For the Life of the World 38

This post focuses on sections 4-6 of Sacrament and Symbol, the second appendix of For the Life of the World.

Fr. Schmemann more closely examines why the ancient Christian Fathers perceived symbol and reality so differently and it’s primarily a matter of “worldview” (to use an often overused word).  The world, created by God, is naturally “symbolical” and even “sacramental”.

If the Christian sacrament is unique, it is not in the sense of being a miraculous exception to the natural order of things created by God and “proclaiming His glory.”

And that is something that is fundamentally wrong with so many of the conversations within much of Western Christianity. “Miracles” are viewed as events or actions that contravene the natural. And in that false dichotomy we find the seed of our perception of a natural order somehow apart from God. Christ’s institution consists of filling the natural symbol with himself and making it sacrament.

Theology as proper words and knowledge about God is the result of the knowledge of God — and in Him of all reality. The “original sin” of post-patristic theology consists therefore in the reduction of the concept of knowledge to rational or discursive knowledge or, in other terms, in the separation of knowledge from “mysterion.”

And that, of course, is foolish. I’m a programmer. I’m the son and nephew of scientists. I have no problem with rational or discursive knowledge. But none of that has anything to do with the way I know my wife. My knowledge of her is built on years of shared pain, struggle, and sometimes ecstasy. In many ways, she remains a mystery to me — yet I know her as I know no other. I know my children not in some rational way, but as that newborn I held, that infant whom I rocked while I sang, the young child I comforted, and through the web of life experienced together. And that, of course, is how we know God. He will always remain mystery, remain other to us as we ultimately remain to each other. And yet we know him and live within the experience of his love for us.

It must be clear by now, we hope, that the theme of “real presence” which we mentioned above and whose appearance in a way inaugurated the post-patristic period in sacramental theology was born out of theological doubt about the “reality” of symbol, i.e., its ability to contain and communicate reality.

Opposing “symbol” and “real” was simply a mistake in category, but one which has had a profound impact on humanity and on our Christian faith.

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