FATHER ALEXANDER SCHMEMANN: SINGING IN THE RIGHT KEY
by Fr. Alexis Vinogradov
This article is neither about singing nor music, it is about Father Alexander Schmemann and his approach to teaching theology. Curiously, while Fr Alexander claimed to be tone-deaf musically, he often invoked musical terminology in his theological work, and had the gift of "hearing" and beautifully composing the "music" of theology. His use of such words as "tonality" and "key" reminds us today that theology is not a precise descriptive laboratory science; it forever strives to find adequate ways to convey the knowledge and experience of the ineffable and limitless God, the God Who resists being jammed into neat and safe rules and formulas but Who, paradoxically, passionately wants to be known by us, His beloved children.
To those of us who knew and studied with him, thirteen years seems a brief time since Father Alexander's death, especially since his published works are widely read, and previously unpublished talks and writings are being regularly issued. At the same time, it is a fact that within the new generation of theological students, priests and faithful many have neither heard nor been touched by his teaching approach.
The importance of that approach for us is that it is a powerful antidote to the persistent and growing tendencies in religious literature today, tendencies which Fr Alexander called "reductions", because their proponents choose one narrow approach at the exclusion of a comprehensive experience of faith. He reminded us that such a choice always diminishes the catholic (whole) experience of the Church ultimately pulling the writer away from the Church, and by definition, into heresy.
In the spirit of the early Fathers, Fr Alexander understood two key principles of theology. The first notion, one which permeates his whole theology — is that the liturgy (the Church's life of prayer and worship) is the source of our experience and understanding of God. The second principle is that the Kingdom of God, in other words, man's eternal life in God, cannot be fully grasped by clinical formulas and definitions.
If the language of the spirit is particularly symbolic, that is, comprised of signs which connect us to deeper and true, or we might say, "ineffable", meanings, then it is the "higher" language of art, of music, of literature which best uses familiar terms to portray scenes on the canvas of our soul, at the deepest level, at a level beyond words, in a way which is itself life-giving. Father Schmemann's language and effort is artistic in that sense that it doesn't hit us with irrefutable axioms, but like the parables of Christ, it is an invitation to share in what he sees with his inner eye. As the true artist is always humble and receptive before the truth, Fr Alexander "explored" God's truth, offering his understanding with clear conviction, yet with the tentative care of a novice just beginning a great journey. As Christ used the parable to preserve his hearer's freedom, so Fr Alexander, as teacher, was intent on finding a form to connect with his pupil's whole experience, not just his intellect.
Here is an illustration. A typical catechism might read: "Scripture can be best understood if we are sorry for our sins in church during Lent, and it's in the church that the Bible becomes clearer." A text like this does not teach something wrong but it leaves us cold and indifferent. We say, Oh, another pious teaching to remember for catechism exam! But listen closely and "feel" how Fr Alexander conveys this same idea:
"The deep sigh of penitence which continuously resounds throughout the Lenten services, the call to repentance, to the recognition of one's utter weakness and sinfulness, establishes in us that disposition which enables us truly to hear the scriptures, to understand their real meaning. On the other hand, the structure of the services, the harmony of the reading, ritual and prayers, the entire "movement" of the services, gives life to the texts, gives them that "pitch" which makes them ring true."
These words come no longer from a formal catechism, but from the depths of a man immersed in the life of celebration and communion, who desires to have you feel what he feels as he stands enveloped by the worship. His frequent recourse to quotation marks for words and phrases are a signal for us to pause on that word or phrase, to consider its nuances and allusions. On the other hand, it was also a recurrent reminder that the meaning of many of these words has become ambiguous or empty, as in the use today of the word "unity".
This is not to say that Fr Alexander disdained dogmatic formulations. He understood their place in establishing theological boundaries against heretical teaching, yet these same boundaries are rooted in divine revelation and in the Church's lived experience. The Nicene Creed is exactly such clear and succinct dogmatic theology in very precise words, but the Creed itself does not come out of a theologian's study but is born within the living experience of the Church, and as a baptismal confession, comes alive when it is sung in the gathering of believers.
It may seem contradictory that this priest-theologian, who was so free with metaphors, images, symbols, would also frequently write, "and here is the precise meaning of ..." But precision in theology is "precisely" from the fullness of the well of Christian life when all its components are held together: Scripture, prayer, common worship, ascetic effort, love of neighbor, humility, study, obedience in love. And when finally we are drawn to the power of his words and witness their endurance, we realize that Fr Alexander has chosen them with great care, just as a true poet's words do not simply leap from the wings of "inspiration", but are the fruit of God's grace and the poet's labor. His verbal images are true because they lift us up, they "restore our soul". Unlike the sweet "saccharine" (one of Father's favorite expressions) lulling of much of contemporary religious literature, his words stripped away all sentimental speculation, and evoked our silent, yet exuberant consent: "Yes, I knew that, but didn't know how to say it," or even better, "Yes, I've been there, but had forgotten how beautiful it was!"
There flows today a growing current of moralizing literature which, even among the Orthodox, passes for spiritual reading. It suffices to paste a pious veneer like, say, Wisdom from Fr Paphnutius, on such books and there is suddenly great interest. Such literature can be compared to manuals on scuba-diving which furnish all the techniques, warn of the dangers, provide statistics on the feats of great divers, but give us no clue why we should be excited to go diving in the first place. Orthodox literature of this type is generally quite mechanical, didactic, often apocalyptic, and in the final analysis, usually escapist. It flies as an insult in the face of the One Who "so loved the world that He gave His only Son" for it's life. Fr Alexander reminded us that the devil does not create anything of his own, but steals the good of God's creation and twists it into a lie. So it is that the once harmonious beauty of words that lifted us to God has become a boring pious drone that only makes us "feel good" about ourselves, and condemns those who are not "with us".
If in our culture and time we need to hear again the music of his theology it is for refreshment and harmony above the din of religious "noise" which no longer nourishes our spirit. A brief article can only point the seeker in a direction. The rest requires our own hard work "to discern the spirits," in the words of the Apostle John, which Father Alexander loved quoting. Certainly, Father's own substantial lifetime output of books is a veritable banquet of such deep and fruitful discernment, a gift for those hungry for the Kingdom of God. Enter the "feast" yourself, pick up For the Life of the World, Liturgy and Life, Great Lent, and for the braver souls there is The Eucharist, Of Water and the Spirit, and many other works and articles by Father Alexander of Crestwood. You won't go away hungry.
Fr. Alexis Vinogradov is pastor of St. Gregory the Theologian Church, Wappingers Falls NY.
From Jacob’s Well
Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey
Orthodox Church in America