Spirit and Nature: Why Berdyaev’s Dualism Resounds Today

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Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948)

As anyone familiar with my recent work will know, I have become increasingly engaged with the philosophy of Nikolai Alexandrovitch Berdyaev – a Russian thinker whose organising principle was the freedom of the person in Christ. Although Berdyaev was well read in Western philosophy, especially that of Plato, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Marx, Berdyaev’s core intellectual intuitions derived from his Eastern Christianity and his apophatic, mystical theology.

Now, I am no fan of dualisms, but Berdyaev felt in a profound way the manner in which experience is often characterised by apparent tensions and opposites.

And one of these distinctions he frequently discussed was that between spirit and nature. Berdyaev was no gnostic in the sense of believing that matter, or nature, was bad, and that spirit was the ultimate reality. Although, as we shall see, he emphasised spirit, but he did so because nature and spirit to him were religious positions — fundamental orientations towards life.

Nature is what we find ourselves in when we are born. The natural is our birthright, so to speak. We are born as fleshly beings to parents and indeed often born into a network of biological relatives who are part of a broader structure of society which in turn is integral to a nation or ethnos. So nature pertains to the individual, the social, the political, the ecclesiastical, the economic, and other areas of life which are integral to the functioning of a country.

Spirit, on the other hand, is that which positions us in the invisible dimension of reality. Whereas we are born as individuals, to grow in personality is to grow in spirit: personality is spiritual. According to Eastern Christianity (and indeed, some Western creeds too), the entire cosmos was made in and through the Trinity, and is now handed over to Christ, who defeated death and the devil at the first Easter.

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It is our connection to Christ which energises our spirits, our personalities. Christ is the Vine, and we are the branches, receiving essential nourishment from our ‘head’.

Yet for Berdyaev, the spiritual is much more than this as well: the spiritual is transfigurative of the entire creation. In the beginning of creation we find that the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters of creation, and at Pentecost the Spirit is given to the Church in a radically new way, enabling human beings to participate in the ongoing work of creation in vital new ways.

Saint Paul was fond of saying that in Christ there are no distinctions which pertain to the natural: there is no more male and female, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, and so on. What he meant by this is that former distinctions and values need to be revisited in the light of Christ, the God-man, who reveals God to humanity at the same time as revealing humanity to God.

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Saint Paul

What is especially important is to remember that the spiritual does not override or somehow supersede the natural. Instead, the spiritual re-casts the ‘natural’, thereby making everything spiritual, transfigured through the God-man. The emphasis is actually on synthesis, on holism, wholeness, or holiness. There is a dynamic movement towards transfiguration.

When Saint Paul tells the Romans to be renewed in their minds by the Spirit of God, he is advocating the spiritual transfiguration of reality in the light of Christ. What once appeared to be important and valuable can be re-asssessed in the light of past events (the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus).

Jesus, said Berdyaev, is the liberator. He struggles for the freedom of creation. In particular, Christ frees us from enslavement to the natural: being slaves to our families, our neighbourhood, our society, our ethnicity, traditions, fashions, news, politics, money, romantic relationships, sex, and ideologies.

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Do I care more about fashion, or about style which images forth my inner, spiritual self?

Yet rather than rejecting these areas altogether as somehow evil in themselves, the emphasis is on transfiguration through our spiritual and creative work. We re-orient ourselves to these realities so that we are fundamentally free from being too attached to them that we place our life’s happiness on them.

To do so would be irrational, says Berdyaev: Jesus is perhaps the most rational being of all, because he straightens our paths and sees things clearly. And he has given his Spirit to us, so that we can intuit such things too. By moving ourselves into faith in Christ (rather than those ‘natural’ areas), we actually become more adept at engaging with these areas, and we may be more successful at contributing to their flourishing.

The emphasis therefore, is entirely positive and dignifies people with responsibility to feel their way into a vocation which utilises the talents God has given to them. In what ways are we gifted? Are we using such gifts to further enslave others to a particular area (to build up an existential hell for others, as Berdyaev said)? Or are we somehow transfiguring them, working with God to create new values, new visions of beauty, ways of living and being?

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It is part of our nature, so to speak, that we have particular viewpoints, values, customs, traditions, and ideals. What Berdyaev urges us to do is to overcome slavery to these in their natural form with our spiritual personalities. By sensing the way in which we are uniquely created by the God-man Christ, we can begin the spiritual and creative work of imaging forth our personalities, engaging with the wider world to question the status quo. How might things be seen differently? How might people be emancipated from debilitating beliefs which harm themselves and other people?

Am I a slave to the way in which my ‘natural’ communities envision being a sexual adult male? Am I slave to the media’s representation of aesthetic strength? Am I harming myself by mistaking the outward, ecclesiastical form of Christianity for the inward, existential and spiritual reality in Christ? Am I inadvertently burying my gifts and talents by submitting to my culture’s ideas about ‘gainful employment’, especially if such employment is gendered?

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Different regions in Europe have particular ideals for me as an adult, as a male, as an employable being. Christ liberates us from subservience to such ideals. 

There are many more such questions I could ask.

To be spiritual is not, therefore, to reject the natural altogether. To be spiritual is to become a personality, a sibling of the God-man, who reveals the divine to the human, and the human to the divine.

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