With Russia’s military intervention in Crimea, events in Ukraine have transformed from a domestic upheaval with international implications to a full-blown international incident. As the United States and the European Union weigh their options in how to respond to Russia’s move, it is important to analyze both the political situation in Ukraine and Russia’s motives. In the March 3 edition of the New York Times, columnist David Brooks takes a stab at the latter. My point here is not to rebut and offer my own alternative analysis of the political situation in Ukraine, but rather to critique Brooks’ dabbling into political theology in his column.
Brooks argues that to understand the strategy of Russian President Vladimir Putin, one must understand the philosophers who have influenced his thinking, and in particular Nikolai Berdyaev, Vladimir Solovyov, and Ivan Ilyin. These philosophers, Brooks concludes, “point to a Russia that is a quasi-theocratic nationalist autocracy destined to play a culminating role on the world stage.”
Brooks identifies two themes in particular as contributing to this “highly charged and assertive messianic ideology.” The first is a critique of the increasing rationalism and materialism of society, which is seen as emanating in particular from the West. Brooks quotes Ilyin as saying, “Having lost our bond with God and the Christian tradition, mankind has been morally blinded, gripped by materialism, irrationalism and nihilism.” This critique, therefore, leads to a defense of spiritual and moral values.
The second theme is a form of mystical, nationalist messianism. Quoting Berdyaev, “The Russian messianic conception always exalted Russia as a country that would help to solve the problems of humanity.” Drawing on Russia’s unique geography and culture, bridging the East and the West, this philosophy proposes that Russia plays a providential role in the unification of humankind.
Others are more qualified than me to declare whether Brooks has interpreted Berdyaev, Solovyov, and Ilyin correctly. What I am interested in is what Brooks himself perceives to be important about these philosophers’ thinking and how they have influenced Russia’s aggressive approach to Ukraine. For Brooks, what is dangerous about this philosophy is precisely its “mystical,” “spiritual” quality. For example, he writes:
The danger is that Russia is now involved in a dispute in Ukraine that touches and activates the very core of this touchy messianism. The tiger of quasi-religious nationalism, which Putin has been riding, may now take control. That would make it very hard for Putin to stop in this conflict where rational calculus would tell him to stop. Up until now, we have not been in a Huntingtonian conflict of civilizations with Russia. But with passions aroused and philosophic zealotry at full boil, it may temporarily appear that we are.
It may be that Russian “quasi-religious nationalism” is dangerously close to “full boil,” but Brooks’s diagnosis of precisely what is dangerous here is incorrect. To illustrate my point, re-read my two paragraphs on the two key themes of Russia’s messianic ideology and replace the word “Russia” with “Poland”; you would have a passable summary of the worldview of Pope John Paul II. John Paul II (and his successor Pope Benedict XVI) was a strident critic of the growing materialism and moral relativism of Western culture, and in his 1995 visit to Poland (his first after the fall of communism), he warned against the encroachment of these secular values into Poland. In his biography of John Paul, Witness to Hope, George Weigel also demonstrates the deep influence of romantic nationalist poets such as Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Cyprian Norwid on John Paul’s own views of Poland’s messianic role in the world, manifest in its suffering.
It should be obvious that John Paul II–an advocate of peace, human rights, and democracy–and Vladimir Putin are worlds apart, despite some family resemblances in their worldview, and that by identifying mysticism and messianism as the sources of Russia’s bellicosity, Brooks has misdiagnosed the problem. It is not mysticism that is the problem, but the content of the mysticism. I believe that a truly effective advocacy of human rights and international cooperation in fact requires spiritual vitality.
It is tragic that Brooks seems to buy into the same sort of dichotomy between the spiritual and the mundane he critiques in the Russian philosophers. For example, he writes that with Russia, “we may not be dealing with a ‘normal’ regime, which can be manipulated by economic and diplomatic carrots and sticks,” but instead with a nation “motivated by a deep, creedal ideology.” It is “normal” to make decisions based on the acquisition of wealth and political power, but to suggest that there is something more than this is fanatical and dangerous.
Yet this dichotomy is belied by the facts on the ground. While protesters who camped out in the Maidan certainly understood the economic benefits of closer association with the European Union, for many it was also certainly the case that it was the idea of “Europe” that inspired them to camp out for so many weeks—the idea of the rule of law in defense of human dignity, of international cooperation through shared institutions. There is clearly a spiritual or transcendent dimension to anti-Putinism, as well.
The values that we cherish and whose denial by a political leader such as Putin we revile are ultimately grounded in this spiritual or transcendent dimension. In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II writes that democracy must be founded on “the transcendent dignity of the human person.” The sort of “political calculus” that Brooks considers normal leads to a decline in civic responsibility and ultimately the erosion of human rights. In a sense, democracy requires its own sort of mysticism.
Now the real irony of Brooks’s column is that he himself is perhaps best known as an advocate of American “national greatness” (Brooks first proposed this idea in a 1997 article in the Weekly Standard). As recently as a column in 2010, Brooks was advocating for a “revived patriotism” to halt the “headlong path toward a national disaster.” This revival will require Americans “to restore the social norms that prevailed through much of American history,” and will include a commitment to “preserve America’s standing in the world on the grounds that this supremacy is a gift to our children and a blessing for the earth.” It would be too easy to accuse Brooks of advocating his own form of quasi-religious messianism, of “national greatness for me, but not for thee.” The more important point is that Brooks himself seems to recognize that even democratic values require a bit of “philosophic zealotry” and ideals that transcend economic interests. As Brooks himself notes, Americans must ask themselves, “Do you really love your tax deduction more than America’s future greatness?” Whatever one thinks about Brooks’s “national greatness agenda,” it is undeniably mystical in its own way. The crucial task is not to uncover whether a religious or spiritual mindset contributes to conflicts such as the current crisis involving Ukraine and Russia, but rather to reflect on what political values arise from a particular religious mindset, and vice versa, which is the task of political theology.