Secularism, Utopia, and Escape

Quite recently, I was in Paris, and I went to my favorite theological bookstore and found books there titled something like this: A Marxist Reading of St. Matthew; A Freudian Reading of Genesis, and so on. Of course, this approach was being prepared over many centuries when it was thought that human reason, human scholarship, knowledge of late Syriac grammar would finally explain to us what Christ meant by the Kingdom of God. And before Dr. Schnuklemeukle wrote his authoritative three volumes on that subject, nobody ever understood what it was.

But today it is taken for granted: that Christianity is in need of utopianism. We have to repent — for what? For having preferred the transcendent to the immanent? For having thought of the Kingdom of God in terms of the Other World? And now we are obliged to mobilize ourselves and join every possible activism, whether it’s called “liberation theology” or “the theology of urbanism,” or “the theology of the sexual fulfillment”… The word “theology” used to mean “words about God.” Now it may also mean words about sex, or contraceptives… And, as a reaction to that development, Christians surrendered to the Me-Too utopianism.

At the same time, we have a fundamental resurrection of escapism, which takes on many forms in religion today. People turn their backs to the world and plunge into almost anything. As an Orthodox priest I can see the forms it takes in our Church: we have people who do not care what is going on in the world. They have discovered The Icon. Or, of course, one of the areas, into which one can endlessly escape, is a discussion of the high-church, low-church, and middle-church liturgical practices. Vestments… Modern or archaic… You can hear people saying, “But that isn’t right: in the third century in eastern Egypt…” — and you already feel that the Transfiguration has begun. The third century in Egypt, or in Mesopotamia, or wherever it is — as long as it is not in Chicago, New York, London or Paris. As long as this Epiphany or Theophany takes place somewhere in some impossible land! In Caesarea of Cappadocia… — that is music itself: Cappadocia, it already gives you the feeling that you are in the right religious school, you know. Introduce Chicago into that religion, and it spoils the whole dream, the whole sweetness, the whole thing.

So we have either Jesuits disguised as the professional unemployed walking the streets of Chicago, finished with all the Cappadocias at once, or we have people escaping — in orderly procession — to Cappadocia. And this is of course the tragedy of our Christian response to Utopia and to Escape. Now, then what?

– Fr. Alexander Schmemann, “Between Utopia and Escape

Not all of Schmemann’s works are under-read and underappreciated, but a lot of them are. Puzzling it is that so many can read books like For the Life of the World or Great Lent and think nothing of the destructive worldview which Fr. Alexander combatted during his whole earthly ministry, namely secularism. It is because of, or at least in large part because of, secularism that utopia or escape become attractive options, not just to so-called “secularists,” that is, those who have thrown off the “yoke of religion,” but Christians (and Muslims, Jews, etc.), too. Perhaps no one can be blamed for not tracking down Schmemann’s more academic, even obscure, articles, but the heart of his message remained constant during nearly four decades of witness and writing. Sadly, it was always his contributions to a certain aspect of the rather broad field known as liturgical theology that generated the most followers (epigones), few of whom possess either Fr. Alexander’s prudence or depth. Change this. Fix that. Restore the “true meaning” to some portion of the liturgy and spare the laity any “undue mystery.” For far too many people—adherents and critics alike—that is Schmemann’s legacy despite the fact there is very little evidence that he ever saw his role in the Orthodox Church as being a “renovationist” on any level.

(Post)modern, secular life presents an endless stream of opportunities to lose sight of the eternal—a sad reality that often leads many to never seek it at all while others try desperately to catch some glimpse of it, as if by man’s work alone the things above can be brought down to his level. How strange it is that any given Sunday, in countless churches, even in America, the eternal is brought before us without recourse to physical-psychological manipulation, barren exoticism, or pious fabrication. Orthodox sometimes see this more clearly than their estranged Catholic brethren, but not always. For this is a tendency to “exoticize” the great Divine Liturgy of Byzantium, turning it into a series of symbols disconnected with the reality of the Kingdom it re-presents to the faithful from this point forth until the Second Coming. And in the true Mass, the Unbloody Sacrifice is made, an act that re-presents Christ’s unfathomable offering of Himself to the Father for His unworthy creatures.

The miraculous action of God in history did not start at Genesis and close with the Apocalypse. Living a life for and through Christ did not become obsolete following the Edict of Milan or the fall of Constantinople or the French Revolution or the Supreme Court’s decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Present, and very understandable, fears have prompted many of us to begin plotting a pathway around a seemingly predestined doomed future of destruction, persecution, and martyrdom. It smells like an escape, does it not? It seems to cut against the witness we, as followers of Christ, are called to give. It seems to present an illusion that flight can bring peace and stability again to the world, as if either has ever been in anything other than short supply. But we cannot embrace the false utopia(s) this world now holds forth, nor compromise with manufactured “lifestyles” that would trade living space for our souls. It is beautiful that there are Christians still willing to dig in their heels rather than flee. Some even wish to fight. It’s just not always clear what it is they are fighting for, or even if they know what it is they are up against.

21 comments

  1. It will be interesting to see how quickly Mr. Sanchez will canonize the writings of Schmemman. It appears as though he will replace the Magesterium of the Catholic Church with that of either Schmemman or a selection of theologians whomever occupies his theological flavour of the month.

    1. This!!! I no longer feel alone in being scandalized by our host. I’m glad you are not taking the news of another Catholic blogger converting/reverting/whatever to what is probably some obscure, twee, holier-than-though Orthodox jurisdiction too personally, unlike myself. I’m going take a break from this blog and read some Chesterton and maybe some Summa until I get into a better head space to think more charitably about this situation.

      1. If that’s what you want to do. Your prayers would be more appreciated than indignation.

      2. Perhaps you could include in your therapeutic reading, the Roman Catholic church’s teaching on Orthodoxy-that Orthodox churches are real churches, with true bishops and sacraments, and that (in the opinion) of Rome, we have a real, though imperfect communion, and little is required for that communion to be complete. Rome does not see any of us as twee, obscure, or any more holier than thou than many Catholics. I always find it amusing when Catholics speak of Orthodox in far less charitable terms than the official teaching of their own communion. You might think we’re a sect-your church does not think this.

        1. I’ll stick to Unum Sanctum, thank you very much. I don’t see the need for all this antiquarianism and exoticism (that means you too, Latin fanatics), when you can find a small “o” orthodox Catholic parish with a reverent liturgy in the vernacular within driving distance almost anywhere in this country. Mine has an excellent schola. We have statues and icons too. Best of both worlds.

          1. You are assuming motive (antiquarianism and exoticism). Have you ever thought maybe people become Orthodox, or return to Orthodoxy, simply because they think it’s true? Or is that just too much to contemplate? I assume people are Catholic because they think it’s true, and Orthodox people are Orthodox because they think it’s true. If there’s anything else going on, unless I know it for sure, it’s an uncharitable leap to posit motives because said motives suit my argument.

            1. Sheesh! I’m not impugning anyone’s motives. I guess eastern = capital “T” Truth, now. You sound like Rod Dreher,

          2. “…you can find a small “o” orthodox Catholic parish with a reverent liturgy in the vernacular within driving distance almost anywhere in this country. Mine has an excellent schola. We have statues and icons too. Best of both worlds.”

            1) small “o” orthodox
            2) reverent liturgy
            3) excellent schola
            4) statues and icons
            5) best of both worlds

            So where exactly does TRUTH fit into your hierarchy? Shouldn’t Truth be the ONLY concern? What good are all these things if your church is not True? Note that I am not saying that your Church is necessarily false; I’m just wondering of what use these things should be to an individual who does not believe your church to be true.

            If truth is not a criterion, much less the sole criterion that it should be, then why shouldn’t same individual attend the Jehovah’s Witness’ Kingdom Hall if they have the best nursery/day care? Why not the Seventh Day Adventists if they have the best Singles Club? Why not the Episcopal parish if they have the best rock band?

            And why not just pray for Gabe and wish him well? We each have to make our own way in this life, hopefully always seeking the truth above all else. Why such contempt for somebody whose perception of the truth, despite a good faith effort, does not currently match your own? Is this really appropriate grounds to withhold charity?

            1. Yes, you are attributing motives. You said, “I don’t understand all this antiquarianism and exoticism when a perfectly good Mass can be found anywhere.” You basically said, you can get a decent Latin rite Mass, why are you going for this antiquarianism and exoticism. Which is saying that’s why people go East. Which is claiming to explain why they do what they do. Which is attributing motive. Yes, I think Orthodoxy is capital T truth. I hope you think Catholicism is capital T truth, or there’s not much reason to bother.

          3. Your observation here is empirically falsifiable; I wouldn’t tether yourself to it.

            Aside from all of that, it’s queer to find a Catholic taking uncharitable swipes at the Byzantine Rite — a rite millions of Catholics around the world use.

            1. I was hoping that replying to dameinzak with “This!” and a string of Catholic combox warrior chauvinisms would have set off some sarcasm meters. I guess I was too oblique. Anyway, I look forward to seeing how you continue in your work of synergizing Orthodox thought with free market capitalism. The Acton Institute needs more Orthodox voices.

  2. I will grant that my prose expressed above may not have been as smoothly and poetically constructed as your own, but to suggest that it isn’t intelligent is slightly disingenuous, no? Just a little while ago, you went on the record that you had no intentions of leaving the Catholic church. Then, viola, you revert back to the Orthodox Church, begin selling off much of your Catholic literature, and then, as if on cue, begin waxing ecstatic about Schmemman. Don’t get me wrong, Schmemman was no fool, but a common trait amongst many converts, reverts, or re-reverts such as yourself-and one that I know you will empathically deny-is too equate his status as an authoritative theologian on par with that of Aquinas or Augustine. It is natural to quickly establish a go-to source that will be used to buttress or justify your arguments or actions. For many in the Orthodox world that figure is, predictably so, Fr. Alexander Schmemman.

    1. I’ve been reading a lot of Schmemann lately. I grant him no magisterial authority and nothing on here would even indicate as much. If I was reading more Bulgakov or Florovsky right now, I’d probably quote them, too. Calm yourself.

  3. Jeez! No need to be sore about the fact that he’s not Catholic any more.

    I liked this post, anyway.

  4. Schmemann’s a great writer and theologian, and I have always enjoyed your posts and thoughts on him which I don’t think have been marginalized to only the Orthodox periods.

    In addition, this particular essay of Schmemann’s isn’t really about Orthodoxy or Catholicism per se but about the difficult tendencies facing Christians in the modern world.

    1. Right. I don’t see why it is so problematic that I am quoting Schmemann. Now if it was Romanides…

  5. I am quite calm, actually. I’m not sure why you are suggesting that I was overreacting.

    Again, I did state that you would deny granting him some sort of magisterial authority, and you did just that.

    1. For your next trick, can you state that I would deny the sun rises in the west and that the moon is made of cheese? Your insights are astonishing.

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