SOLOVIEV AND OUR TIME
by Giacomo Cardinal Biffi
Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, the 72-year-old archbishop of Bologna (central Italy) delivered the following lecture on Vladimir Soloviev (1850-1900), a brilliant Russian Orthodox theologian and mystic, who has also been cited approvingly by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, on March 4 2000.
Soloviev's predictions regarding events in the 20th century are "astonishing" in their accuracy, Biffi asserted. Vatican watchers think Biffi's remarks significant because they offer a glimpse into the mind of a man who could be John Paul II's successor.
The text of the address and editorial notes reproduced below (slightly shortened and altered), is taken from "Inside the Vatican", June/July 2000, pp.24-5.
Vladimir Sergeevic Soloviev passed away 100 years ago, on July 31 (August 13 according to our Gregorian calendar) of the year 1900. He passed away on the threshold of the 20th century - a century whose vicissitudes and troubles he had foreseen with striking clarity, but also a century which, tragically, in its historical course and dominant ideologies, would reject his most profound and important teachings. His, therefore, was a teaching at once prophetic and largely unheeded,
A Prophetic Teaching
At the time of the great Russian philosopher, the general view - in keeping with the limitless optimism of the belle époque - foresaw a bright future for humanity in the new century: under the direction and inspiration of the new religion of progress and solidarity stripped of transcendent elements, humanity would enjoy an era of prosperity, peace, justice, security. In the "Excelsior" - a form of dance which enjoyed an extraordinary success in the last years of the 19th century (and which later lent its name to countless theaters and hotels) - this new religion found its own liturgy, as it were. Victor Hugo proclaimed: "This century was great; the one coming will be happy."
But Soloviev refused to allow himself to be swept up in this de-sacralized vision. On the contrary, he predicted with prophetic clarity all of the disasters which in fact occurred.
As early as 1882, in his Second Discourse on Dostoevsky, Soloviev foresaw - and condemned - the sterility and cruelty of the collectivist tyranny which a few years later would oppress Russia and mankind. "The world must not be saved by recourse to force," Soloviev said. "One could imagine men toiling together toward some great end to which they would submit all of their own individual activity; but if this end is imposed on them, if it represents for them something fated and oppressive... then, even if this unity were to embrace all of mankind, universal brotherhood would not be the result, but only a giant anthill." This "anthill" was later constructed through the obtuse and cruel ideology of Lenin and Stalin.
In his final work, The Three Dialogues and the Story of the Antichrist (finished on Easter Sunday 1900), one is struck by how clearly Soloviev foresaw that the 20th century would be "the epoch of great wars, civil strife and revolutions." All this, he said, would prepare the way for the disappearance of "the old structure of separate nations" and "almost everywhere the remains of the ancient monarchical institutions would disappear." This would pave the way for a "United States of Europe."
The accuracy of Soloviev¹s vision of the great crisis that would strike Christianity at the end of the 20th century is astonishing. He represents this crisis using the figure of the Antichrist. This fascinating personage will succeed in influencing and persuading almost everyone. It is not difficult to see in this figure of Soloviev the reflection, almost the incarnation, of the confused and ambiguous religiosity of our time.
The Antichrist will be a "convinced spiritualist," Soloviev says, an admirable philanthropist, a committed, active pacifist, a practicing vegetarian, a determined defender of animal rights. He will not be hostile "in principle" to Christ. Indeed, he will appreciate Christ's teaching. But he will reject the teaching that Christ is unique, and will deny that Christ is risen and alive today.
One sees here described a Christianity of "values," of "openings," of "dialogue," a Christianity where it seems there is little room left for the person of the Son of God crucified for us and risen, little room for the actual event of salvation. A scenario, I think, that should cause us to reflect...
A scenario in which the faith militant is reduced to humanitarian and generically cultural action, the Gospel message is located in an irenic encounter with all philosophies and all religions and the Church of God is transformed into an organization for social work. Are we sure Soloviev did not foresee what has actually come to pass? Are we sure it is not precisely this that is the most perilous threat today facing the "holy nation" redeemed by the blood of Christ - the Church? It is a disturbing question and one we must not avoid.
A Teaching Unheeded
Soloviev understood the 20th century like no one else, but the 20th century did not understand Soloviev. It isn¹t that he has not been not recognized and honored. He is often called the greatest Russian philosopher, and few contest this appellation. Von Balthasar regarded his work "the most universal speculative creation of the modern period" (Gloria III, p. 263) and even goes so far as to set him on the level of Thomas Aquinas. But there is no doubt that the 20th century, as a whole, gave him no heed. Indeed, the 20th century, at every turn, has gone in the direction opposed to the one he indicated.
The mental attitudes prevalent today, even among many ecclesially active and knowledgeable Christians, are very far indeed from Soloviev's vision of reality. Among many, here are a few examples:
Yet the 20th century, following an egoistic and unwise sexual revolution, reached levels of permissivism, openly displayed vulgarity and public shamelessness which seem to have few parallels in history.
Moreover, the 20th century was the most oppressive and bloody of all history, a century without respect for human life and without mercy. We cannot, certainly, forget the horror of the extermination of the Jews, which can never be execrated sufficiently. But it was not the only extermination.
No one remembers the genocide of the Armenians during the First World War. No one commemorates the tens of millions killed under the Soviet regime. No one ventures to calculate the number of victims sacrificed uselessly in the various parts of the earth to the communist utopia.
As for the religious sentiment during the 20th century, in the East for the first time state atheism was both proposed and imposed on a vast portion of humanity, while in the secularized West a hedonistic and libertarian atheism spread until it arrived at the grotesque idea of the "death of God."
In conclusion: Soloviev was undoubtedly a prophet and a teacher, but a teacher who was, in a way, irrelevant. And this, paradoxically, is why he was great and why he is precious for our time.
A passionate defender of the human person and allergic to every philanthropy; a tireless apostle of peace and adversary of pacifism; a promoter of Christian unity and critic of every irenicism; a lover of nature and yet very far from today's ecological infatuations - in a word, a friend of truth and an enemy of ideology. Of leaders like him we have today great need.
Biography - Giacomo Cardinal Biffi
Born in Milan on June 13, 1928, Biffi was ordained on December 23, 1950. His degree was in Theology and he taught at the diocesan seminary in Venegono. In 1960, he became the parish priest of the Church of the Holy Anaunian Martyrs, and in 1969, of St. Andrew, both in Legnano. He was appointed Bishop of Fidene by Paul VI on December 7, 1975, and shortly thereafter became Auxiliary in Milan. In the Milan Curia, Biffi founded and directed the Lombard Pastoral Institute, applying himself at the same time to the liturgical reform of the Ambrosian Rite. On April 19, 1984, John Paul II called him to be Archbishop of Bologna and subsequently elevated him to the College of the Cardinals during the Consistory of May 25, 1985. He is a member of the Congregations for the Doctrine of the Faith, for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, for the Clergy, and for Catholic Education.
The above biography is taken from Who are the Cardinals?
Further Information - about Soloview
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Section Contents Copyright ©: Mark Alder and Inside the Vatican 2000