The Gospel, Secularism and the American Experiment-part II

In For the Life of the World Even Schmemann argues that when looked from the point of view phenomenology of religion (Religionswissenschaft), the world is sacramental in character—a means not simply of knowledge about God, but the place of a real encounter with God. For Schmemann, as for the Fathers and the Scriptures, the world points beyond itself to God Who is both the Creator and Goal of creation (including human beings). For this reason, even understood broadly, worship, to the degree that it is true worship, reveals to us God, creation and humanity. The key here is the adjective true in true worship. It is not simply any worship, but only worship that is—whatever its other differences—in fundamental agreement with Christian worship’s “the intuition and experience of the world as an ‘epiphany’ of God.” (p. 120) And so, a few pages later he writes: “It is indeed extremely important for us to remember that the uniqueness, the newness of Christian worship is not that it has no continuity with worship ‘in general,’ . . . but that in Christ this very continuity is fulfilled, receives its ultimate and truly new significance so as to truly bring all ‘natural’ worship to an end.” (p. 122)

There is then for Schmemann (as there is for the Fathers and the Scriptures) a notion of “natural law.” Not a natural law that is divorced from faith—a law known by naked reason divorced from faith—but one which can nevertheless be grasped (to return to Murray) by “the careful inquires” those men and women who, even if they are not Christians, are people of good will and who live lives that are “wise and honest.” (p. 118) The argument that Schmemann makes against secularism is very much a “natural law” argument. Secularism, to repeat what I quoted in the previous post, “emphatically negates . . . the sacramentality” of humanity and the world and substitutes in place of the givenness of a sacramentality world, a view of the Christian worship that sees worship as an expression of human desire/need and as such subject to human manipulation.

Returning to the question of government, as part of the creation, there is a sacramental character to the human person. The tripartite character of the American experiment, “a free people under a limited government, guided by law and ultimately under the sovereignty of God,” is I think a humble acknowledgement of the sacramentality of the human person. This is not to suggest that democracy is the only form of government that respects the inherent dignity of the human. Indeed, it is not to suggest that democracy in general, or American democracy in particular, does so flawlessly. Returning to Murray: ” The American Proposition [“that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”] is at once doctrinal and practical, a theorem and a problem. It is an affirmation and also an intention. It presents itself as a coherent structure of thought that lays claim to intellectual assent; it also present itself as an organized political project that aims at historical success. Our Fathers asserted it and most ably argued it; they also undertook to “work it out,” and they signally succeeded.” (p. xi)

That being said, Murray reminds us that the practical, “historical success” of the tripartite character of the American experiment “is never to be taken for granted, nor can it come to some absolute term; and any given measure of success demands enlargement of penalty of instant decline.” (p. xi) Giving Orthodox critics here and abroad their due, does America seems to be flirting with the penalty of instant decline. American failure does not invalidate the truthfulness of the tripartite anthropology at the heart of the American experiment.

I would go further. There is a fundamental computability (“continuity” to use Schmemman’s term) between Orthodox theological anthropology and American political anthropology. I would argue that it is the vocation of Orthodox Christians in America to articulate a critical and appreciative response to American political anthropology. Part of this means developing practically a style of Church governance and pastoral care that reflects the providential convergence of our theological vision of the person and the American experiment.

For example, I trust people to live their lives. I trust the people in my parish live their lives and administer the parish with minimal interference or direction from me. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, or their invitation, I trust people not only in “in fear and trembling” but also mutual love, respect and affection, to meet the demands made on them by of their vocations. Unless there is some compelling reason—a clear indication that someone has rejected the sovereignty of God or they ask me a question—I stay out of their lives.

The genius of the American experiment is practical. its offers us a balanced, humble vision for the use of authority. Yes, in its inception, that vision of authority’s use was political; it just as applicable to the exercise of pastoral and administrative authority in the Church.

The question is not monarchy or democracy, but between the humble service and protection of human freedom and dignity, on the one hand, or the exploitation and degradation of the human on the other. As a theoretical matter, I can imagine a king or tsar defending the inherent dignity of all people, even as I can imagine a democracy, a priest, a bishop or a parish council failing to do so. In all cases it seems to me the key is the theoretical, practical and joyful acceptance
the freedom of all men and women. Further this must be embodied by the willingness on those in authority to exercise self-restraint in the authority of their office and to submit themselves to the demands of natural law.

The question now becomes for me as an Orthodox Christian, am I willing to take up the challenge laid at my feet by the American experiment?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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