The best way to study


At Jupiter, in the Panini section, taking notes on assigned reading (Schmemann’s For the Life of the World) for seminary. The beer is my favorite, Moonlight Brewing’s Lunatic Lager.

The Schmemann book is more interesting in concept than execution. The concept is a theological commentary on the mysteries (often inappropriately termed “sacraments”, a term imported from the Roman Catholic vocabulary) of the Orthodox Church. I find Schmemann’s style of writing here to be too diffuse, and to insufficiently address the complexities of the subject matter in a depth appropriate for use by a theology student. This is an artifact of its origin with this particular author, of the time in which it was written (1963), and the purpose for which it was written. The latter is described by Schmemann thusly, p. 7:

This little book was written ten years ago as a “study guide” to the Quadrennial Conference of the National Student Christian Federation held in Athens, Ohio, in December 1963. It was not meant to be and it is certainly not a systematic theological treatise of the Orthodox liturgical tradition. My only purpose in writing it was to outline—to students preparing themselves for a discussion of Christian mission—the Christian “world view,” i.e., the approach to the world and to man’s life in it that stems from the liturgical experience of the Orthodox Church.

Such a context as the heady days of the height of the mid-twentieth century’s overambitious and idealistic ecumenical movement effectively make this “little book” one addressed not to Orthodox students, but to students belonging to other Christian faiths, a book in which a depth of treatment beneficial to the Orthodox student has been attenuated by the necessity of making the material comprehendible to those of other traditions. Such is the norm for ecumenical endeavors, of course, though the trend has certainly been bucked, not least by Fr Georges Florovsky, whom, it might be recalled, Schmemann had had fired from St Vladimir’s Seminary in 1955. I think a book concept such as this, in that time, would have been better realized from the pen (or, equally archaically, from the typewriter) of Fr Florovsky. In any case, despite the somewhat rambling styl, and its superficiality of treatment, the book is certainly not devoid of value. Schmemann occasionally waxes lyrical, a bit out of his ability to control the language at times (English was, of course, at least his third language), but it is with those moments of return to the personal, synergistic expression of Orthodoxy, an expression of the results of a soul’s transformation in cooperation with God through His overabundant grace, that I am most pleased.

It would be good for Orthodox students to have someone realize the concept of a theological commentary on the mysteries of the Orthodox Church from the Patristic and hesychastic monadtic tradition, intended specificalky for Orthodox rather than others. I know of two such commentaries on the Divine Liturgy: one by Hieromonk Gregorios of the Athonite Koutloumousiou Monastery (), and another, very well-designed for use in parish classes, is Fr Emmanuel Hatzidakis’s The heavenly Banquet: Understanding the Divine Liturgy. These cover the Divine Liturgy in depth. Such a treatment of the other Orthodox mysteries would be useful.

Well, in any case, it’s a beautiful day to be reading outdoors in Berkeley, one of my last few days here, so I’m enjoying it!

One Reply to “The best way to study”

  1. Great thoughts for both the Schmemann enthusiast and the Schmemann skeptic. On the one hand you remind the enthusiast that the book really isn’t all that great, that it’s certainly not the kind of in-depth patristic study you ideally would have seminarians read, and that Fr. Alexander really had some flaws, like getting the eminent theologian and patristic scholar Fr. Georges Florovsky fired from SVS. On the other hand, you mention some of his masterful prose and that it’s really more a product of its time as an attempt to reach out to non-Orthodox Christians with a presentation of the sacramental life. And there’s beer. Great post.

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