By Leander Harding
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press is bringing out more of Alexander Schmemann’s occasional writings, including remarks for academic gatherings and talks that were originally given in Russian over Radio Free Europe. Celebration of Faith, Vol. III: The Virgin Mary. is such a volume and collects two sermons and three conference talks by this great Orthodox author on what the editor says is a favorite topic of Fr. Schmemann, the Theotokos, the Mother of God.
The writing is characteristically Schmemann: part poetry, part spirituality, part exegesis of Byzantine liturgy, and part rigorous analysis of secular modernity. I picked up the volume because of my growing interest in the figure of Mary as the antidote to the spiritual disease of modernity and found that the relationship between Mary and modernity is the organizing theme that runs through all these talks.
Schmemann explains that all the great doctrines of the church are developed in response to a heretical distortion of the gospel. The christological definitions of the great councils arise in response to christological heresies. Orthodox doctrine about Mary arises because of anthropological heresies. “The proper understanding of the Church’s veneration of Mary is above all anthropological. This was true centuries ago when Mariology began to develop its doctrinal aspects; this is especially true today. Indeed, the fundamental disease of our time if one looks at it from a Christian standpoint, must be termed an anthropological heresy.” (pp. 46-47, emphasis original). This theme of Mariology as the key to theological anthropology is also important in the ressourcement theologians such as Louis Bouyer and Yves Congar.
Schmemann diagnoses the anthropological heresy of modernity as the combination of an inherently self-contradictory “anthropological minimalism” and “anthropological maximalism.” On the one hand, humanity is nothing. We are utterly determined by genes, by economic, cultural, and historical structures. Human freedom and a distinctive human being are illusions, and claims for any distinctive humanity are coded bids for power in a world without any objective truth. This is Schmemann’s anthropological minimalism, but he also identifies an anthropological maximalism which contradicts the minimalism but is nevertheless posited with the same force and in combination with the minimalism. Of this maximalism Schmemann says, “The pathos of our ‘modern world’ is the endless affirmation of man’s absolute rights and freedoms, the seeking of his liberation and self-fulfillment, the rejection of any limits to his ‘potential’” (pp. 47-48).
This confused and self-contradictory anthropological heresy is not just a problem of theoretical inconsistency among intellectuals. It asserts itself, as do all heresies, as “mutilation and distortion, resulting sooner or later in total chaos and total darkness.” The anthropological minimalism in the end confounds the maximalism and makes man a slave of his ontological minimalism, a “slave whose very dreams of happiness and self-fulfillment are in the absolute sense of this world — meaningless.” It is this “broken anthropology,” “[t]he source of all our tragedies and dead ends, that Christians ought to seek to heal today. And it is in Mariology, I am convinced, that they can discover the vision and the power necessary for that healing” (pp. 48-49).
In Mary, Schmemann finds a proper anthropological minimalism. Theology also agrees that humanity is limited and dependent. Mary as the handmaid, the slave of the Lord, “[s]tands in the very center of the Church’s vision of the world, of man and life as the ultimate fruit and therefore highest expression of that ‘enslavement,’ humility and obedience, without which there is no entrance into the mystery of man’s true communion with God” (p. 52).
This proper anthropological minimalism opens into a proper anthropological maximalism.
Salvation is no longer the operation of rescuing an ontologically inferior and passive being; it is revealed as truly a synergeia, a cooperation between God and man. In Mary, obedience and humility are shown as rooted not in any “deficiency” of nature, aware of its own “limitations,” but as the very expression of man’s royal freedom, of his capacity freely to encounter Truth itself and freely to receive it. In the faith and the experience of the Church, Mary truly is the very icon of “anthropological maximalism,” its eternal epiphany. (p. 53)
Mary reveals the tragic self-contradiction, brokenness, and falseness of modern secular anthropology, as well as the truths this heresy reflects in a distorted mirror, bringing them into a healing wholeness. In Mary the distinction between freedom and dependence is healed:
The one eternally fulfilling itself in the other as life, joy, knowledge, communion and fullness … Is it not in her and in her experience that we should seek the true “measure” of our own lives, the answer to the agonizing questions about man? Where else? Where else is the end and the solution of all the dichotomies and dead ends that threaten to dehumanize our world? She gave Christ to us. And He, who eternally remains her Son, gives her to us as the assurance that man is the image of His ineffable beauty, the object of an eternal love in an eternal Kingdom. (p. 55)
If you have any doubt that the contemplation of Mary, the Mother of God, is of essential significance for developing a spirituality and theology of mission fit for the challenge of modernity, I recommend that you give this book and Fr. Schmemann a chance to change your mind.