Nikolai Berdyaev
1874 - 1948

Philosophy ... is the creative perception by the spirit
of the meaning of human existence.
-- Solitude and Society



Biographical Note
    by E. L. Allen
Brief Biography
    by Nino Langiulli

Berdyaev's Philosophy

Berdyaev Quotes
8th Day of Creation

Articles & Essays


Discussion List




Freedom in God
A Guide to the Thought of Nicholas Berdyaev
by E. L. Allen

2. The God-man

Let us now take up the third of these points and see how central for Berdyaev is the conception of Christ as the God-man. Like Solovief, he does not treat of this merely as a dogma of the Church; it broadens out in his hands into a whole philosophy of life. That is possible because, to use the words in the technical sense which he gives to them himself, Berdyaev's place is not so much with religion as with mysticism. Religion for him is a social phenomenon and is adapted to the needs of the masses; as such, it is embodied in visible institutions and in authoritative formulas. The mystic, on the other hand, is aristocratic in temperament and never quite at home where the masses are catered for. He cannot remain in the world of form and convention and second-hand truths which is all about us and with which official religion has to come to terms; he aspires to a contact with spiritual reality as it is, a return to the ultimate sources of his being. When he returns from this experience, he can only express what he has found by a language of his own, a language of symbols which the Church is inclined to brand as heretical but which in its wiser moods it does not reject outright.

What are we to say of the mystic's goal? What is this indescribable thing which he has found and of which he seeks to tell us with stammering lips and strange signs? It is the experience of unity with God. He describes this in terms which we may find shocking, but that is because we are so foolish as to take them literally; the mystic is akin to the artist, and we must ask what he means rather than what he says. Let us take some typical mystical utterances as quoted by Berdyaev: "I am as great as God, He as small as I." "If I did not exist, neither would God." "I am man by name, and God by grace." "Unworthy though I be I am the hand and foot of Christ. I move my hand, and my hand is wholly Christ's, for God's divinity is united inseparably to me. As I move my foot it glows with the light of God himself." To the uninstructed ear, these immediately suggest pantheistic arrogance; the boundary between the Creator and the creature has been obliterated. Berdyaev would say that this is what mysticism is, it is "the overcoming of creatureliness."(4) But he goes on to add that if we take such language literally, as implying that the distinction between God and man has been done away with, we merely commit the old error of supposing that expressions derived from our experience in space and time are adequate to the full truth. There is no question here of the human being included in and absorbed by the divine; what is involved is a unity in personal love. God remains God and man man, but they are so bound together in love that we cannot speak of one apart from the other.

As he puts it in another place: "The basic and original phenomenon of religious life is the meeting and mutual interaction between God and man, the movement of God towards man and of man towards God."(5) There was a heresy in the Church of the early centuries which taught that Christ was of one nature only, he was divine and not also human. Berdyaev would say that while that heresy has been formally repudiated in the West, it in fact largely determines the thought of Catholic and Protestant alike. That is to say, the human element in religion is sacrificed to the divine: man is the passive recipient of an absolute truth brought to him by the Church or he is a helpless sinner saved by grace. Whereas man is as it were part of the very life of God; he is God's "other self" and without him God could not come to self-expression. The doctrine of the Trinity has to be taken in conjunction with the Incarnation, so that we see in Christ the "Eternal Man." There is thus a kinship between God and man, a kinship which is retained even amid sin and the misery it brings with it. Here we see that Berdyaev is opposed to Earth's early view and it is worth noting in this connection that the more optimistic view of human nature is represented by a man who lived through revolution and civil war and was driven as an exile from his country.

One of Berdyaev's criticisms of Western Christianity is that in the person of its great representatives such as Augustine and Luther it has been obsessed with sin and the need for salvation. Sin, to be sure, is a grim fact; this is a fallen world and human life is in a state of confusion. Nevertheless, sin should be dealt with positively rather than negatively, by the vision of the good rather than by the terrors of an agonised conscience. To be human is to be endowed with freedom and summoned to creativity. Berdyaev revolts against all conceptions of God as mere power which imposes itself upon men: in his discussion of the various forms of slavery to which men have been subjected in the course of history he includes "slavery to God" as one of the worst. "Because of the very nature of God himself who is infinite love and the cause of the divine plan of creation itself, the Kingdom of God can be realised only through man's cooperation and the participation of creation itself. Despotism is as untrue in heaven as it is on earth." (6) The idea of creativity occupies a large place in Berdyaev's writings; to be human is to be a centre of initiative, to bring new things to pass in the world, and not merely to conform to established customs or to repeat what has already been done a thousand times by other people.

This emphasis on creativity brings with it a problem. We may say that there are two outstanding human types, one the saint and the other the genius. Religion has tended to recognise only the first of these and to look askance at the other unless he also conforms to the standards set by the saint. But is this attitude in fact justified? Ought we not to recognise that the creation of the good is as much according to the mind of God as redemption from evil? The artist, the scholar, and the scientist -- for them also a place must be found within the Church. But something more is involved in such a claim than at first appears, and Berdyaev does not hesitate to follow the argument whither it leads. If we accept genius as a form of God's self-expression equally with holiness, we must go on to question the assumption that humility is the basic virtue.

"The act of creation presupposes an entirely different spiritual condition, namely, a superabundance of creative energy which has free scope and in which the whole man feels that he is involved." (7) We may put Berdyaev's point in another way by saying that what he is opposing is the restriction of God to the sphere of religion as such; all worthwhile human activity is ultimately inspired by him and is accepted by him as his service.

Man, we have said, is called to cooperate with God in his work of creation. What, we naturally ask, is the goal of that cooperation? Here Berdyaev shows himself a true son of the Orthodox Church. The goal is not the salvation of the soul, that would be a low and unworthy aim. Nor is it merely the creation of a just human order, a classless society such as the Communist dreams of. For that would be to leave out of account both the past generations who cannot enter into that society and the whole realm of nature to which man is so closely bound. We must work for nothing less than the transfiguration of the world by the power of the Holy Spirit, the lifting up of man and nature to share in the very life of God. The Holy Spirit and the Transfiguration have a significance for the Orthodox Christian which they do not possess either for Catholic or for Protestant; for him the creation is to be made over again at the end of things and man is to be made God, even as in Christ God became man. What is of importance in Berdyaev is his insistence that this is not something we wait for, it is something at which we must work here and now. "The end of the world is actively, creatively prepared by man; it depends upon man also, that is to say, it will be a result of divine-human work."(8) In this way action in society here and now is linked up with the ancient hopes of the Kingdom of God which is to come at the last.

4. Freedom and the Spirit, 243
5. Ibid., 189.
6. Ibid., 197.
7. Ibid., 232.
8. Slavery and Freedom, 264.


Back to Freedom in God -- contents, by E. L. Allen
Last revised: February 22, 2008