Crackpot theory no. 6: Kenoticism

Today, my class on ‘Russia and the West’ will be examining Russian Orthodoxy. One of the subjects we will be discussing is the theological concept of kenoticism.

Kenoticism derives from the Greek word kenosis, which means ‘self-emptying’, and it demands that people empty themselves of their own will and subordinate themselves entirely to the will of God. The idea of kenoticism comes from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians 2.7-8, which says that Jesus ‘emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’

Kenoticism therefore implies obedience and subordination to a higher power, as well as a willingness to suffer. As the Orthodox theologian Alexander F.C. Webster puts it, the concept requires, ‘meekness, self-abasement, voluntary poverty, humility, obedience, non-resistance, acceptance of suffering, and death, in imitation of Christ.’

In Russian Orthodoxy, notable examples of kenoticism are the 11th century princes of Kiev Boris and Gleb, who chose not to resist their brother Svyatopolk the Accursed, but instead meekly awaited the assassins whom Svyatopolk had sent to kill them, and consequently suffered decidedly unpleasant deaths. The story of Boris and Gleb encapsulates both the principle of non-resistance to evil and the idea that suffering is holy. Boris and Gleb are saints not because of any holy acts, but because they suffered. The same is true of Tsar Nicholas II, who was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church not for any allegedly saintly deeds while ruling Russia but for the simple fact that he was killed. Through suffering, humans humble themselves and so come to resemble Christ, who suffered on the cross. Suffering is good for the soul.

I understand the idea that non-resistance to evil can be a better option than violent resistance. Are Syrians as a whole better off for the fact that some of them rose up to resist Assad? Clearly not. For the most part, they were better off when they submitted. But there can be virtue in non-violent resistance, as seen by examples such as Rosa Parks. The idea of complete non-resistance makes me rather uneasy.

More than that, though, what I don’t like about kenoticism is the implication that suffering is good for the soul. Is it actually true that those who suffer are holier than those who do not? On the one hand, I get the point that being too comfortable possibly distracts one’s mind from spiritual matters. One runs the risk of decadence. On the other hand, being very uncomfortable probably makes material matters even more important. Who has time to worry about God when they are hungry? Furthermore, there seems to be plenty of evidence that those who suffer aren’t automatically better people because of it. A large number of physically abusive men were themselves physically abused as children. Their childhood suffering didn’t bring them closer to Christ – quite the opposite.

And then, there is the whole issue of suffering, subordination, and the ‘Russian soul’. Kenoticism fits in with the centuries-old cliché (found as far back as in Herberstein’s writings in the sixteenth century) that Russians like to be bossed about and have a particular penchant and capacity for suffering. I don’t buy it. There is quite a history of Russian resistance to autocratic authority (e.g. Stenka Razin, Emelyan Pugachev, and the revolutions of 1905 and 1917). And while it is true that Russians have suffered a lot over the course of their history, that doesn’t mean that they have liked it, let alone that they have a peculiar ability to endure it. I am sure that if you asked Russians, ‘would you rather be free and comfortable or enslaved and suffering?’, pretty much all of them would prefer to be free and comfortable.

Dostoevsky wrote that, ‘the most basic, most rudimentary spiritual need of the Russian people is the need for suffering, ever-present and unquenchable, everywhere and in everything.’ I think not.


6 thoughts on “Crackpot theory no. 6: Kenoticism”

  1. Where you err is in too narrow a definition of suffering, as only the catastrophes of life. Prayer, fasting, suffering in whatever way, these are all the ways which Christians bring their bodies into subjection and overcome the power of the passions. Read what a living Orthodox monastic has to say:

    As for Dostoevsky, though he was an Orthodox Christian, here he was writing about suffering in a literary and cultural way and not at all in the theological way you began the discussion with. So, I hope you see you are really talking about two different uses of the word. He did this in order to explain the Russian experience in history as slaves, under conquerors and under tyrants. And the history of the last one hundred years have not proven Dostoevsky wrong: Bolshevik Revolution, unfathomable loss of life under Stalin and the Great Patriotic War, the Soviet Union and then its collapse. And yet, Russians go on, the Orthodox Church is reconstituted out of seemingly nothing, and there is something very fascinating about all of this, isn’t there? Russians are a remarkable people. Otherwise I suspect you would have devoted your life’s work to some other subject. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I received the following reply from Yury Lisitsa, which I am pasting in here:

    Dear Paul, thank you for your trying to understand Russia and Russian people more deep than usually other authors do. The theme of kenoticism is not trivial at all. In my lectures on the History of Religion I try to point out for my students that avatars in all religions are very HUMAN, better say, TOO human. If one has some AVATAR, then He must be a Tsar (Krishna), He should have the most beautiful wife, be rich, etc. The only exception was Christ and this was non-human but God’s decision of the greatest problem of sin and saving human beings. I will not be more polemical and give you one very rare quotation from the most intellectual Church Father St. Gregory from Niss (a brother of St. Basil the Great). It is so rare that this Russian translation was made in XIX century in a small district of Ukraine. Naturally, I give it in Russian. You will understand; as to others, maybe once it will be translated in English (it should be already, but I cannot find it at once). When I was a student this quotation formed me as a person; I could understand something more than others and as well as myself before it.

    Святой Григорий Нисский «Слово о блаженстве».

    Что может быть уничиженнее для Господа, как зрак раба? Что может быть презреннее для Царя всех тва¬рей, как сделаться участником в бедном и жалком существе нашем? Царь царей и Господь господей добровольно приемлет на Себя образ раба; Судия всех подвергается суду земных властей; Владыка всей твари обитает в вер¬тепе; Содержащий всю вселенную не обретает места в гостинице и вселяет¬ся в жилище бессловесных животных; Чистый и Нетленный не гнушается нечистотою человеческой природы и, претерпев все возможные роды бедст¬вий, вкушает наконец самую смерть. Видите ли предел произвольного обни¬щания? Жизнь причащается смерти: Судия ведется на судилище; Виновник жизни всякого творения слышит смертный приговор из уст судии-человека; Царь горних воинств не сопротивляется своим мучителям. С сим примером сообразуйся и ты в мере и степени смиренномудрия!

    Some more remarks. As to your statement: “I am sure that if you asked Russians, ‘would you rather be free and comfortable or enslaved and suffering?’, pretty much all of them would prefer to be free and comfortable.” It is true if you apply it to Russians to-day but not all of them (Ilyin and me are not with them; more other people oppose it). In general, this very statement is wrong. Your statement looks like a very famous Russian proverb: “Лучше быть богатым и здоровым, чем бедным и больным”. This trivial statement is actually wrong. Suffering makes our soul deeper. And it is not masochism as onece Ilyn wrote in his “Essence of Russian Culture”.


  3. Well, based on my experiences, and classical literature (mostly Dostoevsky) – and of course this is entirely anecdotal, personal impression – what they really like is *drama*, extreme drama, not sufferings. ‘Nadryv’.

    I don’t think this is the exclusively Russian thing, though. Just one particular type of psyche – yes, common in Russia, but I’m sure you can find it everywhere, including stereotypically phlegmatic places like, I dunno, Iceland and Norway.


  4. The materialist view:

    Dostoevsky was mentally ill. Probably bi-polar. He had unresolved sexual impulses and was most likely a pedophile (attracted to little girls). HIs mental illness caused him to suffer intense psychological pain, probably much greater than an ordinary person could endure, without having to commit suicide.
    Most mentally ill people are not geniuses and do not write great works of literature. They live awful lives and die ugly banal deaths.

    Conversely, most great writers are NOT mentally ill. They are well-balanced and fit in with their societies.

    Dostoevsky was the exception.
    There was nothing holy about his suffering, it was caused by mal-formed brain synapses.


  5. I am sure that the citation that Yuri Lisitsa found has already been translated; will poke around later, if I get the time, to try to find it.

    The concept of kenosis is of central importance in Christianity as such, and not only in Orthodoxy or Russian culture. The gist of the point from St. Gregory of Nyssa is that God himself debased himself and suffered already in the way that he became human, to say nothing of the degrading manner of Christ’s death.

    What are the implications of Christ’s life for someone trying to take Christ(ianity) seriously, while living in the world? That is the question raised by kenosis. It cannot be answered in a language that simply looks at our everyday psychology, our everyday preference for comfort over discomfort. This is like trying to answer a love letter by using an Excel spread sheet, or accounting terms. That would be to confuse different levels of being.

    Slandering Dostoevsky may provide some temporary sense of liberation, but it is a childish response to the challenge raised not only by Dostoevsky, but also by the saints, by existentialist philosophers from Kierkegaard to Simone Weil, by the author of the Illiad, by Socrates, by anyone who has contemplated whether or not the purpose of life is to be comfortable or something more than that.

    As for Russia, since that is the subject of this blog, I can’t help thinking of the example of Natasha, in War and Peace. It has always struck me, incidentally, that among Russians Natasha is widely considered something of an ideal type. Everyone will recall the scene where Napoleon’s troops are about to invade Moscow, or perhaps already have (it’s been a while since I read it, am writing from memory), and Natasha tears apart their mansion and gives everything freely to the Russian soldiers in need. “What are we, Germans?” she asks, accusingly, to anyone hesitating. She means by the word ‘Germans’ here shopkeepers, a person with a bourgeois mentality oriented to prudent comfort above all else.

    All things equal, of course most people prefer comfort. But precisely that is the question. Is my personal comfort the highest thing? Or are there things worth suffering for?

    The Russia I respect is something more than bourgeois.


  6. Btw, Paul: the ‘slander’ of Dostoevsky I was referring to was not your post, of course! I think Dostoevsky here, in the passage you quoted, probably warrants some push-back. I was referring, as I hope was obvious, to the comment by Yalensis.

    Perhaps Yalensis here was not even expressing his own viewpoint, but offering a caricature of a materialist view point.


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