Achieving Synthesis Between Religious Studies and Sociology with Sergius Bulgakov

Aristotle’s cosmology is nothing but a sophiology, but a sophiology that is deprived of its trinitarian-theological foundation. This sophiology is a doctrine of divinity without God and apart from God, of divinity in place of God, in the capacity of God. We have said the same thing about Platonism as a theory of self-existent ideas, of Divine Sophia in herself. The entire difficulty and, in a certain sense, the impotence and indefensibility in this form of Plato’s theory of ideas consist in the separateness of the Divine Sophia from the creaturely Sophia as well as in the ungroundedness of the world of ideas.[1] Sergius Bulgakov

A doctrine of divinity without God or self-existent ideas absent divinity. Doesn’t this more or less cover the range of possibility within human thought and religion, absent Trinitarian reality? There is a separation focused, either on the transcendent or the creaturely. There is either Plato or Aristotle, Mircea Eliade or Peter Berger. Religion is either beyond study or it reduces to sociology. The dialectic may favor the transcendent or the immanent, the practical or the philosophical, the creaturely or divine, but there is an absolute separation, in which the divide is the constituting factor in the opposites. All that can be said never attains the essence of things, and one can focus on one or the other (the sayable or the essence). Sergius Bulgakov’s critique of Aristotelianism and Platonism might be stretched to roughly serve alternative approaches to religion. Bulgakov foresees modern religious studies and sociology, as founded by Mircea Eliade and Peter Berger (respectively), in that religion reduces to the absolutely transcendent and ineffable or it is fully explained by the sociological.

Eliade creates a unified category for study, not through any positive statement about the substance or content of religion, but by deeming all religion, in its essence, as that which is noumenal or sui generis. Eliade held that religious experience is distinct from historical pressures and influences and that religious experiences are their own cause and belong to their own unique category. Religion shares the Kantian characteristic of being beyond definition, yet all “religion” somehow pertains to what is most real. As I have described it (here), for religion to be an object of study, Eliade’s paradigm must be the case. If there is no unique essence to religion, then psychology, history, or sociology can explain religion.  The problem with Eliade’s paradigm is that a sui generis experience cannot be studied. By definition it is beyond study as it is distinct, it transcends historical, social, and psychological, causality and arises as its own cause.  Religious studies reduces to studying religion as the reaction and interpretation of an essence which is not itself open to examination.  This theoretical stance predetermines that the religious perspective is essentially free of social, economic, and political interference.  Religion arises from a reality which falls outside of historical factors and cultural values.  Even the psychological phenomena of religion are an after-effect of a reality that does not make itself directly available.

Here the problem is that of Platonism, in that there is no actual object to study, nothing in which to ground the study, as the essence of religion is completely removed from its manifestations. The articulation and striving of religious practices can only point toward its object, and there is no ground but only endless gesturing. In the words of Bulgakov, “The entire difficulty and, in a certain sense, the impotence and indefensibility in this form of Plato’s theory of ideas consist in the separateness of the Divine Sophia from the creaturely Sophia as well as in the ungroundedness of the world of ideas.”[2] It is impossible to bring the creaturely and divine into relationship or union, and thus there is a vague encompassing of every possibility, or every form of religion. “This world is not unified; it is not even subsumable in a higher unifying principle. The world therefore turns out to be only a speculative projection of pagan polytheism.”[3] While Bulgakov means this as a criticism, for Eliade, this is his point of departure for studying religion.

On the other hand, Peter Berger poses the Aristotelian possibility, of finding the transcendent fully explained in the immanent, but as Bulgakov notes, Aristotle is simply filling in the other half of an inevitable dialectic divide. Plato gives us the “fleshless abstractions” and Aristotle puts flesh on these ideas but only by saturating them and reducing them to the concrete and impersonal. Just as Eliade leaves us with pure abstraction devoid of empirical reality, just so, as with Aristotle, Berger reduces religion to an empirical “sacred canopy,” providing a groundless ground for sociology. That is the sacred canopy is fully explained by its empirical necessity in holding society together. Berger, the good Presbyterian, is not refuting religion, but as with Eliade, there can only be a “rumor of angels.”

In Bulgakov’s explanation, “What Aristotle did was transpose ideas from the domain of the Divine Sophia to the domain of the creaturely Sophia. He proclaimed the being of the latter without the former, as if in separation from it. He thus reduced ideas to the empirical, taken only in the category of universality (which would also require special explanation).”[4] Neither Berger nor Eliade are able to distinguish God from the world. For Berger, “God” or the sacred is constituted by the world, and for Eliade only the world is available for observation. What they both lack is the Personal God.

Just as Aristotle transposes Plato into the empirical, so too Berger transposes Eliade, but both (Berger and Eliade) reduce religion to a set of practices (and in both, the practice is removed from the divine), reproducing the divide between the abstract and concrete. Religious studies and the sociology of religion build upon and generate the difference between Plato and Aristotle, but this difference is not so much a problem, as the engine, of dualism. The divide between heaven and earth, theory and practice, creator and creation, body and soul, religious studies and sociology of religion, perform the same trick of turning the problem into the solution. To bridge the gap, close the divide, or overcome the dualism, would undermine the foundation generating the predominant form of understanding.

The thesis and antithesis of the divide condition the answer on either side of the divide but, contrary to what Aristotle or Berger or the host of pragmatists and materialists might imagine, they cannot replace or explain away the transcendent (without themselves appealing to it in the process). On the other hand, it is also true that ideas exist only in things or in the world, though the world does not exhaust or explain or displace ideas (mind or theory). “Plato and Aristotle are both right, and both wrong, in their one-sidedness of thesis and antithesis. They each postulate a synthesis, which is not contained in their theories but which must be found beyond and above them.”[5]

The Greek unmoved mover, Eliade’s sui generis, and Berger’s sacred canopy, all fit Bulgakov’s description in which God “can be likened to the line of the horizon where the earth and sky meet and appear to join.”[6] In each case, God disappears and is replaced by the world, and the divide between heaven and earth is foundational, for both religious studies and Christian theology.

Eliade needs Berger, the transcendentalists need the pragmatists, the study of religion and the sociology of religion need each other. “The creaturely Sophia is the manifestation and reflection of the heavenly Sophia. Nevertheless, sophiology, as the doctrine of the supramundane principle of the world, must incorporate these great sophianic insights of ancient thought.”[7] However, none of these systems has the means of synthesizing with or accounting for its opposite. The question of synthesis, as it applies to the study of religion, is not only an issue of bringing sociological insights to bear on the study of religion, but it pertains to Christian theology.

As I have stated it (see the above link), the sui generis reading of religion is not unrelated to sui generis notions of Christianity: that the Church somehow exists apart from a particular society and culture and that culture has its own innate essence apart from Christ.  This disembodied, transcendent notion of Christianity reveals itself in an incapacity to imagine a real-world kingdom on earth.  In this form of thought the Church cannot itself be a holistic, immanent reality, constituting its own culture.  The body of Christ is spiritualized, too otherworldly, and culture is too much the essence of this world’s reality to have the two realms intersect.

There is a singular synthesis of creator and creation, of the immanent and transcendent, of God and human. Jesus Christ, the God/man synthesizes what cannot otherwise achieve synthesis. This is not an end point, but the beginning presumption, not just in apprehending Christianity, but in understanding religion. Plato and Aristotle, or Eliade and Berger, do not have the resource for appropriating the other (none of the dualisms do), but the Christian synthesis brings together and utilizes the opposed pairs. “The dialectic of Platonism and Aristotelianism in the theory of ideas is synthesized in the Christian revelation of the divine-creaturely, or divine-human, character of being, of the sophianicity of creation.”[9] Faith and practice, doctrine and action, heaven and earth, Creator and creation, and sociology of religion and religious studies have a Subject.

The end result is something on the order of James McClendon’s practical theory of Christianity and religion, in which religion is not believed, apart from practice.  It is is embodied and practiced so that it is a conviction that shows itself in a form of life.  In this “practical understanding” doctrine or belief discloses its meaning only within the practices and convictions of the culture that embraces it. This provides both a theology, and as our upcoming class on religion demonstrates, it provides an alternative ground for understand the world’s religions.

(Register now for the class in World Religions and Cultures starting the week of January 22nd: Go to https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings to register.)


[1] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (p. 11). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition. Thanks to Matt Welch for his constant inspiration, which stands behind this blog.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bulgakov, 12.

[5] Bulgakov, 12.

[6] Bulgakov, 14.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bulgakov, 14.

[9] Ibid.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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