Schmemann on secularism

Last night I was reading through an essay by Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann. This essay is in fact an excerpt from Schmemann’s classic introduction to a sacramental worldview: For the Life of the World (Yonkers, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973).

Schmemann contends that there is no such thing as true secularism, or of a “secular” reality separate from what is “sacred.” The real nature of the human person revolves around worship. It is in the act of worship that people are both declared to be humanity made in the image of God and also become human in that sense. Secularism can not abide such a definition of what it means to be human, and in fact Schmemann says secularism is the polar opposite of the true nature of the world and humanity.

Secularism, I submit, is above all a negation of worship. I stress – not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both “posits” his humanity and fulfills it (Schmemann 2012, Kindle Locations 1449-1451).

Much Western religion has abandoned the way the world and people really are, and has accepted secularism’s demarcation of “sacred” and “profane.” We have not only accepted the space marked out for us within secularism but we have also reoriented that space to be “relevant” within a secular grid.

If the proponents of what basically is nothing else but the Christian acceptance of secularism are right, then of course our whole problem is only that of finding or inventing a worship more acceptable, more “relevant” to the modern man’s secular worldview. And such indeed is the direction taken today by the great majority of liturgical reformers. What they seek is worship whose forms and content would “reflect” the needs and aspirations of the secular man, or even better, of secularism itself. For once more, secularism is by no means identical with atheism, and paradoxical as it may seem, can be shown to have always had a peculiar longing for a “liturgical” expression. If, however, my definition is right, then this whole search is a hopeless dead end, if not outright nonsense (Schmemann 2012, Kindle Locations 1456-1460).

Simply put, Christianity has sold its soul to be “relevant” in a secular world. We have affirmed and bound ourselves to a worldview which is not true to how the world really is. Schmemann calls us back to a truly Christian worldview, which takes epiphany and liturgy seriously.

…the basic and primordial intuition which not only expresses itself in worship, but of which the entire worship is indeed the “phenomenon” – both effect and experience – is that the world, be it in its totality as cosmos, or in its life and becoming as time and history, is an epiphany of God, a means of His revelation, presence, and power (Schmemann 2012, Kindle Locations 1470-1472).

He is not simply positing one worldview against another. Instead he is arguing that this sacramental worldview recognizes the world for what it really and truly is: an epiphany or manifestation of God.

…worship is truly an essential act, and man an essentially worshiping being, for it is only in worship that man has the source and the possibility of that knowledge which is communion, and of that communion which fulfills itself as true knowledge: knowledge of God and therefore knowledge of the world-communion with God and therefore communion with all that exists. Thus the very notion of worship is based on an intuition and experience of the world as an “epiphany” of God, thus the world – in worship – is revealed in its true nature and vocation as “sacrament” (Schmemann 2012, Kindle Locations 1474-1477).

Schmemann is making a strong contrasting claim to secularism. He is in an argument as it were “for the life of the world.”

…for the world to be means of worship and means of grace is not accidental, but the revelation of its meaning, the restoration of its essence, the fulfillment of its destiny (Schmemann 2012, Kindle Locations 1484-1485).

Religion then is not simply a category for piety within a larger secular construct. Instead, religion is about the very essence of what creation and humanity actually are.

Worship is by definition and act a reality with cosmic, historical, and eschatological dimensions, the expression thus not merely of “piety,” but of an all-embracing “worldview” (Schmemann 2012, Kindle Locations 1510-1511).

Western Christianity has gladly, and often glibly, gone along with secularism. Our religion has shape-shifted to scratch the itch of secular ideology. We have edited God and the real nature of creation and humanity right out of our faith.

…has had this impact because it satisfied a deep desire of man for a legalistic religion that would fulfill his need for both the “sacred” – a divine sanction and guarantee – and the “profane,” i.e., a natural and secular life protected, as it were, from the constant challenge and absolute demands of God. It was a relapse into that religion which assures, by means of orderly transactions with the “sacred,” security and clean conscience in this life, as well as reasonable rights to the “other world,” a religion which Christ denounced by every word of His teaching, and which ultimately crucified Him. It is indeed much easier to live and to breathe within neat distinctions between the sacred and the profane, the natural and the supernatural, the pure and the impure, to understand religion in terms of sacred “taboos,” legal prescriptions and obligations, of ritual rectitude and canonical “validity.” It is much more difficult to realize that such a religion not only does not constitute any threat to “secularism,” but on the contrary, is its paradoxical ally (Schmemann 2012, Kindle Locations 1588-1594).

It is in this way that many evangelicals have attacked “modernism” or “liberalism” but have in fact jumped right into bed with secularism. The foundational assumptions of secularism are not in opposition to distorted Christianity, and in fact they both agree in the separation of religion from real life.

What is truly disturbing here is that such liturgical piety, such understanding and experience of worship, not only is in no way a challenge to secularism, but is in fact one of its very sources. For it leaves the world profane, i.e., precisely secular, in the deepest sense of this term: as totally incapable of any real communication with the Divine, of any real transformation and transfiguration. Having nothing to reveal about world and matter, about time and nature, this idea and this experience of worship “disturb” nothing, question nothing, challenge nothing, are indeed “applicable” to nothing. They can therefore peacefully “coexist” with any secular ideology, any form of secularism. And there is virtually no difference here between liturgical “rigorists,” i.e., those who stress long services, compliance with rubrics and the Typicon, and liturgical “liberals,” always ready and anxious to shorten, adapt, and adjust. For in both cases what is denied is simply the continuity between “religion” and “life,” the very function of worship as power of transformation, judgment, and change. Again, paradoxically and tragically, this type of approach towards worship and this kind of liturgical experience are indeed the source and the support of secularism (Schmemann 2012, Kindle Locations 1615-1622).

Schmemann diagnoses Western faith as abandoning Christianity’s unique insight into creation and humanity at the very moment it is most needed and the world is most ready for a robust alternative.

And this at a time when secularism begins to “crack” from inside! If my reading of the great confusion of our time is correct, this confusion is, first of all, a deep crisis of secularism. And it is truly ironic, in my opinion, that so many Christians are seeking some accommodation with secularism precisely at the moment when it is revealing itself to be an untenable spiritual position. More and more signs point toward one fact of paramount importance: the famous “modern man” is already looking for a path beyond secularism, is again thirsty and hungry for “something else.” Much too often this thirst and hunger are satisfied not only by food of doubtful quality, but by artificial substitutes of all kinds. 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 (Schmemann 2012, Kindle Locations 1622-1629).


All quotes in this essay are from Alexander Schmemann’s essay “Worship in a Secular Age” in An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary P0litical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012) edited by William T. Cavanaugh, Jeffrey W. Bailey, and Craig Hovey.

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