By Fr Alexander Schmemann
Source: SVOTS Synaxis Blog
On this day, December 13, 2017, the 34th anniversary of the repose of Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann [Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary 1962–1983], we recall his love for his adopted country, the United States, and his hope that the Orthodox Christian faith could grow in North America organically, with a vitality constantly renewed by the breath of the Spirit of God.
The following article by Father Alexander summarizes his thoughts on the still-burning issue of the intersection between faith and culture. It addresses the question of how to be “truly Orthodox yet fully American.” It was adapted from a lecture given at the 1968 National Conference of Orthodox College Students and printed in Volume III, No.4 of CONCERN, a youth-oriented magazine no longer in publication.
What is the role and task of Orthodox Christians in America? Too often we want solutions to problems which we have not formulated, progress toward a point which we have not yet defined, victories in battles in which we don’t know who is fighting whom.
The time has come to clarify the issues, to formulate the problems we face together, to discuss the solutions and the priorities in our existence as Orthodox in a Western country which is our country. Are we a group of exiles? Are we a spiritual and cultural ghetto, to be perpetuated against all odds? Are we to dissolve ourselves here in what is called “the American way of life”? What is this American way of life?
It is my purpose to deal with the fundamental framework of these questions. In my first lecture to freshmen at Saint Vladimir’s Seminary, I always use the same symbol: If you have a big library and move into a new house, you can’t use that library unless you build shelves. While it is still in boxes, you own that library, but it is of no use to you. My purpose, then, is to build the shelves and then to try to see what are the priorities of our Orthodox situation today.
It is impossible to speak about our situation in America unless we refer it to our normal and essential term of reference, the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church - whether Greek, Syrian, Serbian, Romanian, Russian, or Bulgarian - has always been both the heart and the form of an Orthodox world. Only here in the West, and for the first time in the history of Orthodoxy, do we think of the Church in terms only of a religious institution such as diocese, parish, and so on. No one in organically Orthodox countries has ever thought of the Church as being distinct from the totality of life. Since the conversion of Constantine, the Church was organically related to society, culture, education, family, etc. There was no separation, no dichotomy.
Here, then, we find the first radical difference which we have to face in America: We belong to the Orthodox Church, but we do not belong to an Orthodox culture. This is the first and most important change, and unless we understand that this is not an academic proposition, but the real framework of our existence, we will not see clearly through our situation. For everything in the Orthodox Church points toward a way of life; the Church is connected to all aspects of life. Yet we are deprived of this connection because, upon leaving our churches on Sunday morning, we return to a culture which was not produced, shaped, or inspired by the Orthodox Church and which, therefore, in a way is deeply alien to Orthodoxy.
Cultures in Collision
The first Orthodox immigrants in America never thought about all this, for in many ways they continued to live within an organic Orthodox “culture.” They were still living within that type of unity because they belonged to what in American sociology is known as a “sub-culture.” After the liturgy, Russians or Greeks would meet in the church hall, and they would meet not only as Orthodox but also as Russians or Greeks or Bukovenians or Carpatho-Russians - and they would meet precisely in order to breathe their native culture.
At the beginning, all this was completely normal. Even today you can live in certain places as if you were not living in America. You can live there without knowing very much English, without any real contact with American culture. But whether we like it or not, that “immigrant” chapter of our history is coming to an end [it's over today - ed.], and this is where the younger generation comes in.
Today’s Orthodox young people do not have that immigrant mentality. Orthodoxy for them is not primarily the remembrance of childhood abroad. They will not keep Orthodoxy simply because it is “the faith of their fathers.” Suppose we apply this principle to others: Then the Lutherans should keep the Lutheran faith, the Jews the Jewish faith, and finally, the son of an atheist should keep atheism because it was the “faith of his father.” If this is the criterion, religion becomes a mere cultural continuity.
But our claim is that our Church is Orthodox, or more simply, the Church, and this is a frightening claim. It implies that it is the faith for all men, for all countries, for all cultures. And unless this implication is kept in mind and heart, our claim to be the true or Orthodox Church becomes hypocrisy, and it would be more honest to call ourselves a society for the perpetuation of the cultural values of a particular geographic region.
Our faith cannot be reduced to religious practices and customs alone. It claims the entire life of a human being. But the culture in which we live, the “American way of life,” is something which already existed when we came here. Thus we find ourselves an Eastern Church with a total claim on our life, yet living within a Western society and a Western way of life.
The first problem can, then, be formulated very simply, although its solution is extremely difficult: How are we to combine these things? How can we live our Orthodox faith which claims the totality of our existence within a culture which also claims to shape our existence?
This is the antinomy of our situation; this is where all our difficulties are rooted. Yet unless we understand it, we will always have wrong solutions. These wrong solutions - quite popular today - follow two basic patterns.
I will call one pattern a “neurotic” Orthodoxy. It is the attitude of those who, whether they are native Orthodox or converts, decide they cannot be Orthodox unless they simply reject American culture, who build their spiritual home in some romantic and idealized Byzantium or Russia, and who constantly curse America and decadent Western society. To them, “Western” and “American” are synonymous with “evil” and “demonic.” This extreme position gives a semblance of security. Ultimately, however, it is self-destructive. It is certainly not the attitude of Saint John, who, in the midst of a violent persecution, said so simply, “And this is the victory that has overcome the world, our faith” (1 John 5:4). And further, he said, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment” (1 John 4:18). In the attitude of some, however, Orthodoxy is transformed into an apocalyptic fear which has always led to sectarianism, hatred, and spiritual death.
The other dangerous pattern is that of an almost pathological “Americanism.” There are people who, when they hear in Church one word in Russian or Greek, react as if it were a betrayal of Christ. It is the opposite neurosis, the neurosis of those who want Orthodoxy to become American immediately.
In the first neurosis, Orthodoxy is reduced to a fanatical and negativistic sect; in the second one, “American” is falsified, for America is not at all a country which requires surrender, conformity, and the acceptance of the mainstream mentality as the “American way of life.” What makes this country great and indeed unique is precisely the openness of its culture to change.
A Message Unchanged
And who knows whether it may not be the real mission of Orthodoxy in America to change the American culture which has never really been challenged by a different set of values? No doubt Orthodoxy has an understanding of human being, life, world, nature, etc., radically different from those prevailing in American culture, but this difference itself is a challenge for Orthodoxy rather than a justification for withdrawal, negativism, and fear. To avoid the two extremes, to be truly Orthodox yet fully American, seems to be the only real Orthodox tradition. How and where do we then begin?
I have already said I have no ready-made answers. I do, however, have a few thoughts which I would like to share with you - a few thoughts about the conditions which may set us on the difficult path.
One of the great dangers of modern, and especially American, culture is its reduction of a human being to history and to change. This is the first thing we Orthodox have to denounce and to resist. We must openly confess that there are things which do not change, that human nature does not, in fact, change; that such realities as sin, or righteousness, or holiness do not depend on the changing pattern of culture.
How many times I have heard, for example, that in “our age” the concept of sin must be changed if it is to be relevant to modern man. How many times we have heard that in “our age” we cannot speak of the Devil. Yet I am absolutely convinced that sin is exactly the same for me as it was for Saint Paul, and that if there is no Devil, Christianity is no longer the same religion it was for nearly two thousand years. It is not enough to speak, as some Western theologians do, of the “demonic.” It is not enough to identify sin with alienation. And it is at this point that Orthodoxy has a tremendous responsibility, for it is fundamentally the belief in unchanging realities, it is the denunciation of all “reductions” as not only doctrinally wrong but also existentially destructive.
Thus, the first condition for anything else is simply faith. Before anything else is possible, before I can speak of myself as belonging to this or that generation, as immigrant or native, of our age as technological or post-industrial, and so forth, there is this one fundamental reality: a human being standing before God and finding that life is communion with Him, knowledge of Him, faith in Him, that we are created literally for God.
Without this experience and affirmation, nothing has meaning. My real life is in God and in heaven. I was created for eternity. These simple affirmations are rejected as naive and irrelevant today, and in spite of all its Christian terminology. Western Christianity becomes more and more a self-centered humanism. At this point, no compromise is possible, and everything depends upon whether Orthodoxy will remain faithful to its God-centeredness, to its orientation toward the Transcendent, the Eternal, the Divine.
We do not deny that human beings need justice and bread. But before everything else they need God. Thus, we truly can do what we are called to do in spite of all temptations. The seemingly “charitable” character of these temptations misses the unchanging truth that our call is not only to proclaim or to defend, but first of all to live this unchanging, eternal hierarchy of values in which God and God alone is the beginning, the content, and the end of everything.
This is the real content of the Orthodox faith, of our liturgy, of our sacraments. This is what we celebrate on Easter night. This is what is revealed at the Eucharistic Table. It is always the same thing, the same prayer, the same joy: “Thy Kingdom come…” It is the understanding of life as indeed preparation, not simply for an eternal rest, but for the life which is more real than anything else - a life of which this life is but a “symbol” and a “sacrament.”
I can hear and sense the reaction: “Oh, again paradise and hell; is that Christianity? Can this be preached in the twentieth century?” And I will answer: “Yes, it is. Yes, it can.” It is because so many people today have forgotten this, it is because all this has become “irrelevant” for Christians themselves, that so many are in hell already. And Orthodoxy will lose all its salt if each one of us does not strive first of all for this personal faith and for this hunger for salvation, redemption, and deification. Christianity begins only when we take seriously the words of Christ: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness; and all things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
A Vision for the Future
But now let me share with you my second preliminary thought: Just as each one of us must discover for ourselves the “unchanging” and take part in the same, never-ending, spiritual fight, we must discover ourselves as belonging to one particular generation of Orthodox Christians living in the twentieth century in America, in a secular and pluralistic culture and in the midst of a great spiritual crisis.
What can we do together? What are the Orthodox imperatives for our common and corporate task? I think that here the priorities are rather clear, especially when one speaks to students and for students, for the “student” is today the purest representative of what I call the “second Orthodoxy in America.” The first one - whether he came from the “Old World” or was born here - is still an immigrant in his mentality. He lives within the American culture but is not yet an organic part of it.
A student is by definition someone who can and must reflect. So far Orthodoxy in America has not reflected upon itself and upon its situation here. The Orthodox student is the first Orthodox who is called to reflect on his or her life as an Orthodox in America. On this reflection depends the future of our Church here, for this reflection will obviously be aimed at the problems that I mentioned earlier. So this is a crucial task. You will say either “yes” or “no” for the entire Orthodox Church on this continent.
To say yes, however, means to rediscover the Church as mission, and mission within our present situation means something more than simply converting individuals to Orthodoxy. It means primarily an evaluation of American culture in Orthodox terms, and this is the real mission of the Orthodox “intelligentsia,” for no one else can do that.
To be continued...