We’ve been talking over the last few weeks about the 20th century Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky. We looked at his most famous work, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, and this week we’ve got something a bit more biographical. This is something that will come up a bit as we work through various Orthodox writers this year, but many of them were exiles, living in France or Germany after their expulsion in 1922 on the philosophers’ ships. When the ships set out from St Petersburg, Lossky was on board, aged 19. His father, Nikolay Lossky, previously a philosophy professor in St Petersburg, had offended the revolution, and so the whole family was sent into exile. They eventually settled in France, Lossky finishing his studies at the Sorbonne. He would have had twenty years or so before the Nazis invaded.
Seven Days on the Roads of France, June 1940 is Vladimir Lossky’s record of when he fled the invasion of Paris. It’s a slight volume, weighing in at about sixty pages, and all things considered it’s honestly very sweet. It records Lossky’s attempts to enroll in the French army. He walks to the nearest town, applies to the local army and gendarmes, and they both tell him to keep walking. “‘But I want to take part in the defense of Paris,’ I said. The lieutenant simply shrugged his shoulders with a bitter smile. ‘Try to enroll in the gardes territoriaux at the gendarmerie.’ At the gendarmerie we met with the same shrugging of shoulders, the same sad smile. There was nothing for it but to fall back to the provinces.” He walks to Étampes, gets bombed by German planes, and is told to keep walking to Orléans – and it all happens again in Orléans. Eventually he decides that he’s simply not meant to enlist, and walks to Turenne to be with his family, resigning himself to the oncoming German occupation. “But at the moment, the road is becoming engulfed in darkness, for night draws near. Night is falling on France, on Europe, on the whole world.”
This week I just want to touch on one small passage from the third day of Lossky’s travels. As he enters Orléans, with houses aflame and glass exploded from the windows of department stores, he remembers that the cathedral is the seat of Saint Aignan, the fifth-century bishop who “had halted the Huns at the very ramparts of the city.” Lossky decides that he should go and venerate Aignan’s relics, “for it was he who was the real master of the place.” He makes his way to the cathedral, and, on arrival, is “struck by the sound of a hoarse, muffled voice.” An elderly man is shouting at the statues of the saints, cursing and begging them for help. “Don’t you want to help us? Can’t you help us?”
Right off the bat, there are maybe a couple of ways to read this scene. We know historically that help was not on its way: the saints do not swoop in to stop the Nazi invasion of France, and they don’t stop any of the things the Nazis do after that either. From that perspective, the old man’s cry poses a problem for believers – why didn’t God help? Did He not want to? Was He not able to? We are faced by the problem of theodicy, which leads some people to conclude that God simply doesn’t exist – and which leads the others to weasel through some nonsense about how it’s actually better that God didn’t intervene, for some mysterious and unfathomable reason.
What’s interesting is that Lossky doesn’t seem to be bothered by any of this line of thinking. It simply doesn’t factor in how he frames the situation. His actual thinking seems closer to – I want to say The Screwtape Letters? If you’re not familiar, The Screwtape Letters is a 1941 book by C.S. Lewis, written from the perspective of a senior demon writing to his nephew (also a demon), who is responsible for tempting a human on Earth. In the introduction, Lewis notes that the demon Screwtape isn’t really concerned with WWII, except insofar as it affects the morality of whoever he’s tempting. It seems like Lossky sits in a similar ballpark – the spiritual seems more important to him than the material.
It’s maybe a little hard to explain how deep this goes. As an example, in his record of the first day, Lossky criticises how people superimpose a spiritual layer over material events. He complains about people who say the fight against the Nazis was a fight for divine justice: “I had heard a distinguished prelate speak about the justice of our cause in Notre Dame before thousands of the faithful, beseeching God to grant us victory in the name of this just cause. Were one to pursue his line of thought, one would have to conclude that God is obliged to help us – since He is just, and we were defending justice.” This is essentially the type of thinking outlined above. The basic assumptions are i) that Nazis are bad, ii) that God is good, and iii) that God therefore ought to stand against Nazis. The first two claims don’t seem controversial, but Lossky doesn’t approve of the third. He continues: “If, then, we were in the end to lose this war, after having implored God to grant us victory in the name of His justice, what would remain to be said? One of two things: either our cause was not, in fact, just; or else God Himself is unjust.” Again, he correctly identifies the problem of theodicy, which is where we’ve ended up. If we’re going around demanding God’s justice on this problem or that problem, we will be tormented by the fact that God doesn’t seem to be acting on our behalf.
Lossky instead steps back from the problem of asking God to act against the bad people, and begins with the more fundamental question of our relationship with God. When we ask God for justice, do we recognise that our ideas of justice are primitive? Are we aware of our own sinfulness? Are we speaking to God in full consciousness of our identity as sinners redeemed, and of His identity as creator? “Prayers for victory ought to have been accompanied by tears and profound contrition, mindful of this awesome Justice, before which we are always unjust. Any appeal ought to have been made, not to God’s justice – which is not commensurate with ours, and which we could not withstand – but to His infinite mercy, which caused His Son to come down from Heaven.” Hence the comparison to Lewis: in both writings, the material status of the individual is less important than their relationship to the divine. The war doesn’t matter directly as a material event – only indirectly as it affects the individual’s relationship to God. The entirety of the Nazi empire is almost reduced to solipsism: its key importance is in not in its material nature, but in how it affects the spiritual life of the individual. At the end of The Screwtape Letters, the human being tempted by junior devil Wormwood escapes, after being hit by a bomb and carried off to heaven during the Blitz. It’s a victory for the human, a loss for the demons. The human is dead, and in dying can no longer be tempted. He’s made it. You can see how the material gaze is abandoned: someone’s just been blown up by a bomb, and it’s not a horror, it’s freedom. It’s release. The spiritual battle so utterly transcends the material conflict as to make the material realm almost laughable. Thus Lossky, observing the old man in the cathedral, does not see someone despairing of their faith, but simply a believer moved to cry out to God in a moment of pain. “No, he wasn’t a madman. Rather, a noble Christian soul, seized with despair and bitterness, pouring out his pain to the saints, who remained motionless and silent, guides of the divine ways that are so painful for us to follow.”
The whole thing is just a really intriguing perspective – partly because it’s so foreign, and I think also because it’s at its weakest in this specific context. There’s a whole branch of Holocaust theology, where religious thinkers of all different stripes wrestle with the fact of Auschwitz – whether, after Auschwitz, we can continue to worship any sort of God. We can all agree that our concepts of justice are sometimes a little primitive, and that maybe sometimes we jump the gun and get things wrong – but surely we can be certain that the Holocaust was bad. The immensity of the evil in that event seems so great as to overwhelm our hesitations about our own fallibility – that is, we might not fully understand justice, but surely we know enough to know that Nazis are bad. Surely we know enough to be outraged and angry at any sort of divine being who permitted it. Lossky might not have been thinking about theodicy when he wrote this passage, but in the light of what came next, I don’t think we can get away from it.