Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 109 (January 2001): 57-76.
Father Alexander Schmemann (1921–1983) is one of the very important people in my life. It is not simply that he helped form some of my ideas, especially about liturgy, or gave me a feel for realities about which I knew little, such as Orthodoxy. He was a great spirit; he lived robustly; he had a confident but not corrosive disdain for the banalities of fashionable thought. He was older and more cosmopolitan than I. He was fun to be with, and one left every meeting with the sense that life could be more, and the resolve to let it be so.
As a young man I first encountered Fr. Schmemann through his books, especially For the Life of the World, Of Water and the Spirit, and The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy (all published by St. Vladimir’s Press). Later we would occasionally share the platform at ecumenical conferences, but I did not get to know him well until the days in Connecticut that produced “The Hartford Appeal for Theological Affirmation” of 1975. After that, I cherished Fr. Alexander as a friend and we would occasionally get together for lunch when he had business in the city, although not often enough, at least in my view. At our last lunch, on Lexington near 60th, not long before his final illness, he noted with disapproval the anorexic waitresses and expatiated engagingly on why the fashions of androgyny are part and parcel of the propensity for abstraction that is the fatal flaw of Western culture. I found the argument entirely convincing. There was for Fr. Alexander no divide between the sacred and secular, between the subjects of, for instance, unisex fashions and baptismal grace. Reality was all of a piece, and all charged with the presence and promise of Christ. In his case Tom Wolfe’s phrase applies: he was a man in full. Or so he seemed, and so he seems, to me.
St. Vladimir’s has now published The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973–1983. It is a big book of some 350 pages and, after I had finished reading it, I wished for more. Much of it is very intimate, and there is always the matter of the ethics of publishing a private journal. But his wife Juliana (the beloved “L.” who appears on almost every page, Liana being the diminutive of her name) made the right decision in translating the journals from the Russian and French and putting them into book form. It is obvious that many of the entries were crafted with literary care, as though for publication, or at least as a first draft, with an eye toward publication. There were so many books that he wanted to write, and now there is a book that he may not have fully intended to write, but I suspect he would be pleased. I suspect he is pleased.
When Peter Berger and I organized the Hartford initiative, we very much wanted Fr. Alexander to be part of it, and his participation was vital to its success. He contributed an essay to the book that came out of that effort, Against the World for the World. It was titled “East and West May Yet Meet: Hartford and the Future of Orthodoxy.” Now I discover from the journals that he was not as fully participant in Hartford as I had assumed. Right after the meeting, on September 7, 1975, he wrote, “In spite of a friendly atmosphere, I strongly felt my Orthodox alienation from all the debates, from their very spirit. Orthodoxy is often imprisoned by evil and sin. The Christian West is imprisoned by heresies—not one of them, in the long run, goes unpunished.” (The Hartford Appeal criticized ideas in American Christianity that were “pervasive, false, and debilitating.”) I was surprised by that entry, for in later conversations he indicated such strong support for Hartford. Maybe he later changed his mind. Maybe not. The journals do not say.
Of the nineteen participants, he was the only Orthodox theologian at Hartford, and the problems of Protestants and Catholics were not, for him, first–order concerns. He had his head and heart filled enough with the evils, sins, and glories of Orthodoxy. “I firmly believe,” he writes, “that Orthodoxy is Truth and Salvation and I shudder when I see what is being offered under the guise of Orthodoxy, what people seem to like in it, what they live for, what the most orthodox, the best people among them, see in Orthodoxy.” The Russian émigrés, who did not share his vision of Orthodoxy’s universal mission, were the cause of endless frustration. As were the émigrés, so to speak, from Protestantism and Catholicism who sought out Orthodoxy as an escape from history. Fr. Alexander wrote, “Since the Orthodox world was and is inevitably and even radically changing, we have to recognize, as the first symptom of the crisis, a deep schizophrenia which has slowly penetrated the Orthodox mentality: life in an unreal, nonexisting world, firmly affirmed as real and existing. Orthodox consciousness did not notice the fall of Byzantium, Peter the Great’s reforms, the Revolution; it did not notice the revolution of the mind, of science, of lifestyles, forms of life. . . . In brief, it did not notice history.”
It is precisely that escape from history that many think is the glory of Orthodoxy. But the escape is delusory. Years later, this entry: “Once more, I am convinced that I am quite alienated from Byzantium, and even hostile to it. In the Bible, there is space and air; in Byzantium the air is always stuffy. All is heavy, static, petrified. . . . Byzantium’s complete indifference to the world is astounding. The drama of Orthodoxy: we did not have a Renaissance, sinful but liberating from the sacred. So we live in nonexistent worlds: in Byzantium, in Russia, wherever, but not in our own time.” (Here and elsewhere, “the sacred” refers to the artificial world of religiosity, churchiness, and clericalism separated from history and everyday experience.) May 24, 1977: “Orthodoxy refuses to recognize the fact of the collapse and the breakup of the Orthodox world; it has decided to live in its illusion; it has turned the Church into that illusion (yesterday we heard again and again about the ‘Patriarch of the great city of Antioch and of all the East’); it made the Church into a nonexistent world. I feel more and more strongly that I must devote the rest of my life to trying to dispel this illusion.”
The only Antioch in the gazetteer today is a city near Oakland, California. Ancient Antioch is in ruins, but, Fr. Alexander complained, Orthodoxy goes on playing a churchy game of Let’s Pretend. St. Vladimir’s Seminary, of which Fr. Alexander was dean, is part of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), which was granted autocephaly, or its own ruling authority, by the Russian church in 1970. By virtue of his early childhood in Estonia and his later years in the Russian émigré community in Paris, Fr. Alexander also had continuing interactions with the Russian Church in Exile after he came to the U.S. in the 1950s. When in his journals he speaks of Orthodoxy in America, it is not always clear whether he means the OCA or the more hard–line traditionalists of the Russian émigré community, the line between the two being frequently blurred.
Russian Orthodoxy in the U.S. he found incorrigibly quarrelsome. “The function of a quarrel is in allowing people to feel principled, to serve the cause, i.e., to feel alive. . . . And free time can be filled with a quarrel. The law of émigré life: those who don’t like to quarrel organize balls and can also keep busy—endlessly—reconciling those who quarrel. And those who enjoy quarrels quarrel! But the function of both is the same.” He writes, “I mainly feel like a stranger in the midst of the typically Russian ‘cozy’ atmosphere of the Church: Russian piety, complete self–assurance, the absence of any anxiety, any doubt, any questioning. They serve well, sing well—but they serve and sing anything well, as long as it was ‘traditional’! One word missing and all would collapse. Russians accept as slaves, or deny as slaves—blindly and stubbornly.”
Again and again, he returns to what is intellectually and culturally stifling in Orthodoxy. “To change the atmosphere of Orthodoxy, one has to learn to look at oneself in perspective, to repent, and if needed, to accept change, conversion. In historic Orthodoxy, there is a total absence of criteria for self–criticism. Orthodoxy defined itself: against heresies, against the West, the East, the Turks, etc. Orthodoxy became woven with complexes of self–affirmation, an exaggerated triumphalism: to acknowledge errors is to destroy the foundations of true faith.” On December 23, 1976, after a series of difficult meetings at the seminary, Fr. Alexander writes: “My point of view is that a good half of our students are dangerous for the Church—their psychology, their tendencies, a sort of constant obsession with something. Orthodoxy takes on a different, ugly aspect, something important is missing, and the Orthodoxy that these students consciously or subconsciously favor is distorted, narrow, emotional—in the end, pseudo–Orthodoxy. Not only at the seminary, but everywhere, I acutely sense the spread of a strange Orthodoxy.”
A year earlier he had written: “What used to be an organic, natural style became stylization, spiritually weak, harmful. The main problem of Orthodoxy is the constraint due to style, and its inability to revise it; a prevalent absence of self–criticism, of checking the tradition of the elders by Tradition, by love of Truth. A growing idolatry.” Seminarians and clergy, he said, wear their cassocks and beards as an armor against life and thought. A pseudo–Orthodoxy. A strange Orthodoxy. A growing idolatry. These are hard words. Yet, against those who attacked Orthodoxy, Fr. Alexander came to its defense. “I feel myself a radical ‘challenger,’ but among challengers I feel myself a conservative and traditionalist.” He could never feel wholly at home in any one camp. “I cannot identify with any complete system with an integral view of the world or an ideology. It seems to me that anything finished, complete, and not open to another dimension is heavy and self–destructive. I see the error of any dialectics that proceed with thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, removing possible contradictions. I think that openness must always remain; it is faith, in it God is found, who is not a ‘synthesis’ but life and fullness.”
At times it seemed that Christianity itself had been permanently marginalized. Fr. Alexander had a somewhat grudging admiration for the energy and vision of John Paul II, but doubted that he could reverse the “collapse” of Catholicism following the Second Vatican Council. November 24, 1980: “According to human reasoning, the whole of our Orthodoxy hasn’t got a chance. If the Pope cannot cope, what about us? So, to worry about the Church that so obviously does not want to be saved by my recipes, by our recipes, is sinful in the final analysis: it comes from pride. For God has chosen what is totally meaningless and worthless” (1 Corinthians 1:26ff.). A month earlier, he notes that it is only in the Liturgy that things come together: “I become filled with disgust for the role I have been playing for decades. I have fear and apprehension at having to immerse myself in the affairs of the seminary and the Church. I feel that everybody around me knows what to do and how and what for, but I only pretend to know. In fact, I don’t know anything; I am not sure of anything; I am deceiving myself and others. Only when I serve the Liturgy am I not deceitful. And I will say it again: all of life flows out of—and is connected with—the Liturgy! I feel a collapse of any energy—especially spiritual. I would like to leave!”
Such passages, and there are many of them, will come as a surprise to those who saw Fr. Alexander as the very embodiment of self–confidence. The fall of 1980 was marked by repeated reflections on the phoniness of the “roles” he had to play. But what might at times be taken for a spiritual and vocational crisis is tempered by, for instance, this on September 10: “I don’t know how to evaluate these roles, what they are. Maybe simply laziness, maybe something deeper. To be honest, I don’t know. I only know that this alienation does not make me unhappy. I am essentially quite content with my fate and would not want any other. In a way, I like each of these roles, each of these worlds, and would probably be bored if I was deprived of them. But I cannot identify with them. I think roughly this way: I have an inner life, but my spiritual one is kept down. Yes, I have faith, but with a total absence of a personal maximalism, so obviously required by the gospel.” (In most of his reflections, “maximalism” is a pejorative, referring to the spiritual fevers of the religiously self–centered.)
The regularly recurring periods of dissatisfaction are just as regularly broken, usually by the Liturgy. February 25, 1974: “‘Clean Monday’—first day of Great Lent. I spent Saturday and yesterday in Endicott, New York. Joyful impression from the services and the people. After days of inner rebellion, such a clear indication: stop rebelling, there is nowhere to go. The Church is your body and blood; you are wedded to the Church through your priesthood.” For all the restlessness, ambiguities, and frustrations, there was nowhere else to go. He repeatedly invokes the phrase of Julien Green, “all is elsewhere.” But he knew that this is where he belonged.
Among his greatest frustrations, and satisfactions, was his relationship with Alexander Solzhenitsyn. During the years of the Cold War, Fr. Alexander’s sermons were broadcast into the Soviet Union by Radio Liberty, making him an enormously popular figure in Russia. Solzhenitsyn was a great fan, and when he was exiled in 1974, one of the first things he did was to ask Fr. Alexander to visit him in Zurich, his temporary home. In the following years, Fr. Alexander was often with Solzhenitsyn, including a long drive up to the Ottawa Valley of Canada in search of a place to establish a “piece of Russia” in the West, which turned out to be in Vermont. On that first visit, he and Solzhenitsyn were alone for a few days in a mountain cottage forty minutes outside Zurich. “S. is obviously a Russian intelligent. No comfort, no armchair, no closet. Everything reduced to a strict minimum. His clothes are those he wore when he came out of Russia. Some sort of cap, officer’s boots. ‘I have so many questions’—our conversation is prepared, he has a list of questions.” Upon Fr. Alexander’s return from Zurich, June 17, 1974: “Only much later will I be able to sum up what were these most significant days of my life.”
The friendship with Solzhenitsyn was often rocky. Solzhenitsyn was single–minded, obsessed, and something of a fanatic, although Fr. Alexander does not use that word. He unceasingly defended Solzhenitsyn publicly from his many detractors. His private thoughts were frequently very different. January 10, 1975: “The rapport with Solzhenitsyn made obvious for me our essential difference. For him there is only Russia. For me, Russia could disappear, die, and nothing would change in my fundamental vision of the world. ‘The image of the world is passing.’ This tonality of Christianity is quite foreign to him.” “I know that S. himself does not hesitate to offend people right and left in the rudest manner. I personally think that to defend him would be to tell him the truth. I really do not want to take part in that struggle. . . . As for Solzhenitsyn, I will defend what I heard through his creative art, but I remain free of his ideology, which for me is quite foreign.” March 4: “I am thinking about Solzhenitsyn and his idolizing obsession with Russia.”
In May, after just the two of them had spent every hour together for four days, Fr. Alexander reflects on the words of Jesus, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” He writes of Solzhenitsyn: “His treasure is Russia and only Russia; mine is the Church. He is devoted to his treasure in a way that none of us is devoted to ours. His faith, I think, will move mountains, while ours—mine in any case—will not. . . . A great man! In the obsession with his vocation, his mission, in the total identification with it—without doubt a great man. Truly, out of him flows strength!” Then this insight on the chemistry, so to speak, between them: “In these days spent with him, I had the feeling that I was the older brother dealing with a child, capricious and even spoiled, who will not ‘understand’—so better for me to give in (‘you are older, so give in!’) for the sake of peace, agreement, and in the hope that ‘he might grow up and understand.’ I am a student from a higher grade dealing with a younger one for whom one needs to simplify, with whom one has to speak ‘at his level.’”
Fr. Alexander and I discussed whether he had ever thought of becoming Roman Catholic. As a young man in Paris, he said, he mused about it, but it probably had more to do with Paris being a city of the Catholic West than with the Catholic West. My impression is that there was never a serious wrestling with the question, as in a crisis, although he drew deeply on the Catholic theology that informed the Second Vatican Council. In these journals of his mature years, interest in Western Christianity is very limited. He was intensely engaged ecumenically—lecturing and consulting everywhere, it seems—but these were travels in another country. Catholicism, especially in its Jesuit expression, he found distasteful for its preoccupation with rules, whether in enforcing them or breaking them. He cites favorably this from Leon Bloy: “It seems to me that St. Ignatius’ Exercises correspond to the ‘Method’ of Descartes. Instead of looking at God, one looks at oneself. . . . Psychology invented by Jesuits: a method consisting in continually looking at oneself in order to avoid sin. It is contemplating evil instead of contemplating goodness. The devil substituting for God. This seems to be the genesis of modern Catholicism.”
In 1976 he lectures for eight days at the Lutheran seminary in Chicago. “In all our conversations with students and professors I am struck by their unconscious tendency to follow fashion, to achieve success. They seem to need to ‘dress like everybody else’—the same in theology.” A few days later, he lectures at the Liturgical Institute of Valparaiso University, another Lutheran center. This moves him to try to formulate the difference between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity. “Put simply: the Orthodox man begins with the ‘end,’ with the experience, the breakthrough, the very reality of God, the Kingdom, Life—and only afterwards does he clarify it, but in relation to the experience he has had. The Western man rationally arrives at and evokes the ‘end’ from a series of premises. The Orthodox often expresses that ‘end’ quite poorly in theology. For the Westerner, the end somehow disappears, is diluted in elaborate constructions. (I need to express this problem better.)”
A year later, March 15, 1977: “Religion needs a temple, not the Church. The temple’s origin is religion. Thus in the Gospel: ‘I will destroy this temple. . . .’ The Church has a Christian origin. However, our Church has identified itself long ago with the ‘temple,’ has dissolved itself in the temple, and (this means) has returned to the pagan temple as its religious sanction. Protestantism was an attempt to save the faith, to purify it from its religious reduction. But the Protestants have paid a heavy price for denying eschatology and replacing it with personal individual salvation; and therefore, essentially, denying the Church. The greatest anachronism, on a natural level, was to be found in the Catholic Church. Catholicism was possible only while one was able to deny and limit the freedom of the person, the basic dogma of the new times. While trying to change its course, to merge with freedom, Catholicism simply collapsed, and I do not see how its revival could be possible (unless fascism can get hold of the human race and deny the explosive synthesis of freedom and the person).” Packed into that paragraph are, I believe, Fr. Alexander’s core convictions about Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism, and they reward reflection, whatever one’s ecclesial allegiance.
If he complained about Orthodoxy living in an ahistorical world of religious Let’s Pretend, it was not because he thought the Church had that much to learn from history, especially the history of the West. April 6, 1977, and he has been reading about courses in Great Western Ideas: “It would be useful to teach a course entitled ‘Great Western Errors,’ following approximately this plan: Rousseau and ‘Nature,’ with a capital N; The Enlightenment and ‘Reason,’ capital R; Hegel and ‘History,’ capital H; Marx and ‘Revolution,’ capital R; and finally, Freud and ‘Sex,’ capital S—realizing that the main error of each is precisely the capital letter, which transforms these words into an idol, into a tragic pars pro toto.” The protest of Fr. Alexander’s life and thought was against the closures of totalism—whether political and ideological totalism, as in totalitarianism, or the total explanations proposed by theology or philosophy. Only Christ is total, he insisted, and Christ is unlimited openness.
In February 1979, Fr. Alexander is entranced by the appalling fanaticism of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, and at the same time thinking about John Paul II’s visit to New York. “So at the end of the twentieth century, here is the power of religion! What else could mobilize so many millions of people; provoke such expectation, such enthusiasm? The power, and, at the same time, the ambiguity of the Ayatollah; not one word about love, peace, the transcendence in God of all petty divisions. And the threat of a holy war. The Pope, in a sense, speaks only about love. Frightening face of Islam . . . hence, this Khomeini in the end will give nothing to his people (who are so happy with him) except grief, hate, and suffering. Whereas from the Pope’s visit, only joy, only hope—even if nothing comes of it.” And in the end Fr. Alexander suspected that not much would come of it—for the renewal of Catholicism, of the West, of the world.
Later that year, in October, he is lecturing at the Catholic Union in Chicago. He comments on the determinedly fashionable Jesuits and Franciscans, other priests and nuns, all in glaringly multi–colored lay clothing, all demonstrating that they are “with it,” and all quite indifferent to the renewal for which the Pope is calling. He reflects that in 1870, when infallibility was defined, there was the schism of the Old Catholics. “But at that time, the great majority of theologians were ultramontane and the schism was hardly noticed. Whereas now, it is not just a majority but theology as a whole, the whole thought in Catholicism that is against the monolith, against the papacy as it is now. After only a week of the unheard of triumph of the Pope and the papacy [during the New York visit], these Jesuits and nuns look and behave as if ‘nothing was the matter,’ as if all of it had nothing to do with them. They are not even angry, or sad, or hopeless.” On the one hand, the spiritual resurgence led by the Pope; on the other, the complacent progressivism of the Catholic theological establishment. One or the other would prevail, thought Fr. Alexander, leading to a schism that would make 1870 pale by comparison.
He was deeply disillusioned by academic theology. In his last years, he said he had stopped reading theology altogether, except for the papers and dissertations that his position required him to read. I told him about the admirable work of Wolfhart Pannenberg on eschatology, a subject very dear to him, and he was glad to hear about it, but he was not interested in reading tomes such as Pannenberg’s. His serious reading was in literature, especially Russian and French. May 21, 1975: “Rather than ideas and ideologies, I prefer the concrete, live, unique. When reading French contemporaries—Loisy and company—I am mainly interested in them as people, not so much in their ideas. What did the celebration of Mass mean to Loisy with all his ideas?. . . I am convinced that no general ideas can explain reality, so they are unnecessary—for me, anyway.”
He still went to theological conferences and consultations, as, for example, one organized in Geneva by the World Council of Churches. September 25, 1980: “A sort of nominal, unnecessary, and fruitless game. The subject is ‘Preaching and Teaching Christian Faith Today.’ Thirty people—some professionals from Geneva who can talk about anything, who have learned to perfection the technique of this sort of ‘consultation.’” Theologians are professionals who can talk about anything. A subclass of the chattering class, as it were. Repeatedly he writes, as on October 6, 1975, “My dream is to write for the people, not for theologians. And when I find that it works—what joy!”
Then, on October 13, 1977, perhaps as succinct a statement of Fr. Alexander’s theology as is to be found: “I realized that ‘theologically’ I have one idea—the eschatological content of Christianity, and of the Church as the presence in this world of the Kingdom, of the age to come—this presence as the salvation of the world and not escape from it. The ‘world beyond the grave’ cannot be loved, cannot be looked for, cannot be lived by. Whereas the Kingdom of God, if one tastes it, be it a little, cannot be not loved! Once you love it, you cannot avoid loving all creation, created to reveal and announce the Kingdom. This love is already transfigured. Without the Kingdom of God being both the beginning and the end, the world is a frightening and evil absurdity. But without the world, the Kingdom of God is incomprehensible, abstract, and in some way absurd.”
In the afterword to the journals, Fr. John Meyendorff, Fr. Alexander’s successor as dean of St. Vladimir’s, writes that Fr. Alexander’s theological worldview was essentially shaped during the Paris years, and under the influence of Catholic thinkers such as Jean Danielou and Louis Bouyer. “It is from that existing milieu,” writes Fr. Meyendorff, “that Father Schmemann really learned ‘liturgical theology,’ a ‘philosophy of time,’ and the true meaning of the ‘paschal mystery.’ If the legacy [of these French Catholics] was somewhat lost within the turmoil of postconciliar Roman Catholicism, their ideas produced much fruit in the organically liturgical and ecclesiologically consistent world of Orthodoxy through the brilliant and always effective witness of Fr. Schmemann.” The journals leave no doubt that Fr. Alexander was not nearly so confident of the effectiveness of his witness, and certainly had no illusions about his vision flourishing in Orthodoxy.
Throughout Fr. Alexander’s books, and especially the journals, is a running polemic against religion, as distinct from authentic Christianity centered in the revelation of God in Christ. The unspeakably tragic error, he insisted, was to think that Christianity is a subcategory of “religion,” when in fact Christ explodes from within history all human constructions of reality, religious or otherwise, thus illumining with the divine the world of which we are part. I have not gone back to check out all the books, and I never asked him about it, but it is striking that in the journals there is no reference to Karl Barth. In twentieth century theology, that running polemic that pits Christ against religion is most closely associated with Barth. One wonders if there was not some significant influence, or, quite possibly, Fr. Alexander arrived at these insights on his own. He clearly had no use for the proponents of “religionless Christianity” who had their fifteen minutes in the 1960s, but he just as clearly wanted to distance Christ and Christianity from what he viewed as the stifling habits and thought forms of “religion.” Even “piety” is regularly dismissed as a distortion, and he rails against those who came to confession with all sorts of complicated “spiritual problems.” (He spent endless hours hearing confessions, and hated it.) His answer to the scrupulous and the spiritually self–preoccupied was, “Live!” Which is to say, his answer was, “Christ!” Although Barth is not mentioned, and maybe was never seriously read, Fr. Alexander’s thought was, in important respects, strikingly Barthian. Barthianism with a real Church and a real Liturgy.
And now I have reflected on The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann in a somewhat thematic manner. But I cannot leave the subject without relaying a few more of his scattered observations, some of them aphoristic in form, all of them suggestive, all of them worth thinking about, and some of them, to be sure, inviting vigorous argument. For instances: “At the hour of death, what will remain of life is a unique vision of an unchanging altar, an eternal gesture, a continuous melody.” The poet Joseph Brodsky, a Jew, gave a reading in New York, and afterwards a Jewish man asks him why he uses so much Christian symbolism in his poetry. “Because I am not a barbarian,” Brodsky responded. Fr. Alexander: “Who invented the idea that religion is the resolution of problems? [Authentic] religion is always a transfer to another dimension, another level, and is therefore the annihilation of problems, not their solution. Problems also come from the Devil, who filled religion with his fuss and vulgarity—thus religion became a problem in the modern world.”
“Eternal life is not what begins after temporal life; it is the eternal presence of the totality of life.” “There is no point in converting people to Christ if they do not convert their vision of the world and of life, since Christ then becomes merely a symbol for all that we love and want already—without Him.” Upon reading one of his favorite French authors: “He writes in such a way that I begin to regret I was not part of his life, nor he of mine. But that I was not part of Hegel’s or Kant’s life leaves me completely indifferent. The gift of life is in inverse proportion to the gift of ideas.”
After walking by the Seine in Paris: “Europe’s dream is ending; its ground is breaking. Europe is becoming a pitiful caricature of America, unable to become the ‘original,’ but an imitation denying its own originality. . . . The real France wants to become America. America does not want to become Europe, therefore it is genuine, whereas Europe is steadily losing its genuine character.” He admires the simplicity of a presidential inauguration (Jimmy Carter’s) and the peaceful transfer of power. “But what delights me is America, its deep essence, America which has found—alone in the whole world—a formula, almost miraculous, of government and society not turned into idols, but combining living tradition with life. I thought again of Solzhenitsyn: here is what he should look at, research, humbly learn from. But no! only they can teach the world from under the rubble, only they know! Neither S. nor, in general, Europeans will ever try to understand.”
But then there is the American principle of equality, also between the sexes. “In that sense, our culture is demonic, for at its basis is comparison. Since comparison always, mathematically, leads to the experience and the knowledge of inequality, it always leads to protest. Equality is based on the denial of distinctions, but since they exist, the wish for equality calls to fight them, to force equalization on people, and, what is even worse, to refuse these distinctions, which are the essence of life. The person—man or woman—who hungers for equality is already emptied and impersonal because a personality is made of what distinguishes it from others and not submitted to the absurd law of equality. To the demonic principle of comparison, Christianity opposes love. . . . Equality cannot exist in this world because the world was created by love and not by principles. And the world thirsts for love and not equality.” At another place: “Man looks for rules; a woman knows exceptions. But life is a continuous exception to rules. Wherever there is genuine life, there reigns not a rule but an exception. Man fights for rules. Woman has a living experience of the exception.”
Another afternoon in the confessional: “Students’ confessions. Always sex. I am beginning to think that this sin is useful; otherwise they would consider themselves saintly and plunge into guruism. As it is, they are half convinced [of their spiritual achievements]. So this sting in the flesh is useful. It cuts us down to size.” He could not work up in himself the outrage against homosexuality that some thought appropriate, but it seemed to him very sad. “The question is not at all whether it is natural or unnatural, since this question is generally inapplicable to fallen nature, in which—and this is the point—everything is distorted, everything, in a sense, has become unnatural. . . . Homosexuality is a manifestation of the ‘thorn in the flesh’ which tortures in various ways, but tortures every one. In the fallen world nothing can be ‘normalized,’ but everything can be saved.” He reads Proust, Gide, Julien Green, and reflects on “the frightening burden of homosexuality.” “I think what matters most is the sense of a dead end, of insatiable thirst which cannot be transformed into life. At the end, there is not only a wall but a mirror. In the fallen world, everything strictly sexual is ugly, distorted, base. In a ‘normal’ human being, there is at least the possibility of transforming the ugliness and thus eliminating it. For homosexuals, this possibility, this promise, this appeal, this door—do not exist.”
There is this strange dialectic, of knowing faith in the encounter with unfaith. “Why do I enjoy so much reading those who have renounced faith, who believe in their nonbelief—Loisy, Roger Martin du Gard, Gide, Leautaud, etc.? I think that in them the genuine meaning of my faith is revealed to me. All that they deny I deny also, and then not only what my faith affirms but what its presence clearly implies is revealed to me.” Why is a world formed by Christianity now rejecting Christianity—with its understanding of cosmos, history, and ultimate promise—while embracing impossible dreams of human happiness? “Christianity has lost joy—not natural joy, not joy–optimism, but the divine joy about which Christ told us that ‘no one will take your joy from you.’ Only this joy knows that God’s love to man and to the world is not cruel; knows it because that love is part of the absolute happiness for which we are all created. . . . The paradox of the history of Christianity: having ceased being eschatological, it made the world eschatological.”
I could go on, and I have. But I do hope others will want to read the journals, although perhaps not with an interest as intense as those who received the gift of knowing him personally. I am grateful that he was part of my life, and I, at least in a minor way, part of his. His son, the distinguished journalist Serge Schmemann, writes in the foreword: “Fr. Alexander was diagnosed with terminal cancer on September 21, 1982. After several months of silence in the journal, he made one final entry on June 1, 1983, describing how even those months became, in the end, almost a celebration. Six months later, he died at home in Crestwood, New York, with his family and colleagues around him. His last words, after receiving Holy Communion a day earlier, before lapsing into a coma, were ‘Amen! Amen! Amen!’”
In that final entry of June 1983, Fr. Alexander wrote, “For eight months I have not written in this journal. Not because I had nothing to say; on the contrary, never, I believe, did I have so many thoughts and questions and impressions; but because I was constantly afraid of the height where my sickness had lifted me, afraid of falling from it.” There follow words of gratitude for family and friends, and then this final line of The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann:
“What happiness it has all been!”
Imagine an American citizen who, bankrolled by millions of dollars from the Soviet Union, spent his entire life as an apologist for Communist oppression, including Stalin’s murder of many millions by planned famine and the terror of the gulag archipelago. The same citizen was, beyond dispute, actively engaged in encouraging espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union, and to his dying day advocated the revolutionary replacement of the American government by a Communist regime. Surely such a person would be held in deepest opprobrium by all Americans. Think again.
Gus Hall, general secretary of the Communist Party in the U.S., died at age ninety, and Victor Navasky, editor of the Nation, memorializes him on the op–ed page of the New York Times by attacking J. Edgar Hoover, who believed that Hall was an agent of the Soviet Union, which he was. Mr. Navasky is exercised by “a new cadre of Cold War historians” who claim that the Communist Party was “at the center of a nest of spies,” which it was. That is not all that upsets Mr. Navasky: “Hall was seized in Mexico City and abducted back across the border without the formality of an extradition hearing. In the domestic Cold War, the Communists were not the only lawbreakers.” The Soviet Union that Gus Hall served so loyally may have murdered fifteen million kulaks and starved ten million Ukrainians to death and killed another ten million in the gulag, but the U.S. failed to give Mr. Hall an extradition hearing. This is an implied moral symmetry of a very low order.
More remarkable still is an editorial appearing in the same edition of the Times, titled “America’s Bolshevik.” The encomium, and that is what it is, begins with this: “Don Quixote himself might have despaired at the prospect of leading America’s Communist Party during the Cold War, but not the indefatigable Gus Hall. His life story, improbably enough, is a genuine American tale.” Hall was born in Minnesota, and the editors speak admiringly of “his understated Midwestern manner, even after he became a New York character and an odd kind of international celebrity.” It is all very amusing, really. “Mr. Hall was on the wrong side of history, and stayed there with what ultimately became a comical consistency.”
The editors note that he “never attempted to transform the party of the proletariat into a more trendy leftist alternative. That would have offended his native Midwestern stubbornness.” The editors do not note that, had he chosen a more trendy leftist alternative, he might have won greater support from the Times. As it is, the very cosmopolitan editors, with condescending reference to the proletariat and the Midwest, view him simply as Good Old Gus, “a New York character,” “a genuine American tale.” Was he a Communist? An apologist for the bloody slaughter of millions? A declared enemy of the American government and a paid agent of its declared enemy? Well, maybe so, if you insist. But insist too much and you might be thought humorless; you might even be suspected of being an anti–Communist.
The Soviet Union produced more corpses than any other regime in history, more even than Nazi Germany under Hitler. Imagine, if you can, an ironically amused editorial encomium to an American who all his life loyally served the Nazi cause; an editorial describing him as a “Don Quixote” whose “indefatigable” devotion “is a genuine American tale.” More than a decade after its end, the editors of the New York Times still cannot bring themselves to speak simple truth about the evil of the most murderous movement in human history, or about those who devoted their lives and betrayed their country in serving that movement. With respect to history and moral judgment, the New York Times was and is on the wrong side, and stays there with pitiable consistency.
During the Jubilee Year 2000, media attention understandably focused on the many events in Rome, such as the “cleansing of memories” service at the beginning of Lent and the extraordinary Jubilee gathering of two million young people in August. When the planning began several years earlier, John Paul II made it clear that he wanted the observance of the Jubilee Year to be thoroughly ecumenical. And there were such ecumenical moments, notably at the opening of the great doors at St. Peter’s. But, as spectacularly successful as the year was in almost every other respect, it must be admitted that it was very largely a Catholic observance.
There are many reasons why that was the case, a major reason being that the sheer size, vitality, and organizational strength of Catholicism is intimidating to other Christian groups. They are invited to cooperate, and frequently want to cooperate, but they fear being co–opted. There have been significant advances toward greater Christian unity in recent decades, but it is still the case that communities of self–identified affinity have greater confidence when they are gathering with their own. Which brings us to another extraordinary, and extraordinarily promising, event of the Jubilee Year.
At the initiative of Dr. Billy Graham, some ten thousand evangelists, theologians, mission strategists, and church leaders from more than two hundred countries gathered in Amsterdam to pray and plan for world evangelization. This great gathering is in continuity with earlier assemblies in Berlin (1966), Lausanne (1974), Amsterdam (1983), and Manila (1989). As with earlier meetings, this one issued a major statement, “The Amsterdam Declaration: A Charter for Evangelism in the Twenty–first Century.” The statement is, I believe, cause for encouragement in a number of ways.
What is meant by “evangelicalism”? That is a question often asked, and the opening two sentences of the preamble provide a very helpful answer. “As a renewal movement within historic Christian orthodoxy, transdenominational evangelicalism became a distinct global reality in the second half of the twentieth century. Evangelicals come from many churches, languages, and cultures, but we hold in common a shared understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ, of the church’s mission, and of the Christian commitment to evangelism.” Evangelicalism is not a church nor a denomination nor what Catholics call an ecclesial communion, but a renewal movement. It is a renewal movement within historic Christian orthodoxy. It does not claim to be exhaustive of or coextensive with historic Christian orthodoxy. In other words, separatism is no part of evangelicalism’s self–definition.
In fact, quite the opposite is the case. Under the title “Christian Unity and Evangelism,” the Amsterdam Declaration says this: “Jesus prayed to the Heavenly Father that his disciples would be one so that the world might believe. One of the great hindrances to evangelism worldwide is the lack of unity among Christ’s people, a condition made worse when Christians compete and fight with one another rather than seeking together the mind of Christ. We cannot resolve all differences among Christians because we do not yet understand perfectly all that God has revealed to us. But in all ways that do not violate our conscience, we should pursue cooperation and partnerships with other believers in the task of evangelism, practicing the well–tested rule of Christian fellowship: ‘In necessary things, unity; in nonessential things, liberty; in all things, charity.’ We pledge ourselves to pray and work for unity in truth among all true believers in Jesus and to cooperate as fully as possible in evangelism with other brothers and sisters in Christ so that the whole church may take the whole gospel to the whole world.” That is an altogether heartening statement, and should be a great encouragement to all who have over the years supported initiatives such as “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT).
On the relationship with other religions, the Declaration says: “Because God’s general revelation extends to all points of His creation, there may well be traces of truth, beauty, and goodness in many non–Christian belief systems. But we have no warrant for regarding any of these as alternative gospels or separate roads to salvation. The only way to know God in peace, love, and joy is through the reconciling death of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord. As we share this message with others, we must do so with love and humility, shunning all arrogance, hostility, and disrespect. As we enter into dialogue with adherents of other religions, we must be courteous and kind. But such dialogue must not be a substitute for proclamation. Yet because all persons are made in the image of God, we must advocate religious liberty and human rights for all. We pledge ourselves to treat those of other faiths with respect and faithfully and humbly serve the nation in which God has placed us, while affirming that Christ is the one and only Savior of the world.” Readers will recognize that, in important respects, that parallels the recent declaration from Rome, Dominus Iesus (Jesus the Lord). Critics to the contrary, these parallels underscore that the Roman declaration serves ecumenism among all who adhere to “historic Christian orthodoxy.” The essential truth held in common is that there is one God and one universal plan of salvation revealed in Jesus Christ, true God and true man.
Particularly striking is the section of the Amsterdam Statement titled “Definitions of Key Terms.” It is frequently observed that the most divisive disagreement between evangelicals and Catholics is in the area of ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the Church. Here is what Amsterdam says about the Church: “The church is the people of God, the body and the bride of Christ, and a temple of the Holy Spirit. The one, universal church is a transnational, transcultural, transdenominational, and multiethnic family, the household of faith. In the widest sense the church includes all the redeemed of all the ages, being the one body of Christ extended throughout time as well as space. Here in the world, the church becomes visible in all local congregations that meet to do together the things that according to Scripture the church does. Christ is the head of the church. Everyone who is personally united to Christ by faith belongs to his body and by the Spirit is united with every other true believer in Jesus.”
It is not too much to say that Catholic doctrine is in accord with almost every word of that definition. This does not mean there is complete agreement. Not by a long shot. For instance, for Catholics, the “local church” is the people, priests, and deacons gathered around a bishop in apostolic succession and in communion with the Bishop of Rome. And, of course, Catholics do things—notably all the sacraments, which we believe to be “according to Scripture”—that evangelical Protestants do not do. But the great achievement here is that evangelicalism affirms a scripturally grounded conceptual framework that is shared by all who lay claim to historic Christian orthodoxy, thereby providing common points of reference for the continuing and candid engagement of our agreements and disagreements.
Also praiseworthy are the Declaration’s definitions of such constitutive realities as “Kingdom,” “Gospel,” and “Salvation.” Then there is this on what is meant by “Christian”: “A Christian is a believer in God who is enabled by the Holy Spirit to submit to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in a personal relation of disciple to master and to live the life of God’s kingdom. The word Christian should not be equated with any particular cultural, ethnic, political, or ideological tradition or group. Those who know and love Jesus are also called Christ–followers, believers, and disciples.” When the first ECT statement was issued in 1994, the most vigorously contested assertion in some evangelical circles was the claim that evangelicals and Catholics are “brothers and sisters in Christ.” The Amsterdam Declaration could not be clearer in its affirmation of that great truth.
Of course there is not in evangelicalism an institution of magisterium, or teaching authority, comparable to that of the Catholic Church. Evangelicalism is notoriously fissiparous, as are most movements, and there are undoubtedly many evangelicals who would protest this or that in the Amsterdam Declaration. Yet a gathering as large and representative as Amsterdam, under the auspices of the world’s leading evangelicals, does possess real teaching authority. It is a guiding point of reference in evangelicalism’s continuing reflection on Christian faith, life, and mission. The Declaration says of itself: “It is commended to God’s people everywhere as an expression of evangelical commitment and as a resource for study, reflection, prayer, and evangelistic outreach.” All of God’s people—oldline, evangelical, Orthodox, Catholic—should receive the Amsterdam Declaration in the spirit in which it is commended. It is a historic contribution to the renewal of historic Christian orthodoxy.
And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
But every one shall die for his own sin; each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.
Sources: Victor Navasky on Gus Hall, New York Times, October 21, 2000. The Amsterdam Declaration can be found at http://media.amsterdam2000.org/declaration.asp.
While We’re At It: On unanswered phone calls to churches, Barna Research press release, August 22, 2000. Michael Ignatieff on reparations for victim groups, New York Times Book Review, September 10, 2000. Richard Berke on gay reporters, Lambda Report, April/May 2000. Survey on the religious mainline, Christian Century, May 17, 2000. Timothy Burns on Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, Philanthropy, July/August 2000. Archbishop Desmond Connell interviewed, Irish Independent, September 19, 2000. Church of England Newspaper editorial on Dominus Iesus, September 15, 2000. On the KGB and the Patriarch of Moscow, Aleksi II, Keston Institute press release, September 21, 2000. “Using Students as Discussion Leaders on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Issues in First–Year Courses,” Journal of Legal Education, December 1999. Quotes from Alec Guinness cited, Tablet, August 12, 2000. Mark Steyn on British culture and history, London Spectator, June 24, 2000. Fr. William J. O’Malley on Christian faith, America, September 16, 2000. Norman Redlich on the Constitution’s religion clause(s), Nation, October 9, 2000. “We’re In the Money!” by Michael Hamilton, Christianity Today, June 12, 2000. John Shelby Spong’s “Virgin Mary vs. Wonder Woman,” www.theposition.com, October 19, 2000. Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) ad, New York Times, October 23, 2000. Timothy George on Jimmy Carter, Wall Street Journal, October 27, 2000. Msgr. George Higgins on Richard John Neuhaus, Cardinal O’Connor, and organized labor, Commonweal, November 3, 2000.