Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948)
Berdyaev was born of an aristocratic family near Kiev in the Ukraine. He was educated first at a military academy and then at the University of Kiev. Like many other students of his time he became involved with Marxism in reaction to the social and political structures of Imperial Russia. In 1898 he was expelled from the university and imprisoned for two years. He was then exiled for three years to Volgoda in northern Russia for his Marxist activities. He moved to St Petersburg in 1904.

Although Berdyaev initially supported the Russian Revolution, he eventually became critical of Marxism. Because of his socialist tendencies he gained enough official favour after the 1917 revolution to become, for a brief time, Professor of Philosophy at Moscow State University. It soon became clear, however, that he was not and would not become an orthodox Marxist. His criticism of the Bolsheviks resulted in his dismissal and deportation from Russia in 1922.

With the help of fellow exiles and the Young Men's Christian Association he founded the Academy of Philosophy and Religion in Berlin. He moved the Academy to Paris in 1924 where he founded and edited the influential journal Put (The Way) until 1940.

Berdyaev described his philosophical method as "intuitive and aphoristic rather than discursive and systematic". From today's perspective, the need for information as a basis for philosophy is probably more critical than previously. Because he tended to think  without consistent reference to the world around him as a source, Berdyaev's writing appears to be a series of pronouncements. By stringing together and repeating his assertions, he gradually builds a model or paradigm of reality which, though influenced by others (such as Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche), is primarily his own.

The foundation of his world view was his concept of the Ungrund, a mysterious primordial freedom from which God emerges. Out of this Ungrund, or uncreated potentiality, God creates human beings whose freedom and capacity for creativity are of the utmost importance. The Ungrund is similar to Aristotle's "prime matter" - an indefinable, ultimate presupposition or "myth" whose value can't be rationally demonstrated but only experienced. The Ungrund doesn't, strictly speaking, exist in the sense that everything else "has being". Rather, it is "potential" in the sense that it is the possibility of being.

The device of inventing that which can be defined or described but has no existence other than the description and definition is an ancient one. One has only to ask, "How do you know that Ungrund exists apart from your verbal formula?" and Berdyaev's castle of words collapses. He seems aware of this and reverts to the safer position of admitting that the Ungrund can't be experienced or demonstrated except as potential. 

Of course, this only puts the question back a stage since "potential" here means "existing in possibility" in the same sense as it's "possible" I might fall off a cliff tomorrow morning. Only a speculative metaphysics can be built on such a foundation.

Berdyaev thought that the philosopher "... ought to be theocentric" because "... man is a microcosm". I think what he meant by this is that we experience reality as ordered rather than chaotic or anarchic. Therefore, behind everything there must be an initial purposefully creative act or, as he put it, "God is in man ... Behind the finite the infinite is concealed." He wrote: "There is truth in the sense of knowledge of reality and there is truth which is reality itself ... it is ... something which exists." What he termed the logos is the "meaning" of that which exists and "... still higher than truth is God, or to put it more truly - God is Truth." 

This seems to me another version of the old proposal that what we perceive as order demands someone to make or constitute the order. This argument begs a number of questions, such as, "Is there order?"; "Might order be accidental?"; "If the infinite is concealed, how do you know its there?" and "Is it possible to perceive something which is infinite?" 

In addition, order in the sense that Berdyaev uses the term is, in the last resort, purely a human invention. If you or I were not observing nature, would it make sense to say that nature is ordered? The idea of order depends upon the notion of classification. If nature has nobody to classify aspects of it, the entire idea of order doesn't apply.

Berdyaev must have known of Einstein's discovery of the space/time continuum. If he hadn't been intent on creating a self-referencing metaphysics, he might have recognised the difficulties his system raised. Even the words " before" and "after" or "seen" and "unseen" suggest order - though none properly refers to space-time but rests on the supposition that time is a dimension independent of space. 

There's a real sense, then, that the interpolation of the word "God" into such an argument is an extended device to assert some sort of ultimate order independent of ourselves. I doubt if we can know what is required to draw the conclusion that behind "order" in the universe there lies a supreme "order" which requires us to be theocentric. If information about this supreme order is available, Berdyaev doesn't give it to us.

What then of truth as information or "objective" science? If we create order, in what sense is it possible to apprehend "truth"? Berdyaev thought that what are often termed objective or a priori truths have no meaning. The statement "all bodies expand when heated" and the a priori truth 2+2 = 4, for example, contain no logos or meaning. They are "... truth with a small letter." So the confidence that scientific objectivity can provide any sort of ultimate knowledge is a false philosophy ("scientism"). Such truth can have no meaning because "Truth is not objective, it is subjective ... removed from that superficial subjectivity which stands in opposition to objectivity." 

So, he thought, there are "primary" and "secondary" worlds. The primary world is existential and leads to Truth with a capital T. In the secondary or "objectified world" Truth is broken up through the process of analysis into "a multitude of truths" with a small t.

Berdyaev has been called the philosopher of freedom, for he was preoccupied with the liberation of personality from all that inhibits free creativity. Perhaps this concern derived from his bitter experience with the illusory freedoms of Bolshevik Russia, especially under Joseph Stalin. Berdyaev distinguishes between reason and cognition. The former is universal, unchanging and always true to its nature. The latter is supposed to be a purely intellectual act, but in reality is "emotional and passionate ... a spiritual struggle for meaning ... in every true philosopher".

In my view Berdyaev's distinction between reason and cognition is false - though it appears to be congruent with the rest of his thought. He achieves the distinction mainly by a mechanical definition of reason as an absolute or near absolute. He calls reason "universal" and "unchanging". This distinction is necessary if his division between subjective and objective, between primary and secondary is to be maintained. I think he describes cognition accurately. It certainly is not a "pure" intellectual process, but subject to huge actual and potential distortions through emotional bias, learned perceptions and misinterpretation of information from our environment.

The result of this distortion and bias is that no two people perceive their environment in exactly the same way. They may have greater or lesser areas of perceptual overlap - but cannot, it seems, attain perfect overlap. That is, if you like, "raw" cognition is inevitably processed through unique perceptual systems. 

How does one check for perceptual distortion in such a situation? One way is to receive feedback from our environment in terms of agreed standards - social, interpersonal and the like. The feedback tells one if one matches these standards. But cognition in our world extends further. We have devised a way of agreeing about the nature of the universe by what is broadly called "the scientific method". It's imperfect, imperfectly used and subject to paradigmatic steps or leaps of interpretation. But it has altered cognition in the human race for ever.

In this context, reason is not a "thing" but a process. It is the way we think, not the thought itself. In other words, Berdyaev has made the error of objectifying reason.

The human struggle for meaning is a creative process, which Berdyaev terms "spirit". What really matters to us all is knowledge acquired via that 

... emotional and volitional tension [which] is attributable to the spirit as a whole ... knowledge is a creative activity, not a passive reflection of things ... the very existence of meaning presupposes a creative condition of spirit.

We as subjects (complete persons or spirits) do the metaphysics. We discover knowledge. Answers lie within us, subjectively derived through the creative process - not "in" or "from" the object of knowledge. I suppose that this implies what has developed into the so-called postmodern outlook, in which all meaning is imposed by us on the world around.

This concern for creativity through freedom led him to struggle against a "collectivized and mechanized society", envisioning instead a community in which religious, social, and political relations would enhance personal freedom. His antagonism towards a collectivised society derived from his stand that the individual ego realises its potential in a relationship with others. When that potentiality is realised, the partly-formed individual becomes a "person". A society which furthers such development is a "communality" (sobornost in Russian).

Thus society's purpose, says Berdyaev, should be founded on the existence and maintenance of the creatively free individual.

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