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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Book Review: Jeremy Pilch on Vladimir Solov’ev

Vladimir Solov’ev (1853–1900) is widely regarded as one of the most important Russian philosophers of the nineteenth century. His work in ecumenism, human rights, and sophiology was far ahead of its time and he influenced some of the most significant figures of early-twentieth-century Russian religious thought, including Sergei Bulgakov, Pavel Florensky, and Nikolai Berdyaev. Though he is receiving more attention, Solov’ev remains underappreciated on the contemporary metaxu shared by theology and philosophy. In that, any book that takes Solov’ev seriously—and in English—is as a welcome event.

Jeremy Pilch’s ‘Breathing the Spirit with Both Lungs’: Deification in the Work of Vladimir Solov’ev (Peeters, 2018) is a reworked version of his doctoral dissertation. As the subtitle suggests, it examines the development of Solov’ev’s thinking about deification (theosis) over the course of his career. In particular, Pilch focuses on three of this great Russian thinker’s books: Lectures on Divine Humanity (1877–81), The Spiritual Foundations of Life (1882–84), and the work Pilch deems Solov’ev’s magnum opus, The Justification of the Good (1897).

Pilch is a fine scholar and traces Solov’ev’s influences (the Fathers and Councils, and Maximos the Confessor in particular) and how they impacted his doctrine of bogochelovechestvo (Godmanhood) and how Solov’ev’s conception of deification changed over the course of his relatively short life. Particularly striking in Pilch’s excavation is the way in which he shows Solov’ev’s movement from an early Slavophile disposition to the obvious influence of contemporary Catholic theology (especially that of Johann Adam Mölher), to a mature thinker anxious to introduce the idea deification to even an agnostic and humanistic cultural milieu.

The centerpiece of Pilch’s argument resides in his admiration of Solov’ev’s ecumenical project. As he announces in the introduction, “this study aims to show the potential for both renewal and unity of Christendom through a deeper understanding of Solov’ev’s thought” (1). That the union of a fractured and divided Christendom was important to Solov’ev is an understatement and is the capstone to Solov’ev’s oeuvre, “A Short Tale of the Anti-Christ” found in his Three Conversations (1900). And one wonders whether Solov’ev’s turn to ethics as a platform in Justification was a result of his disappointment with ecclesial commitment to union on both sides of the East-West divide. Indeed, Solov’ev’s long-debated “conversion” to Catholicism, as Pilch argues, was not a conversion so much as an acknowledgment of the intrinsic union of the Catholic and Orthodox confessions—no matter the opinions of Patriarchs and Popes. The hierarchs had their schedule, one might say, and Solov’ev had his. Would that we all had such courage.

This is very much a worthwhile book. My only criticism (governed completely by my own bias!) is that Solov’ev’s sophiology is essentially absent from the argument. I would argue that his sophiology was the governing idea that informed Solov’ev’s notion of Godmanhood, of ecumenism, as well as of apocatastasis. I suspect Pilch is more than aware of this. I also suspect that his dissertation director may have declared sophiology a “no fly zone” while the dissertator was slogging his way through the text. That, my friends, is how the game is played.

Pilch’s book, obviously, was written for the specialist, so it is not for everyone (which is rather confirmed by the $98/78€ price tag). Nevertheless, I hope Dr. Pilch might write a book for the common reader. For, as Solov’ev knew so well, if one is counting on the elite academic and ecclesial classes to foment change, one is in for a good long wait.

Michael can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.

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