Real Conservatism

Today, many nations are revising their moral values and ethical norms, eroding ethnic traditions and differences between peoples and cultures. Society is now required not only to recognise everyone’s right to the freedom of consciousness, political views and privacy, but also to accept without question the equality of good and evil, strange as it seems, concepts that are opposite in meaning. This destruction of traditional values from above not only leads to negative consequences for society, but is also essentially anti-democratic, since it is carried out on the basis of abstract, speculative ideas, contrary to the will of the majority, which does not accept the changes occurring or the proposed revision of values.

We know that there are more and more people in the world who support our position on defending traditional values that have made up the spiritual and moral foundation of civilisation in every nation for thousands of years: the values of traditional families, real human life, including religious life, not just material existence but also spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity.

Of course, this is a conservative position. But speaking in the words of Nikolai Berdyaev, the point of conservatism is not that it prevents movement forward and upward, but that it prevents movement backward and downward, into chaotic darkness and a return to a primitive state.

Vladimir Putin, in his recent Address to the Federal Assembly

Law and duty, grace and love

Immanuel Kant, in his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, formulated an ethics of duty in which each person is to do only that which fits the criteria of his “categorical imperative”: “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” According to Kant, this is the means by which a consistent basis for action and thought can be developed. It is also the means by which we can fulfill the imperative to treat each person as an end rather than as a means to some other or higher end.

Perhaps the greatest challenge ever raised to Kant’s philosophy of ethics is the short exchange of letters he had with Maria von Herbert, a devoted follower of his philosophy. Following the Kantian ethic, Herbert had revealed to her lover, a partner with whom she was deeply in love, a truth about a previous act which she had previously hid from him. As a result of this revelation, her lover had left her. Herbert, in despair, then wrote to Kant asking for his advice. His reply is that she has fulfilled her ethical duty and should be satisfied with that even if the outcome was not what she had desired. Herbert wrote back, asking Kant if she could visit him, ostensibly so that she could see what it looked like for him to live out his philosophy and whether it made his life indeed a good one. He did not reply. Later, Herbert committed suicide. As Rae Langton points out in her recounting of these letters and assessment of their meaning, Kant “thinks we should rely on God to make it all right in the end. But God will not make it all right in the end.” In other words, the fundamental flaw in Kant’s philosophy is that, as with any ethic that is entirely rigid and refuses to accommodate itself to individual circumstances and the complexities of real life, it must invent an imaginary means by which everything will work out for the best in the end. The imaginary “invisible hand” invented by Adam Smith, which will ensure, in spite of the obviously troubled mathematics and physics involved, that a capitalist system creates the greatest wealth for the greatest number, is another example of such figments of the imagination and their necessity in rigid ethical systems. Just as Kant used his notion of God making everything right if everyone follows their duty to refuse to help Herbert, so Smith’s “invisible hand” continues to be used to justify refusing to render aid to the poor.

A similar idea is also found in a non-Western context in the Indian spiritual classic the Bhagavad Gita. In that work, Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, explains to Arjuna, a warrior who is wavering in the fulfillment of his duty on the battlefield, that God makes all things right in the end and that each person must fulfill their duty according to their station in life. With this as his argument, Krishna continually exhorts Arjuna to enter into battle and do his duty as a warrior. In fact, this idea of morality as duty is perhaps one of the most widespread and pervasive ethical ideas, present to a greater or lesser degree in nearly all systems of thought in nearly all times and places, and it suffers from the same flaws wherever and in whatever forms it exists.

Nikolai Berdyaev is one of the few modern thinkers who have offered a meaningful critique of this nearly omnipresent system of ethical legalism and proposed a viable alternative in a system that might be termed an ethics of mysticism. Drawing on the New Testament and the ideas of especially the Greek-speaking Church Fathers as well as modern existentialist thought, Berdyaev posited an ethics of creative participation in the divine plan for the cosmos. Rather than merely following a set of commands, according to Berdyaev, man is called upon to exercise his own inherent creativity to cooperate with God in the ongoing process of creation and redemption. Ironically, in positing such a system of ethics, Berdyaev is essentially calling upon all people to develop the “holy will” which Kant says is not bound to obey the law because “ought is here out of place, because the volition is already of itself necessarily in unison with the law.” In a similar vein of thought, Augustine once asserted, “love, then do what you will.” The fault of both Kant and Augustine was that neither explored this theme further but each instead, in opposition to the trajectory of the thought of St. Paul and many of the other great mystics of the Christian tradition (as well as other spiritual traditions), chose to formulate yet another ethical system of law and duty rather than grace and love.

Understanding the Church

The Church cannot be understood when seen merely from the outside; it cannot be rationally defined, or reduced to concepts. The Church can only be understood by those who live within it. Its life must actually be experienced, for it is not a reality of the external kind. Its intrinsic nature cannot be apprehended by those who stand apart from it. The Church is not a temple built of stone, neither is it a community of believers, nor a parish consisting of human beings, nor yet an institution juridically determined — though all these things are elements in its composition. It does not possess definite limits and external marks which determine its inner nature and differentiate it from the rest of existence. The Church possesses physical, psychical, and social elements, yet none of these define its nature. The Church is not a tangible substance belonging to the world of visible things, nor is it an empirical reality analogous to that of minerals, plants, or animals. It belongs to the world of invisible things which can only be demonstrated by faith, for it is an inner reality.

Nikolai Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, p. 328

Christian origins of progress

We rightly criticize that theory of progress in which may be seen a false religion seeking to substitute itself for Christianity.

But it is necessary to remember that the idea of religious progress is Christian in origin and that it is only a secularized and distorted version of the Messianic idea of the Christian search for the Kingdom of God. The idea of progress belongs to the sphere of religious teleology which regards history as having an absolute meaning and goal. Seen from the angle of positivism this idea is in reality void of all interest and presents an obvious contradiction. Positivism has no room for a conception of evolution save one which has neither goal nor meaning. This is a long-established an elementary truth. But insufficient attention is paid to the fact that the idea of progress, that is to say, of movement, of the march of history towards an absolute and supreme goal, has only been made possible by Christianity, and that the idea could never have arisen in ancient Greece.

Nikolai Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, pp. 303-4

Man’s hunger for God, God’s hunger for man

In spiritual experience we see man’s hunger for God. The human soul searches for a higher being, a return to the source of life and to he native land of the spirit. Human life becomes truly terrible when there ceases to be anything above man and when there is no place for the mystery of the divine and infinite. It is then that the medium of non-being becomes apparent. The image of man is defaced when the image of God is obliterated from the human soul. Man in seeking for God seeks for himself and for his own humanity. The human soul suffers the pangs of God’s birth within it. This birth of God in the human soul is the true birth of man. It is nothing else than the movement of God towards him and an answer to his own hunger for God. But it is only one of the aspects of this original religious phenomenon, to which there is another side and in which another movement is involved.

Spiritual experience also shows us that God longs for man and that He yearns for the birth of man who shall reflect His image. The great mystics in describing the spiritual life have spoken of this longing of the Divine for the human, for it is in mysticism rather than theology that this mystery is expressed. The primordial idea in man is the idea of God which is the theme of humanity, just as man is the theme of God. Infinite love cannot exist without a loving subject and a loved object. The birth of man in God is the answer to divine aspiration, the movement from man towards God.

Nikolai Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, pp. 196-7

Theodicy and Liberty

The existence of evil is a problem for theodicy, for the justification of God. Why does God allow this terrible evil to exist, and why does He suffer it to triumph? The whole world is full of discord and bloodshed. Satan and not God seems to be its master. Where then is the activity of divine providence? We may remember the argument of Ivan Karamazov about a child’s tears which ended in his refusal to accept a passport to universal harmony. The Euclidean spirit which refuses to grasp the irrational mystery of life claims to make a better world than that which has been created by God, a purely rational world in which there would be neither evil nor suffering. The man who is possessed by this Euclidean spirit cannot conceive why God did not create a happy world without sin and incapable of evil. But the “good” human world of the Euclidean spirit is distinguished from the “bad” divine world by the complete absence of freedom which does not form part of its original design, and man in this case would be nothing but a good automaton. The absence of freedom would have made evil and suffering impossible, and man is ready to give up his liberty in order to be finally delivered from his pain. In the Euclidean world there would be no more free trial or unfettered search. The world that God has created is full of evil, it is true, but at its heart there lies the greatest of all goods, namely the freedom of the spirit which shows that man bears the divine image. Freedom is the only answer to the problem of justifying God. The problem of evil is the problem of liberty. Without an understanding of liberty we cannot grasp the irrational fact of the existence of evil in a divine world. There is in the very origin of the world an irrational freedom which is grounded in the void, in that abyss from which the dark stream of life issues forth and in which every sort of possibility is latent. These unfathomable depths of being which are prior both to good and evil are incapable of final rationalization, for there is always within them the possibility of an influx of new and obscure forces. While it is true that the Logos brings light in place of darkness and that the harmony of the cosmos replaces chaos, yet apart from the dark abyss of chaos there would be neither life nor liberty, nor indeed any meaning in the process of evolution. The dwelling-place of freedom is the abyss of darkness and nothingness, and yet part from freedom everything is without meaning. It is the source of evil as well as of good. Thus the fact of evil does not imply that all is meaningless; on the contrary, it actually establishes the existence of meaning. Freedom is not created because it is not a part of nature; it is prior to the world and has its origin in the primal void. God is All-powerful in relation to being but not in relation to nothingness and to freedom; and that is why evil exists.

Nikolai Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, p. 159-60