Mythology and Freedom: Nicholas Berdyaev's Uses of Jacob Boehme's Ungrund Myth

By McLachlan, James | Philosophy Today, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Mythology and Freedom: Nicholas Berdyaev's Uses of Jacob Boehme's Ungrund Myth


McLachlan, James, Philosophy Today


In two recent works, David Ray Griffin has noted the possibilities in the theology of the Russian Orthodox personalist existentialist philosopher/theologian Nicholas Berdyaev for contemporary process theology, which Griffin calls constructive postmodern theology. Griffin is not the first process philosopher to have noted the similarities in Berdyaev's thought to process metaphysics. Much earlier, in 1960, Charles Hartshorne's important article "Berdyaev and Whitehead: Is there Tragedy in God?" called attention to the similarities between Berdyaev and the process view. But, for the most part, the place Berdyaev's philosophy held in the enterprise of philosophical theology has faded over the last thirty-five years and moments like Griffin's references to Berdyaev have been the exception rather than rule. But even Griffin's positive evaluation will hardly begin a Berdyaev renaissance because of the serious limitations he thinks are part of Berdyaev's thought. In God & Religion in the Postmodern World, Griffin sees Berdyaev's theology as "rich, exciting and suggestive. But it is limited."2 These limitations are basically four: first, Berdyaev's theology is unnecessarily irrational; second, and related to the first limitation, it clothes the relation between the divine and the human in mystery; third, it is anthropocentric; and finally, the goodness of God becomes problematic because God is reduced to an amoral, irrational creativity. I think the first, second, and forth charges represent some fairly serious misunderstandings of Berdyaev in Griffin's otherwise fine books. These misunderstandings are linked to the general charge that Berdyaev is an irrationalist. The third charge, that Berdyaev's thought is anthropocentric, is, at least in part, true. It is related to Berdyaev's type of personalism. What is uncertain is whether Berdyaev's anthropocentrism is as serious a failing as Griffin thinks.3 In this essay I will focus on the three charges that Griffin associates with Berdyaev's irrationalism and indicate how Berdyaev's thought, although sharing certain similarities with process philosophy, is more adequately understood as a type of the dialogical personalism that flourished in the first half of the century. Berdyaev is much more properly grouped with Buber, Marcel, Baxtin, Rosenzweig, and Levinas than with Bergson and Whitehead.

Ultimate Irrationality? The Ungrund and Freedom

Berdyaev developed some of the most original and unorthodox solutions to traditional problems in philosophical theology of any twentieth century thinker. He created a conception of ultimate reality in which the polar opposites of immanence and transcendence, unity and multiplicity, identity and difference, activity and passivity, positivity and negativity, Being and nothingness etc., are all present in an undifferentiated state called the Ungrund, which is prior to Being and thus also prior to both irrationality and rationality. There is no ontological difference between human beings and God, or Necessary Being and dependent being as there are in traditional Christian theology; all of reality is contained in the primal unity of the Ungrund. The "ontological difference" is rather between existent Being coupled with its antinomy negation, and the source from which both being and negation flow.

Quite early in his philosophical career Berdyaev was attracted to Jacob Boehme's myth of the Ungrund because through this myth Boehme formulated questions about the relation of the divine and the human, freedom and determinism, creation and destruction, in a radically different manner than had occurred heretofore in the West. Jacob Boehme's ideas came into this tradition as mainly original creations of an independent and non-academic mind, largely uninfluenced by the Greek and Latin traditions.4 The basic difference between Boehme and the previous Christian mystics of the Neo-Platonic tradition is that he did not regard the Absolute primarily as Being but as will.

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