Irenaeus, over at CatholiDoxies, has a post about Vladimir Soloviev’s classic Russia and the Universal Church (currently in print only in an abridged English edition, under the title The Russian Church and the Papacy). I too have read through the abridged work, and I have mixed feelings about it.
On the negative side, those who know a bit about Soloviev’s philosophical background will be justly wary of the strange ideas which underlie his ecclesiological and ecumenical thought. I am very nervous about Soloviev’s sophiology and his ideal of world “all-unity”, which of course informs his idea of the “Universal Church” and the Papacy as a “universal fatherhood” for all mankind. Personally, I think that both Orthodox and Catholics would be right to be a bit nervous about these esoteric and utopian concepts.
On the other hand, Soloviev was undoubtedly a genius, and I think that he makes some very good points that Orthodox should not simply reject out of hand. If a solid Orthodox theologian like Florovsky can praise Soloviev for his passion for Christian unity and call his contribution to the solution of this problem “momentous”, I would hope that more Orthodox would seek to engage with Soloviev’s thought seriously. His identification of the disasterous effects of imperial interference in the Eastern Church, while in many ways exaggerated, nevertheless do seem to have solid basis in the history of both Byzantium and Russia; and I think that one can still discern the negative effects of this today even where Orthodoxy is not subject to imperial autocracy. One scholar has summarized Soloviev’s criticism of Byzantine religious particularism thus:
The root of Byzantine exclusiveness was its ahistorical religiosity, which attempted to protect the mystical contemplation of Truth, but which did not call for its realization in history. In the Byzantine experience, Soloviev maintained, the perfection of the Church was linked to a past historical era and to a specific geographical place, causing eastern Christians to lose the sense of the universal character of the Church, a universality which needs to be realized in the history of all nations and throughout the world. In reaction to what he perceived as Byzantine particularism and exclusivity, Soloviev sought for a more universal expression of the Christian Church … Soloviev emphasized the “catholic,” or “universal” character of the Church, as contrasted with self-affirmation, exclusivism and arbitrary human willfulness. “Universality” versus “particularism”: this was to become the heart and core of Soloviev’s ecclesiological concern and was to guide the development of his thinking. (Chrysostom Frank, “The Problem of Church Unity in the Life and Thought of Vladimir Soloviev,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 36:3, 1992).