From Žižek to Bulgakov: Dividedness as the Entry Point of Kenotic Love

One of the tragedies of reducing atonement to a legal theory (penal substitution or divine satisfaction), beyond the low or evil view of God and the shallow view of the human plight, is the loss of the gospel diagnosis of the human problem. It was through the work of Friedrich Hegel that an alternative, a personal or psychological theory was posed (preserved, in the West) which bore deep resonance with an Eastern understanding. Thus, it is no surprise that Sergius Bulgakov utilizes Hegel and German idealism in his theology. Slavoj Žižek utilizes Hegel in his psychoanalytic theory and theological understanding, posing a parallel understanding (which might be read as a development of an alternative to Western theories of atonement). Bulgakov and Žižek present parallel notions of the human predicament, both rendering the human problem and its solution in a psychological/theological idiom. Žižek’s atheism is an obvious delimitation in describing a cure, but even so, kenotic love (which in Žižek’s version has no ontological ground, and though acknowledged is anomalous to his system) is definitive of the solution and an indicator of an alternative understanding of the self.

Where the legal idiom is taken as primary, the split or gap or self-antagonism, such as Paul describes in Romans 7, is thought to be inherently pathological in its disjointedness. The split is a sign of sin and guilt, and salvation would amount to closing the wound of self, and achieving an inner wholeness and centeredness. The way toward this wholeness is through being made right with the law, and being integrated or interpolated into its singular voice. God as model of this goal, is singular and undivided, and the presumption is that the human image is self-contained, like God. In this understanding, rather than Trinitarianism and a kenotic understanding of the divine taking precedent, God is primarily unmoved, unchanging, distant and inaccessible.

In contrast, for Žižek the divided self is both the problem and the cure, as there is no escape from the conflict of drives or the antagonism between the registers of the self (symbolic, imaginary, and real). Antinomy is not the problem of reality but its basis. Where Kant exposes the structuring principle of the world in antinomies, Hegel presumes this is not a problem to be solved, but the very nature of reality and this is Žižek’s point of departure. “And does not Hegel, instead of overcoming this crack, radicalize it? Hegel’s reproach to Kant is that he is too gentle with things: he locates antinomies in the limitation of our reason, instead of locating them in things themselves, that is, instead of conceiving reality-in-itself as cracked and antinomic.”[1]

In one of his sustained engagements of the human predicament in light of German idealism, The Parallax View, Žižek describes the gap within thought and being in a series of systems notable for their irresolvable difference.   The gap that exists between the conscious and unconscious is one that repeats itself in a series that Žižek maintains constitutes human reality.  There is the gap between the individual and the social, the ontological gap between the ontic and the transcendental-ontological, there is the wave-particle duality of quantum physics, and the gap between the face and the skull in neurobiology, and the gap which is the real. The perceived gap or difference is constitutive of “reality” and closure of the gap or dissolution of dissonance, the exposure of the primordial lie, would amount to a dissolving of this perceived reality. The goal is not to overcome the gap but to conceive it in its “becoming” and thus manipulate it.[2] So, one should learn to enjoy their symptom rather than cure it, as the symptom is the reality of the Subject. There is a sense in which Bulgakov would concur.

Bulgakov, likewise see antinomies and division as characterizing reality, but he sees this “crack in reality” as indicating the kenotic love of God (kenotic love as an ontology). Both Žižek and Bulgakov are following Hegel in this understanding, but Žižek would ontologize the absence (not love), making nothing or evil generative of all else. Death drive, or evil is subject to manipulation but, inasmuch as it is prime reality, it cannot be completely overcome; nor would one want to overcome it, as this nothingness is the only possible ground for the freedom of the Subject. The absolutely free, autonomous Subject can be preceded by nothing, and this is the Nothing and negation Žižek links to death drive. The Subject arises from and has “life” through this power of absence. In his account of Schelling, Žižek presumes Schelling reads this understanding into God himself: “A whole new universe is disclosed here: the universe of pre-logical drives, the dark ‘ground of Being’ which dwells even in the heart of God as that which is ‘in God more than God himself.’ For the first time in the history of human thought, the origin of Evil is located not in humanity’s Fall from God, but in a split in the heart of God himself.”[3]

Bulgakov also traces the split into God, assigning it to his kenotic love, and also suggests this may entail the rise of evil: “He spares even Satan, the father of lies himself, but he defeats him on his own paths, allowing the chaff to grow together with the wheat until harvest. He ‘permits’ evil in order to protect the very foundation of creation: its freedom and self-determination.”[4] God does not impetuously destroy evil, as the apostles would at Samaria.

The relation of the Creator to creation in ‘synergism’ always remains meek and restrained, the kenosis of God in creation. This kenosis is determined by the union of God’s omniscience and wisdom in relation to the paths of the world, but with the self-limitation of His omnipotence. God waits for creaturely freedom to say: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word’ (Luke 1:38).[5]

To seek to overcome difference, to violently destroy evil, to force the hand of God, is not the solution but the problem.

Both Žižek and Bulgakov read Hegel’s critique of Kant, not as a denial or overcoming of the Kantian antinomies, but pointing toward the rupture within the Absolute itself. Bulgakov’s idea of kenotic love is a reflection of Hegel’s attempt to describe the dynamics of the kenotic Subject, and Bulgakov and Žižek share this meta-psychological idiom in their understanding of the human Subject. According to Bulgakov, “This antinomical task makes the I into a riddle for itself, into an insoluble charade. That which […] appeared […] to be the most reliable and most self-evident […] fulcrum turns out to be situated at the point of an antinomical knife, to be a living paradox, which, obviously, cannot be understood from out of itself.”[6]

Like Žižek, Bulgakov does not presume to resolve the paradox, but affirms paradoxical antinomies as a pointer to a reality beyond the self-enclosed I.

In antinomies there is given experiential, graphic proof of the supra-rational character of being, or, what is the same thing, of the insufficiency of the powers of reason for adequately comprehending it. The presence of antinomies inevitably leads us to the conclusion that the current state of being is transitional, unfinished, and, in this obvious incompleteness, it now reveals openings to different possibilities of consciousness.[7]

Both Bulgakov and Žižek see the attempt to resolve the antinomies or to overcome them, as inherent to the human disease. For Bulgakov, this is the tragedy of philosophy and for Žižek this defines the end point of philosophy reached by Kant: “the original motivation for doing philosophy is a metaphysical one, to provide an explanation of the totality of noumenal reality; as such, this motivation is illusory, it prescribes an impossible task” or it describes the human disease.[8]

As Jack Pappas puts it, for Bulgakov the split within the Absolute is not an indicator of absence, evil or pathology but serves as a sign of the resolution of “the loving self-donation of the Father’s very substance to the Son-Word and the Spirit, a dynamic upsurge of desire whose ens realissimum finds expression in loving relation to others.”[9] The giving of the Father to the Son, and the outpouring of the Son for the world, realizing the kenotic giving of the Spirit, is a Trinitarian movement definitive of God and of the completion of human-kind in the image of God. This is the heart of Bulgakov’s notion of divine Sophia: “Sophia as the substance of divine self-consciousness is itself the eternal reality of the Absolute in its self-revelation, the identification of the differentiated Father, Son, and Spirit in mutual recognition.”[10] As humans enter in to the divine wisdom, like their Savior, kenotic love is realized as the fulness of personhood.

This poses a different understanding of the human predicament as outlined in Romans 7. Dividedness, alienation, disassociation, point to the cure of self-giving love, moving beyond the self and acknowledging the fulness of the self in relation to the Other. Bulgakov offers a counterproposal to Žižek, “one which refuses to identify self-sacrifice (kenotic love) with loss and fragility with negation. Indeed, Bulgakov’s Sophia indicates that the essential fracture which yields differentiation is not merely an open wound concealed by a veneer of hysterical self-deception, but rather a donative self-offer that produces the possibility of relation and expressive re-identification in otherness.”[11] The wound of self is not healed through closure, but is the opening to the Other, the healing of which is in taking up the cross in kenotic love.

(Sign up for the course, The Theology of Maximus the Confessor with Jordan Wood. The course will run from 2024/3/25–2024/5/17 and will meet on Saturdays.)

[1] Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (p. 8). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] Slavoj Žižek, Parallax View (The MIT Press; 2009) 6-7.

[3] Zizek, Less than Nothing, 12.

[4] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (p. 233). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sergii Bulgakov, The Tragedy of Philosophy: Philosophy & Dogma (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2020), 125. Quoted from Jack Louis Pappas, “Sergii Bulgakov’s Fragile Absolute: Kenosis, Difference, and Positive Disassociation” in Building the House of Wisdom: Sergii Bulgakov and Contemporary Theology: New Approaches and Interpretations (Aschendorf

[7] Sergius Bulgakov, The Sophiology of Death: Essays on Eschatology: Personal, Political, Universal (pp. 1-2). Cascade Books. Kindle Edition.

[8] Zizek, Less than Nothing, 10.

[9] Pappas, 120.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Pappas, 121.

The Sophiology of Death as Explanation of Salvation and Trinity

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.” Ecclesiastes 9:10

There is nothing more personal than death. Death is a failure of personhood, a loss that cannot be abstracted, as it happens to concrete persons who can only know of this pervasive reality as it happens to “me.” Death isolates and individuates so that we all die alone. While life and love are shared experiences, death is the opposite. Death is a pure negation, a complete absence, a total loss. It is a loss of connectedness, of love, and obviously of life and the effort and struggle of life. As Koheleth records, struggle with all your might now, for the grave ends all possibility of strategizing. Death, in the small doses that we all experience it, is familiar. The moments of shame in life are small bits of dying, while the total loss that is the shame of death is an undoing and loss beyond comprehension. We cannot think our own dissolution and undoing, and so denial of death is not a conscious choice but an inevitable orientation, but this orientation comes at a price in its reifying and absolutizing of the finite and mortal. The transcendent and immortal cannot be accommodated in the “immortalization” of the mortal. The incarnate and fleshly, immortalized, is a refusal of the world – a striving toward the disincarnate – and this is dying. The dying begins where embodied, incarnate, fleshly living, is refused. Struggle then with all of your life against death – this is dying. So, death is not simply a problem at the end of life, but an ending that pervades all of life. This orientation to death marks all of life as a dying. The unconscious struggle to have life, to hold onto life, to gain a fulness of life, as an insurance against the grave, is to submit completely to the orientation to death.

This orientation and this dying are against God and his intention for humans: “God didn’t make death. God takes no delight in the ruin of anything that lives. God created everything so that it might exist. The creative forces at work in the cosmos are life-giving. There is no destructive poison in them” (Wisdom 1:13-14). God permitted death, which means he permitted free will refusal of himself and of life and of love. He permitted sin, and death entered in through sin. It is not that all sinned in Adam, in spite of the Latin translation of Romans 5:12. Rather: “just as sin entered into the cosmos through one man, and death through sin, so also death pervaded all humanity, whereupon all sinned” (Rom. 5:12, DBH). For Adam, the order was sin to death, but for the rest of sinful humanity (which is not all of humanity in Paul’s explanation – Rom. 5:14) it is ordered from death to sin.

As Sergius Bulgakov describes, “Death entered the world through the path of sin, which destroyed the stability of human existence and as it were separated within man the uncreated from the created. The created, since it did not possess in itself its own power of being, became mortal, having acquired an undue independence from the uncreated. Such is the nature of death.”[1] This “undue independence” is nothing short of a lie. It is the presumption of life where there is death and the presumption of being where there is nonbeing. The separation of the created from the uncreated is an unreality. As Jordan Wood has summarized Bulgakov in conjunction with Maximus: “Rational creatures by definition actualize themselves in the mode of self-determination, of freedom, and somehow that mode can and is in fact misdirected to absurd and absolutely irrational proportions: we make ourselves unmade, we incarnate pure fantasy, we interpret the world and give our very selves, parasitically, to breath (sic.) life into a world that is against the divine will; and anything against the divine will is no creation of the divine will.”[2]

Jordan recognizes in Bulgakov the same refusal of abstraction as he found in Maximus. There is no dying in the abstract – it is always personal. “So the ‘problem’ of sin and its wages is that actual persons are in an actual state of pseudo- and anti-actualization, ‘discarnate or ‘anti-incarnate.’” The work of fallen humanity in its pursuit of life through death (the disincarnate) is countered by the work of the Trinity which, always and in all things, is Incarnation. The work of Incarnation counters the anti-incarnate or false incarnation which is the lie of sin. Incarnation always and in all things (or recapitulation) meets “the actual persons to be saved precisely where and how they are: in a state of anti-incarnation.”[3]  

It is not as if death has the final word, as in the image of Ecclesiastes. In Christ the limitation of the power of death is disclosed. As Bulgakov describes it, Christ’s death reveals the limitation of death: “Death is neither absolute nor all-powerful. It can only tear at and fracture the tree of life, but it is not invincible, for it has already been conquered by the resurrection of Christ.”[4] To realize this defeat of death in the resurrection of Christ, the death of Christ must become the manner of one’s life. He took our death upon himself, so that the “death of humanity is precisely Christ’s death, and we must take part in the fullness of this death, just as he partook in our death after becoming enfleshed and human.”[5] Death and dying and thus living become His manner of death and life.

Bulgakov pictures the full realization of Christ meeting us in death as occurring only in our actual dying. He ends his article on the Sophiology of Death with a description of his near-death experience due to cancer, and then in the pain of having his throat sliced open without anesthetics, having the feeling of being suffocated. The feeling of complete helplessness that is the experience of dying, is the place Christ meets us. The place we would refuse, out of fear, is the place of revelation.  

And to the extent that we know, or rather, will know our own particular death, in it and through it shall we know the death of Christ too. But until we have reached the very threshold of death and have drunk the cup of death, we can only foreknow our death, and in it and through it Christ’s death as well. Such foreknowledge is accessible to us and necessary, for it reveals to us our own— as well as Christ’s— humanity, in its depths and in its terrible abyss; in the light of death it manifests to us our very selves. And to whom it is granted by the will of God to approach this edge of the abyss, let him from thence become a herald, that thence which for each person will at some point become a thither and a there.[6]

The mystery of God and the incomprehensible mystery of death are conjoined in the God-man. In his humanity there is the dying, but his humanity is completely united with his deity. Our dying with him is not a point of separation, isolation, and forsakenness, because he has taken upon himself forsakenness and defeated it. Thus, that which defeats and destroys God’s good creation becomes the point of life, love, and being joined to God. “The God-man dies in the image of man, and man dies in the image of the God-man, in a marvelous mutuality.”[7]  This “impossibility” that God would die in Christ – this point of incomprehension in which incomprehensible death and incomprehensible God takes up dying, this becomes the moment of enlightenment and comprehension. Jesus meets us at the edge of the grave. He is there in the dying and this is the assurance that imparts a new form of living.

This is salvation, atonement, expiation and new life. His being poured out, his kenotic self-giving, is organically tied to the problem and its resolution. His incarnation and dying joins him to the dying of all persons. “(If) Christ redeems and raises every person, then it is only because he co-dies in every person and with every person.”[8] His being with us in his humanity is the point in which he imparts the uncreatedness and life of his deity. “Clearly, we can speak here of “dying” only in a completely unique sense, different from human death; specifically, it is some kind of passivity, an inactivity, which permits the death of the human nature on account of a certain incompleteness in the latter’s divinization.”[9] Christ undertakes divinization in his life’s journey, through death and resurrection, and imparts to all the path he has taken. “Divinization comes into its fullness only in the resurrection and is accomplished only by the Father’s power through the action of the Holy Spirit.”[10]

Bulgakov approaches the possibility of the death of the God-man, the possibility of human entry into the divine, and the divine entry into the human, in his picture of Sophia (wisdom) or what he calls Sophiology. The Psalms picture wisdom as consisting of both a created and uncreated aspect: “The LORD created me as His first course, before His works of old. From everlasting I was established, from the beginning, before the earth began” (Psalms 8:22-23). Wisdom, in both of its forms, according to Bulgakov, is Wisdom embodied in Christ.

The humanity of Christ is created Sophia, permeated by Divine Sophia and in this union with it already pre-deified. . .. Created Sophia, as the human nature of Christ, admitted of further sophianization or divinization, which is exactly what was accomplished through the resurrection of Christ and in his glorification. The latter is the fullness of divinization, the sophianization of created Sophia in Christ, its full penetration by Divine Sophia, perfected divine-humanity.[11]

The course of Christ’s life bringing about the fulness of the Divine Wisdom in his life contains the order and course of the universe – “the union of eternity and time, of fullness and becoming.”[12]

Bulgakov, like (or with) Maximus, not only avoids abstraction surrounding death, but also abstractions which would explain the humanity and deity of Christ. Theoretically or abstractly deity and humanity, time and eternity, God and death, cannot be joined, but what are opposites theoretically are brought together concretely in the person of Christ. The theoretically impossible is not impossible in Christ. Bulgakov expresses this in terms of the peculiarity of what has occurred in Christ. This human and divine life and death is one of a kind. The kenosis of Christ is a possibility for divinity but it is temporary and transitory, and it is a death like no other. Bulgakov admits that the decaying condition, of being turned over to the grave is an impossibility in the death of the God-man. He is susceptible to dying but: “Nevertheless, this dying, while not representing the genuine death of decay, is still that condition of death in which the Lord rests in the grave. The God-man fully experiences death, he partakes of it, although he is not handed over to its power in his divinity and in his divinized humanity. His divine-humanity enters into the fullness of power and glory precisely through dying.” The manner of his death is not being left in a state of death, though he is turned over to the power of death but death cannot hold him.

Kenosis is nothing more than a state that may be adopted by divine being— temporary and transitory, as the path to resurrection. But kenosis is not mortal existence itself, which is what divine existence would be transformed into in such a case. In the depths of kenosis there is a weakening, as it were, of divinity, but only until the end of kenosis, when this weakness is overcome. Such is the immanent dialectic of kenosis in divine-humanity. In its kenosis it is capable of dying, but the death of the God-man can only be a victory over death: “having trampled death by death.”[13]  

Through Divine Sophia, Bulgakov explains the joining of deity and humanity in the person of Christ. Where otherwise one might pose some form of Docetism, or (in the case of Rowan Williams) an “asymmetrical christology” in which the deity of Christ is privileged over the humanity of Jesus. (In Williams description, the divine Word could be apart from Jesus, who “contributes nothing extra to that identifying esse” of the Word.)[14] In Divine Sophia the fulness of the humanity and deity of Christ, including the death of Christ and glorification at the right hand of God, not only exist in one person but are the constitutive aspects – the full deity and humanity – of this person. Sophia explains how, the apparent and necessary division between deity and humanity, are conjoined in a singular person:

In the divine abandonment of Christ, the Divine Sophia becomes, as it were, inactive in him; what remains in full force is only the human nature, created Sophia, although in a state of suffering and mortal frailty. This sophianic kenosis— which prima facie appears to be a division of the natures, as it were, in the humanity’s loss of divinity— is the path to their fullest union in the resurrection. Humanity, created Sophia, needed to be revealed in the depths not just of the positive power belonging to it as the image of Divine Sophia, but also in its Adamic nature, weakened by the fall and communing with death. But in this union with Divine Sophia, created Sophia communes in this divine nature, and in this union she reaches the greatest depth of kenosis: the depth of human frailty is disclosed to the utmost through Christ’s voluntary acceptance of humanity’s fall for the sake of humanity’s restoration and salvation.[15]

Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, both divine and human natures in one person, and because this is who he is there is the possibility of restoration and salvation.  

So too, what Christ reveals about the Trinity, is that God in three persons is involved in the kenotic giving of the Son: “the Father sends the Son, and this sending is an act of Fatherly sacrificial love, the kenosis of the Father, who condemns to the cross the beloved Son, who in turn takes on himself this feat on the cross. The feat of the Son is also the self-denying love of the Father who, in ‘sending’ the Son, condemns his very self to co-suffering and co-crucifixion, though in a manner different than the Son.”[16] The Father and the Son “possess one life, one joy and suffering, although in a different manner.” The Father does not remove himself from the suffering of the Son – “both co-suffer together.” “The Son accomplishes the will of the Father, and this unity of will and of mutual knowledge (“no one knoweth the Son, but the Father, neither doth anyone know the Father, but the Son” [Matt 11:27]) testifies to the unity of life and the unity of suffering in their common— although distinct for each— kenosis of love.”[17]

The person of Jesus Christ involves the fulness of the Trinity. Bulgakov distinguishes the economic and immanent Trinity, but not so as to make a division within the person of Christ or within the persons of the Trinity:

The love of the Father through the Spirit in the life of the Son “is unbroken and there can be no room for any sort of mutual abandonment. But “economically,” in the relationship of God to the world, as Creator to creation, there occurs, as it were, a division of the hypostases because the very hypostasis of union, the Holy Spirit, in “abandoning” the Son, ceases, as it were, to unite the Son with the Father and instead remains with the Father.[18]

The Spirit, which “blows where it wills” (John 3:2), momentarily and manifestly (economically) “stops blowing on the Son.” But this death of the Son is experienced by each of the persons of the Trinity as the “Father co-dies” and the “Holy Spirit co-dies” with the Son. Bulgakov assures that this is not a division, though it has that appearance, but a union: “a union in dying for each of the hypostases in its own way, true both individually and for all of them in conjunction.”[19]

The movement of salvation in Christ is not then, an event removed from who God is, but is bound up with the Trinitarian reality. The revelation exposing the fiction of a life oriented to death, the life giving revelation, simultaneously is a revelation of God as Trinity. The one does not exist apart from the other.

[1]Sergius Bulgakov, The Sophiology of Death: Essays on Eschatology: Personal, Political, Universal (p. 117). Cascade Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] Jordan Daniel Wood, “The Lively God of Sergius Bulgakov: Reflections on The Sophiology of Death” (Eclectic Orthodoxy Blog, December 15th, 2021).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bulgakov, 117.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 133.

[7] Ibid., 118.

[8] Ibid., 132.

[9] Ibid., 122.

[10] Ibid., 123.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 130-131.

[14] This is Jordan Woods description in reviewing Rowan Williams’, Christ the Heart of Creation. “Against Asymmetrical Christology: A Critical Review of Rowan Williams’s ‘Christ the Heart of Creation’” (Eclectic Orthodoxy, August 4th, 2019)

[15] Bulgakov, Ibid., 131-132.

[16] Ibid., 124.

[17] Ibid., 125.

[18] Ibid., 128.

[19] Ibid., 129.