Suzan M. Felch and Paul J. Contino (eds.). Bakhtin and Religion: A Feeling for Faith. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2001. 252 pp., Index., Cloth $79.95, Paper $22.95.


Bakhtin’s stance as a religious thinker has long been acknowledged in studies of his biography and work. In the last two decades research in this area yielded a number of articles and books that discuss theological aspects of Bakhtin’s oeuvre. The present volume builds on these earlier studies, focusing on Bakhtin’s work in its entirety. It offers a commendable diversity of approaches and topics and addresses audiences from different areas of scholarship, including Russian and comparative theology, literary criticism, and Russian culture. This fascinating exposition of Russian Orthodox spirituality reflected through the prism of Bakhtin’s thought proceeds in a roughly chronological order, from earlier to later works.

The collection consists of an introduction, seven articles, afterword, and Appendix. The openning discussion of the religious dimension of Bakhtin’s work and thought belongs to Alan Jacobs. His article, “Bakhtin and the Hermeneutics of Love,” concerns itself with the theological approach to literary criticism. Jacobs turns to Bakhtin’s ethical convictions and discusses their reliance on Christian concepts of charity, love, kenosis, ascetic self-abnegation, and answerability. Through the comparison of Eastern Orthodox and Western aspects of these concepts, the author demonstrates the idiosyncrasy and orthodoxy of Bakhtin’s position, placing it within the context of Christian theology. Within this discussion Jacobs brings ‘love’ to the fore as a fundamental principle of Christian teachings and expounds the importance of ‘loving attentiveness’ for textual interpretation. He discusses ‘charitable hermeneutics’ as an ethical act and considers Bakhtin the successor of St. Augustine in exposition and application of this theological concept.

            Pechey’s article, “Philosophy and Theology in ‘Aesthetic Activity,’” delves in the world of Bakhtin’s aesthetics to show how the latter endorsed the fundamental concepts of Russian Orthodox, i.e. mystical theology, in his works. The author posits that Bakhtin strove to “free aesthetics from its subordination to epistemology in Western philosophy” (48) and that he did it by means of theology. Through the functional similarities between the Scriptures and the novel—both facilitate elevation of the mundane into the spheres of high spirituality—Pechey addresses a remarkable aspect of Bakhtin’s thought, his “modernization of spirituality” (59).

            Coates’ “The First and the Second Adam in Bakhtin’s Early Thought,” engages the importance to Bakhtin’s philosophy of the Christian concept of binary tension. As she analyzes Bakhtin’s endorsement of the two Adams, the Fall and the Incarnation in such early works as “Toward a Philosophy of the Act,” “Author and Hero in Aesthetic Activity,” and “Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art,” the scholar addresses her philosophical endeavor of overcoming the ontological predicament of the Christian worldview. She proposes for this role the redemptive act of Incarnation and discusses it in conjunction with the concept of kenotic self-emptying. Coats concludes that for Bakhtin, the redemption of the world is not an act which was finalized once and for all by the crucifixion, but rather an ever unfolding process.

            Averintsev’s “Bakhtin, Laughter, and Christian Culture” (the Russian original appeared in 1992) turns to one of Bakhtin’s best-known pieces, “Rablais and His World.” Averintsev claims to take Bakhtin’s dialogical path to revisit the latter’s exposition of the “culture of laughter” yet this claim is rather modest. In fact, Averintsev thoroughly problematises and revises Bakhtin’s treatment of laughter in application to Christian culture. He sets out to analyze philosophical premises of laughter, approaching it in the totality of its aspects: physical, spiritual, psychological, emotional, and cultural. Averintsev begins his profound and captivating analysis with the examination of cultural and theological implications of the truism that Christ never laughed. He posits that laughter presupposes transition “from a certain unfreedom to a certain freedom” and thus does not indicate freedom, but rather liberation. (80) The scholar proceeds to discuss diverse aspects of laughter, including “liberating laughter,” “terrorism of laughter,” “ascetic laughter,” “laughter and violence,” “humbling laughter.”

            In the essay “Bakhtin and the Tropes of Orthodoxy,” Lock offers an engaging discussion of the role and place in Bakhtin’s thought of two concepts that proceed from Christian theology. In the first part of his article Lock offers a discussion of Bakhtin’s reliance on the Christian concept of Incarnation. He posits that the symbiosis of Christ’s twin natures, as articulated in Patristic and Orthodox theology, finds reflection in Bahktin’s paradigm for the dialogical. Similar to two natures of Christ, divine and human, two voices coexist in the hypostasis of one word. (98) Lock’s stimulating discussion of vnenakhodimost’, or “outsideness” follows. It builds on the discussion of Incarnation, engaging phenomenological and conceptual realms of philology (discourse, diological) and theology (hesychasm).

            The article of Mihailovic, “Bakhtin’s Dialogue with Russian Orthodoxy and Critique of Linguistic Universalism,” provides commentary on Bakhtin’s use of Christian models and on his position vis-à-vis Marr’s Linguistic Universalism. Mihailovic discusses the theological premises crucial to Bakhtin’s thought, which he identifies as the Johannine Logos, Trinitarian perichoresis (Russ. Vzaimoproniknovenie, Engl. Interpenetration) and the Calcedonian concept of coexisting natures—divine and human—of Christ. He then convincingly argues that Bakhtin’s predilection for diversity and dialogue is grounded in Christian thought. In the second part of the article, Mihailovic explicates the linguistic and educational background of the Soviet linguist Marr and proceeds to show why his theory of the universal language was incompatible with Bakhtin’s position.

            “The Apophatic Bakhtin” is the last essay in the collection. Here Poole turns to the doctrine of apophasis—an approach to God by means of negation—to further elucidate the religious framework of Bakhtin’s thought. Poole persuasively shows that in Christian Orthodoxy, apophatic approach can be employed in the conceptualization of an individual and discusses this application in Bakhtin’s work. As Poole explores sources relevant to Bakhtin’s theological and philosophical application of apophatic stance, he turns to such contemporary Russian theologians as Bulgakov and Florensky. At the same time he discusses an important role that Kantian philosophy played in the twentieth-century Russian religious thought. Poole discusses Bakhtin’s indebtedness to Kant as well as divergence between their respective positions regarding faculties of human conscience.

            Emerson’s Afterword highlights the important points made in the above articles and provides further discussion of their key issues. It is followed by the Appendix that contains an introduction to Bakhtin’s works in the 1920s and English translations of his lectures belonging to this period.

            This versatile and profound study of Bakhtin’s thought will be a welcome addition to the corpus of works on Russian religious thought, literary criticism, philosophy, and culture. It will be an invaluable resource for specialists in these areas and will provide an enriching and enlightening experience for all those interested in Bakhtin’s work and thought. 


Svitlana Kobets,

Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies   

© 2023 by Svitlana Kobets. All right reserved.