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.