Unifying Christians of the East and the West


by Nikolai Berdiaev


(1925/1926 - #73bis) (1)

translated by Heinrich Michael Knechten


[p. 185] The separation of Churches or, better said, the schism of Christianity is the greatest failure of the Christendom in history. This failure testifies, how much freedom the Providence of God has given to man, and how much man has misused this freedom. In the Church there cannot be separation, because the Church is One, and it is homogeneous. Its oneness is determined through the fact that Christ is living in it, that it is mediating the gifts of Grace, and that in it are administered the sacraments. It is not the Church that is divided, but rather [p. 186] Christian humanity. The separation happened within the kingdom of Caesar which became interweaved with the Kingdom of God, but it is not in the Kingdom of God, in which there cannot be separation. The selfsame and eternal Truth of the Christian Revelation is individualized in different races, nations, personalities. The absoluteness of Christian Truth is in no way contrary to an individuation of this kind. There are no excluding oppositions between the universal and the individual. The universal and the individual have herein a concrete sameness. The absolute Truth of Christianity has a human recipient. The human element is not passive but rather active, and it reacts with a creativity different to that which is revealed from above. It creates a multiplicity of forms. And in this should be seen nothing bad. There are many mansions in my Father's house [John 14:2]. Thoroughly justified is the existence of an Eastern and of a Western Christianity, just as there is of a Romanic (2) Christianity and of a Germanic Christianity. It must be said that already in the first centuries the difference in the types of Eastern and Western Christianity had become apparent. The patristics of the East was very different from that of the West; different forms of spirituality developed in the both parts of the Christian world. One part of Christendom adopted the heritage of Greece, the other the heritage of Rome. And even if there had not occurred the catastrophe of the formal separation of the Church, which first then happened when the differences of the both types of Christianity had sufficiently grown apparent, there would in spite of that exist still these types of Eastern and Western Christianity, sharply individualized and different from each other. [p. 187] From the Orthodox standpoint one could admit that there would be a Latin Christianity even while maintaining Christian unity, but that this Latin Christianity would be very strange to Russian Orthodox people. Russian Orthodox in hostility to Catholicism sometimes say, that they cannot bear Latin language and the shaved faces of the Catholic priests, and they are inclined to see a very heresy even in this Latin language and in these shaved faces. So strong an effect have national prejudices! With a more insightful view on the processes of religious individuation it must be admitted also that the German Catholicism never adopted that Latin spirit which pervades the Catholicism of the Roman peoples. It is enough but to remember the great German mysticism, which is in its essence Catholic, and to compare it with the Spanish, Italian or French Catholic mysticism. Tauler, Suso and Jan van Ruysbroeck or Angelus Silesius, who was a passionate and intolerant Catholic, belong to entirely different a spiritual world from that of St John of the Cross, St Theresa, Blessed Angela or St Francis de Sales. German Catholic theology is less rationalistic than French or Italian theology, and in it rules less the Latin love for clear forms. A theologian like Scheeben would be impossible in France. St Thomas Aquinas was a typical Italian, a Latin genius, a genius of form and measure. The German spirit created Meister Eckehart. Protestantism was mostly a product of the German and Anglo-Saxon race, of its individual forms of religiosity. This [p. 188] was a pathological protest against the constraint of the Latin universalism. Individualization is very distinct within the Christianity of the Western world and is active also in Catholicism, but these individualizations and differentiations are yet deeper when comparing the Christianity of the East and the West. The primary and fundamental issues are not the dogmatic and ecclesiastical canonic differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, but rather the differences of spiritual type and of spiritual experience of the mystical way. Howsoever much Orthodox and Catholics fight about the filioque and the infallibility of the pope, they will never come near to a mutual understanding. Here collide worlds which have walked different paths and have collected different experiences upon these paths. It has become difficult for them to understand each other. The stipulation for an abstractly-formal agreement on differences of thinking cannot contribute anything for mutual understanding. This question cannot be decided upon a formal-dogmatic or formal-canonic scope. For the East the infallibility of the pope and the outward unity of the ecclesiastical organization were superfluous while for the West they were essential, because East and West had walked different historic paths and had collected different spiritual experiences.


Early Christianity was eschatological; it had no historic perspective; it awaited the immanent end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ. But Christianity was destined to become a historic world power. It could not for long live upon those exclusively charismatic [p. 189] gifts, upon which lived the early Christians; it had to have an organ for continued historical life and for the struggle. Eastern Christianity, which inherited the hellenistic spirit, was more meditatively disposed, it concerned itself more in discussing dogmatic questions, and the essential work of the Eastern Patristics was in shaping the dogmas. In the East issued forth both the heretical and a Christian gnosis, beginning with St Clemens of Alexandria. The West was more practical; it inherited the Roman spirit; is was more busy with questions of organization of the Church and with moral theology. In the West, Christianity came more quickly to a consciousness of its historical tasks. The Western Church proved itself to be primarily a fightingly active Church. It took upon itself immense governmental and historical tasks, because the Empire in the West had collapsed. In the East, the Church maintained always the eschatological character. Orthodoxy was more inclined to eternal life and the Kingdom of Heaven than to earthly life and to the historical victories of Christianity in the world. The Church in the West became an immense historical power; it understood completely the bellicose task involved in world supremacy, of ruling over the world. The Western Church saw itself as the Kingdom of God upon the earth, beginning with St Augustine. The historical perspective was overshadowed the eschatological perspective. Christianity in the West was by its type more active and bellicose, it was striving after power upon the earth, after deeds in history. This led to a very high valuation of the principle of organization. For the Catholic consciousness it is characteristic, that all must be organized and put under the outer unity, – the soul, the so- [p. 190] ciety, the culture must be organized; the Church – in a sense of external universal unity – must be organized; the religious thinking, the system of theology and philophy must be organized. Instruments of the battle, with which the Church is called to fight in the world, must be trained and ready everywhere. The Church must have its own armies and fortresses. All must be transformed into an army and a fortress, – soul, social life, thinking. Scholasticism is only the arming of thinking for battle, defense and attack. The theological and philosophical system of St Thomas Aquinas is an immense, wonderfully built fortress, like the whole Catholic Church overall.


I know that the Catholic world is very rich, complex and manifold, that there are many currents in it. But it is no accident that in the Christianity of the West Aristotelianism prevails. The way of Western Christianity can be expressed in the categories of the Aristotelian philosophy, in the Aristotelian doctrine of form and matter [forma et materia], of potentiality and act [potentia et actus]. The form organizes the matter of life, the matter of the world; the world must be assigned finally to the organizing form. The ecclesiastical hierarchy which is assigned to a uniform highest center, the ecclesiastical doctrine is a forming, organizing principle, which must rule and cannot tolerate that matter which would flow chaotically or separating itself off. Potentiality is imperfect, is non-expressed being which has not yet found its expression, half not-being, – only the act is true and full being. God is pure act [actus purus], and in Him there is no potentiality. So the Catholic Church is longing to be on earth pure [p. 191] act and not to tolerate the dominance of the potentiality, the not-coming to expression with all its manifold possibilites. In this regard the Christianity of the West, Catholicism, has inherited antiquity’s thinking: it is classical, it fears infinity, it sees in finiteness, in definiteness the sign of the perfectness of being. In Christianity of the East there prevails another spirit. For the East Platonism is far nearer than is Aristotelianism. Orthodoxy is more meditative and eschatological, less bellicose and actual. In the Orthodox Church one finds more the potential, the historically not yet worked out, and it does not regard this as a sign of imperfection or a half not-being. The eschatological perspective of life must maintain moreso the potential possibilities.


Energy will not be spent on an organized act of history, the spiritual forces remain concentrated in the interior. There is a great eschatological and apocalyptical expectation, a turning to the end of the world, the Second Coming, the celestial Jerusalem, which is to come into the world. Orthodoxy is less built up than Catholicism; characteristical for it is more the insight of intelligent beings, the world of ideas, the world of wisdom, the sophiotic character of the creature. It does not conceive of life as form ruling over matter. The life in the world is not organization but rather organism, and the Church is first of all an organism, the Body of Christ. The element of organization is not so important, it is secondary. The inner unity of the Church is not to be defined by the external organization of ecclesiastical unity. Ecumenicism is not something horizontal, but rather [p. 192] vertical, qualitative not quantitative. An immense freedom of spirit finds definition in Orthodoxy by the fact, that Orthodoxy has not first of all the aim to be world organization, to give form to matter by force, to actualize the life of the Church. The Kingdom of Heaven comes unseen [cf Luk 17:20]. Orthodoxy is in no way aims at a victory upon the earth at all costs. This also gives freedom to it; the organized army cannot feel free in the war, on the battlefield, in the fortress; it must be strongly disciplined and assigned to a warlord. But life is not only war, and the Christian people is not only an army. This can be seen also in the Catholic Church, in which developed a more complex creative life, a richer culture than in the East. But the idea of an organized, bellicose Church still predominates.


Orthodox thinkers frequently use to fight against the filioque, because in this formula there is so to speak expressed the subordinated position of the Holy Spirit, a "subordinatianism" (3)  in conceiving of the Third Hypostasis, and a pretensive Christocentrism which hinders the Holy Spirit to pour freely into the world and over mankind. Orthodoxy is basically a Christianity which reveals the nature of the Holy Spirit. Therefore it looks to the mystery of Resurrection and the Transformation of the creature. The most important feast of Orthodoxy is the feast of the Resurrection of Christ. In Western Christianity, at the center is the Cross, Golgotha. The spiritual type of Eastern Christianity, of Orthodoxy, presents great difficulties for historical life, for the creation of a culture in itself. The eschatological attitude of Orthodoxy, its inclination to the eternal life, to the end of the world, had [p. 193] the consequence that the reconstruction work of life was imposed exclusively on the state, the czar who was anointed by the Church for czarism. The Church was not identified with the state, and it did not fulfill the tasks of the state, but externally it was subjected to the state, as was the case in Byzantium and also in the Russia of the Petrine period. The eschatological feeling sometimes paralysed the creative energy of the Orthodox. But certainly the apocalyptic consciousness of the Russian religious thinkers of the XIX century assumed not rarely a more active, creative character, and it was connected with the faith in the beginning of a new pneumatological epoch in Christianity. Paracletism is characteristic to many Russian religious thinkers. Orthodoxy has maintained unaltered the truths of the old Church more than has the Christianity of the West, and it is nearer to early Christianity. On the spiritual grounds of Orthodoxy there is more possible an apocalyptic consciousness, a prophetic presentiment, because it is less busy with historic activity which obscures the perspective of the final destiny of mankind. Catholicism has too much actualized itself in history. In Orthodoxy there are hidden immense, not yet expressed and not yet lived-out spiritual forces. I as an Orthodox must recognize the spiritual superiority of my Church. But I think however that the individualized spiritual types of Eastern and Western Christianity have a raison d’etre and must remain to the end of the world. Neither of these types and ways is the fullness of Christianity. The ecumenicism of Christianity remains potential, it has not been actualized fully and expressed externally. [p. 194] But when expressed, there will begin a new epoch of Christianity, a greater fullness in the life of the Church, a more integral, a more concise, a more cosmic understanding of the Church. The individualized types of Christianity must remain because they contribute to its richness, but the hatred and hostility must stop. We pray for a unifying of Churches, for unity of the Christian world. But which path have we to traverse, to arrive at this unity?



The end