The Task of Orthodox Theology in America

By: Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Paper read at the first Conference of Orthodox Theologians in America, Sept. 26-27, 1966.

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

I.

What do we mean when we speak of the Orthodox theological task in America today? It is proper to begin with this question because the title of my paper may seem to suggest a theological orientation of which Orthodoxy is suspicious, but which seems to predominate in the West today. It is the reduction of theology to a given "situation" or "age," a stress on "relevance" understood almost exclusively as a dependence of theology, its task, method and language on the "modern man" and his specifically modern "needs." From the beginning, therefore, we must emphasize that Orthodoxy rejects such a reduction of theology, whose first and eternal tasks is to search for Truth, not for relevance, for words "adequate to God" (theoprepeis logoi), not to man. Theology is truly relevant because it is truly Christian when it remains a scandal for the Jews, foolishness for the Greeks and is at odds with this world and its passing "cultures" and "modernities." This does not mean, however, that theology operates in a cultural vacuum. For it is one thing to depend on the world and quite another to be related to it. If the first attitude, the acceptance of the world as the only criterion of theology, is to be rejected, the second (which, in the last analysis, is but the basic Christian concern for the world and its salvation), is the very raison d’etre of theology. In this sense, all genuine theology has always been pastoral, missionary and prophetic, and whenever it lost these dimensions, it became a mere intellectual game justly ignored by the "real" Church. The task of theology at any given moment is necessarily determined by the needs of the Church, and the first task of the theologian is always to discern and to accept these needs, to become aware of what the Chuch expects from him.

As a small group of Orthodox theologians living and working in the West, far from the ancient and "organically" Orthodox worlds and cultures, we are justified therefore in asking this preliminary question: what are the needs of the Church to which we must respond and around which we are to organize and plan our theological work? How are we to obey here, in America, the eternal demands, pastoral, missionary and prophetic, of Orthodox theology? This paper is a brief attempt to inaugurate a common search for a common answer.

II.

Everyone will probably agree that our theological task is determined primarily by the fact that, as theologians, we work within and for an Orthodox community which, for the first time in the long history of our Church, has to live in a non-Orthodox world, Western in its religious traditions, secularistic in its culture, and pluralistic in its "world view." As I tried to show elsewhere,1 this for Orthodoxy is an unprecedented situation, and it challenges the whole Church and consequently us, her theologians, with a set of problems unknown to the Orthodox communities of the "old world."

First of all, this new situation substantially affects the pastoral responsibilities of theology. I venture to affirm that for several centuries theology was not needed as vitally and on virtually every level of the Church’s life as it is today in America. The reason for this is simple. In Greece or Russia, or any other Orthodox country, culture itself, i.e. the complex of values, norms and ideas by which man evaluates his life, was related in some deep sense to the Orthodox faith, was in continuation with the Church’s "world view." One can and must criticize the obvious shortcomings and sins of those Orthodox "worlds," but one cannot deny that, in spite of many betrayals, they remained for a long time organically shaped by Orthodoxy. But this is not so in America. Here the rupture between the Orthodox world view and the secularistic culture is so radical that the former finds virtually no "point of application," and the language by which it is transmitted, that of the Liturgy, spirituality and ethics, remains "alien," even if it is English. As the integration of the formerly "immigrant" community into American culture and into the "American way of life" progresses, there develops a truly schizophrenic situation in which deep attachment to Orthodox symbols and "externals" (e.g., worship, music, architecture) easily coexists with an almost totally secularistic philosophy of life. Needless to say, such a situation cannot last long, and a mere faithfulness to Orthodox externals will not save Orthodoxy from being dissolved sooner or later into that peculiar blend of secularism and vague religiosity which seems to emerge as a new pattern of American religion. To those who have ears to hear and eyes to see, it is already abundantly clear that in America one cannot be Orthodox by "osmosis." A spiritually alien culture makes Orthodoxy here a challenge, and the faith, if it is to be true to itself, must be consciously accepted, clearly understood in its implications for life, and constantly defended against the pressures of secularism. It is here, therefore, that theology is called to recover the pastoral dimension, to supply, or rather to be, that understanding, that essential link between the Tradition of the Church and the real life, to assure the acceptance of the faith by the faithful.

It would be a mistake to think, however, that what is meant here is a kind of theological "digest" for quick consumption by the laity, a mere descent of theology to a "popular level." It is exactly the opposite that I have in mind; the uplifting of the whole life of the Church into theological consciousness, a vital relation to theological reflection of every aspect and every level of the Church’s life. But to achieve this, we must give some thought to that which, at least in my opinion, constitutes the basic defect of our theology: its almost total divorce from the real life of the Church and from her practical needs. By his very upbringing and training, the theologian is used to looking at everything "practical" as virtually opposed to theology and its lofty pursuits, and this attitude has been adopted for so many centuries that it is almost taken for granted. Since the breakdown of the patristic age, our theology (and not without Western influence) has become exclusively "academic" — "scholastic" in the literal sense of the word. It is confined to a narrow circle of professional intellectuals, writing and working, in fact, for each other (who else reads theology, or, even if he wished to, is capable of reading its highly professional and esoteric language?) and, as time goes by, more and more anxious to satisfy and please their peers in other academic disciplines, rather than the less and less theologically-minded Church. They are reconciled to the supreme indifference of the Church at large to their work because, in their unshakable self-righteousness, they put the blame on the anti-intellectualism of the clergy and laity. What they do not seem to realize, however, is that this "anti-intellectualism" is in a way a direct result of their own exclusive "intellectualism," of their quasi-manichean contempt for the "practical" needs of the Church, for their reduction of theology to a harmless intellectual game of "interesting points of view" and scientifically impeccable footnotes. And the sad irony of the situation is that, ignored by the Church, they are not truly accepted by the so-called "intellectual community" either, for which, in spite of all their efforts ad captatiam benevolentiae, they remain non-objective and non-scientific "mystics." And as long as such is the state and the inner orientation of our theology, the hope that it will fulfill its pastoral function and respond to the crying needs of our situation is, of course, vain.

But it is at this point, maybe, that we can turn our eyes to those whom we always claim to be our examples and teachers, the Holy Fathers of the Church, and look a little deeper into their understanding of theological task. Most certainly they were not less intellectual. And yet, there is one decisive difference between them and the modern theological scholars. To all of them that which we call "practical" and virtually exclude from our academic concerns meant nothing else but the unique and indeed very practical concern of Christianity: the eternal salvation of man. Words and ideas were for them directly related not simply to Truth and Error, but to the Truth that saves and to the error that brings with it death and damnation. And it is their constant, truly "existential" preoccupation with, and their total commitment to, salvation of real, concrete men that makes every line they wrote so ultimately serious and their theology so vital and so precisely pastoral. Intellectual as it is, their theology is always addressed not to "intellectuals," but to the whole Church, in the firm belief that everyone in the Church has received the Spirit of Truth and was made a "theologian" — i.e., a man concerned with God. And the lasting truth of their theology is that in it ideas are always referred to the "practical" needs of the Church, revealed in their soteriological significance, whereas the most "practical" aspects of the Church are rooted in their ultimate theological implications.

For us in America to recover the pastoral dimension of theology means then not a change of level ("write on a more popular level"), but, above everything else, a change in the inner orientation of the theological mind, of the basic theological concern itself. First of all, we must aim our theological effort at the real Church and at real man in the Church. We must literally care about the situation of that man and not only about his becoming "more educated" and "proud of Orthodoxy." For as long as we ourselves are not convinced that many ideas and philosophies by which he lives today lead him to spiritual death, and that the knowledge of Truth is to save him and not merely to adorn our Church with a respectable intellectual elite, we certainly will not find the words which can reach him. As luxury and status symbol theology is not needed in a religion which challenges man with the choice between life and death, salvation and damnation.

This means also that the "pastoral" revitalization of theology must begin with a deep evaluation and critique of the culture in which the Orthodox man is immersed today and which indeed makes Christianity irrelevant. It is not accidental, of course, that patristic theology is rooted in a healthy apologetical purpose, in the defense of the faith against its external and internal enemies. As for us, we fight with great wit the battles the Fathers have already won, but politely smile at the truly demonic implications of some of the modern philosophies and theories. We are unaware of the obvious fact that under the influences of these philosophies even some of the basic Christian terms are used in a meaning almost opposite to the ones they had in the past. Salvation means self-fulfillment, faith — security, sin — a personal problem of adjustment, etc. Our culture, which has been recently described as a "triumph of therapeutics," has deeply changed the quest of even a religious man, which makes it almost impossible for him to hear and to understand the true teaching of the Church. And finally we do not seem to notice that this metamorphosis of religion takes place not in some mythical Western man, but in our own parishes, in the preaching of our priests. We must begin, therefore, with what patristic theology performed in its own time: an exorcism of culture, a liberating reconstruction of the words, concepts and symbols, of the theological language itself. And we must do it in order not to make our theology more "acceptable" to the modern man and his culture, but, on the contrary, to make him again aware of the ultimately serious, truly soteriological nature and demands of his faith.

Only theology can accomplish all this, and that is why it is so badly needed today. But it will succeed only when it becomes again pastoral, i.e. identified with the Church and her life, attentive to the real needs of the man, when, putting aside the academic "straining at a gnat" which has never prevented anyone from "swallowing a camel," it accepts, in humility and with courage, its proper function in the Church.

III.

I defined the second task of our theology as missionary. To keep with the spirit of the time, I should have probably called it "ecumenical." But the word ecumenical has of late become so general and so ambiguous that it itself needs to be investigated and redefined. I prefer the slightly outmoded term "missionary" for several reasons. It indicates that Orthodox theology has a mission in the West. It has always been the consensus of Orthodox theologians that their participation in the Ecumenical Movement has as its goal to bring an Orthodox witness to the non-Orthodox, and there is no reason to deny that this implies the idea of conversion to Orthodoxy. I know very well that in current ecumenical thinking the term "conversion" has a bad reputation. But the Orthodox would simply betray both their Orthodoxy and the Ecumenical Movement if now, under the impact of a superficial ecumenical euphoria, they concealed the fact that in their approach conversion is one of the basic components of genuine ecumenical perspective. More than ever, and precisely for deep ecumenical reasons, we must uphold our conviction that only a deep and genuinely Christian idea of conversion, i.e. of a decisive crisis, choice, and commitment to Truth, can give meaning and ultimate seriousness to all "dialogues," "rapprochements," and "convergences." That this term and the reality behind it are regarded today by many as "un-ecumenical" reveals, in fact, an alarming trend; a shift of the ecumenical movement from its original goal — to organic unity in Christ, to a different one — the smooth functioning of pluralistic society; excellent and useful as it may be, this second goal has very little to do with the fundamental Christian values of unity, faith, and truth. Our "mission" then remains the same: to make Orthodoxy known, understood, and, with God’s help, accepted in the West. This mission stems naturally and, so to speak, inescapably from our truly awesome claim that we are Orthodox and that ours is the true Church. This claim is incompatible with any provincialism of thought and vision, ethnic self-consciousness, and self-centeredness.

For several decades the "ecumenical mission" has been, in fact, a monopoly of a small group of theologians, and it remained virtually unknown to and ignored by the Orthodox Church at large. I think that the time has come to put an end to this rather abnormal situation which, in addition to many other dangers, simply misleads the non-Orthodox by giving them the impression of an "ecumenical" Orthodoxy that does not exist in reality. A missionary orientation must be added to the whole theological structure of the Church and become an organic part of our theological "curriculum." This brings me to the second meaning of the term missionary, to the "modality" of our approach to the West.

"Mission" has always meant, at least in the Christian connotations of that term, not only the effort to convert someone to true faith, but also the spiritual disposition of the missionary: his active charity and his self-giving to the "object" of his missionary task. From St. Paul to Bishop Nicholas of Japan there has been no mission without self-identification of the missionary with those to whom God has sent him, without a sacrifice of his personal attachments and his natural values. Mutatis mutandis the same must be said, it seems to me, about the Orthodox mission in the West, and more particularly, about the mission of Orthodox theology. This mission is impossible without some degree of love for the West and for the many authentically Christian values of its culture. Yet, we very often confuse the Universal Truth of the Church with a naive "superiority complex," with arrogance and self-righteousness, with a childish certitude that everyone ought to share our own enthusiasm about the "splendors of Byzantium," our "ancient and colorful rites," and the forms of our Church architecture. It is sad and shocking to hear the West globally condemned and to see a condescending attitude towards the "poor Westerners" on the part of young people who, more often than not, have not read Shakespeare and Cervantes, have never heard about St. Francis of Assisi or listened to Bach. It is sad to realize that there is no greater obstacle to the understanding and acceptance of Orthodoxy than the provincialism, the human pride and the self-righteousness of the Orthodox themselves, their almost complete lack of humility and self-criticism. Yet, Truth always makes humble, and pride in all its forms and expressions is always alien to Truth and is always a sin. It is obviously inconceivable to say that we are "proud of Christ," but we constantly preach and teach "pride of Orthodoxy." It is time to understand that if the Orthodox mission is to progress, we must not only transcend and overcome this spirit of self-righteousness, but we must, without denying any genuine value of our Eastern cultural and spiritual heritage, open ourselves towards Western culture and make our own whatever in it "is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious" (Philip. 4:8).

The missionary task of Orthodox theology must be thus guided by two equally important and interdependent imperatives: the emphasis on Truth as the only genuine ground of all "ecumenical" concern and a real openness to the Western Christian values. At a time when a serious temptation appears to sacrifice Truth for a very sophisticated, very qualified and, because of this, only more dangerous relativism, to replace the search for unity with a search for a religious "peaceful coexistence," when the very possibility of error and heresy is virtually ruled out by a pseudo-ecumenical doctrine of "convergence," the Orthodox theologian must stand, alone if necessary, in defense of the very concept of Truth, without which Christianity, for all its "relevance," denies in fact its own absolute claim. To do this, however, he must himself be open and obedient to all Truth, wherever he finds it.

IV.

The third task of Orthodox theology in America must be defined as prophetic, even if the word sounds presumptuous. The prophets were sent to the people of God not only to announce future events, but also to remind the people of their true mission and to denounce their betrayals of Divine Will. And if, with the coming of Christ, "the fulfillment of all law and the prophets," their first function has become obsolete, the second remains as needed as ever. And properly understood, theology must always share in this prophetic function. For the eternal task of theology is to refer the life of the Church to the absolute Truth of the Church’s own tradition, to keep alive and operative a criterion by which the Church judges herself. Immersed in human history, the Church is always full of temptations and sins and, what is even more serious, of compromises and accommodations to the spirit of "this world." The temptation is always to prefer peace to Truth, efficiency to rectitude, human success to the Will of God. And since, in the Orthodox Church, there exists no visible center of infallible authority, like the Papacy, since her ultimate criterion and recourse is always the Truth abiding in her, it certainly belongs to those whose specific ministry is the study and the search of that Truth to make it known and manifest in all its purity and clarity. There is no arrogance, no pride in that claim. The theologian has no rights, no power to govern and to administer that which belongs exclusively to the hierarchy. But it is his sacred duty to supply the hierarchy and, indeed, the whole Church with the pure teaching of the Church and to stand by that truth even when it is not considered "opportune." It must be admitted that much too often our official "academic" theology has failed to accept this "obedience" and preferred quiet complacency. It has thus become accomplice to many deviations and distortions from which the whole Orthodox Church suffers today. But again, it was not so with the Fathers. Almost to the one, they suffered from the various "power structures" of their days for their refusal to opt for the compromise or to accept silent obedience to evil. And the fact is that ultimately the Chuiich followed them and not those who, then as today, have a thousand excellent reasons for avoiding the "abstract principles" and preferring the "demands of reality."

Today this prophetic function of theology is needed again more than ever. For, whether we want it or not, the entire Orthodox Church is going through a deep crisis. Its causes are many. On the one hand, the world which for centuries framed and shaped her historical existence is crumbling and has all but vanished. The ancient and traditional centers of authority are threatened in their very existence and most of them deprived of even elementary freedom of action. An overwhelming majority of Orthodox people live under the pressures and persecution of openly and militantly atheistic regimes, in situations where mere survival and not progress is the only preoccupation. A minority living surrounded by an alien sea seems to have become the rule rather than the exception for Orthodoxy almost everywhere. Everywhere, and not only in the West, it is challenged by a secularistic, technological, and spiritually antagonistic culture which virtually swallows its younger generations. On the other hand, a large Orthodox diaspora has appeared, putting an end to the multi-secular isolation of Orthodoxy in the East, challenging Orthodoxy with problems of ecclesiastical organization and spiritual "adjustments" unprecedented in the whole history of the Church. Only the blind would deny the existence of the crisis, yet not too many seem to realize its depth and scope, least of all (let us face it) the bishops who continue in their routine work as "if nothing happened." At no time in the past has there existed such an abyss between the hierarchy and the "real" Church, never before has the power-structure so little corresponded to the crying spiritual needs of the faithful. And here the American Orthodox "microcosm" seems an excellent example. How long are we to live in a multiplicity of jurisdictions either quarreling with each other or simply ignoring each other? How long shall we leave unnoticed the quick decay in liturgy, spirituality, and monasticism — the traditional sources of Orthodox piety and continuity? How long, in short, shall we accept and respectfully endorse as normal and almost traditional a situation which, if we are honest, must be described as a scandal and a tragedy?

In spite of what too many Orthodox people think today, this is the hour of theology. Only a deep, fearless, and constructive evaluation of this situation in the light of the genuine Tradition of the Church, only a creative return to the very springs of our dogma, canons and worship, only a total commitment to the Truth of the Church can help us overcome the crisis and transform it into a revival of Orthodoxy. I know that this task is difficult and that a long tradition has taught theologians to avoid hot issues and not to "get involved." I know also that a certain traditionalism which has nothing to do with Tradition has made self-criticism and spiritual freedom a crime against the Church in the eyes of many. I know that too many "power-structures" have a vested interest in not allowing any question, any search, any encounter with Truth. The forces of inertia, pseudo-conservatism, and plain cynicism are formidable. But the same was true of the time of St. Athanasius the Great, St. John Chrysostom and St. Maximus the Confessor. As for the issues we face today, they are not lesser than those they had to deal with. And it depends on us to choose between the pleasant prestige attached to mere academic scholarship and the responses to the Will of God.

1Cf. my articles on "The Problems of Orthodoxy in America" in St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly: "The Canonical Problem," vol. 8, 2, 1964, pp. 67-85; "The Liturgical Problem," vol. 8, 4, 1964, pp. 164-185; and "The Spiritual Problem," vol. 9, 4, 1965, pp. 171, 193.

St Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, 1966, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 180-188.