Monday, January 15, 2024

Schmemann’s Critique of the West (Part 1): The Accusations

Alexander Schmemann (1921–83) was a highly influential Russian Orthodox priest and author who left a major mark on the renewal of Byzantine liturgical and sacramental theology, and on the thinking of some Roman Catholic liturgists as well. He was famous (infamous?) for his intense attacks on Western theology, which he believed to be thoroughly contaminated with a rationalism and a reductionism inimical to mystery. (It should not be forgotten that he also rather sharply criticized many aspects of modern Eastern Orthodoxy.) It would be tempting for traditionalists to give ear to these arguments because, if they are correct, they would seem to demonstrate a broader liturgical crisis in the West that is rooted in a false Thomistic distinction, which, over the centuries, changed how Christians understood and received the sacraments and liturgy.

My goal in this new series of articles is to summarize his major objections (part 1) and then respond to them in a way that is both sympathetic to whatever is legitimate in his concerns, and sharply critical of his misunderstanding (at times extreme) of Western theology (parts 2 and subsequent).

One of Schmemann’s most important books, For the Life of the World, expounds how the Church is a sacrament/epiphany of Christ, and how the Church is her liturgy. After meditating on the Church’s liturgy as the work of Christ extended in time, Fr. Schmemann addresses secularism, which he defines as “above all a negation of worship” (p. 146), because its core doctrine is a negation of “the sacramentality of man and world. A secularist views the world as containing within itself its meaning and the principles of knowledge and action” (p. 147). He then cites the Lateran council of 1215 and St. Thomas Aquinas as watershed moments in the origin of secularism as a post-Patristic and anti-Patristic way of conceiving the world and its relation to God.

Here is a key passage:

At the end of the twelfth century a Latin theologian, Berengarius of Tours, was condemned for his teaching on the Eucharist. He maintained that because the presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements is “mystical” or “symbolic,” it is not real. The Lateran Council which condemned him … simply reversed the formula. It proclaimed that since Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is real, it is not “mystical.” What is truly decisive here is precisely the disconnection and the opposition of the two terms verum and mystice, the acceptance, on both sides, that they are mutually exclusive. (p. 152)
Aquinas, starting from this point, introduced the dichotomy characteristic of secularism:
And since then, Christian thought, in scholasticism and beyond it, never ceased to oppose these terms … it is indeed implied already in Thomism, with its basic epistemological distinction between causa prima and causae secundae. Here is the real cause of secularism, which is ultimately nothing else but the affirmation of the world’s autonomy, of its self-sufficiency in terms of reason, knowledge, and action. The downfall of Christian symbolism led to the dichotomy of the “natural” and “supernatural” as the only framework of Christian thought and experience. (p. 153)
(Note that Schmemann, in effect, is summarizing DeLubac’s argument in Surnaturel.) It follows that, Aquinas—the theologian par excellence of the Latin West—has, according to Schmemann, a different metaphysics or ontology than the Church Fathers do.

Later on, Fr. Schmemann explains further by explicating the relationship between sacrament and liturgy. He explains that the Church Fathers related these two in an ontologically different manner than Aquinas and Scholasticism:
In the early Church, in the writings of the Fathers, sacraments, inasmuch as they are given any systematic interpretation, are always explained in the context of their actual liturgical celebration, the explanation being, in fact, an exegesis of the liturgy itself in all its ritual complexity and concreteness. The medieval De Sacramentis, however, tends from its very inception to isolate the “sacrament” from liturgical context, to find and to define in terms as precise as possible its essence i.e., that which distinguishes it from the “non-sacrament.” Sacrament in a way begins to be opposed to liturgy. It has, of course, ritual expression, its “signum” which belongs to its essence, but this sign is viewed now as ontologically different from all other signs, symbols, and rites of the Church. And because of this difference, the precise sacramental sign alone is considered, to the exclusion of all other “liturgy,” the proper object of theological attention. One can for example read and reread the elaborate treatment given in St. Thomas’ Summa to sacraments without yet knowing much about their liturgical celebration. (p. 163)
St. Maximus the Confessor, the sacramental theologian par excellence of the patristic age, calls the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist symbols (“symbola”), images (“apeikonismata”), and mysteries (“mysteria”). “Symbolical” here is not only not opposed to “real,” but embodies it as its very expression and mode of manifestation. Historians of theology, in their ardent desire to maintain the myth of theological continuity and orderly “evolution,” here again find their explanation in the “imprecision” of patristic terminology. They do not seem to realize that the Fathers’ use of “symbolon” (and related terms) is not “vague” or “imprecise” but simply different from that of the later theologians, and that the subsequent transformation of these terms constitutes indeed the source of one of the greatest theological tragedies. (p. 165)
And driving home his argument:
In the early tradition . . . the relationship between the sign in the symbol (A) and that which it “signifies” (B) is neither a merely semantic one (A means B), nor causal (A is the cause of B), nor representative (A represents B). We called this relationship an epiphany. “A is B” means that the whole of A expresses, communicates, reveals, manifests, the “reality” of B (although not necessarily the whole of it) without, however, losing its own ontological reality, without being dissolved in another “res.” But it was precisely this relationship between the A and the B, between the sign and the signified, that was changed. Because of the reduction of knowledge to rational or discursive knowledge, there appears between A and B a hiatus. The symbol may still be a means of knowledge but, as all knowledge, it is knowledge about and not knowledge of. It can be a revelation about the “res,” but not the epiphany of the “res” itself. A can mean B, or represent it, or even, in certain instances, be the “cause” of its presence; but A is no longer viewed as the very means of “participation” in B. Knowledge and participation are now two different realities, two different orders. (p. 168)
It is this kind of reasoning that leads Fr. Schmemann to conclude: “The doctrine of transubstantiation, in its Tridentine form, is truly the collapse, or rather the suicide, of sacramental theology” (p. 170). One may certainly sympathize with this line of argument, inasmuch as we see conventional Thomists teaching about sacraments in isolation or abstraction from liturgy and exaggerating the principle of magisterial authority to the denigration and effective cancelation of tradition.

Next week, I will begin my response by answering this question: Did the Lateran Council give a bad and unpatristic definition of “real” as opposed to “mystical”?
with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Visit Dr. Kwasniewski’s Substack “Tradition & Sanity”; personal site; composer site; publishing house Os Justi Press and YouTube, SoundCloud, and Spotify pages.

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