Friday, July 11, 2008

The Gospel, Secularism and the American Experiment-part I

So, based on the number and quality of the comments, it seems that there is great interest (here at least) in the social teaching of the Church. Thank you all for your comments and observations. I find them very helpful in clarifying my own thinking on the issue we are addressing. Let me offer some reflections

A common thread in most discussion about the relationship between church and state is the tacit--and at times not so tacit--assumption that the American experiment is a secular, anti-religious, and even anti-Christian movement. While certainly this was, and in many ways still is, the case in the French system of government it is not the case in America.

Yes, there is a strong strain of secularism in American culture—but an argument could be made that this represents a deviation from the founding principles. No, America was not founded on the Gospel—and certainly we are not an "Orthodox" nation—but strictly speak no government is, or for that matter needs to be so founded. Nations are called Orthodox or Christian only by analogy or as a reflection of an openness to the Gospel or (most crudely) because of the majority (or at least a plurality) of its citizens are Christian of one sort or another.

For Orthodox, the idea of America and American culture as secular (in a pejorative sense), that it is anti-Christian and harmful to our Christian faith, is something popularized but Fr Alexander Schmemann. He argues, quite eloquently and convincingly, that secularism "is above all a negation of worship. I stress: --not of God's existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms in a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is a negation of man as a worshiping being, as homo adorans: the one for whom worship is the essential act which both 'posits' his humanity and fulfills it. It is the rejection as ontologically and epistemologically 'decisive,' of the words which 'always, everywhere and for all' were the true 'epiphany' of man's relation to God, to the world and to himself." (For the Life of the World, p. 118)

For Schmemann, secularism an anthropological heresy (remembering that heresy always implies a choice). At its core it denies that the worship of the Triune God is the act that both reveals and fulfills human nature (i.e., worship is both an act of ontological & epistemological self-revelation and self-realization). Further, it is a rejection of the idea that worship is the privileged means (again both ontological and epistemological) by which the communion of God, creation and humanity are realized. Implicit within this view of secularism is a rejection of the position of those, "quite numerous today, who consciously or unconsciously reduce Christianity to either intellectual ('future of belief') or socio-ethical ('Christian service to the world') categories and who therefore think it must be possible to find not only some kind of accommodation, but even a deeper harmony between our 'secular age' on the one hand and worship in the other hand." (pp. 118-119)

While his description of secularism is insightful, as often happens with his work, his use of the concept as a lens through which to see American culture is heavy handed. Yes, secularism is a central theme in American culture but, as the work of Fr John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, suggests secularism as Schmemann uses the term is not an inherent part of that ensemble of founding truths that "command the structure and the courses of the political-economic system of the United State." (p. 106) Commenting on Murray's work in the forward to We Hold These Truths, Walter J Burghardt, S.J., writes that "Reduced to its skeleton," the American model affirms as foundational the importance of "a free people under a limited government, guided by law and ultimately under the sovereignty of God." (pp. vii-viii)

If, as Schmemann and Murray each in his own way suggests, we have become fragmented as a society, it is because (as Murray points out) it is because we have lost that founding consensus. So, to take but one example, "the American university [has] long since bade a quiet goodbye to the whole notion of an American consensus, as implying that there are truths that we hold in common, and a natural law that makes known to all of us the structure of the moral universe in such wise that all of us are bound by it to a common obedience." (p. 40) In this, I fear, many Orthodox Christian—having read, but misunderstood—not only Schmemann's criticisms of America, but also the Father and indeed the Scriptures themselves, argue rather on the side of disintegration.

What do I mean?

I will in my next post, return to Schmemann's For the Life of the World to answer the question I've just posed.

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