The Myth of Past Unity: some clarifications

Father Alexander Schmemann

Father Alexander Schmemann

On today’s episode of my American Orthodox History podcast, we’re airing my talk, “The Myth of Past Unity,” given at the St Vladimir’s Seminary conference in June. For video of that lecture, click here.

I wrote an “author’s note” to go at the end of my paper. I didn’t have the opportunity to read that note at the conference, but I’m reprinting it here:

I am a lifelong Orthodox Christian of Lebanese descent, and I was raised in and am a member of the Antiochian Archdiocese. I have long been a proponent of Orthodox administrative unity in America, and I grew up wholly believing what I have now termed the “myth of unity.” When I began the research which ultimately led to this paper, my goal was to compile primary source documentation to support the view of the American Orthodox past as a “golden age.” I expected to find many and various pieces of evidence which would testify to the pre-1917 unity of American Orthodoxy, and I intended to publish this evidence in a book. This would, so I thought, help further the present cause of unity.

In the process of my research, it became apparent to me that the golden age of unity never actually existed. In fact, what I discovered was a great volume of evidence which directly contradicted this view. I reached my conclusions with not a small measure of disappointment, as it is always difficult to experience the virtual debunking of a long-held belief. However, I felt an obligation to continue my research and document, as best I could, the actual American Orthodox past. As I have done this, my perspective has changed. While I am still a very strong advocate of administrative unity – perhaps even more so than I was at the outset of my study – I no longer view the truth of the past as a disappointment or an obstacle. Quite the opposite: as I have argued in the conclusion to my paper, I consider the real past to be more positive, more encouraging, and more helpful to the present and future unity efforts than the old myth.

In this paper, I have singled out, among others, Fr. Alexander Schmemann as a prime advocate of the myth of unity. I have done this with some trepidation, as I am a great admirer of Schmemann. More than any other writer, he has had a profound influence on my life, and I consider his book For the Life of the World to be a defining text for me. While he was not principally an historian, his Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy is an admirable study of Church history. In his journals, he writes, “Ideally, the study of Church history should liberate people from enslavement to the past, which is rather typical for the Orthodox consciousness… I remember how slowly I became liberated from idealizing Byzantium, Old Russia, etc.” He goes on to say,

The historical events of the Church – such as the Ecumenical Councils – are important inasmuch as they are an answer to the world, an affirmation of salvation and transfiguration. As soon as they are absolutized, as soon as they gain a value per se, and not as related to the world; in other words, as soon as we transform them into sacred history, we deprive them of their genuine value and meaning. Therefore, the prerequisite for the study of church history must be to liberate it from being a sacred absolute, and not to be enslaved by it – which is so often a burden on Orthodoxy.

[Entry for Tuesday, November 12, 1974, published in The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemann: 1973-1983 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000), 53-54.]

Schmemann unintentionally fails to follow these principles when he engages the American Orthodox past. Yet this is understandable: he engages that past not as a scholar but as an advocate for unity in the 1960s and 1970s. He – who, it should be remembered, arrived in America decades after the supposed golden age had ended – seeks, with the best of intentions, to use history as a tool to achieve a worthy end in the present. Because of his influence, I have had little choice but to quote and rebut him in particular. In doing this, however, I have meant no disrespect, and my high regard for Schmemann has in no way been diminished.

In making these clarifications, I hope I have demonstrated that I have not written this paper as an attack on any person or persons, and I have certainly not intended to hamper the effort for American Orthodox unity. I believe that an honest and accurate reading of our past is actually a step towards that unity, rather than away from it.