Reflections on Father Men

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This is the paper read by Dean John H Erickson of St Vladimirs Seminary at the Alexander Men Conference in Summer 2004 hosted by Nyack College Manhatten campus.

Pastor, teacher, martyr – such was Fr. Alexander Men. As always with such figures, our first impulse is to recount his biography to the point that biography becomes vita, to draw attention to the context in which he labored (in this case, the late Soviet period of Russian history), to recount the personal characteristics that make him not just memorable but ever-memorable. We are more hesitant to speak of the thought of such figures, to examine their contribution to theology. I have in mind here what so often is pointed out in the case of St. Ignatius of Antioch, another pastor, teacher and martyr. While scholars sometimes have included him in histories of doctrine, they generally preface their observations by pointing out that Ignatius’s theology, Christology, ecclesiology, etc. can be properly understood only in light of his impending martyrdom. Similarly, in the case of Fr. Men, we are tempted to say that his theology, Christology, ecclesiology, etc. can be properly understood only in light of the very particular circumstances in which he lived. We concentrate on context. Content, while not ignored, is subsumed within a broader narrative framework.

Can we look at Fr. Men not just as pastor, teacher, martyr, but also as theologian and thinker? I shall not attempt to do so here, not only because of time constraints but also – and chiefly – because I have only a very limited acquaintance with his writings. But I believe that the question should be raised. We value his example, his witness, his martyria. But are there aspects of his thought that deserve attention in their own right? Do his words offer an enduring message that will enrich Christian theology even when the historical context changes?

Certainly Fr. Men’ was an intellectual – he might even be described as a typical Russian intellectual. And fortunately for someone trying to write his intellectual biography or present his theology in systematic fashion, Fr. Men’ believed in putting ideas down on paper. He was a prolific writer who valued writing as a form of ministry. With his usual gift for metaphor and imagery, he put it this way: “A book is like an arrow shot from a bow. While you are resting, it is still working for you.” (Quoted in Yves Hamant, Alexander Men: A Witness for Contemporary Russia, 155) A scholar working on Men’s thought would have a lot of material to cover, and he could approach his subject in a variety of ways. For example, he might begin with Men’s six-volume history of religions, In Search of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Here, among other things, he probably would draw attention to the influence of Soloviev on Men’s thought. Or the scholar might concentrate on Fr. Men’ as exegete and biblical theologian, the author of a number of commentaries and a life of Jesus. Here, in all likelihood, the author’s footnotes would reveal the number (rather small) and quality (uneven) of sources that Fr. Men’ had at his disposal.

It would be possible to write an intellectual biography of Fr. Men’ along the lines just sketched. But would this adequately express his theology? Would this reveal the particular points of emphasis that might set him apart as an original and creative theologian, as distinct from a representative figure of courage in late Soviet society, someone who did the best he could with the rather meager resources at his disposal – some Russian classics like Soloviev and Khomiakov, some scattered western works of more recent vintage. Is Fr. Men’ important simply because of context? Or is there some content here that we risk overlooking?

Probably all of us here could indicate something special that they have learned from Fr. Men, points that they find particularly significant in his thought. Probably all of us could give advice to a would-be intellectual biographer. From my own very limited reading, I would draw attention particularly to Fr. Men’s understanding of freedom – human freedom, but also divine freedom. Or rather: man’s propensity for un-freedom, and God’s free and creative power to bring resurrection life out of death and disintegration, wherever and whenever, but given full and definitive expression in the Godman Jesus Christ.

Men frequently refers to an unfortunate fact: “People do not want freedom.” (About Christ and the Church [Oakwood 1996] 36) This can be seen in society at large, with the late Soviet nostalgia for Stalin. This can be seen also in church life, in the life of Christians: “People crave a freedomless Christianity; they particularly incline towards slavery.” (Ibid.) “You are called to freedom,” the apostle says. “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” But in fact people all too often try to turn the Church into “an easy chair, a refuge, a tranquil harbor,” even “a security blanket” (Hamant 138). “We want the Church to be a mother. The infantile mind says: someone will shepherd us, someone will lead – as one learned man said to me, people even want very much to be deceived.” (Christ and the Church 36) Or they adopt a sectarian mentality, regarding everything outside their own self-made prison – e.g., other Christian traditions, other world religions - as the realm of hostile powers – a mentality, which – according to Fr. Men’, is quite contrary to that of the church fathers, who “were always open to the world.” (Ibid. 51)

Fr. Men returns to this subject from a broader, more philosophical perspective at several points, most notably (for me, at least) in his “Conversation on Redemption.” (In Christ and the Church 87-96) There, he notes, that the mystery of redemption is, first of all, the mystery of liberation – of God setting man free by uniting us to Himself, to be His chosen people, to be His Church. Here he again refers to an unfortunate fact – a given: the Fall. According to Fr. Men’, using - as usual for him - very evocative imagery:

The universe is formed and develops along two principles. The universe evolves on the one hand according to the vision of God and on the other hand it is constantly penetrated by elements which oppose this principle. I will formulate this notion with the following short statement: Blind is the one who does not see the harmony of the world, but equally blind is he who fails to see the disharmony of the very same world. (89-90)

There are always forces which contradict God’s own idea – forces described in the Bible but also by thinkers and writers of all ages in poetic and mythological terms. Fr. Men’ sums these up as Chaos – a current carrying the world toward death, to a state of entropy (90), to non-being, to un-freedom. Why are there these powers opposed to God but also for some reason permitted by Him? Men’ continues: “We can of course guess why. Creation is one entire whole, and in order to repel this anti-divine vector, this impulse towards darkness, creation must itself remain free. But essentially, creation per se does not contain freedom. Only the one who personalizes creation is free, and this one is man…. We are after all a microcosm; we carry everything inside us; all creatures live within us and we are called to participate in the battle between Chaos and Logos, entering into the Logos, into illumination. But man failed to accomplish this mission; and here God begins to act himself, through man… the Logos who becomes incarnate in man.” (92) “…when he himself enters the process of the world, assumes the evil of the world as his cross, He pushes this world further along towards the Kingdom of God. Christ takes upon himself the suffering of the world. For the first time, God involves Himself in this battle, but He does it according to a divine principle. This divine principle is: constant humiliation, a kind of diminution of the Divine power before the face of creation, to give it the freedom of manifesting itself, the freedom to become what it is.” (92)

Freedom! Every man and woman is called to this. Those who are truly in Christ, who become members of His body, experience this – even in the midst of a world inclined to un-freedom. For me, at least, this is an important aspect of Fr. Men’s thought. Others no doubt have discovered other important points of emphasis. I hope that a future intellectual biographer of Fr. Men’ will be attentive to such points. Writing a systematic work on Fr. Men’ as thinker and theologian certainly will not be easy. I hope someone will attempt it, and that this work will not limit itself to cataloging his works and tracking down their sources.