A Talk by Father Alexander Schmemann
What I would like to say tonight is certainly controversial, and I know it is and I am not quite sure if the line I am taking is the right one in all its details. However, one must try to understand something dipper than the surface of our age — and, my goodness, how many prophets we have explaining it to us! We are at a very exciting moment in the history of the United States. We do not know whether one philosophy, which replaces the old one, is valued or not, and we are all living in the same kind of anxiety. But, when we go deeper and try to understand what is going on, what continually comes into my mind is exactly this polarization, not only of our individual minds or our personal experiences, but of our entire culture, our entire situation between those two poles that I call; one, Utopia and the other, Escape. I am sure that there is at least something here which is worthy of being analyzed. Let me briefly explain what I mean by this polarization, what I mean by Utopia, and what I mean by Escape. Since all languages are symbolic by definition, we have to explain in what kind of symbolic framework we are using these terms.
Let me say immediately that these two attitudes — toward life, toward society, and toward culture — Utopia and Escape — of course existed before. We find them present in almost any society or any culture. There are always those who, being obsessed with one particular vision and being fanatically loyal to that vision, cut themselves off from the mainstream of culture. There are also, always, in every culture and every society, those who can be called the dropouts, those who for various reasons are trying to escape from the pressures of their society. What I think is new is that today this Utopia, on the one hand, and this Escape on the other hand, are no longer marginal phenomena.
We always had religion and sects and cults. In the Christian religion, in the history of the Church, we find that every century brings its own utopians and also its own escapees. For instance, in the second century, we find those Montanists. And yet these are precisely marginal phenomena. What I think is typical of our age, of the contemporary world, is that those two realities, attitudes, stands, experiences, —”Utopia,” and “Escape,” have become no longer marginal. They are inside. They are the moving forces of our society itself. I do not mean to say that every gas station attendant is either a utopian or an escapee; and yet the culture itself moves by those two identifications.
Now, what do I mean by Utopia? First of all, Utopia is a kind of a maximalistic projection towards the future. It is a promise, or an idea, that history as a whole, and human existence as personal destiny, moves towards perfection and fulfillment, towards an eminent — not only eminent, but also an imminent, victory over all kinds of dangers and deficiencies. We can see, for example, the political appeal of Utopia, not even speaking of such utopias as the Marxist utopia. (Now, the power of Marxism over human minds is in itself a paradox, something absolutely amazing! Why is it that this theory, which so far has never proven itself to be right in any detail or wholesale, why does it keep its power? To abandon the Marxist vision of time, of history, is a tremendous kind of “crucifixion” for some people.) But even if we disregard those utopias, like Marxism, which is not the fate of this country, we will find this utopian coefficient even in the political culture of our society today. It is not an accident that every four years during a new presidential election, there must be a vision like The Great Society, or A New Frontier… There is always something that is great, decisive, final, and built in to that vision is the faith that we are confident and capable of doing something radical.
No, the history of the world does not encourage us to think that way. All of the Napoleons failed and all their dreams ended on a great variety of St. Helens . . . And yet today this faith is essential. No politician would come and say, “We know that we are poor, limited, fallible human beings. We are living in darkness, we will try to do our best, but of course not much can be done…” Such a man would not go very far. He must have a kind of utopian charisma. He must lead us to what the French Marxist poet Arangon terms, “Les lendemains qui chantent” — “The tomorrows that sing,” “Tomorrow must sing.” Why must tomorrow sing? People will die; the cemeteries will grow, and so on. Politics today is fed by, if not necessarily lies, then, at least, utopian messages.
The search for Utopia is also prevalent in our daily lives. There is the Utopia, which I call, the Therapeutic Utopia.
Waiting for my train at Pennsylvania station, I went into the bookstore, and there was this tremendous shelf with many books (probably bought by someone, I don’t know, otherwise why would they be published?), books that promise and proclaim the possibility of total health, and books that judge all of life in terms of what is good for that kind of utopian state of health.
You know the latest discovery is that coffee is bad for us. We have already eliminated virtually all the foods — all the liquids, all the solids. Now it is coffee. And yet people jump on that, buy it all! Death, of course, is the greatest handicap on the way to Utopia, and it too is being treated today in a very peculiar manner. Believe me, very soon one great event, which the Christian faith proclaims, that Christ trampled down death by death, will be somehow naturalized and placed into a system — you know, like the miraculous health or diet systems… We will also have a death system, so that death will no longer be the devastating question mark over all Utopias.
There is also the tremendous success of all those mental therapies, which really take seriously the famous constitutional right (if not a prescription: I am afraid it will be a prescription soon) that we should pursue happiness as a self-evident goal of life. Now, I really do not know many cultures in the past that would so systematically preach that Happiness is possible and that it must be the only real objective of human existence.
All the old systems, even the most pessimistic, knew joy, but happiness was something quit different. To think that the goal of life is to simply be happy (and happy means to eat only the U.S.A.D. approved foods and abstain from such dangerous elements as water, bread, meat, coffee, tea, not to speak of tobacco and things like that) — did not enter the mind. Joy was found rather in the little infractions of all those things: have an extra drink, have an extra laugh, get wild from time to time, in those high seasons of the year… Very soon, we will have prescriptions, utopian prescriptions, of how to celebrate without harming ourselves, preserving that famous happiness. Utopia is a kind of all-pervasive thing. It is everywhere, although we are not quite there yet. We still pollute the air — tomorrow we will be more noble. We still, for some mysterious reason have toothaches from time to time. As you wait to see the dentist, read all the documents on the table. All our sufferings will disappear in the future: soon all medicine will be preventive. And the last word on Utopia is that if you refuse that happiness, refuse to preventively deal with your teeth, and still insist on drinking coffee, I am afraid, you may be even open to the pursuit, not of happiness, but of justice in the courts. We are being propelled into this kind of Utopia.
Everywhere, from the bloodiest Utopia to the most benign Utopias of our own post-industrial culture, there is this great promise by which we have to live, Les lendemains qui chantent — the tomorrows that sing.
Now as a strange counterpart to that, we have the second fundamental tendency of our time; that is Escape, a kind of counter-Utopia. Our world today is not only the world of those who energetically pursue utopian dreams, but also, to a degree unknown in the past, a world of dropouts — of all kinds, of all sexes, of all social positions. We all know this. We have lived the experience of the Sixties, when men felt, in a new and unprecedented way, the oppression of what was called The System and the desire to drop out of The System.
I am dean of a theological seminary. In the Fifties, I had those lads, young men, who would say Amen to almost anything I would put in their minds. Today, when students see: “9:00 to 11:00 – Dogmatic Theology,” they somehow feel oppressed, even if attendance in the course is not obligatory. The very fact that it is published there, is an irritating reminder of The System.
There was a time when people thought, My goodness, I belong to a Church, which is very archaic liturgically and otherwise; they wanted to take those archaic rites out, to dissolve those rites. And today? Every couple that wishes to be married feels eligible to write their own marriage ceremony. They want to find their our words. And you can try to explain to them that no one has ever invented such platitudes as they feel they are composing in their minds, it is still better than those oppressive systems. Escape begins with the mental attitude of dropouts and continues as a search for all kinds of spiritual experiences. You know, you cannot find God on Broadway in New York. You have to find Him on some blue mountains in India, in some ashram, in some techniques. And again, I am very well placed to know that, because, unfortunately, my religion, Eastern Orthodoxy, is very often identified as a provider of those kind of little mystical techniques which will satisfy the dropout\’s heart for personal bliss out of The System.
Then, there is a new cult of gurus, and an attitude that has always existed, but never in such form and intensity, and that is “hatred of the world.”
Today, at Penn Station, a man whom I knew many years ago, approached me and said, “Hello, Father Schmemann.” And I said, “Who are you?” because he was dressed in a kind of black robe and was nearly stepping on his beard. Everything about him was peculiar, from his hair, to his strange hat . . . He was probably playing a monk from Mt. Athos or something of that nature, but I knew he was born in Brooklyn. I know many converts to Orthodoxy who think that when they become Orthodox, they have to also become Russian monarchists, and think that the restoration of the Romanovs in Russia is the only condition for the world’s salvation.
In Escape, anything goes, as long as it is outside of that horrifying System. We can joke about it, but behind the jokes there is a very serious reality. On the one hand, the idea of Utopia is increasingly growing in our consciousness, and on the other hand, there is this tremendous temptation to Escape.
In France today, they have coined an expression denouncing the way of life forced on us by the 20th century. They say life consists of “Metro, boulot, dodo,” which means: the subway that takes you to work, the work itself, and sleeping. And that is all life is. So, let’s drop out of it.
Very often today, Utopia speaks in terms of revolution. Have you ever heard of a single government in Africa for example that does not claim to be a revolutionary one? They are always a Front of the Revolution or Liberation of something. “Revolution” is the code word. Here, in the United States, it is “liberation,” or “change,” or “quality of life.” The consensus between Utopia and Escape is that life, the way we are living right now, is impossible. It is absolutely intolerable. Why all the people here did not commit suicide last night is simply because they are somehow hypocrites. For, if they were normal they would either be right now throwing bombs in the revolutionary fervor, or escaping by following, someone like that monk whom I met at Pennsylvania Station today, already starting to grow beards and meditating on . . . Meditating on what? They never say what they are meditating on. Meditation has become an end in itself, a means of escape. Is it God that they are meditating on? Shush! We do not know — we are meditating.
What I have said, I have said half jokingly, but believe me this is not a joke at all. This is the first time in history when culture is denied on both sides. That it has no substance left. For utopians, culture is something to be overthrown, to be hated, to be judged. Only the Future will be glorious. For escapists, culture is to be fled from, it is something to be rejected, to be an object only of disgust and of nothing else.
And now, as everyone knows, we are facing a couple of problems in this world today. And how can we solve them, how can we even think about them, if it is this dualism that captures the imagination of the young, and the not so young also?
To this, we can add an analysis of modern art — which is also either utopian or escapist. It is no longer what it had been for centuries: a transforming acceptance, a kind of sacramental art of seeing something in reality. Today, be it Salvador Dali or even Picasso, it is first of all the experience of the whole thing as being broken. And then, through that brokenness, there is something that comes to us as a promise or as an escape.
Now, why I am saying all this? It is seems to me that if we can understand the nature of Utopia and Escape we can start thinking about how this relates to us. We need to understand how it appeared, when and why. And here I come to my first thesis, that both attitudes, Utopia and Escape — which we do not find so prevalent in any other organic cultural civilization of the past, — these two attitudes: fundamental attitudes, existential attitudes, and ideological attitudes, are what a French philosopher termed, “The Christian ideas gone mad.” Both utopianism and escapism are rooted first of all in the Christian faith itself, in the Good News that some 2,000 years ago a group of people, that called themselves apostles, brought to the ends of the world. Both are rooted in what I would call the fundamental dualism of the Christian approach to the world. Not philosophical or ontological dualism. Existential dualism. Two quotations, just two quotations, and you will understand what I have in mind:
The first is from St. John’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (Jn. 3:16) What is important to me is the eternal music of these words: “God so loved the world.” And this “God so loved the world” goes back to the very first chapter of Genesis in the Bible: “And it was evening and it was morning, the first day,” and the second day; and the third day . . . and each day, “God saw every thing that He had made, and, behold, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31) This is the divine world. In the writings of recent biblical scholars there are all kinds of reductions of the Bible. Some reduce it to a set of absurd statements, a scandal of particularities, as they put it. But if you read the Gospel without knowing the Biblical scholars — and there is no absolute necessity of knowing them — it is, first of all, a tremendous confession of God’s glory in His world. “And God saw it was very good.”
The second quotation is from St. John’s epistle: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world . . . For all that is in the world, [is] the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life . . .” (1 Jn. 2:16)
The light of God’s love for the world in the Gospel coexists with this apocalyptic, catastrophic fear, “When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?” (Lk. 18:8) and so on.
So, we have in Christianity these two fundamentally different, mutually exclusive approaches: One which consists constantly in saying Amen to God. “And God saw it was good. ” Amen. “I bring you good tidings of great joy” — from the beginning of St. Luke (Lk. 2:10), and from the end of St. Luke: “And they . . . returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were always together in the temple, praising and blessing God. Amen” (Lk. 24:52-53). This central act of the Church’s worship is called “Eucharist,” thanksgiving. And the center of that thanksgiving is the Sanctus: Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory!..”
On the other hand, there is constantly, “Do not be tempted!” “Lust of the flesh and pride of man…\” For centuries the Church kept these two together as two essential aspects of the same reality. But when it began to crack in the history of Christianity, human reason also began to crack — and people began to choose either the utopian way or the way of escape.
Now, when did it happen? In fact, very, very recently. It was in the Eighteenth century, the famous century of “enlightenment,” that for the first time the foundations of Utopia were laid, as a reaction to the medieval, “pessimistic” idea of Christianity. Words like “reason,” and “happiness,” began to shape the human mind. After the Eighteenth century comes the Nineteenth century, the century when progress in history was discovered. Since history became Christianized, history stopped being understood as the circular movement of Hellenic time, but became a line leading us to the kingdom which is to come. We began to view history as being, from the very beginning — although it seems so anti-Christian, an oriented history. The idea of progress — bigger and better, bigger and better, bigger and better, les lendemains qui chantent, the tomorrows that sing — had already appeared then. All those Hegels and Schellings, and, finally, Marx and all those people who deified history, were in fact — without even knowing it – within this whole world of the Christian acclamation. Although they denied the transcendence and rejected God, for them history remained not simply movement, but movement toward the Absolute. One person may understand Absolute as the absence of a toothache, another sees it as equality and justice, a third, as world peace, a fourth, as whatever… But, the fact is that each one projects his Utopia into the future: a Christian idea that went mad.
The same thing can be said about sin. From the same Christian and biblical sources and intuition into evil comes the distorted utopian idea that evil is caused by an absence of knowledge. This idea is still preserved in the great mythology of American Public Education, that education will eradicate all evils. Start discussing sex with little girls of three, and they will not go through the horrible taboos and traumas that we experienced. Educate, educate, educate, educate, ad nauseam, and man will be free from sin.
But the Christian and biblical idea of evil is embodied in the description of Original Sin, and in the person of the devil. But the devil is not at all an ignoramus. Satan is not someone who hasn’t yet taken his Ph.D. exams, or else he would, of course, compromise with God and Christ, you know: a little bit of good, a little bit of evil… Not at all! The devil is the one who knows everything. He is the wisest, he is “Lucifer,” the bearer of light. And possessing the entire knowledge of God, he still says No! There is a famous page in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, where the author criticizes this great western idea that, in the end, education will bring a happy existence. All the experts, all those people that know more and more about less and less, will finally combine their efforts and produce a scientifically proven society. Dostoevsky says: And then there will appear a man with a sarcastic smile who will look at this paradise and say: “Why don’t we send all this to hell?” Knowing that all this progress is very convenient, aseptic, hygienic, efficient, preserving human rights, etc., he will say this simply because evil is irrational, because it is a rebellion, because it is hatred of light. And light is not in the books. God is light.
Escape is rooted in the idea that evil is absolute. With a mind set like this, you feel that you cannot live in a society that is fallen, evil. You simply have to free yourself from it! Leave! Don’t get mixed up in this world! Put one little finger into the mechanics of that enslavement to evil, and your whole life will be destroyed…
Both Utopia and Escape are rooted in one unique religious experience, which we can call Judeo-Christian. Unfortunately, having agreed with the world on this duality of Utopia and Escapism, the Christian people — those who call themselves believers — have finally surrendered to either Utopia or to Escape. And this is where we come to the real tragedy, as I see it. I often think of that seminary in New England in which, in the glory of the utopianism of the Sixties, the faculty and students met and confessed to God the sin that they had spent too much time in chapels, in praising God, and in refining their hearts, thus neglecting that, which at that time was preached by men like Harvey Cox, — that we have to build cities and liberate the world and so on. And the faculty and those students unanimously decided to close the chapel. And the seminary became a kind of talkatorium, seminars, similar to what Paris experienced in May of 1968. I went to Paris shortly after that, and saw everywhere groups of people who discussed. Maybe it is a caricature of the great belief of the 20th century that discussion always leads somewhere… I think that it always leads nowhere – I mean this is my very personal view. Not only that, but also all those discussions create realities, which otherwise would have never existed. As a result, half of Christendom confessed the “sin” of having produced Saint Francis or the Mass of Bach, or the Messiah of Handel, or a symbolic system, in which one minute of time can be pregnant with the whole of eternity, where not happiness, not equality, but — joy, spiritual joy, the joy of seeing the light of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor is the real human vocation. And instead half of Christendom went into what I call the “Me-Too” utopianism.
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?
Then what? What indeed is behind all this? I said that we are dealing with two sides of the same vision: God so loved the world, on the one hand; and on the other hand, Do not love the world or anything of the world. On the one hand, St. Paul says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But for your sake there is greater need for me to stay on in the body.” (Phil. 1:23-24) On the other hand, he says, “Nothing, neither death, nor life . . . can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39)
Now, how did the Church keep these two visions together? How can the Church rejoice day after day in this God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, on the one hand, and on the other hand, how does the Church reconcile this with the affirmation, Do not love anything of this world. Escape! Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth . . . Store up treasure in heaven . . . For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. How can these two be reconciled? People, like the great professor of theology Adolph Von Harnack, have tried to explain this without seeing the real truth about how they are related. Harnack says that there was a white Christianity and there was a black Christianity. There was a kind of joyful Christianity and a sad Christianity. Not true.
Christianity brings together three fundamental truths. First of all, the Bible and the Church both proclaim the truth of, what I would call, “the experience of Creation.” Oh, I am not speaking now about how creation was revealed through seven days, through proteins, or exactly how old Adam was when he was created, things like that. Those things are absolutely not important. What is important — when we say “Creation,” is revealed every evening when we sing Psalm 104, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name…” This is the affirmation of the essential goodness of the world — the Divine Image in it. “The heavens proclaim Thy glory!” Maybe the authors of Bible had no traumatic experiences? Maybe they had never gone through psychological nervous breakdowns? Of course people in this world have always suffered. How then did that Book appear, which is one endless hymn of Doxology, of glorification?
This is the first affirmation: Everything is good. The Greek fathers say, “Don’t you ever dare to say the devil is bad. He is bad by behavior, but he is good by nature.” Or else, you go back to the dualism of the extreme “good god/bad god.” The devil is the most perfect creation of God. That is why he became so powerful and so bad, ontologically speaking.
Now, the second affirmation: This world is fallen. Not because of one little transgression — that famous apple. (Why apple? I don’t know who decided that the forbidden fruit was an apple. I have tried to find out, but I never could.) The world has rejected goodness, has rejected first of all, God, who is goodness. And, therefore, the whole world is fallen — not just some things in the world. Not, for instance, extramarital love as opposed to marital love, or cognac as opposed to tomato juice: the whole world is fallen. Marriage is fallen. And tomato juice is fallen, not only bourbon. Everything has become fallen. The best religion is first among the most fallen things of all! Because religion replaces joy about God with calculations: how many candles, how many dollars, how many rules, how many commandments, how many Fathers, how many sacraments, how many?… — “Numerical theology.” So, everything is fallen. Everything has become darkened. And here the Orthodox Christian would immediately say: “Yes, the world is sick, mutilated, fundamentally mutilated by sin. But, it still sings the divine glory! It is still capable of God!”
And finally, the third affirmation: The world is redeemed. But it is redeemed not in order to guarantee success, even of the excellent fiscal policy of Dr. Stockman. It is redeemed not in order to assure that we will have “tomorrows that sing.” The redemption occurs now, right now. This is Christian eschatology. It is not only an eschatology of the future. Yes, every day, many times a day, we say: “Thy Kingdom come.” And it comes now. That famous French formula, Metro, boulot, dodo, is exactly what is being redeemed. Redemption does not mean the replacement of all those inevitable mundane things with meaningful jobs. What job is meaningful, by the way? Every job, which has had three Mondays in its history, already becomes meaningless, or at least to some extent oppressive. Redemption means exactly that of which St. John writes in his epistle: “That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the eternal life which was made manifest to us.” And this is the paradox, the antinomy, the message, which Christians could not endure because it was too much for them. It is much easier to have a little religion of the past, present and future, of commandments and prescriptions. Of saying that God did not love the world; He loved the good things in the world. He loved people who did go to church. He loved people who contributed (although it is tax-deductible, but still it is good that they contribute), and so on and so forth. Redemption means that the Kingdom which is to come has already come, it is in the midst of us.
The great drama of redemption takes place all the time. And this point of view, this eschatology, this doctrine, this faith in the ultimate is what the early church held together. The church was persecuted. She was denied. The Roman Empire said to Christians: “You cannot exist.” But read the early Christian prayers, and you will see that they are cosmic, they are historic. Nero! My goodness, what a horrible guy he was! And at that time Paul writes to Timothy and says, “Pray first of all . . . for kings and for all that are in authority.” (1 Tim. 2:2) He does not say, “Picket!” He does not say, “Go to—!” He says, “Pray for them.” Why? Because the church is not a little forum for social reforms. It introduces, it reiterates the single fact that the history of the world’s redemption, for which we are responsible, takes place in our hearts, and that Kingdom, that light, which comes to us, is the only power left with us — the realized, inaugurated eschatology of the Kingdom and, at the same time, the real knowledge of the Kingdom. The knowledge that nothing is solved by recipes and therapies, but, when a man decides to know the truth of all things, he, like Saint Anthony of the Desert, the great father of monasticism, turns to God. Anthony went to the desert and asked God for the ability to see the devil always. Because the devil always takes the form of an angel of light. The devil is always one who says something sentimental, nice, good. And finally God gave Anthony the ability to see the devil. And then, while still within the dimensions of human existence, for the saint this world became the Kingdom.
This ultimate experience of the Kingdom holds together that, which I call the “triune intuition”— created, fallen, redeemed. Created: it means good. It means that the foundation of everything, which we question in our utopianism and our escapism, is good. However, everything can also be bad. Systems? Metro, boulot, dodo? But perhaps all systems are merely caricatures of that which truly is the fate of man? Someone would come to me and say: “I can’t take a meaningless life. The subways, the beds, the breakfasts, the venison, and so on and so forth…” And I would reply: Christ couldn’t take it either. He died on the cross. And Paul said: “Whether you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Cor. 10:31) The other day, I was preaching in Montreal, and one man came up to me and said: “Thank you for teaching me that I can read even the Wall Street Journal to the glory of God.” Yes, of course you can. The glory of God is not only in Mr. Ralph Nader’s office, believe me. It is wherever a man wants it to be.
There is this intuition of the created, and then — of the fallen world. Let’s be realistic. Let us not subscribe to the idea that just one more institute, one more think tank, one more discovery, one more therapy and finally evil will be taken care of. Evil is here, all around us. But, we don’t have to panic. We do not have to immediately go overboard and escape, no! I recall that little 16-year-old French boy who was playing ball, and some Jesuit came up and said: “You are playing ball! Suppose Christ were to come back today. What would you do?” And the boy answered: “Play ball.” He did not think there was anything wrong with playing ball.
Sometimes, I feel like I joined a kind of metaphysical Peace Corps made out of Christianity. Very often in Geneva, when I used to go to ecumenical meetings, I heard the expression “churches, synagogues, and other agencies.” I was not baptized into an agency. And I think that everyone is free not to be part of an agency. Keep me out of it.
And so, there is this vision of the created, fallen, and redeemed world. Until this triune vision broke apart, there was no way for our culture, which is rooted in the Gospel, to either go all the way into utopianism or all the way into escapism. And today, the real intellectual and spiritual work that we, Christians, face is not simply to choose either Utopia or Escape. It is not to sell religion as a little Valium, a holy Valium pill. Our real challenge is to recover that, which I call the fundamental Christian eschatology. Whatever the Other World is (and we know nothing about it) this Other World is first of all revealed to us here and now. Nowhere else, but here. If we do not know it today, we will never discover it. If we cannot find the Kingdom of God, I repeat again, in Chicago, Wilmington, Times square, and so on, we will never find it anywhere else. If you think we can find it somewhere in Transvaal, and you are rich enough, go there. And you will find that it is no different there from what it is here.
When my friend, the sociologist Peter Berger, recently criticized the modern idea that Paradise is always somewhere very far from Manhattan, from factories, but somehow it is always found in a commune in northern Vermont, where we bake our own bread and have children in common, — he said: “Sorry, ladies and gentlemen, when God speaks of the symbol for His Kingdom, that Kingdom is a city, not a little farm in Vermont.” And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, descending from heaven. (Rev.21:2) And Jerusalem is of course a city.
The fundamental Christian eschatology has been destroyed by either the optimism leading to the Utopia, or by the pessimism leading to the Escape. If there are two heretical words in the Christian vocabulary, they would be “optimism” and “pessimism.” These two things are utterly anti-biblical and anti-Christian.
It is for us, Christians, to reconstruct this unique faith, in which there are no illusions, no illusions at all, about the evil. We simply cannot afford a cheap faith that just requires from us to give up smoking and drinking, a small religion that promises that you just quit drinking coffee and tomorrow will start singing. Our faith is not based on anything except on these two fundamental revelations: God so loved the world, and: The fallen world has been secretly, mysteriously redeemed.
We are people of a certain tradition, of a certain culture. I do not speak about a specific religious heritage of our culture, the cathedrals of Chartres, of Notre Dame, or about great religious poetry. I am speaking about the unique culture, about the reality, and about the faith that produced people like Dante and Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, the faith in which all that I am trying to say is perfectly expressed: there is real evil, and there is real good. There is the world, which is loveable, and there is the world, which is hateful. There are vertical and horizontal dimensions of human life. Nothing is betrayed. Nothing is mutilated. When there is joy, that joy is full. When there is sadness, that sadness if full. Life cannot be reduced to those psychological gravies and all kinds of similar things. I really feel that the only true kind of religion is the religion, which is cosmic, religion, which does not deny the Fall. Religion, which bears witness to not only the belief in, but also the experience of the redemption that takes place here and now. And this belief and experience will condemn, as two heresies, both utopianism and escapism.
“When the Son of Man comes back, will He find faith on earth?”(Lk. 18:8) Maybe we are headed for a catastrophe. It is not for the Christian church to guarantee that everything will be bigger and better. This is utopianism. On the other hand, we have to also exclude escapism as a betrayal of God, who so loved the world. These two realities — the fallen world that was created good — must be kept together, antinomically. This is the conditio sine qua non, which the Christians always were able to find in the very acts by which the Church was defined. One was the proclamation of the Good News — evangelion. And the other one was the Sacrament of Thanksgiving. That great eucharistia, thanksgiving, which teaches us: You want to understand what something is? Of course, you can buy a dictionary, or you can buy an encyclopedia. You want to know what the human body is? Buy, of course, a book of anatomy, etc. But if you really want to know what anything in this world is, start by thanking God for it. Then you will not fall into the heresy of reducing: man — to economy and to sex, nature — to determinism. Then you will know that man became man, not because he invented the wheel, — important as it may have been. Not because he is the Homo Sapiens, or because he discovered the logic of Aristotle. But, he became man when he became Homo Adoratus, the man who gives thanks. The man who is not saying to God, I am entitled to it, it is my constitutional right to always have this or that. It is the man who, by thanking God, all of a sudden, exclaims: “Heaven and earth are full of Thy Glory.” If only we will return — from our lapse, from our confession, from our morbidity, or from our cheap optimism — to the spiritual oxygen of that cosmical thanksgiving, which provides for us the terms of reference, the context of our existence, which transforms that famous Metro, boulot, dodo! If only we could recover that — and, my goodness, no resources are missing, — we would be not passive followers of that growing polarization: either Utopia or Escape (and by “we” I mean believers, for whom God is still a Reality). We would be active participants in the constant process of saving the world, the world, which God has created, the world, which has fallen, the world, which is being redeemed — by those who believe in redemption.
Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann
Lecture delivered in Greenville, Delaware on March 22, 1981
Transcribed from the tape by Martha Ruth Hoffmaster
Prepared for publication by Barbara W. Sokolov