Schmemann: Life is Sacramental

Review of Alexander Schmemann's For the :Life of the WorldAlexander Schmemann. 1973. For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy.Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

What makes the majesty of God real to you?

In a mechanistic, materialist culture, such as ours, how do you look past the physical world on Sundays to worship an immanent and transcendent God? Presumably, the causality works in reverse, but our true feelings are frequently revealed by our tepid response to calls for money, time, and effort. For postmodern people, the majesty of God is often illusive.


In his book,For the Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann writes:

“…the very purpose of this essay is to answer, if possible, the question: of what life do we speak, what life do we preach, proclaim, and announce when, as Christians, we confess that Christ died for the life of the world? What life is both motivation, and the beginning and the goal of Christian mission?”(11-12)

Schmemann sees Christians falling into two camps, those that focus on the spiritual life and theose that try to make life better through social justice (12-13). This is, however, is a false dichotomy. Schmenmann remarks—“Man is a hungry being. But he is also hungry for God.” (14)—and he sees his mission as:

“…to remind its readers that in Christ life—life in all its totality—was returned to man, given again as sacrament and communion, made Eucharist.” (20)

In the sacraments, both aspects of our hunger come together and become inseparable.


Schmemann writes in seven chapters preceded by a preface and followed by two more chapters occupying an appendix. The chapters are:

  1. “The Life of the World
  2. The Eucharist
  3. The Time of Mission
  4. Of Water and the Spirit
  5. The Mystery of Love
  6. Trampling Down Death by Death
  7. And Ye are Witnesses of these Things


  1. Worship in a Secular Age
  2. Sacrament and Symbol”(v)

Schmemann was a former dean and professor of liturgical theology at St. Vladmir’s Orthodox University in Crestwood, New York.[1]

Secularism as Tepid Faith

An important motif in his writing is the influence of secularism, which he views as a Christian heresy that has forgotten its roots and refuses to worship God. (7, 118) His emphasis on worship in defining secularism is interesting because the problem is not unbelief, but failing or refusing to recognize God’s majesty, a kind of tepid faith.

Schmemann’s attitude about faith is strikingly similar to that of James, who writes: Even the demons believe– and shudder!” (Jas 2:19 ESV) Or maybe the Apostle John when he writes about the Church at Laudicea: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!”(Rev. 3:15) Schmemann’s definition of secularism comes close to the definition of a nominal or cultural Christian. Still, Schmemann sees secularism as a religion having its own faith, eschatology, and ethics—the erosion of a sense of transcendence among Christians suggests that secularism also practices evangelism (99).

The Eucharist

Schmemann sees the Eucharist, which means thanksgiving, as a communal journey to join with Christ in heaven (28). He writes:

“When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfill, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but to give thanks.”(37)

Sign and sacrament are inseparable in this journey because he defines a sacrament as a “visible means of the invisible grace.”(135) Schmemann’s discussion of the Eucharist is his longest chapter and it spills over into his appendix.


Schmemann reminds us that baptism in the early church followed preparation that could continue for as long as three years, similar to today’s seminary studies. In the Orthodox tradition, the baptism service had three parts: “the exorcisms, the renunciation of Satan, and the confession of faith.”(69) While exorcism is no longer a part of most baptisms, renunciation of evil as an abstract concept and confession of faith is still part of most adult baptism services. (Theology and Worship Ministry Unit 1993, 406-409)

Schmemann continues:

“The exorcisms mean this: to face evil, to acknowledge its reality, to know its power, and to proclaim the power of God to destroy it.”(70-71)

While many postmodern American flitch at the idea of evil as something other than the absence of good, Schmemann was born in 1921 and experienced the horrors of World War II first hand in his native Estonia.


I first read Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World as I took a worship class during seminary and gladly re-read it to prepare this review, in part, because I enjoyed his treatment of liturgy. This is a book written for seminarians, worship leaders, and pastors who may find it challenging to read. Nevertheless, it is worth the time and effort.


Theology and Worship Ministry Unit. 1993. Book of Common Worship. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.



Schmemann: Life is Sacramental

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Tim Keller Makes Sense, Part 2

Timothy Keller, Making Sense of GodTimothy Keller.[1]  2016. Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical.  New York: Viking Press. (Part 1, Part 3)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Modern and Postmodern

The attempt to apply the scientific method to all aspects of life defined the modern era and people looked upon the professionals undertaking this project as cultural heroes. Early in life I knew people whose past time consisted to trips to the airport to watch the planes come and go, much like our grandparents might have spent time in adoration at a train station. Pilots, doctors, engineers, and other professionals (even pastors) earned our respect solving society’s problems and advancing living standards in the process.

The beginning of the end of the modern era came during the Second World War when humanity looked in horror at the application of scientific methods to the task of killing vast numbers of human beings. In a very real sense, the postmodern era began with a deep skepticism that rational thinking should be applied to all aspects of life, especially relationships among different ethnic and religious groups. The focus on efficiency in the modern era morphed into a focus on equity in the postmodern era. Just like a collage can contain different and contrasting pieces all hung in balance, people often held incoherent views and accepted the incoherence.


In part two of his book, Making Sense of God, Timothy Keller examines some of these incoherencies. The general theme of part two is: religion is more than you think it is.

We care a lot about the existence of incoherencies in our worldview because they reveal hidden agendas that might not be accepted if brought into the light. Keller writes:

“I hope by now my more skeptical readers will see that neither secularism not Christianity has the main ‘burden of proof.’ Western secularity is not the absence of faith but a new set of beliefs about the universe. These beliefs cannot be proven, are not self-evident to most people, and have, as we shall continue to see, their own contradictions and problems just as other religious faiths do. One significant problem is that modern secularism’s humanistic values [like human rights] are inconsistent with—even undermined by—its belief in a material-only universe.” (53)

Secularism as an Alternative Faith

The fact that secularity is an alternative set of beliefs (an atheistic religion) means that, for example, it can be taught in public schools without the scrutiny and prohibitions given “religious” beliefs, a huge, practical advantage for those promoting these beliefs. For many Christians, this observation motivates alternatives like private and homeschooling, posing an enormous burden on family resources and energy.

The fact that many of these secular beliefs are not time-tested the same way that traditional religions have been means that we simply do not know how lives will be affected by the children who have been so vigorously indoctrinated. Given the huge human toll associated with the century-long experiment with communism, this lack of time-testing should be viewed with great suspicion.

Crisis of Meaning

“What is the meaning of life?” (57) For years people have joked about this question, but it poses a defining weakness in secularism, especially the Marxian variants. Placing the individual at the center of cultural begs the question of how the individual came into being and such prominence, in the absence of biblical faith. The secular account of creation claims that we evolved from a historical accident, which implies that life has no intrinsic meaning—we are simply a highly evolved bacteria. Political correctness (shouting down opponents) began with Marx who did not want people citing the Bible’s creation account because his theory, known as dialectical materialism, did not have a defensible alternative.

So Why Else Do We Care About the Meaning of Life?

Keller cites an interesting story by Atul Gawande who:

“tells of a doctor working at a nursing home who persuaded its administrator to bring in dogs, cats, parakeets, a colony of rabbits, and even a group of laying hens to be cared for by the residents. The results were significant. ‘The residents began to wake up and come to life. People who we had believed weren’t able to speak started speaking … People who had been completely withdrawn and nonambulatory started coming to nurses’ stations and saying, ‘I’ll take the dog for a walk.’ All the parakeets were adopted and name by the residents.’ The use and need for psychotropic drugs for agitation dropped significantly, to 38 percent of the previous level. And ‘deaths fell 15 percent.’” (58-59)

Why? Keller concludes: “we all seek a cause beyond ourselves.” (59) Obviously, a philosophy like secularism that denigrates human value and the search for meaning is seriously flawed. It is not enough to be housed and fed.

Six Basic Human Needs

The core of Keller’s argument in part 2 focuses on six basic human needs: meaning, satisfaction, freedom, identity, hope, and justice. (216) In his own words, these points are made:

“…in each chapter, I looked at Christianity’s unsurpassed offers—a meaning that suffering cannot remove, a satisfaction not based on circumstances, a freedom that does not hurt but rather enhances love, an identity that does not crush you or exclude others, a moral compass that does not turn you into an oppressor, and a hope that can face anything, even death.” (216)

The purpose of this discussion is to convince secular readers that the Gospel is indeed a sensible alternative.


My brief overview of the second part of Timothy Keller’s book, Making Sense of God, does not do it justice. Keller’s book is a jewel. It answers better than most books focused on apologetics some of the basic concerns of our age. In part three of this review, I will turn to Keller’s last question: how does Christianity make sense?


Gawande, Atul. 2014. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. New York: Metropolitan Books.


Tim Keller Makes Sense, Part 2

Also see:

Tim Keller Makes Sense, Part 1 

Keller Argues the Case for God 

Keller Engages Galatians; Speaks Gospel 

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