For the Life of the World 1

I’ve heard about For the Life of the World by Father Alexander Schmemann off and on for several years now. However, the convergence of several events have now led me to buy it and begin reading it myself. First, Deacon Michael Hyatt is teaching through it with his class each Sunday this fall, which is then distributed through his podcast, At the Intersection of East and West, a podcast I’ve followed since he started it. Second, I received a $10 Amazon gift certificate for participating in some survey. Third, I had to place an order for Catching Fire (the sequel to Hunger Games) for my daughter and, well, who can buy just one book at a time? 😉

So, this series will be interspersed within whatever other series I am doing more or less weekly as I intend to read through the book at the same pace as Deacon Hyatt’s class. I’ll write my posts on each chapter after reading the chapter and listening to the podcast. Today’s post is on the first chapter of the book, which describes its philosophical goals. The podcasts for this chapter spanned two weeks and I do recommend listening to them both. You’ll probably get more from Deacon Hyatt than you will from me anyway.

Fr. Schmemann opens his book by quoting the German materialist, Feuerbach, “Man is what he eats.” And he affirms that as a true statement, though not at all in the way that Feuerbach intended. Man is what he eats, but that does not reduce reality to the merely material. Rather, it points to the seamless unity of the physical and the spiritual.

In the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food.

Today many, especially in Western Christianity, have attempted to separate reality in the world of the religious life and the world of the profane, the ordinary, or the secular life. The problem is that such a dualism is neither Christian nor even particularly human. I must confess that I don’t understand this tendency among my fellow Protestants. I have always sought a path toward a unified reality. Now, that does not necessarily mean the fully embodied spirituality of Christianity. I was not uncomfortable with the fundamental Hindu perspective of the material reality as maya or illusion. The Christian fights or should fight to unify the totality of life, to have the fullness of life, but Fr. Schmemann asks an intriguing question:

What is the life of life itself?

Unless we answer that question properly, we will never move beyond the dichotomy that seems to haunt American Christianity. Whether trying to spiritualize our life or secularize our religion we are still approaching them as two different and separate things. They are not.

God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God.

Fr. Schmemann coins a descriptive for man. Whatever else we may be called ( e.g. homo sapiens, homo faber), we are first and foremost homo adorans.

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God — and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him.

It is only as we understand that reality that story of the Fall can even begin to make sense. The story, of course, revolves around food. That is no accident. But more than that, it is not about choosing to obey or disobey some arbitrary rule. It cuts right to the heart of who and what we were created to be.

Not given, not blessed by God, it (the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) was food whose eating was condemned to be communion with itself alone, and not with God. It is the image of the world loved for itself, and eating it is the image of life understood as an end in itself. To love is not easy, and mankind has chosen not to return God’s love.

It is the ultimate expression of materialistic love, the love of the material in and for itself and for what it can provide me. We have done it so long and so consistently that it has come to seem normal. We don’t give thanks. We don’t bless the material creation for God. “It seems natural not to be eucharistic.” Indeed.

When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the “sacrament” of God’s presence. … For one who thinks food in itself is the source of life, eating is communion with the dying world, it is communion with death. … For “the wages of sin is death.” The life man chose was only the appearance of life. … He ceased to be the priest of the world and became its slave.

That is, of course, the great irony. Our life is hid in Christ with God. Our life was to bless God and lift up his creation to him in thanksgiving. We have no life apart from God, so when we embrace that which is not God, we ultimately embrace death. In trying to control our world (and even ourselves) we become slaves to the world in and through our passions. I actually have a greater appreciation for Buddhism since I became Christian than I did before I was Christian. There is much truth to their teaching that our passions enslave us. There are worse things than to strive to become dispassionate, though the Christian approach is, ultimately, much different than the Buddhist path.

In our perspective, however, the “original” sin is not primarily that man has “disobeyed” God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God. … The only real fall of man is his non-eucharistic life in a non-eucharistic world. The fall is not that he preferred world to God, distorted the balance between the spiritual and material, but that he made the world material, whereas he was to have transformed it into “life in God,” filled with meaning and spirit.

The above is an extremely dense idea, but if you can begin to see it, you’ll begin to perceive the richness of creation and the depth of our distortion of it. This dualism, this dichotomy between the spiritual and the material, is in and of itself the very substance of our fall. Every time we view the world through this lens, every time we act on these assumption, we participate in the fall and destruction of creation, even if what we actually do appears on the surface to be “good“. When we live and act within this dualism, we are deepening the shadow over our world. It’s into this darkness that God acted decisively: He sent light.

It is within the context of these thoughts that Fr. Schmemann makes a statement about Christianity not being a religion in the traditional sense of the word in a way that actually made sense to me. (I’ve heard similar statements in the past in a Protestant context, but I could never get them to add up.) I’ll draw a number of his phrases together here, but to really grasp what he’s saying, you probably need to read the entirety of the chapter.

Christianity, however, is in a profound sense the end of all religion. … Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. … He (Christ) has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion. It was this freedom of the early church from “religion” in the usual, traditional sense of this word that led the pagans to accuse Christians of atheism. … And in Him (Christ) was the end of “religion,” because He himself was the Answer to all religion, to all human hunger for God, because in Him the life that was lost by man — and which could only be symbolized, signified, asked for in religion — was restored to man.

Within that context he discusses the story of the Samaritan woman at the well and the discussion about temple that she had with Jesus. Jesus affirmed that the Jews at that time knew the truth and worshiped in the right location. But he told her that time was coming to an end. Christians and Christianity have never been tied to a particular place, to a particular time, to a particular building in our worship. We sacramentalize all of creation.

Now, that is not to say that there is anything wrong with building places, even beautiful places, with ornate liturgy, or with any of the rest of a fully embodied spirituality. There is not and never has been. Contrary to the beliefs of many of my fellow Baptists, Christianity has no history of congregational, non-liturgical worship until they created it from their own imaginations in the wake of what is called the Great Reformation. Their imagined first century church never existed historically in the manner many of them envision.

But as Christians, we are not tied to any one place, any one nation, any one ethnicity, or any one language in our worship. All creation is our temple as we offer it back to God in thanksgiving.

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