Reflections On The Scandal
What Is Important And What Is Not
- Fr. Alexander Schmemann (1949)
When controversies are ignited and flare up in the Church, which happens and has happened often, alas, we inevitably hear appeals from Church circles to cease these controversies in the name of peace and love.
Now, this would be cause for great joy, if only in these appeals there were no unmistakably different overtones: "Your controversy is not important. It is of interest to no one: only ‘specialists’ and ‘scholars’ can understand it, so all this argument leads only to seduction and harm."
And here we must point out to these accusers something very important which they have apparently forgotten. They have forgotten that peace and concord in the Church are inseparable from the Truth.
An outsider who does not believe and is not part of the Church would smile and shrug his shoulders, "What is truth?" That is precisely Pilate’s question to the Savior who stood before him. And the Savior did not respond, because an"outsider" does not believe in the possibility of Truth. For him the truth is always relative and measured according to advantage, improvement or expedience. But for us who know and believe that the Church is founded on the Truth made flesh, that all her life is in Him who said, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life," for us there is nothing in the Church which is unimportant, because everything is measured by this Truth and is subordinate to it.
Yes, there have been many controversies in the Church, and its earthly history is replete with them. They occurred not only in times of trouble, like ours, but also when Church life flowered, in the golden ages of the Ecumenical Councils and the Fathers of the Church. Only then, no one would have dared to acknowledge anything in the Church as unimportant.
So for this cause they debated and for this cause they were persecuted and exiled for one word, for one "iota" (an accurate assessment of the Aryan controversy at the time of St. Athanasius the Great), that above all on earth they placed the Truth and fidelity to the Truth. And in these controversies there was more true love for the Church and her people, whom the Lord Himself through His Incarnation deemed worthy of the knowledge of the Truth — more ardor, more faith than in the lukewarm "latitude" and "tolerance" of our time, when so much in the Church has become the portion of the clergy alone and the "specialists". We should not be seduced by controversies about how to plan our Church life in accordance with the Truth, because in these controversies there burns a living anguish for the Church and its destiny, but rather by the sea of indifference among the Church populace itself which surrounds these controversies and by the skepticism with which even religious people treat these "unimportant" matters.
Of course in our controversies there is so much human passionateness, sinfulness and narrowness. They should and must be enlightened by prayer, love and patience. No one person embodies the Truth in its fullness, but each one is required to aspire to it, to call upon his spiritual intellect, his will and his heart to come to "the knowledge of the Truth."
"Put everything to the test; hold fast what is good," says Paul the Apostle. And if in humility we attempt always to obey the Truth, if we try unceasingly to overcome all which is sinful and narrow for the sake of the Truth, then our controversies born of human weakness may lead to the glory of the Church, "for the strength of Christ is made perfect in weakness."
Priest Alexander Schmemann
First published in Russian in The Word of the Church,
Paris, December, 1949
Translated from Russian by Robert Parent
and first published in English in the Holy Trinity Cathedral LIFE, Vol.1. No. 6, February 1994