Current read: Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann
Russian Orthodox author Alexander Schmemann illuminates in this short (86 pages) book some of the marvelous and mysterious truths of Christianity. Though he comes from the Orthodox perspective, his book explores elements of the christian liturgy that cross all denominations, catholic, protestant, and orthodox alike.
From the back cover:
“For the Life of the World is not about Russian Orthodoxy nor about questions of unity. It is about the world. It is written by a man who stands within the Orthodox tradition and who profoundly loves this world of the 1960s A.D. in all its misery and splendor, its brokenness and joy and death.”
An excerpt of Shmemann’s book was given to me by a friend prior to my baptism, which I thoroughly enjoyed and used in my sermon on Baptism last semester. The book was again recommended by my worship professor at Boston University and I finally decided to read it.
There’s some really great stuff in here. From the orthodox perspective, Schmemann acknowledges his biases, but presents essays on the Christian life as a whole, not orthodox theology. It reminded me of CS lewis’ introduction to mere christianity; where he mentions his background in the anglican church, but doesn’t ascribe any special significance to it over any other denomination.
In the first chapter, “life of the world,” he discusses the dichotomy between sacred and profane, natural and supernatural. What struck me by surprise is his resistance or reticence to “religion.” For him, Christ and the christian life is in fact, the “end of all religion.”. See John 4:19-23, the story of the woman at the well who asks Jesus about the true way to worship.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.
Jesus’ response subverts her expectations and re-defines what it means to worship God. He says we don’t need a church or other holy place to worship the Father. Striking for an author from the Orthodox church, with its highly reverent iconography and formalized liturgy. Schmemann responds by saying:
Religion is needed where there is a wall of separation between God and man. But Christ who is both God and man has broken down the wall between man and God. He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion
Beautiful churches with “all night vigil” services, icons and processions, a liturgy, which to be properly performed requires not less than twenty seven heavy liturgical books – all this seems to contradict what has been said above about christianity as the “end of religion.”
Here he critiques the church for its formality and ritualized practices, and seeks to correct mis-conceptions of the Eastern church by western readers. Conventional wisdom is that the Orthodox church gives weight and emphasis to “mysticism ” and “spirituality,” which is certainly my experience in attending orthodox services. Though he understands that the orthodox church may have failed to see the implications of the “sacramentalism,” Schmemann argues either for a rethinking of routinized liturgy, or a rethinking of our opinions about routinized liturgy. His last question of the first chapter really got me hooked to read the rest:
But does it in fact? And if not, what is the meaning of all this in the real world in which we live, and for the life of which God has given his son?
And from there I dive in.