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Spring Books

Sampling Bulgakov’s brilliance


By Myroslaw I. Tataryn
International Scholars Publications
183 pages, $47.50


The predominantly Western Christian nations that sent NATO bombs raining on Belgrade on Orthodox Easter of 1999 set Orthodox /Catholic relations back to 1204, when the Crusaders sacked Constantinople and vandalized the magnificent cathedral of St. Sophia. It is but one reminder of the extent to which contemporary events serve to feed a historically based Orthodox distrust of Western Christianity.

The past decade’s political events in Russia, Yugoslavia and the Middle East have raised tensions and aggravated old scars to open wide wounds old and new between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Even in the United States there are Orthodox isolationist movements decrying the political and spiritual influences of Catholicism and Protestantism on the Eastern church.

Author Myroslaw Tataryn, a priest of the Ukrainian Catholic church, is well aware of the divisions that still stand between Orthodoxy and Rome. It is just these divisions that inspired him to analyze the work of Russian émigré theologians who fled the Bolshevik revolution and helped establish the St. Sergius Institute in Paris in the 1920s. His analysis of how these theologians viewed the works of Augustine of Hippo, a seminal Western theologian, describes the attempts of the Russian church in diaspora to find common ground with the West on a deep theological level.

Tataryn, an associate professor of religious studies at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan, is well qualified for his task. His work is based on translations of French and Russian writings that have previously been inaccessible to English-speaking readers.

However, the book contains an obstacle course in the form of an overly ambitious historical overview. Tataryn’s second chapter attempts to cover both the 19th-century reception of Augustine in Russia and a description of the power struggles within the Russian church after the Bolshevik revolution. Each topic requires a book unto itself.

The truly valuable element comes when Tataryn settles into a description of the lively ecumenical spirit surrounding the founding of the St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris in 1924.

Paris in the 1920s and ’30s became the intellectual heart of Russian emigration, and Tataryn has focused on some of the brightest lights of the Russian Diaspora: George Fedotov, Sergei Bulgakov, Georges Florovsky, Vasilii Zenkovskii and Nikolai Berdiaev. Although many of these intellectuals had written about relations with the West while in Russia, in Paris these men daily found themselves living face to face with Western theology.

Orthodox theology developed outside of the Augustinian influence that so profoundly shaped Western Christianity. Orthodox concepts of sin, grace and freedom had developed as a slow consolidation of ideas from many church fathers, and these concepts are often in direct conflict with Western tenets. Because of this, the religious intellectuals of St. Sergius provide innovative insights into Augustine’s concepts of original sin, grace and human freedom, which have been problematic even for Western thinkers.

If these St. Sergius theologians were sometimes harshly critical of Augustine, they also appreciated his spiritual brilliance.

According to Tataryn, Sergei Bulgakov surpassed the others in his understanding and analysis of Augustinian theology’s depths. Bulgakov’s early book of essays Two Cities (Dva Grada) relied heavily on Augustine’s notions of an earthly and heavenly order. Later works by Bulgakov were sharply critical of Augustine’s limitations of human freedom, but the two writers shared a spiritual intensity that was a uniting factor. Although Bulgakov’s cutting-edge theology once inspired accusations of heresy, there is presently a resurgence of interest in his work by Russian religious scholars. This book gives English-speaking readers a sampling of Bulgakov’s brilliance.

As the West continues to produce volumes on Augustine, reviewing and rehashing his thought from the same perspective, Tataryn’s book gives us fresh insights provided by innovative Orthodox theologians. He also reveals the existence of a Russian Augustinian interest that could contribute greatly to the theological dialogue between East and West.

Melissa Jones is a freelance writer with advanced degrees in religious studies and Russian history. Her recent doctoral dissertation is titled “Augustine in Russia.” Her e-mail address is jonesma@worldnet.att.net

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001