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).

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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103 responses to “A Path Beyond Secularism”

  1. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    Todd,
    I sympathize greatly with what you say. Has it not always been the case that closer union with Christ leads to greater rupture with the secular world? Always! Similarly, an unrelenting search for stillness, or at least a quest for privacy and quiet is certainly a most natural reaction for those who hunger to converse with their beloved Lord. Even if they know Him not and just suspect something special in their desire to seek Him.
    However, in the (suburban) circumstances many of us find ourselves, we typically have sufficient opportunities to at least demonstrate (to ‘prove’) this desire to be with Him. Him only. Likewise we have ample occasions to perform His will rather than our own. We get chances to say “no” to an attractive distraction in order to say “yes” to the Jesus Prayer at least every day –even if for short periods of time; or we have opportunities to accept a harsh word meekly. These are sure ways of attracting God’s Grace. Ways of behaving in a Christ-like manner.
    And, although truly “pure prayer of the nous” in the heart for a good length of time is a prerogative of true Hesychasts, we who have not got access to that privilege can enjoy it too -even if, with critically reduced frequency- if Grace comes to us. Even if you are pushed from all sides in an overcrowded Tokyo subway, when Grace visits, it is “you and God on this Earth” for as long as He chooses. And when It subsides all others (other persons) are seen as God’s beloved too…
    Ok, undoubtedly, such visitations within the diametrically opposite context of a harsh (or beautiful) ‘desert’ can be far better assimilated, better preserved or simply better enjoyed. But the truth of the matter is that –in a sense- it does not matter if we see God but if He sees us. As the Psalmist would say: May You look upon me… And what makes Him “see us” is not just our sacrificing of the world to go to a relative wilderness (when/if we do that for Him rather than for ourselves), but the fact that all our reactions are as similar to those of His Son as possible. We can do that in a busy city -as He did- or in the wilderness – as He also did.

  2. fatherstephen Avatar
    fatherstephen

    Todd,
    There are such communities. Eagle River in Alaska is a particularly excellent example. Other parishes communities worked on creating “parish in walking-distance” communities. A number of parishes that were once “Evangelical Orthodox” but who came under Antioch, some the OCA, later, did this quite successfully. I’m familiar with St. John’s in Memphis, TN, as a good example. St. John the Wonderworker in Atlanta, GA, originally part of the Christ Our Savior Brotherhood, did a transformative work near Grant Park and has been genuine salt and light in a community that was in serious decline. I know of others as well. Such efforts have been as much driven by mission to the world, and desire for deeper community, as anything. This nation could certainly use far more of them. They have been quite effective in urban centers – there are many deserts in the modern world. But, again, aestheticism is insufficient for such a vision – for sin is present everywhere. Theoria is not only for the few, but, can be, on some level, a normative part of the Christian life.

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