Friday, March 19, 2010

Ellul and Schmemann on the Sacred.

As I was reading For the Life of the World a couple of days ago something Schmemann said reminded me of Jacques Ellul discussing the sacred in The Subversion of Christianity.

Ellul begins by describing what he means by "the sacred":

I will simply say that in every society there is an order of feelings, experiences, objects, rites, and words to which people attribute a value that is not directly utilitarian, which they believe to be determinative and independent of their own powers, which they do not think they can reduce to the everyday level or to rationality (like society) but which seem to them to be charged with either a potential of inexpressible energy or an explanatory potential. Explanation proceeds from them, but they themselves remain inexplicable.

The sacred includes such things as sacred times, places, and people. While every society has the sacred it varies in intensity over time. There are periods of desacralization followed by resacralization. The gods may change but the gods always return.

Ellul says that Judaism and Christianity were desacralizing movements. The OT is full of stories that might at first glance be examples of the battle of religions but are in fact anti-sacred polemics.

The gods that are resisted and rejected are the gods of nature: the moon goddess, the god of reproduction, the god of thunder, etc. It is a matter of regarding natural things or forces as things or forces that have nothing sacred about them. God is not in these realities; they are purely natural realities.

The creation stories of Genesis 1-2 are famous examples of this. There are no powers in nature. There is no battle of the gods. Creation is brought into being by the word of God. A creator-creature relationship is set up that establishes the transcendence of God in relation to the universe.

Ellul claims that the desacralizing work of Jewish thought was incomplete, however, because of their retention of the priesthood and sacrificial system. Christianity, in Ellul's view, takes the desacralizing impulse to its completion by ending sacrifice with the death of Jesus and declaring that all believers are themselves priests.

At this point what Ellul is saying sounds very much like Schmemann in the passage I quoted a couple of days ago.

But Ellul doesn't stop there. He goes on to say that Christianity restarted the sacralizing process early on. Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire there were mass conversions (some genuine, some not). Pagan temples were converted into churches but the new converts retained some of their religious sensibilities about the sacred. As Christianity expanded it assimilated these pagan beliefs and even baptized local deities as Christian saints, resulting in a mixed religion that was far removed from the pure nonreligious religion of Jesus and the apostles.

From this Ellul traces the development of all sorts of "sacred" practices among Christians. Churches become sacred places requiring sacred gestures upon entry. Sacred times are set up. Images replace or supplement words as the communicator of the Christian message. Even the theology of the sacraments changes: Sacrifice is part and parcel of the sacred - and so the religious impulse demanded that the Eucharist become a sacrifice and the elements the true body and blood of Jesus.

Though his argument has a certain power, passages like the following turn me against it:

The world contains spiritual powers variously described as thrones, exousiai, and dominions, etc. Residing in the world, these powers hide in institutions, people, etc. But they have all been destroyed and extirpated by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In this world, then, there is no longer anything supernatural. There is no longer anything mysterious, no longer any world beyond. Nor is there any longer a division or partition of the world into the sacred on the one side and the profane on the other. The Christian world is wholly secular. There are in it no particularly sacred times or places, precisely because God is absolutely the Wholly Other and nothing in the world comes close to him or can be the bearer of value, meaning, energy, or even order. The only new energy that Christianity recognizes is the potential presence of God by the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit, too, is incomprehensible, inaccessible, and unexploitable.

As I said before, Schmemann makes the same argument that Christianity was the "end of religion". But (as might be expected from an Orthodox protopresbyter) he doesn't leave us with Ellul's almost-materialist universe. Schmemann says that Christianity is not a religion because religion implies a separation between man and God. Jesus has broken down that wall. "He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion." And Schmemann does not present us with a God who is utterly transcendent - "incomprehensible, inaccessible, and unexploitable". Jesus was the end of religion because he was God come down to humanity. "He himself was the Answer to all religion, to all human hunger for God, because in Him the life that was lost by man - and which could on be symbolized, signified, asked for in religion - was restored to man."

Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him. To be sure, man is not the only hungry being. All that exists lives by "eating". The whole creation depends on food. But the unique position of man in the universe is that he alone is to bless God for the food and the life he receives from Him. He alone is to respond to God's blessing with his blessing. The significant fact about the life in the Garden is that man is to name things. As soon as animals have been created to keep Adam company, God brings them to Adam to see what he will call them. "And whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof." Now, in the Bible a name is infinitely more than a means to distinguish one thing from another. It reveals the very essence of a thing, or rather its essence as God's gift. To name a thing is to manifest the meaning and value God gave it, to know it as coming from God and to know its place and function within the cosmos created by God.

To name a thing, in other words, is to bless God for it and in it. And in the Bible to bless God is not a "religious" or a "cultic" act, but the very way of life. God blessed the world, blessed man, blessed the seventh day (that is, time), and this means that he filled all that exists with His love and goodness, made all this "very good." So the only natural (and not "supernatural") reaction of man, to whom God gave this blessed and sanctified world, is to bless God in return, to thank Him, to see the world as God sees it and - in this act of gratitude and adoration - to know, name and possess the world. All rational, spiritual and other qualities of man, distinguishing him from other creatures, have their focus and ultimate fulfillment in this capacity to bless God, to know, so to speak, the meaning of the thirst and hunger that constitutes his life. "Homo sapiens," "homo faber" ... yes, but, first of all, "homo adorans." The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God - and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the "matter," the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.

I'm open to correction if I'm misunderstanding either Ellul or Schmemann. It seems to me that Ellul sees the sacred as a pagan impulse driven by a superstitious searching for God that is exposed and discarded by true Christianity. Schmemann, on the other hand, sees the sacred as a searching for God, but ignorant, not superstitious. The sacred is a natural function of homo adorans, implanted in humanity by God. It just needs to be focused on the true God revealed in Jesus. And I wonder if part of this difference between Ellul (the Calvinist) and Schmemann (the Orthodox) lies in the question of the Capax, that is, whether the finite can "bear" the infinite. Note that Ellul says that God "is absolutely the Wholly Other and nothing in the world comes close to him or can be the bearer of value, meaning, energy, or even order" while Schmemann seems to allow a much greater capacity for creation. I could be completely wrong about that since I only learned about the controversy when Thomas discussed it in his March 13th post.

My instinctive sympathy is with Schmemann, though Ellul's view strikes me as more "modern" (but because it seems more materialist, which I reject). I'm in over my head here. I'd be very interested in others' opinions.


  1. Jeremy, this reminds me of a line I read somewhere, that when Catholicism (or Orthodoxy, I suppose) goes bad, it looks like any other pagan religion; when Protestantism goes bad it doesn't look like any religion at all.

    I haven't read any Ellul, but I find the "God is the wholly other" line to be rather shocking, and very un-Christian. If God is wholly other, how can we be in His image?

    But then again, I actually like "religion" so what do I know?

  2. Sorry. I didn't have my comment notifications set up correctly so I didn't see this until today. I also thought that comment from Ellul was shocking. I was hoping I misinterpreted it. It's what make me think it had something to do with the "finite bearing the infinite" (an idea I know very little about) - but maybe it's beyond even that.


About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.