Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Religion of Secularism

Below I've posted some thoughts on the the religious character of secularism from Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann.

Commenting on Schmemann's understanding of secularism, Fr. Alexis Vinogradov writes:

If the guiding axiom of the Church was always the universal, immutable, and essential connection: prayer-faith-life -- then the modern and unique heresy is the accepted disassociation of these parts into self-sufficient components. Secularism is the name for that heresy which affirms the primacy of human life without any necessary reference to any ultimate or transcendent reality. To be sure, in its most liberal guise it may even recommend various "spiritualities" as helpful or even culturally enriching, but regards them as decorative appendages to life, having no significant impact on the real course of human affairs. For Father Alexander the most pernicious secularists were those who professed membership in a church, but whose lives bore no evidence of a deep transformation of life and witness to the kingdom of God. If secularism is characterized by the self-sufficiency and self-satisfaction of worldly and social aims and projects, then the churchly secularist is one who is chronically satisfied with the forms and goals of modern "progressive" parish life or the salvific programs of religious institutions or the piety of various spiritual "paths" (of which a veritable marketplace abounds today).

Schmemann takes the analysis further, showing how secularism's "self-sufficiency and self-satisfaction" includes accepting and even embracing death as "normal."

It would be a great mistake ... to think of secularism as simply an 'absence of religion.' It is, in fact, itself a religion, and as such, an explanation of death and a reconciliation with it. It is the religion of those who are tired of having the world explained in terms of an 'other world' of which no one knows anything, and life explained in terms of a 'survival' about which no one has the slightest idea; tired of having, in other words, life given 'value' in terms of death. Secularism is an 'explanation' of death in terms of life. The only world we know is this world, the only life given to us is this life - so thinks a secularist - and it is up to us men to make it as meaningful, as rich, as happy as possible. Life ends with death. This is unpleasant, but since it is natural, since death is a universal phenomenon, the best thing man can do about it is simply to accept it as something natural. As long as he lives, however, he need not think about it, but should live as though death did not exist. The best way to forget about death is to be busy, to be useful, to be dedicated to great and noble things, to build an always better world. If God exists (and a great many secularists firmly believe in God and the usefulness of religion for their corporate and individual enterprises) and if He, in His love and mercy (for we all have our shortcomings) wants to reward us for our busy, useful and righteous life with eternal vacations, traditionally called "immortality," it is strictly His gracious business. But immortality is an appendix (however eternal) to this life, in which all real interests, all true values are to be found. The American "funeral home" is indeed the very symbol of secularist religion, for it expresses both the quiet acceptance of death as something natural (a house among other houses with nothing typical about it) and the denial of death's presence in life.

Secularism is a religion because it has a faith, it has its own eschatology and its own ethics. And it "works" and it "helps." Quite frankly, if "help" were the criterion, one would have to admit that life-centered secularism helps actually more than religion. To compete with it, religion has to present itself as "adjustment to life," "counselling," "enrichment," it has to be publicized in subways and buses as a valuable addition to "your friendly bank" and all other "friendly dealers": try it, it helps! And the religious success of secularism is so great that it leads some Christian theologians to "give up" the very category of "transcendence," or in much simpler words, the very idea of "God." This is the price we must pay if we want to be "understood" and "accepted" by modern man, proclaim the Gnostics of the twentieth century.

But it is here that we reach the heart of the matter. For Christianity help is not the criterion. Truth is the criterion. The purpose of Christianity is not to help people by reconciling them with death, but to reveal the Truth about life and death in order that people may be saved by this Truth. Salvation, however, is not only not identical with help, but is, in fact, opposed to it. Christianity quarrels with religion and secularism not because they offer "insufficient help," but precisely because they "suffice," because they "satisfy" the needs of men. If the purpose of Christianity were to take away from man the fear of death, to reconcile him with death, there would be no need for Christianity, for other religions have done this, indeed better than Christianity. And secularism is about to produce men who will gladly and corporately die - and not just live - for the triumph of the Cause, whatever it may be.

Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a "mystery" to be explained. Religion and secularism, by explaining death, give it a "status," a rationale, make it "normal." Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. At the grave of Lazarus Christ wept, and when His own hour to die approached, "he began to be sore amazed and very heavy." In the light of Christ, this world, this life are lost and are beyond mere "help," not because there is fear of death in them, but because they have accepted and normalized death. To accept God's world as a cosmic cemetery which is to be abolished and replaced with an "other world" which looks like a cemetery ("eternal rest") and to call this religion, to live in a cosmic cemetery and to "dispose" every day of thousands of corpses and to get excited about a "just society" and to be happy! - this is the fall of man. It is not the immortality or the crimes of man that reveal him as a fallen being; it is his "positive ideal" - religious or secular - and his satisfaction with this ideal. This fall, however, can be truly revealed only by Christ, because only in Christ is the fullness of life revealed to us, and death, therefore, becomes "awful," the very fall from life, the enemy. It is this world (and not any "other world"), it is this life (and not some "other life") that were given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by "transforming" them into communion with God that man was to be. The horror of death is, therefore, not in its being the "end" and not in physical destruction. By being separation from the world and life, it is separation from God. The dead cannot glorify God. It is, in other words, when Christ reveals Life to us that we can hear the Christian message about death as the enemy of God. It is when Life weeps at the grave of the friend, when it contemplates the horror of death, that the victory over death begins.

~ Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World:
Sacraments and Orthodoxy (first edition 1963)


Joe Rawls said...

Now I'm going to have to reread Schmemann along with various other things. Thanks for the prod.

I'm always struck by the high level of workaholism in Episcopal parishes, as well as the almost total absence of discussion about the afterlife or eschatology--at least in the communities I've been exposed to. Are they trying to hide from something?

Bryan Owen said...

Glad you liked that taste of Schmemann's book. It's a very rich read - the kind of book that, with each reading, prepares for the next reading.

I, too, am struck by the workaholism or 'over-functioning' in Episcopal parishes, particularly among clergy. I can't help but think that the answer is yes, all that 'busyness' is hiding something. We're working our butts off to be "helpful" and "relevant," and we're failing to be terribly convincing because, as Schmemann notes, we can't do it as well as secularism does, even if our more "progressive" brothers and sisters buy into that stuff hook, line, and sinker. There's just too much of a disconnect with what we're actually doing and saying in the Prayer Book liturgies. (No wonder the "progressives" want to revise, revise, revise the liturgy so that it can be more "helpful" and "relevant.")

So talking about things like the afterlife and eschatology ... well, that's not very "helpful" or "relevant." At least not if you've bought into secularism. But if the Gospel is Truth, then it's what people actually need.

Christopher said...

I think Fr Schmemann, whom I adore, overstates his case in a way similar to folks who pit "Modernity" against Christianity. There is a difference between secularism and secularity, and I would suggest that most people inhabit more the latter than the former. The latter is often a shifting composite rather than an -ism or ideology. There are also Christian secularities and components of secularity that are rooted in Christianity, some in reaction to (sometimes for good reason) and some in accord with, as for example, James Alison shows, that are about actual lay life in the world. In some ways, Christianity breaks down a sacred/secular sort of dichotomy in this way of thinking similar to Temples' famed "most materialistic of religions" quote.

Our Prayer Book practice, speaking as a layman, invites us to live in a world inhabited by the Word and Holy Spirit. This world, however, is not one divorced from the workaday, but is the workaday. In that sense, we're Benedictine: Ora et labora.

Bryan Owen said...

Points very well taken, Christopher. Thanks for sharing.