Other relevant keywords: Atheism, Apologetics, Rationality, Solovyov
Aleksandr Men (1935–1990)
Aleksandr Men was the most prominent Russian Christian Orthodox thinker of the 1970–80s. He was baptized along with his mother into the Orthodox Church by a priest who was a member of the Russian Catacomb Church—often called the “Russian True Orthodox Church,” and which remained underground from the late 1920s to the end of the Soviet period. In the late 1950s, when the persecutions of Christians under Khrushchev became especially violent, he made up his mind to become a priest and was ordained in 1960. What was unusual about Men was that, during a time when the Soviet intelligentsia was enthusiastic about the resurgence of Marxism and the prospects of political liberalization, not only did he, a member of that same intelligentsia, enter the priesthood, but also remained actively engaged in all kinds of cultural and intellectual activities. His versatility echoes that of the priest Pavel Florensky, an outstanding Orthodox thinker of the early twentieth century who died in one of Stalin’s concentration camps. More remarkable still was Men’s missionary work, which was almost unheard of among Orthodox priests, since in prerevolutionary times Orthodoxy had enjoyed the official sanction of the state, and during the Soviet period was forbidden, which rendered proselytization practically impossible. For over two decades, Men practiced his missionary work surreptitiously and under the oppressive scrutiny of the KGB. It was only with the arrival of perestroika that he emerged as the most prominent preacher in Russia, making many public addresses and appearing frequently on television. Men’s rise in popularity brought him the corresponding antipathy of nationalist and conservative Orthodox circles, for whom his Jewish origin and his openness to ecumenical movements made him an object of suspicion and hatred. On September 9, 1990, he was assassinated while walking to Church to serve the Sunday liturgy. His martyrdom intensified the spiritual impact of his message, which was most strongly felt among the Moscow intelligentsia, thousands of whom had converted to Orthodoxy on the basis of his erudite and persuasive sermons and books.
Christianity as Historical Synthesis
Men was an extremely prolific writer, whose life was devoted to the completion of a project he had conceived in his youth: a seven-volume treatise on the religious evolution of humankind, titled In Search of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. In its scope and consistency, this work is a unique phenomenon, not only in Russia, but worldwide. Its subject matter spans the whole history of world religion prior to Christianity and encompasses various religions of the East and West, including primitive animism and magism, pagan cults of Greece and Rome, Indian and Chinese religions, and the faith of the Bible prophets. For Men, Christianity is not so much opposed to these “false” religions, but should be viewed as the crowning synthesis of their many trials and insights. “In Christianity, a long worldwide historical process of humanity’s religious quest found consummation” (Men’, Istoriia religii 1:9). Thus Christianity may be appropriately understood not only in the narrow historical context of Judaism and Hellenism, but against the backdrop of the whole history of world religion. Men explains the purpose of his magnum opus: “[T]he entire cycle can be regarded as an attempt at religious-philosophical and historical synthesis” (1:11). Men’s treatment of these diverse traditions is marked by a profound sympathy, as he endeavors to find within each the core of authentic religious experience, rather than disparage them, as would the conventional Orthodox approach, as perverse or mistaken. At the same time, Men manages to maintain his Orthodox values, refusing to water down his own firm commitment with syncretic or pantheistic ambivalence. Moreover, he believes that Christianity, in spite of its two thousand years of history, is still in the early stages of a ferment that will transform the world. Christianity retains too many pre-Christian prejudices, such as authoritarian intolerance, abstract otherworldliness, and ritualistic formalism and dogmatism. Christianity has a great religious history behind it and even greater historical perspectives ahead. To study the history of religion, therefore, means both to recognize Christianity’s debt to its spiritual predecessors and to project into the future a refined Christianity that will increasingly begin to discover its own unique nature.
Religion and Science
Men’s discursive strategy is unusual for an Orthodox scholar, as he relies heavily on contemporary science. Citing abundantly from outstanding figures in the fields of physics, biology, medicine, paleontology, and archeology, Men tailors his arguments to an audience educated in scientific atheism. For him, nature is as revelatory a text as the Bible. Thus does Men cite deficiencies in Darwin’s theory of evolution to emphasize the inordinately rapid development of the human species, which, in this view, cannot be accounted for by natural selection. He also seeks to overturn the Freudian explanation of religion as suppressed desire, suggesting that this sort of explanation would be more appropriately applied to such atheistic cults as those that surrounded Stalin and Mao—expressions of a suppressed desire for communion with God (1:15).
Among the sciences that Men treated as a natural source of revelation, anthropology and paleontology were most important for him, because, since Marx and Darwin, these disciplines offered some of the most persuasive arguments against religion. The Marxist conception of man (as opposed to animal) as in effect a product of labor seems contradictory to Men, who cites Engels on the subject: “An animal only uses external nature … whereas man, through the changes he introduces into nature, makes her serve his goals, dominates her. This is the last essential difference between man and other animals, and by this difference man is also obliged to labor” (Men’, Istoriia religii 1: 98). Men finds here a vicious circle: if a man has his own conscious goals which his labor serves, then without these goals there is no genuine labor. Marx himself observed that the result of labor is present ideally in the mind of the laborer before it is achieved in practice, as distinct from bees or spiders. This means that consciousness precedes labor and is not its product. Thus, a purely economic approach to the phenomenon of human civilization is insufficient for the task of explaining the advent of consciousness, which requires a religious interpretation.
Men’s theological interests were multifarious. One of his books, Sacrament, Word, and Image, deals with the rituals of the Orthodox liturgy. Another, How to Read the Bible, concerns the process of scriptural exegesis. His last completed work was a three-volume Bibliological Dictionary, an encyclopedia of biblical scholarship that contains 1,790 entries on biblical theology and criticism, prominent theologians and scholars, Church writers and historians, and translators and publishers. Compiled from an Orthodox point of view, the dictionary, on which Men worked for over a decade, takes into account all the achievements of modern biblical scholarship.
Church and the World
Men recognized the existence of thousands of “anonymous Christians,” or those who behave according to Christian morality without expressly professing a religious allegiance. However, he firmly believed in the necessity of explicit conversion, since, when it comes to faith, both extreme liberalism and extreme conservatism represent stumbling blocks on the road to God. On the one hand, conservative intolerance precludes the possibility of embracing all souls, while on the other, overly liberal standards for worship may gloss over the need for spiritual growth and commitment. A conservative standard locates God exclusively within the Church, thus denying the relevance of secular disciplines for the attainment of religious enlightenment. But a liberal standard is also detrimental, insofar as its relativism prevents it from recognizing that certain paths to God are more revealing than others. Although Men sought to find a middle ground between these poles, the predominant conservative tendency in Orthodoxy made him seem like an extreme liberal. Men did not want to efface the distinction between the Church and the world, but he did hope to broaden the scope of the Church in order that it might accommodate the best achievements of culture and science. To his followers, who in the fever of newfound faith attempted to abandon their prestigious secular professions in favor of “simple” labor, like yard maintenance or domestic work, he preached the value of cultural achievement and scientific advancement as important ways of knowing God. His ideal was an “open Church,” reuniting all branches of Christianity and embracing the secular treasures of humanity.
Another point of departure from convention was his emphasis on spiritual joy over suffering. Men himself was often accused by detractors of being too joyful, but, in his view, this optimism was not merely a matter of personal disposition but was the best mode of Christian life. Christ suffered and died on the cross not so that his followers would continue to suffer after him, but to release them from the pain of sin and retribution and endow them with the joy of liberation. Sorrow is indicative of an incomplete understanding of the Christian message of love, redemption, and resurrection. Joy is Christ’s gift to humanity and is indispensable to true faith.
Apologetics and Rationality: The Problem of Evil and Theodicy
Despite the diversity of his interests, Men’s central preoccupation was not liturgy or exegesis, but apologetics. Historically, this theological discipline was superseded with the ascendency of Christianity as a world religion; however, in Soviet Russia it acquired a renewed importance, since most of the population was brought up in a climate of atheism. Men declared very definitely that the existence of God cannot be argued rationally, but he employed every possible historical and scientific angle to argue the compatibility of religious belief with a rational worldview. He identified his position as “mysticism grounded in common sense.” For him, the greatest achievement of reason is the recognition of its own limitations. Thus, Men identifies two varieties of reason: one specific and instrumental; the other comprehensive, in that it contains its own self-criticism. This latter “Great Reason,” which recognizes the domain of intuition, is the foundation of theological knowledge.
The essential difference between philosophy and dogmatic symbols must be kept in mind. Although philosophy relies on intuition, formally … it deals with ideas, not realities. The dogmatic symbol is a different matter. It cannot be deduced by the intellect, though it is expressed in the language of concepts. This is why those who ascribe the creation of the Orthodox credo to Greek rationalism are deeply mistaken…. In general, fundamental Christian dogmas are marked by intrinsic contradictions, paradoxes, and antinomies that cannot be done away with by the methods of formal logic. If the dogmas were the fruits of philosophical speculation, they would be free of these contradictions. (Istoriia religii, 1: 77)
One such contradiction can be stated as follows: if God is perfect, then why did He create an imperfect world? In answering this question, Men applies the Christian concept of kenosis, or self-emptying, which is close to the Judaic notion of God’s self-contraction.
Christianity teaches that any act of God in His relationship to the world is His self-restriction or, as the Fathers of the Church used to say, the “belittling” of the Absolute. It is kenosis that leaves room for the freedom of creatures…. The only thing that lies beyond any explanation is the impulse for resistance to God; it is irrational by its nature. (81)
Thus God’s primary qualities are generosity and self-sacrifice, first demonstrated in the act of creation and then with the deliberate martyrdom of his only son. Evil, then, is born of the abuse of the freedom granted to people by God, and an evil act is therefore a matter of taking advantage of God’s generosity. What was bestowed upon humanity as a gift, is mistakenly asserted as the unlimited license for egoistic self-assertion and self-aggrandizement.
According to Men, there are two principal non-Christian metaphysics of evil. The first, a monistic, Hinduist conception, ascribes evil to the Absolute itself, which creates a world of illusion because of its own deficiencies; these will be eliminated only at the end of time. The second is a dualistic, Manichaean model, which asserts the primordial coexistence of equally powerful good and evil divinities, neither of whom can be Absolute. Men argues that Christianity recognizes the partial validity of both conceptions, but situates evil not within God, nor in some anti-God, but in the sphere of creation. By endowing his creatures with free will, the generous God opens the possibility for evil action, but at the same time the possibility of its elimination through the autonomous commitment of these free beings. Thus evil can be understood only in the dynamic process of its rise and fall, which comprises the meaning of human history. The principal distinction of Christianity is that it looks at evil not as a self-sufficient substance, but as a moment of human self-determination that opens the historic perspective of it gradual overcoming.
Arguments against Atheism and Materialism
Men supported the concept of “ur-monotheism” (in Russian, pramonoteizm; in German, Urmonotheismus), which was outlined by Vladimir Solovyov and elaborated in detail by Wilhelm Schmidt (1880–1954) in his twelve-volume treatise The Origin of the Idea of God. Contrary to the conventional view that monotheism arose on the bones of polytheism, the theory of ur-monotheism concludes that even in the most primitive tribes, there is a vague idea of a unique and universal god. Schmidt provided abundant ethnographic evidence in support of this hypothesis. According to Men, this primordial monotheism was later distorted by a movement toward polytheism and magism, the belief that certain rituals can endow a person with the key to domination over nature and even over the gods themselves. This tendency evolved into the modern “religions” of materialism and technology, which also attempt to control nature and the human spirit through the implementation of certain technical or political procedures. Idol worship is the common feature of the paganist and materialist worldviews. “Primitive paganism created the prototype of the totalitarian structure” (1:164). Even the most sophisticated atheist cannot do without creating other gods to replace the single God he rejects, because the need for belief is deeply ingrained in human nature. Atheism engenders its own beliefs, for example, the cult of heroes and leaders, the concepts of goodness and justice, etc., but considers them subjective predispositions ungirded by any spiritual reality. In Men’s view, no one would contest that our bodily necessities derive from objective facts—thirst is not something purely subjective, but relates to the material existence of water. Thus if man has for millennia strived to find good, beauty, and something higher than himself, would it be correct to identify such aspirations with self-deception, or is there some invisible reality that corresponds to this spiritual thirst?
Men refutes the arguments usually cited by materialists against religion. One of these maintains that the immortality of spirit beyond the body is difficult to visualize and cannot be confirmed by experiment. But even for rigorous science, which constructs an abstract world of numerals and elementary particles, the non-visualization argument does not hold up. Another argument is a moral one, which insists that belief in another world weakens human will, distracting people from their earthly destination. However, very few holy books devote much space to discussions of the beyond, but instead focus on one’s activities in this world, the importance of which are intensified by their definitive implications for one’s posthumous fate. A third argument holds that faith in immortality is only a consolation invented because of the human fear of death. Men responds by saying that death as nonbeing holds no fear, and to the contrary, such religious versions of the afterlife as were held in the ancient East or Greece were full of horror and could in no way be confused with consolations. Religion is not designed to sweeten human life, but rather to awaken it from the temptations of temporary illusion, to foreground the far more frightening true reality. This is why, according to Men, most of the greatest thinkers and scientists, from Plato to Bergson to Teilhard de Chardin, attempted to clarify the human mind in order to substantiate the idea of immortality.
God and the World: Creationism and Evolutionism
Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), the Catholic philosopher, priest, and paleontologist who founded contemporary Christian evolutionism, is probably the figure closest to Men in twentieth-century religious philosophy. Men is primarily attracted to Teilhard’s synthesis of theology and the natural sciences and his conception of the incessant evolution of the world from elementary physical structures, through the biological and psychological refinement of living matter, and finally to the “omega point” of highest complexity and spirituality. God’s love is the spiritual center of the universe and is both its teleological and material cause. Characteristically for an Orthodox thinker, however, Men finds some flaws in this comprehensive model of cosmogenesis.
First of all, the creative energy of matter, which in Teilhard is immanently imbued with divine energies, leaves room for pantheistic interpretations and does not sufficiently explain the radical distinction between the world and God. Evolutionism should not substitute for creationism, which presupposes the primordial transcendence of God vis-à-vis the universe, and the latter’s creation from nothingness. Secondly, this immanentism has a tendency to ignore the moral problem of evil, since if God’s will is present in the entirety of living matter and in all stages of human evolution, then evil must either be attributable to God (which is contrary to his definition) or excluded altogether from the divine plan of evolution.
For his part, Teilhard explains evil as the marginal effect of “the game of large quantities,” that is, the overall scheme of evolution cannot help victimizing various particular individuals. This naturalistic interpretation of evil as an element of chaos in the increasing harmony of the universe misses the decisive point of Christian ethics: free will. According to Men, evil should be explained in moral rather than natural terms, as the consequence of primordial sin and man’s deliberate fall from grace. Again, Christian theology, however receptive it is to the natural sciences and the concept of evolution, preserves its Orthodox authenticity only by positing the radical difference of God from the world and of man from God. The world was created by God and thus remains distinct from God, with the freedom to challenge his will; creationism, as an ontological conception, is, therefore, necessarily connected with the moral conception of primordial sin.
Men’s own thinking vacillates between the evolutionary mode, so attractive in terms of naturalistic theodicy, and the creationist mode, which is far more compatible with the principles of Orthodox ethics. At the same time, he finds a characteristically Orthodox concept that can be related to evolutionism, remarking that “Teilhard is very close to those Orthodox thinkers who regarded the whole world as a Theophany (a manifestation of God)” (Men’, “O Teiare de Shardene” 101). Another Orthodox concept that Men relates to Chardin is theosis or “deification,” which in the teachings of the Eastern Church fathers designates the spiritual path of the transformation of human nature and the revelation of divine nature within it. Theophany and theosis are the two complementary processes by which God and man encounter one another. The two natures, however, should not be confused; there exists an impassable boundary between them, which can be explicated in the traditional Orthodox distinction between God’s essence and God’s energies. While essence is absolutely transcendental and remains hidden from the world, energies act in the world and organize its material structure. Theophany, therefore, cannot be separated from kenosis: as God manifests himself, his energy, in the world, his divine essence is progressively drained, sacrificially emptied. In other words, we cannot perceive the relationship between God and the world except through the figure of Christ, the God-man who manifested the godhead in the world and emptied his divine nature through suffering and crucifixion. The ontological problem cannot be divorced from the ethical one: the manifestation of God in the world is simultaneously an act of creation (with respect to the first hypostasis, the Father) and an act of suffering and sacrifice (in the hypostasis of the Son). Creation and suffering, theophany and kenosis, are indivisible and incommensurable, like the two hypostases of God, or like the Old and New Testaments.
It would be difficult to single out in Men’s legacy one particularly original idea that could be made the foundation of a coherent system. His teachings centered not on an idea but the living and holistic experience of Christ, and he sought to marshal every idea that could convey this experience. In this he was similar to his spiritual teacher, Vladimir Solovyov, to whom he dedicated his magnum opus on the history of religions. The following description of Solovyov, made by his friend the philosopher Nikolai Trubetskoi, is equally applicable to Men as well: “He is a Christian believer, but this doesn’t keep him from finding elements of positive revelation, not only in Islam, but also in all kinds of pagan religions of the East and West. A philosopher-mystic, he nevertheless valorizes the relative truth contained in rationalist and empiricist teachings” (Trubetskoi, Mirosozertsanie Vl. S. Solov’eva 27-28).
Aleksandr Men’s theological synthesis may become an inspirational impetus for the new ecumenical life of Orthodox Christianity, just as the philosophical synthesis of Vladimir Solovyov served the same ecumenical goals at the end of the nineteenth century. From the mid-1980s on, Men was by far the most popular and influential Christian leader and preacher in Russia. He was one of the founders of the Russian Bible Society in 1990, the Open Orthodox University, and the journal The World of the Bible. Dozens of books have been devoted to his life and legacy, many of them memoirs written by his disciples and godchildren (see, in particular: Wallace, Russia’s Uncommon Prophet).
In one of his essays, Aleksandr Men reminds readers that Peter the Great, despite all his worldly power over the largest country in the world, suffered from a phobia of open spaces. “He built himself tiny little rooms. There is an illness like that—the fear of open spaces. In the history of religion, there is also this fear of open spaces” (Men, Christianity for the Twenty-First Century 167). Men worked for just the opposite purpose: to overcome this dogmatic fear, to make the space of Christianity as open as possible to Russia and the world.
Mikhail Epstein, December 2020
Men, Alexander. Christianity for the Twenty-First Century: The Prophetic Writings of Alexander Men. Ed. and trans. Elizabeth Roberts and Ann Shukman. London: Continuum, 1996.
—. Son of Man: The Story of Christ and Christianity. Trans. Samuel Brown. Huntsville: Oakwood Publications, 1998.
—. The Wellsprings of Religion. Vol. 1 of The History of Religion: In Search of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Trans. Alasdair MacNaughton. Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2018.
Men’, Fr. Aleksandr. Russian Religious Philosophy: 1989–1990 Lectures. Trans. Fr. S. Janos. Mohrsville, PA: Frsj Publications, 2015.
Men’, Protoierei Aleksandr. Bibliologicheskii slovar’. Moscow: Fond imeni Aleksandra Menia, 2002. Available electronically: https://imwerden.de/pdf/men_bibliologihesky_slovar_tom1_2002.pdf; https://imwerden.de/pdf/men_bibliologihesky_slovar_tom2_2002.pdf; https://imwerden.de/pdf/men_bibliologihesky_slovar_tom3_2002.pdf. Accessed Dec. 8, 2020.
—. Istoriia religii v 7 tomakh.V poiskakh puti, istiny i zhizni. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Sovetsko-Britanskogo sovmestnogo predpriiatiia SLOVO, 1991. [Most volumes of this seven-volume treatise were first published in Brussels by the “Zhizn’ s Bogom” publishing house under Men’s pseudonym of E. Svetlov.]
—. “O Teiare de Shardene.” Voprosy filosofii 12 (1990): 89-102.
Trubetskoi, Nikolai. Mirosozertsanie Vl. S. Solov’eva. Moscow: Izdanie avtora, 1913.
Wallace, Daniel.Russia’s Uncommon Prophet: Father Aleksandr Men and His Times. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2016.