The chronicle of human affairs often seems to be an inexorable tale of pain, underlining the presence of sin in our world. But God can bring good out of seemingly irremediable circumstances. Furthermore, he often uses pairs of people and their choices to teach us lessons about right and wrong, or right and wrong paths. That divine catechesis begins with Abel and Cain, and continues with Jacob and Esau, Moses and Pharaoh, David and Saul, and Peter and Judas.
We can also find historical examples closer to our era. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was undoubtedly a curse; paradoxically it was also a blessing. For the Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, and others who eventually made up the population of the Soviet Union, the revolution meant oppression, deportation, collectivization, and a host of other evils. Outwardly, the world has taken in Russian-Soviet refugees carrying the evils of occultism, atheism, non-Bolshevik communism, and schism. But the Bolsheviks also drove out thinkers, writers and clerics who enriched the West. The Russo-Soviet defeat was the conquest of the world. Most of the Russian-Soviet thinking – good or bad – that has converged in the diaspora can be distilled down to spiritual anthropology, or how we understand the human being. Is it the highest form of animal, capable of being analyzed by its component parts, instincts and physical needs? Does she have a soul? How and why do they interact? Russian-Soviet refugees have provided multiple irreconcilable answers.
According to esoteric thinkers George Gurdjieff (1877-1949) and his disciple PD Ouspensky (1878-1947), humans are beings mostly unaware of the ways of higher consciousness and ignorant of great treasures of hidden knowledge. The duo attempted, like their counterparts in Theosophy and Anthroposophy, to guide people to those supposedly higher levels of consciousness. Their school of thought is not compatible with a classical Christian conception of human beings, creatures of body and soul who live under the weight of original sin.
Much closer to the traditional view were the works of the writer Yevgeny Zamyatin and the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. Zamyatin (1884-1937) is best known for his novel We, which centers on an unnamed character in a future collectivist dystopia. The novel presents a technocratic world with a rigidly rational form of collective life in which food, clothing, sex, work and time are all strictly regulated. This society exists in a barren city protected by a wall from nature and the remaining (primitive) humans. The protagonist, D-503, is a talented engineer and chief builder of a spaceship that will allow this company to spread its truths to other planets. D-503 appears to be a scrupulously logical and mathematical type; however, he also has a poetic and sensual side. His world is turned upside down when he meets a bold and mysterious woman, I-330. Her ever deeper involvement with her leads him further and further away from the truths he thinks he knows, even outside the wall and among primitive peoples. By saying yes, he becomes more fully alive, to the point of betraying society’s values and breaking its laws. A doctor he sees gives him a surprising diagnosis: “Apparently, you have developed a soul” (89). Meanwhile, he also said yes to O-90, his state-sanctioned sexual partner and I-330’s maternal counterpart. Her yes to her results in the conception of their child, even if that act is punishable by her death. He eventually helps the O-90s escape out the wall by taking their unborn child with him. D-503 cannot live with the chaos of freedom deriving from his yes and undergoes an operation similar to a lobotomy. By the end of the novel, he is a more flexible member of society, but we are left with an ambiguous conclusion as the forces of nature and primitive people seem to topple the city’s society. The key fact revealed is that a person is the one who says yes to another: love conquers the ego.
Like Zamyatin, Berdyaev (1874-1948) thought a lot about the relationship between individuals and society. He criticized what he called the “bourgeois spirit”, capitalist or Marxist, by which he meant that which focuses on the material and rejects the spiritual. “Freedom is a difficult thing,” writes Berdyaev Slavery and freedom. “It is easier to remain in bondage” (247). According to Berdyaev: “The real ‘we’, that is, the community of people, communion in freedom, love and mercy, could never enslave man, on the contrary it is the realization of the fullness of personality life, its transcendence [sic] towards another” (104).
This understanding of human relationship leads us to two Russian women, both of whom emigrated to North America, who proposed divergent approaches to life: Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum (better known as Ayn Rand, 1905-1982) and Catherine de Heuck Doherty (1896- 1985). Rand was a great libertarian thinker, novelist and founder of the philosophy of objectivism. Doherty was a Catholic mystic and activist who eventually settled in Canada and began the Madonna House apostolate. Rand grew up with religion (Judaism in her case) but she became an ardent atheist, while Doherty grew up in a Russian Orthodox family. Influenced by Zamyatin WeRand thought about the person and society under totalitarianism but came to different conclusions in her first novel Hymn. The world of Hymn it is, if anything, more collectivist and totalitarian than We, but also much more primitive and almost religious. Rand’s protagonist is called Equality 7-2521. Despite his intellectual promise he was designated a scavenger, in part due to his rebellious nature. While carrying out his duties, he discovers the technology of an earlier era. His experiments lead him to rediscover electric light and therefore a new Prometheus. He also locates and meets an attractive woman, Liberty 5-3000. Accused of being a criminal, Equality flees into the forest. Eventually Liberty joins him and they start a new life with new names. Freedom is not her equal: she is drawn to him by her demigod characteristics. Equality says no to society and yes only to itself. “And here, above the portals of my fort, I will engrave in stone the word which will be my beacon and my standard. The word that he will not die, should we all perish in battle. The word that can never die on this earth, because it is its heart, its meaning and its glory. The sacred word: EGO” (122-123).
Rand developed her thinking about the ego in objectivism, elaborated in numerous non-fiction books but also in the famous novels The source and Atlas shrugged. In Hymn, Rand’s Equality 7-2521 hopes to build and indeed becomes a builder only through the force of one’s will. Even her protagonist is persecuted by the reigning authorities: insulted (79-80), threatened to be burned at the stake (80) and anathematized (82). “’What is not done collectively cannot be good,’ she said [one of the ruling Council members] International 1-5537” (81). Rand’s views have remained influential, especially in North America, largely due to his defiance of any outside authority.
His counterpart Doherty is not as well known to the general public, but his books are influential nonetheless. Her best known work is Pustinia, a general look at Eastern Christian beliefs and practices for a Western audience. Doherty, unlike Rand, emphasized obedience to established authority. According to the author’s notes for his book Molchanie: “At the beginning of her new life in the West, Catherine accepted the teachings of the Catholic Church, without rejecting the spiritual riches of her Orthodox heritage” (87). In the same book Doherty provides the antidote to the alienation inherent in Rand’s ego-driven philosophy: “[T]there is only one way to bring people to God, and that is to love each individual personally. It is loving each other totally, completely, totally… Yes, love must be communicated from person to person, otherwise it will not be effective” (77). In his book on pilgrimage, StrannikDoherty insists that a prerequisite for the pilgrimage is sobornost, which recalls solidarity in Western Catholic teaching. Sobornost “unites you to God and man” and is “a unity that must not be broken” (47). This unity also requires kenosis or emptying, a scriptural concept highly valued by Russian theologians.
All of Doherty’s thoughts and mission can be found in “The Little Mandate”, which in part reads: “Get up, go! Sell everything you own. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up my cross (their cross) and follow me [Christ], go to the poor, be poor, be one with them, one with me”. This is sobornost manifested and embodied, the antithesis of Rand’s praise of the ego.
Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979), writing during the Cold War, identified the social and spiritual consequences of growing individualism in our culture: vocation in life, dissolve into atoms; atoms exist only for themselves. To say we live in the atomic age may be a more unfortunate characterization than we know; for if we are nothing but atomic individuals, then we are ready either to be split or mentally split, or else collectivized into a socialist dictatorship. The latter is nothing but the forced organization of the chaos created by a conflict of individual egoisms» (213-214). Sheen interpreted the signs of the times correctly, predicting that a society without God that relies on science for guidance would be one adrift, prone to individualism or collectivism, both paths to an overwhelming and dehumanizing existence.
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Berdiaev, Nikolai. Slavery and Freedom. Trans. RM French. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1944.
Doherty, Catherine. Molchanie: Living the silence of God. (Combermere, ON: Madonna House, 2009).
Doherty, Catherine. Poustinia: Eastern Christian spirituality for Western man. (South Bend, IN: Ave Maria Press, 1981).
Doherty, Catherine. Strannik: The Heart’s Call to Pilgrimage. (Combermere, ON: Madonna House, 1991).
Rand, Ayn. Hymn. New York: Seal, 1946.
Sheen, Fulton J. Guide to contentment. Canfield, Ohio: Dawn House, 1996.
Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. Trans. Mira Ginsburg. New York: Harper Voyager, 2012.