Thomas Merton on Nikolai Berdyaev


The Trappist Thomas Merton (Br. Louis) read Berdiaev, Bulgakov, and Solov'ev in French in the 1950s. Below some of his comments on his reading of Berdiaev (from A SEARCH FOR SOLITUDE--vol. 3, journals for the years 1952-60). I apologize that I cannot include Merton's italics or the diacriticals for the French.

pp. 85-

Bulgakov and Berdyaev are writers of great, great attention. They are great men who will not admit the defeat of Christ who has conquered His resurrection. In their pages, for all the scandals one may fear to encounter, shines the light of the resurrection and theirs is a theology of triumph.

One wonders if our theological consciousness is not after all the sign of a fatal coldness of heart, an awful sterility born of fear, or of despair. These two men have dared to make mistakes and were to be condemned by every church, in order to say something great and worthy of God in the midst of all their wrong statements.They have dared to accept the challenge of the sapiential books,the challenge of the image of Proverbs where Wisdom is "playing in the world" before the face of the Creator. And the church herself says this.

Sophia was somehow, mysteriously, to be revealed and "fulfilled" in the Mother of God and in the Church.

Most important of all--man's creative vocation to prepare,consciously, the ultimate triumph of Divine Wisdom. Man, the microcosm,the heart of the universe, is the one who is called to bring about the fusion of cosmic and historic process in the final invocation of God's wisdom and love. In the name of Christ and by his power, man has a work to accomplish--to offer the cosmos to the Father, by the power of the Spirit, in the Glory of the Word. Our life is a powerful Pentecost in which the Holy Spirit, ever active in us, seeks to reach through our inspired hands and tongues into the very heart of the material world created to be spiritualized through the work of the Church, the Mystical Body of the Incarnate Word of God.

Yet one of Berdyaev's greatest mistakes is to reject the Gospel as incomplete and patristic theology as sterile. In wanting to free himself from limitations he fell into narrower limits. It is not a question of trying to find in the Gospel something that is not there. (Le sens de la creation, pp. 127 ff.) If he had followed St. Maximus the Confessor he would have found indeed that what he sought was in the Gospel--the "Absolute" Christ in whom all is reintegrated. This is the Christ of St.John--and of Paul's Epistles, especially those of the Captivity.It is not a question of being afraid to move forward unless every step can be fortified, by hook or crook, through Gospel texts. It is not a question of getting free from a "law of sin" and "Redemption which is in the Bible and finding some other law which is in man himself. If Berdyaev had looked more closely at the N.T. he would have seen that the New Law is precisely such a liberation. Christ having risen [is] no more. Man, once redeemed, is obliged to live in a new creation,according to the Law of the Spirit, the liberty of the sons of God--for such is the "law" of this new creation, written in the heart of man and not on tablets of stone.

Berdyaev is demanding--as Blake demanded--that man should truly find his liberty in Christ. He is aware that this indeed is the message of Christ. But has Christ some other message than the Gospel? Is it the Gospel's fault if those who have preached the Gospel have not always understood it?

He himself says clearly, "La creation est la marque de la liberte par rend l'homme semblable a Dieu--elle rend--dans L'Esprit."["Creation is the seal of liberty which makes a person like unto God--restored in the Spirit."] True. But it is false or, at least, misleading to say "C'est pourquoi elle depasse les limites des ecritures." {"That is why it (the Spirit) goes beyond the witness of the scriptures."] The Spirit is the fulfillment of all the scriptures, hence beyond their limits.But the whole promise is contained int he scriptures and it is false to speak of the Holy Spirit as something given to supplant that scriptures and not talked about in the scriptures. It is in the scriptures that we will receive the H. Spirit and it is totally false to speak of a "coming" or "anthropological" revelation that perfects the Gospel. What he is trying to say has been said better in the N.T. itself--by Colossians, Ephesians, etc.

If I can unite in myself, in my own spiritual life, the thought of the East and the West of the Greek and Latin Fathers, I will create in myself a reunion of the divided Church and from that unity in myself can come the exterior and visible unity of the Church. For if we want to bring together East and West we cannot do it by imposing one upon the other. We must contain both in ourselves and transcend both in Christ.

pp. 88-89:

Berdyaev, who is always so ready to offend pious ears with statements that are, as they stand, even heretical, had nevertheless profound insights into the real meaning of Christianity--insights which we cannot simply ignore. For instance--the view of the cosmos which is incomplete(which he calls the cosmos of the Old Testament)--

1. In this view God enclosed the creature in a rigid, inert, static system.

2. Man broke out of this by sin; dynamism begins with the Fall.

3. But all this must be stopped and Christ came to lead man back into the original intertia!

What a horrible picture, and yet how common among spiritual men. It is the theology of Lucifer.

The real view--or, at least, what B. sees is the real view.

1. By sin, man fell into the power of death, inertia, slavery to necessity.

2. Man is the image and likeness of God; man is supposed to witness the creative work of God--and how?

3. By union with God in Christ. God does not remain in heaven, a dictator and overseer. He becomes man in order that the creation should continue in God's manhood. "Jesus le Christ Dieu est terrible et ne pas etre expliquer." ["Jesus Christ is awe-inspiring and cannot be explained."]

4. The creation in 7 days of the O.T. must come out into the 8th day of the New Adam, the new creation, in which God and man together continue the work done by the Father.

The incarnation is absolutely crucial here (and here B is a real descendent of the Greek Fathers). It is in the Holy Spirit that man lives up to his true vocation as Son of God and creator (contrary to what B. says, this is the very heart of the New Testament if by creativity we mean the power of charity as a Source of Life. B. has not yet said clearly what he means by "creation" on man's part).Reading such things one is struck with compunction. Look at us!What are we doing? What have I done?