Dreher vs. Schmemann: Church, World, Mission

by Archpriest Denis J.M. Bradley | български | ქართული | Ελληνικά | Русский | Српски

Cover, Schmemann's "Church, World, Mission"
Cover of Alexander Schmemann, Church, World, Mission

The January 2021 Schmemann Lecture delivered by Mr. Rod Dreher, a Senior Editor of The American Conservative, has provoked bewilderment and objections especially among former students of Father Alexander. Was Dreher—neither an academic nor a theologian but a polemical journalist who proclaims it pointless to “dialogue” with Orthodox progressives—the appropriate person to deliver a lecture named in honor of the late archpriest? Not, certainly, if one compares the scholarly and ecclesial standing of Dreher to previous Schmemann lecturers. Does the warm, even apparently tight embrace of Dreher by the current President of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Archpriest Chad Hatfield, signify an already accomplished “culture war” transmogrification of the seminary and portend further hardline, divisively ideological efforts to reorient the whole OCA? The answer to the first question seemed evident enough to provoke a letter of protest from a number of anxious alumni to the seminary’s board of trustees. But a plausible answer to the second question requires considerably more effort—an informed and judicious reading of many ecclesiastical signs, a dangerous task that few OCA clerics would be equipped or eager to undertake publicly. The recently provoked band of objectors seems confronted by a debilitating choice: naively continuing by impotent complaints to close the barn door after the horses have fled, or bravely and equanimously—but perhaps foolhardily (as many will surely think)—enlisting themselves among those who speak the neuralgic truth because it is the truth. Are there many people who want to listen much less act upon the latter?

Gregory Thompson, a Protestant pastor, who is himself an academically trained theologian, has written an extensive and trenchant critique of Dreher’s most recent book: see Comment, “Return of the Cold Warrior: Reflections on Rod Dreher’s Live not by Lies,” December 3rd 2020. Dreher’s book, the proximate source of his Schmemann Lecture, rhetorically targets the “soft totalitarianism” menacing American culture: in Thompson’s description, the “progressive, illiberal, and anti-religious ideology rooted in the Marxist tradition” Thompson, however, details what he considers to be four egregiously ruinous errors in Dreher’s “Cold War,” fearful political theology.  It is: (1) a morally black and white, Manichean account of history; (2) an ideological division of persons into godless progressivist villains and godly conservative victims; (3) an instrumental and tendentious use of people identified as allies; and (4) a self-confirming projection of Dreher’s own politicized religiosity but a reductively escapist account of the Church’s mission. All of these themes can be found in his recent Schmemann lecture.

Dreher exhorts the St. Vladimir’s seminarians to stiffen their spiritual spines against what he asserts to be the militantly anti-Christian secularity of modernity.  For it is in the crucible of a hostile secular world, so Dreher assures them, that these future Orthodox priests must exercise their sacramental office and pastoral ministry. Now one can readily concur with Dreher’s underlying contention: that the St. Vladimir’s seminarians should be encouraged to understand the modern secular world is of singular importance. But, then, equally important is the conception of Modern Secularity that is being promoted. Thompson’s critique of Dreher must, of course, stand on its own legs which are sturdy enough not to need my further approbation or elaboration. Nonetheless, it should be asked how intellectually comprehensive, insightful, and accurate—thus helpful for the future ministry of these seminarians—is Dreher’s Schmemann Lecture in formulating a theologically, philosophically, historically, sociologically adequate and pastorally useful comprehension of secular modernity? Not very, would be my own judgment, a judgment which, as it happens, can borrow support from Alexander Schmemann.

Whereas Dreher favors Manichean dichotomies and apocalyptic scenarios, Schmemann himself was profoundly cognizant of and attitudinally attuned to the radical theological ambivalence of the continuing “World.” In any or all of its historically and culturally distinguishable epochs, an astute orthodox Christian would and should view and necessarily accept the World paradoxically, that is, doubly, at once positively and negatively: as fundamentally good (the product of God’s creative love) but “fallen,” sinful but redeemable—in a theological catch phrase, as proleptically (anticipatorily) redeemed in the Risen Christ in whose life the World as well as the Church participates. One remark plucked from a myriad encapsulates this aspect of Schmemann’s theological orientation: “. . . true Christian experience [one “rooted in revelation and the experience of the Church”] involves some kind of synthesis of these two visions [positive and negative] of ‘the world’ . . . If we choose one of them and pushed it to its logical extreme, ignoring the other, we would end up in heresy” (“The World as Sacrament,” Ch. 12 in Church, World, Mission: Reflections on Orthodoxy in the West, p. 210). This is Schmemann, the great Orthodox intellectual and culturally sophisticated “cosmopolitan,” speaking. I can only add that forty years later his observations are directly relevant to the Dreher lecture and the education of the St. Vladimir’s seminarians.

On my reading (i.e., listening) Dreher falters fundamentally in his Schmemann Lecture because he proffers a simplistic and ideologically reductive account of Modern Secularity. The concept, since Max Weber’s seminal The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), has been the subject of continuous and deep academic investigation; Dreher, however, neither tarried over nor encouraged the seminarians even to peep into the scholarly literature, a grave dereliction or at least curious omission, one might think, in an academic lecture. Nonetheless, the seminarians remain well advised to read or at least acquaint themselves with the conclusions of Karl Löwith (Meaning in History), Hans Blumenberg (The Legitimacy of the Modern Age), and Charles Taylor (Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity), the three authors who have developed the most comprehensive and significant interpretations of Modern Secularity. May one still hope that the faculty at St. Vladimir’s might encourage them to do so?

Here I cannot summarize but only suggest what those seminarians can usefully discover, at a minimum, reading these three learned and insightful authors: considerable help in evaluating the soundness of Dreher’s own conception of Modern Secularity.  Indeed, it can only help them to learn that none of the authors mentioned—despite their notably different perspectives—conclude that Modern Secularity is simply equivalent to the antithesis or radical negation of a Christian worldview, no matter how many difficulties and challenges these future pastors will find the former posing for the latter.  Seeking Schmemann’s “synthesis” may seem an impossibly difficult or wrong-headed theological and pastoral goal, but it is exactly the necessary task that future Orthodox priests confront and in due measure should be encouraged to take up.  To quote Schmemann again: “We must reconcile and synthesize. Acceptance of the world is more than justifiable, it is necessary” (op. cit., 219). “Acceptance!”—because it required by Orthodox dogma about the World.  If so, can one responsibly suppose that Schmemann would have allowed that the theologically sound options are as negative, escapist, and politicized as Dreher poses them? Rather, the Orthodox seminarian should be taught, so to speak in the spirit of Schmemann, not just to distrust and flee but mend the World, recognizing and building on what is good therein.


Archpriest Denis J.M. Bradley is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Georgetown University.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.