinful, but carnal and bodily intentions of men, their inclination towards sensual pleasures, passions, lust, and lecherous thoughts.
Already in the Patristic period the system of the main principles of Christian culture is formed in the dimension of ethics and aesthetics and described in terms of blessedness, spiritual joy, pleasure, sweetness, beauty, sublime and spiritual eros. Having recognized the personal God the Creator of the whole universe as a transcendent entity which always abides in the inconceivable unity of its three hypostases, while at the same time being immanent to the created world, i.e., having recognized the essentially antinomical nature of God, Christianity put a clear and distinct limit to any conceptual or rational knowledge, as well as discursive description, of him. The revelation is done to man to know only one: that he possesses being (ό ὥν). The remaining part of the experience of communicating with God is transferred into the non-rational, non-discursive areas. The essential antinomism of the fundamental dogmas of Christinaity is an essential launching ground for a spiritual and mystical leap into these areas which could be provisionally defined nowadays as the areas of sacred spiritual-sensual abiding in being-knowledge. In the process of its historical development Christianity has thoroughly worked out and realized three basic forms of such experience of supra-rational being-knowledge: liturgical, mystical, and artistic. In the course of the history of Christian culture these three forms were intertwined rather tightly in many respects.
Christian culture is theo-anthropocentric. The transcendent-immanent God is the First Cause, the Creator (= Artist), and the Prime Mover of the Universum, as well as the Supra-beauty and Supra-goodness. He creates the world according to the laws of the highest beauty, and his main creation, or the crown of his creation, is the human being who is created by the hand of the Lord in his image and likeness. The whole of Christian culture proceeded from, and was inspired by, the premise that there is something essentially human in the Image of God. The special paternal attitude of God towards the human beings becomes clear from the fact that he bestowed upon them the gifts characteristic of his own essence: reason (= speech), the free will, and the capacity to love. God as a person loves his creation – the world and in it especially the human being – and poses love as the most important principle of the existence of the Universum, and especially as the foundation of the relationship between man and God and the human beings between each other. It is through his love (the earthly life and death of Christ) that he strives to help the human beings to repair the damage brought by them upon themselves as a result of their misuse of the free will. In this way through his personal example he shows to the human beings their way and the principles of their earthly life, their relationships between each other, and their relationship to God.
As the highest goal of the human life and human existence in general, Christianity, drawing on the Holy Scriptures and the joint divinely inspired experience of the Church and the ecclesiastical tradition, proposed the ideal of total merging of the human beings with God in the act of infinite reciprocal love at the highest onto-gnoseological stage of being – however, without the loss of their personal identity and self-consciousness. The main witness of the true realization of this act of cosmic eros is, according to the Christian doctrine, the indescribable spiritual pleasure, or the state of infinite bliss, which transcends all that can be imagined by a human being. This state is promised to the righteous Christians and Christian saints as a divine reward in paradise; however, they can approach it already in this earthly life, especially on the ways of mystical experience which in its most pure form is possible only under the condition of withdrawal from the world, i.e., monastic or ascetic feat. The aesthetics of asceticism which is analysed in detail in the present book is an eloquent witness to this. Apart from the above, both liturgical experience, with the eucharist at its peak, and the communion with the holy archetypes and the Archetype through the mediation of icons by means of prayer and meditation result in the highest spiritual joy which is often accompanied by seeing the indescribable supra- natural light.
Therefore the essential nucleus of Christian culture, and, perhaps, any true culture as a historical form of being of the one universal human Culture, consists of the phenomena which, in this or another way, are most adequately described in aesthetic terms. For where one speaks of a relationship between the human being and the higher spiritual spheres which are not subject to direct verbalization reason is silenced and aesthetic experience and the terminology which is based on it become the most adequate means of expressing something about these spheres at the level of human consciesness. Any theology and any religious philosophy actively utilizes these means, Christianity being no exception here.
Moreover, the importance of aesthetic element in culture derives not only from the limitations of discursive, analytic, and verbal capacities of the human being, but also from the ontology of culture itself: from the laws of its being and becoming. For Culture in its most general cosmo-anthropological aspect is a self-manifestation of the Spirit in the flow of the social-historical being of humanity in the form of intentions, capacities, and powers of that historically changeable humanity. In fact, Culture is a result of theourgy, according to the understanding of N. Berdyayev, i.e., a joint divine-and-human process of creating life in the interests of humanity. In Berdyayev, as we remember, this notion referred to the future creative activity, understood as a conscientious approach on the part of the humans. To this point, however, Culture was created by the humans unconsciously, without any awareness on their part of the theourgism, or even a certain teleologism of the process of creating culture.
Culture emerges out of two correlative quantities: the constant essential, – the Spirit – and the variable – the forms of His spiritual and material expression at a certain stage of the development of humanity in a concrete ethnic and geographical environment. Hence comes a certain plurality of particular idiosyncretic cultures known to history (the Buddhist, Islamic, and Christian, among others, being supra-national) which constitute a united, living, temporally changeable Culture as the environment for the creative life of man. Thus the essence of Culture and all its components is determined by the Spirit, while the peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of particular cultures – by the second variable ethnic-social-religious-historical factor. Subsequently both Culture and particular cultures as a result – but at the same time as a process, since they only exist in the flow of time – of expression, i.e., coming into being as a form of a certain contents, certain form-ation, ontologically already gravitate towards the area of the aesthetic.
Hence become understandable the aesthetic principles and phenomena which lie at the foundation of Christian – and, for that matter, any other – culture. Therefore, it is not only that the aesthetic aspect of the study of culture is not accidental or marginal, but on the contrary it appears to me to be the most productive, for it allows to bring forward most fully the phenomena and characteristics of culture that are essential and pertain to the system of values and humanity as a whole. This aspect presupposes not only, and not so much an analytic-anatomic dissection of culture (although it does not give it up completely), as an organic immersion into culture, living it as your own being-consciousness, but at the same time consciously keeping a certain distance from it.
A 20th-century scholar of Christian culture brought up within the Christian tradition finds himself in the most favourable position in respect to the the subject of his analysis. On the one hand, he needs to spend no effort on identifying with the object of his research, as would, e.g., a representative of another culture or a materialistic scientist, since he still lives by and within this culture. On the other hand, nor does he need to keep a distance from it, for Christian culture itself, in its most essential manifestations, has been withdrawing from him into the depths of history with an over increasing speed – at least for the last century – in fact, seeing the last moments of the final stage of its active and creative life. The latter statement, although it is far from being novel in the 20th-century culturology (one may recall, e.g., A. Toynbee, although its origins go back at least as far as Nietzsche), does not seem to follow from this study which is nearing its completion. The main arguments in its favour most clearly emerged in the 20th-century Christian (i.e., Euro-American) culture: due to certain circumstances, not so much in Russia (although there also) as in the Western parts of Christianity. In the present case I simply mention in passing this significant fact, without going into details which I analyse in a separate study «The Artistic Apocalypse of Culture» which is also close to completion. However, the main conclusions in many ways already follow from the material put together in the last three chapters of the present monograph.
However, I am returning to my subject. We have presented, with a fair amount of detail, how within Christian culture (more precisely, within its Eastern Orthodox – Greek and Slavic – branch which I would characterize as reflecting the essence of Christian culture most fully and in greatest depth) over the period of two thousand years were formed and functioned its main spiritual, ethical, and artistic-aesthetic values, many of which have a universal nature, i.e., far exceeding the limits of Christianity as such. However, it is not so much these values taken separately as the historically fluctuating Face of this culture that deserves admiration and precise observation: the Face which was gradually formed on their basis under the unique conditions of the Mediterranean, and later medieval Slavic regions and Rus. It appeared to us in its multifaceted and multidimensional nature, turning to us its multitude of faces, masks, and apparitions, some of which had flashed and vanished forever, and some continued to shine through a variety of layers over the history of this culture.
The structural principles of this culture include one of deep antinomism. Having emerged from the cult of the Logos («In the beginning was the Word»!), it immediately put rather rigid limits to reason and words by restricting them to the sphere of the created world. The main law of ancient philosophy – that of non-contradiction – was suspended for the highest levels of spirituality. The a-logical and the absurd were acknowledged as the legitimate guardians of all the supra-intelligible world, the way to which was opened only through faith and the experience of the sacred. In the created world, the image, symbol, and sign were called upon to lend help to words. Creative activity, and in particular the one «according to the image and likeness,» was accepted as a norm of human existence, for the divine paradigm of creative activity had been transmitted to men by the Holy Scriptures. The essence and the best aspects of the human being were expected to come forth, and did come forth, in creative activity which was continuously inspired and blessed by the Holy Spirit himself.
God not only created (and still creates, as for Him time does not exist, He is outside the stream of time, and all of His deeds last forever, i.e., they always remain in the present) «according to the image,» but also appeared (appears) Himself to men in images. Therefore the image (the icon) becomes one of the main phenomena and category simultaneously of Christian culture: the image in all of its hypostases – from the verbal and poetic images of the sacred texts and liturgical prayers to the iconic images (icons themselves), the sacred images-symbols of the liturgy, and the spiritual images-visions and omens which were revealed to the mystics and the saints. Christian culture is, perhaps, to a greater degree a culture of the image and the icon, rather than a culture of the word in its literal sense. The image occupies the main place in this culture on its sacred-ontological level. The word, however, only functions actively in the theological sphere, i.e., on the ways of comprehending and describing the created world and on the lower steps of comprehending God. However, even here the word is most frequently used not in its linguistic-semantic function, but within the structure of more complex formations: verbal images and symbols.
All-encompassing symbolism forms the basis of all the congnitive-intellectual, but also sacred, sphere of this culture. Christian culture is the culture of global symbolism. The symbol here is used in a variety of its functions: narrow sign-semiotic, imaging-aesthetic, and sacred liturgical. If in the first case its semantics is relatively limited and interpreted rather univocally within a held of the given culture, and in the second allows for more freedom and a variety of subjective associations and readings (although they are still limited within the framework of a culture), in the third case the symbol is fully endowed with the spiritual energy of the archetype. In particular, in icons this energetics is determined by the likeness between the image and the archetype, by the name of the archetype, and, at a later stage, by the sacrament of the blessing of the icon.
Without indulging into further details of that which has become the subject of the whole book, one may postulate that the specific character of the Orthodox culture – which was formed and flowered in 9–14th c. in Byzantium, which received a peculiar, and, first of all, highly artistic interpretation in the Southern Slavic regions and in the medieval Rus, and which had experienced a new rise and a particular decadence in the 19th-beg. 20th c. in Russia – can be described by a system of interconnected categories, the most prominent of which are: antinomism, image, symbol, sign, icon, word, the sublime, the beautiful, creation, creativity, light, colour. To the main characteristics of artistic-aesthetic consciosness – which has received their ultimate expression in the culture of medieval Rus – belong sobornost’, sofijnost’, simbolism, systematicity, canonicity, spirituality, and increased moral and ethical orientation. The main sections of the Orthodox culture without any doubt are the aesthetics of asceticism and liturgical aesthetics.
The analysis of the main historical stages of the Orthodox culture – or, rather, Christian culture in the Orthodox regions – which has been performed in the present study shows that the year 2000 A.D. is certainly a rather provisional, or even symbolic, date for Christian culture as such. Even Christianity itself does not reach its second millenium towards the year 2000, and culture is younger than religion by several centuries. Nevertheless, the birth of Jesus Christ – which, as a matter of fact, took place several years before the year 0 A.D., according to contemporary scholarship – is an absolutely legitimate date to start the calculation of the age of Christian culture. For the latter began with the religion announced by Jesus Christ. However, the first centuries of the new era, when a rather painful process of establishing the new religion and new world view was in place, can hardly count as the centuries of new culture. In fact, the time when Christianity affirmed itself among other religious cults was still the time of late Ancient Greco-Roman culture, with all its main characteristics: albeit in its final stage. It is hard to indicate precisely the exact point of the transition of Byzantium from the Roman culture to Christian: this process lasted for several centuries. However, the 6th century may, perhaps, be named as a provisional turning point with a great deal of accuracy. This was the century of the first impetuous rise of Byzantine culture in all its main areas at the same time: and on Christian grounds. All the life of the Byzantines of that century was already permeated by the Christian spirit which is marked by the appearance of the masterpieces of Christian ail in architecture, painting, ecclesiastical poetry, and letters, not to mention theology which flowered already in the 4th c. In the 6th c. Byzantium had a developed liturgy and a rather well developed monastic community. All the rhythm of Byzantine life was already subjected to the new temporal cycle which was determined by the liturgical canon. Thus we have a real basis for acknowledging the appearance of the new culture which thus far had not been in place: Christian. For it was dominated by a Christian world view, Christian religion with a developed liturgy which included almost all the main types of art, Christian ethics together with a system of social life based on it, or at least oriented on it, and a Christian rule of conduct for all the members of the society, from the emperor down to the last beggar.
Christian culture in its Byzantine-Orthodox variation reached its highest peak in the medieval Byzantium and Rus (14–16th c.). It was then that its peculiar Face was formed and emerged with utmost power, the highest steps of spiritual perfection of man were reached, and outstanding spiritual and artistic values were created, First of all, in the areas of sacral-mystical experience, ascetic practice, and liturgical life, as well as within many art forms associated with the latter: in architecture, painting, icon painting, hymnography, various genres of letters, and liturgical chant. The 17th c. (especially its second half) sees the beginning of the process of Westernizing of the Russian Orthodox culture which gradually accelerates and in the beg. of 18th c. leads to the de facto secularization of culture – already predominantly secularized in the West. From this point on, the process of decline and desintegration of Christian culture gains its momentum: the culture of which, towards the 20th c., only religion and some marginal trends (more exactly, selected individuals) in art and philosophy are left as its living carriers (as ooposed to museum exhibits). The last significant outburst of Christian culture in the East happened in the first third of the 20th c. and received the name of «Russian spiritual Renaissance.» It revitalized the spiritual quest (mainly on the Christian grounds, although already not exclusively) in all main areas of culture, and first of all in philosophy, thelogy, and art. Later on it was traditionally styled as the «Silver Age of Russian culture.» However, this period featured a rather broad spiritual and aesthetic quest which already essentially exceeded the framework of Christian culture per se, or, else, attemped such a broad modernization of the essential foundations of Christianity that, in fact, devalued them in many ways.
During this period in theology – to be precise, in its innovative trend, Neo-Orthodoxy (although the 20th c. saw also a rather strong traditionalist trend represented by such talented thinkers and scholars as M. Posnov, G. Florovsky, VI. Lossky, V. Zenkovsky, A. Shmeman, I. Meyendorf, et al.) – such concepts as theourgy and sofiology are being actively developed. These concepts essentially transgress the limits of traditional Christianity and, in fact, announce a certain new stage in spiritual development which, while still being based on Christianity and its main values, opens up for the Christians a possibility for a broad spiritual (and artistic-aesthetic) quest in close contact with the achievements of other cultures. In the 20th c. the fading Christian thought, in the outbursts of its innovative trends, eagerly listens to and considers the experience accumulated in theosophy, anthroposophy, and various philosophical, theological, and religious movements and teachings of both the East and the West, as well as the achievements of contemporary science, and is in search of the ways towards its essential renewal. All this is a clear witness of the end of the history of Christian culture as a certain idiosyncratic stage of Culture. Towards the end of the 20th c. it is only religion that, in fact, remains alive of the whole of Christian culture: religion which is also vigorously pulled apart by the various spiritual and anti-spiritual movements of our time which operate both from the outside and from the inside. With a certain degree of certitude we can assume nowadays that we are standing at the threshold of the transition of humanity into the new spiritual aeon: the one with a radically new and united religion, or, else, any of its alternatives that can be revealed (manifested) to the humanity in the first centuries of the third millenium as the foundation of its spiritual existence.
Russian religious philosophy of the end of the 19th – beg. of the 20th c. made an essential contribution to the quest for a new universal system of spirituality, or a new world view, by developing, on the basis of historical Christianity and Platonism, such building blocks as the philosophy of positive unification (vseedinstvo), sofiologys, and the teaching about free theourgy. The founder and the first theoretician of these theories became VI. Solovyov, who was succeeded by his eager followers: the prominent thinkers of the beg. of the 20th c. Florensky, Berdyayev, S. Bulgakov. The concept of positive unification brought to a new level the idea of all-embracing cosmic harmony which is expected to unite the human culture with the whole universe and its First Cause at a new, synthetic level of being-knowledge. In fact, behind Solovyov’s positive unification one sees the most general contours of a certain united culture of the future. Sofiology revealed, within the sphere of divine being, the highest Feminine Principle and equated it with the Masculine (the Logos), thus having restored the primordial pre- anthropo-sexual unity in the highest spiritual sphere. Perhaps, this theory to a certain degree outlines the way towards discerning a radically new form of manifestation of the highest Spiritual Principle. Sofiology put forwards beauty as the highest principle of anthropo-cosmic existence, having defined it as sofijnost ’. The latter category can very well become one of the main categories of the future holistic universality of the humanitarian science which is already on its way to replace the humanities disciplineof today.
Solovyov’s «free theourgy» – which was referred to by his successors simply as «theourgy" and understood as the acknowledged unity of mysticism, art, and technology on the ways towards reforming life under the guidance of God (or the highest Spirit), or as the future art of creating life according to radically new principles – is, in fact, a certain deep spiritual vision of the creative principle of the culture of the future.
Many Russian thinkers and artists of various orientations in the beginning of the 20th c. sharply sensed the coming process of global cosmic transition to something essentially other in the spiritual-material being of humanity and the whole universe. Nowadays this feeling is present in many prepresentatives of the most diverse cultures of the departing century. The very processes that take place in contemporary culture bear a witness to (no, shout outloud about!) this transition. However, this is already a subject for a different study, to which I would like to devote a separate monograph.
(tr. by Oleg Bychkov)