Msgr. David Q. Liptak
Working on a homily for the First Sunday of Lent, I reviewed the section on the temptations of Christ as analyzed in Pope Benedict XVI’s best-selling book, Jesus of Nazareth, published last year. After reading through the book as a unit, I recently began to set aside 15 minutes each evening to study a few pages at a time.
The Holy Father’s exegetical explanations and his profound reflections are literally mind-riveting, manifesting years and years of study, reflection and prayer.
The second temptation, Benedict notes, is “the most difficult to understand” in terms of catechesis. This is the temptation in which Satan appropriates to himself the credentials of a Biblical exegete; with devilish arrogance, he cites Scripture in defense of his trickery. To put this bluntly, Satan quotes Psalm 91:11 sqq.! The Devil pretends that he is a competent theologian!
Here the Holy Father recalls the Russian mystic, Vladimir Soloviev, and his short story entitled The Antichrist. “The Antichrist,” explains Benedict, “receives an honorary doctorate in theology from the University of Tübingen and is a great Scripture scholar.” The story emphasizes that some “alleged findings of scholarly exegesis have been used to put together the most dreadful books that destroy the figure of Jesus and dismantle the faith.” (Jesus of Nazareth; New York 2007; p. 35)
Vladimir Soloviev? When I read about him in the Holy Father’s book, I suddenly felt like a savage entering civilization for the first time. Dostoevsky, I know about; thank God, and my seminary education. Likewise, other Russian greats, such as Tolstoy, Berdyaev, Pushkin, Chekov; and, of course, contemporaries like Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. But Soloviev? Somehow I missed his contributions, obviously to my disadvantage, since he is cited by the greatest theological mind in the world today, Joseph Ratzinger, who happens to be the Pope.
Since Lent began, however, I have begun to enter the fascinating world of Soloviev. I simply asked a parishioner who (I long ago learned) has a private library much like my own. When I asked him – Mark – if he had a copy of The Antichrist, he lent his own copy to me within a day – plus four more volumes later. But when I asked how he came to know about Soloviev, I felt like a savage again. Mark’s answer was that he simply set out to read all the great theological/philosophical minds whom Pope John Paul II cited in his monumental encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), issued in September 1998. Soloviev appears therein, alongside Newman, Maritain, Gilson, Stein, Florensky, Chaadaev and Lossky. (Sec. 74)
The Antichrist is must reading. The prescience of Soloviev, who died early in the 20th century, has to be assessed as extraordinary. It projects the specters of Gnosticism revived in New Age “theologies”; trendy patterns of religion downgraded to mere sentiment (and, of course, entertainment, not authentic worship); “all-inclusive” religious “clubs,” where dogma is marginalized in favor of false unity or even ignored for convenience’s sake; it even foresees the phenomenon of a “United States of Europe.”
At one point of the Antichrist’s ascending to world dominion, he produces a book entitled The Open Way to Universal Peace and Welfare. Writes Soloviev:
“It was all-embracing and all-reconciling… And it was all put together with such consummate art that every one-sided thinker or reformer could easily see and accept the whole entirely from his own particular point of view, without sacrificing anything… or in any way correcting his mistaken views and aspirations…”
Meanwhile, Jesus Christ, the Lord of Lords, the Messiah whom we worship as Savior and Redeemer, is left almost alone, save for Peter and his followers, who on that historic day of Eucharistic promise, replied, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe…” (Jn 6:68-9 sqq.)
Incidentally, the text I read of The Antichrist bore an Introduction by the theological giant, Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar, who reminded us that Soloviev’s thinking followed upon that of the French Revolution, German idealism, the Hegelianism of the Left with Feuerbach and Marx; also Comte’s positivism, Darwin, Nietzsche, etc. The volumes he wrote, accordingly, are substantial and numerous.
Soloviev (or Solovyov, or Soloviov) is thought by some to have entered the Catholic Church as death neared. Two ikons were placed by an unknown visitor on his gravesite in Moscow: one, of the risen Christ; the other, of our Blessed Lady.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript, and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.