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Alexander Schmemann on Ecclesiastical Counter-Utopia

Writing about a certain form of theological role-playing that we have encountered many times, the great Alexander Schmemann states:

Now as a strange counterpart to that [more conventional Utopianism], we have the second fundamental tendency of our time; that is Escape, a kind of counter-Utopia. Our world today is not only the world of those who energetically pursue utopian dreams, but also, to a degree unknown in the past, a world of dropouts — of all kinds, of all sexes, of all social positions. We all know this. We have lived the experience of the Sixties, when men felt, in a new and unprecedented way, the oppression of what was called The System and the desire to drop out of The System…

Escape begins with the mental attitude of dropouts and continues as a search for all kinds of spiritual experiences. You know, you cannot find God on Broadway in New York. You have to find Him on some blue mountains in India, in some ashram, in some techniques. And again, I am very well placed to know that, because, unfortunately, my religion, Eastern Orthodoxy, is very often identified as a provider of those kind of little mystical techniques which will satisfy the dropout’s heart for personal bliss out of The System.

Then, there is a new cult of gurus, and an attitude that has always existed, but never in such form and intensity, and that is “hatred of the world.”

Today, at Penn Station, a man whom I knew many years ago, approached me and said, “Hello, Father Schmemann.” And I said, “Who are you?” because he was dressed in a kind of black robe and was nearly stepping on his beard. Everything about him was peculiar, from his hair, to his strange hat…  He was probably playing a monk from Mt. Athos or something of that nature, but I knew he was born in Brooklyn. I know many converts to Orthodoxy who think that when they become Orthodox, they have to also become Russian monarchists, and think that the restoration of the Romanovs in Russia is the only condition for the world’s salvation.

In Escape, anything goes, as long as it is outside of that horrifying System. We can joke about it, but behind the jokes there is a very serious reality. On the one hand, the idea of Utopia is increasingly growing in our consciousness, and on the other hand, there is this tremendous temptation to Escape.

(“Between Utopia and Escape.” Lecture delivered in Greenville, Delaware on March 22, 1981. Accessed online at http://www.schmemann.org/byhim/betweenutopiaandescape.html on April 17, 2012. )

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.