The Virtuous 'Straw-Man'

The Virtuous 'Straw-Man'

Published: Sep 5, 2012 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

A kind person--a virtuous person.  Between them, there is a big difference.  A kind person is kind because he or she accepts people as they are, covers them with kindness.  Kindness is beautiful, the most beautiful thing on this earth.  Virtuous people are activists, obsessed with the desire to impose their principles and goodness and easily condemning, destroying, hating... in this world there is a lot of virtue, and so little kindness.

-- Fr. Alexander Schmemann

There are few aspects of Schmemann that I find more frustrating that his straw-man dismissals of theologies, theories, perspectives and opinions that he does not appear to make any attempts to understand.  This may sound harsh, but this quote is the perfect epitome: not only does he fail to understand the breadth of virtue (as if kindness was not also a virtue), but he fails to acknowledge that Orthodox theologians consistently speak of theosis as the acquisition (or uncovering) of virtue.  For Orthodox, salvation is to participate in virtue.  Read Gregory of Nazianzus, or John Chrysostom, both of whom characterize the priest as the liturgical model of virtue, whose life, teaching and preaching is meant to "paint the charms of virtue" so that all may be persuaded into living virtuously.  Or attend to Maximus the Confessor, the Orthodox theologian who comes closest to later Western counterparts in delineating how particular virtues relate to one another, all of which are founded upon and shaped by love.  Virtue is, for Orthodox, a primary way of understanding the 'ethos' of our lives.

As Schmemann's journals reveal, he was a bit of a social reactionary.  He excoriates the Social Gospel as a secularizing cop-out, and regularly condemns activism as if Christians have no stake in a just world.  As someone whose family suffered at the hands of communism, a particularly virulent form of social activism, his reaction is understandable. But as is so often the case when Schmemann turns to social issues, he seems unable to sort the wheat from the chaff.  It may be that he and I differ on what is chaff.  I am considered a full citizen with a right to vote because agitating Christian men and women insisted that women too are competent images of God.  Schmemann is rather dismissive of a woman's ability to engage in the public sphere, much less in ecclesial leadership.  He says so, in his journals.  More than once.

Yet the fact that he was writing this in the sixties, during the Civil Rights movement, even further reduces my sympathy with him. And here is where the false opposition between kindness and a virtuous person, who frankly seems hardly virtuous, comes to the fore.  Certainly there were aspects of the Civil Rights movement that were angry and even hateful (though kindness seems to dictate that we might want to respond with compassion not condemnation).  But I am hard-pressed to describe Martin Luther King, who insisted that love cannot forgo justice, as "easily condemning, destroying, hating."  The person Schmemann describes is not a paragon of virtue, but someone whose is, like many of us, still becoming virtuous.  Indeed, I would argue, and have argued in the context of recognizing women as fully virtuous, that the refusal to "accept people as they really are" is itself a lack of virtue.  Virtue must recognize the unique dignity of each person.  And whether Schmemann is comfortable with that or not, sometimes the recognition of the full humanity of another person, and the loving desire to ensure that they too are respected and treated with dignity, leads to an active challenge of ecclesial, social and political structures which perpetuate injustice.

I do think his quote offers at least an instinct towards something that those of us committed to ethics as social ethics need to be aware.  First is that it frequently seems that a virtuous person must practice virtues that often appear to collide.  While theologians such as Aquinas argue otherwise, the exercise of discernment in difficult situations indicates that sometimes, one virtue might need to give way before another, at least for a time.  Yet this is what many Catholic ethicists have been arguing since Vatican II.  It is unfortunate that Schmemann did not live to read Margaret Farley's Just Love, or that he does not seem to have read more closely one of his contemporaries, John Courtney Murray.

Second, the juxtaposition of kindness and "virtue" highlights the need to identify  Christian virtues (here I do not mean uniquely Christian as if they are not valued by other traditions or philosophies, but rather, virtues which characterize a Christian).  Stanley Hauerwas and Charles Pinches skillfully take on this task in Christians Among the Virtues.  They rightly note that some classic Greek virtues and their manner of realization may not neatly convert to a Christian life. As pacifists, they challenge as debatably Christian homeric courage, defined primarily as a warrior's virtue.  Christians, they argue, must redefine courage for it to be Christian.  Christians may also need to put forward as virtues ways of relating that were not at all valued by Homer or Aristotle.  Take for instance, compassion, the ability to suffer with another.  Or kindness, which Schmemann is right to note is in short supply.  Or mercy, which did not play well on the battlefields of Troy.

So for all those for whom Schmemann is practically sacrosanct, my apologies.  Anyone reading this blog will certainly know that when it comes to liturgy, I highly respect his work.  However, I often find myself wishing, as I do with much Orthodox rhetoric on social issues, that he had taken more time to constructively engage with the work of other Christians in this area before pronouncing opinions with little or no substantiating argument.

Or, perhaps, I am just too much of an activist for Schmemann.  I wish he were still alive so that I could argue with him in person.  Perhaps we would both rub off on each other a bit.

Michael Plekon

Wed, 05 Sep, 2012 - 13:04

Schmemann was many things, some very admirable, others not so at all. He is a social & political conservative, probably also better a reactionary. He is romantic about change coming ONLY from individual ininiative, much like Kierkegaard on whom I spent years of study & writing etc. AS could not fathom American activism on any level, in fact his appreciation of the America that became his home is limited if not superficial--it afforded his children incredible opprotunities for aducation, career, advancement. But he was clueless when it came to much of American culture and life, though in honesty, here & there in his journals he does encounter both. One cannot make of AS what he was not. This quote is an example of a very facile, superficial conceptulaization that probably is based on an equally thin experience. All this said, on many matters he is discerning, humane, open. Somehow is Russian perspective on women, on learning, on social change and engagement was not significantly affected by his years here.

Kerry San Chirico

Wed, 05 Sep, 2012 - 13:44

Hi Maria,

I think your article is right on. We do a disservice to Fr. Schmemann if we do not wrestle with him all these years later. It would be sad for people to think of an "Orthodox position" on social activism because of Father's (relatively) few words on them. He himself admitted it wasn't his strong suit.