Word Magazine June-September 1966 Page 13
ORTHODOXY AND AMERICA
Very Rev. Alexander Schmemann
Dean, Saint Vladimir Theological Seminary
“We may now return to Orthodoxy in America. All that I tried to say, ultimately, amounts to this: we should stop thinking of Orthodoxy in terms of America and begin to think of America in terms of Orthodoxy. And, first of all, we should remember that in these terms, “America” means at least three things, three levels of our life as Orthodox.
It is, first, the personal destiny and the daily life of each one of us; it is my job, the people whom I meet, the papers I read, the innumerable decisions I have to take. It is my “personal” America and it is exactly what I make of it. America, in fact, requires nothing for me except that I be myself and to be myself for me, as Orthodox, is to live by my faith and to live by it as fully as possible. All “problems” are reduced to this one: Do I want to be myself? And if I invent all kinds of major and minor obstacles, all sorts of “idols” and call them the “American way of life,” the guilt is mine— not Americas. For I was told: “You shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free”— free from all idols, free to make decisions, free to please God and not men. This problem thus is fully mine and only I can solve it by a daily effort, a constant effort to “stand fast” in the freedom in which Christ has set me (Gal. 5:1).
In the second place, “America” is a culture, i.e., a complex of habits, customs, thought forms, many of which are either new or alien to Orthodoxy, to its history and tradition and it is impossible simply to “transpose” Orthodoxy into the American cultural categories. To become the “fourth major faith” by decree and proclamation is a poor solution of this difficult problem and the day Orthodoxy will feel completely at home in this culture and give up her alienation she will inescapably lose something essential, something crucially Orthodox. There is, however, in American culture, a basic element which makes it possible for Orthodoxy not simply to exist in America but to exist truly within American culture and in a creative co-relation with it. This element is again freedom. In a deep sense it is freedom that constitutes the only truly “American way of life” and not the superficial and oppressive conformities which have been consistently denounced and castigated by the best Americans of all generations as a betrayal of the American ideal. And freedom means the possibility—even the duty of choice and critique, of dissent and search. Superficial conformity, so strong on the surface of American life, may make the essentially American value—the possibility given everyone to be himself, and thus Orthodoxy to be Orthodox look “un-American.” This possibility nevertheless remains fundamentally American. Therefore if one moves from the personal level to a corporate one, there is nothing in the American culture which could prevent the Church from being fully the Church—a parish; and it is only by being fully Orthodox that American Orthodoxy becomes fully American.
And finally “America,” as every other nation, world, culture, society, is a great search and a great confusion, a great hope and a great tragedy, a thirst and a hunger. And, as every other nation or culture, it desperately needs Truth and Redemption. This means — and I write these words knowing how foolish they sound — that it needs Orthodoxy. If only Orthodoxy is what we believe and confess it to be, all men need it whether they know it or not — or else our confession and the very word Orthodoxy means nothing. And if my words sound as an impossible foolishness, it is only because of us, Orthodox. It is our betrayal of Orthodoxy, our reduction of it to our own petty selfish “national identities,” “cultural values,” “parochial interests” that makes it look like another “denomination” with limited scope and doubtful relevance. It is looking at us, Orthodox, that America cannot see Orthodoxy and discern any Truth and Redemption.