That aside, I believe there is one thing Berdyaev is undeniably right about – the spiritual imperative to overcome the slavery of alienation, cut-offed-ness, objectification, and exteriorization that occurred when man ejected his innate spiritual nature into the external world.
Berdyaev understands that man is an intrinsically spiritual being. He also understands that man’s awareness of this spiritual intrinsicality has faded to the point of disappearing altogether. Restoration is required – man has to once again become fully aware of himself as a free and spiritual being.
Unlike traditionally-minded Christian thinkers, Berdyaev believes in the development/evolution of consciousness. Moreover, he believes that the development/evolution of consciousness is part of God’s divine plan.
Consequently, he keenly apprehends that Christianity is vital. At the same time, he rejects reversions to earlier modes of Christianity because they cannot and will not restore man’s awareness of himself as a free and spiritual being and allow for the further development of consciousness.
According to Berdyaev, restoring spiritual awareness in our current mode of consciousness requires freedom and overcoming metaphysical slavery. What is metaphysical slavery? Berdyaev defines it as man subjugating himself through his self-chosen enslavement to the objectified world and his own externalizations: the various idols he has created and comprehends as “reality”.
What are these idols? For Berdyaev, they encompass nearly everything, including God. Though man’s spiritual nature connects to God, man is prone to make God a source of slavery when He is viewed as an impersonal object and force. Man can only free himself from his propensity to objectify God when he comes to know and understand God as a subject and a person, as love and freedom rather than as domination and determination.
Objectification occurs when symbols replace basic realities. In this sense, an objectified God is merely a symbol of God, not God Himself. Instead of attempting to form a subject-subject relationship with God, one that would reveal the spiritual reality of both man and God, man ends up forming an objectified relationship with a symbol that conceals or obscures the spiritual reality of both God and man.
The same process is then transferred to the rest of man’s enslaving idols: nature, society, nation, civilization, economy, collectivism, individualism (Berdyaev regards this as a primarily biological category and reserves the spiritual category for personality), authority, sex, art, and history.
These basic spiritual realities in mortal life are only real when man’s relationship with them stems from his intrinsicality as a free and spiritual being. Otherwise, they exist as objectified symbols or forces of necessity that encroach upon and weaken man’s freedom and spirituality.
Though he stresses the importance of subjectivity, Berdyaev warns against the dangers of isolated subjectivity. For Berdyaev, the spiritual meaning of the world boiled down to subjects establishing relationships, not subjects atomizing. In Slavery and Freedom, he notes:
“the slavery of a man may be the result alike of his being exclusively engulfed by his own ego and concentrated upon his own condition without taking note of the world and other people; and of his being ejected into the external, into the objectivity of the world and other people, and losing consciousness of his own ego . . . . Engulfed entirely by his own ego the subject is a slave, just as the subject which is wholly ejected into an object is a slave.”
Within that same book, Berdyaev asserts that the first step in overcoming objectification and alienation involves first withdrawing into the spiritual depths and re-discovering God and the authentic self, which Berdyaev refers to as “personality”. The second step involves re-creating the world through the light of this new, authentic spiritual freedom, primarily by establishing free and loving relationships with other subjective beings:
Freedom presupposes the existence of truth, of meaning, of God. Truth and meaning liberate, and liberation leads to truth and meaning. Freedom must also be love, and love must be free.
Berdyaev’s final assessment on restoring man’s awareness of himself as a free and spiritual being involves the union of freedom, truth, and love – a union epitomized by Christ.
To sum up, Berdyaev believes the development/evolution of consciousness to be a vital part of God’s divine plan.
Hence, he identifies man’s alienation from his own intrinsic freedom, spiritual nature, and God as a process through which man could overcome alienation and return to God with a heightened and deepened understanding of himself as a free and spiritual being.
But this process requires overcoming the enslaving forces of the idols man has erected in the place of reality and enlivening them through his authentic self – his personality – in relationships with other beings enlivened by the Holy Spirit.