[An old piece from a parish newsletter]
The long-time dean of Saint Vladimir’s Seminary in Crestwood, New York, was a remarkable Russian Orthodox priest and theologian named Alexander Schmemann. I think that I first became aware of Father Schmemann through a letter called ‘Concerning Women’s Ordination’ which he published in a very obscure little booklet called Sexuality–Theology–Priesthood. The booklet is undated but comes from the 1970s. Although I have never seen it referred to elsewhere, it contains essays by several theologians of the first rank in addition to Schmemann, including the Roman Catholic Louis Bouyer, John Macquarrie (the then Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford), and the Swiss Reformed theologian Jean Jacques von Allmen. After some subsequent reading I concluded – with others far brighter than I – that Father Schmemann was one of the great theologians of the 20th century. His journals have recently been published. I have not yet acquired them, but plan to do so soon. A recent review of them in First Things by R.J. Neuhaus is most promising.
What struck me most from the review, however, was really just an aside, and that concerning someone else more than Schmemann. Neuhaus recounts the following incident from the journals: ‘The [Russian emigré] poet Joseph Brodsky, a Jew, gave a reading in New York, and afterwards a Jewish man asks him why he uses so much Christian symbolism in his poetry. “Because I am not a barbarian,” Brodsky responded.’ That’s it. But what a striking, even stunning, reply from Brodsky: ‘Because I am not a barbarian.’ From a Christian such a reply might sound self-satisfied, triumphalist, or even arrogant. From an important Jewish poet it is a powerful affirmation of some basic facts: that every culture has a religious foundation; that the foundations of our culture are Christian (and thus also Jewish and classical); and, that only a barbarian in the West can divorce himself from those Christian foundations. Which will not prevent many from trying. Brodsky has a word for them: barbarians.
Saying this does not, of course, make Christianity true as a system of religious belief. But as a basic support for the footings of our civilization, Christianity is fundamental to our poetry, our music, our literature, our philosophy. And, yes, it is fundamental also to our science, which is inconceivable apart from ideas of natural law and the reliability of the senses that rest on Christian supports. Trying to do without Christianity in our culture is rather like trying to pull up the ladder while you are still on it. It cannot be done without causing a tumble. Of course it is perfectly possible to be a cultivated, civilized person in our culture and also not be a Christian. In that case, however, one still must have a positive engagement with Christianity: a familiarity with its stories, an understanding of its history, and an appreciation, even if critical, of the ideas and art that it has produced.
Perhaps in part I am talking about what has recently been called ‘cultural literacy’. We are close to barbarism when even university students do not know what a Good Samaritan or a Prodigal Son is, or cannot identify the four gospels, or cannot place St. Augustine within 200 years of his actual lifetime. But such ignorance of facts is not the heart of the matter. Not knowing when St. Augustine lived does not make me a barbarian, nor does knowing that fact save me from barbarism. We cannot inoculate children from barbarism by stuffing a specified number of facts into their heads. That is quite as hopeless as trying to teach children ‘values’ in schools that forbid mention of God and that celebrate and encourage fundamental disagreements (‘diversity’). Culture is absorbed by life in actual community (a common-unity). The cultural illiteracy that we hear constant anecdotes about is simply one result of fracturing communities that have lost their faith. Cut the religious roots of culture, and the flowers will not bloom long. And again there is a word for the result: barbarism.
We cannot solve the problems of the West or of the United States or of Georgia. But we can nourish our own families and our parish, the little platoons of order and love and decency that are closest to our hearts. Week by week and day and by day we can teach our children to sing good hymns and to say the good old words that civilized English speakers have spoken for five centuries and more. We recite with them the Creeds and tell them the gospel stories that have fed the roots of our world for two millennia. We explain things to them in categories that men learned in Athens 2500 years ago. We give them a place to stand firmly, from whence they can judge our naughty world with a critical and perceptive eye. If they may be somewhat alienated from their contemporaries, at least they will be at home in a universe which their faith makes sense of. They will share in a far more satisfying culture than that of our present place. In short, they will not be barbarians. Now that is doing something ‘for the children’.