A Sledgehammer to the Sacred/Secular Divide

I’m reading through Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World; a chapter and a half in, I realized this is one of those rare books worth reading slowly. To that end, I’m going to attempt to break radio silence by blogging through each chapter of Schmemann’s book as I read and digest it.

Christian and non-Christian alike, Westerners (and maybe humans) are plagued with the legacy of – for want of a handier term – religious dualism. Religious dualism has two major tenets.

First, there’s two worlds: the “spiritual” world of God or angels or Big Ideas like environmentalism, and the “secular” world of ham sandwiches and timecards and gold nuggets.

Second, in a purely dualistic view, those two worlds are basically mutually exclusive. If we live in both, we live one way in the spiritual world (that, generally, is “religion” or “spirituality”) and a totally other way in the secular world. I do “spiritual” things to appease whatever spiritual being I’m aiming to please – I pray, attend services, burn incense. And then I do my “secular” things to make life work so that I get as many ham sandwiches and gold nuggets as I want.

Schmemann is a warm and personable writer, but from the outset he warmly and personably takes to religious dualism with a sledgehammer. Writing in the early 60s, Schmemann saw a “secular” and a “religious” battle going on where both sides were operating within this faulty framework. The secularists would say that the “spiritual” side of the divide is bunk and not worth pursuing: we should just go for the ham sandwiches.

On the other side, the “religious” insisted that the spiritual stuff was important, but treated the material side of things as if they didn’t matter. They might say, God wants you praying by the hour or burning incense by the cord; he’d really rather you keep away from those worldly ham sandwiches. For all their passion, Schmemann says, these two teams have as it were brought skates and hockey sticks to a soccer match. They’ve got the wrong game.

Because from creation, he says, God intended the material world to be shot through with spiritual life and food for a material-spiritual existence:

In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God. The world as man’s food is not something “material” and limited to material functions, thus different from, and opposed to, the specifically “spiritual” functions by which man is related to God. All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. (14, emphasis his)

Against the secularist, Schmemann says, the Bible affirms that the “spiritual” life – communion with God – is not just a part of life. It’s under and through and around every sandwich of it. But against the “spiritualist,” Schmemann says that the material stuff isn’t a reluctant necessity for the would-be spiritual; it’s all of it created to be a means through and by which humankind relates to God.

This life, Schmemann says, is a Eucharistic life – a life of constant offerings of thanksgiving. “The only natural (and not ‘supernatural’) reaction of man, to whom God gave this blessed and sanctified world, is to bless God in return, to thank Him, to see the world as God sees it and – in this act of gratitude and adoration – to know, name and possess the world.” (15) This Eucharistic life of receiving the world from God and returning it to God is the original vocation of humankind.

Now, Schmemann is no starry-eyed crypto-pantheist. He follows this right up by insisting that the world is not a good or an end in itself; it only becomes good when received from and offered back to God. One of the effects of the Fall is that we lose the ability to do this: the world becomes a “closed circuit” (17), in which we try to channel our spiritual desire back into a world not built to handle it, like pumping water into a broken rain barrel. While I know at one level that life is bigger than gold nuggets, I don’t know where to connect my gratitude and my yearnings except to something like another gold nugget: popularity, or the success of my children, or some other created thing.

If I’m to enjoy my ham sandwiches, then – if I’m to be able to savor them without trying to make that next sandwich my source of existential fulfillment – my broken connection with God must be restored. The things of this world – all the things of this world – can only be used rightly when I am reconciled to God and offering them to Him in worship. And, as Paul affirms in 2 Corinthians 5, that reconciliation comes in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.


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