Schmemann or Solzhenitsyn?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Alexander Schmemann:  Who is Correct?

I often expect my sympathy for Slavic Nationalism over against neo-conservative, neo-liberal imperialism will get a lot of “conservatives” angry.  One interesting criticism–and it does have some merit, a little granted–is that Solzhenitsyn was a border-line phyletist who identified the Chuch with the Russian soil.  On the surface, it is hard to see what this criticism has to do with the merits or demerits of Slavic nationalism or neocon imperialism.  Actually, it is completely irrelevant as it stands.
However, in all fairness, I think I know what the critic is saying.  It does point to a larger issue.  Fr. Alexander Schmemann was a Lithuanian ex-patriat from Russia around the time of the Communist takeover.  Schooled in Paris and later emigrating to America, he offered numerous insightful comments about American culture and American religion (be it Protestant or Catholic).  His books on the sacraments literally stop the earth in its orbit.  I feast on his works daily. 
While a dear friend of Solzhenitsyn, he became concerned with a lot of Solzhenitsyn’s “Old Russia vs. the World” comments.  He saw, probably rightly, that Solzhenitsyn was identifying the Church with Old Russia.  If this is true–and I’ve read his journals–then Solzhenitsyn is open to rebuke.  We should not crystallize one cultural expression and make it normative for the Church.  Did Solzhenitsyn really do this?  Well, that’s a tricky question.  Solzhenitsyn died 25 years after Schmemann died.  Therefore, one can’t make final judgments on Solzhenitsyn simply based on Schmemann’s comments.
However, I’ve always contended that Schmemann (and essentially almost every American Christian, regardless of denomination, regardless of political affiliation) is open to the same criticism.  In Schmemann’s Journals, around the time of President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, he made a comment along the lines of “this is how politics should be” (no doubt he was referring to the peaceful transfer of power that characterizes America [except, perhaps, for the 2000 election]).  What’s interesting is that Schmemann is making one brief moment of Western history–that of late, decadent democratic capitalism the way things should be. 
And if late decadent democratic capitalism is your cup of tea, you are certainly welcome to it.  But you can’t make criticisms of Soborpravna for doing x when your own tradition has done x, bombed other countries for not doing x, and can’t even successfully do x in the long run. 
Anyway, Solzhenitsyn wasn’t the mindless Russian nationalist that people make him out to be.  In his book The Russian Question at the End of the Twentieth Century he rebukes Russian leaders of the past two centuries for getting into wars they should have avoided.  In other words, in the area where Russian arms acquired the most glory (e.g., Napoleonic War and the Crimean War), Russian should have sat out.  Rather odd statements for a mindless Nationalist, eh?  (and I disagree with Solzhenitsyn  on this points).  Solzhenitsyn also makes another move that is hard to peg him:  as I understand him, he disagrees with Tsarist Russia, something most Nationalists cherish.  He makes these points in August 1914.
So who’s right:  Solzhenitsyn or Schmeman?  Both have good points to make.  Solzhenitsyn set himself up for a lot of legitimate criticism but Schmemann wasn’t a good political analyst. 

2 Responses to “Schmemann or Solzhenitsyn?”

  1. I still do not get the heresy of phyletism well, maybe because I have no theological education what so ever.

    As far as my understanding goes, it is wrong to create churches only for one group of people and must say I enjoy places with multi-lingual liturgy (especially when there are more than two languages involved) and diversity of faces. On the other hand the Slavic churches tend to be very national.

    They are the sacralisation of Russian or Serbian national identities. In Russian and Serbian Churches there are Saintly warriors like St. Alexandr Nevskiy, St. Dmitri Donskoy or St. Prince Lazar. Historical figures who fought for preservation of the Orthodox and national idendity against Latin and Muslim invaders.

    In the west the Slavic Churches mostly attract the Slavs for which they are intended as they are their primary concern. Mostly they are not exclusivist which is a good thing but the bulk of Slavic parishioners consider them to be islands of their own national identity abroad.

    Then there is the problem of what is the Western culture? Many make the Western culture to be Secular Humanism and they try to adapt the thing they call Orthodoxy to it to create what Matthew R. Johnson calls a MacParish. Which is equally wrong as creating ethnic clubs.

    I must say I am still puzzled by this…

  2. Leos,
    You make some good points. I will speak as an American (and I fully agree with everything you say). Americans do not believe that they have a specific culture. If they do, then they believe it is necessarily good and self-justifying.

    On the other hand, when the American sees the Orthodox Church he simply sees “those exotic Greeks who simply want to bring Greek culture into the Church.” The American is blind to the fact that he is making American culture dominant in his church.

    You make very good points.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: