A Path Beyond Secularism

…It is truly ironic, in my opinion, that so many Christians are seeking some accommodation with secularism precisely at the
moment when it is revealing itself to be an untenable spiritual position. 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. But is it not because the Church, because Christians themselves, have given up so easily that unique gift which they alone – and no one else! – could have given to the spiritually thirsty and hungry world of ours? Is it not because Christians, more than any others today, defend secularism and adjust to it their very faith? Is it not because, having access to the true
mysterion of Christ, we prefer to offer to the world vague and second-rate “social” and “political” advice? The world is desperate in its need for Sacrament and Epiphany, while Christians embrace empty and foolish worldly utopias.

My conclusions are simple. No, we do not need any new worship that would somehow be more adequate to our new secular world. What we need is a rediscovery of the true meaning and power of worship, and this means of its cosmic, ecclesiological, and eschatological dimensions and content. This, to be sure, implies much work, much “cleaning up.” It implies study, education and effort. It implies giving up much of that dead wood which we carry with us, seeing in it much too often the very essence of our “traditions” and “customs.” But once we discover the true lex orandi, the genuine meaning and power of our leitourgia, once it becomes again the source of an all-embracing world view and the power of living up to it – then and only then the unique antidote to “secularism” shall be found.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World

This posting is a reflection on the two essays at the end of For the Life of the World, perhaps Fr. Alexander’s most influential volume. It will be tough reading for some. However, I hope to be developing parts of it for easier reading and deeper reflection in coming weeks.

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I have quoted at length from Fr. Alexander’s essay (a paper read at the Eighth General Assembly of SYNDESMOS in 1971) for it captures well the spirit and sense of that landmark paper. Sadly, some of its most hopeful tones (“modern man is looking for a path beyond secularism”) have perhaps not proven quite true. But the crisis he describes remains. For myself, his analysis and critique of secularism have been the most important aspects of his writings – his liturgical theology being all the more poignant because of its situation within a secularizing culture.

In the same essay, Fr. Schmemann describes secularism as the “great heresy of our time.” Secularism does not refer to the separation of Church and state, or a non-Christian or atheist world-view.

[Secularism] emphatically negates …the sacramentality of man and world. The secularist views the world as containing within itself its meaning and the principles of knowledge and action.

It is this radical division between the world in which we live and a so-called “spiritual” world that I have dubbed a “two-storey universe.” There can be no proper sacrament nor proper Christian life within such a world. In Schmemann’s words: it is a heresy.

The crisis of modern man which Schmemann described (in 1971) has passed.  The hunger for worship remains, but is now encompassed by a host of other hungers. The world is perhaps more “post-Christian” than at any time in history. Worship has been swallowed up in a sea of secular meaning, a result of the reforms that were only beginning when Schmemann wrote.

There can be no celebration of ideas and concepts, be they “peace,” justice,” or even “God.” The Eucharist is not a symbol of friendship, togetherness, or any other state of activity however desirable.

The world of feminist liturgies, eco-liturgies, liturgical dance, much less the abominations of “clown masses,” are simply fulfillments of Schmemann’s prophetic vision. Their banal secularism has, however, not diminished, but increased.

The heart of the secular heresy, according to Schmemann, is locating the meaning and cause of the world within the world itself. This makes sense for an atheist – for whom there is nothing other than the world itself. For a believer, however, the relationship between the world and God is crucial. In secular culture, God has been exiled to the realm of ideas. The world operates as it does, with God hopefully intervening from time to time (His failure to do this creates consternation among secular Christians). But if the meaning of the world is found in the world itself (apart from God) then it is we who are exiled from God, cast adrift in a universe where God’s absence is our most poignant spiritual reality. Of course, for those who are living the unconscious secular life, God’s absence is quite convenient. He remains aloof until we decide to think about Him.

Schmemann’s passion was the insistence on the proper meaning of symbol (and related words). In modern, secular understanding, symbol has come to have the meaning of something which stands in the place of something which is not there. As such, symbols are representations of absence, or, at best, of ideas. They have no inherent meaning – only the meaning which we ourselves assign to them. I have described this as the literalism of the modern world: things are what they are, and nothing more.

To this, Schmemann contrasts the Orthodox Christian understanding of the world as symbol. The meaning of this term in the early fathers is not a sign of absence – but a means of presence. Because the world is God’s creation, it is inherently symbolic – it points to and participates in its Creator. Schmemann notes that symbol is part of the very ontology of creation – part of its very being.

This is a radical assertion in the face of the modern world. Things do not find their meaning within themselves but within their relationship to God and the nature of that relationship. The whole of creation exists as a means of communion with God. The sacraments are not unique in what they do – all of creation is sacramental. What is new in the sacraments is what they make present.

[The Christian sacrament]’s absolute newness is not in its ontology as sacrament but in the specific “res” [thing] which it “symbolizes,” i.e., reveals, manifests, and communicates – which is Christ and His Kingdom. But even this absolute newness is to be understood in terms not of total discontinuity but in those of fulfillment. The “mysterion” of Christ reveals and fulfills the ultimate meaning and destiny of the world itself.

The world is sacrament and icon. God is everywhere present and filling all things. All things have been given to us for communion with Him. The advent of secularism is a change of vision and perception. The world becomes opaque – God is removed. The Western world’s attempts at sacraments, in which the supernatural has somehow invaded the natural, inadvertently destroys the natural. The sacred enters the profane – but in such an understanding the merely natural is also the merely profane. In Orthodox understanding, nothing is profane. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Schmemann’s vision was prophetic in its accurate depiction of our world and its spiritual trajectory. I pray that he was equally prophetic in his vision of the cure:

My conclusions are simple. No, we do not need any new worship that would somehow be more adequate to our new secular world. What we need is a rediscovery of the true meaning and power of worship, and this means of its cosmic, ecclesiological, and eschatological dimensions and content. This, to be sure, implies much work, much “cleaning up.” It implies study, education and effort. It implies giving up much of that dead wood which we carry with us, seeing in it much too often the very essence of our “traditions” and “customs.” But once we discover the true lex orandi, the genuine meaning and power of leitourgia, once it becomes again the source of an all-embracing world view and the power of living up to it – then and only then the unique antidote to “secularism” shall be found. And there is nothing more urgent today than this rediscovery, and this – return – not to the past – but to the light and life, to the truth and grace that are eternally fulfilled by the Church when she becomes – in her leitourgia – that which she is.

There is nothing more urgent today…

Quotes are from For the Life of the World (1973, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).