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by Miroslav Volf

The Eighth Day of Creation

From a Russian Orthodox philosopher, a provocative alternative to modernity.

Osmi dan stvaranja:
Filozofija stvaralastva
u Nikolaja A. Berdjajeva

(The Eighth Day
of Creation:
Nicolai A. Berdyaev's
Philosophy of Creativity)
by Ivan Devcic
Zagreb: Krscanska sadasnjost, 1999
401 pp.

The author of this excellent study of Nikolay Berdyaev's philosophy has recently been appointed as archbishop of Rijeka, Croatia. Prior to his elevation to this high ecclesiastical office, Ivan Devcic was professor of theology at the faculty of Catholic theology in the same city. Nikolay Berdyaev (1874-1948) was a major Russian thinker who, though raised in an atheist environment, early on found his way to Christianity and became arguably the most important Russian Christian philosopher of the 20th century. Given present-day frosty relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the world of Orthodoxy, the book's publication in Croatia, a country situated at the fault line between the worlds of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, is a significant event. The very existence of the book is a testimony to the fact that mutual condemnations and recriminations or outright war (as in the former Yugoslavia) is not the only way the two worlds relate. Serious intellectual engagement of major ecumenical importance is taking place across the boundaries.

Significant as this "political" dimension of the book is, in and of itself it would not justify a review of this monograph published in Croatian in an American journal. The reason it merits being introduced to an English-speaking audience is that it is a major and compelling contribution to the study of Berdyaev's thought. Berdyaev's reputation, which matches his own self-descriptions, is that of an intuitive and occasional thinker, uninterested in the overarching coherence of his thought. And yet, if one distinguishes between the "coherence of thought" and the "systematic character of its presentation," one can clearly see how Berdyaev's thought, which strikes one as disjointed, in fact does display a basic "goodness of fit." To argue for this thesis is the main purpose of Devcic's book.

At the heart of Berdyaev's work lies the idea of "personhood"—radical freedom of human beings along with their calling to participate in God's creativity in the world. God created the world in seven days; human beings are creators of the ongoing eighth day. Even in his early universalist and monist phase, Berdyaev insisted on the "individual remainder" in every human being, which cannot be reduced to influences from the environment. In his later "personalist" phase, he elevated freedom to the fundamental reality. Freedom precedes being and grounds it. Consequently, freedom is most basically neither absence of constraint nor a movement toward the good, as the two dominant ways of conceptualizing freedom would have it. It is creativity, and it always contains an element of creatio ex nihilo, a moment of radical novelty. Such creativity is tragic, however, for the result of freedom is the world of "objects." These determine human beings from outside, so that creativity, in its very exercise, sets up conditions that undermine it.

Devcic's book represents an effort to trace the genesis of Berdyaev's notion of personhood as creative freedom and to show how all the aspects of his thought flow from this central idea. Devcic has provided Berdyaev's readers with a helpful map as they make their way through the wildly beautiful but not easily penetrable terrain of his writings.

In addition to "organizing" Berdyaev for me, Devcic reminded me of Berdyaev's relevance in the contemporary intellectual climate. I went away from reading the book wondering why Berdyaev does not figure more prominently in contemporary debates about the fate of modernity. Since freedom for Berdyaev goes "all the way down" and precedes being, wherever something "is" there is novelty and therefore difference; wherever there is sameness there is non-freedom and therefore "nothingness."

When the consequences of this basic decision are worked out, Berdyaev appears very much a non-modern, even anti-modern thinker. From his perspective, socialist collectivism and liberal individualism are in reality mutually opposing embodiments of the inability to theorize and practice difference. Against reigning modernity, Berdyaev advocates a "new Middle Ages." This is reminiscent of Alisdair MacIntyre's waiting for "another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict." Yet we read nothing of virtues, practices, and tradition. Instead, Berdyaev's hope is that God will become the center of human life again and therefore the guarantor both of differences and their flourishing.

Whether or not one finds Berdyaev's thought ultimately persuasive—is freedom which precedes being a coherent notion?—one will certainly benefit greatly from engaging it. We are indebted to Devcic for having demonstrated so persuasively not only the internal coherence of Berdyaev's Christian philosophy but also its great intellectual power.

Miroslav Volf is Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale University Divinity School. Among his many books is Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Abingdon).

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