In What Sense Islam Challenges the Church

Very timely words from a book written in 1889. The great Russian thinker Vladimir Solov’ev warns against the danger represented by two heresies from the early centuries of Christianity, which denied the carnality of the Mystery and the freedom of man. Out of their synthesis, the Islamic religion was born


These passages are from Vladimir Solov’ev’s book La Russia e la Chiesa Universale (Russia and the Universal Church), written in 1889 and published in Italy one hundred years later by La Casa di Matriona, the publishing house of the Centro Russia Cristiana directed by Fr Romano Scalfi.

We offer this to all those who wish to realize the gravity of the challenge facing Christians after September 11th, made even more dramatically urgent by the attacks on New York and Washington: to rediscover the reasons for faith in the Man Jesus of Nazareth, for two thousand years God’s companionship to man. Boldface parts are ours.

1. Solov’ev starts from the awareness that the central dogma of Christianity is the union of the divine and the human, and maintains the resulting necessity for a regeneration of social and political life.

The true central dogma of Christianity is the intimate and complete union of the divine and the human, without confusion and without division. The necessary consequence of this truth (to limit ourselves only to the practical sphere of human existence) is the regeneration of social and political life through the spirit of the Gospel; that is to say, it is the Christian state and society.

2. Then he identifies in two great heresies of the early centuries of Christianity the principal factors of the crisis which struck the Eastern Church: a) Monothelitism, which by contending that Jesus did not have a human will, but only a divine will, denied human freedom; and b) Iconoclasm, which, by denying the cult of images, suppressed the living image of the divine incarnation and its historical manifestation. God and man were thus irremediably separated.

Instead of this synthetic and organic union of the divine and the human, the two elements were subsequently confused, then divided, and finally one was absorbed and the other suppressed. At first the divine and human were confused in the sacralized majesty of the emperor. Just as in the confused idea of the Arians Christ was a hybrid being, more than a man and less than a God, so also the political form of Arianism–making the temporal ruler also the religious ruler–confused temporal and spiritual power without uniting them, and made the autocrat something more than a head of state, but without being able to make him the true head of the Church.

Then the religious society was separated from worldly society, confining it to the monasteries and leaving the Forum prey to pagan laws and passions. Nestorian dualism, condemned in theology, became the very basis of Byzantine life. On another front, the religious ideal was reduced to pure contemplation, i.e., to the absorption of the human spirit into divinity, an evidently Monophysist ideal. As for moral life, it was deprived of its active strength by imposing as its supreme ideal blind submission to those in power, passive obedience, quietism–i.e., the negation of human will and energy: the Monothelitic heresy. Finally, within the framework of an exasperated asceticism, the attempt was made to suppress the bodily nature, to fracture the living image of the divine incarnation, which was an unconscious but logical application of the iconoclastic heresy.

3. The religious essence of Islam is based on the two heresies mentioned above (Monothelitism and Iconoclasm), seeing in man a finite form without any freedom and in God an infinite reality without any form.

This profound contradiction between professed orthodoxy and practiced heresy was the beginning of the end for the Byzantine Empire. And it is the real cause of its collapse. It was right that it end, and it was also right that its end be brought about by Islam. Islam is consistent and sincere Byzantinism, freed of every internal contradiction. It is a full and complete reaction of the Eastern spirit against Christianity, it is a system in which dogma is intimately linked to the laws of life, in which individual belief is in perfect accord with the social and political state.

We already know that the anti-Christian movement, which manifested itself in the imperial heresies, culminated in the seventh and eighth centuries in two doctrines, one of which (the Monothelitic) indirectly denied human freedom, while the other (the Iconoclastic) implicitly refuted the divine phenomenality. The direct and explicit affirmation of these two errors constituted the religious essence of Islam, which sees in man a finite form without freedom and in God an infinite freedom without any form. Once God and man have thus been placed at the opposite poles of existence, there is no nexus between them and any descent of the divine into concrete form, just as any ascendant spiritualization of the human, remains completely out of the realm of possibility.

4. In this way, religion is reduced to a purely external, ritual relationship between the omnipotent creator and the creature without freedom, who therefore owes nothing to the creator except an act of blind devotion (without any reason): in fact, the meaning of the word “Islam” is “submission.”

Religion is reduced to a purely external relationship between the omnipotent creator and the creature who has no freedom whatsoever and owes nothing more to his lord than a simple act of blind devotion (this is the meaning of the Arabic term “Islam”). This act of devotion, expressed in a short prayer formula that must be repeated unchangingly every day at established hours, is the whole religious essence of the Oriental spirit which said its last word through the lips of Mohammed.

5. In this context, there is no need to change man and society, because everything is lowered to the purely natural level of life. The ideal is thus reduced to a measure that in some way can be immediately realized.

Corresponding to this simplicity of the idea of religion is a no less simple conception of the question of society and politics: man and mankind are not called to bring about any essential progress; no moral regeneration is posited for the individual, much less for society. Everything is lowered to the level of purely natural existence; the ideal is reduced to a measure that guarantees it immediate realization. Islamic society could have no other aim than the expansion of its material force and the enjoyment of earthly goods. The entire task of the Islamic state, a task it would be hard not to perform successfully, consists in spreading Islam by arms and governing the faithful by absolute power and according to the rules of an elementary justice codified in the Koran… .

6. The Eastern Church was not able to oppose the “open and honest” anti-Christianity of Islam. Solov’ev identifies this weakness using the term Byzantinism (an anti-Christianity hidden behind an Orthodox mask), so that in Egypt and Asia, five years were sufficient to reduce the Eastern Church to archaeology.

But Byzantinism, which was on principle hostile to Christian progress, which wanted to reduce all of religion to an accomplished fact, to a dogmatic formula and a liturgical ceremony–this anti-Christianity hidden behind an Orthodox mask–had to succumb in its moral impotence in the face of the open and honest anti-Christianity of Islam. It is curious to note how the new religion, with its fatalist dogma, appeared right at the moment when Emperor Heraclius invented the heresy of Monothelitism, the one that masked the negation of human freedom and energy. With this artifice, the aim was to consolidate the official religion and to unite Egypt and Asia. But Egypt and Asia preferred Arabic affirmation to the Byzantine expedient. If we take into account the long anti-Christian workings of the Lower Empire, there is nothing surprising in the ease and rapidity which characterized the Muslim conquest. Five years were sufficient to reduce to an archaeological existence three great patriarchates of the Eastern Church. The fact is that there were no conversions to be made, only an old veil to be torn apart.

History has judged and condemned the Lower Empire. Not only was it unable to carry out its mission–to establish the Christian state–but it worked actively to cause the historical work of Jesus Christ to fail. Not succeeding in falsifying Orthodox dogma, it reduced it to a dead letter; it chose to undermine the edifice of Christian peace by attacking the central government of the universal Church, and in public life it replaced the law of the Gospel with the traditions of the pagan state.

7. The error of the Eastern Church was to think that it was sufficient to preserve dogmas and rites abstractly, relegating Christianity to the temple, without being concerned with social and political life in order to continue to exist.

The Byzantines believed that, in order to be truly Christian, it was enough to preserve the dogmas and sacred rites of Orthodoxy without worrying about making social and political life Christian; they believed that it was a fine and praiseworthy thing to confine Christianity to the temple and to abandon the public forum to the pagan princes. They certainly could not lament their fate. They got what they wanted: they preserved the dogma and ritual, and only social and political power fell into the hands of the Muslims, the legitimate heirs of paganism.

Thus we agree with Solov’ev that we do not want to be Byzantinists, conscious as we are of the fact that the risk run by the Eastern Church of the early centuries is a current one also for us, Christians of the West, called by the “Christian claim” to live a challenge analogous to the one of the early times of Christianity.