Summary of “Relics” Essay by Sergei Bulgakov

#SergeiBulgakov #theology #religiousmaterialism #atmospherictheology #spatialtheology


During Bulgakov's life, a major scandal broke out in the Russian Orthodox Church: vandals broke into a church and desecrated the relics of saints. In response to this event, Bulgakov wrote an essay titled “Relics” in which he articulates a theology of holy relics grounded within the doctrines of the Incarnation, resurrection, and deification. For Bulgakov, these doctrines combine to create a new understanding of material reality, which Bulgakov (somewhat reluctantly) calls “religious materialism.” I recently finished reading this essay, and I found it eye-opening and tremendously fruitful for reclaiming the religious significance of the physical and material world. This article provides a summary of his argument.

Keywords: Deification, Incarnation, Incorruptible, Materiality, Sacrament, Sainthood, Resurrection, Soul and Body Union, Phenomena and Noumena

Four-sentence summary:

  1. The incarnation and deification are the core doctrines associated with relics, which creates an ontology of religious materialism.
  2. The holiness of relics witnesses to the incarnational and sacramental sanctification of reality.
  3. The bodies of saints contain the future resurrected bodies in the present.
  4. The most important thing about a relic is its holiness, not whether it is incorruptible.

Incarnation and Theosis

The incarnation of Christ is the first doctrine associated with relics. The Christian doctrine of the incarnation is a fundamental belief that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became fully human while remaining fully divine. It teaches that God, in the person of Jesus, took on human flesh and entered into the world to dwell among humanity. This belief is rooted in various biblical passages, such as the Gospel of John, which states, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14).

Additionally, the sacrament of the Eucharist stands in continuity with the Incarnation. Just as Jesus took on human flesh in the incarnation, in the Eucharist, believers receive the true presence of Christ—his body, blood, soul, and divinity—under the appearances of bread and wine. It is a sacramental participation in the life and sacrifice of Christ. Indeed, as Bulgakov points out, all sacraments contain a degree of materiality to them, such as baptism requiring water (more on this later).

Bulgakov believed that the incarnation was not only a redemptive act but also a transformative event for humanity and creation as a whole. Thus, the holiness of relics witnesses to the incarnational and sacramental sanctification of reality along with Christ, who possesses a “Holy flesh” and stands as the prime example of this new reality (pg. 14).

Through the incarnation, Christ united the divine and the human, bringing about a process of deification (theosis) by which humans can participate in the divine life and uncreated energy of God. Or, as Athanasius of Alexandria put it: “God became man so that man might become god,” which Bulgakov himself restates on page 8. The doctrine of deification, also known as theosis, is a theological concept within Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It teaches that through the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, humans can partake in the divine energies and become united with God. Theosis involves a transformative process where believers are progressively conformed to the image of Christ, participating in the divine energies and attributes. It is understood as a synergistic communion with God that goes beyond mere moral improvement or ethical conduct, emphasizing a profound union between God and humanity, rooted in the incarnation of Christ. It is the ultimate goal of salvation, where believers are transformed in their thoughts, desires, and actions, becoming more Christ-like and reflecting the divine image. The doctrine of deification holds that humans, through grace, can share in God's life and participate in the eternal communion of love and fellowship with the Triune God.

For Bulgakov, this process of deification is not merely a future hope, but a reality that is breaking into the present. At the Ascension, Christ, in the flesh, created a ladder between heaven and earth (pg. 8). The sacraments are then a means by which this holiness and transformation are brought to us from above (pg. 8). This creates a spiritual power via being born again in the Spirit (pg. 8). Additionally, as discussed in The Bride of the Lamb, Unfading Light, and The Comforter, Bulgakov expanded the concept of deification to include the whole cosmos. He saw deification not only as a personal transformation but also as the restoration and transfiguration of the entire created order. Bulgakov believed that through the incarnation, Christ united heaven and earth, and the goal of deification is the renewal and glorification of all creation.

When the doctrines of the incarnation and theosis are combined, they create an ontology of “religious materialism.”

Religious Materialism

“Religious materialism” is a phrase used (somewhat reluctantly) by Bulgakov to describe the sacredness and religious significance of materiality. Reality is not spirit or matter alone, but is comprised of both of these principles at work simultaneously. Bulgakov then cites several examples of what he means by this. Humans are not spirit alone such as the angels. Likewise, God doesn’t take us out of the world but fills us with God’s power in the world (pg. 8). Additionally, as hinted at earlier, sacraments are not purely spiritual but involve material, which affirms embodiment (pg. 9). Sacraments do not lose their corporeality during e.g. consecration but rather become “corporeal to the highest degree” (pg. 9). This reveals a deep continuity between materiality and spirituality, which is the ground of holy things, objects, places, etc. (pg. 13).

Sacraments transubstantiate the cosmos, which link back to the doctrines of the incarnation and deification (pg. 10). Borrowing terms from Kantian philosophy and German idealism (which his Western audience would've been more familiar with), Bulgakov describes sacraments as keeping the material phenomenon but replacing its noumenon or the thing-in-itself (pg. 12). This priestly and sacramental transformation is what happens with relics (pg. 18). But how does this relate to bodies and relics?

Resurrection and Embodied Holiness

This sacramental sanctification or transubstantiation of the cosmos brings the future redemption of the cosmos into the present (pg. 17). It is the future resurrection manifest to the present, making the corruptible incorruptible, and bringing new life over against the mortal life of humans (pg. 25). However, one might wonder about the particular difficulties raised by the materiality and physicality of this future resurrection. The key difficulty raised by Bulgakov can be stated as follows: What about bodies that died long ago and have decomposed and spread matter throughout the earth? (pg. 26)

To answer this question, Bulgakov provides an analysis of 1 Corinthians 15, which is a famous passage concerning the resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15 is rather long, so I will not quote it at length here, but I'll provide a general summary: Paul argues that the resurrection of the dead is a crucial connection to the resurrection of Christ because Christ's resurrection signifies the first fruits of those who have died. As all die in Adam, so will all be made alive in Christ. The first fruit of the resurrection is Christ, followed then by those who belong to Christ. Drawing a parallel between Adam and Christ, Paul states that the first Adam come from dust, and the second Adam (Christ) came from heaven. As people who are of both dust and heaven, we will bear the image of the resurrected one. The perishable body will put on imperishability (or the “corruptible” will put on the “incorruptible”) — the mortal body will put on immortality.

According to Bulgakov, this passage is about “the dynamic centers or monads of a body that has supraphysical and supramaterial character as well as a cosmic [physical] character” (pg. 27). In other words, we have something like a spirit or soul, though Bulgakov is keeping a full definition intentionally vague so as to not get pinned down into one particular camp of the mind-body problem. But importantly for Bulgakov, his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15 means that “The mortal body is a seed of the future body” (pg. 27), the seed being the dynamic center of the body. For Bulgakov, this implies that “bodies have different glories” (pg. 28) or exist on a spectrum of holiness, with some bodies more fully manifesting the in-breaking future resurrection than others.

I'm going to jump in and emphasize something important as an aside: This is a spectrum of holiness, and not physical appearance or disability. Someone with a disability might have a more glorified body than a supermodel in perfect health. I think this insight holds fascinating potential for disabilities studies. But I digress...

The dynamic core or spirit of the body is an “entelechy,” which means something with potency that is actualized through matter and cannot be destroyed or removed (pg. 28). The greater the spiritual strength, the more powerful this connection between the entelechy of the dynamic core and the physical body (pg. 28). In other words, a holy person will more clearly manifest or showcase the future resurrected body in their own physical body (pg. 29).

To provide an additional example, I've heard a phrase thrown around in Catholic circles that I find rather interesting. I've heard several Catholics talk about meeting people who are particularly holy and full of the love of God, and they are described as people who “glow.” There is something within not just their words but in their physical presence that manifests a witness to the glory of God. Returning to Bulgakov, he interprets the saints as more clearly manifesting the future resurrected body, implying that saints don't die like the rest of us (pg. 29).

Because saints more clearly showcase the future resurrection within their own bodies, it means that sainthood is a witness to the transubstantiation and deification of humanity (pg. 19) — and indeed the entire cosmos. The saint becomes an altar for divine power (pg. 20) and a witness to the future resurrection glory. Importantly, because the saint is witnessing or manifesting a future glory that involves the complete redemption of our bodies (the general resurrection), the saint’s holiness is an embodied holiness (pg. 21).

What does this mean for relics? Quite simply, it means that a relic is, in its most basic form, “a place of the holy body” (pg. 21). The proto-typical relic and thus prime example is Christ’s body in the grave on Holy Saturday before being raised to resurrection, eternal transfiguration, and glorification (pg. 23)

Objections and Rebuttals

Within his essay, Bulgakov also recognizes that relics are not without their detractors and skeptics, so he replies to three key objections to relics.

Objection 1: Relics are too superstitious in the modern age (pg. 7).

At least in my initial reading, Bulgakov did not have a direct rebuttal to this objection but rather allows his general theology to serve as a response. But let's parse this out a bit more.

If this objection was made from the assumption that God does not exist, then of course holy relics would not operate as the Church describes. Bulgakov obviously believes that God exists, but the question of God's existence is a different conversation outside the scope of this topic.

If the objector proposes that God exists and also that relics are superstition in the modern age, then I think Bulgakov would point back to how firmly relics fit within the core doctrines and beliefs within Christianity, and so are no more superstition than the resurrection of Christ or hope in future deification. If one holds a more deistic view and supposes that miracles do not happen within a world guided totally by natural laws, then Bulgakov's essay “On the Gospel Miracles” serves as a response. But once again, that is outside the scope of this conversation (though I'm reading that essay right now, so I will try to write a summary of that soon).

Objection 2: Extreme Protestants who call for no sacraments and only Word (pg. 7).

To this objection, Bulgakov's statement at the end of the essay would be appropriate: “Thus, our discussion has been based on the conviction that the question of the veneration of holy relics is by no means an external and peripheral question, by no means a question that concerns only liturgical and cultic formalities. (...) it is indissolubly connected with the very essence of the Christian faith. To deny holy relics is to deny the power of Christ's Resurrection (...)” (pg. 39). Once again, Bulgakov has demonstrated that relics fit firmly within core doctrines of Christianity, such as the incarnation, resurrection, and deification (and probably beatific vision if one was a hardline Catholic about this). Additionally, Bulgakov has provided a Christian ontology of religious materialism that pushes against the (extreme) Protestant call for only Word and no sacrament, which can sometimes fringe upon Gnosticism.

Objection 3: This is all just fetishism (14)

Of course, the term “fetish” is used here in the anthropological and religious sense, not the sexual one. Fetishism, in a religious context, involves attributing magical or supernatural powers to objects or symbols. These objects, called fetishes, are believed to possess inherent spiritual or divine qualities and act as intermediaries between humans and the spiritual realm. In fetishistic religious practices, these objects are revered, worshipped, and believed to have the ability to influence various aspects of life or supernatural forces. Fetishism is commonly associated with animistic religions, where nature and its objects are seen as having spiritual essence or powers. The term “fetish” comes from the Portuguese word “feitiço” and was initially used by European explorers and missionaries to describe the religious practices they encountered in Africa and other regions.

To the objection of relics being a form of (perhaps pagan) fetishism, Bulgakov gives one of his spiciest takes in the essay. In essence, he says, 'You know what? Fetishism is good actually. At least it's better than materialism and spiritualism' (pg. 14, not a direct quote). Fetishism is more closely aligned with the ontology of religious materialism that Bulgakov sketched out above. Furthermore, there is such as thing as pious fetishism, such as Jacob pouring out oil at Bethel after his dream (pg. 14). Thus, Fetishism is false not because of its understanding of the connection between matter and spirit, but because its theology is incomplete (pg. 14). Furthermore, God is omnipresent, but still makes distinctions between places, with some being more sacred than others, which is shown repeatedly in scripture (pg. 15). The kenotic act of creation means God gives Godself to space and time to be present with us but without changing the divine essence or undoing omnipotence (pg. 15).

Concluding Thoughts

I found this essay exhilarating and intellectually exciting. It's one of my favorite essays I've read recently. Bulgakov's religious materialism especially resonated with me, given that one of my primary interests is in the theology of sacred spaces, material environments, and atmosphere. I also really liked his defense of fetishism where he said that the basic underlying assumptions of fetishism — the spiritual reality of materiality — are correct; it's just that the theology is not yet complete. I wonder if such a position could be expanded into a broader ontology of Christian animism, which would also seem to fit within Bulgakov's religious materialism.

Hopefully, this summary was helpful. The essay is a wonderful piece of theological writing, and I encourage you to read the full thing if you get a chance.