Deifying Democracy: Liberalism and the Politics of Theosis

Nathaniel Kyle Wood, Fordham University


In recent years, the Anglo-Catholic theologian John Milbank has appealed to the doctrine of theosis, or deification, most commonly associated with the Orthodox tradition, in support of a Christian theological critique of liberal democracy. Arguing that the dominance of political liberalism is rooted in an artificial division between the sacred and the secular whose origins trace back to late-medieval distortions of the theology of nature and grace, Milbank uses theosis to challenge this division and defend the necessity of a distinctively Christian social theory based on the Church. Milbank claims support for this project in “Sophiological” school of late-19th and early-20th century Russian Orthodox theology, especially the work of Vladimir Soloviev and Sergei Bulgakov. Like Milbank, these Russian thinkers employed theosis to formulate a distinctively Christian, Church-centered response to contemporary political challenges; however, motivated by a commitment to defending the freedom and dignity of the individual person in the context of late-imperial Russia, their reading of theosis “liberalized” traditional Orthodox political theology in ways that run contrary to the anti-liberal direction of Milbank’s political theology. Against Milbank, this dissertation argues that Soloviev and Bulgakov, along with the Russian philosopher S. L. Frank, point towards a more viable Christian “politics of theosis” that is broadly compatible with liberal democracy. Both Milbank and the Russians elevate ecclesial communion, conceptualized here in terms of the Russian doctrine of sobornost’, as the social ideal towards which Christian politics must strive. However, whereas Milbank understands the Church as a “deified democracy” set in opposition to liberal democracy, the Russian politics of theosis strives to “deify” liberal democracy from within but working through liberal democratic means to conform the social order to Christian principles of ecclesial love. By linking their understanding of theosis to a Chalcedonian Christological metaphysics centered on the notion of Divine Humanity, Russian political theology is able to move beyond the impasse Milbank sets up between Christianity and liberal democracy, without losing Milbank’s awareness that Christian politics is irreducible to secular liberalism.

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Recommended Citation

Wood, Nathaniel Kyle, "Deifying Democracy: Liberalism and the Politics of Theosis" (2017). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10279786.