Spiritual Mastery

Economic activity constantly seeks to transcend itself, not only by extending its domain into the artistic realm, but also in exertion within its own proper sphere, in its own inner dynamic.  It is striving to become not only one sphere of life, but the only on, or the ultimately definitive one, recognising no extra-economic or supra-economic court of appeal.  The result is economism as a fundamental perception of the world, a world-view.  Its class expression is ‘economic materialism’, a many-faced and many-faceted phenomenon, although it has come to be associated with the name of one its boldest exponents, Karl Marx.  Man is aware of his being in the world only as an economic subject (economic man, homo economicus), for whom economic activity is pure commercialism: economic instinct or egoism is laid down as the foundation of life itself.  This egoism is simply the pure manifestation of the universal, metaphysical egoism of creation as a whole.  Economic activity founded upon egoism in inevitably afflicted by disharmony and strife, personal and communal (‘class war’), and there is no possibility of any ultimate harmonising of this economic egoism which would lead it towards the ‘solidarity’ of which socialist thinking makes so much.  Economic egoism is an elemental force which is in need of regulation, both external and internal (spiritual and ascetical); left to itself, liberated from all restraint, it becomes a destructive power.  Where economics is concerned, it is just as wrong to turn away from it in disgust as to be enslaved by its concerns. Economic labour is imposed upon us as a penalty for sin, and we are bound to see it as a duty [obedience] laid upon all mankind.  There is nothing common between fastidious aristocratic distaste for economic activity and that freedom from economic concern which the gospel enjoins: this freedom aims not at neglect or contempt but at spiritual mastery.

The Unfading Light; Sergii Bulgakov (1917)

I have not ventured far into Bulgakov but I am intrigued and hopeful in his earthy and fleshly spirituality and how it engages the world; the practice of spiritual mastery (as if I needed incentive to read more turn of the century Russian authors).


3 thoughts on “Spiritual Mastery

  1. In his book on the politics of Bulgakov, Rowan Williams suggests that Bulgakov would likely have been deeply sympathetic to Milbank’s “Socialism by Grace.” I am curious as to what Bulgakov would make of Milbanks recent turn, a turn I honestly find baffling since if it is there in his work – even as late as Being Reconciled – I just don’t see it being a foundational or irrevocable seed. Perhaps the persistent spirituality and concept of askesis within Orthodoxy allowed Bulgakov to imagine economics as a matter to be ‘spiritually mastered;’ and I wonder if Milbanks tendency to eschew piety can account at least a tiny bit for his seeming embrace of ‘universal reason.’


  2. This passage is from Williams’ edited volume. I noticed some of those comments in his footnotes. I would be curious to hear contemporary comments by Williams on Milbank and I suspect Milbank’s earlier work could be developed in any number of directions. I have not read enough of his work thoroughly enough to take any strong positions on the matter. His foreword to The Gift of Difference was enough to see he was taking things in a direction I was not particularly interested in. I think Theology and Social Theory remans a significant critique despite whether or not one holds to its entirety or Milbank’s later direction.


  3. I should also note that in the footnote I am thinking of WIlliams lumped Milbank, Hauerwas, and Stringfellow together so those are three pretty distinct social expressions that he is relating to some common theological denominator.


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