27 July 2009

On Romantic Orthodoxy

I don’t usually do editorial-type pieces here on Logismoi, nor am I fond of controversy here. My positions on such issues are something I prefer simply to assume and take for granted here, rather than make them a subject for debate. But I don’t have much time for a more Logismic post today and I thought it would be interesting to offer something in a somewhat controversial vein.

A few years ago, Rod Dreher of ‘Crunchy Con’ fame blogged about a passage from one of Fr Alexander Schmemann’s journals wherein the latter criticised something he called ‘Romantic Orthodoxy’, characterised by:

+ nominalism (e.g., non-existing Patriarchates)
+ blind liturgical conservatism
+ cult of the past
+ theological preoccupation almost exclusively with the Fathers
+ ‘apocalypticism’
+ hatred for the contemporary world (not for this world in general)
+ emotionalism
+ cult of externals (beard, cassocks, prayer ropes, style)

In the comments on Dreher’s post a certain Richard Barrett wrote a great response to Fr Schmemann’s critique of ‘Romantic Orthodoxy’, one with which I completely agree. Thus, my own comments may be a bit redundant, but I wanted to add 2 cents anyway.

While, like Barrett, I agree with Fr Schmemann’s main point, that Orthodoxy is about faith and the heart and not about these ‘external’ things people get caught up in, I also think that presenting these in a neat checklist can give people the misleading idea that anyone who wears a beard or a prayer rope, or who talks about the Fathers or the apocalypse, is living in some sort of fantasy world and is not truly Orthodox (and by now of course everyone has guessed that I’m trying at least a little bit to defend myself not least of all!).

For that matter, I’m not sure how an Orthodox Christian can avoid being theologically preoccupied ‘almost exclusively with the Fathers’, unless of course, Fr Schmemann means that these people ignore Scripture. Furthermore, I also think we all must needs be ‘liturgical conservatives’, if not blind ones, and that anyone with an Orthodox worldview is of necessity going to compare the contemporary world rather unfavourably with the past (not to say that either is perfect). In a sense, I would argue that there is a healthy ‘romanticism’ that is essentially just a personal enthusiasm for Tradition, as well as a healthy appreciation of the past—particularly in its cultural and spiritual aspects—per se. Certainly, our attitude toward the Fathers or toward the traditional liturgy ought not to be a cold one, even if we don’t find ourselves overly excited by the architecture of ancient Rome or the novels of Dostoevsky (and why shouldn’t we?). It seems like we could be sober Orthodox and somewhat ‘romantic’ at the same time!

Finally, I would argue that excessive veneration for traditional liturgical forms or pre-modern culture is hardly the most pressing danger of modern American society. In fact, it seems to me that we could do with a good, hard swing of the pendulum in these directions, even if that pendulum swings a little too far. In a culture that idolises youth, novelty, entertainment, and immediate gratification to a degree unprecedented in the history of mankind, I admit I find it hard to get too exasperated with those who are a bit too starry-eyed about Holy Russia or the Middle Ages, or with those who think that we shouldn’t change a single thing about the liturgy, or with those who spend all of their time talking about the Fathers (even if they’ve scarcely read or understood a word of them!). This is an issue of which I was reminded last March by a post on the Ochlophobist called papal ochlophobisms?, wherein Och referred to (then) Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s criticisms of a group the latter dubbed ‘pious Pelagians’ as ‘disproportionate rhetoric’ against a ‘culturally insignificant’ group (you will see that my comments there reference Fr Schmemann and ‘Romantic Orthodoxy’).

By way of contrast with Fr Schmemann, Barrett invokes the example of Fr Seraphim (Rose) of blessed memory, and of the two I for one certainly prefer the latter in many ways. But without venturing into the wilderness of northern California and growing our beards to superhuman lengths, I tend to think that on many of these issues, for all his intellect and insight, Fr Schmemann is a bit outdone even by Fr Georges Florovsky. Fr Florovsky knew how to value the past without ‘romanticising’ it in an unhealthy way and how to follow Tradition with all of his heart without shellaccing every little custom he came across. Plus, while he was no Fr Seraphim, he had a fuller beard than Fr Schmemann! ;-)


James the Thickheaded said...

Thank you for the post. I wonder that we can't simply be thankful that there is a range of opinion rather than just one.

Archpriest Andrew in Minneapolis said...

I am just a passing dabbler in the blogosphere, but may I make a comment?

In this instance we are considering the entry in a personal journal. Not a blog, by the way, but a journal or diary which is something rather different. Part of a journal, in a possibly less narcissitic age,certainle less public, was that it was way to blow off steam and exasperation in a more or less private manner.

Can you imagine for a moment what it must have been like - be like - to deal in a responsible way with high-strung young men every day, many of whom were, are - in a manner characteristic of certain young men - caught up in enthusiasms that age and experience and pastoral concern can only shake their heads at? And some of whom - but possibly too many given the self-selection process of seminary education - were, are caught up in psychopatholigies that manifest themselves in prelest, or at least an ill-informed attachments?

Anyone who witnessed Fr Alexander's love of liturgical celebration or familiarity with the fathers or irritation with innovators as much as self-professed committees for a purer Orthodoxy, and above all his love for the Church, would not take the easy option of throwing the things that exasperated him and documented in his journals back at him. It would be far better to exercise a bit of imagination and sympathy and good will and understanding.

I say all this because Fr Alexander was, in fact, a romantic conservative. What enchanted him was the glory manifested in the Liturgy that transformed garden sheds in back alleys - and ushered impoverished immigrants in a hostile world - into the experience of the grace-filled, heavenly mysteries of the Kingdom.

Best wishes,

AA in M

Anonymous said...

I must acknowledge first that I've not read Fr. Alexander's remarks in context; but just seeing “the list” as it was included in Dreher's blog piece, I'm struck by the qualifications that many of the points include. So, for example, Fr. Alexander's objection is not to liturgical conservatism, but to blind liturgical conservatism, not to a theology focused on the Fathers' writings, but to an almost exclusive preoccupation with the Fathers, not to the tradition which has been delivered to us by the Church, but to the cult of the past, etc. To me, it seems less likely that Fr. Alexander was seeking to draw a line in the sand, and more likely that he was seeking to encourage the avoidance of ill-considered extremes.
Removing those extremist qualifiers, I find the list in some part a nice summary of key features of Orthodoxy which appeal to people who approach the Orthodox Church from within a 20th-century Protestant mindset. We want and need: liturgical conservatism, the strength of grounded tradition (from within which we can say with assurance, “This is the Orthodox faith; this is faith of our fathers!”), the received wisdom of the early Church Fathers, and a distancing from the world (in keeping with St Paul's call “Love not the world. . . .”). Rather than constituting a “Romantic Orthodoxy,” i.e., some off-brand version of true Orthodoxy, I see and embrace several of these items as foundational to the Orthodoxy I have found and love.

Anonymous said...

While risking danger of trying to artificially unite disparate persons and do violence to both, somehow coming to Orthodoxy reading both Fr Alexander and Fr Seraphim Rose seems to provide healthy boundaries.

aaronandbrighid said...

Fr James> Thanks for commenting. I'm glad to know you took it well!

Fr Andrew> Excellent points! You've helped me put Fr Schmemann's remarks in perspective quite well. I had hoped I WAS exercising good will if not those other things and that I WAS doing something rather more than simply throwing it all back at him. But you're quite right that I witnessed about him none of the things that you mentioned. While his enthusiasm for liturgy comes through and this perception I'm going to mention may be unfair, I sometimes get the sense that he was so dissatisfied with the liturgy as it has come down to us that he thought it no longer capable of ushering anyone into the Kingdom. That's the way he comes across to me sometimes, but I'm always willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Anonymous> Very good points about the qualifiers. I was afraid when I first read the list, however, that many might be tempted to see these as redundant, whether Fr Schmemann intended them that way or not. In other words, I've encountered those who see ANY liturgical conservatism as blind. Fr Andrew's comment made me feel a bit better about this in regards to Fr Schmemann, though, and I quite agree with you in seeing these items, sans qualifiers, as foundational to the Orthodoxy I love.

aaronandbrighid said...

David> (Is that right?) I've heard or read similar observations elsewhere, and while I read both fairly early in my 'Orthodox journey', I'm not sure whether that had any effect on me personally one way or another, for good or ill. I got much of my concern for the heart as well as the externals of Orthodoxy from Fr Seraphim, and not much of either from Fr Schmemann. So while I tend to think of myself that I'm pretty well balanced, I suppose there are plenty who would say I'm too Seraphimy and not Alexandery enough!

frphoti said...

Well put, all of it. I think (and this may sound simplistic and childish) that running down the "narrow road" is a rut in the middle that we must follow. Not too strict, not too liberal when it comes to these things. We can see through history that though we have the canons, they are guides and not every situation fits the book' prescription. There must be-in certain things having to do with practicalities and such in the Church- some economia.

Anonymous said...

Oh, hey! I remember writing that. It's still pretty much what I think, too. Thanks for the kind words.

Richard Barrett

aaronandbrighid said...

Fr Photi> Hear, hear, Father!

Richard> You're quite welcome, and thanks for stopping by. I hope you'll visit more often.

I didn't realise that was the same Richard, but I check out your blog occasionally, and enjoy following your adventures in Greece (my wife and I lived in Thessaloniki for two years, and Orthodox Americans in Greece often have very similar adventures!). I just read the post about the Pentecostals--my cousin is an AG missionary and has been to Greece a few times (not to convert Greeks, thank God!). I wonder if she knows these people.

By the way, do you know any of the Americans in Thessaloniki?

Anonymous said...

I know of some of the Americans in Thessaloniki, and have corresponded some with one of them, but I haven't actually been up there yet. Won't happen this trip, I'm afraid, but I don't think this will be my last time in Greece by any means.

I'll be more than happy to be a more regular visitor here. Thanks again. It was very odd to me to find somebody posting about an obscure three year old blog comment, but whatever works!


aaronandbrighid said...

Ah, there's a simple explanation for my 'posting about an obscure three year old blog comment'. I actually wrote most of this post, except for the preamble and the reference to the Ochlophobist, about three years ago for an e-mail list where Dreher's post had been passed around. That's why I turned to it yesterday when I didn't have time for a proper Logismoi post! I like to keep a few ready-made posts around for a pinch!

It's too bad you won't be making it up North. You really should have gone to the Holy Mountain! Who have you been corresponding with?

aaronandbrighid said...

Fr Andrew> I was thinking more about what you said the other day, and it occurred to me that I might have found my way to be more imaginative, sympathetic, and understanding had I actually come across this passage in the journals themselves rather than being passed around as an e-mail linking to a blog. It was perhaps this more than the writing of it per se, or even the publishing of it, that made me react so strongly to the whole format of a list of the characteristics of 'Romantic Orthodoxy'. Posted on the Internet or passed around in this way, it lends itself much more readily than Fr Schmemann could ever have foreseen to being used as a diagnostic checklist for certain people to decide which other people have this sort of neatly designated spiritual problem. I think this was what troubled me about it more than anything else.

Gabriel said...

Fr. Alexnader’s journals are a difficult beast to wrestle with, not least because his wife dutifully excised a number of passages. Also, the critical notes to the text are paltry and rarely provide context. (By way of comparison, Princeton University Press’s ongoing production of Kierkegaard’s journals and notebooks are not only unedited, but are well annotated and thus allow the passages to take on their full meaning—or as full as one can discern from Kierkegaard’s pen.)

Back to Fr. Alexander…

After reading and rereading most of Schmemann’s writings over the last two years, I find that it is only possible to interpret him in the context of the great tensions which existed within Western (primarily American) Orthodoxy during the twentieth century; any divorce from context renders a great deal of his thought as uncharitable, overly rationalistic, hostile, and renovating. It’s easy now, decades later, to look back at his work and scoff certain “excesses” in his thinking and opinions, but that’s largely because we live at a point which has been indelibly shaped by those opinions and thinking. More and more priests and laity, even from traditional jurisdictions and parishes, lean on Schmemann (albeit sometimes indirectly) in not only their approach to the Liturgy itself, but in their explication of the Church’s Sacraments, their encouragement of frequent (or, at least, more frequent than, say, once-a-year) Communion, and their stance against secularism. It has not been an easy reception by far and I certainly agree, as Dreher’s post demonstrates, that many Orthodox Christians today can “lift” out of Schmemann what they like to hear or what they believe reaffirms their own modernist positions and/or hostility toward traditionalists. Schmemann could have been more circumspect at times about what he wrote, but then again, as has already been pointed out here, his journals were never intended for public consumption (even if certain passages may have been drafts for public statements or publishable pieces). At best, it seems they should be used to unpack or clarify his formal writings and statements rather than be taken as the “best” indicator of his thought.

As a final note, a year or so ago my brother found a used copy of Fr. Seraphim’s lay sermons which have been out of print for years. In the introduction there is a quote from Fr. Schmemann along the lines that the present age of Orthodoxy belongs to Fr. Seraphim. I have never found where the quote originally came from. Maybe it’s apocryphal. But if it isn’t, it certainly tells us something about the breadth of Fr. Alexander’s appreciation for positive movements within American Orthodoxy, movements which did not have to be connected in any way, shape, or form with his own thought directly or the Orthodox Church in America which he helped establish.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Thomas Hopko--Fr. Alexander's Elisha--gave the homily at Platina during the celebration of Fr. Seraphim's repose. This, to me, says volumes.

aaronandbrighid said...

Gabriel> Thank you for the comment. What you say makes sense, and that quote from Fr Schmemann, if it is genuine, is far more than I would ever have expected from him.

Anonymous> I noted that, and I agree that it said something, but it seemed to me more like a volume, singular, rather than volumes, plural. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Well, eight weeks is really not as much time as it looks when you have someplace to be four hours a day five days a week. Next time I do something like this, I will leave more time on either end to do more. As far as Athos goes -- well, I'll go there when I know for sure that's where I'm supposed to go.

I've exchanged a couple of notes with a certain Fr. Gregory Edwards.

aaronandbrighid said...

Oh good, Fr Gregory, his wife, and their triplets live in the apartment my wife and I used to rent in Thessaloniki!

I understand about the schedule in Greece. I'm still chagrined that we spent 5 days in Romania and didn't manage to visit any really functioning monasteries!

The Ochlophobist said...

I heard something about Better Homes & Gardens Greece and that apartment. Hmmm.

aaronandbrighid said...

Those Edwardses! We'll show them!