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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

You Are Here: Nikolai Berdyaev Calls the Eschaton

For Nikolai Berdyaev, philosophy is many things, but it is in no way an academic exercise performed for one’s peers. The idea of conformity to the opinions of even a highly cultured group repelled him, as it always compromises the essential freedom of the philosopher who sells his birthright for a plate of lentils by appealing to the crowd, however sophisticated its opinions. Berdyaev holds that philosophy is primarily a creative act, and as such it must resist the temptation of acceptance promised by professional approval. As he writes,

The highly cultured man of a certain style usually expresses imitative opinions upon every subject: they are average opinions, they belong to a group, though it may well be that this imitativeness belongs to a cultured élite and to a highly select group [….] Genius has never been completely able to find a place for itself in culture, and culture has always striven to turn genius from a wild animal into a domestic animal.” [1]

The philosopher, as wild animal, has no proper place in the domesticated world of the academy.

Connected to his ideas on creativeness, Berdyaev describes his attention to philosophy as revelation in terms of “active eschatology.” “Active eschatology,” he writes, “is the justification of the creative power in man.” [2] This is so because, “The outpouring of the Spirit, which changes the world, is the activity of the spirit in man himself.” Berdyaev’s active eschatology, then, speaks to the regeneration of all things, or, to adopt explicitly religious terminology, their glorification. The idea of theosis, indeed, tinctures (to use Boehmian language) all of Berdyaev’s thought. This glorification approaching from the future, furthermore, resides in the Coming of Christ which moves toward the present just as history moves toward its arrival, the two converging almost in the way of a supercollider. [3]

But the coming of the eschaton announces itself through anxiety. And while Berdyaev is assured of the final victory of Christ, he not as confident in man’s willing participation in the transformations implicit in His arrival. Man, it appears, would prefer to hold onto the dead forms of the past, their shells and ghosts, than cooperate with Christ in the regeneration of all things. Certainly, something of Boehme’s notion that God’s love feels like terror to the sinful as it burns away the impurities of the soul haunts Berdyaev’s metaphysic here. “Man is entering a new cosmos,” he writes:

All the elements of our epoch were present in the past, but now they are generalized, universalized and revealed in their true aspect. In these days of the world’s agony we feel keenly that we are living in a fallen world, torn asunder by incurable contradictions….

The world is living in a period of agony which greatly resembles that of the end of antiquity. But the present situation is more hopeless, since at the close of antiquity Christianity entered the world as a new young force, while now Christianity, in its human age, is old and burdened with a long history in which Christians have often sinned and betrayed their ideal. And we shall see that the judgment upon history is also a judgment upon Christianity in history.”[4]

Christianity, that is, in its amnesia has forgotten how to make all things new.

But theosis is not the only thing that characterizes the future: there exists also what we might call a “passive eschatology,” and great danger accompanies it. The defining feature of this passive eschatology has everything to do with the ways in which technology and mechanization transfigure (or, more accurately, disfigure) man as their innovations and methods are blindly and uncritically welcomed and incorporated into human life. This movement thoroughly compromises the being of man: “We face the question, is that being to whom the future belongs to be called man, as previously, or something other?” [5] Given the subsequent colonization of the human person by genetic engineering, hormone treatments, and plastic surgery—just for starters—one would have to conclude that Berdyaev was more than prescient.

Berdyaev, like his contemporaries Martin Heidegger and Rudolf Steiner, warned about the rise of technology and its impact on human flourishing. Though he died in 1948, before the advent of television and well before the totalization of the technological and technocratic which has become the information revolution and the dominance of social media, his words are startlingly (and to some degree terrifyingly) poignant:

The greatest victories of man in the realms of science, as in that of the technical mastery over nature, have become the principal cause of man’s dehumanization. Man is no longer master of the machines which he has invented. Our contemporary mechanized civilization is fatal to man’s inner life, for it destroys his integrity, disfigures his emotional life, makes him the instrument of inhuman processes, and takes away from him all possibility of contemplation by a rapid increase in the tempo of life.” [6]

As we have become all too aware, both capitalism and communism participate in this dehumanization, and no existent political structures offer an alternative. “The world threatens to become an organized and technicized chaos in which only the most terrible forms of idolatry and demon-worship can live.” [7]

For Berdyaev, though, the rise of the technological colonization of man did not simply happen by accident. Rather, it is the result of the breakdown of culture and the failure of Christianity to transfigure society. Influenced by Solovyov’s conviction that Western Christianity, while it created a culture, did not create a Christian culture, whereas Eastern Christianity failed to create a culture at all, though its society was Christian, [8] Berdyaev lays the blame at the feet of a Christianity mired in its many sins and more invested in preservation of the past than concern about the future. His critique is scathing:

”We are witnessing a judgement not on history alone, but upon Christian humanity…. The task of creating a more just and humane social order has fallen into the hands of anti-Christians, rather than Christians themselves. The divine has been torn apart from the human. This is the basis of all judgement in the moral sphere, now being passed upon Christianity.” [9]

Christianity, furthermore, failed to save culture, because it failed to be Christian:

In this visible world there is no external unity in the Church; its œcumenicity is not completely actualized. Not only the division of the Churches and the multiplicity of Christian confessions but the very fact that there are non-Christian religions in the world at all, and that there is, besides, an anti-Christian world, proves that the Church is still in a merely potential state and that its actualization is still incomplete.” [10]

In addition, Christianity, for Berdyaev, is too enamored of its own past, thereby neglecting its true vocation:

In historical Christianity the prophetic element inherent in it has become enfeebled and this is why it ceases to play an active and leading role in history. We no longer look to anything but the past and to past illumination. But it is the future which needs lighting up.” [11]

And not only has the prophetic element become enfeebled, but, because it has, so has Christianity tout court:

Christianity in the course of its history has too often been submissive to brute facts; the leaders of the churches have too often adapted themselves to various political and social orders, and the judgement of the Church is only pronounced after the event. The result of this has been a loss of messianic consciousness and an exclusive turning towards the past.” [12]

Faced with the realities of Christian history and culture and the impending demonic technicization of man, Berdyaev can only conclude that, “Either a new epoch in Christianity is in store for us and a Christian renaissance will take place, or Christianity is doomed to perish,” though he knows full well that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. [13] Berdyaev wagers on behalf of the Church Triumphant, but he condemns degenerate Christianity when he sees it because he knows a failure of culture is at its core a failure of Christianity. He recognizes the paradox.

The paradox is that only Christianity can save the world from Christianity. Thus Berdyaev prophesizes the arrival of “the new Christianity” which will “rehumanize man and society, culture and the world” because “[o]nly in Divine-humanity, the Body of Christ, can man be saved.” [14] But such regeneration is not without conditions:

The future depends upon our will and upon our spiritual efforts. This must be said about the future of the entire world. The part to be played by Christianity will certainly be enormous on condition that its old fictitious forms are left behind and that its prophetic aspect is revealed as the source of a different attitude towards the social problem.” [15]

In language resonant to some degree with Teilhard de Chardin’s notion of the Omega Point, Berdyaev thinks of all history, all life, as moving “towards a central even of absolute importance, the Second Coming of the Saviour.” [16] Furthermore, for Berdyaev, Christianity, though it has in large part abdicated its vocation in this world, has still not completed its mission; it still has untapped reserves of creativity and revelation, which lie dormant through the accretion of centuries and centuries of acquiescence to worldliness: “When there is no sense of creative mission in the Church, spiritual decadence follows.” [17] Berdyaev, among other things, saw that his task was to reawaken Christianity to this mission:

Every question has not yet been settled and Christianity is not a finished product, nor will it be finished till the end of time; its fulfilment corresponds to the coming of the Kingdom of God. But if we are looking for this Kingdom of God and moving towards it, we cannot be in a static condition. The existence of a static Orthodoxy or Catholicism is pure fiction, a piece of mere auto-suggestion, and it arises from the objectification and ‘absolutization’ of what are simply temporary periods in Church life.” [18]

But one must wonder if in this task he failed.

The current Christian landscape suggests that, for the most part, he has. While conservative elements in Christianity look to preserving an imagined past, more liberal elements of Christianity look to the present. The future, it seems, is of no one’s concern. Out of sight, out of mind. For Christianity, Berdyaev would no doubt observe, this is a very real tragedy.

Complacency and the bourgeois sensibility that “one must be busy doing something” alike afflict the Christianity of which Berdyaev was so critical. Only revelation, an inherently creative movement, can remedy this. But revelation, as the stories of the prophets attest (and of which John the Baptist is perhaps the paradigmatic example), is usually unwelcome and the love it offers is interpreted as a threat: “Revelation is a catastrophic transformation of consciousness, a radical modification of its structure, almost, one might say, a creation of new organs of being with functions in another world. Revelation is not evolution but revolution.” [19] It is far easier to turn away, get lost in religious nostalgia, find distraction in the politics of the moment, or engage in mindless infotainment and celebrity gossip. So stand we.

I cannot decide whether Berdyaev’s thought is pessimistically optimistic or optimistically pessimistic. He believes in the regeneration of Christianity, of man, of culture, of nature, but sees little evidence of it in the world and even less interest. Yet he knows that, bidden or not, the Messiah comes. Like William Butler Yeats, Berdyaev is attentive to the tragic nature of revelation as it destroys the falsity of our various temptations and our bourgeois complacencies; for, “Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” Berdyaev’s radical Christian vision, his prophetic madness and absolute clarity, offer much to a postmodern milieu entrapped in its own excesses and excrescences. But will anyone have the time or inclination to listen?

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Garden.

1. Slavery and Freedom, 123.

2. Slavery and Freedom, 265.

3. Freedom and the Spirit, 304.

4. The Fate of Man in the Modern World, trans. Donald A. Lowrie (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1935), 21–22 and 23.

5. The Fate of Man in the Modern World, 25.

6. Towards a New Epoch, 15.

7. Towards a New Epoch, 127.

8. Vladimir Solovyov, Lectures on Divine Humanity, trans. Peter Zouboff [1948], rev. and ed. Boris Jakim (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1995), 170–73.

9. The Fate of Man in the Modern World, 118 and 122.

10. Freedom and the Spirit, 348.

11. Towards a New Epoch, 36.

12. Towards a New Epoch, 117.

13. Freedom and the Spirit, 46.

14. The Fate of Man in the Modern World, 129.

15. Towards a New Epoch, 117.

16. Freedom and the Spirit, 304.

17. Freedom and the Spirit, 305.

18. Freedom and the Spirit, 305.

19. Freedom and the Spirit, 96.

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Jan 14, 2021

"Yet he knows that, bidden or not, the Messiah comes."

Indeed, the Messiah comes... "with his might angels".

I'm reading Steiner's take on the Apocalypse (via Emil Bock):

"Mankind, convulsed by a thousand fears and shocks, will be forced to perceive the effects of the onrushing spirit-sphere without seeing the being from whom these effects proceed, and whose presence alone gives meaning to all these alarms and renders them bearable. A sense of terror will surge through humanity, and men will not know whence it comes. The cry of anguish at the approach of the sphere of Christ will take the most varied forms. Among other things, men will take refuge in material strength and in striving after power, …


Dec 15, 2020

Yes, "Patmos" is probably my favorite Hölderlin poem as well (closely follow by "The Only One" and "In Lovely Blue"). Alas, I only know a few bit and pieces of German, so I have to rely on translations. Hölderlin can be quite inscrutable and a tough nut to crack - apparently even for those who are able to read him in the original! Aside from his poetry and Hyperion (his letters are well worth reading also), I find Hölderlin fascinating as a person. What an unusual life. If I understand him right, Girard's take seems to be less that Hölderlin was truly mad than that his "madness" was some kind of quasi-deliberate mystic withdrawal (though from the anecdotes of those…


Michael Martin
Michael Martin
Dec 15, 2020

Thanks for this, Dennis. And “Patmos” is one of my all time favorite poems!


Dec 15, 2020

"Berdyaev can only conclude that, 'Either a new epoch in Christianity is in store for us and a Christian renaissance will take place, or Christianity is doomed to perish,' though he knows full well that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

I'm somewhat reminded of René Girard, who often spoke of Christianity as being doomed to perish, at least in worldly terms, since it was the first religion that unmasked the scapegoat mechanism and thus demystifies all religion (including itself; with Christianity itself becoming a new scapegoat, as its concern for the the victim gets perversely turned upon it as the alleged cause of the suffering of ever proliferating micro-victim groups within the cult of victimology that…

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