The Cost of Understanding Schmemann in the West

SVS Liturgical Symposium

The SVS International Liturgical Symposium took place on January 29-31, 2009. It featured preeminent theologians from Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions from major universities, and was held in honor of The Rt. Rev. Alexander Schmemann (d. 1983), who served as dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary for more than twenty years. Fr. Schmemann is best known for his writings on liturgy and sacramental life, which have influenced all branches of Christianity, in the practice of worship as well as in the academic realm.

The keynote speaker was Robert F. Taft, S.J.

Other speakers include:

  • The Rt. Rev. Archimandrite Job (Getcha)—former Dean of St. Sergius Theological Institute, Paris;
  • The Rev. Dr. Stefanos Alexopoulos—Professor at the International Center for Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies, Athens, Greece;
  • Sr. Vassa Larin, nun of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad; currently teaching Liturgical Studies at the University of Vienna;
  • Dr. Bryan D. Spinks—Professor of Liturgical Studies, Yale Divinity School;
  • Dr. Michael Aune—Dean of the Faculty, Dean of the Chapel, Professor of Liturgical and Historical Studies at Pacific Lutheran Seminary, and Core Doctoral Faculty in Liturgical Studies at General Theological Union;
  • Dr. David W. Fagerberg—Associate Professor in the Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame.

Read more about the Symposium here.

January 2009

The Cost of Understanding Schmemann in the West

Dr. David Fagerberg, Associate Professor in the Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame.

January 31, 2009 Length: 1:16:07





Thank you very much, and add one more beatitude to the Scripture of long-suffering persistence. Here you are at the end of two long days. Thank you. I’m grateful for this opportunity to make a small repayment of a debt I owe to a man whom I’ve never met but who had a life changing impact on my vision.

I first met the works of Fr. Alexander through Fr. Aidan Kavanagh who would become my thesis director. Aiden was on leave when I arrived at Yale, so I begged him for a directed readings course. He agreed on the condition that we read everything we could by Schmemann, for he was just finishing the Hale Seabury lectures that would become his book On Liturgical Theology. So in those first weeks of my first semester studying under him we went through most of Schmemann’s material together, and I tell people that I spent the rest of my graduate studies trying to get the the number of the bus that hit me.

I had come as a systematician with scalpel in hand ready to dissect a liturgical cadaver to see the makeup of its internal organs, and Kavanagh introduced me to a thinker for whom liturgy was life. Kill it in order to study it and one would not and be able to watch liturgy at work. So wrestling with Fr. Alexander’s concept of liturgical theology changed everything for me and I’m grateful to be able to express my thanks to the man I never met by standing at a podium in this institution to which he was so devoted.

I’ve left two intentional ambiguities in my title. The first is the word “West”: “Understanding Schmemann in the West.” I don’t plan to distinguish the Roman Catholic Church from Protestant ecclesiastical communities. I don’t plan to specify whether this word indicates ancient Roman practicality, medieval university scholasticism, post-enlightenment secularized culture, or a modern low-grade anti-ecclesiastical prejudice in certain academic theologies. I will, howeve,r mention three conceptual uses of the term that I detect and find in this example. Orthodox scholars frequently note that a certain approach to sacraments, along with the Latin language by which it was taught, came to Russia from the West—they mean the word geographically here. The result is called the western captivity of Orthodoxy—and here they mean something that altered Orthodoxy’s ecclesiastical identity. And this captivity is often denounced as the deeply Westernized theology—and here the word is used pejoratively to describe something no longer Orthodox.

So “West” means geographical origin or certain changes in Orthodox liturgy and theology or something unorthodox, even if can be found in Orthodox history. Almost every Orthodox theologian I’ve ever read or spoken to recognized what is Western when he or she encounters it, much like what the Supreme Court judge said about pornography.

And here I’m going see how close I can come to articulating their tacit understanding. A Western Christian myself, the defendant might have a unique insight into the charge. But I’m not so interested in finding out what the West has missed than why it has missed it.

The second ambiguous term in the title is the word “Cost”: the cost of understanding Schmemann. The term comes to me from another of my mentors, Paul Homer, who liked to comment, “You cannot peddle truth or happiness; what a thought cost in the first instance, it will cost in the second.” Whatever it cost Irenaeus to think recapitulation, it will cost us to understand recapitulation. And I want to explore what it would cost the West to understand what Schmemann thought liturgical theology is, but I leave it ambiguous if that cost is a forfeit or an addition, a letting go or a picking up, a sacrifice of some categories or embracing larger ones.

The term has different meanings in different language games, so even as the West hears Schmemann say leitourgia or lex orandi, it must still pay the hermeneutical fee of listening to the grammar behind his words, namely, an Orthodox grammar. This causes me to be a little tentative in my approach, for, as a Roman Catholic, I’m outside his Eastern Orthodox world, but my hope is that the contours of an object might be felt from both the inside and the outside, and I’ve tried to feel what Schmemann is describing without altering its shape.

One final note: I’ve already presented my understanding of Schmemann’s concept of liturgical theology in my book and will avoid the tedium of simply repeating it. Instead, I hope to locate this paper, primarily but not exclusively on a source that was not available to me at that time: his subsequently published journals, which Sister has already used to great advantage. And I owe my copy to a gift from Fr. John Leonard, an alumnus of this institution.

So to get to work, I’ve seven propositions:

1: Theology as Vision

The West tends to think of theology as a mental activity. Probably this is because the people whom the West gives the name “theologian” live in the academy. Theology is a science practiced in the hall of sciences, and even if an individual theologian is also urged to have faith commitments in his or her heart and to be active in service of the poor, the only reason for calling these people “theologians” is because of what they think about. Worship is taken to be either an abstraction of belief or an instrument for the creation of belief, and only if that believing requires a tune-up clarification does theology enter the picture. Liturgy is a place to stage the theological content we have deduced and believed, but theology’s origin is not in liturgy; it is in texts and its output is more texts for the next generation of theologians to critique and surpass. As Schmemann says in an early essay:

It is indeed the original sin of the entire Western ideological development that it made text the only loci theologici, the extrinsic authorities of theology, disconnecting theology from its living source, liturgy and spirituality.

Schmemann is capable of understanding theology in this cognitive way. Of course, you can speak more than one language game. He does so in a definition in his first work, An Introduction to Liturgical Theology, where he writes:

Theology is above all explanation, the search for words appropriate for the nature of God. That is, for a system of concepts corresponding as much as possible to the faith and the experience of the Church.

But in a journal entry a dozen years later, Schmemann uses a different language game:

Pascha, Holy Week, essentially bright days such as are needed, and truly that is all that is needed. I’m convinced that if people would only really hear Holy Week, Pascha, the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Dormition, there would be no need for theology. All of theology is here. All that is needed for one’s spirit, mind, and soul. How could people spend centuries discussing justification and redemption? It’s all in these services. Not only is it revealed, it simply flows in one’s heart and mind.

I think it would be wrong to use this as a brush to paint Schmemann or all Orthodoxy as anti-intellectual. Instead, there are two things going on here. First, Schmemann is identifying theology’s home, its native habitat. Theology is more a vision than a cognition. And all that theology would seek to explain in words is here in act, in the liturgical act of the Church celebrating Christ’s paschal mystery. Schmemann is not opposed to theological discussion; he is opposed to letting theological discussion ever break free from the Trinity in action. To underscore that point, I’ve recently taken to defining liturgy as the “perichoresis of the Trinity, kenotically extended to invite our synergistic ascent into deification.” You have to say it more than once with freshmen.

In Holy Week, God descends as low as he can go—to Hades—and we are raised up to eternal life. All that theology would talk about is contained in the vision of earth’s transfiguration affected before our eyes. In another journal entry written after spending two days discussing Orthodoxy and the West, Schmemann asks himself, “What is absolute in Orthodoxy?” and he answers himself, “I always come to the same conclusion. It is, first of all, a certain vision, an experience of God, the world, the man. The best in Orthodox theology is about that vision.”

The second thing going on in this quotation is the connection of theology with theosis. The beginning of theology is not the card catalogue, but doing battle against the passions; and the end of theology is not becoming a professor, but becoming a saint. The image of God grows more into the likeness of God. And although Schmemann writes little about asceticism explicitly, he stands in a tradition for which theologia is at the end of an ascetical journey. And the vision at Holy Week that he mentions stands upon eight weeks of Lenten discipline. Theology must either come from or lead to the altar of the Lord. And I sense that when Orthodoxy calls something “scholastic” or “Western,” it is for the suspicion that the system does not arise from the ascetic experience of the Church’s faith and does not end in doxology.

Orthodoxy does not pejoratively call something “scholastic” for being clear, organized, and precise, if that is what it means that St. John of Damascus was a scholastic. Rather, “scholastic” means a system in which theories swirl around like academic dust bunnies and does not lead one to deification. Theology is knowledge of God; real knowledge of God is full union with God. The scheme is called “scholastic” if it does not adequately express the realism of theosis.

And I think this is what Schmemann intends when he repeatedly speaks of the reunification of theology, liturgy, and piety. They are three atoms that make up one molecule, let them drift apart, and instead of H2O (water) you have three gassy things. Recovering their unity is the goal he identifies in his book on baptism:

The goal of liturgical theology, is as its very name indicates, is to overcome the fateful divorce between theology, liturgy, and piety, a divorce which we have already tried to show elsewhere has had disastrous consequences for theology as well as for liturgy and piety. To understand liturgy from inside, to discover and experience that epiphany of God, world, and life which the Liturgy contains and communicates. To relate this vision and this power to our own existence to all our problems, such is the purpose of liturgical theology.

2: Individual vs. Ecclesial Theology

In this triad, Schmemann does not mean as the West means when it starts with an isolated individualism. Piety is not one’s subjective feeling, theology is not one’s subjective reasoning, and liturgy is not one’s subjective worship. When Schmemann talks about the experience of the Church, he does not mean to take a poll of the assembly’s opinion, because the Church is not the sum of all believers; she is the Mother of all believers. He writes of ecclesial experience several times in his journals.

The experience of the Church, this is what needs theological clarification, and that is what is so difficult, because scientific theology says in the textbooks that the Church believes, and this belief is relegated to the authority of dogmas. In other words, the word “belief” itself does not have the notion or reality of experience so that the word “experience” sounds like some subjective moods, emotions, feelings. The experience is possessed by the whole Church and this is Tradition. It is the normative Apostolic experience of the risen Christ in the Spirit by which and to which we catechize and conform our personal experiences.

Again Schmemann writes:

I strongly feel that theology is the transmission in words, not of other words and beliefs, but of the experience of the living Church, revealed now, communicated now. The theology that is being taught has estranged itself from the Church, and from that experience, it’s become self-sufficient and wants above all to be a science—science about God, about Christ, about eternal life—and therefore it has become unnecessary chatter. Theology is a knowledge that must be imprinted in the mind of the theologian by God, the way baby ducklings are imprinted on a mother duck, so that the theologian will pursue God.

The apophatic God who is being pursued is found in the hypostatic union, and this cataphatic kenosis sacramentally enables our participation. Liturgy is not the religion of Adam; it is the cult of the New Adam, and the Holy Spirit will pass everything through the hypostatic union before it is of any use in liturgy. Sacrifice, temple, priesthood, assembly—they are all different for having gone through Christ. Ecclesiology is Christology liturgically stretching forth in the Holy Spirit to its fullest length across history. Theology is not thinking with an earthly mind about heavenly subjects; it is thinking in communion with the mind of Christ about all things earthly and heavenly.

So when Schmemann asks why our theological arguments seem so weak and ineffective, he answers:

Is it not because everything that is evident in religion cannot be proven since the evidence is rooted in bright knowledge, in communion with the mind of Christ? And proofs, in order to be proofs, must operate in a dark knowledge in the logic of this world.

These two kinds of knowledge may be what Archimandrite Sophrony is also describing in an epistemological contrast he makes:

The usual way to acquire knowledge, the one we all know, consists in the directing of the intellectual faculty outwards where it meets with phenomena, sights, forms in innumerable variety, a differentiation ad infinitum of all that happens.

And this means that the knowledge that we acquire is never complete and has no real unity. Insistently seeking unity, the mind is forced to take refuge in synthesis which cannot help but be artificial. The unity arrived at in this way does not really and objectively exist; it’s merely a form of abstract thinking natural to the mind. The other way to acquire knowledge, Sophrony continues:

To acquire knowledge of being is to turn the spirit in and towards itself and then to God. Here the process is the exact reverse: the mind turns away from the endless plurality and fragmentariness of the world’s phenomena, and with all its strength it addresses itself to God in prayer and through prayer is directly incorporated into the very act of divine life and begins to see both itself and the whole world. To obtain knowledge after the first manner is natural to man in his fallen state; the second is way of the Son of Man.

Theology is seeing the world in the light of Mount Tabor, and this light still shines from the altar of the Lord. That’s why liturgy is a locus theologicus. To possess this bright knowledge will require more than scholarly preparation and more than an imaginative fancy. It will require a conversion of mind. Theological epistēmē stands upon ascesis. The capacity for liturgical theology depends upon a renewed mind, a meta-nous. Metropolitan Hierophilos cites examples of this theme:

According to St. Maximus, there is an attraction between a pure nous and knowledge. The Holy Spirit finds the pure nous and initiates it accordingly into the mysteries of the age to be. In this way the person becomes the theologian. For theology is not given by human knowledge and zeal, but by the work of the Holy Spirit which dwells in the pure heart. The nous which has been purified becomes for the soul—[and here he’s citing Anicetus]—a sky full of the stars of radiant and glorious thoughts with the Son of Righteousness shining in it, sending the beaming rays of theology out into the world.

Real theology [he concludes] is not a fruit of material concentration, but a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. When a man’s nous is purified, then he is illuminated, and if his nous has a capacity which is wisdom, he can theologize. Therefore we say his whole life, even his body itself, is theology. The purified man is holy, a theology.

It’s something slightly akin to my favorite definitions of theology from G.K. Chesterton who says it is “that part of religion that requires brains.” But people do their religion with their knees and with their hands, and if the nous has the capacity, you could do that kind of theology. Well, this is an unusual grammar to our Western ears, that our body itself should become theology, that theologizing requires a pure mind, that Mrs. Murphy (what Kavanagh called a practicing traditional liturgist) can be called a theologian by virtue of the liturgical ordering of her life. It means becoming what Abbot Vassilios calls a theologian soul. “True theology,” he writes, “is always living, something that changes our life and assumes itself into itself. We are to become theology.”

Understood in this way, theology is not a matter for specialists but a universal vocation. Each is called to become a theologian soul. Academic theology is only one species in the genus, and there is an ascetical cost to liturgical theology.

3: Tradition as Something More than History

This bright knowledge is thinking with the mind of Christ so it can only be had in communion with the mind of the Church, in other words, by thinking “traditionally.” This is another way of describing what the Fathers do, and so the patristic age does not necessarily expire in a certain century. But if students lack this bright knowledge, then simply increasing the number of patristic authors in the syllabus will not necessarily help. Schmemann writes, “It is my impression that with a few exceptions, the patristic revival remains locked within the old Western approach to theology. Is a return much more to patristic text then to the mind of the Fathers.”

The Western approach to theology teaches one how to look at the text of the Fathers but stops short of teaching one to think in union with the Fathers. So also the Western study of liturgy teaches one how to look at the text of the Liturgy but stops short of liturgical theology, and it does not significantly alter the situation to add ritual studies to the curriculum, for the phenomenon of ritual is simply treated as another text for interpretation.

For the West, tradition is a trajectory, little more than the sum of all the points that preceded the point on which we now stand, but, understood in this way, tradition can be background but cannot exert much influence. So concludes Monseritus:

Western Christianity as a whole rejects tradition deep down. Of course, we cannot fail to distinguish traditional Roman Catholicism from anti-traditional Protestantism, but this distinction does not run very deep. Roman Catholicism neglected tradition as a source of unity based on memory. The love of tradition in Roman Catholicism came to be identified, as was natural, with conservatism, but conservatism proves itself to be inadequate.

On the other hand, innovation abhors the decay associated with time. Thus a pattern of the unending reform of things is established in any thing of any duration. It is considered wearisome. This phenomenon emerged originally in Protestantism in which we know the view is held that the Church needs to be constantly reforming herself. Ecclesia semper reformanda. If the Church is not being reformed then she cannot preserve her identity.

“The consequence in Catholicism,” sums Monseritus, “is to shift the emphasis from that of unity based on memory to that on unity based on institution.” The tradition of the Fathers was swept aside, and an adherence came to mean agreement with the Pope and his representatives. And the consequence of Protestantism’s constant reformation “leads not to organic development but to actual alteration of the Church.”

I think Schmemann wants tradition to exert a gravitational pull on our theology, our liturgy, our piety. Tradition is a capacity, a faculty. So Florovsky says, “Tradition was in the early Church first of all a hermeneutical principle and method.” And so Vladimir Lossky famously distinguishes Tradition (in the capital T, singular) from traditions (small t, plural) in order to equate Tradition with the action of the Holy Spirit: “It is not the content of revelation; it is the light that reveals it. It is not the word but the living breath which makes the Word heard and at the same time the silence from which it came.” The pure notion of Tradition can then be defined by saying that it is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church, communicating to each member of the Body of Christ the faculty of hearing, of receiving, of knowing the truth in the light which belongs to it and not according to the light of human reason.

Schmemann says that when Tradition no longer exerts that pressure on our thinking and on our worshiping, then it is mere traditionalism.

What needs to be said is that Orthodox traditionalism is inversely proportional to faithfulness, to Tradition. Orthodoxy became entangled in the past which it worshiped as Tradition.

And he calls this, as we have already heard, “orthodoxism.”

I realize how spiritually tired I am of all this orthodoxism, of all the fuss with Byzantium, Russia, way of life, spirituality, church affairs, piety. Of all these rattles. Mere traditionalism means that instead of seeing with the Fathers’ vision, we become patrologists. Instead of seeing with liturgical vision, we become rhetologists.

4: Ordo or Ortho

For the West, Tradition is a record of contingencies. This is why tradition cannot function normatively: how can historical accidents be a norm? And theological specialists must be imported to evaluate the situation. Since the West thinks of tradition primarily in historical terms, it naturally uses historical method to examine tradition. Well, of course, historical method must examine structural origin and development; otherwise we risk substituting our own individual theology of the Liturgy for the Church’s liturgical theology. History is crucial. But if unbalanced and unhinged from tradition, then when the West hears Schmemann speak of the lex orandi, it assumes he means an ancient and universal practice, and turns to historical methods in order to find that liturgical essence defined as something traceable to liturgy’s origins, as if there could be a single red thread running down the warp of the whole liturgical rug stretching back unbroken to the ancient Church.

But, alas, other historians are quick to point out that there is not such thread and that ancient liturgical practice was not as uniform as we thought: back to the drawing boards. And furthermore, since in essence it’s not easy to see under all that secondary-objective piety, the practiced eye of the academician is required. This is the service the West believes the liturgical theologian provides to the Church. Thus Bernard Botte thought he was in agreement with Schmemann when the former wrote in 1968:

I fully agree with him on the role of liturgical theology. Its task is to recover the essential elements. History is not enough, for it applies data but is not competent to issue value judgments; it is not enough to look to the past in order to find there an ideal age and suppress all that followed. The essential here is that it be in continuity with the initial impulse.

And Grisbrooke’s voice chimed in the year after:

By whom is this understanding of the liturgical tradition to be attained? Presumably by the whole body of the faithful, clergy and laity alike. By what means is it to be attained? Apparently by instruction, spiritual and intellectual, given by a minority already enlightened or on its way to enlightenment, that is one must assume by liturgical scholars.

Since I do not detect in articles in the West a significant advance over the fundamental misunderstanding shared by Botte and Grisbrooke forty years ago, I will let Schmemann’s reply to them still stand. He writes:

First, Grisbrooke following in this Dom Botte assumes that for me “the task of liturgical theology is to recover the essential and relegate the ‘accessories’ to their place” and thus prepare grounds for a liturgical reform that would restore the “essence.” The fact, however, is that such is not my concept of liturgical theology.

In the approach which I advocated by every line I ever wrote, the question addressed by liturgical theology to liturgy and the entire liturgical tradition is not about liturgy but about theology. That is, about the faith of the Church as expressed, communicated, and preserved by the Liturgy.

If it’s not too trite to play with neologisms, I suggest while the West searches for an ordo, the Schmemann searches for an ortho. He searches for what makes our doxia, ortho: our worship, orthodox. But Western liturgical historians translate that into a quest of certain historical ordo. So enters the Western confusion of liturgical theologian and liturgical historian.

5: Development

The West defines life as growth, and growth as development, and development as change. That this chain of logic is not followed to the end by the East may be the most fundamental divide between East and West. If development means a change from one thing to another, then that is precisely denied by someone like Irenaeus, as Fr. John Behr notes his study of pre-Nicene Fathers: “It is clear then that for Irenaeus, tradition is not alive in the sense that it cannot change, grow, or develop into something else.” Behr then includes a footnote from W.W. Harvey’s edition (printed just twelve years after Newman’s famous essay on development): “At least here there is no reserve made in favor of any theory of development. If we ever find any trace of this dangerous delusion Christian antiquity, it is uniformly the plea of heresy.”

For the Fathers, development was a defense made by heretics: truth doesn’t change. Irenaeus thought the Gnostics went wrong because, although they had the Scriptures, they disregarded the ordo, order and connection, the taxis and eirmos of the Scriptures. In other words, the heretics developed a different hypothesis. Behr gives contextual clues for what hypothesis meant for Irenaeus. In a literary context, hypothesis meant the plot or outline of a drama. In Aristotle it meant first principles, the goal of health is the hypothesis for a doctor, and if one had a different hypothesis one would describe a different diet. So Irenaeus says that the Gnostics have the same Scripture verses like an artist might have the same mosaic tiles, but they have organized their verses according to a different hypothesis, and the image of King is now turned into the image of a fox.

But the Church’s hypothesis is eternal and unchanging. Behr can summarize Irenaeus’ basic perspective by saying:

Theological inquiry is not to be carried out by changing the hypothesis itself, thinking up another god or another christ, but by reflecting further on whatever was said in parables by bringing out the meaning of the obscure passages, by placing them in the clear light of the hypothesis of Truth.

And in one final place Behr writes:

The continually changing context in which the same unchanging Gospel is preached makes it necessary that different aspects of the same Gospel will be drawn on out to address contemporary challenges. However, while the context continually changes the content of that tradition does not, it is the same Gospel.

If the West was more observant about this difference between context and content, it could avoid jumping to confusions. The living water never changes, but one can dig many wells to it. Schmemann is aware of the historical level on which it can be said that the liturgy develops, of course. In the introduction to liturgical theology, he even writes, “The absence of development would be the sign of a fatal sclerosis.” But the study of the tradition is not a study of contingencies at work; it is finding the various kind of contextual manifestations of the eternal content, so that we too can be transformed by that truth.

“Now, if we believe in the Church,” Schmemann writes, “then the study of her past has only one goal: to find and make ours again and again that which in her teaching and life is truly eternal, that is, which precisely transcends the categories of past, present, and future, and has the power to transform our lives in all ages and in all situations.” The goal of health is the hypothesis for a doctor who then deliberates on how it is to be attained. The goal of deification or supernatural health is the hypothesis for a theologian, who then deliberates on how it is to be attained.

And I propose that it is in this light that Schmemann understands the contested concept of lex orandi:

What I tried to say in my book and also in some other writings is that essence of the liturgy or lex orandi is ultimately nothing else but the Church’s faith itself. Or better to say the manifestation, communication, and fulfillment of that faith. It is in this sense that one must understand it seems to me the famous dictum: lex orandi, lex credendi.

Suppose with me then that we take Schmemann at his word and treat lex orandi neither as a privileged thread found by the academic historian, nor an abstract concept hatched by an academic theologian. Suppose instead lex orandi is the theological vision radiating from the Paschal mystery. Suppose it is the Tradition by which the Church lives, the hermeneutical principle by which we understand, a capacitation by the Holy Spirit by which we hear, receive, and know.

Lex orandi is the hypothesis, the code, the grammar by which the Church reads Scripture traditionally, worships traditionally, believes traditionally. I mean within the tradition in concord with the whole experience of the Church. This is how I read a key passage in Schmemann’s Introduction:

To find the ordo behind the rubrics, regulations, and rules. To find the unchanging principle, the living norm, or logos of worship as a whole. Within what is accidental and temporary, that’s the primary task which faces those who regard liturgical theology not as a collecting of accidental and arbitrary explanations of services, but as the systematic study of the lex orandi of the Church. This is nothing but the search for or identification of that element of the Typikon which is presupposed by its whole content rather than contained by it. The ordo behind the rubrics is not accidental and temporary. It is an unchanging ortho, a living norm, the logos of worship that is eschatological.

6: Eschatology: the Foundational Antinomy

Why does the West keep missing Schmemann’s definition of liturgical theology? Because it still assumes that the role of liturgical theology involves finding an historical essence than adding theological content to cult, which some academics are interested to do and others aren’t, all with the aid of a minority already enlightened. Schmemann, on the other hand, assumes that liturgical theology is the detection of Christianity’s unchanging principle: eschatology.

The mind of the Church, its lex orandi, is eschatological. Quote from the journals:

This is the essence of Christianity as eschatology: the kingdom of God is the goal of history, and the kingdom of God is already now among us, within us. Christianity is a unique historical event, and Christianity is the presence of that event, as the completion of all events, indeed, of history itself. Here is for me the whole meaning liturgical theology.

To read life by the right hypothesis requires an eschatological light radiating from the sanctuary. This eschatological dimension pops up everywhere in the journals:

Yesterday during the Liturgy (week of the Samaritan woman), such a bright firm sense of the presence of truth, of light, here in the Liturgy is everything: the spirit and truth which gives birth to true disciples of the Father. Here is the reality of the Church, and here is where one must start its prophecy in the world. Last lecture this year, this Eucharist and eschatology, my whole heart is there.

The West’s anemic sense of eschatology in both its theology and its liturgy makes it difficult to understand what it is at stake for Schmemann. Instead of understanding eschatology as the presence of supernatural joy, the West tends to make eschatology a doctrine of a last judgment:

Christianity has lost its eschatological dimension, has turned toward the world as law, judgment, redemption, recompense, as a religion of the future life, finally forbade joy and condemned happiness. There’s no distinction here between Rome and Calvin.

Indeed, he says:

This loss of the eschatological grammar is the essence of scholasticism. Another preliminary question arises about the essence of theology itself: “It seems to me that in the West, theology, when it first became a science, that is, since the appearance of scholasticism, became dependent on this world, on its categories, words, concepts, philosophies in the broad sense of the word.

Schmemman seats his concept of liturgical theology upon this antinomy. Sometimes he calls it the cultic antinomy between leitourgia and religious cult, and sometimes he’s focused on the antinomous relationship between this present world and its eschatological end. Since he never pauses to define the term “antinomy,” I will borrow a definition from the Russian tradition out of which he came.

In the pillar and ground of the truth [Florensky says], antinomy arises from the conviction that life is infinitely fuller than rational definitions, and therefore no formula can encompass all the fullness of life. Similarly, liturgy is infinitely fuller than theological definitions, and therefore no formula can encompass all the fullness of the Church. That’s why liturgical theology is an unending well.

The spirit of truth is one [Florensky insists], but it is not known as one when it is perceived by a human being who lives in space and time. We are finite, and for the finite knower, knowledge of the truth becomes knowledge about the Truth, and knowledge about the Truth is truth.

Schmemann echoes this very language in a journal entry about a faculty seminar in pastoral theology:

Very scientific, with Greek and psychological terminology and diagrams. But the knowledge of these rules not help, will never create pastors. Scholarly theologians do not understand, do not see it. The sum of scientifically stated truths does not discover nor reveal truth. The sum of theories about God, does not give the knowledge of God.

So Florensky summarizes:

Antinomicalness does not say either the one or the other is not true. It also does not say neither the one nor the other is true. It only says both the one and the other are true, but each in its own way. Reconciliation and unity are higher than rationality.

What Schmemann desires to reconcile in unity is this world and its eschatological end, the old and the new. If we emphasize world to the exclusion of eschaton, then we have history turned in on itself and living according to its own mortal meaning, but if we emphasize eschaton to the exclusion of the world, we have a dramatic cultic ceremony that is irrelevant to life.

But when the antinomy is firing with both pistons then we have joy. A smile must be made with two lips, and the joy Schmemann is talking about cannot be made with world alone or cult alone. Schmemann’s emphasis upon leitourgia, meaning the work of a few on behalf of the many, comes clear at last. The Church itself is a leitourgia, a ministry, a calling to act in this world after the fashion of Christ, to bear witness, testimony to him and his kingdom. The Church as leitourgia is the presence of the kingdom in the midst of history so that history can find its meaning.

Schmemann says that all his interest is directed towards the correlation of life’s reality with what the liturgical cult celebrates. “Liturgical theology, I say again, is a vision of the world in the light of Mount Tabor.” Christian liturgy occurs as an arc of electricity between the two poles of world and kingdom. Move the poles too close together or too far apart, and the arc will not happen. Western theology curricula have not forgotten the topic of eschatology, but they have tended to either relax the tension in the antinomy or to over-strain it by moving the Church too near the world or too far from it. Then liturgical theology will not spark.

On the one hand [Schmemann writes], the Protestant builds a useful comfortable earthly life but in none of its aspects does it remind one of paradise, does it open it, reveal it. The Protestant lives in the fallen world, not referred anymore to the primordial, joyous, divine world. He is bound with the world by his reason, knowledge, analysis—but not faith, not a sacramental intuition. On the other hand, the Catholic at least remembers, which is something but not enough. In the gilded, sometimes tastelessly heavily decorated churches, there is a longing for paradise, and there are pieces of paradise, of joy, but Catholicism of late has followed suit with a dull social message and service to the world.

On the one hand again, Protestantism was an attempt to save the faith, to purify it from its religious reduction, but the Protestants have paid a heavy price for denying eschatology and replacing it with personal individual salvation, and therefore essentially denying the Church. And on the other hand again, when Schmemann watched Pope John Paul II serve Mass on his visit to New York in 1979, he recorded that his first impression is how liturgically impoverished the Catholic Church has become. He continues to write:

In 1965, I watched the service performed by Pope Paul VI in the same Yankee Stadium, and despite everything it was the presence, the appearance on earth of the eternal, the super-earthly, whereas yesterday I had the feeling that the main thing was the message. And the message is again and again: peace and justice, human family, social work. An opportunity was given, a fantastic chance to tell millions of millions people about God, to reveal to them that more than anything else they need God, but here, on the contrary, the whole goal it seemed consisted in proving that the Church can also speak the jargon of the United Nations.

The West either loses the eschatological nature of the Church in becoming worldly-wise, or else it ceases to be the life of the world as it becomes heavenly minded and of no earthly good. The foundational antinomy of liturgical theology is holding a correct balance or tension between the two poles. Sacred and profane find their balance.

We near the end with a Biblical number seven.

7: What the Church offers the world.

Throughout the journals, Schmemann finds different ways to summarize his position as if he’s coming to the conclusion for the first time, as a fresh thought. I’ll pick this entry as a concluding summary:

Christianity in general, and Orthodoxy in particular, are now undergoing a real test to determine what will enable them to remain alive in the world of today. I hesitate to come forward with my feeling—it sounds arrogant—that I have an answer. In everything that I preach, or teach, or write, I want this answer to appear, hopefully to shine through. It is simply a vision of life, and what comes from that vision is the light, the transparency, the referral of everything to the “Other,” the eschatological character of life itself and all that is in it. The source of that eschatological light, the lifting up of all life, is the sacrament of the Eucharist.

This is how theological vision is grounded in the Liturgy: the Church and Eucharist. If it were German I could create a long word, but all I could do is hyphenate: the Church-et-Eucharist is the source of this eschatological light because here the kingdom of God spiritualizes matter, reveals the meaning of history and deifies man and woman. Lex orandi here yields a doctrine of creation that asserts matter was made to be sacrament. It yields an eschatology that asserts everything is destined for glory. It yields an anthropology that asserts the image of God can attain the likeness of God. It yields Christology that asserts the reign of God brings with it obligations to the poor, the imprisoned and the outcast. And it yields an ecclesiology that asserts the Church manifests potency of world.

When Schmemann thinks about liturgy, he’s thinking about the world in its course of transfiguration. This indeed is how he defines Church:

The Church is not a religious establishment but the presence in the world of a saved world. Leitourgia is the Church’s work on behalf of the world. In the Liturgy the world presents itself to be blessed, and God lifts the world to its spiritual fulfillment. The world is liturgy in potency and the Liturgy is the world in act.

And the cost of understanding Schmemann is the cost of holding this antinomy in its proper tension. What Christianity offers to the world is joy, but salt that has lost its saltiness is good for nothing but to be trampled underfoot.

Why? [he writes] What has Christianity lost so that the world nurtured by Christianity has recoiled from it and started to pass judgment over the Christian faith? Christianity has lost joy. Not natural joy, not joy-optimism, not joy from an earthly happiness, but the divine joy, about which Christ told us that “no one will take your joy from you” (John 16). This must be joy on God’s terms, not ours, so Christianity must not sell its birthright for a bowl full of temporary relevance. Adapting eschatological joy to the passing moods of the ages, either in our theology or our liturgies, will not gain credibility for Christianity. It is a false strategy to commit to the unending task of rewriting the content for each new context.

Schmemann says that:

Capitulating theology to the categories and concepts of this world results in a constant need of adaptation of verification, not of this world by the good news of Christianity, but of the good news itself and its content by this world and its mutations.

And these mutations, he says, produce panic, and the panic, he says, leads to two orientations: either a dissolution of faith into worldly terms, or a spiritual escapism satisfied with cult.

The first choice is realized by reinterpreting faith; the second choice is realized by reducing the whole Christian tradition to, say, rubrics.

It seems that the Lion of Judah will not be retrained by our philosophies nor restrained by our ritual catnip. Instead, Schmemann writes:

What is revealed surpasses and therefore tears life apart. The gift of joy which nobody will take from you. Genuine Christianity is bound to disturb the heart with this tearing. That is the force of eschatology, though one does not feel it in these smooth ceremonies where everything is neat, right, but without eschatological otherworldliness.

The joy Schmemann describes comes with a price of liturgical asceticism that pries open closed hearts. And for the West to understand Schmemann’s idea, theology will have to receive its vision from liturgical epiphany and thus be able to look at all its subject matter with the eyes of the dove. History will be seen again against the horizon of eternity, matter will be seen again sacramentally, and each imago dei will be seen in process to deified likeness to God.

All theology will become eucharistic, though the Eucharist will not be the only thing that theology studies. And once that happens, the theology can be as clear and organized and precise and scholarly as you like.

I’m done but I want to leave you with three concluding questions, what Kavanagh referred to as a cerebral itch for you to scratch later on.

I have not paused at any point to defend the West from any of these characterizations. That would be for another conference. All I’ve tried to do is to make as pointed as possible what I hear behind the accusation when I hear something is called “Westernized,” and I tried to present that as a series of seven reductions. A holistic vision becomes rational cogitation, the theological vision becomes confused with the vision of theologians, tradition becomes precedence, ortho becomes ordo, Tradition becomes contingency, the eschatological antinomy is relaxed, and the Church transforms the Gospel into either a relevant social message or an irrelevant cultic exercise.

As a result, liturgy is thought to be an emotional appendage to theology. Academics seek to add the content to ritual studies. Liturgical theology is thought to be the task of finding an historical essence. In this way I think the West fails to understand Schmemann’s idea of liturgical theology, but you’ll remember that I distinguish three meanings of the concept “West”: Geographical West, Cultural West, and unorthodox West. With those three meanings in mind I can pose three concluding questions.

First, need the geographical West be Western? Notice: it was neither geography nor history that constitutes scholasticism. Schmemann writes:

By “scholastic” we mean in this instance not a definite school, or a period in the history of theology; we mean a theological structure which existed in various forms in both the East and the West, and in which all organic connection with worship is severed.

And when Schmemann wants to talk about the corrosive effects of scholasticism, he offers us an example.

A good example is the Eastern Orthodox Church, justly considered to be the liturgical Church par excellence. Why? Because liturgical tradition has played practically no role and has been almost totally ignored even as a locus theologicus.

The sidelining of liturgical tradition has happened in both the East and the West and should be repaired in both the East and the West. And being geographically West need not stand in the way.

Second, I said Western means a culture, a style, a mind, which Orthodoxy feels is a captivity. Need the cultural West be Western? In other words, if the fundamental antinomy out of which Schmemann understands liturgical theology to spring is the presence of the eschatological in the world, may this antinomy be experienced in the Cultural West? Schmemann reminisces in the first pages of his journal about an early experience of vividly becoming to this sensation. And it was in the very cultural Western city of Paris.

During my school years in Paris on my way to class I would stop by the Church of St. Charles of Monceau for two or three minutes, and always in this huge dark Church at one of the altars a silent Mass was being said. Sometimes I think of the contrast: a noisy proletarian street and this never-changing Mass. One step, and one is in a totally different world. This contrast somehow determined in my religious experience an intuition that has never left me. The coexistence of two heterogeneous worlds, the presence in this world of something absolutely and totally Other. This Other illumines everything in one way or another, everything is related to it.

The Church is the Kingdom of God among us and inside us. For me the streets never became unnecessary or hostile or non-existent, and hence my aversion to pure spiritualism. On the contrary, the street as it was acquired a new charm that was un-understandable and obvious only to me who knew at that moment the presence, the feast revealed in the Mass nearby. Everything became alive, intriguing: every storefront window, the face of every person I met, the concrete tangible feeling of that moment, the relationship between the street, the weather, the houses, the people.

What was going on in the street had to be correlated with what was going on in that silent Mass, and Schmemann identifies this as his life’s work and he gives it a name.

This experience remains with me forever, a very strong sense of life in its physical bodily reality. At the same time, this interest has always been rooted solely in the correlation of all this with what that silent Mass was a witness to and reminder of. What is that correlation? It seems to me that I’m quite unable to explain and determine it, though it is actually the only thing I talk and write about liturgical theology.

The correlation, he adds, is a warning, is a tie, not an idea. An experience, it is an experience of the world and life literally in the light of the Kingdom of God. Schmemann expressed then, experienced then, the antinomy that would become his life’s work, when a Western silent Mass was juxtaposed with a bustling Western city. A cultural West need not stand in the way.

And the third usage of the term West I mentioned was the sense of being unorthodox. It seems to me here “orthodox” is being used as plumb line, the word. And the word “Westernized” means those occasions when that line is transgressed. If something has been taught in Orthodoxy for several centuries how is it not orthodox teaching? Because in this third sense orthodox does not mean what we do find in the East; it means what we should find in the East. Orthodoxy is prescriptive, a canonical term, a plumb line what ought to be.

Without understanding, I ask: is the West by necessity Western? When Schmemann and others complain about Orthodoxy having been Westernized, they mean to support a reform that would restore orthodoxy to Orthodoxy. And in his first book, Schmemann acknowledges that just such a current of reform runs in the Western liturgical movement:

It should be noted here that even thought the liturgical revival as an organized movement arose and developed for the most part among non-Orthodox people in the West, it never the less has a deep internal bond with the Church in the East, and is therefore of special interest to Orthodox theologians. From a certain point of view and with a critical appraisal of each of its achievements, the liturgical movement can be regarded as a kind of Orthodox movement in a non-Orthodox context since this is the restoration in the thought and life of the Church of those emphases and categories which were in some measure lost by the Christian West.

I have to ask myself if an Orthodox movement in a non-Orthodox context is the same as saying a Western movement that is not Western. All in the language game. If once upon a time, the East was Westernized for having let liturgy, theology, and piety drift apart, cannot the reverse also happen and the West be Easternized by bringing liturgy, theology, and piety back together?

I leave that question as a challenge, for now I only wish to conclude by saying in Schmemann’s opinion:

This would mean coming to understand liturgical theology as the place where the eternal antinomy of Christianity is reconciled. Here is for me the whole meaning of liturgical theology: the liturgy, the joining, revelation, actualization of the historicity of Christianity and of its transcendence over that historicity. Hence the link of the Church with the world. The Church for the world as its beginning and end, and also the affirmation that the world is for the Church, since the Church is the presence of the kingdom of God. Here is the eternal antinomy of Christianity, and the essence of all contemporary discussions about Christianity.

The task of theology is to be faithful to the antinomy which disappears in the experience of the Church as Pascha. A continuous and not only historical, a continuous passage of the world to the kingdom. All the time one must leave the world, and all the time one must remain in it.

Thank you for your attention, and pray for me, a sinner.

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