Berdyaev: On Choice and the New

Nicolas Berdyaev is a 20th century Russian Orthodox theologian. Like Vladimir Lossky, he was exiled from Russia on the philosophers’ ships in 1922, and ended up living in France, where he stayed through the German occupation during the Second World War. He has a pretty substantial bibliography, with titles like Spirit and Reality, Slavery and Freedom, and Christianity and Class War – he’s one of those Russians. We’re going to be spending a bit of time with him over the next few months, starting with The Beginning and the End. My edition tells me that it was published posthumously in 1952, but it was written much earlier – its introduction is dated December 1941, meaning it was written under the German occupation. Although at its core it’s a book about eschatology, meaning the end times, it deals with a pretty broad range of issues, including creativity and free will. I’m sure you can imagine how those things might link together – when the Nazis are in control of your country and rampaging across Europe, I’m sure you start to think about where we’re going and what makes us human.

So we’re going to chip in about halfway through the book, in the sixth chapter. Here, Berdyaev starts on some relatively familiar ground – he talks about Aquinas and the ideas of potentiality and actuality. We’ve talked about this before, in an article about God’s creation, but the basic idea is that most things possess both potentiality and actuality. If you have water, it has the potential to freeze into ice – that’s a thing that could happen to it, so it’s part of its potential. As humans we also have the potential to grow into older versions of ourselves – so potentiality is really about our capacity to change. God, according to this logic, is pure act – He is entirely realized, fully perfect. He has no potentiality, because He’s already perfect – if He changed, He would be changing either towards or away from perfection, which would mean that He wasn’t or isn’t always perfect. That conclusion is inadmissible in traditional Christian theology, and so God is described as pure actuality – meaning He cannot change. I don’t know if that idea is consistent with Jesus turning up on Earth and growing from a child into an adult – that seems like change to me, but – look, it’s a bad theory, right, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

And Berdyaev doesn’t think it makes sense either. His point of entry is the idea of creativity, about which he argues: “if the existence of potency, and that means of all movement, in God, the Creator, is denied, we are obliged to deny to God the possibility of creativeness, for the creation of what is new is due to potency.” In other words, in order for God to make something new, He must first have the potential to create that new thing. But if He has potential, He can change, and if He can change, He’s not perfect – so therefore, Berdyaev reasons, this broader belief about God being pure act also means that God can’t create anything new. You can either subscribe to both of those beliefs, or chuck the whole thing out.

Now, you might pause at that argument. You might say – you know, surely if God already has the ability to create anything, then it’s not that He can’t create anything new – it’s more that He can already create everything, and so, from His perspective, there is nothing new. And that really brings us to the heart of the matter. Berdyaev is drawing on these terms – newness, creativity, freedom – in quite a specific way. He describes them as “things which denote a break through in the closed system of being.” Like many of the other 20th century writers we’ve been looking at, Berdyaev is concerned with questions of free will in the age of the machine. We’ve seen this line of thinking previously with authors like Romano Guardini, who worried about technology abstracting us away from our humanity, Vladimir Lossky, with his critique of social Darwinism, and even with the anonymous Catholic tarot guy in his ‘science is actually magic’ screed. There’s a cluster of related themes and ideas that those guys were engaging with – for example, the replacement of Christianity by secular materialism, with its Occam’s Razor approach to spirituality (if you can’t measure it, the simplest explanation is that it doesn’t exist); the increasing rise of automation and scientific innovation (epitomized respectively by the death camps, which sought ‘efficient’ forms of mass murder, and the atomic bomb); and a certain type of biological determinism that makes out that we’re all just animals driven by simple instinct. You can see some of the links between these topics. The push to quantify human nature seems to mesh with the idea that some people might turn out to be quantifiably less human than others. Biological determinism similarly seems to dovetail with the exclusion of concepts of spirituality – if there’s no God and we’re just animals, then our collective identity must be governed by the principles that govern animals – by the principles of biology.

This isn’t intended as any sort of comprehensive overview of the intellectual history of the 20th century – it’s just one cluster of ideas that were all grappled with in various ways. It’s context for our discussion of newness and creativity in Berdyaev. It gives a better sense of what he means when he talks about a break in the system of being. He’s asking whether reality is essentially a closed system, “shut in on itself and finished off,” or whether new things, things outside the strict laws of causality, can enter into it. In defining newness, Berdyaev draws a contrast against changes that result from evolution – which really serves as a shorthand for all of the forces of material change, including the laws of physics or whatever else. Evolution “is the shifting and redistributing of the parts of the world, of the matter of the world, which fashion new forms out of the old material.” It exists within a strict causal chain. Newness, however, “breaks the causal link.” It “always arrives, as it were, from another world, from another scheme of things.” Obviously this is the point of entry for things like miracles and the supernatural: “it is impossible to explain the appearance of Jesus Christ in the world, and the light which He brought into it, by processes which had their origin in Judaism and Hellenism.” But it’s also the source of our freedom, our ability to choose. A strict determinist “must believe that there is nothing in the world in general which possesses an inner core, or interior power; everything is capable of explanation in terms of the action of outside forces, and these outside forces are themselves to be explained in like manner by the operation of forces which are external to them.” But we can believe that our choices belong to us. They might be influenced or shaped by the environments that we live in, but they can’t be reduced to those things. They are driven by something from another realm – by the soul, if you want to use that language.

And – you know, I think often it can feel like our choices don’t matter – that whatever we pick, we lose, or the planet loses, or society loses. What Berdyaev suggests is that our choices aren’t limited to the systems that we make them in. Every choice introduces something new – a break in the system, something that didn’t previously exist and that can’t be explained purely by reference to the things that came before. Our ability to choose is our defence against the machine. It’s why the Nazis will lose, why capitalism will fail to reduce us to economic cogs. We are more than what’s accessible to this physical plane. In our creative freedom, “new life springs up,” leading us towards “the end by which all is resolved,” towards “eternal newness, eternal creative ecstasy, the dissolving of being, in divine freedom.”

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