On the Faith and Its Relation to Culture

From Ivan Kireyevsky’s On the Nature of European Culture and on Its Relationship to Russian Culture:

Apart from ethnic differences, three historical circumstances gave the entire development of culture in the West its distinct character: the special form through which Christianity reached it; the peculiar aspect in which it inherited the civilisation of the ancient world; and, lastly, the particular elements that entered into the formation of statehood in the West.

Christianity was the soul of the intellectual life of the Western peoples, just as it was in Russia. But it was transmitted to Western Europe solely through the Latins.

Naturally, each patriarchate, each nationality, each country in the Christian world never ceased to preserve its individual personality, whilst continuing to participate in the general unity of the entire Church. Each people, owing to local, ethnic, or historical factors, developed some one aspect of intellectual activity; naturally, in its spiritual life as well and in the writings of its theologians, it was to retain this special character, its natural physiognomy, in a manner of speaking, but illuminated by a higher consciousness. Thus, the theologians of the Syrian lands appear to have paid most attention to the inner, contemplative life of those who have renounced the world. Theologians of Old Rome were especially concerned with the aspect of practical activity and the logical concatenation of concepts. The theological writers of enlightened New Rome (Constantinople) seem to have paid more attention than others to the relationship between Christianity and the particular disciplines that flourished around it, which at first warred against Christianity, then later submitted to it. The theologians of Alexandria, waging a double war against paganism and against Judaism and surrounded by philosophical, theosophical, and gnostic schools, concentrated above all on the speculative side of Christian doctrine.

These divergent paths led to a single common goal so long as those who followed them did not deviate from that goal. Everywhere, particular heresies sprang up, each closely related to the trend prevailing among the nation within which it arose; but they were all eliminated by the unanimity of the Universal Church, in which all the particular churches were united in one holy concord. There were times when entire patriarchates stood in danger of deviation, when a doctrine that was contrary to that preached by the Universal Church was nevertheless in conformity with the prevailing trend and the intellectual peculiarity of the nations comprising that particular church; but in those times of trial, when the particular church faced the irrevocable choice of either splitting away from the Universal Church or sacrificing its particular views, the Lord saved His Churches through the unanimity of the whole Orthodox Catholic world. The specific character of each particular church could have led it into a schism only if it separated from tradition and communion with the other Churches; so long as it remained faithful to the common tradition and the common covenant of love, each particular church, through the special character of its spiritual activity, only added to the common wealth and fullness of the spiritual life of all Christianity. Thus, the church of Old Rome also had what we might call its legitimate peculiarity before it broke away from the Universal Church. Once it split off, however, it was naturally bound to transform this peculiar character into an exclusive form through which alone the Christian doctrine could penetrate into the minds of the nations subordinated to it.

The civilisation of the ancient pre-Christian world the second element that entered into the making of European culture was until the mid-fifteenth century known to the West almost exclusively in that special form that it had assumed in pagan Rome; its other aspect, Greek and Asian civilisation, virtually did not reach Europe in its pure form almost until the very fall of New Rome (Constantinople). Yet, as is known, pagan Rome was far from representative of all pagan culture; it had merely held physical mastery over the world, whereas intellectual supremacy had belonged to the Greek tongue and Greek civilisation. Hence, to receive all the experience of the human mind, the entire heritage it had amassed through its efforts over the course of six thousand years, solely in the form given to it by civilisation of Old Rome meant to receive it in an utterly one-sided form, with the certain risk of imparting the same one-sidedness to the character of one’s own civilisation. That is precisely what happened in Europe. And when, during the fifteenth century, exiles from the fallen East Roman Empire flocked to the West carrying their precious manuscripts with them, it was too late. True, European culture became newly animated, but its meaning remained the same: the mind and life of the European had already been given their special cast. Greek learning broadened the scope of knowledge and taste, stimulated thinking, gave minds flight and motion; but it was helpless to change the dominant orientation of the spirit.

Finally, the third element of Western culture its polity was characterized by the fact that hardly a single one of the nations of Europe attained statehood through a tranquil development of national life and national consciousness, where dominant religious and social concepts, embodied in social relations, are able to grow naturally, strengthen, and join into a general unanimity that is reflected in the harmonious wholeness of the social organism. On the contrary, owing to some strange historical accident, nearly everywhere in Europe social life arose violently out of a death struggle between two hostile races out of the oppression of conquerors, out of the resistance of the conquered, and finally out of fortuitous settlements that brought a superficial end to the conflict between the two antagonistic, incommensurate forces.

These three elements peculiar to the West the Latin Church, pagan civilisation of Old Rome, and a statehood arising out of the violence of conquest were entirely alien to old Russia. Having accepted the Christian religion from the East Roman Empire, Russia was in constant communion with the Universal Church. The civilisation of the pagan world passed to it through Christian doctrine, without provoking a one-sided fascination with it, as the living remnant of some particular nation. It was only later, after it had become firmly grounded in Christian civilisation, that Russia began to assimilate the latest fruits of the learning and culture of the ancient world at which point Providence, it would seem, saw fit to arrest the further progress of its intellectual development, thus possibly saving it from the one-sidedness that would inevitably have been its fate if its rationalistic education had begun before Europe had completed the cycle of its own intellectual development; for, not having yet achieved its final results, Europe could have drawn Russia all the more unconsciously and deeply into the limited sphere of its peculiar development. When Christianity penetrated into Russia, it did not meet with the immense difficulties that it had to overcome in Rome, Greece, and the European countries steeped in ancient Roman civilisation. The Slavic world did not present those insurmountable obstacles to the pure influence that Christian doctrine could exert on inner and social life, such as Christianity encountered in the self-contained civilisation of the classical world and the one-sided civilisation of the Western nations. In many respects, even the ethnic characteristics of Slavic life favoured the successful assimilation of Christian principles. . . .

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