Repost: An Interesting Point of Convergence

This is an old post from the .Mac days (14 February 2007 to be precise). A comment on this post over at the Ochlophobist’s blog reminded me of it (and seems to suggest that Fr. Alexander did, in fact, express some specific thoughts regarding Fr. Seraphim), and it seemed appropriate to put here. Enjoy.

I’m reading Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent: Journey to Pascha as my Lenten discipline. I was struck by the following passage:

…Christian love is sometimes the opposite of ‘social activism’ with which one so often identifies Christianity today. To a ‘social activist’ the object of love is not ‘person’ but man, an abstract unit of a not less abstract ‘humanity.’ But for Christianity, man is ‘lovable’ because he isperson. There person is reduced to man; here man is seen only as person. The ‘social activist’ has no interest for the personal, and easily sacrifices it to the ‘common interest.’ Christianity may seem to be, and in some ways actually is, rather sceptical about that abstract ‘humanity,’ but it commits a mortal sin against itself each time it gives up its concern and love for the person. Social activism is always ‘futuristic’ in its approach; it always acts in the name of justice, order, happiness to come, to be achieved. Christianity cares little about that problematic future but puts the whole emphasis on the now–the only decisive time for love. The two attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but they must not be confused. Christians, to be sure, have responsibilities toward ‘this world’ and they must fulfill them. This is the area of ‘social activism’ which belongs entirely to ‘this world.’ Christian love, however, aims beyond ‘this world.’ It is itself a ray, a manifestation of the Kingdom of God; it transcends and overcomes all limitations, all ‘conditions’ of this world because its motivation as well as its goals and consummation is in God. And we know that even in this world, which ‘lies in evil,’ the only lasting and transforming victories are those of love. To remind man of this personal love and vocation, to fill the sinful world with this love–this is the true mission of the Church. (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 25-6)

Compare this to the oft-quoted passage from C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, III.10:

Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters. Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more–food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way, we shall never save civilisation as long as civilisation is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more.

These are clearly parallel statements, and I’d suggest they ultimately reflect the heavenly economy discussed in Mark 8:35: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Additionally, I’m not aware of Fr. Alexander having ever expressed any specific thoughts about Lewis (which isn’t saying very much, to be sure), but I at least wonder about the possibility of Lewis having directly influenced the Great Lent passage. Also, think about the literal meaning of the Greek word for sin, άμαρτία, “missing the mark.” According to both of these passages, “aiming for earth” will always result in a “missing of the mark.” To avoid sin, to hit the mark, we must “aim for heaven,” for something “beyond this world.”

What is also interesting about both of these passages to me is their unexpected resonance with the views of Fr. Seraphim Rose on what he identified as a modern manifestation of the heresy of chiliasm. Specifically, this term referred to the condemned belief that Christ will reign on earth for a thousand years before the end of the world, but Fr. Seraphim also used it to refer generally to a belief in the possibility of perfecting this world. (For a thorough treatment of Fr. Seraphim’s views on this point, see Hieromank Damascene’s Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood Press, 242ff.)

Consider the following from Fr. Seraphim’s Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future (St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood Press):

The careful observer of the contemporary religious scene…cannot fail to notice a very decided air of chiliastic expectation. […] Thus, many traditionalist Roman Catholics believe in the coming of a chiliastic ‘Age of Mary’ before the end of the world, and this is only one variant on the more widespread Latin error of trying to ‘sanctify the world,’ or, as Archbishop Thomas Connolly of Seattle expressed it… ‘transforming the modern world into the Kingdom of God in preparation for His return.’ Protestant evangelists such as Bill Graham, in their mistaken private interpretation of the Apocalypse (Revelation), await the ‘millennium’ when ‘Christ’ will reign on earth. (177)

He continues:

The life of self-centeredness and self-satisfaction lived by most of today’s ‘Christians’ is so all-pervading that it effectively seals them off from any understanding at all of spiritual life; and when such people do undertake ‘spiritual life,’ it is only as another form of self-satisfaction. This can be seen quite clearly in [a] totally false religious ideal… [which promises] an experience of ‘contentment’ and ‘peace.’ But this is not the Christian ideal at all, which if anything may be summed up as a fierce battle and struggle. The ‘contentment’ and ‘peace’ described in these contemporary ‘spiritual’ movements are quite manifestly the product of spiritual deception, of spiritual self-satisfaction–which is the absolute death of the God-oriented spiritual life… Christian spirituality is formed in the arduous struggle to acquire the eternal Kingdom of Heaven, which fully begins only with the dissolution of this temporal world, and the true Christian struggler never finds repose even in the foretastes of eternal blessedness which might be vouchsafed to him in this life[.] ( 187-8 )

Fr. Seraphim, as is typical, is uncompromising in his criticism of the modern world, and his language is therefore far more militant than that of Lewis or Fr. Alexander, but the bottom line for him is clearly the same: if we do not begin and end with the eternal Kingdom of Heaven as our goal, we are deceiving ourselves and nothing will be accomplished for this earth anyway. Again, I’m not aware of Fr. Seraphim having ever commented directly on Lewis (which is, again, not saying much); certainly he knew of Fr. Alexander (although it ‘s not clear that the reverse is true), and published some fairly savage criticism of him. However, I believe points of correspondence such as this one show that they had more in common than perhaps they would have wanted to admit, and that this is further made clear by a comparison of of Fr. Alexander’s published journals (The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann, 1973-1983, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press) to Hieromonk Damascene’s biography of Fr. Seraphim and writings such as God’s Revelation to the Human Heart. (I have far more to say about the apparent tension between these two men, and believe it ultimately had more to do with ecclesial politics than actual tenets of faith, but that is an essay for another time.)

Three very different kinds of Christian thinkers in very different contexts: Lewis was a low-church Anglican and academic writing a popular apologetic. Fr. Alexander was an Orthodox priest and scholar writing a devotional book. Fr. Seraphim was a former Eastern philosophy scholar turned Orthodox ascetic and monastic writing a critique of contemporary spirituality. All wind up emphasizing essentially the same point nonetheless: Christian spirituality is formed in the arduous struggle to acquire the eternal Kingdom of Heaven. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. Christian love aims beyond this world.

I will note that there are subtle differences in how this point is presented: for Lewis, aiming at heaven is something we do; it requires an act of will from our end. For Fr. Alexander, aiming beyond this world must occur in the context of Christian love. For Fr. Seraphim, acquiring the Kingdom (aiming for heaven, if you will) requires struggle on our part. Strict Calvinists might argue that Lewis and Fr. Seraphim’s constructions are absolutely in error, that our total depravity renders any act of will or struggle on our part towards heaven impossible. However, given the concept in Orthodox Christianity of συνεργεία or cooperation between divine grace and human freedom (cf. 1 Cor 3:9, “We are fellow-workers with God”), this objection may be set aside. I’d argue that all three perspectives are in fact correct; it does require an act of will on our part, it must come from love (making it a cooperation with God, since God is love, cf. 1 John 4:8), and it is a struggle.

The point bears repeating: Christian spirituality is formed in the arduous struggle to acquire the eternal Kingdom of Heaven. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither. Christian love aims beyond this world. How different a concept of “social justice” this forms from that which the secular humanists, and even those on the Christian left, preach.


1 Response to “Repost: An Interesting Point of Convergence”

  1. 1 Sbdn. Lucas 17 July 2008 at 2:53 pm

    This principle is certainly self-evident in light of our Lord’s words, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you,” and “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all things things will be added to you.” If our focus is on living for the Kingdom Within, that Kingdom will certainly spill over into this world.

    Good entry, Richard!

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