For the Life of the World 39

Posted: February 19th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 39

This post focuses on sections 7-10 of Sacrament and Symbol, the second appendix of For the Life of the World.

Section 7 focuses of the essay focuses on the way that causality and guarantees were built into the theology of sacraments and how they were thus transformed from intrinsic and revealing in their union with Christ to extrinsic and formal. They began to shift toward individual acts of piety and sanctification rather than “catholic acts of the Church fulfilling herself.” It’s a pretty dense section, but I think I get his point. We turned what was intended to sustain our life in communion into separate acts over which we could exercise control.

Fr. Schmemann then returns to the “Orthodox perspective” and asks how a rediscovery of sacraments can occur. And in this context he makes an interesting point about something I have seen people do.

A mere reading of the Fathers, useful and essential as it is, will not suffice. For even patristic texts can be made, and are often made, into “proofs” of theological systems deeply alien to the real “mind” of the Fathers. The “patristic revival” of our time would miss completely its purpose if it were to result in a rigid “patristic system” which in reality never existed. It is indeed the eternal merit of the Fathers that they showed the dynamic and not static nature of Christian theology, its power always to be “contemporary” without reduction to any “contemporaneousness,” open to all human aspirations without being determined by any of them. If the return to the Fathers were to mean a purely formal repetition of their terms and formulations, it would be as wrong and as useless as the discarding of the Fathers by “modern” theology because of their presumably “antiquated” world view.

A proper reading requires a recovery of the ancient Christian understanding of “symbol” and Fr. Schmemann suggests a starting point is with the Symbol of symbols himself, Jesus of Nazareth. When one sees Him, they “see” the Father, has the communion of the Holy Spirit, and has already eternal life.

It is at this point, in this agonizing “focus” of the actual Christian situation, that the preceding analysis acquires, we hope, its true significance. For it shows that if Christianity fails to fulfill its symbolic function — to be that “unitive principle” — it is because “symbol” was broken, at first, by Christians themselves. As a result of this breakdown Christianity has come to look today, in the eyes of the world at least, like, on the one hand, a mere intellectual doctrine which moreover “cracks” under the pressure of an entirely different intellectual context, or, on the other hand, a mere religious institution which also “cracks” under the pressure of its own institutionalism. … For the whole point is that holy is not and can never be a mere adjective, a definition sufficient to guarantee the divine authority and origin of anything. If it defines anything it is from the inside, not outside. It reveals and manifests, vide Rudolf Otto, the “mysterium tremendum,” i.e., an inherent power which in a doctrine transcends its intellectualism and in an institution its institutionalism. It is this “holy” — the power of an epiphany — that is hopelessly missing today in both doctrine and institution, and this, not because of human sins and limitations, but precisely because of a deliberate choice: the rejection and the dissolution of symbol as the fundamental structure of Christian “doctrine” and Christian “institution”.

And so Fr. Schmemann asks where and how the rediscovery of symbol itself can be achieved.

The answer of Orthodox theology once it recovers from its “Western captivity” ought to be: in the unbroken liturgical life of the Church, in that sacramental tradition which in the East, at least, has not been significantly altered by the wanderings of an alienated theology. We have pointed out already that the fatal error of post-patristic rationalism was the isolation of the sacrament from the liturgy as total expression of the Church’s life and faith. It meant, in fact, the isolation of the sacrament from the symbol, i.e., from that connection and communication with the whole of reality which are fulfilled in the sacrament.

His conclusion to the essay and thus to the whole book is quite a sentence. It reminds me of trying to read Paul, actually.

In concluding, we can only say that if such a task were undertaken, it would show that the proper function of the “leitourgia” has always been to bring together, within one symbol, the three levels of the Christian faith and life: the Church, the world, and the Kingdom; that the Church herself is thus the sacrament in which the broken, yet still “symbolical,” life of “this world” is brought, in Christ and by Christ, into the dimension of the Kingdom of God, becoming itself the sacrament of the “world to come,” or that which God has from all eternity prepared for those who  love Him, and where all that which is human can be transfigured by grace so that all things may be consummated in God; that finally it is here and only here — in the “mysterion” of God’s presence and action — that the Church always becomes that which she is: the Body of Christ and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the unique Symbol “bringing together” — by bringing to God the world for the life of which He gave His Son.

It’s a small book, but one densely packed with deep thoughts. I’ve enjoyed working my way through it.


For the Life of the World 38

Posted: February 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on 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.


For the Life of the World 37

Posted: February 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 37

This post focuses on sections 1-3 of Sacrament and Symbol, the second appendix of For the Life of the World.

Fr. Schmemann notes at the start of this essay that much of Orthodox theology in recent centuries has been deeply swayed and influenced by the Western perspective that focused on the form and practice of sacraments and tried to fully define them in ways that Christianity had not traditionally done. Not only were the answers wrong, but often the questions were the wrong questions, or they were asked in the wrong way.

What is a “sacrament”? In answering this question the post-patristic Western and “westernizing” theology places itself within a mental context deeply, if not radically, different from that of the early Church. I say mental and not intellectual because the difference belongs here to a level much deeper than that of intellectual presuppositions or theological terminology.

That’s the first question. What is it about which we are speaking? Everyone seems to assume they know, but there are actually a lot of presuppositions and statements about the nature of reality behind every such answer.

In the early Church, in the writings of the Fathers, sacraments, inasmuch as they are given any systematic interpretation, are always explained in the context of their actual liturgical celebration, the explanation being, in fact, an exegesis of the liturgy itself in all its ritual complexity and concreteness.

You see this as far back as the Didache, where baptism cannot be explained apart from its actual liturgical practice, and it continues everywhere that baptism, the eucharist, and other sacraments are discussed. They are concrete things. It’s only much later that sacraments came to be discussed and analyzed independent of their actual practice. Fr. Schmemann notes that you could read about the sacraments in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, for example, and walk away with no knowledge or understanding of the liturgical act itself, how to “do” the sacrament.

In order to begin to explore the shift in perception and understanding, Fr. Schmemann begins by focusing on a Western “debate” with which most are familiar — the debate of the real presence.

Within the context of that debate the term “real” clearly implies the possibility of another type of presence which therefore is not real. The term for that other presence in the Western intellectual and theological idiom is, we know, symbolical. [It is clear in Western thought that] the “incompatibility between symbol and reality,” between “figura et veritas” is consistently affirmed and accepted.

Even before I began to read ancient Christian writers, I knew that was wrong. I knew that as a rule people int he ancient world did not make “symbol” the opposite of “real.” Rather, symbols always shared in the power of that which they expressed. And the truer the symbol, the greater the power. Once I began to read ancient Christians, I found a similar sort of perception of reality in their writings.

The Fathers and the whole early tradition, however — and we reach here the crux of the matter — not only do not know this distinction and opposition, but to them symbolism is the essential dimension of the sacrament, the proper key to its understanding. … “Symbolical” here is not only not opposed to “real,” but embodies it as its very expression and mode of manifestation. Historians of theology, in their ardent desire to maintain the myth of theological continuity and orderly “evolution,” here again find their explanation in the “imprecision” of patristic terminology. They do not seem to realize that the Fathers’ use of “symbolon” (and related terms) is not “vague” or “imprecise” but simply different from that of the later theologians, and that the subsequent transformation of these terms constitutes indeed the source of one of the greatest theological tragedies.

The use of many terms changed within Christianity, but most Christians don’t want to admit it, or if they do, they want to believe that they have somehow “recovered” an older meaning or understanding that was “lost.” Few people are content to simply let different be different and read and explore with that lens in place.


For the Life of the World 36

Posted: February 11th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 36

This post focuses on sections 7-8 of Worship in a Secular Age, the first appendix of For the Life of the World.

Fr. Schmemann begins to draw his essay toward conclusion by noting that we actually desire the divisions of reality that make space for a secular perspective. That’s why they’ve taken root in both East and West.

For it is clear that this deeply “Westernized” theology has had a very serious impact on worship, or rather, on the experience and comprehension of worship, on that which elsewhere I have defined as liturgical piety. And it has had this impact because it satisfied a deep desire of man for a legalistic religion that would fulfill his need for both the “sacred” — a divine sanction and guarantee — and the “profane,” i.e., a natural and secular life protected, as it were, from the constant challenge and absolute demands of God. It was a relapse into that religion which assures, by means of orderly transactions with the “sacred,” security and clean conscience in this life, as well as reasonable rights to the “other world,” a religion which Christ denounced by every word of His teaching, and which ultimately crucified Him. It is indeed much easier to live and to breathe within neat distinctions between the sacred and the profane, the natural and the supernatural, the pure and the impure, to understand religion in terms of sacred “taboos,” legal prescriptions and obligation, of ritual rectitude and canonical “validity.” It is much more difficult to realize that such religion not only does not constitute any threat to “secularism,” but on the contrary, is its paradoxical ally.

And it’s the truth. I create such categories and divisions of reality because I do not really want union with God, at least not all the way and certainly not yet. In this regard, I doubt most of us are dramatically different. However much I want to love this (to me) strange God made known in Jesus, there are also plenty of times I feel overwhelmed and want to keep him back at arm’s length. There are many pieces of my life where I want to simply say, “This is mine!” We are all more “secular” than we think.

Fr. Schmemann doesn’t take the time in the essay to fully explore the dichotomies, but here’s one illustration that I think is a good one. It’s an example of a way those false descriptions of reality even invade our Christian worship.

Thus, for example, to bless water, making it “holy water,” may have two entirely different meanings. It may mean, on the one hand, the transformation of something profane, and thus religiously void or neutral, into something sacred, in which case the main religious meaning of “holy water” is precisely that it is no longer “mere” water, and is in fact opposed to it — as the sacred is to the profane. Here the act of blessing reveals nothing about water, and thus about matter or world, but on the contrary makes them irrelevant to the new function of water as “holy water.” The sacred posits the profane as precisely profane, i.e., religiously meaningless.

On the other hand, the same act of blessing may mean the revelation of the true “nature” and “destiny” of water, and thus of the world — it may be an epiphany and the fulfillment of their “sacramentality.” By being restored through the blessing to its proper function, the “holy water” is revealed as the true, full, adequate water, and matter becomes again means of communion with and knowledge of God.

And Fr. Schmemann describes the above as happening, as infiltrating much of Christianity just as he sees the world around him changing.

And this at a time when secularism begins to “crack” from inside! If my reading of the great confusion of our time is correct, this confusion is, first of all a deep crisis of secularism. … More and more signs point toward one fact of paramount importance: the famous “modern man” is already looking for a path beyond secularism, is again thirsty and hungry for “something else.” Much too often this thirst and hunger are satisfied not only by food of doubtful quality, but by artificial substitutes of all kinds. The spiritual confusion is at its peak.

Actually, the spiritual confusion wasn’t at its peak in 1971. I don’t think it has even yet reached its peak. But Fr. Schmemann describes the forces that shaped by childhood and much of my life.

Fr. Schmemann concludes that we do not need any “new” worship fit for a modern secular age. Rather, we need to rediscover true Christian worship in all its fullness. I would tend to agree, especially the more I learn about Christianity and the more I experience Christ.


For the Life of the World 35

Posted: February 9th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on 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.


For the Life of the World 34

Posted: February 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 34

This post focuses on sections 1-3 of Worship in a Secular Age, the first appendix of For the Life of the World.

Dn. Michael Hyatt’s podcast series does not continue into the appendices, but I’m going to continue to blog through the two essays in it. I’ve found them as compelling and fascinating as I have the rest of this book.

Fr. Schmemann begins by pointing out his belief that we don’t have a clear understanding in this day and age what either worship or secular age mean, and without addressing that confusion, the subject can’t really be discussed. It seems to me that we are at least as confused today as we were in 1971 when the paper was presented. Most likely, we are more confused now than ever. That’s why I found this paper, even though it is almost forty years old relevant today. Fr. Schmemann begins by considering secularism.

Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress: — not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both “posits” his humanity and fulfills it.

Secularism is not the same thing as atheism, and it strikes me that a lot of Christians make that mistake today.  Secularism, however, is the negation of the sort of worship we particularly find in Christianity, the offering of creation back to God — a God who is everywhere present and filling all things — in thanksgiving. It’s also intriguing the way he defines secularism as a Christian heresy about man rather God. I had never thought of it that way, but it really does have a lot to do with how mankind fits in the schema of all that is.

To prove that my definition of secularism (“negation of worship”) is correct, I must prove two points. One concerning worship: it must be proven that the very notion of worship implies a certain idea of man’s relationship not only to God, but also to the world. And one concerning secularism: it must be proven that it is precisely this idea of worship that secularism explicitly or implicitly rejects.

When Fr. Schmemann considers the point above about worship, he primarily finds his evidence not from modern theologians, but from the scientific study of the history and phenomenology of religions that theologians have ignored as those theologians have focused on reducing sacraments to intellectual categories.

There can be no doubt however, that if, in the light this by now methodologically mature phenomenology of religion, we consider worship in general and the Christian leitourgia in particular, we are bound to admit that the very principle on which they are built, and which determined and shaped their development, is that of the sacramental character of the world and of man’s place in the world.

Christian worship depends on perceiving and interacting with the world as an “epiphany” of God and thus the world itself is “sacrament.”

And indeed, do I have to remind you of those realities, so humble, so “taken for granted” that they are hardly even mentioned in our highly sophisticated theological epistemologies and totally ignore in discussions about “hermeneutics,” and on which nevertheless simply depends our very existence as Church, as new creation, as people of God and temple of the Holy Spirit? We need water and oil, bread and wine in order to be in communion with God and to know Him. … There is no worship without the participation of the body, without words and silence, light and darkness, movement and stillness — yet it is in and through worship that all these essential expressions of man in his relation to the world are given their ultimate “term” of reference, revealed in their highest and deepest meaning.

We need the matter of creation and we need our bodies to worship. Worship is not an inner matter. Worship is not something sacred and purely spiritual divorced from the secular, profane or ordinary matter of creation.

Being the epiphany of God, worship is thus the epiphany of the world; being communion with God, it is the only true communion with the world; being knowledge of God, it is the ultimate fulfillment of all human knowledge.


For the Life of the World 33

Posted: February 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 33

The series now moves to sections 2-3 of the seventh chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter seven.

The second tendency consists in the acceptance of secularism. According to the ideologists of a “nonreligious” Christianity, secularism is not the enemy, not the fruit of man’s tragic loss of religion, not a sin and a tragedy, but the world’s “coming of age” which Christianity must acknowledge and accept as perfectly normal: “Honesty demands that we recognize that we must live in the world as if there were no God.”

I’m not sure how prevalent the above is today within Christianity. It’s hard for me to judge. However, I have a sense that the above sort of reaction, unlike the rise of pluralism, has declined. That’s not to say that any of the many purely secular perspectives are on the decline. Rather, as the statistics indicate, people are increasingly comfortable selecting “none” as their religion rather than trying to blend the two as Fr. Schmemann writes in the above.

It is true that many who do still believe in God in some sense have absorbed and accepted without question the secular perspective on the nature of reality, the mistaken categories I mentioned yesterday. I think that’s true in all sorts of Christian churches, denominations, non-denominations, and parachurch groups though perhaps the tendency is stronger in some than in others. But it’s not the sort of “nonreligious” Christianity described above. And I think that may be the natural outgrowth of Fr. Schmemann’s next point.

And first of all, secularism must indeed be acknowledged as a “Christian” phenomenon, as a results of the Christian revolution. It can be explained only within the context of the history whose starting point is the encounter between Athens and Jerusalem. It is indeed one of the grave errors of religious anti-secularism that it does not see that secularism is made up of verites chretiennes devenues folles, of Christian truths that “went mad,” and that in simply rejecting secularism, it in fact rejects with it certain fundamentally Christian aspirations and hopes.

In an essay in the appendix, Fr. Schmemann traces the above in more depth. I’ll probably continues this series into the appendix. I had recognized the above to some extent, of course, but he traces it farther back than I’ve ever managed to do. When we fail to recognize the origin of the secular perspective, though, we end up throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as Fr. Schmemann basically says above. He then has a beautiful long paragraph where he follows the implications of failing to recognize the connection between Christianity and a secular perception of reality. It’s too long to quote and excerpting would mangle it. If you ever get the book itself, make a point of reading this chapter slowly.

The only purpose of this book has been to show, or rather to “signify” that the choice between these two reductions of Christianity — to “religion” and to “secularism” — is not the only choice, that in fact it is a false dilemma. … What am I going to do? what are the Church and each Christian to do in this world? What is our mission? To these questions there exist no answers in the form of practical “recipes.” … “it all depends” primarily on our being real witnesses to the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit, to that new life of which we are made partakers in the Church.

In other words, the only thing to do is to strive together to become Christian. Or so it seems to me. Fr. Schmemann’s closing thoughts for this chapter and book are beautiful. I don’t think I can add any meaningful comment to them.

The Church is the sacrament of the Kingdom — not because she possesses divinely instituted acts called “sacraments,” but because first of all she is the possibility given to man to see in and through this world the “world to come,” to see and to “live” it in Christ. It is only when in the darkness of this world we discern that Christ has already “filled all things with Himself” that these things, whatever they may be, are revealed and given to us full of meaning and beauty. A Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him. And this joy transforms all his human plans and programs, decisions and actions, making all his mission the sacrament of the world’s return to Him who is the life of the world.


For the Life of the World 32

Posted: February 2nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 32

The series now moves to section 1 of the seventh chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter seven.

Whatever the achievements of the Christian mission in the past, today we must honestly face a double failure: the failure to achieve any substantial “victory” over other great world religions, and the failure to overcome in any significant way the prevailing and the growing secularization of our culture.

In a strange way, both of those threads are tightly interwoven throughout my childhood formation. As Fr. Schmemann has noted elsewhere, “secular” is not a synonym for “atheist”. They are not expressing or addressing the same concept, though there is a fair degree of overlap between the two. One thing I find fascinating is that Fr. Schmemann saw these forces at work and correctly understood them before I was born. A lot of people have looked back and interpreted what happened during the part of the cultural turn that marks my life, but I’m not sure I’ve encountered many who saw it and understood it as it was happening. Fr. Schmemann did.

In regard to other religions Christianity stands simply as one of them, and the time is certainly gone when Christians could consider them as “primitive” and bound to disappear when exposed to the self-evident “superiority” of Christianity. Not only have they not disappeared, but they show today a remarkable vitality and they “proselytize” even within our so-called “Christian” society.

Of course, I’m not sure that many people would even call our society “Christian” today, but his point above describes my life. I grew up studying, learning, and practicing everything from Transcendental Meditation to palmistry to numerology to past life regression to astrology to tarot to Hinduism to Taoism. (Buddhism didn’t attract me as a child.) Yes, Christianity was in the mix, but I’m not sure I would even describe it as a prime contender. Nor am I talking about some sort of teenage exploration. I had experienced, practiced, or explored to some degree all of the above and more by the time I turned thirteen.

In fact, that perspective on reality was so much a part of me that I have never been able to grasp the common evangelical assertion that Christianity is not a religion. Of course, part of that is the shallowness behind the evangelical version of the assertion. The various reasons given usually lack depth. It’s one example where evangelicals have exactly the right idea, but don’t seem to grasp why it’s true. I began to really understand the reason for that assertion (both in terms of today and in the context of the ancient world) from some things I heard from Fr. Thomas Hopko. And then, of course, this book has really helped clarify the idea for me — probably better than anything else I’ve read or heard. But my “default” formative perspective still sees Christianity as simply one among many religions. It takes real effort for me to overcome that lens.

I believe it was GK Chesterton who wrote: When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything. The experience of my life has certainly been evidence of that truth.

As for secularism, nothing shows better our inability to cope with it than the confusion and division it provokes among Christians themselves: the total and violent rejection of secularism in all varieties of Christian “fundamentalism” clashes with its almost enthusiastic acceptance by the numerous Christian interpreters of the “modern world” and “modern man.”

At it’s heart, secularism involves wrongly dividing the world into categories like “nature” and “supernature” (and possibly dismissing the latter entirely), “profane” and “sacred”, “material” and “spiritual” rather than the proper categories of created and uncreated. Whether they embrace or reject the “supernatural”, most Christian groups today have accepted that manner of perceiving reality. And that drives the confused response.

The object of mission is thought of as the propagation of  religion, considered to be an essential need of man. … But what are these “basic religious values”? If one analyzes them honestly, one does not find a single one that would be “basically” different from what secularism at its best also proclaims and offers to men.

You see this in the common approach to “evangelization” today. The goal is to “convert” others into what you are. Further, our secular society professes much the same “values” in many (though not all) areas as Christianity. (That’s not entirely surprising, since I think Fr. Schmemann is correct in his insight elsewhere that the “secular” perspective of reality has its roots as a Christian heresy.)

It sounds like a paradox, but the basic religion that is being preached and accepted as the only means of overcoming secularism is in reality a surrender to secularism. … And it is really amazing how little difference exists in the religious self-consciousness of members of confessions whose dogmas seem to stand in radical opposition to one another. For even if a man changes religion, it is usually because he finds the one he accepts as offering him “more help” — not more truth.

Oddly the SBTC magazine recently had an editorial decrying exactly that tendency, that people today don’t really care all that much what a particular church or denomination teaches or believes. I have to admit, living in the wilds of Christian pluralism, I tend to share that attitude. I’ll check to see if a place is too obnoxious in their statements about the proper “role” or “place” for women and steer clear of them. If they are stridently anti-evolution or even anti-science, I’ll tend to give them a wide berth. And if they are nutty in their interpretation of and focus on “end times” I’ll keep my distance. Beyond that, Christianity has become so fragmented that I don’t really expect any coherence or place any particular stock in “denominational distinctives”.

And in this general religious decline, the non-Christian “great religions” have an even greater chance of survival. … Have not Oriental wisdom and Oriental mysticism always exercised an almost irresistible attraction for religious people everywhere? It is to be feared that certain “mystical” aspects of Orthodoxy owe their growing popularity in the West precisely to their easy — although wrong — identification with Oriental mysticism.

Why? Because if you are looking for a religion that “helps” then Buddhism or other Eastern religions can certainly offer that to you. They may “help” better than Christianity, and certainly better than much of what Christianity has become in the modern pluralist West. People are flocking today both to other religions and to no particular religion at all.

It is a very serious question, indeed, whether under its seemingly traditional cover certain forms of contemporary Christian mission do not in reality pave the way for a “world religion” that will have very little in common with the faith that once overcame the world.

If anything, we’re simply farther along that path today.


For the Life of the World 31

Posted: February 1st, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 31

The series continues with the seventh chapter of For the Life of the World. Here is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter seven.

This final chapter of the book, And Ye Are Witnesses of These Things, focuses on the Church as mission and how being mission is its very essence and life. Yet, as we’ll see, when Fr. Schmemann writes of “mission” he is not exactly talking about the same sort of thing often labeled as “witnessing” by evangelicals. In his podcast, Dn. Hyatt opens with an amusing story about a summer in college spent with the Baptist Student Union “evangelizing” on the beach in Galveston, TX. I don’t really have any similar stories, though during one of my encounters with Christianity as a teen, I did engage in a bit of that sort of “witnessing”.

Part of the problem, of course, is our common use of the word “witness” as a verb rather than a noun. Used properly, it’s a description of what we are, not an activity in which we do or don’t engage. Perhaps it would have more impact if, instead of translating the scriptural word, we transliterated it instead. How many people are anxious to be martyrs of Christ? As the bard would say, “Must give us pause…”

I’ve been a member of an SBC church now for more than a decade and a half. I’ve also attended various non-denominational or inter-denominational bible studies and other evangelical groups over that period. I’ve been exposed to many different evangelical techniques for “witnessing”. Most of them have reminded me more of used car salesmen or telemarketers than anything I could or would relate to communicating any sort of spirituality or meaningful faith to another human being. Christianity offers a perspective of reality worthy of the dignity of the human soul. But you would never know that from its common modern reductions.

Examine the various techniques (if any) for “witnessing” that you have been taught over the course of your life. If they require that you manipulate the other person in an attempt to produce an intellectual or emotional “crisis” so that you can then offer your “solution” to the crisis you induced, then you’re doing the same thing a good salesman or con man does. Sure, you can “convert” people that way. But you cannot do that to another person and simultaneously love them. And if our actions do not conform to love as Jesus loves and as our Holy Scriptures define love, then however good or bad our actions and intentions might be, they are not Christian.

The ends do not justify the means. In fact, the means we used always produce corresponding ends. The only way you can “convert” someone to a life of thanksgiving and communion of love is to live such a life yourself. You can only “convert” someone to love by loving them. I read 1 Corinthians 13 a lot. The same thought processes that justify manipulating someone into a crisis in order to achieve the greater good of “making” them a Christian flow along the same lines that have “justified” every “Christian” atrocity in history. It may look harmless, but it’s not.

A good example of the difference can be found right here in the US. Compare the difference in the missionary outreach of the Russian Orthodox to the natives in Alaska to the Protestant treatment of the natives on the continental US. The mission in Alaska was sent to help protect the natives from abuses by the Russian companies. They learned the native languages. They created a written form of it. They translated the liturgy and scripture into the native languages and they built on that which was true and good in the native culture. Oh, they were still men and the mission was hardly perfect (and the business interests were always more powerful than the missionaries), but it flowed along the lines of love more often than not.

By contrast, though there were definitely exceptions, most “mission” efforts by Protestants in the continental US colluded with business interests and the idea of “manifest destiny”. They sought to strip the natives of their culture and turn them into imitations of good European descent protestants. In fact, when the US bought Alaska, our “missionaries” used exactly those same tactics in efforts to “convert” what were by then native Orthodox Christians. The history is fascinating. I knew the American part, of course. Though much diluted, Cherokee blood does still run in my veins. And I heard stories growing up.

You cannot be a true Christian witness unless you love and honor the other. If you do not see them as an icon of God, if you do not respect their dignity and freedom as God does, if you manipulate or coerce or treat them as an “object” in any way, then it hardly matters what you can get them to “confess”.

I didn’t realize when I began writing that I had an introductory post on this subject rather than an introductory paragraph. I suppose I’ll actually dive into Fr. Schmemann’s book tomorrow.


For the Life of the World 30

Posted: January 29th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For the Life of the World | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on For the Life of the World 30

The series continues in section 3 of the sixth chapter of For the Life of the World. Here again is the link to Deacon Michael Hyatt’s  podcast on chapter six.

The beginning of this victory is Christ’s death.

Those opening words to this section capture the paradoxical nature of Christian faith. Though not strictly related to this chapter, I will note that far too much of Christianity has placed all the focus on Christ’s death. I like the way the above is phrase. Christ’s death is the beginning of this victory, but not its fullness.

Fr. Schmemann goes on to note that the “liturgy of Christian death” is not something that comes into play when someone dies and we are ushering them on in some dignified manner. It begins every Sunday, every feast day, and most especially in every Easter. Our whole life in the Church is “in a way the sacrament of our death.” We proclaim our Lord’s death and resurrection. But we are not death-centered, because our Lord is a living Lord.

To be Christian, to believe in Christ, means and has always meant this: to know in a transrational and yet absolutely certain way called faith, that Christ is the Life of all life, that He is Life itself and, therefore, my life. “In him was life; and the life was the light of men.” All Christian doctrines — those of the incarnation, redemption, atonement — are explanations, consequences, but not the “cause” of that faith. Only when we believe in Christ do all these affirmations become “valid” and “consistent.” But faith itself is the acceptance not of this or that “proposition” about Christ, but of Christ Himself as the Life and the light of life. “For the life was manifested and we have seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us” (1 Jn 1:2). In this sense Christian faith is radically different from “religious belief.” Its starting point is not “belief” but love. In itself and by itself all belief is partial, fragmentary, fragile. “For we know in part, and we prophesy in part … whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” Only love never faileth (1 Cor. 13). And if to love someone means that I have my life in him, or rather that he has become the “content” of my life, to love Christ is to know and to possess Him as the Life of my life.

If we depend on what we think or believe, we are standing on shaky ground. Such things can change easily. I know. I’ve probably shifted beliefs more than most people do. The one who kept the swirl of Christianity engaged, even if just barely so at times, with my life was Jesus of Nazareth. And it was people in a strange way almost manifesting this Jesus who kept drawing me back. I’m still not sure what I think or believe or how much more it will change, though I’m rather more certain now what I don’t believe. But I’ve come to know Jesus enough to be certain that I want to love him more. I am confident that in him we see a good God who loves mankind — and who loves me.

The Church is the entrance into the risen life of Christ; it is communion in life eternal, “joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.” And it is the expectation of the “day without evening” of the Kingdom; not of any “other world,” but of the fulfillment of all things and all life in Christ. In Him death itself has become an act of life, for He has filled it with Himself, with His love and light. … And if I make this new life mine, mine this hunger and thirst for the Kingdom, mine this expectation of Christ, mine the certitude that Christ is Life, then my very death will be an act of communion with Life. … Christ is risen and Life reigneth.

What more to say than amen? That is where I have placed my hope — with Life.