Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Liturgy and Eschatology (Fr. Alexander Schmemann)

By Fr. Alexander Schmemann

It is a great honour and also a joy to be giving this first memorial lecture. Dr Nicolas Zernov, in whose memory this lecture has been established, played a tremendous role in my life and in the life of many of my contemporaries, Russian Orthodox boys growing up in exile — a role of encouragement and inspiration in demanding from us, and showing us an example of, committed and unbroken service to the Orthodox Church. It was so easy for Russians in exile in the 20s and 30s to forget the past and to settle down happily by the waters of Babylon. It is men like Nicolas Zernov who encouraged and inspired us with their own example in maintaining faithfulness to the realities which he himself had served all his life: the Church and Russia, Christian Russia. So it is with real gratitude that I have accepted this invitation. I have been walking round Oxford for two days now and all the time remembering my first meeting with Dr Zernov. I was sixteen years old, and it was at a conference of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius. I didn't speak English, I didn't understand what was discussed, I didn't even attend many of the sessions — I was more interested in playing tennis. But the fact remains that it was there, not in Paris but at that Fellowship conference in Britain, that I discovered the direction which my life was to take. For that I shall always be indebted to Nicolas Zernov.

A post-Christian era?

When I think about contemporary theology and try to understand the meaning of its diversity, of the many trends, ideologies, confessional emphases that mark it so deeply, I always recall an expression which for several years now has been popular in some circles, the expression 'post-Christian era'. Whatever else that phrase may signify, it has a certain relevance for anyone seeking a meaning in contemporary theology. The common assumption of that theology (in spite of all its confessional and other differences), an assumption made knowingly or unknowingly, is that theology is being written or thought or believed in a post-Christian era. This is assumed. It does not mean that every theologian writes explicitly about the post-Christian era; on the contrary, there is much 'business as usual' going on in theology. But when you try to find a unifying principle underlying contemporary theology, it seems to be this: that we are living, praying and theologising in a world from which our Christian faith is divorced; that there is a deep divorce between not just the Church but the whole Christian world-view on the one hand, and the culture and society in which we live on the other. This is regarded as a self-evident assumption. It is not the theme of contemporary theology, but one of its sources. It is important for us to try to understand this experience of divorce. Theology is and always has been aimed at the world. Theology is not exclusively for the inner consumption of the Church. There has always been an effort, on the Christian side, to explain the Gospel in terms of a given culture, of a given world commonwealth. And therefore theology has always tried to have a common language with the world in which it is theologising. The Fathers of the Church were doing exactly that (not that this exhausts the meaning of the Patristic era); they were reconciling Jerusalem and Athens, Athens and Jerusalem, and were coining a common language which would be faithful to the Gospel while yet understandable and acceptable to the world. But what is to be done when that common language breaks down, and there is no more common language? For that is our situation today. An era has finished, an era characterised by the existence of the Christian Church, of Christian theology, indeed of a Christian world.

The radical 'yes': liberation theology and therapeutic theology

In the face of this divorce, of this breakdown of a common language, two fundamental attitudes in theology tend to develop.

One type of theology — and within it there is a wide-ranging pluralism — still continues to search for a common language with the world, and this it does by adopting what can be described as the discourse proper to the world today. This means, to borrow a phrase that I associate with Fr Congar, that it is the world which sets the agenda for the Church. I vividly remember going about three years ago to a theological bookstore in Paris, where you can find all modern theology in twenty-two minutes. Here I came across the title A Marxist Reading of St Luke; a few minutes later I found A Freudian Reading of St John. Here, in the titles of these two books and others like them, we see a theology in desperate search for a common language with the world, a theology that finds this common language in the discourse of the world itself.

This type of theology includes various trends. When concerned more particular­ly with justice and politics, it may take the form of liberation theology. Another trend within this same type of theology is well described in the title of a book called The Triumph of the Therapeutic. We develop a therapeutical theology, because our world is therapeutic. We are always trying to help people. I don't know about London, but in New York you cannot miss advertisements for a toothpaste that guarantees happiness. We make the same claim for religion: it also 'guarantees happiness'. 'Take your family to the church or synagogue of your choice. It helps.'

Here, then, are two trends, the one concerned with society and the other with the individual. The first derives to some extent from Hegel, with his transformation of history into History with a capital H. The second adopts the view of the individual predominant in the world today, which regards him as a patient in a cosmic hospital, constantly under treatment, yet always with the promise of a total cure and immortality. Here, as in the realm of politics, theology seeks to take a more and more active part: we want to show that we are not behind, that we are catching up with this therapeutic triumph.

The radical 'no': 'spirituality'

But there is also another type of theology, which consists first of all in a rejection of the approach just described. This second type abandons all attempts to achieve a common discourse between theology and the world. Its main goal (and I am oversimplifying: I can only make the point in outline) is the attainment of personal spiritual self-fulfilment. After being dean of a seminary now for more than twenty years, I notice that the word 'spirituality' is pronounced much more often than the name of Jesus Christ. And the spirituality advocated by this second type of theology is above all a spirituality of escape, a highly personal spirituality, without any reference to the world. To use a little paradox: St Anthony the Great, in founding Christian monasticism, was more involved in the emerging Christian world of his time than some of those Christians today who, while living in the world, by all possible means try to escape from it and to ignore its existence.

Such are the two main approaches to theology, each of them containing a great variety of attitudes. Together they constitute what I call the theology of the post-Christian era, because both types, in all their varieties, assume that it is impossible to do anything except think in terms of being 'post-Christian'. Either we must agree to join the world in its labours, its dreams, perspectives and horizons, or else we must seek a personal, individual escape from the world into a purely 'spiritual' realm. Spirituality becomes in this second case a kind of religion in itself, and this helps to explain the many rapprochements between Christian and non-Christian spirituality. Even the term 'Jesus Prayer', so central in Orthodox experience, is pronounced by some as if it was one word Jesus prayer: Jesus is regarded as a component, not as the subject or the object of the prayer. Where both types of theology agree is in assuming that we are at the end of an era, the Christian era.

A third way?

Is there not, in each type of theology, something that is radically missing? Face to face with the world, the one adopts an attitude of surrender, the other of escape. That is the tragedy of contemporary theology. But is there no third way? Seeking to extricate ourselves from the impasse brought about by these two mutually exclusive ways of looking at everything — at the world, at culture, at life, at the path to salvation — let us begin by identifying and accepting the relative truth that each of them contains. Each of them is made up of what someone in France has called les verites chretiennes devenues folles, Christian truths that have gone mad. For there is a Christian truth in each of them, as we can see if we bear in mind the paradoxical use of the term 'world' in the New Testament. On the one hand, we are not to love the world or anything in the world (1 John 2:15); the world is to be transcended. Yet on the other hand it is said, 'God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son' (John 3:15). At the present moment we have some who emphasise only the first attitude to the world, we also have others who think only of the second. In certain Christian communes there is a deep and almost apocalyptic hatred for the world, with the members thinking only of the return of Christ and even trying to predict its exact date. At the other extreme there is the example of a highly respectable seminary in the state of New York, which in the glorious 60s unanimously voted, faculty and students, to close the chapel and to repent for the useless time spent in prayer or contemplation when the world had to be helped. Such is the antinomy: on the one side a radical 'no' and on the other a radical 'yes'.

The eschatological dimension

But why have the two approaches become mutually exclusive in this way? That is our problem. What has happened in the history of the Church, in the Christian mind, which has led us today to this mutual exclusion, to this polarisation, not only in theology as such but in the Christian world-view itself? The answer lies in the abandonment, at a rather early point in the history of Christianity, of the essential eschatological dimension and foundation of Christian faith and so of Christian theology.

It is not possible to embark here on an historical analysis of when and how this happened. Eschatology, however, is a term so much used and abused in modern writings, theological and non-theological, that I would like briefly to define the exact sense in which I am employing it. I am using it to denote the distinctive particularity of the Christian faith, which is first of all a system of beliefs — belief in God, belief in the saving nature of certain historical events, and finally belief in the ultimate victory of God in Christ and of the Kingdom of God. But at the same time as Christians we already possess that in which we believe. The Kingdom is still to come, and yet the Kingdom that is to come is already in the midst of us. The Kingdom is not only something promised, it is something of which we can taste here and now. And so in all our preaching we are bearing witness, martyria, not simply to our faith but to our possession of that in which we believe.

Eschatology is not merely the last and strangest chapter in the treatise of theology that we have inherited from the medieval period, not merely a map of future events, telling us in advance exactly what will take place. By limiting eschatology to the last chapter of all, we have deprived all the other chapters of the eschatological character that they ought to have. Eschatology has been transposed into personal hope, personal waiting. But in reality the whole of Christian theology is eschatological, and the entire Christian experience of life likewise. It is the very essence of the Christian faith that we live in a kind of rhythm — leaving, abandon­ing, denying the world, and yet at the same time always returning to it; living in time by that which is beyond time; living by that which is not yet come, but which we already know and possess.

Liturgy and theology

One of the great sources of this abandonment of proper eschatology, of the eschatology that is fundamental to the Christian experience of the faith itself, is another divorce: the divorce between theology and the liturgical experience of the Church. Theologians have forgotten the essential principle that the lex orandi constitutes the lex credendi; they have forgotten the absolutely unique function of Christian worship within all theological speculation. So theology has come eventually to define the sacraments as no more than 'channels of grace', and now modern secularised theology has gone a step further and turned them into 'channels of help'. But in reality the sacraments are to be seen as the locus, the very centre of the Church's eschatological understanding and experience. The whole Liturgy is to be seen as the sacrament of the Kingdom of God, the Church is to be seen as the presence and communication of the Kingdom that is to come. The unique — I repeat, unique — function of worship in the life of the Church and in theology is to con­vey a sense of this eschatological reality; and what eschatology does is to hold together things which otherwise are broken up and treated as separate events occurring at different points in a time sequence. And when they are treated in that way, the true function of Liturgy is forgotten. In my own tradition, the Byzantine, this has meant, for example, the appearance of endless symbolic explanations of worship, and so the eucharistic Liturgy that is at the heart of the Church has been transformed in effect into a series of audio­visual aids. Symbolism is discerned everywhere. I tried once to collect all the meanings of the exclamation before the Creed, 'The doors! The doors!', and I found about sixteen different and mutually exclusive explanations. Or else the seven episcopal vestments were identified with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is not that I deny episcopacy as a source of grace. But certainly those seven items of vesture were not originally intended to illustrate that.

In the West, on the other hand, once the eschatological dimension of the sacraments was forgotten, there developed a constant emphasis upon the notion of the Real Presence. (But is there a presence which is not real? It could in that case only be called absence.) Whereas the East lost sight of the true meaning of the Liturgy through an absorption in fanciful symbolism, the West obscured its true meaning by making a sharp distinction between symbol and reality; and it became obsessed by questions about the causality and precise moment of the consecration.

If we are to recover the real meaning of the Liturgy, we need to go back, behind the commentaries with their symbolic explanations, to the actual text and celebration of the Eucharist itself. We are to see in the Liturgy the fulfilment of the Church at the table of the Lord in his Kingdom. The eucharistic celebration is not something performed by the clergy for the benefit of the laity who 'attend'. Rather it is the ascension of the Church to the place where she belongs in statu patriae. It is also her subsequent return to this world: her return with power to preach the Kingdom of God in the way that it was preached by Christ himself.

The same eschatological approach is to be applied to all aspects of liturgical celebration. What is Easter night? What is Pascha? We now have a historical conception of the feast: it commemorates events in the past. But for early Christian heortology it was by no means a mere commemoration or memory. It was always the entry of the Church into the lasting reality created by Christ through his death and resurrection.

Nor is the sacrament to be understood, as it has been understood for centuries, in terms of the contrast between natural and supernatural. We must return from this to the fundamental Christian dichotomy, which is between the old and the new. 'Behold, I make all things new' (Rev. 21:5). Notice that Christ does not say ‘I create new things', but 'all things new'. Such is the eschatological vision that should mark our eucharistic celebration on each Lord's Day. Nowadays we treat the Day of the Lord as the seventh day, the Sabbath. For the Fathers it was the eighth day, the first day of the new creation, the day on which the Church not only remembers the past but also remembers, indeed enters into, the future, the last and great day. It is the day on which the Church assembles, locking the doors, and ascends to the point at which it becomes possible to say, 'Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of thy glory'. Tell me, what right do we have to say that? Today I read the London Times — a welcome change from the New York Times— but, whichever of them we read, does it make us say, 'Heaven and earth are full of thy glory'? The world which they show us is certainly not full of the glory of God. If we make such an affirmation in the Liturgy, it is not just an expression of Christian optimism ('Onward, Christian soldiers'), but simply and solely because we have ascended to the point at which such a statement is indeed true, so that the only thing that remains for us to do is to give thanks to God. And in that thanksgiving we are in him and with him in his Kingdom, because there is now nothing else left, because that is where our ascension has already led us.

Created, fallen, redeemed

It is here, in the liturgical experience and the liturgical testimony which enables us to sing, 'Heaven and earth are full of thy glory'; it is here that we restore, or at least have the possibility of restoring, the essential Christian vision of the world, and therefore an agenda for theology. In this vision or agenda there are three elements, three fundamental acclamations of faith, which we are to hold together in unity.

First, God has created the world; we are God's creatures. To say this is not to involve ourselves in questions about Darwin and the biblical creation stories, a dispute still very much alive in parts of America today. That is not at all the real point. To claim that we are God's creation is to affirm that God's voice is constantly speaking within us and saying to us, 'And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good' (Gen. 1:31). The Fathers state that even the devil is good by nature and evil only through the misuse of his free will.

Then there is a second element, inseparable from the first: this world is fallen — fallen in its entirety; it has become the kingdom of the prince of this world. The Puritan worldview, so prevalent within the American society in which I live, assumes that tomato juice is always good and that alcohol is always bad; in effect, tomato juice is not fallen. Similarly the television advertisements tell us, 'Milk is natural'; in other words, it also is not fallen. But in reality tomato juice and milk are equally part of the fallen world, along with everything else.

All is created good; all is fallen; and finally — this is our third 'fundamental acclamation' — all is redeemed. It is redeemed through the incarnation, the cross, the resurrection and ascension of Christ, and through the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. Such is the triune intuition that we receive from God with gratitude and joy: our vision of the world as created, fallen, redeemed. Here is our theological agenda, our key to all the problems which today trouble the world.

The joy of the Kingdom

We cannot answer the world's problems by adopting towards them an attitude either of surrender or of escape. We can answer the world's problems only by changing those problems, by understanding them in a different perspective. What is required is a return on our part to that source of energy, in the deepest sense of the word, which the Church possessed when it was conquering the world. What the Church brought into the world was not certain ideas applicable simply to human needs, but first of all the truth, the righteousness, the joy of the Kingdom of God.

The joy of the Kingdom: it always worries me that, in the multi-volume systems of dogmatic theology that we have inherited, almost every term is explained and discussed except the one word with which the Christian Gospel opens and closes. 'For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy' (Luke 2:10) — so the Gospel begins, with the message of the angels. 'And they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy' (Luke 24:52) — so the Gospel ends. There is in fact no theological definition of joy. For we cannot define that sense of joy which no one can take away from us, and at this point all definitions are silent. Yet only if this experience of the joy of the Kingdom in all its fullness is again placed at the centre of theology, does it become possible for theology to deal once more with creation in its true cosmic dimensions, with the historic reality of the fight between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of the prince of this world, and finally with redemption as the plenitude, the victory and the presence of God, who becomes all in all things.

What is needed is not more liturgical piety. On the contrary, one of the greatest enemies of the Liturgy is liturgical piety. The Liturgy is not to be treated as an aesthetic experience or a therapeutic exercise. Its unique function is to reveal to us the Kingdom of God. This is what we commemorate eternally. The remembrance, the anamnesis of the Kingdom is the source of everything else in the Church. It is this that theology strives to bring to the world. And it comes even to a 'post-Christian' world as the gift of healing, of redemption and of joy.

Source: From Sobornost 7 (1985): 6-14.