The Sophiology of Sergius Bulgakov: Part 2, Sophia and Panentheism

In the the first post I argued that the key concern of Sergius Bulgakov's sophiology is divine mediation, how God relates to the world. And at the end of the post I suggested we reflect upon what "bridges the gap" between us and God. I then quickly took that question back, noting that positing a "gap" between us and God speaks to a misunderstanding that Bulgakov's sophiology is trying to overcome. Today, let's dig into that.

Perhaps the most direct way to describe Bulgakov's vision is to observe that his sophiology is explicitly panentheistic. Some of you might know what that means, others might not. So let me explain.

To start, many Christians imagine the relationship between God and the world this way:

God, in this view, creates a world separate from himself. Once created, God interacts with the world from "the outside" as it were, entering the world from "beyond" the world's ontological independence and autonomy.

The first thing to quickly note is that, from an orthodox Christian perspective, the view above is totally false and completely wrong. Theologically speaking, it's the worst. 


Well, for a couple of reasons. To start, you're imagining God as an object who exists alongside creation. Second, look at the picture. What is holding the world in being? It's just hanging there, suspended "in space," as if it possessed the power to hold itself in being over the void. And lastly, what is that "space" in which God also seems suspended? What exists in the space beyond the boundary of God's being? What is the origin and nature of that ontological ground and field? And wouldn't that space, since it was holding both God and the world in being, be ontologically more fundamental and primary than God himself? If so, then God wouldn't be God--that is, Being Itself--but a being, a god grounded in something greater.

So, you see the problems.

If the imagination in the picture above is wrong, so is this picture:

This view, you likely know, is called pantheism, where God and the world are simply identified. This view is also rejected by orthodox Christianity. According to orthodox Christianity, while God is immanent in creation God is also Wholly Other and transcendent in relation to creation. Also, many of the questions noted above continue to persist. 

Okay, if the two pictures above are illicit, what view is compatible with Christian metaphysics? That view is depicted here:

This view is called panentheism. As you can see, God is represented here as the totality of Being. God has no boundary or edge. (I know the edge of the slide is a boundary, but you get what I'm driving at. This is the best I could do in communicating apophatic mysteries with a PowerPoint slide.) Nothing can exist outside or alongside God. God is the field of Being in which beings exist. Consequently, the world doesn't exist independently of God. The world has to exist "within" God. God creates and continuously holds the world in being. God is the "ground" upon which the world stands. 

And this is why, to return to the end of the last post, there can be no "gap" between you and God, between the world and God. Because you exist your being is continually present to and held by God. As Bulgakov says, "the world participates in the spirit by the fact that it is real." Because you are real you are connected to God. Everything exists because God is touching it. It could not exist otherwise. And because of this, as Augustine said, God is closer to you than you are to yourself. As the Psalmist declared: 

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
Or as Paul declared in Acts 17, "God is not far from anyone of us. For in him we live, move, and have our being."

Bulgakov's sophiology is an attempt to describe this panentheistic vision. As Bulgakov says, "The world exists in God." He goes on to describe: "In the Christian conception...the world belongs to God, for it is in God that it finds the foundation of its reality. Nothing can exist outside of God, as alien or exterior to him. Nevertheless, the world, having been created from 'nothing,' in this 'nothing' finds its 'place.' God confers on a principle which originates in himself an existence distinct from his own. This is not pantheism, but panentheism." 

The central implication of Bulgakov's panentheism is this: the world is suffused with divinity. The world is intrinsically divine. Everything is spiritual. As Bulgakov says, "Only the divinity of the existent God is, and there is nothing apart from and outside of divinity...The whole power of the world's being belongs to Divinity."

And yet, to the contrast Bulgakov makes above, God's Being is different from our being. Everything is spiritual, but we are rejecting pantheism. The world is not God. But the world, existing within God, participates in the divine life which is its origin and source. 

In Bulgakov's sophiology, Sophia names the divinity of God and is identified with the substance (ousia) of God. As Bulgakov declares, "the divinity of God constitutes the divine Sophia" and that "Sophia is Ousia." Summarizing, Bulgakov says, "The three persons of the Holy Trinity have one life in common, that is, one Ousia, one Sophia." Now, if this raises some Trinitarian questions in your mind, you're not alone. From the start, there have been concerns that Bulgakov's sophiology introduces a fourth person--Sophia--into the Trinity. For his part, Bulgakov denied this, and made attempts to clarify that Sophia is not a person of the Trinity. But for this post, we won't wade into that controversy. For now, when you think about God's "god-ness," God's divinity, God's nature, substance, and ousia, that, for Bulgakov, is "Divine Sophia."

Now, given that God has created the world from within his own being, Sophia now has two aspects. Divine Sophia, again, is God's own divinity and substance. The divinity of the created world, by contrast, is what Bulgakov calls the "creaturely Sophia." Simply, creaturely Sophia is the world. As Bulgakov says, "The created world, then, is none other than the creaturely Sophia." In light of Bulgakov's sophiology, our picture of panentheism can be relabeled this way:

You can think of creaturely Sophia as the divine aspect and ground of the world, our creaturely existence, which continually connects us to God's own divine life, the Divine Sophia. As Bulgakov writes, "the primary foundation of the world is rooted in divine Sophia." Since the world was created "out of nothing," it needs some ontological backing. That backing, that ground and foundation, is God's divine being. Bulgakov: "That Wisdom, which is an eternal reality in God, also provides the foundation for the existence of the world's creatures." 

Sophia, then, is the "link," the "connection," the "tether" between God an the world. Again, this is taking a cue from texts like Proverbs 8, where Sophia says, "When God established the heavens, I was there" and:
when he set a limit for the sea
so that the waters would not violate his command,
when he laid out the foundations of the earth.
I was a skilled craftsman beside him.
I was his delight every day,
always rejoicing before him.
To conclude, the big take home points from this post are as follows. First, there is a contrast between creaturely Sophia and divine Sophia. We reject pantheism. However, because the world exists within God, as the creaturely Sophia, everything is spiritual. As Bulgakov writes, Christian panentheism affirms "the fundamental divine character of the world." 

Even more simply: Because you are real you are connected to God. 

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