Fr. Alexander Schmemann & The Spirit of St. Vladimir’s

Not long ago I stumbled upon an amazing little book by Fr. Alexander Schmemann called For the Life of the World. This book has been around (and cherished) for some time, and Fr. Alexander was also well known and loved during his life and since. I, of course, was clueless regarding Fr. Alexander, his writings, and the existence of the Orthodox Church (and the history of Christianity in general), but then I was raised Baptist.

When Fr. Alexander died in 1983, CBS did a 30 minutes special on his life and work. Interestingly, the program is narrated by a young Fr. Thomas Hopko, another notable Orthodox teacher and writer whom I have only recently discovered.

Though I am not Orthodox, I am still moved by the various teachings and especially the individuals of the Orthodox church I stumble across in my journey.

Redeeming Time

This post was first published as a Classical Conversations Connected guest article.

The Problem of Time

Before you is your week, with your schedule of all that you promise yourself you will accomplish. Looking at your calendar you think you just might get it all done with minimal tears. In fact, you even look forward to what it might be. But behind you is the past week, a week of struggle and missed goals, of unfinished projects, of nearly-but-not-quite-done homework and chores, a week of exhaustion and tears. Somehow the wonderful promise of homeschooling has again stretched you thin and the laundry still sits in piles. If only you had enough time, but sometimes you wonder if eternity itself will be enough to get it all done. What are we to do with the problem of time? How can we redeem time?

First, what is time? A strange question, really. Time for us is like the sea to a fish, we live in time, talk about time, even complain about too little time, but we usually don’t think about what it is because time is entirely prevalent. Time is fundamental to all creation: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) Creation is bound by time. Time is the fundamental reality of our lives. When God brought cosmos to chaos He did so by establishing time, by separating the light from the dark, by creating night and day. Though we only live in the present we search the past and look to the future. Time is both life and death; time proceeds irrevocably and inevitably, and at some future point is our death. Philosophers have struggled with the “problem of time” for ages. What do we do with time?

On the one hand we feel time’s unconquerable power over our plans. Truly there are only so many hours in a day. On the other hand we deal with an overwhelming number of things to do, to learn, and to teach. There is a pervasive futility of life, and of seemingly countless repetitions of each day, each demand, each goal; we seem to come back to the same things again and again. An ancient and wise king once wrote:

All things are full of labor;
Man cannot express it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor the ear filled with hearing.
That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which it may be said,
“See, this is new”?
(Ecclesiastes 1:8-10a)

If there is nothing new then what are we to do?

Redeeming Time

Where is our solution to time, where is our hope? As Christian homeschoolers we want the best for our chirldren. We want them to grow in knowledge and virtue. We want them to know and enjoy God forever. We look to the future, to Christ’s return, to the coming Kingdom; we look to those things and we find great hope. But we also live in this world, in the present time, in the time in which God has placed us. We are toiling in a creation that groans for salvation, but we must also recognize this world is a gift to us and that God’s intention is not for our escape, rather it is a story of redemption and transformation. How is it then that we educators play a role in that redemption story? How do we participate in the redemption of the present as well as the future?

When Christ died and rose again the curse of death was broken. But notice the day he rose:

Now the first day of the week Mary Magdalene went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. (John 20:1)

Christ rose on the first day of the week. He rose on the day after the Sabbath, on the “eighth day” as it were. He rose on a work day, on a day that human labor once again commenced, on a day when fields were ploughed and goods taken to market. In other words, Christ’s resurrection came not on a “religious” day, but on one of the “ordinary” days; not a holy day but a day that fully belonged to this world. A significance of Christ’s eighth day resurrection is that time was transformed. As Christians we do not merely get a new sabbath, a revised calendar, we get time itself redeemed and made new. The calendar was no longer six profane days followed by a holy seventh day, or six days of labor followed by a day of rest, rather the resurrection signaled the end of the old world and the beginning of the new. We look forward to Eternal Life not eternal rest. And in Christ new creation has already begun.

This is all quite esoteric when we are in the midst of teaching and parenting our children. How does this apply? I see at least three applications for homeschoolers: 1) Create the context within which it makes sense to proclaim the gospel, 2) Pursue virtue, and 3) Build for God’s kingdom.

Creating a Context for the Gospel

The context(s) of our lives provide us with plausibility structures that undergird our beliefs. As educators we are responsible for intentionally creating hermeneutical contexts for what we want our students to know and believe. What and how we teach can provide a framework of thought and action within which the gospel makes sense. Our modern world and its public education systems not only deny the gospel, but also deny that we have souls. Consequently we live in a world that is intent on creating a hermeneutical context in which the gospel is the height of foolishness. But our children need to hear, know, and embrace the gospel. Remember, the gospel is not a “religious” message, but a wholly radical orientation to the world that forms our humanity. Foundational to that framework is one’s understanding of truth; which should include such basics as: truth exists, truth can be known, and truth can be communicated. It must also include beauty, justice, and love, as the conditions in which truth can be understood and embraced.

Pursuing Virtue

Classical educators like to talk of pursuing virtue, and for good reason. Virtue has at least two important features. One is moral; the virtues are all about one’s character, one’s relative “goodness.” The other is about one’s telos or end state. These two features go hand in hand. For any of us to become fully human we must be morally virtuous, and to be morally virtuous is to be fully human. In this sense to be fully human is to be the kind of creatures God intends us to be. Our example is Christ, who showed the way by His example. As yet, we are only shadows of our future selves. As imitators of Christ we become little, walking parts of God’s new creation. As woefully imperfect imitators we set our eyes on Christ and seek the virtue He embodies.

Building for the Kingdom

Christians are participants in God’s Kingdom. Though we wait for the fullness of that Kingdom to come, nonetheless we are living in the time of kingdom. Christ came proclaiming that the Kingdom was at hand and we, the Church in time, continue to proclaim: we proclaim the goodness of creation, the gifts God has freely given, and what is eternal. We build for the Kingdom. We may not know how what we do fits into God’s plans, but like laborers on the cathedrals of old, we each do our part, and someday we will step back and see how our humble contributions were part of the plan all along.

We are in the time of the Kingdom, yes, and also in the time of New Creation. Remember the wise old king who proclaimed there is nothing new under the sun? That was certainly true in the pre-resurrection world, but now consider this from the new King:

Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new […] I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” (Revelation 21:5-6)

In Christ all things are made new, even time. Christ, our King, is both Beginning and End. In Him time itself gets its meaning. This life is not nothing, not vain. Time, that all pervading, fundamental reality of our lives has been redeemed. As children of God, as followers of Christ, we are given the privilege of participating in that redemption. Thus, while we struggle in the midst of our muddling through, we can also know and embrace the words of one who knew the true power of time’s redemption:

Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord. (1 Corinthian 15:58)

And this is eternal life . . .

What is eternal life?

Jesus spoke these words, lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said: “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I have glorified You on the earth. I have finished the work which You have given Me to do. And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” (St. John’s Gospel 12:1-5, NKJV)

Eternal life, rather than being about escaping this world or living forever, is to know God and Jesus Christ. Therefore, eternal life can begin now. Know God. Know Jesus Christ. Begin now.

“Incarnational” homeschooling

This post first appeared as a Classical Conversations Connected guest article.

How could men be reasonable beings if they had no knowledge of the Word and Reason of the Father, through Whom they had received their being? (St Athanasius)

The Mysterious Heart of Education

I am not too bright and frequently I must remind myself that at the heart of education is a great mystery. That mystery is God. We live in a world created by God. We are creatures of God’s imagination. Our rationality comes from God. The longings of our hearts are put there by God. Both our desires and our capabilities to teach and to be taught originate from God. And yet, God is a mystery. We cannot know God unless He reveals Himself to us, and even then, we will always remain incapable of knowing God in His essence. He is wonderful and good, He is faithful and sovereign, but He is also transcendent and we are not. Still, God has made us to know Him and to enjoy Him. Praise be to God that in poignant and substantial ways He has made Himself known to us. To know and enjoy God is, or should be, our foundation as educators. I see at least four reasons this is true:

  1. We bear the image of God
  2. The Incarnation
  3. The Resurrection
  4. To be fully human is to know and enjoy God.

I must say before venturing forth, that I am no theologian or philosopher. I am just a homeschooling dad trying to remember why we are homeschooling.

Reason One: We bear the image of God

The fact that we bear the image of God says a lot about us, and a lot about God. Consider why God placed His image in us. We may never fully comprehend the reason, but we can surmise that He gave us His image as a gift, and part of the gift is that we know Him by understanding ourselves. Consider also how fascinating human beings are. We humans are obsessed with our existence, and some of that obsession is healthy. If there is nothing and no one more fascinating than God, then certainly we, who bear His image, deserve some attention. Through our “imageness” God tells us something about who He is. If this is foundational to who we are, then it is foundational to what we are about and how we should live, and if this is true then it is foundational in our teaching and our learning. Education becomes an important way we know and enjoy God. Everything we do in the name of education should be animated with this fact.

Reason Two: The Incarnation

God has put Himself into creation. Though creation is separate from God, all of creation is infused with God’s will and design. Creation speaks to us of God; it tells us who He is. But then, miraculously and mysteriously, God himself entered into His creation as a man; God became man. I am no expert on incarnational theology, but we know that Christ is the true image of God to us. This says a lot about God’s valuation of man. It also says a lot about how much God desires that we come to know Him. Just as we are image bearers of God’s image, Christ is the ultimate image, the most clear, the most precise icon of God. The story of the world is the story of God and of man, and the central “character” of the story is the God/man Christ. Consider how important this is to how and why we educate our children (and ourselves). God is calling us to Him, to know Him, and to understand ourselves in light of His glory. If our education is not first and foremost animated by this fact then we are on the wrong track. I will not lie, I frequently forget this.

And let us not forget that Christ came to die. God shows us His glory in Christ, and characteristic of that glory is humility and service, even to the point of death. We are to take up our crosses, even as parents and educators. Contemplate this profound reality as you contemplate teaching.

As an aside, consider what the Incarnation tells us about God’s method of educating man. Christ is not a lecture, or a list of facts, or merely some knowledge to stick in one’s brain. God teaches us by giving us a living, fully human, corporeal example (I don’t know how else to put it) of Himself and asks us to behold, to follow, to contemplate, to imitate.

Reason Three: The Resurrection

Education cannot exist without hope. The resurrection of Christ is the basis of our hope. But consider this, the resurrected Christ is still a man. We are not going to be saved from our humanness; God is committed to man as man. We shall be transformed, made glorious, and become complete, but we shall still be human beings bearing the image of God. Thus God is committed to His image being carried throughout creation, and throughout eternity, in us. The Resurrection is the great capstone on the idea that we are made to know and enjoy God. The Resurrection is also the opposite of nihilism. Modern man lives under the burden of nihilism regardless whether he admits it or not. But Christ, risen to glory, is the great exclamation point affirming life, the goodness of creation, and the beauty of man. Education only makes sense in a world with true glory.

Reason Four: To be fully human

That we bear the image of God, that God became man, and that Christ rose from the grave are amazing truths that say a great deal about our humaness. All of us are human, true, but none of us are yet complete. The promise of our humanity is yet to be fulfilled. Christ is our example. The fact of man is important, true; the Oxford professor John Lennox said, “Human beings are so created that God could become one.” However, today we bear the image of God more like a shadow than a substance. We have all the marks but not yet fullness of glory. Let us seek that glory by conforming our lives to Christ. Let us seek to be fully human. An education that does not point to becoming fully human is hollow. Honesty impels us to admit that only with a view to the fully human, to the complete man, can true education even exist.

It must be said that each of the four reasons have, at their core, an incarnational foundation. Each represent an extension of God into His creation, of making Himself known, and of teaching us about Him. Thus education is, in a profoundly mysterious way, incarnational because it relies upon, and points to, the God of and in creation.


I have argued that at the heart of teaching and learning are at least four truths. They are: God placed His image in Man and thus we bear the image of God; God incarnated Himself within His creation; the Resurrection of Christ; and finally, man can only become fully human by knowing and enjoying God. And yet, are these truths commonly held? Do we find these four truths at the heart of public education policy today? Are they constituent to the national education debates, or even in the discussions of your local school board? Tragically the answer is no. As a homeschooler, however, they can be at the core. Not only that, but because they are at the core we can be sure educating our children is neither hopeless vanity nor merely pragmatic survival. Learning math or history or a language is not only practically good, it is substantially good because math and history and languages create soulful links with our Creator, our Lord, and our true selves.

How will this look in our various and unique homeschooling contexts? That also is a mystery. Education, like life, is a wondrous and, sometimes, a very difficult muddling through, but it is a muddling in light of great truths. Sometimes we must remind ourselves, especially when we are mired in the complexity of curricula and scheduling and insecurities, that there is a great mystery, a simple, incomplex stillpoint, at the heart of it all. That stillpoint is God.

Finally, consider this quote from G. K. Chesteron:

“There was a time when you and I and all of us were all very close to God; so that even now the colour of a pebble (or a paint), the smell of a flower (or a firework), comes to our hearts with a kind of authority and certainty; as if they were fragments of a muddled message, or features of a forgotten face. To pour that fiery simplicity upon the whole of life is the only real aim of education….”

I pray we all educate in light of God’s wondrous, mysterious, and incarnational glory. I pray we all seek and find that “fiery simplicity.”

Pray for

Pray for us now and at the hour of our death

for the nails that hold the house together

for the separation of the waters and dry land

for the smallness of our understanding

for corporations and their mystical bodies

for the ancient sea bed creeping across the road

for hearts willing to see the divine

for the offspring of inherited arguments

for the Protestants in their tent cities

for sweating it out with difficult ideas

for old words, may they not be lost

for the love that overwhelms iconoclasts

for the ever-present and the future

for the steadfastness of truth

for the trees bending in the wind

for outdoing each other in love

for taking up our cross at each threshold

for brokenness

and for wholeness

for wounds

and for peace

for friends

and for enemies

for trespasses

and forgiveness

Pray for the seed that must fall to the earth and die

Pray for us now and at the hour of our birth

Does the chicken know? Some thoughts on popular Christianity in light of Slavoj Žižek’s critique of tolerance and ideology

Mr. Ping: The secret ingredient is… nothing!
Po: Huh?
Mr. Ping: You heard me. Nothing! There is no secret ingredient.
Po: Wait, wait… it’s just plain old noodle soup? You don’t add some kind of special sauce or something?
Mr. Ping: Don’t have to. To make something special you just have to believe it’s special.

(from Kung Fu Panda)

I wonder if this snippet from a rather popular and decidedly mediocre “family” movie captures some essence at the core of our culture’s popular ideologies of self and meaning. If so, do we find this ideology also at work in the heart of popular Christianity?

Over the years I have become convinced that most of popular Christianity¹ has more to do with questions of ideology² than with faith. For that reason maybe one of the most important philosophers today that Christians should consider (if not necessarily to agree with) is Slavoj Žižek. His take, which is fueled by Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalytical theories, provides rich fodder for thought. And given that he is coming from such a radically different place than most Christians, there is a kind of intellectual distance that may help Christians get some objectivity on their experiences. Keep in mind that I am not an advocate of Žižek, just a curious thinker fascinated by many of his observations.

Much of Christianity we take for granted, and quite a lot we don’t even really “see” at all—it’s just assumed and accepted. Common issues within Christianity are often framed in such a way as to mystify the real, underlying issues. This is not to say that there are not many who call themselves Christians who are also people of genuine faith, but the larger culture with all its variations and internal antagonisms, is rife with “givens.” Even the small community church that pulls away from the larger church (whatever that is) does so within a set of ideological assumptions about its place in the world and the available theological positions. There are, because there has to be, exceptions, but it is worth engaging with someone like Žižek (profane though he can be) in order to see with different eyes. Consider this talk he gave in 2008 at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR. His topic was ideology and tolerance:

Though Žižek does not address many of the specific questions facing Christians, and though he speaks within a thoroughly secular framework, he does raise alternate views on how ideology plays out in our beliefs. If Christians thought more about their beliefs, especially their beliefs about being Christian in the social/cultural/historical sense (and I must say that some already do this), I think we would begin having more interesting conversations. Maybe we could cut through some of the garbage as well.

As I watched Žižek’s lecture, here are some brief thoughts that came to my mind:

  • When I think of his concept of a post-ideological society I wonder if we are living in a post-theological society as well. In other words, is Christianity today less theological and less ideological than in the past? Or is it that we are less theological and more ideological? In other words, are we more inclined towards illusions of truth?
  • His idea that we are addressed as slightly spiritualized hedonists strikes me as not only true in terms of advertising, but also true in terms of modern evangelical Christianity. Consider how so much of worship music in pop-Christian churches is a continual reference to the self and one’s personal feelings, desires, and experiences rather than what worship is supposed to be—about God. Consider how so many sermons are about how we can get through life better, have better marriages, raise better kids, find centered feelings of peace, rather than plain old encouragement to run the hard race through the frequently awfulness of life until the race is over.
  • Christians, as much as anyone, are living in a “realize yourself” world where we seek the truth not that we might conform to it, rather that we might find ourselves in it—that truth might be found to be us. Thus, truth becomes not only a tool for one’s own self-actualization, but truth must necessarily be fragmented into various individualized truths as self-actualizing individuals struggle to make truth change to their own desires.
  • His example of tolerance in explaining ideology is interesting. I wonder how much of the ecumenical spirit within much of Christianity is really about tolerance. And I wonder if tolerance is really just another word for smugness.
  • His tearing down of the ecological myth of a once balanced earth (Gaia) disturbed by man, and that we must get back to the natural balance of Nature, is rather profound. In a sense he is stating, in secular terms, that creation is fallen and out of balance already. Might this correspond to the biblical idea that the goal is not to get “back to the garden” rather it is for creation to be save, transformed, made new again?
  • I wonder how much of popular Christianity, from its pop music to it pop worship, operates within the terms of fetishism. In ideological terms, and Hegelian, could it be that pop Christianity is (or looks) more Christian than true Christianity? Or that the emotions contrived by so-called worship teams add greater depth to the truth of Christ? Or that the hi-def screens and concert quality audio make the message of faith more contemporary?
  • Lying for the common good: The idea that in classic totalitarian ideology (as exemplified in The Dark Knight film) a lie is necessary for social stability begs the question of how often we promote lies for the stability of our own social worlds. How often does it happen that Christian communities embody and carefully maintain little lies in order to maintain the particular idea of Christianity they are trying to believe is true?
  • His idea that we act as if we believe seems to fuel much of Christian culture, especially regarding popular attitudes towards prayer and worship. We pray that someone will be healed, in our hearts we do not believe that prayer will make a difference, but we believe prayer still works even if we do not believe it works, and thus we act as though it does, and thus we convince ourselves that it does.
  • I wonder how much of what goes for popular Christianity is really just a system of belief where nobody truly believes but they all pretend to believe because of the social constructs they inhabit (e.g. kids don’t believe in Santa Claus but they pretend to believe for the sake of the parents). In other words, how much of popular Christianity is a system of belief and how much is genuine belief?
  • The chicken who is not allowed to “know.” I wonder how much of popular Christianity is a kind of fiction born out of the need for a particular version of Christianity that we tell to children. In other words, do we change true Christianity into a a kind of fairy-tale Christianity so that it is much easier for us to tell it to our children, to answer their tough questions, and to not get too deep into the tragedy of life? And then, do children tend to know (or come to know) that it is a fairy-tale version of Christianity (or just a fake version of life) they are given, but they go along with the farce for the sake of their parents’ delusions? And do the parents end up believing the lies they tell? And finally, do the children end up believing the lie when they have children of their own?
  • In popular Christianity who is the “chicken” who is the Big Other? Think about the sexual scandals in the Catholic church over the last few years. What was the purpose of the systematic cover up? The church preaches that people are sinners, including priests. Who were they protecting? Was it the Pope? Or was it the laity? Who were they trying to keep from knowing? Or consider popular Christianity and its often strange language, linguistic tropes, its strange fashions and mannerisms. Why talk and behave that way? By behaving in a non-real way who is being protected? I wonder if the Big Other in popular Christianity isn’t God. I wonder if Christians tend to play the game not because they are lying to themselves but because (subconsciously) they hope they are lying to God.
  • Are there things that we “see” in popular Christianity that we know we see but are supposed to pretend that we do not see? That is, do we play a game of fabrication in which we sublimate the truth under the guise of acting like Christians?
  • We know we are to be loving, but are told that if we can’t be loving at least be polite. Then we believe that being polite is being loving. What do we do with this?
  • Do we like being Christians because it gives us more freedoms than our liberal, politically correct society? Is our desire for those freedoms from a good heart or bad? How often do Christians champion their subculture so that they can claim their gun rights, or their property rights, or even the right to hurt others in the name of Christ?
  • I wonder if our modern consumer Christianity falls into an historical progression from: 1) become a Christian because it is the truth, it is the best option, to 2) become a Christian because that’s what the other cool/hip people are doing, the mega-church is the happening place, to 3) become a Christian in order to realize your full potential, become the real you, actualize yourself.

Now, there is a problem in thinking about ideology, that is one can begin to feel trapped. I do not believe that we are trapped within ideologies or ideological structures to such a degree that we cannot get out of them. But I do believe it is good to more carefully examine the structures of our beliefs, including the social contexts that support and perpetuate those beliefs.

¹ By “popular Christianity” I mean that in the broadest sense, the way we use the phrase popular music for example. It is that form of Christianity that is most clearly evident across our culture. One could say it is that core orthodoxy that animates the personal claims of being Christian throughout much of the world, and especially in the West. All of us, I would contend, more or less hold to this form of Christianity, and all of us, more or less, struggle with it, either patching up the chinks as we go, or in some fashion, abandon it for another. Popular Christianity is not the same as biblical Christianity or authentic Christianity, though a Venn diagram would likely show some overlap.

² I recognize that the word ideology is rather vague in this context, and I intend it to be so. If I had to define ideology I might say it is the set of (largely submerged) beliefs (held sometimes consciously and generally unconsciously) that serve to propagate and maintain both other beliefs and social structures of belief. On the other hand, this definition is probably both too broad and poorly aimed. In short, to use the word ideology is to say that what is taken for granted, what is accepted as obvious, often belies a deeper, more complex, and frequently more troubling reality.

The Mystical Body of the Corporation

This is a fascinating lecture. If you are not familiar with the history of how and why the modern corporation was created, or of their roots in Medieval society and law, you should take the time to watch this. One thought I take away is whether the modern corporation was born out of the broader Enlightenment project of doing away with normative morality, personal responsibility, and the nobility of man, in short, doing away with God and the world He created. Or, to put it more bluntly, is it a sin to create a modern corporation?

The lecturer is Dr. Eugene Brian McCarraher. His curriculum vita.

For the adventure

Snow in the East already
Sopping the overcast streets,
But here rain as usual
Between crisp, leafy days.
And we slouch towards solstice
And holidays
And the traditions
Of our nineteenth century

Tires on the wet pavement lisp
And slur and hiss
As evening drops
And fevers lie in bed
And angels might be near
But we’ve been told no
Except in our stories
And Mary remains silent
Until the darkest day.

The calendar turns again
With all souls and saints,
And the days begin
To line up, readying themselves
For the adventure.
But I am back
In Protestant days
—Four bare walls—
And a longing for angels.

(All Hallows’ Evening, 2011)