For the Life of the World 35

This post focuses on sections 4-6 of Worship in a Secular Age, the first appendix of For the Life of the World.

As Fr. Schmemann continues developing his assertion that the best definition of secular is the negation of worship by exploring and defining worship and Christian worship in particular, he notes how Christian worship does share some continuity with worship of all religions. It is not so new that it has no common ground, no continuity. (This is especially true when you examine the synagogue and temple worship of the first century and even further back into the particular strand of priestly tradition from which Israel was drawn.) And that leads into his following point. It’s longer than the excerpts I typically quote, but I think it’s absolutely central for understanding not only Fr. Schmemann’s premise, but what it means to be Christian.

If, however, this “continuity” of the Christian leitourgia with the whole of man’s worship includes in itself an equally essential principle of of discontinuity, if Christian worship being the fulfillment and the end of all worship is at the same time a beginning, a radically new worship, it is not because of any ontological impossibility for the world to become the sacrament of Christ. No, it i because the world rejected Christ by killing Him, and by doing so rejected its own destiny and fulfillment. Therefore, if the basis of all Christian worship is the Incarnation, its true content is always the Cross and the Resurrection. Through these events the new life in Christ, the Incarnate Lord, is “hid with Christ in God,” and made into a life “not of this world.” The world which rejected Christ must itself die in man if it is to become again means of communion, means of participation in the life which shone forth from the grave, in the Kingdom which is not “of this world,” and which in terms of this world is still to come.

And thus the bread and wine — the food, the matter, the very symbol of this world and therefore the very content of our prosphora to God, to be changed into the Body and Blood of Christ and become the communion to His Kingdom — must in the anaphora be “lifted up,” taken out of “this world.” And it is only when the Church in the Eucharist leaves this world and ascends to Christ’s table at His Kingdom, that she truly sees and proclaims heaven and earth to be full of His glory and God as having “filled all things with Himself.” Yet, once more this “discontinuity,” this vision of all things as new, is possible only because at first there is continuity and not negation, because the Holy Spirit makes “all things new” and not “new things.”

Part of the problem today, and very likely one of the forces that led to the development of the modern secular perspective, is that a great many Christians do believe that God’s plan is to eventually wipe the slate clean, destroy all of this corrupted reality, and make a new one. It’s a perspective that rather than redeeming his creation (other than perhaps some of mankind) God is going to burn it up and make “new things.” In that perspective there seems to be no impetus for perceiving the reality of God filling and sustaining his creation, even broken as it is. It’s when you disconnect creation (including non-Christian worship) almost entirely from God that you make room for what we call the secular perspective.

Secularism, I said, is above all a negation of worship. And indeed, if what we have said about worship is true, is it not equally true that secularism consists in the rejection, explicit or implicit, of precisely that idea of man and world which is the very purpose of worship to express and communicate? … A modern secularist quite often accepts the idea of God. What, however, he emphatically negates is precisely the sacramentality of man and world.

Many of our “founding fathers” in this country were Deists, or something like a Deist, which is a view of God that is perfectly in line with secularism. We see the influence of this perspective in many places, from Jefferson’s Bible, to Washington always leaving the church before Communion. Later Fr. Schmemann points out that as obsessed as secular man can become with symbols (and he points to Masonry for an illustration), by rejecting the sacramentality of creation and man, symbols are reduced to mere illustrations of ideas and concepts. They are emphatically not that — as most religions (however wrong or misguided the religion might have been) have always known. Indeed, until the advent of the secular perspective, a proper understanding of “symbol” was almost universal across mankind.

To anyone who has had, be it only once, the true experience of worship, all this is revealed immediately as the ersatz it is.

When I read that line I considered that moment as a preteen when, kneeling at the rail of an Episcopal Church, I drank from the chalice. Of all my encounters with Christianity of many and varied stripes, that is one that has remained seared in my memory. The same is true of my baptism, even though it was in the context of decidedly non-sacramental denomination. I couldn’t tell you a thing today about that church, about its pastor, or about anyone in that church. But I remember that moment in the water with crystal clarity. I understand what Fr. Schmemann is saying here.

Secularism — we must again and again stress this — is a “stepchild” of Christianity, as are, in the last analysis, all secular ideologies which today dominate the world — not, as it is claimed by the Western apostles of a Christian acceptance of secularism, a legitimate child, but a heresy. Heresy, however, is always the distortion, the exaggeration, and therefore the mutilation of something true, the affirmation of one “choice” (aizesis means choice in Greek), one element at the expense of the others, the breaking up of the catholicity of Truth. … To condemn a heresy is relatively easy. What is much more difficult is to detect the question it implies, and to give this question an adequate answer. Such, however, was always the Church’s dealing with “heresies” — they always provoked an effort of creativity within the Church so that the condemnation became ultimately a widening and deepening of Christian faith itself.

The councils and creeds are not, as many misinterpret them, the establishment of encompassing ideas about God to which you had to give mental assent to be a Christian. When you try to reduce them to that, you are largely missing the point. They were, instead, the creativity of the Church engaged in response to specific ideas about God that were not consistent with the life of the Church. If you truly wish to understand a Christian creed or a council, it is generally important to understand its context. It’s not essential for Christian belief by any means. But they become easy to misunderstand if you do not know something of the context and the problem that led to them.

The uniqueness of secularism, its difference from the great heresies of the patristic age, is that the latter were provoked by the encounter of Christianity with Hellenism, whereas the former is the result of a “breakdown” within Christianity itself, of its own deep metamorphosis.

To illustrate the above, Fr. Schmemann to the twelfth century Lateran Council condemning a Latin theologian, Berengarius of Tours. That was one I hadn’t heard about before and I found it fascinating. It appears to capture the time when, in the West, we began to make “mystical” or “symbolic” the opposite of “real”. Basically, Berengarius held that since the presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements was “mystical” it wasn’t real. (In that, we see perhaps the earliest roots of Zwingli’s heresy, though he took it further than that.) The council condemned Berengarius, but in their condemnation they accepted his basic opposition of mystical and real. That council held that since the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is real, it isn’t mystical. That explains, of course, the way that perceptions of the Eucharist developed in the medieval West. I had never really understood that development before since it so different from most of what you find in the first thousand years of the Church. However, it set up the false dichotomy between “symbol” and “real” that came in time to dominate Western thought. And at its core, it’s that dichotomy, which had not really existed anywhere, Christian or not, before that time, that laid the groundwork necessary for a secular perspective.

Here is the real cause of secularism, which is ultimately nothing else but the affirmation of the world’s autonomy, of its self-sufficiency in terms of reason, knowledge, and action. The downfall of Christian symbolism led to the dichotomy of the “natural” and the “supernatural” as the only framework of Christian thought and experience. And whether the “natural” and the “supernatural” are somehow related to one another by analogia entis, as in Latin theology, or whether this analogy is totally rejected, as in Barthianism, ultimately makes no difference. In both views the world ceases to be the “natural” sacrament of God, and the supernatural sacrament to have any “continuity” with the world.

Let us not be mistaken, however. This Western theological framework was in fact accepted by the Orthodox East also, and since the end of the patristic age our theology has been indeed much more “Western” than “Eastern.” If secularism can be properly termed a Western heresy, the very fruit of the basic Western “deviation,” our own scholastic theology has also been permeated with it for centuries, and this in spite of violent denunciations of Rome and papism.

Fr. Schmemann notes both the origin of secularism and the way it has worked its way throughout much of the Christian world, East and West. It may have started in the West, but it spread everywhere.

Both [enthusiasts of “secular Christianity” and the “Super-Orthodox” who “reject” it], by denying the world its natural “sacramentality” and radically opposing the “natural” to the “supernatural,” make the world grace-proof, and ultimately lead to secularism. And it is here, within this spiritual and psychological context, that the problem of worship in relation to modern secularism acquires its real significance.

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