The Mission of Orthodox Youth

By Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

This address was first given at a conference of Orthodox youth at Oberlin College in 1968. It was Published in ‘Concern’ Magazine (Volume iii, Number 4). Our thanks and appreciation to the Orthodox Christian Fellowship for granting us permission to republish it here.

Our purpose in meeting here at this first conference of Orthodox students is not simply to hear a few lectures, listen to a few discussions, and proclaim once more how wonderful we Orthodox are. So often at Orthodox conferences we meet in an atmosphere of triumphalism and then, returning to our parishes, find ourselves utterly confused. The official image is always that of something magnificent, but the unofficial reality is that of complaints and criticisms. What we want to do here is not shares some slogans with you, but rather to think together. None of us has brought here ready-made answers; we are here to look for a common perspective. Although we are in a very new situation in America, we often jump over the first and essential , which is simply to think together about what we must do. Too often we want solutions to problems which we have not formulated, progress towards a point which we have not yet defined, victories in battles in which we don’t know who is fighting whom. Very often we are led by leader who proclaim that they have answers to all questions and misled us. I think, therefore, that if we plan this Conference in a “low key,” as a first step toward more light — in humility, in prayer, asking God not so much what we what to do but what He wants us to do — it would be more constructive and useful for the future of our Church.

The time has come to clarify the issues, to formulate the problems which we face together, to discuss the solutions and the priorities in our existences as Orthodox in a Western country which is our county. Are we a group of exiles? Are we a spiritual and cultural ghetto to be perpetuated against all odds? Are we to dissolve ourselves here in what is called the “American way of life”? What is this American way of life?

The purpose of this introductory paper is to deal only with the fundamental framework of these questions. In my first lecture to freshmen at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, I always use the same symbol: if you have a big library and move into a new house, you can’t use that library unless you build shelves.  While it is still in boxes, you own that library, but it is of no use to you. My purpose then is to build the shelves and then to try and see what are the priorities of our Orthodox situation today.

It is impossible to speak about our situation in American unless we refer it to our normal and essential term of reference: The Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church — whether Greek, Syrian, Serbian, Roumanian, or Bulgarian — has always been both the heart and the form of an Orthodox world. Only here in the West, and for the first time in the history of Orthodoxy, do we think of the Church in terms only of a religious institution such as a diocese, a parish, and so on. No one in organically Orthodox countries has ever thought of the Church as being distinct from the totality of life. Since the conversion of Constantine, the Church was organically related to society, culture, education, family, etc. There was no separation, no dichotomy. The Russian word for peasant is simply christianin, which at the beginning obviously meant Christian.

Here then we find the first radical difference which we have to face in America: we belong to the Orthodox Church but we do not belong to an Orthodox culture. This is the first and the most important change and unless we understand that this is not an academic proposition, but the real framework of our existence, we will not see clearly through our situation. For everything in the Orthodox Church points toward a way of life; the Church is connected to all aspects of life. Yet we are deprived of this connection because, upon leaving our churches on Sunday morning, we return to a culture which was not produced, shaped, or inspired by the Orthodox Church and which, therefore, in a way is deeply alien to Orthodoxy.

The first Orthodox immigrants in America never thought about all this for in many ways they continued to live within an organic Orthodox “culture.” They were still living with that type of unity because they belonged to what in American sociology is know as a sub-culture. After the liturgy, Russians or Greeks would meet in the church hall as they would meet not only as Orthodox but as Russians or Greeks or Bukovenians or Carpatho-Russians and they would meet precisely in order to breathe their native culture. At the beginning, all this was completely normal. Even today you can live in certain places as if you were not living in America. You can live there without knowing too much English, without any real contact with American culture. But whether we like it or not, that “immigrant” chapter of our history is coming to an end and this is where your generation comes in. You do not have an immigrant mentality. Orthodoxy for you is not primarily the remembrance of childhood abroad. You will not keep Orthodoxy simply because it is “the faith of your fathers.” Suppose we apply this principle to others: then the Lutherans should keep the Lutheran faith, the Jews the Jewish faith, and finally the son of an atheist should keep atheism because it was the “faith of his father.” If this is the criterion, religion becomes a mere cultural continuity. But our claim is that our Church is Orthodox, or, more simply, the Church, and this is a frightening claim. It implies that it is the faith for all men, for all countries, for all cultures. And unless this implication i kept in mind and heart, our claim to be the true or Orthodox Church becomes hypocrisy and it would be more honest to call ourselves a society for the perpetuation of the cultural values of a particular geographical region.

Our faith cannot be reduced to religious practices and customs alone. It claims the entire life of man. But the culture in which we live, the “American way of life,” is something which already existed when we come here and thus we find ourselves an Eastern Church  with a total claim on our life, yet living within a Western society and a Western way of life. The first problem then can be formulated very simply, although its solution is extremely difficult: How are we to combine these things? How can we live our Orthodox faith which claims the totality of our existence within a culture which also claims to shape our existence? This is the antimony of our situation; this is where all our difficulties are rooted. Yet unless we understand it, we will always have wrong solutions. These wrong solutions –quite popular today– follow two basic patterns. I will call one pattern a “neurotic” Orthodoxy. It is the attitude of those who, whether they are native Orthodox or converts, decide that cannot be Orthodox unless they simply reject American culture, who build their spiritual home in some romantic and idealized Byzantium or Russia, and who constantly curse America and decadent Western society. “Western,” “American” are here synonyms with “evil” and “demonic.” This extreme position gives a semblance of security; ultimately, however, it is self-destructive. It is certainly not the attitude of St. John who, in the midst of a violent persecution, said so simply: “…and this is the victory which overcomes the world, our faith.”; and who also said: “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear: because fear has torment.” (I John 4:18) Here, however, Orthodoxy is transformed into an apocalyptic fear which has always led to sectarianism, hatred, and spiritual death.

The other dangerous pattern is that of an almost pathological “Americanism.” There are people who, when they hear in church on word in Russian or Greek, react as if it were a betrayal of Christ. It is the opposite of neurosis, the neurosis of those who want Orthodoxy to become American immediately.

It the first neurosis, Orthodoxy is reduced to a fanatical and negativistic sect; in the second one, America is falsified, for America is not at all a country which requires surrender, conformity, and the acceptance of the main-street mentality as the “American way of life.” What makes this country great and indeed unique is precisely the openness of its culture to change. And who knows whether it may not be the real mission of Orthodoxy in America to change the American culture which has never really been challenged by a different set of values. No doubt Orthodoxy has an understanding of man, life, world, nature, etc., radically different from those prevailing in American culture but this difference itself is a challenge for Orthodoxy rather than a justification for withdrawal, negativism, and fear. To avoid two extremes, to be truly Orthodox yet fully American — such seems to be the only real Orthodox tradition. How and where do we then begin?

I said already that I have no ready-made answers; I have only a few thoughts which I would like to share with you — a few thoughts about the conditions which may set us on the difficult way. One of the great dangers of modern, and especially American, culture is its reduction of man to history and to change. Since everything by definition is changing, the basic values which shape man’s life are also subject to change and none is absolute. This is the first thing which we Orthodox have to denounce and resist. We must openly confess that there are things which do not change, that human nature in fact does not change, that such realities as sin, or righteousness, or holiness do not depend on the changing patterns of the culture. How many times have I heard, for example, that in “our age” the concept of sin must be changed if it is to be relevant to the modern man. How many times we have heard that in “our age” we cannot speak of the Devil. Yet I am absolutely convinced that sin is exactly the same for me as it was for St. Paul and that if there is no Devil, Christianity is no longer the same religion it was for nearly two thousand years. It is not enough to speak, as some Western theologians do, of the “demonic.” It is not enough to identify sin with alienation. And is at this point that Orthodoxy has a tremendous responsibility, for  it is fundamentally the belief in unchanging realities, it is the denunciation of all “reductions” as not only doctrinally wrong, but existentially destructive.

Thus the first condition for anything else is simply faith. Before anything else is possible, before I can speak of myself as belonging to this or that generation, as immigrant or native, of our age as technological or post-industrial, etc., there is this one fundamental reality: man standing before God and finding that life is communion with Him, knowledge of him, faith in Him, that we are created literally for God. Without this experience and affirmation, nothing has meaning. My real life is in God and in heaven. I was created for eternity. These simple affirmations are rejected as naive and irrelevant today, and in spite of all its Christian terminology, Western Christianity becomes more and more a man-centered humanism. At this point, no compromise is possible and everything depends on whether Orthodoxy will remain faithful to its God-centeredness, to its orientation toward the Transcendent, the Eternal, the Divine.

We do not deny that men need justice and bread. But before everything else they need God. Thus, we truly can do what we are called to in spite of all temptations. The seemingly “charitable” character of these temptations is not only to proclaim or to defend but first of all to live this unchanging, eternal, hierarchy of values in which God and God alone is the beginning, the content, and the end of everything. This is the real content of the Orthodox faith, of our liturgy, of our sacraments. This is what we celebrate on Easter Night. This is what is revealed at the Eucharistic Table. It is always the same thing, the same prayer, the same joy: “Thy Kingdom come… .” It is the understanding of life as indeed preparation, not simply for an eternal rest but for the life which is more real than anything else — a life of which this life is but a “symbol” and a “sacrament.”

I can hear and sense the reaction: “Oh, again paradise and hell; is that Christianity? Can this be the answer preached in the 20th century?” And I will answer: “Yes it is. Yes it can.” It is because so many people today have forgotten this, it is because all this has become “irrelevant” for Christians themselves, that so many are in hell already. And Orthodoxy will lose all its salt if each one of us does not strive first of all for this personal faith and for this hunger for salvation, redemption, and deification. Christianity begins only when we take seriously the words of Christ: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all things shall be added unto you.” (Matt 6:33)

But now let me share with you my second preliminary thought. Just as each one of us must discover for himself the “unchanging” and take part in the same, never-ending spiritual fight, we must discover ourselves as belonging to one particular generation of Orthodox Christians living in the 20th Century in America in a secular and pluralistic culture and in the midst of a great spiritual crisis. What can we do together? What are the Orthodox imperatives for our common and corporate task? I think that here the priorities are rather clear, especially when one speaks to students and for students, for “student” is today the purest representative of what I call the second Orthodoxy in America. The first one — whether he came from the “old world” or was born here — is still and immigrant in his mentality. He lives within American culture but is not yet an organic part of it. A student is by definition someone who can and must reflect. So far Orthodoxy in America has not reflected upon itself and upon its situation here. The Orthodox student is the first Orthodox whi is called to reflect on his life as an Orthodox in America and on this reflection depends the future of our Church here, for this reflection will obviously be aimed at the problems which I mentioned at the beginning of this talk. So this is a crucial task. You will say either yes or no for the entire Orthodox Church on this continent.

To say yes, however means to rediscover the Church as mission, and mission within our present situation means something more than simply converting individuals to Orthodoxy. It means primarily an evaluation of American culture in Orthodox terms and this is the real mission of the Orthodox “intelligentsia,” for no one else can do that. It is here that i must stress again the fundamental quality of American culture: its openness to criticism and change, to challenge and judgment. Throughout the whole American history, Americans always asked: What does it mean to be American? What is America for? And they are still asking these questions. Here is our chance, and here is our duty.

The evaluation of American culture is Orthodox terms requires first a knowledge of Orthodoxy, and second the knowledge of the true American culture and tradition. One cannot evaluate that which one does not know, love and understand. Our mission, therefore, is first of all one of education. We — all of us– must become theologians, not in the technical sense of the word but in terms of vital interest, concern, care for our faith, and above everything else in terms of a relationship between faith and life, faith and culture, faith and “the American way of life.” Let me give you one example. We all know of that one of the deepest crises of our culture, of the entire modern world, is the crisis of family and the man-woman relationship. I would ask then: How can this crisis be related to and understood in terms of our belief in the One who is “more honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim…,” the Theotokos, the Mother of God, the Virgin? Is this belief a beautiful part of our liturgical celebrations, or a revelation of the mystery of love? Can this unique mystery of Mariology be truly “applied” as judgment, as healing, as Truth — to the confusion and chaos created by Freud and his followers? The knowledge of Orthodoxy thus is not a “part” of the corresponding progress of our American way of life but a key to it, a way of understanding and evaluation.

Where all this will lead us, I do not know. In the words of a hymn of Cardinal Newman: “I do not see the distant scene, one step enough for me.” But I know that between the two extremes — that of a surrender to America, that of a surrender of America — we must find then narrow and the difficult way of the true Orthodox Tradition. No solution will ever be final, and there is no final solution in “this world.” We shall always live in tension and conflict, in the rhythm of victory and defeat. Yet if the Puritans could have had such a tremendous impact on American culture, if Sigmund Freud could change it so deeply as to send to generations of Americans to the psychoanalytical couch, if Marxism, in spite of all its phenomenal failures, can still inspire presumably intelligent American intellectuals, why can’t the faith and the doctrine which we clam to be the true faith and the true doctrine have its chance? “O ye of little faith…” Marx and Freud never doubted and won their vicious victories. The modern Christian, however, has a built-in inferiority complex. One historical defeat pushes him either into an apocalyptic fear and panicking or “death of God” theologies. The time has come, maybe, simply to recover our faith and apply it with love and humility to the land which has become ours. And who can do that if not those who are given a full share of American culture?

To sum up, two things are essential: first the strengthening of our personal faith and commitment. Whether priest or layman, man or woman, the first thing for an Orthodox is not to speak about Orthodoxy, but to live it to his full capacity; it is prayer, it is standing before God, it is the difficult joy of experiencing “heaven on earth.” This is the first thing and it cannot be reached without effort, fasting, asceticism, without sacrifice and the discovery of that which in the Gospel is called the “narrow way.” And then, to use a most abused word: a deep and real dialogue with America — not accommodation, not a compromise, for a dialogue may indeed be violent. If nothing else, it will achieve two things: it will reveal to us what is real and genuine in our faith and what is mere decoration. We may, indeed, lose all kinds of decorations which we erroneously take for Orthodoxy itself. What will remain is exactly the  faith which overcomes the world! And then in that dialogue we will discover the true America, not the America which so many Orthodox curse and so many idolize, but the America of that great hunger for God and His righteousness which has always underlain the genuine American culture. The more I live here, the more I believe that the encounter between Orthodoxy and America is a providential one. And because it is Providential, it is being attacked, misunderstood, denied, rejected on both sides. Maybe it is for the handful of Orthodox students on American campuses to understand its real meaning and to act accordingly.

Father Alexander Schmemann