Considering Fr. Schmemann

Contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” Jude 3.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann is an inevitable figure of influence in 20th century Orthodoxy, most of all in America.

His well-known name has arisen once again, this time in connection to an article in The Wheel (a periodical) entitled “Alexander Schmemann’s Critique of Orthodoxy.” The author of the article is Fr. John Jillions. 

The article lives up to its name and elucidates various critiques which Schmemann leveled against the Orthodox Church. The critiques are taken from his journal. In my mind, a journal is a personal thing. In it, one attempts to make sense of and wrestle with the many ideas and thoughts which are inevitable in this earthly existence. Thus, many times, a journal reflects a very personal struggle and journey. This must be allowed to a person. Yet, with the current article and I suppose the publishing of Fr. Schmemann’s journal, the personal struggle is now public. Moreover, it seems clear that it is intended by some for a certain end. It is in light of this that I am writing.

Fr. Jillions claims, Schmemann’s fundamental criticism was that Orthodoxy had become an idol to itself. It had thus eclipsed Christ. And because of its allergy to self-criticism, Orthodoxy had become incapable of seeing, admitting and repenting of its fault.”

Obviously, this is a weighty assertion. First, it seems very clear that Fr. Schmemann had a strong dislike for certain aspects of “Orthodox history,” which he is entitled to. Yet, this strong personal opinion of his must also be held in consideration while evaluating any of his critiques. It clearly flavors his reflections. Also Fr. Schmemann’s ideas must be evaluated in light of the teaching of the saints and the Scriptures.

Second, there seems to be a blurring and muddling, a conflating, of the essence of the Church and its human interface. In its essence the Church cannot “eclipse” Christ because, as the Scriptures testify, it is essentially, that is by nature, His Body and Bride (cf. Eph 1:23, 5:32-33; Col. 1:18). In fact, the whole testimony of the saints confirms the essential divine and perfect foundation of the Church (cf. 1 Tim 3:15). As the body cannot function without its head, so the Church cannot function without her Head, Who is Christ Jesus. This essential reality of the nature of the Church must be properly understood and realized. It is to this perfection that we are called as members. Thus, breakdowns happen not on the essential level of the Church but on the that of the members – this area is open to critique. Are the members living in accord with the essence of Christ as revealed in His Body? The essential reality, also known as Holy Tradition, is the standard of the members. On the level of the member, one could choose to disregard the essential Gospel teaching; one could even decide to utilize the message for one’s individual gain and aggrandizement. Any student of history knows that this has tragically happened many times. This does not mean that the core essence is faulty but rather that a member (or members) is not applying that essence properly.

Yes, we must be open to critiques: do we love our titles too much, our “awards,” our “rights” and standings as various local churches, and so on? Are odd customs at times given a Gospel like authority? It is quite possible. Yes, sometimes it seems that we, as fallen members, stand in the door and do not allow anyone to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet the door and the blocking thereof must never be confused with the Kingdom itself, the Church. Weeds in the wheat field do not change the fact that it remains a wheat field. We know the weeds will ultimately be removed at the Last Judgment.

To muddle the human failing and behavior of the members with the essence of the Church is a grave mistake and danger. The essence exists so that the inevitable human failing may be properly critiqued and healed. I was surprised to find that Fr. Schmemann seems not to have made this vital distinction, he says (as quoted in the article), “On the one hand, Orthodox triumphalistically claimed exclusive possession of the ancient tradition. On the other hand, the consciousness and behavior of the Orthodox Christians belied this claim and showed them every bit as compromised to secularism as the Western forms of Christianity that they criticized.”

The lack of, as he claims, consciousness and even at times unchristian behavior, together, it must be noted, with a compromise with secularism of various Orthodox persons, is not the result of “triumphalistically” claiming to have “exclusive possession of the ancient tradition,” rather it is the result of said persons not living in accordance with that rich life and tradition. (The Wheel together with other groups such as Public Orthodoxy, sic, should take note of the phrase “compromised to secularism.”) Maybe, rather, it is also the result of leadership failing to make clear the essential standard and purported “teachers” falsely teaching.

Christ the Lord claims exclusive Lordship, there are no other gods beside Him. He also claims the exclusive revelation of Truth, for He is Truth. He did so that humanity might be saved, and this salvation happens exclusively through Him. No right-thinking Christian would claim that Christ the Lord was triumphalistic in His claim, nor would one disregard His claim because of the failings of his disciples (two even betrayed him; one committed suicide). The weak behavior and mindset of his disciples were the result of their lack of transformation at that point in their lives not a lack in the essential life of Christ in His Church. The Church, His Body, continues this exclusive claim of Her Lord.

Third, the dichotomy which is created between Christ and the Church is completely wrong and foreign to the ethos of True Christianity. The alluring claim to be returning simply to Christ is rife with dangers. Every Protestant denomination has “a simple return to Christ” at the root of its claim for self-assertion. In fact, the dialectic of Christ vs. Church is Protestant in origin. Fr. Schmemann is speaking from the spirit of the 20th century, one which was at times obsessive about finding the elusive “real Christ.” Yet this claim is horribly ambiguous, for Christ can easily become anything which the promoter wants Him to be. The result is that in our day we find a vast array of “Christs” proclaiming a wide variety of contradictory messages. But the True Christ said, “For many will come, saying ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray” (Mat. 24:5).

What is to guide the “rediscovery of Truth” once the “shell of tradition” has been shed, as suggested by the article? Who will be the arbitrator of what is “genuine?” Is it Fr. Schmemann’s own personal opinions about the Church, liturgy, and history? If so who gave him such sweeping authority? Or is it more likely that those who desire to “update” Orthodoxy to have a “voice in the world” will use Schmemann as a poster boy for their agenda? Is it that certain forces desire Orthodoxy to make itself more “relevant?” To do so, they must first convince us that we are too overburdened with “shells of tradition” and “idols;” in fact, to be a true player in the world we must shed these constricting shells!

Yet, the problem resides not in true Tradition, which is the life of the Church, but in the age-old problem of humanity and its ability, or lack thereof, to live and be transformed by the life of Christ in the Church. It is possible though! The saints prove it!

Another problem is that the world simply does not want the message of Christ in His Church. This must be seriously taken into account. The world, as denoted by St. John the Theologian, is opposed to the message of the Gospel. Why? Because the Church truly and prophetically proclaims that this fallen world is fading away, and all the glory thereof, and that only the Glory of Christ abides forever. The Church testifies that the world is in sin and needs Christ Jesus. The world hates this testimony and therefore, as Christ Himself said, hates True Christianity, Orthodoxy (Cf. Jn 15;18ff). We would do well to remember, “If you were of the world, the world would love you, but because you are not of the world … therefore the world hates you.” It is the eternal job of the Church and Her faithful children to profess this testimony regardless of its popularity or lack thereof. The Church has not lost step with the times, the times have openly and willingly thrown off and rejected the testimony of the Church about Christ the Lord. The times have lost step with God.

Grant it, I am not able to sit down with Fr. Schmemann and ask him to clarify some of his thoughts, nor I figure is anyone else, but it is my belief that a number of his personal thoughts as expressed in his journal should be simply left at that. Yet, they are not. The most troubling of them is the final section of Fr. Jillion’s article in which he states,  In Fr Alexander’s eschatological vision of the Kingdom of God only the death of Christianity as we know it can triumph over its destructive inner forces. (then he quotes Fr. Schmemann, my note)

The ‘death of Christianity!’ It sounds horrible. But is it so? It constantly seems to me (and gives me inner light and joy) that the death of Christianity is needed, so that Christ would be resurrected. The deadly weakness of Christianity lies in only one thing—forgetting and neglecting Christ. In the Gospel, Christ always says “I”—He says about Himself that he will come back in glory, as a king. One must love Him, expect Him, rejoice in Him and about Him. When nothing of Christianity will remain, only Christ will be visible; and neither revolution, nor Islam, nor hedonism will have any power left. Now is the time for the prayer, ‘Come, Lord Jesus…!

What are these “destructive inner forces?” “Inner forces” seems to denote essential forces; St. Justin Popovich calls the Church Theanthropic. Its essential inner forces are divine in origin for Christ Jesus is the founder and sustainer of His Church. The inner forces are always essentially life-giving and creative for they flow from Christ the Head. I have in all my reading never encountered any saint calling for the “death of Christianity” (does Schmemann mean the Church?). I have read numerous secularists, revolutionaries, and liberal “Christian” scholastics making such a call but never a saint of the Church. This concept of the “death of Christianity” has no root in the Orthodox Church, it is a foreign concept and a toxic one. Although, of course, one desires to see Christ the Lord, this only happens not through the “death of Christianity” but through the death of the old man and its passions and the resurrection of the new man in the image of Christ. I can sympathize with Fr. Schmemann’s intent, yet he makes a fatal error in the mode by which he seeks to reach his goal – “the death of Christianity.” For out of the ashes of this dead Christianity what phoenix-christ will arise? Not the Christ of Truth but the christ of the modern world. For, the desire of the world, moreover secularism, is to destroy the old ways and from the ashes build a new world, new gods, new christs.

This eschatological vision of Fr. Schmemann does not align with that of the saints and thus must be discarded, with all due respect. Yet it seems to be this very point which various “progressive” elements desire to exploit, they would love to see the death of Orthodoxy so that they may rebuild it in their own image. Do not be fooled, everyone claims, from the least Protestant group to the Pope, to be building in the image of Christ (it sounds so much better than saying “I want to do it my way”) and only by evaluating these claims in light of the life, the Tradition, of the Church, the Body of Christ, is one able to discern what are true and false Christs.

Now, Fr. Jillions immediately hedges his bets by saying, “this dark conclusion (the death of Christianity) should not be misunderstood …” Then why introduce it? 

Contrary to Fr. Jillions conclusion, it seems that Fr. Schmemann did not see clearly through the “thicket of idols,” as the article implies. His wandering critiques are ambivalent and unprepared to give solutions. Thus, they do not seem to be a trustworthy platform from which to address the “state of world Orthodoxy.”

The clear testimony of the Saints is that the true message of the Gospel, as alive in the essence of the Church, Holy Orthodoxy, is the eternal standard for all ages. This is the firm foundation from which to work; one proven through the ages.

Since this blog is already on the long side I will end with a quote from St. Theophan the Recluse, in which he responds to the idea that the Church must update herself,

I even consider it my duty to comment on it and to correct it, since – even though it perhaps goes against your desire and conviction – it comes from something sinful, as though Christianity could alter its doctrines, its canons, its sanctifying ceremonies to answer to the spirit of each age and adjust itself to the changing tastes of the sons of this century, as though it could add or subtract something. 

Yet, it is not so. Christianity must remain eternally unchanging, in no way being dependent on or guided by the spirit of each age. Instead, Christianity is meant to govern and direct the spirit of the age for anyone who obeys its teachings.

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