by Andrea Elizabeth
Now I’m caught up, having finished the rest of day 10 and day 11 of The Bulgakov Conference, I read 12 previous to the rest (link in the previous post). Day 11 compares Augustine to Bulgakov and that put me in a defensive state, which the author could also be in. I’ll just, as dispassionately as possible, reiterate one of the criticisms in my last post, that there is a confusion in Augustine and perhaps in Bulgakov’s Sophiology between created and uncreated, and the humility required of the former to not only keep from prelest, but theoretical annihilation into Divine Simplicity.
In defense of Sophia, not having read Bulgakov’s works except the parts which are quoted by very engaged commentators who seem to agree with each other (I like discussions from multiple people because I think individual biases and passions get better sifted out, which is why I like the internet. Back to defense of Sophia), I think Bulgakov is valuable because he speaks of intimate relationship, kenotic love, and what was intended for our fallen, now buried in sin, nature. Sophia’s union of the divine and creaturely seems to me a poetic expression of the union in the person of Christ of His divine and human natures. The feminine personification of wisdom in Sophia also speaks to the union of divine and human accomplished through theosis, most evident in our greatest human Saint, Mary, the Theotokos. I get lost when it is described in more abstract and novel ways, but when I think of Christ and His Mother, I believe I gain an understanding of the beautiful, loving, intended relationship that is possible between God and man, which strict theological language can make too dry. Yet a foundation in the dogmatic proclamations of the Church, especially Chalcedon, and the explanations of Sts. Maximus and Gregory Palamas, is a necessary prerequisite so that one does not go off the deep end with this stuff.
Another thing about Sophia and other treatments of female personifications of wisdom and beauty by Dante and others, which I’ve barely studied, is that such a device, if it is not literal, builds a more normal human relationship than abstract concepts do. I read recently in Father John Romanides’ Patristic Theology that Hebrew tradition describes truths metaphorically with natural elements like rocks and rivers, and that the early Church described truths mostly through concepts using philosophical language. These both point to the difficulty of description that has to employ alternate means of communication. “Sophia” is a more direct thing that seems more accurate or containable than metaphor or allegory. But since there isn’t a forth person of the Trinity and she is more about the border (semi-permeable membrane?) between the created and uncreated, then I think it is safer to think of Mary, yet call her Sophia because the description is second-hand, to avoid presumption. The only way to say it is an accurate depiction of Mary would be to draw from Patristic witness, and since some of it would not apply, it can be criticized as speculation. About the charge of speculation in regards to Bulgakov, which I believe Romanides makes, btw, I do not discount that Sophia is based on supernatural encounter, as I believe he had a feminine visitation, that seems to my inexperience and lack of thorough memory and study, to be similar to Dante’s. I know that we are to be highly skeptical of stories of visitations, but when such love accompanies the description, it lends credibility, from my point of view. A lot of people’s “relationship” with Mary can be discounted as speculative. Indeed I think it is highly likely that impure imaginations and focus on the sensual aspects of loving femininity can distort and misdirect this relationship. This is why we need Orthodox icons, to show us the nature of Mary’s humanity, love, and relationship with Christ. The Church also guides us in our communication to her and the nature of her intentions toward us, loving intercession. Bulgakov invites us to take this further, and the Church cautions us against some of the inaccuracies, but at the same time, we are to grow in intimacy and love with God and His Saints. Perhaps it is safer to keep this relationship on the level of our human personhood, and the human personhood of Christ and the Saints, and not speculate about the interaction of the divine which is everywhere present and fills all things, beyond what the Church has revealed already. I know when I contemplate these things I can sort of get in an abstract mode of possibilities, and it seems I can neglect my own realities of fighting against my passions and loving my own family. Plus trying to get into mystical realities can get kind of weird. I trust more when the actual sunlight makes lovely patterns through the leaves or an interesting angle on the icons, to reveal that God is love, warmth, and light. I need actual physical manifestations, though they can be deceptive too. But I think personal love is such a deeply recognizable thing, that as long as it is in the context of the Church’s teachings, we can trust it. Feminine beauty though… I think it has been so misused in our generation especially, that we all, male and female, need to be retaught how to relate to it properly. And maybe reading Bulgakov, Dante and Donne would help.