Father Alexander Schmemann continues this seventh chapter of The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdomby noting, in the words I quoted previously, that the loftier the word, the more ambiguous it is and the more discernment is needed. Words are in need not simply of definition, but of salvation, and this salvation can only come from God. Theology involves referring words to the reality of God, so that they become manifestation and gift.

The flaw of contemporary theology (including, alas, Orthodox theology) and its obvious impotence lies in the fact that it so often ceases to refer words to reality. It becomes “words about words,” definitions of a definition. Either it endeavours, as in the contemporary West, to translate Christianity into the “language of today,” in which case – because this is not only a “fallen” language but truly a language of renunciation of Christianity – theology is left with nothing to say and itself becomes apostasy; or, as we often see among the Orthodox, it attempts to thrust on “contemporary man” its own abstract and in many respects “archaic” language, which, to the degree that it refers neither to any reality nor to any experience for this “contemporary” man, remains alien and incomprehensible, and on which learned theologians, with the aid of all these definitions and interpretations, conduct experiments in artificial resuscitation.

But in Christianity, faith, as experience of an encounter and a gift received in this encounter, precedes words, for only from this experience do they find not simply their meaning but their power. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt 12:34). And thus words that are not referred to this experience or that are turned away from it inevitably become only words – ambiguous, easily changed and evil. (149)

This is particularly true for the key Christian term: unity, for this refers to the very life of God Himself.

Because the Christian faith, in all its depth, is directed toward the triune God – the knowledge of God in his triunity – through this knowledge it knows also the creaturely life created by him. It knows it in its original state, it knows it in its fall, it knows it in its salvation. …

This means that to the Christian faith, unity is not something important and desired but nevertheless “supplementary,” distinct from faith, as if there could be faith without “unity,” and as if unity were not contained, manifested and living by faith. In unity is the very essence, the very content of faith, which also is entrance into unity, the reception of the unity forfeited by the world in its fall, and the experience of unity as salvation and new life. (150-151)

The danger of “unity from below” lies in its potential to pervert this most fundamental of realities. While the devil could turn us away from God, the one “thing he could not and cannot do: change the very essence of life as unity.” (152) Everything that lives, lives from and strives towards unity.

The substitution, the victory of the “prince of this world,” however, lies in the fact that he has torn this unity away from God, its source, content and goal, and thus has made unity and end-in-itself or, in the language of faith, an idol. Unity, which is from God, has ceased to be unity with God and in God, who alone fulfils it as genuine unity and genuine life. Unity becomes its own content, its own “god.” (153)

Because unity is from God it continues to shine in this world, but, to the extent that it becomes an idol, it becomes “‘easily transformable,’ unstable and easily shattered, but also the generator of every new division, evil, violence and hatred” (153) as is seen in the ideologies of both the left and the right. By contrast, the Church’s manifestation of unity in this world means that she remains radically dependent on the kingdom and will always remain a sojourner on earth where the preaching of the Gospel brings not unity but division.

But the whole power of this truly saving division, the whole, absolute, radical distinction between it and the destructive division brought into the world by the devil, which comprises the very essence of sin and the fall, is that it is the exposure (and I mean this in the literal sense of this word: the manifestation, revelation, the “unmasking”) of the devilish substitution, the lie, the conversion of the “unity form below” into an idol, and the service to it in idolatry, in separation from God, in the division of life, in destruction and death. Only because the divine unity from above came into the world, was manifested and granted and abides in it, can man finally come to believe in it, i.e., to see, to accept its entire essence, to love, to know it as the heart’s treasure and the one thing needful, but in the same manner to see and comprehend the utter depths, the entire horror, the whole dead-end of the fall, of the “unity from below” that the devil has kept secret from us under cunning and seductive makeup. The conversion that necessarily lies at the foundation of Christian faith is first of all a conversion from “unity from below” to the “unity from above,” the rejection of the one for the reception of the other, for without renunciation it is impossible to receive, without “repudiating the devil and all his angels and all his service” the baptismal unity with Christ is impossible. (155)

Only now can we turn to the creed – for it is in this confession, in this naming, that the unity from above is given, it is this confession that grants us communion and truth.

Everything in the Church, all her forms and structure, and even worship and piety, can be “reinterpreted,” for there is no limit to the guile and cunning of the “prince of this world”; everything in the world – even religion, even “spirituality,” even visible splendour – can become an idol and idolatry. But as long as the Church, and each of us with her and in her, repeats the confession of faith and by it judges herself and again and again is enlightened by the truth, the “gates of hell” shall not prevail against her, shall not dry up the eternally revivifying, the eternally healing power of her life, “illumined by the Holy Trinity in a mystic unity.” (158)

***

I have been avoiding commenting on this book, partly because of time constraints, and partly because it touches on things that are too personal to speak on in public. But this chapter raises issues that I can’t just pass over in silence and which converge with other things I’ve been aware of. This is already too long, but I’ll try and do a separate post addressing some of this before too long…

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