Book Review: The Eucharist by Fr. Alexander Schmemann

The culminating work of Fr. Schmemann’s career is this work on the center of the Christian faith, the Eucharist. Schmemann takes here a wide view of the Eucharist, exploring the whole of the liturgy in all of its aspects. In a breath of fresh air, Schmemann casts aside the worn out and rather misdirected attempts to explain every action and element of the liturgy as a massive play in symbolism. He instead returns to an earlier conception of the coexistence of the symbolic and the real, insisting upon a properly sacramental interpretation.

With this sacramental view in mind, Schmemann explores each aspect of the liturgy as a sacrament, as a conduit of the grace of God and the fellowship of Christians. His approach demonstrates the cohesiveness of the liturgy and the importance of each part of it for the whole Christian experience. The culmination, of course, is in the final and ultimate experience of communion.

While the insights to be gleaned from this work are innumerable, it is not without its fault. The greatest problem with the book is Schmemann’s constant fall back to the myth of a “Latin captivity” of the Church and his use of the Scholastic theology of the Catholics as his whipping boy. Every time Schmemann encounters a historical error, he traces it, often rather tenuously, to Western theology. This approach is unfortunate as it limits his perspective. A study like this one which includes the witness of the Western Church would be of great value.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in the Christian life, particularly as it pertains to the liturgy and the sacraments.

Review: For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy by Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Fr. Alexander Schmemann delves deeply into the sacramental nature of reality in this book. Arguing against the modern distinction between “sacred” things on the one hand and “secular” on the other, Schmemann returns to an earlier Christian conception of the world as sacrament, as the presence of God waiting to be revealed and communed with.

His constant emphasis is on the priesthood of each human being. It is the work of each to take up the things of this world and offer them to God to be redeemed, sanctified, and deified. In this, the book serves as an extended meditation on a restoration of the proper Christian worldview.

Where Fr. Schmemann fails, I think, is in his attempts to discern the roots of the distinction between sacred and secular, between sacrament and reality. He attempts to pinpoint the starting point of this distinction in an 11th century synod held at St. John Lateran, yet the text of the actual oath signed there does not bear out this thesis as it affirms, along with him, the simultaneous symbolic and real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Discerning the real roots of this dichotomy is a task that is necessary but still awaiting completion.

In the mean time, however, Schememann offers some sound advice on how to heal the wounds in our worldview caused by this dichotomy. I recommend this book for anyone interested in understanding and/or cultivating a traditional and authentically Christian worldview — namely a sacramental worldview.

Christianity, ethics, and ecology

Augustine’s ethical ideas are, like much Christian thought of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, largely an update of Plato’s ideas combined with elements of Jewish and early Christian thought. Just as Plato did, Augustine proposed an eternal order by which the affairs and attitudes of individuals and societies could be measured and to which these microcosms should seek to conform. His unique contribution was to identify this eternal and perfect order as the “Kingdom of God” of the thought of ancient Jews and early Christians. According to Augustine’s Christianized update of Plato, the City of God is the eternal order which transcends and yet pervades the City of Man, the temporal order of human society and government.

Interestingly and in a rather bizarre manner, Augustine applied his ideas of the City of God and the City of Man to his ideas about women. As in his various other unique ideas in which he differs from earlier and contemporary Fathers of the Church, such as original sin and predestination, Augustine’s thoughts on women are a strange, haphazard mix of Platonism, ancient Jewish thought, early Christian belief, and his own ideas. For Augustine, drawing, it appears, on St. Paul’s words on marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33, but adding his own twist on the ideas expressed there, man is the “City of God” to woman’s status as “City of Man.” In a clear reference to Plato’s ideas concerning the tripartite nature of the human soul, Augustine asserts in his Confessions, for instance, that woman is “subject to the sex of her husband, as the appetite of action is subjected by reason of the mind.”

In his De Trinitate, Augustine’s bizarre mix of Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity is even more evident in his views on women. There, he draws simultaneously on Plato’s Republic, the opening chapters of Genesis, and 1 Corinthians 11:3-12 to reach his rather strange conclusion that a woman herself does not bear the image of God but is the image of God only in conjunction with her husband. While this is the logical conclusion of Augustine’s comparison of the relationship between man and woman with his conception of the City of God and the City of Man, there is no justification for this in either of the scriptural texts he draws upon to make his point and the assertion clearly runs contrary to the thrust of both Jewish and Christian, if not Platonic, thought.

Unfortunately, it is the Platonic element in Late Antique and Medieval Christian thought, most notably in the thought of Augustine, which has attracted the most attention from modern feminist critics. The criticisms of Deborah Mathieu, Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Eleanor McLaughlin, to name three of the most popular such feminist critiques, for example, have all aimed their attacks at this Platonic element in Christian thought. As a result, there has been little meaningful criticism of or commentary upon elements of Christian thought from that period that are truly unique to Christianity but much criticism has been directed at the Church of that period for its continuation of some elements of earlier Greco-Roman thought.

Similarly, much of the multicultural criticism that has been directed against Augustine and his contemporaries in the Christian Church more often springs from misunderstandings and distortions of early and medieval Christianity than from an accurate assessment and meaningful engagement with it. Jorge Valadez’s criticisms of Christian ethics, for instance, are largely inspired by his concern for two elements which he finds, whether rightly or wrongly, are emphasized in the thought of certain pre-Columbian traditions of the Americas but believes are lacking in Christianity, namely a belief in the bisexuality and the all-pervading presence of the Divine. That Valadez sees these elements as missing, however, is more an oversight on his part than on that of the Christian thinkers of any generation.

In his criticisms of the lack of bisexuality in the God of Judaism and Christianity, for example, Valadez makes the very strong statement that the God of Christianity “has traditionally never been spoken of in female terms.” While it is true that masculine terminology predominates in both Christianity and Judaism in order to emphasize the active and “penetrating” nature of God, it is untrue, and obviously so to anyone with a decent knowledge of Christian theology and history, that these faith traditions have indeed used feminine terms; two very prominent examples are the concept of the Shekinah, or Divine Presence, in Judaism, and the concept of Sophia, the Divine Wisdom, a very important concept in Christian theology which is viewed as synonymous with Christ (the Second Person of the Trinity). Here we have the Presence (in Judaism) and Wisdom (in Christianity) of God, both central concepts in the respective faith traditions which possess them, being identified as feminine.

Similarly, Valadez claims that because of the Christian ideas of God’s transcendence and separation in essence from the created order, Christianity lacks the theoretical basis for an “ecological culture” such as he ascribes to the Maya. On the contrary however, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all long emphasized the all-pervading presence of God. One prayer that has been in common use in the Eastern Christian churches since at least the early Middle Ages, and which makes up part of the standard beginning to nearly all Eastern Christian church services and personal prayers, explicitly refers to God as “everywhere present and filling all things,” thereby exclaiming a clearly panentheistic position.

In addition, the traditional, and especially Eastern, Christian tradition of iconography, which views the material elements of wood and paint as worthy objects of worship insofar as they stand as symbols for and conduits of the divine figures whom they are used to depict, as well as the traditional sacramental view of Christianity, which sees objects of the material world used as conduits for God’s presence, as in the wine and bread of the Eucharist becoming the Body and Blood of Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, and the water and oil of baptism and chrismation becoming the vehicles for the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, give lie to Valadez’s assertions concerning the separation of God and world in Christian thought. Of more value than Valadez’s criticism of Christianity is Catharine P. Roth’s more informed critique of Western Christianity’s loss of iconographic and sacramental focus: “Because God was not seen in any … material objects, the world was understood as mere matter. Where there is no ‘sacramental consciousness,’ there is no restraint on scientific analysis and technological exploitation of the cosmos”. In other words, the ecological basis Valadez is seeking is not something foreign to Christianity which must be found in such troubled and fundamentally flawed traditions as the Mayan and Aztec systems, but something that is quite natural to Christianity and is waiting to be rediscovered in its roots.