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Alexander Schmemann on Secularism

I have for many years recommended “How the World Lost Its Story” by the late Robert Jenson as a brilliant, succinct, and prophetic analysis of the crisis of late modernity, and guidance about how the church can best respond to that crisis. I have quoted this passage again and again:

In the postmodern world, if a congregation or churchly agency wants to be “relevant,” here is the first step: It must recover the classic liturgy of the church, in all its dramatic density, sensual actuality, and brutal realism, and make this the one exclusive center of its life. In the postmodern world, all else must at best be decoration and more likely distraction.

Out there — and that is exactly how we must again begin to speak of the society in which the church finds itself — there is no narratable world. But absent a narratable world, the church’s hearers cannot believe or even understand the gospel story — or any other momentous story. If the church is not herself a real, substantial, living world to which the gospel can be true, faith is quite simply impossible.

To this remarkable essay I would now add another. It is found as an Appendix 1 of For the Life of the Word, Alexander Schmemann’s classic set of essays on the nature of the sacraments from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. The title of the essay is “Worship in A Secular Age.” It is another diagnosis of late modernity that is also brilliant, succinct, and prophetic and that also places worship and a proper liturgical consciousness at the heart of the church’s mission.

Schmemann does not believe that atheism is a necessary component of secularism. The essence of secularism, in Schmemann’s view, is the denial of a particular relationship between God, man, and the world. Anthropology, cosmology, and liturgy all become deformed. Schmemann takes the condemnation of Berengarius of Tours by Leo IX as a “symbolic” example of this deformation that is the false paradigm of secularism. Schmemann believes that Berengarius was condemned for holding that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is mystical and symbolic and therefore not real. Schmemann may have been making something of a strawman of “Latin Theology,” but his point stands that secularism is characterized by an opposition of sacred and profane, of the real and the spiritual.

Once these dichotomies are accepted, it does not matter, theologically speaking, whether one “accepts” the world, as in the case of the Western enthusiast of “secular Christianity,” or “rejects” it, as in the case of the “Super-Orthodox” prophet of apocalyptic doom. The optimistic positivism of the one, and the pessimistic negativism of the other are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. Both, by denying the world its natural “sacramentality” and radically opposing the “natural” to the “supernatural,” make the world grace-proof, and ultimately lead to secularism. (p.130)

When the real and the spiritual become thus opposed, the world loses its inherent sacredness, its orientation toward sacrament. The right relationship between God and man and the world is lost. The cosmos is rightly the sacrament of God, the epiphany of the creator, and the human vocation is rightly the vocation of the priest who recognizes the world as communion with God and replies with praise and sacrifice. The essence of secularism, for Schmemann, is the denial of this essential connection between God, the cosmos, and the human vocation of adoration, of priesthood. The signature of secularism is the “refusal to worship.”

Secularism, I said, is above all a negation of worship. And indeed, if what we have said about worship is true, is it not equally true that secularism consists in the rejection, explicit or implicit, of precisely that idea of man and world which it is the very purpose of worship to express and communicate? (pp. 123-24)

Christ is the fulfillment of worship as adoration and prayer, thanksgiving and sacrifice, communion and knowledge, because He is the ultimate “epiphany” of man as worshiping being, the fulness of God’s manifestation and presence by means of the world. He is the true and full Sacrament because He is the fulfillment of the world’s essential “sacramentality.” (p. 122)

Nevertheless, just because man is essentially a worshiping being, the secular world is haunted by a nostalgia for true liturgy and worship. This is evident, I believe, in Super Bowl halftime shows. They are expensive, energetic attempts led by artists who are often disciplined and accomplished to lift up our hearts. In my view, they always fall flat. They are examples par excellence of liturgy as instrumental, as technique, a kind of magic. They are poignant attempts to construct something that can only be given in grace. This inherently secular and instrumentalized approach to liturgy and worship is not uncommon in our churches today — in, for instance, endlessly didactic litanies — and represents a colonization of the Christian church by secularism.

The secularist is very fond today of terms such as “symbolism,” “sacrament,” “transformation,” “celebration,” and of the entire panoply of cultic terminology. What he does not realize, however, is that the use he makes of them reveals, in fact, the death of symbols and the decomposition of the sacrament. And he does not realize this because in his rejection of the world’s and man’s sacramentality he is reduced to viewing symbols as indeed mere illustrations of ideas and concepts, which they emphatically are not. 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. A vigil or a fast are, to be sure, “symbolic”: they always express, manifest, fulfill the Church as expectation, they are themselves that expectation and preparation. To make them into “symbols” of political protest or ideological affirmation, to use them as means to that which is not their “end,” to think that the liturgical symbols can be used arbitrarily—is to signify the death of worship, and this in spite of the obvious success and popularity of all these “experiments.” To anyone who has had, be it only once, the true experience of worship, all this is revealed immediately as the ersatz it is. He knows that the secularist’s worship of relevance is simply incompatible with the true relevance of worship. And it is here, in this miserable liturgical failure, whose appalling results we are only beginning to see, that secularism reveals its ultimate religious emptiness and, I will not hesitate to say, its utterly anti-Christian essence. (pp.125-26)

The proper response to the challenge of secularism is not to seek to accommodate the life of the church and its worship to the secular worldview, to seek a “relevant” form of the faith, but to challenge the secular presuppositions about the nature of humanity, the world, and the sacred and to reawaken the desire for true worship.

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. … 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. 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. (pp. 133-34)

Both Robert Jenson and Alexander Schmemann see deeply into the crisis of modernity and offer us a common prescription for the mission of the church in our time. It requires the restoration of an authentic liturgical consciousness in the church and the recovery of the ability to offer a world in chaos the experience of cosmos in the liturgy, where the relationship between God, humanity, and the world is restored in Christ and gives us today a taste of the life of the world to come.


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