Mikhail Epstein

Minimal Religion (1982)

from the section "Cultural Manifestos,"

in the bookRussian Postmodernism: New Perspectives on Post-Soviet Culture (with Alexander Genis and Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover, in the series Studies in Slavic Literature, Culture, and Society, vol. 3). New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1999, pp.163-171.

"Minimal religion" is a phenomenon of post-atheist religiosity, which is perhaps the most unusual outcome of the 70 year history of Soviet atheism.

At first it looked as if the so-called "religious renaissance" of the 1970s in Russia was a return to traditional religions and the ancient covenants. The prodigal son, it seemed, had returned to his father's house. All of this has been observed and described many times. It looked as if the religious "returnees" were distinct from traditional believers not by virtue of the essence of their faith, but by the intensity of their religious consciousness, which is typical for neophytes, whose involvement and participation is always more enthusiastic. It thus seemed to be a psychological distinction, not a dogmatic or ritualistic one. And in fact it required enormous effort just to return to religion at all, to overcome the inertia of the preceding atheistic decades.

But the process of spiritual revival could not be frozen at this merely "reconstructive" stage. Like the European Renaissance of the 14th-16th centuries, which brought something completely new to European civilization while appearing to be a return to antiquity, the Russian post-atheist renaissance revealed new aspects irreducible to the restoration of prerevolutionary religious traditions. This development did not take place inside the churches, in the cradle of tradition, but in "mundane" spiritual life and in contemporary thought.

The evolution of post-atheist Russian spirituality in the 1970s brought into relief the phenomenon of the religious avant-garde, which in some respects corresponded to the Western phenomenon of "radical theology." The "death of God," announced by Nietzsche, remains the last word in this radical or "atheistic" theology. The latter tries valiantly to teach humans to live in God's absence and in a secular world. It is a lesson for orphaned children, who have been left to their own devices but also with precepts of order and discipline with which to cope. Thus the Protestant theology of the "death of God" (Thomas Altizer, William Hamilton and their precursor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer) reflects the secularization of a faith that has to survive in "a world without God." What I call "minimal religion," by contrast, has already crossed this border: it is not the last link in the chain of secularization but, perhaps, the beginning of a new cycle of religious history. God, who is already dead, is being resurrected in the very country that was the first to crucify Him most relentlessly. A new and potentially powerful faith is in status nascendi, whose prerequisite and fountainhead was the unique historical phenomenon of mass atheism.

The new theology—not the Protestant but the post-atheist one—is a theology of Resurrection, of the new life of God beyond the confines of the Church, which was His historical body. The theology of resurrection is not the same as the traditional theology of the life of God in the historical church. Nor is it the same as the radical theology of the death of God in an atheist or agnostic world. The zero, or even minus degree of faith (agnosticism and godlessness), has been left behind. Resurrection is more than just a life in its usual course of degradation, an inevitable decline-toward-death. Resurrection is life after death, not before death. The new type of spirituality is born from the demise of mass atheism and was impossible before it. The theology of resurrection presupposes an intensification of faith, a theistic explication and assimilation of atheism, not just a return to a pre-atheist position.

Minimal religion is a "poor religion." Its name conjures up a state of religiosity which elicits pity or sympathy or the expression of condolences. It begins from zero and has apparently no tradition. Its "goD" is one of [be]coming, of the second or the last coming, which will pass the ultimate judgement on the world. The atheistic spelling of the word "god" with a small initial letter is preserved, but the last letter of the word is written in upper case. GoD is perceived as the "omega" rather than the "alpha" of the historical process.

This "poor" religion has the same relationship to traditional religions as the avant-garde has to Realism in art: by going beyond the limits of the representable, faith brings a crisis to the representation of a reality. "And their eyes were opened, and they knew Him; and He vanished out of their sight." (Luke, 24:31) This is how the resurrected Christ appeared to the apostles. He disappears from sight at the very moment He is recognized. The theology of resurrection puts an end to representational theology.

Minimal religion addresses itself to the ironies and paradoxes of Revelation, in which everything that is revealed is at the same time concealed. This is evident even in the early prophecy of Isaiah on the future appearance of the Messiah: "He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause his voice to be heard in the street" (Isaiah, 42:2). "...[H]e hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. ...[A]nd we hid as it were our faces from him..." (Isaiah, 53:2-3). Thus from the very beginning, the atheistic stage, the "hiding [of] our faces from him," is (pre)inscribed in our perception of the Messiah. Post-atheism accepts this "disappearance" of God but interprets it as a sign of His authenticity rather than evidence of His absence. God presents Himself as the crisis of (re)presentation, as the refutation of the realistic fallacy in theology. Atheism thus prepares a way for minimal religion, which addresses God in the poverty of His manifestation.

The new religiosity is "poor" because it has no wordly possessions: neither temples, nor rituals, nor doctrines. All it has is a relationship with God — which is in the here and now. This "poor religion" is not like a prolific forest growth or an elegantly thriving garden. This "poor religion" emerged in an atheistic State like a crooked, pitiful shoot pushing up like a blade of grass through concrete. And yet, what can compare with the force of growth of these single blades of grass? The strength and the weakness of this "poor religion" is in the adverb almost. It has almost no concrete forms of expression, but it participates in almost everything, providing a meaningful tension to our weakened, ignominous lives. For in the face of the general demise of all meaning—pragmatic, aesthetic and ethical—it is this barely radiating religious meaning that can justify the most elementary acts of existence.

In 1921, Osip Mandel'shtam wrote that under post-revolutionary conditions everyone was almost unintentionally becoming Christian. The impoverishment of material life was such that the only way to live was by equating life with spirit. Thus even a mundane family meal could became the ingestion of the holy sacraments: "Culture has become our church... The worldly life no longer touches us; we do not consume food, we have ritual meals, we do not live in rooms but in monastery cells, we do not wear clothes but are clothed... Apples, bread, potatoes do not satisfy our physical needs alone but also our spiritual hunger."

Mandel'shtam's diagnosis is correct and penetrating. However, poverty is not only a question of material scarcity, but of a deficit in meaning. Every object taken from mundane Soviet reality was so hackneyed, and its meaning impoverished to such a degree of transparency, that it appeared to radiate with transcendence. Due to the fact that life had lost its self-sufficient cultural and pragmatic validity, religion did not have to divorce itself from life. Simply to live was already an act of faith. Such a faith could not be erradicated since its temple was almost in every home. And it could be practiced both by those attending the old houses of worship and those who came directly to "minimal faith."

In this we can see the Protestant idea as if going beyond its own limits; not a protest against the church as a dwelling of faith, it is rather an attempt to found faith in the midst of worldly life. There is a well-known poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, entitled "I love the liturgy of the Lutherans...", which describes faith as it crosses the threshold of an empty and unadorned Lutheran church:

She had not crossed the threshold yet,

The door was not yet closed behind her...

But the hour has struck, has come... Pray to God,

This is your last prayer now.

After faith crosses beyond the threshold of the church, her service begins outside the church, in the depth of the world, in the everyday need to correlate life with absolute meaning.

* * *

In ethics, this transition from pre-atheistic protestantism to post-atheistic minimalism presupposes a spiritual concentration on one's immediate surroundings. This can be called neighbourhood-thinking and neighbourhood-feeling (blizhnemyslie and blizhnechuvstvie ), meaning that one's thoughts and feelings should be dedicated in the first instance to one's own "neighbours," to those who are nearest and closest to oneself. The ideals of universal brotherhood and equality, which have inspired modern thought since the Enlightenment, were usurped and compromised by abstract atheistic humanism. From the atheistic point of view, the universal goals of humanity could ultimately be achieved through the sacrifice of particular individuals or even classes (tzars, capitalists, landowners, priests, conservatives, etc.) that were regarded as obstacles to the common good. Atheism introduced the ethical imperative of love for the "distant one." In practice, this meant, for example, that a Soviet citizen should feel more compassion for the suffering nations of Africa than for his own neighbors incarcerated in a concentration camp. This distancing from one's neighbors, certainly, has nothing to do with the Christian commandments. Even when Christ prescribed that one should "love one's enemies," he did not mean "distant ones," but the enemies among one's neighbors.

Consequently, in the spirit of religious minimalism, no human being claims to be universal in his/her ethical responsiveness and responsibility. Instead, each individual is dedicated to the sanctification of his immediate vicinity, which he then attempts to widen. The space of the minimalist church grows out of that point, occupied by each individual in the center of his neighbourhood, until it reaches its maximum, which is coextensive with "communality." Hence personal and familial relations are the focus of religious life, expressed as love and brotherhood. As difficult as it is to be a brother to one's own brother, it is far more difficult to be a brother to all people, although, as Dostoevsky noted in The Brothers Karamazov, it is much easier to love all humanity than to love one human being.

As minimal religion spreads into the theological field, the specific object of theology becomes the particular. Each individual and each thing, in its singularity and particularity, become a kind of revelation about God. What we know about Him better than anything else is that He is One, or, perhaps, oneness itself. Hence theology becomes an investigation of the unique, the unrepeatable, which is manifested in every thing as "the image and likeness" of God.

Certainly, this kind of theology runs the risk of becoming a pantheism that borders on atheism: if God is in everything, then He is in nothing. Minimalist theology, however, eschews pantheist assumptions. God is not in everything but in each thing, in the eachness of every thing. He is in that which distinguishes one thing from another. God is not in the continuity of things but their discontinuity. It is in separating one thing from another, in grasping its uniqueness in the universe, that we reveal its theological aspect, its likeness to God. In ancient Hebrew, the very word that bears the concept of the holy, "kadesh," literally means 'separation" and "distinction."

All entities in the world, with one exception, exist in multutudes: galaxies, planets, nations, individuals, animals, atoms . . . If not for the singularity of God we would find ourselves drowning amidst sheer numbers, quantities, multitudes. God is the source and force of individuation, and the Godlikeness of any entity is equal to its singularity, its irreducibility to any general principle or abstract quality. All sciences, including the human sciences, study the general qualities of their respective subjects: particles, atoms, literary works, historical epochs. There is only one discipline devoted to the Singular, to the source of all other singularities: theology. The true subject of theology is the world of singularities, the uniqueness of all things as created in the image of the single Creator.

God is the Creator of all things, inasmuch as He is the Creator of the differences among them. Genesis is the history of creation through the division of light and darkness, heaven and earth, water and dry land, and so forth. It is in this uniqueness of each thing that its sacred dimension is revealed. Each thing is unique only by virtue of the fact that God Himself is unique, and vice versa. Each thing is theomorphic (identical with God in form) by virtue of being singular, "this".

Maximalist theology strove for generalizations, interpreting God as the First Principle, the Absolute, the most universal of universals, etc.. Minimalist theology, having survived the death of God and the atheistic experience of "the universal without the Unique," has arrived at a simple conclusion: God is not All in everything but the Single One in each singularity. In each entity God constitutes this minimal quality (or "gift"), which makes it different from all other entities. The task of theology thus becomes to speak about the infinite multiplicity of things and phenomena in their unique mode of existence, which means in their likeness to God.

There is almost nothing defined or formulated in minimal religion. It manifests itself above all in the mundane, everyday reality of an immense number of individuals who know very little about one another. Minimal religion is without ecclesiastical or denominational forms of organization, it exists without prophets or augurs, and it is not based on any single Revelation, written or oral.

* * *

It is not the Word which is holy now, but rather Listening and Hearing. God has been silent for many centuries, and because no new verbal revelations appeared, rumors were generated about His absence or death, providing a foundation for atheism. In the post-atheist era, we have begun to understand that God's silence is a way of His listening to us, His attention to our words. Such active silence is necessary for the continuation of dialogue where one speaker alternatively gives the floor to another. After God had uttered His word in the Old and New Testaments, in Scripture and in Flesh, what else could He say? It is time for human beings to reply to God, to respond to His word.

This is what constitutes the uniquness of the current situation. Having lost contact with the word of God for a long period of time, many people now find themselves in the presence of Divine listening. It is not loud-voiced prophets speaking in the name of God, but many ordinary people who feel as if Someone were listening to their words, as if they were speaking "into his ears" (to use an expression from The Book of Psalms).

Hearing is the last realm that cannot be colonised by the reifying force of atheism. God's Word, no matter how inspirational and mysterious, can still be reified, re-told, re-interpreted, ridiculed, rejected. But God's hearing extends beyond the sphere of objectification. God's Hearing is unsurpassable, it surrounds and encloses our voices like the horizon. While all existing churches still serve as vehicles and mouthpieces for God's Word and try to maximize its effect on believers, minimal religion has nothing to say on behalf of God but it is open to and aware of God's Hearing. In the face of this Hearing, one does not speak about God, one speaks to God. Thus Hearing prepares people for the day of judgement, when the speaking and answering will be done by them, and the listening and deciding by the Judge. God's word was spoken to human beings in the beginning in order to guide and lead them on their way to God. In the end, a human being himself speaks and answers to God, giving account of this way.


Thus, post-atheist spirituality is neither the religion of God's voice, as it was and continues to be in traditional churches and denominations; neither is it agnostic indifference, existential despair or atheistic challenge in the face of God's silence. Rather it is a feeling of responsibility arising from the belief that God is silent because He is listening to us. God's hearing is what gives to our "human, all too human" words their "minimal"religious dimension. It is minimal, because the contents of our words are purely human, articulating the profanity and dullness of everyday life. What imparts a religious meaning to them is not their source and contents, the personality of the communicator, but the personality of the Addressee of this communication. Not who but to Whom. God's capacity and willingness to hear us before the judgement is made is what gives "human" meaning to God's silence and religious meaning to our ordinary utterances.

Moscow, 1982




For a more detailed interpretation of the phenomenon of 'minimal religion' in the context of Christian apophaticism and theological innovations of the 20th century, see the chapter "Post-Atheism: from Apophatic Theology to Minimal Religion."

See, for example, Vladimir Zelinsky. Prikhodiashchie v tserkov'. Paris:La Presse Libre, 1982;

Tatiana Goricheva. Talking about God is Dangerous. The Diary of a Russian Dissident. Crossroad, New York,1987.

See Altizer, Thomas J. J., comp. Toward a new Christianity: readings in the death of God theology, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967; Altizer, Thomas J. J. The gospel of Christian atheism. London: Collins, 1967.

Osip Mandel'shtam, "Slovo i kul'tura' ["Word and Culture"], in Osip Mandelstam, Sobranie sochinenii , in 3 vol, (New York, 1971), vol 2, p. 223.

"Ia liuteran liubliu bogosluzhen'e..." (1834)., in F. I. Tiutchev. Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenii, Leningrad: Sovetskii pisatel', 1987, 122.

"In my distress I called upon the Lord, and cried unto my God: he heard my voice out of his temple, and my cry came before him, even into his ears." (Psalm 18:6).



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