For the Life of the World: Toward a Sacramental Understanding of the Church

Taking a wee break from the spirituality series to offer this reflection I wrote last year around Alexander Schmemann’s book For the Life of the World, one of my all-time favorites.

“The Church is the sacrament of the Kingdom – not because she possesses divinely instituted acts called “sacraments,” but because first of all she is the possibility given to man to see in and through this world the “world to come,” to see and to “live” it in Christ. It is only when in the darkness of this world we discern that Christ has already “filled all things with Himself” that these things, whatever they may be, are revealed and given to us full of meaning and beauty. A Christian is the one who, wherever he looks, finds Christ and rejoices in Him. And his joy transforms all his human plans and programs, decisions and actions, making all his mission the sacrament of the world’s return to Him who is the life of the world.” (113)

Alexander Schmemann, originally writing For the Life of the World in 1963 from his position as dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York, puts forward in this book an Eastern Orthodox view of the church as a sacrament. While many of his statements are difficult to understand and appreciate from a liberal Western perspective (and perhaps others are experienced as just plain wrong), there is much that Western Christianity potentially has to learn from this view of church. I advocate that, just for a moment, we suspend judgment on the hierarchical, patriarchal, and hetero- and andro-normative extensions and implications of this theology as posited by Schmemann, and question whether there are other aspects of this theology that can be helpful while not requiring that we buy in to the more negative aspects.

Foundational Analysis

At least three assumptions of Schmemann’s framework must be understood before the book can begin to make sense. First, Schmemann takes the experience of liturgy as his authority (7, 8). This view fits within a full framework of participation in liturgy as participation in the Kingdom, but this is certainly not a common starting point even for the most high-church of Western thinkers. Because of this, Schmemann appeals consistently to words from liturgy, in the way a Protestant might appeal to words from scripture or a Catholic might appeal to church tradition – as authoritative in their own right, requiring no prior claim for justification.

Secondly, Schmemann assumes, as does much of Eastern Orthodoxy, that death (not sin or evil, as Protestants and Catholics respectively tend to assume) is the primary problem or condition of humanity. In this framework, then, life is the salvific antidote offered by God, particularly life in the Kingdom. This life is offered by way of participation in and full communion with God through Christ, a participation in the Trinity that Schmemann sees as both mystical and physical, not wanting to define physical as “real” and mystical as “unreal,” as Western thinkers tend to do, but rather seeing the wholeness of both together as “real” (135-151). Thus, in place of emphasis on understanding of God (typically Protestant) or on holiness (typically Catholic), Orthodox theology tends to include emphasis on participation in and becoming entirely one with God, or theosis, as means and end of salvation. Once again, this participation happens, for Schmemann, primarily through the liturgy, which then reveals to Christians the true nature of the whole world as sacrament.

Finally, Schmemann does not claim to give a systematic theology (7, 8, 20) and is, in fact, working within a background tradition that leans toward the apophatic. Western arguments (especially academic ones) are often judged to be true or not based on whether the argument is internally consistent. Western judgments also often assume that the observer can have some objective distance from the argument; even though hermeneutical models would tend to dispute this in theory, this assumption is often operative nonetheless. This way of judging does not work for apophatic modes of reasoning, which lean toward the aesthetic and poetic, and by virtue of that, often have internal logical inconsistencies. So Westerners are left with a looming question of how to measure this kind of argument, which deals so thickly in paradox. Do we have other ways of gauging truth?

Ultimately, suspending judgment about Schmemann’s argument is about trying to step into the shoes of the author, not only seeing what he sees but also, for a moment, attempting to measure with his ruler. Is there something of truth here, even in the midst of contradictions? How might we know it? I submit that, if we are truly to see what Schmemann and other Orthodox thinkers see, we must see texts like this as Schmemann himself advocates seeing all of worldly life – as somehow sacramental; as stained glass that is not, itself, inherently good but that is intended to allow the light of truth to shine through. And further, from my own Anabaptist tradition, which is in its own way apophatic and sacramental, I submit that we must learn to know a tree by its fruits, never seeking pure utilitarian use but yet always asking, “In what ways is this life-giving?” with the assumption that everything in the created world has the potential to be life-giving. There are many risks inherent in this kind of measuring (as with any system of measurement), not least among them the risks of absolutizing individual or group subjectivity and of instrumentalizing theology. However, for now, to take Schmemann on his own terms, I suggest we attempt this mode of measuring.


For Schmemann, the problem with Western theology and secularism (as it was experienced in the 60s, we can assume), is that humans are constantly dividing the spiritual from the physical, and Western religion has accepted that division too entirely. Human tendency is to love the things that satisfy, as ends in themselves, Schmemann says, while forgetting that they are simply paths toward the ultimate end of communion with God. For Schmemann, God has provided the physical world to be “transparent to God” (16): “When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is the ‘sacrament’ of God’s presence” (17). The church, then is the location of God’s reminder that all of life is sacramental. Schmemann argues that when all are in perfect communion with God (note here the Orthodox emphasis on theosis), the church will no longer exist because it will no longer be needed. Now, in our imperfection, when we get stuck in desacralizing the world; the church, and Eucharist in particular, is meant to be a sacramental “entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see the ultimate reality of life. It is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world” (27).

Because the Eucharist and the liturgy of the church are the place of ascension and reorientation for Christians, Schmemann then points out what he sees as the reorienting factors in the words and rites of the liturgy. For example, he writes against the doctrine of transubstantiation because for him the bread and wine do not become something entirely different and new – rather, God reveals the inner and inherently sacred core of these material things, a core that was always there but usually hidden to the human eye, and a core that holds the possibility of revealing God through materiality. This sacred core is infused within the whole material world, to Schmemann’s thinking. Interestingly, this emphasis seems to hold the possibility of allowing for both a radical break between the church and the world, and also a radical love of the world on its own terms as a sacrament of God.

Schmemann is clear that participation in liturgy of the church provides an experience of the Kingdom: “The very goal of this [liturgical] movement of ascension is to take us out of ‘this world’ and to make us partakers of the world to come… But this is not an ‘other’ world, different from the one God has created and given to us. It is our same world, already perfected in Christ, but not yet in us” (42, emphasis in original). This understanding of the purpose of liturgy, far from being an escape from the world, seeks to propel us back into the world with new vision:

It is here, at this moment [of confirmation and anointing], that the pseudo-Christian opposition of the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘material,’ the ‘sacred’ and the ‘profane,’ the ‘religious’ and the ‘secular’ is denounced, abolished, and revealed as a monstrous lie about God and man and the world. The only true temple of God is man and through man the world. Each ounce of matter belongs to God and is to find in God its fulfillment. Each instant of time is God’s time and is to fulfill itself as God’s eternity. Nothing is ‘neutral.’ For the Holy Spirit as a ray of light, as a smile of joy, has ‘touched’ all things, all time – revealing all of them as precious stones of a precious temple. (76)

He makes this same case in relation to the liturgy of the Eucharist, baptism and confirmation, the Christian year, marriage, ordination, death, and mission, both using those aspects of liturgy and church life to confirm his vision and using his vision of the church to tease out new and fuller meanings of those rituals and life events.

His chapter on death is particularly interesting to me and underlines the Orthodox view of death. He insists that the Western church has, by and large, adopted the pre-Christian view of an immortal soul and mortal body. Thus, he writes that the Western Christian attitude toward death is essentially death-denying, as is Western culture in general. He prefers to see death as absolute – when we die, every part of us dies – but as overcome by God’s bestowal of new life. “Death is not only the end, but indeed the very reality of this world” (96).

Christianity is not a reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is the Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely the enemy to be destroyed, and not a “mystery” to be explained… Only Christianity proclaims it to be abnormal and, therefore, truly horrible. (99-100)

In this view of death, the church then becomes the entrance into life in Christ, an entrance into life that redeems death, not by making death disappear but by replacing it with new life.

Schmemann also connects this view of death, as opposed to what he sees as the prevailing Western Christian denial of death, as avoiding the pitfalls of a religion that “helps.” As with many aesthetic theologians, Schmemann insists that faith (as beauty) cannot be instrumentalized. He rails against a Christianity that seeks to “help” rather than to simply be true. He sees this desire to “help” as part of a capitulation to secularism and as stemming from a duality between spirituality and materiality. If the church is a sacrament, as he insists, it cannot be instrumentalized to meet particular needs but must be met and experienced on its own terms. On the other hand, if church is made relevant or utilitarian or helpful, he insists that it has lost its sense of the wholeness of creation and is seeking to simply meet material (or spiritual) needs, assuming a division between the two.

Edging into analysis…

The difficulty with this, again similar to aesthetic theologies, is that it becomes difficult to measure and judge what is “true,” especially if experience becomes the authority, as it is for Schmemann (particularly liturgical experience). You will remember that I suggested that we might, for a time, use “life-giving” as a ruler (for Schmemann this might be more accurately “communion-enhancing”), but measuring by that ruler can easily become just as instrumental as measuring by the ruler called “helpful.” It is also clear that suspending judgment or measurement entirely is dangerous. Thus, we stumble on a paradox. On the one hand, perhaps we can recognize the need for emphasizing the wholeness and the truth of avoiding pure instrumentalization of faith. On the other hand, any measurement (and humans must always be measuring) requires a move, however slight, toward instrumentalization.

While struggling with this paradox, we must address some of the extrapolations of Schmemann’s theology that we have attempted to set aside until now. Schmemann’s view of marriage is highly sacramental (as should not be surprising at this point), but it is also highly patriarchal, in keeping with much of the Orthodox Church’s practice in general. He draws connections between Mary and brides that end up prescribing tightly gendered roles – passivity in women, kingship in men. Although he does a little gender-bending, implying that men must incorporate feminine qualities, and although his portrayal of virginity and love are not entirely oppressive, they still uphold male dominance and power structures. (This is not to even mention the fact that there is no place in his structure for LGBT people or expressions.)

Likewise, although the sacramental nature of the church and the world can be liberating and could foreseeably cause a turn toward seeking justice and reconciliation in the world, seeing it as God’s precious creation and as inherently sacred, this view still sees the world as entirely under the Christian God’s purview. This is a highly confessional book, seemingly not very interested in constructing an apology to the outside world. In our pluralist climate, it is not clear to me how (or if) Schmemann would deal with dialogue between faiths.

In trying to parse this question, we again stumble upon an inconsistency. On the one hand, the world is sacred inherently and the Christian needs only to see it as it really is. On the other hand, when the world is revealed as “it really is,” one gets the distinct impression that for Schmemann, it is revealed as not only sacred but also as being within a Christian framework. It seems that in an interfaith dialogue, this theology is clearly inclusivist in perspective, and yet a perspective that would see a Hindu as inherently Christian at her core, does not take the existence of other religions as seriously as they deserve – indeed does not truly see other religions as inherently sacred.

Because this book is from 50 years ago, I find myself wondering how differently Schmemann would approach these topics now. The Orthodox Church remains hierarchical and patriarchal, hetero- and andro-normative, and highly confessional, so perhaps his perspectives on these topics would not have changed. However, culture and its questions have changed substantially since Schmemann was writing, so perhaps he would have new answers.

Schmemann’s ecclesiology points a way beyond the dualism of Western Christianity, and particularly underscores just how much that dualism affects our very way of speaking of, thinking about, and judging theology. It provides a helpful possibility of a new way to play with the church/world dynamic that, as mentioned above can hold in tension radical discontinuity with radical love. It also can hold together a sense of the chosenness of the church and a deep humility; if the church is a sacrament, then it is not the locus of grace by any merit of its own. Likewise, if the church is only needed because broken humanity cannot experience the world the way it is meant to be, then the more need we have of church, the more humble we as humans must be.

All in all, I am not certain if the deep flaws in Schmemann’s (and Orthodox) theology mentioned above are inherent to this kind of theology, or if there exists a possibility of adopting and reframing the sacramental orientation of the theology in such a way that it precludes those weaknesses. Because I find so many helpful counterpoints to Enlightenment rationalist Christianity, as well as helpful counterpoints to Postmodern relativist Christianity, I advocate a posture of discovery and play in regard to the view of church as sacrament, all the while also maintaining a careful and iterative evaluation of its outcomes.

1 thought on “For the Life of the World: Toward a Sacramental Understanding of the Church”

  1. This is the most nuanced and thus the best treatment of Schmemann I have read anywhere. Global colleagues in the Orthodox Church tell me this understanding of “church as sacrament” leads to a faithful, spiritual and mystical affirmation of a sacramental view of the universe and therefore to an overcoming of the dualisms present in Western Christian theology.

    Therefore, it seems to me this post on Schmemann is an important supplement to, rather than a detour from, your writing on a Brethren Anabaptist Pietist spirituality. Although J.H. Yoder insisted that in Anabaptism we have “a duality without a dualism,” some of us theologizing in anabaptist genres worry that the necessary two-kingdom theology of separation of church and state has led to an unfortunate separation of spirituality from cultural life.

    In the evolution of theologies and spiritualities in what Williams has called the Radical Reformation, it seems a logic of the soul in the evolving German Baptist Brethren movement saw the importance of accenting the Pietist’s heart as a corrective to an overemphasis of the Anabaptist’s will to discipleship. Linking heart and will in this way invites a more mystical and poetic union of interior and exterior ways of seeing and being and therefore a more artful way of imagining Christ and culture.

    No one has yet written the dissertation or book on how and why the greatest Romantic poets, artists and philosophers had their familial and spiritual roots in Radical Pietism and Pietism. Orthodox Christians, Pietists and Romantics alike ponder a similar spiritual question, “Is spirituality’s nearest analogue ethics or aesthetics, story or statute, law or liturgy, poetry or proposition?”

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