Sunday, January 31, 2010

Schmemann on Fundamentalism and Secularism

In his essay, "Worship in a Secular Age," Father Alexander Schmemann traces the origin of secularism to a medieval Western theological error. In condemning Berengarius of Tours for his teaching that "because the presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements is 'mystical' or 'symbolic,' it is not real," the Lateran Council simply reversed the formula and proclaimed that because Christ's presence in the Eucharist is real, it is not mystical or symbolic. Both sides in the debate accepted the mutual exclusivity of verum and mystice, which undermined "the fundamental Christian understanding of creation in terms of its ontological sacramentality." Schmemann continues:

Let us not be mistaken, however. This Western theological framework was in fact accepted by the Orthodox East also, and since the end of the patristic age our theology has been indeed much more "Western" than "Eastern." If secularism can be properly termed a Western Heresy, the very fruit of the basic Western "deviation," our own scholastic theology has also been permeated with it for centuries, and this in spite of violent denunciations of Rome and papism. And it is indeed ironic, but not at all accidental, that psychologically the most "Western" among the Orthodox today are precisely the ultra-conservative "Super-Orthodox," whose whole frame of mind is legalistic and syllogistic on the one hand, and is made up, on the other hand, of those very "dichotomies" whose introduction into Christian thought is the "original sin" of the West. 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.

From For the Life of the World, by Alexander Schmemann, pp. 128-130.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Vacation Reading

I am free for a whole month between semesters – my longest period without work or classes in 15 years. While I have been spending quite a bit of time with my family, especially playing with my nephews and niece, I have managed to get in some reading, as well.

I wanted to get a jump on my reading for next semester without over-exerting my brain while recovering from final exams and relaxing with my family. So I started with Orthodox Christians in America, by John H. Erickson. It is written at a junior high level, but it will be required reading for Church History this coming semester, as it is the only book ever written on American Orthodox History. It gives a solid overview of the subject, but leaves a lot of details to be filled in.

An excellent place to begin filling in those details is my favorite podcast, Matthew Namee’s "American Orthodox History" on Ancient Faith Radio. Before I left campus, I loaded up my MP3 player with podcasts from AFR to listen to on the road, including the two most recent episodes of "American Orthodox History." The last episode was especially interesting. Namee interviewed Nicholas Chapman about his research on members of the Ludwell and Paradise families of Virginia and Britain, who were secretly Orthodox in the 18th century. Members of these families were tied to the founding fathers of the United States, the governments of Russia and the UK, the Non-Jurors, and the Jacobites.

Next on my reading list was the children's novelette Odd and the Frost Giants, Neil Gaiman’s take on the world of Norse myth: "In a village in ancient Norway lives a boy named Odd, and he's had some very bad luck: His father perished in a Viking expedition; a tree fell on and shattered his leg; the endless freezing winter is making villagers dangerously grumpy. Out in the forest Odd encounters a bear, a fox, and an eagle – three creatures with a strange story to tell. Now Odd is forced on a stranger journey than he had imagined."

Having recovered from final exams, I was ready to tackle something a bit more challenging. A few days ago I began reading Dragon’s Wine and Angel’s Bread: The Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Anger and Meekness. The subtitle says it all. Since anger is a recurring theme of my confessions, this book went to the top of my reading list even before it was published. I plan to read this one slowly in order to digest it all.

Other books I am carrying around in my book bag include The Orthodox Church in the Byzantine Empire, by J. M. Hussey, another book on the syllabus for Church History in the spring semester; Mary for Time and Eternity: Essays on Mary and Ecumenism, which includes an article by my friend Virginia M. Kimball that she has been pushing me to read for a couple of years; The Challenge of Our Past: Studies in Orthodox Canon Law and Church History, another book by John H. Erickson, which is on the syllabus for Liturgical Theology; The Cappadocians, by Anthony Meredith; and finally, another book for fun: Arabian Fairy Tales, by Amina Shah. I hope to get to a couple of these before I return to campus.