Dreher Gives Schmemann Lecture
That’s me giving the 38th Annual Alexander Schmemann Lecture for St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary last weekend. Had to do it via Zoom, because of the You Know What. My thanks once again to the Seminary for resisting pressure from the woke Orthodox to cancel me for being a monster. As I say in my introduction, their failed campaign actually made my lecture’s point for me quite well.
In the lecture, I say at one point that there is no point in engaging in “dialogue” with the Orthodox progressives. As theological and moral conservatives in Mainline Protestant churches have learned, “dialogue” to that side is a tactic used to wear down conservatives in power. Once the left has taken power, the dialogue ends.
By the way, yeah, the books on the shelves behind me are laid horizontally. It’s a weird bookshelf; I think it was originally build for compact discs. We had to shelve books on their side. If you try to look closely at what’s on the shelf, you’ll find no rhyme or reason to the books. I really do need to organize all the books in our house.
Here’s are two excerpts from the lecture, which was about my book Live Not By Lies, and what the anti-communist Christian dissidents from the Soviet era have to say to us today about living our faith. Nota bene, I addressed my speech to the seminarians in the audience:
We can’t afford to assume that somehow, America will avoid this calamity. Solzhenitsyn warned that what happened in Russia could happen anywhere on earth, under the right conditions.
So, even as we pray and hope that this cup passes us, we should recognize that we are living in a Kolakovic Moment. We should see the threats on the horizon, and prepare ourselves, our families, and those around us to endure what may be coming.
How do we do that? Let me offer you five strategies that I discerned from my reading of dissident literature, and my interviews with Christian dissidents.
First, value truth over everything. You have to have a fundamental orientation towards life that prizes truth. “Live not by lies,” said Solzhenitsyn. By this he meant that one should never lower oneself to accept lies, or even to appear to accept lies, for the sake of getting along in society. Father Kirill Kaleda, an Orthodox priest in Moscow, told me that as a student in the Soviet era, his parents steered him away from the study of history, because they knew that he would have been contaminated by Soviet lies. Similarly, we have to accept that we cannot allow ourselves to be part of certain professions, or societies, or activities, because to do so would require us to lie. Yuri Sipko, a Russian Baptist, said it was taken for granted in his family that they were always going to be outsiders. In post-Christian America, that will be us Orthodox Christians. The only way we will find the strength to withstand what’s coming will be through total commitment to Christ in the Church. This is a purification. The half-hearted who do not want the full truth of Jesus Christ will be burned away.
Second, cultivate cultural memory.
Totalitarians of all kinds understand that if they are going to control a people, they need to control their cultural memory. “Cultural memory” refers to the stories that a people share in common that define them as a people, and tell them who they are. Shaping historical memory is an ongoing process renewed in each generation. The communists tried to erase from the collective memory of the peoples they ruled any narratives and facts that contradicted communist ideology. By depriving peoples of their cultural memories, they made it more difficult for them to have a basis on which to build resistance.
Cicero said that not to know what happened before you were born is to remain a child forever. Children can be easily commanded. Under communism, people had to labor quietly to keep cultural memories alive. In Czechoslovakia, for example, some dissidents held private meetings in apartments, simply to talk about books, ideas, and culture – things they were not told in school — so they would not forget who they were.
We can see all around us how the past is under wholesale damnation by the culture-forming institutions. We have to do the same kind of thing that the dissidents did: formally pass our memories on to each other, and to our children, so that we are not forced to forget who we are.
Third, treat families as resistance cells.
In Prague, there is a large Catholic clan called the Bendas. The late Vaclav Benda and his wife Kamila were the only Christians inside Vaclav Havel’s inner circle of top dissidents. They had six children. The Bendas did not try to shield their children from the details of the struggle for freedom that their parents were part of. They taught them what was going on in the world, and how to discern truth from the official lies that were everywhere in the culture. They showed their kids why personal sanctity and personal heroism mattered (the film “High Noon” was a family favorite).
And they not only taught the kids how to identify and resist the enemy outside the home, but they also filled their moral imaginations with stories that illustrated the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Kamila told me that reading Tolkien was a particular pleasure. Why Tolkien? I asked. She looked me in the eye and said, “Because we knew that Mordor was real.”
Fourth, practice solidarity.
Totalitarianism triumphs when everyone feels divided against everyone else. One thing I learned from interviewing Christian dissidents is the importance of small communities. That was the big lesson of the underground church.
In Bratislava, I visited a hidden room underneath a Bratislava house. This room was accessible only via a secret tunnel. It’s where the underground church produced samizdat gospels and catechisms. They worked there for ten years without ever being discovered by the secret police.
Jan Simulčik, a historian who had been part of that operation as a college student, explained to me as we stood in that room why solidarity was so important to the underground church. He said,:
“When you were with your friends in these communities, you had freedom. You knew that when you went outside, there was totalitarianism. It controlled everything and oppressed you. People like me who wanted knowledge and freedom, and wanted to know more about our faith, depended on these small communities.”
When you tasted freedom within these small communities devoted to Christ, you gradually learned to want to fight for freedom for everyone. Everybody was afraid, but they learned courage from each other.
In 1970s Moscow, a disillusioned ex-Communist turned Christian named Alexander Ogorodnikov started a prayer meeting circle that drew other young people from around the city. Ogorodnikov, who served a harsh prison sentence for his faith, told me, “We had a really brotherly atmosphere in those seminars. Those seminars were like a bonfire where people could come and warm up their frozen Orthodox hearts. This was the blood that flowed in our veins. This was our confession of faith.”
Fifth, and most important of all, learn to receive suffering as a gift.
This, I discovered, was the key to everything that the underground church and the Christian dissidents did: they reconciled themselves to a life of hardship for the sake of Christ. This was the only way they got through it.
Jesus did not call admirers; he called disciples. You can only tell who is an admirer and who is a disciple when they have been tested by suffering. A Hungarian Christian dissident told me:
“Suffering is a part of every human’s life. We don’t know why we suffer. But your suffering is like a seal. If you put that seal on your actions, interestingly enough, people start to wonder about your truth—that maybe you are right about God. In one sense, it’s a mystery, because the Evil One wants to persuade us that there is a life without suffering. First you have to live through it, and then you try to pass on the value of suffering, because suffering has a value.”
Everything in our culture of hedonism and comfort testifies that suffering is always evil, and should be avoided. This is why so many Christians today will ultimately capitulate to the world. If we have not catechized ourselves about the gift of suffering, of the blessing of persecution, so will we.
More (and in this passage, note that the “Living Church” was the pseudo-church that the Soviets tried to create, one that was faithful to the government’s line):
Those are the most basic lessons that the Christian dissidents have to teach us. I have something else to add about living not by lies. You have heard it said that we in the Orthodox Church need to learn to be more open-minded, to compromise with the modern world. The church needs to cast aside her fidelity to the Bible’s teachings on human sexuality and the family, and to disregard her traditions. We must accommodate to the world in the name of compassion. We must seek to be relevant to the world.
About relevance, I think of something Father Alexander Schmemann wrote in his journal. He lamented that the Russian church was lost in nostalgia for the past, and did not notice that the world had changed, that history was on the move. He was right to lament. It is absolutely vital that we Orthodox remain true to our faith’s teachings, liturgies, and traditions, but if that fidelity mires us in a dream world, into which we can escape to pretend that history doesn’t exist, it is a bad thing.
But if the admirable desire to make the faith delivered once and for all comprehensible and attractive to people of this time and place causes us to abandon core teachings, truths that are not up for dialogue, then it is also a bad thing. Progressives within the Orthodox Church are nostalgic for the future. It would pretend to be a “living church,” one that accommodates itself to the spirit of the age, but in fact it would be a zombie church. Ask any Orthodox you know who found Orthodoxy while escaping from the ruins of Mainline Protestantism: they know where this kind of thing leads.
Do not seek what the “Living Churchmen” among us call “dialogue” about the future of Orthodoxy. This is a trap that the small-o orthodox parties within other churches know very well. It is a strategy to exhaust the orthodox until they surrender to the renovationists. When the renovationists take power, the dialogue ends, because, as they will say, one does not dialogue about basic human rights, or whatever misleading label they slap on their heretical beliefs.
Let me be more specific, and blunt. There is a reason why LGBT issues are the chief wedge cleaving the churches apart. It ultimately has to do with anthropology: that is, the question, “What is man?” The Bible gives us one image. The family is, in one sense, an icon of the Holy Trinity. God became incarnate as a son within a family. The fruitful love of husband and wife, united in holy marriage, mirrors the life of the Trinity, and also the Bridegroom Christ’s relationship to His church. These are not arbitrary symbols. They matter. They tell us, among other things, that we know who we are in rightly-ordered relationship to God and others.
The very successful campaign to normalize homosexuality succeeded in large part because gay campaigners and their allies appealed to the modern sense of what a human being is. This is a long story, and we don’t have time for it today. Let it suffice for me to say that the modern Self understands itself as self-defined, untethered by any connection to a cosmological or metaphysical framework. The Self is defined by its own desires. From this ideal, to deny the Self what it wants is to insist on disorder, which is to say, injustice.
It should be obvious why faithful Christians cannot agree with this. We cannot have meaningful dialogue with our contemporary Renovationists because we start from different metaphysical suppositions. Yes, we Orthodox can and should talk about how best to present the traditional teaching in the modern post-Christian world, but about the truth and the binding authority of this teaching, there can be no dialogue if by “dialogue” one means a dialectical process that results in a synthesis of both parts. The synthesis of truth and falsehood is still falsehood.
But the false anthropology of expressive individualism presents us with a deeper problem. The sociologist of religion Christian Smith has documented extensively how American Christians under 40 have been formed not according to Christian tradition, but by the culture. They have assimilated Christianity into the framework of expressive individualism. We have to understand that young people today – and in fact, Christians of at least the last 50 years – have been catechized and discipled by a cultural vision that places the sovereign Self at the center of their understanding. This has been at the heart of the human story since Adam and Eve, but we have built a post-Christian cultural matrix that calls self-worship good. Since the tumult of the 1960s, modern churches and modern families have done a terrible job of recognizing the radical challenge to Christianity from late modernity. We cannot change that past, but that past has created this crisis-ridden present into which you seminarians will be ministering.
I bring this up because you men will not only be responsible for forming and discipling a community in the face of outside persecution, but you will also have to wage an intense internal struggle to de-program your congregation from the false beliefs of post-Christian culture. You cannot fight something with nothing – and the harsh truth is that relatively few of us have the kind of knowledge of church teaching and discipleship that gives us what we need to resist this post-Christian juggernaut. We all need to practice repentance from our easygoing ignorance of the faith. It is not our fault that we were not given the fullness of our spiritual patrimony. But we have no excuse for not educating ourselves and our children better.
God gives the church in every age the saints that it needs. You men will need to be a combination of Solzhenitsyn and St. Benedict. You will need to be thundering prophets who say “No!” to lies, and who are prepared to suffer for the sake of the truth, and you will also need to be loving fathers who teach and guide your parish into a disciplined and resilient life of faith and witness.
The kind of Christians who will still be Christian in fifty years are those who have been prepared to suffer for the faith, in ways both small and big. They will be the kind of Christians who see in their religion truth claims that can withstand rejection by popular culture, and even persecution. They will be the kind of Christians who attend churches that demand something of them. They will be the kind of Christians who don’t compartmentalize their faith, taking religion out only for Sundays and holidays, but rather incorporate it into their daily lives.
This is the Orthodox way. Solzhenitsyn said that the catastrophe of Bolshevism came upon Russia because men had forgotten God. Our present and coming catastrophe here in America is upon us because men have forgotten God. Your great mission and calling – and the mission and calling of all Orthodox Christians – is to make the forgotten God brilliantly alive in the darkened minds of contemporary men.
It is an awesome privilege. Our civilization is going through a long Lent, but let us approach the crisis with the understanding that we are living in a time of “bright sadness.” In his book about Great Lent, Father Schmemann writes that the bright sadness of Lent transforms us if we allow it to. He writes that is “is as if we were reaching a place to which the noises and the fuss of life, of the street, of all that which usually fills our days and even nights, have no access – a place where they have no power. All that which seemed so tremendously important to us as to fill our mind, that state of anxiety which has virtually become our second nature, disappear somewhere and we begin to feel free, light, and happy.”
Here we enter into one of the profoundest mysteries of our faith. In “Live Not By Lies,” I tell the story of Timo Križka, a young Slovak Catholic who was only a toddler when Communism ended. He made a name for himself as a talented photographer and filmmaker, and has enjoyed freedom and success in ways that his parents’ and grandparents’ generation could only dream of. A few years ago, Timo started a project to photograph and interview elderly Catholics in his country who had been imprisoned by the communists for their faith. Many of them were living out their old age in poverty. Speaking to them, though, and making their portraits converted this young man. He heard them testify, again and again, that having suffered for Christ in prison turned out to be among the most joyful times of their lives. Why? Because everything was torn away from them. All they had was Christ. That was when they knew finally who they were, and who He was.
Timo told me: “It seemed that the less they were able to change the world around them, the stronger they had become. These people completely changed my understanding of freedom. My project changed from looking for victims to finding heroes. I stopped building a monument to the unjust past. I began to look for a message for us, the free people.”
The message he found was this: The secular liberal ideal of freedom so popular in the West, and among many in his postcommunist generation, is a lie. That is, the concept that real freedom is found by liberating the self from all binding commitments (to God, to marriage, to family), and by increasing worldly comforts—that is a road that leads to hell. Križka observed that the only force in society standing in the middle of that wide road yelling “Stop!” were the traditional Christian churches.
And then it hit him. Under communism, his parents and grandparents were told that Christianity was the enemy, was the thing that stood between them and having a better life. It was a lie. Today, under consumerist liberal democracy, his generation is told that Christianity is the thing that stands between them and having a better life. It is still a lie.
The secret, he discovered, was the same thing that Solzhenitsyn learned in the gulag, and that the Christian dissidents of the Soviet period have to teach us today: Accepting suffering is the beginning of our liberation.
Timo told me:
“Suffering can be the source of great strength. It gives us the power to resist. It is a gift from God that invites us to change. To start a revolution against the oppression. But for me, the oppressor was no longer the totalitarian communist regime. It’s not even the progressive liberal state. Meeting these hidden heroes started a revolution against the greatest totalitarian ruler of all: myself.”