Schmemann and “liturgy outside liturgy”

“Tradition has said that liturgy has two purposes: the glorification of God and the sanctification of man,”says Dr. David Fagerberg, author of a new book on the liturgical theology of the Orthodox theologian Fr. Alexander Schmemann. “I hope to suggest to people that the former is accomplished when the latter occurs. God sanctifies so that we may glorify.”

Left: Father Alexander Schmemann holding a chalice during Divine Liturgy (Archdeacon Kirill Sokolov | Wikipedia); right: The cover of "Liturgy outside Liturgy: The Liturgical Theology of Fr. Alexander Schmemann" (

Editor’s note: The following interview was originally posted on Dr. Adam A.J. DeVille’s “Eastern Christian Books” site. It is reposted here with Dr. DeVille’s kind permission, with a few minor changes. Dr. David Fagerberg is a professor of liturgical studies at University of Notre Dame and the author of books on Chesterton, liturgical theology, and liturgical asceticism.

I have previously discussed on my site several of David Fagerberg’s splendid books, and I have often used them in classes, especially Theologia Prima: What is Liturgical Theology, and recommended them to students, including On Liturgical Asceticism.

Additionally, I have often discussed on here the works of Fr. Alexander Schmemann (see, inter alia, my interview here with Bill Mills about his book on Schmemann), who remains such a welcome voice within Orthodoxy today and well beyond it also.

So it is a double delight, then, to have a book about Fr. Schmemann authored by Dr. Fagerberg. I am always interested to hear when David has published something new, as he recently has: Liturgy Outside Liturgy: the Liturgical Theology of Fr. Alexander Schmemann (Chorabooks, 2018).

David W. Fagerberg (Photo: Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

CWR: Tell us about your background.

Dr. David Fagerberg: It is now three decades since I arrived at Yale and asked Fr. Aidan Kavanagh to do a directed readings with me. He agreed on the stipulation that we would read everything we could lay our hands on by Schmemann, because he was in the midst of the lectures that would become his book On Liturgical Theology. That was my introduction to Schmemann, who died a year later in 1983 before I ever had the chance to meet him in person.

I sometimes say that my subsequent PhD work was trying to get the number of the bus that hit me. My understanding of liturgical theology changed completely. I had been ordained a pastor in the Lutheran Church (ELCA), and done a Masters at St. John’s in Collegeville, intending to raid the Benedictine pantry for some liturgical geegaws to import. But I wrote myself into Catholicism in chapter 5 of my dissertation (the sort of existential effect not usually expected of dissertations). I taught for 12 years at a Lutheran undergraduate college in Minnesota (Concordia), and was two years at the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein when an invitation to join the faculty at Notre Dame came, and I have been here now 15 years.

CWR: With my students over more than a decade now, I’ve used your Theologia Prima, and more recently On Liturgical Asceticism. What connections, if any, do you see between these two and your new book, Liturgy Outside Liturgy?

Fagerberg: The five lectures that make up this book were delivered in Sweden during January 2017. The first three were given at a conference on Schmemann sponsored by the ecumenical community at Bjarka-Saby, at the invitation of Peter Halldorf. The latter two were given on the campus of the University of Lund to a graduate seminar and a group of laity, at the invitation of Samuel Rubenson, who presides over a theological study center called the Academy of St. John. The invitation said there has been growing interest in the heritage of Schmemann in Sweden, and his writings have been important for this community with members from Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and evangelical traditions.

I therefore approached this as an opportunity to make a fresh survey and summary of Schmemann. It was a chance to try and unpack Schmemann’s frequent insistence that liturgical theology is “the slow and patient bringing together of that which was for too long a time broken and isolated – liturgy, theology, and piety, their reintegration within one fundamental vision.” One might see Theologia Prima as my attempt to reintegrate liturgy and theology, and On Liturgical Asceticism as my attempt to reintegrate liturgy and piety (read: asceticism); this was a chance to delve into why Schmemann felt this was so important. So the lectures let me cast a glance over my previous work.

CWR: It will be 35 years this December since Fr Alexander’s death, and yet he seems more widely read today than ever. What do you think is the key to this longstanding interest in his writings?

Fagerberg: I remember Fr. Robert Taft, S.J., quipping at a conference on Schmemann held at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary that Schmemann “has a remarkably long shelf life.” It’s true. And as remarkable is the additional fact that Schmemann continues to hold the interest of Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. No doubt each audience brings their own expectations to his writings: conservative or liberal, tradition or renewal, sacred high liturgy or connection to the profane world, etc. But I think it is a testimony to Schmemann’s balance and complexity that he can speak to such a varied audience without personal self-contradiction. His writings contain both safeguards against excesses, and a vivifying power for renewal. The only way I can account for this is to suggest that he writes out of a deep personal love of Christ and his Church.

CWR: Tell us a bit about how you, and Schmemann, understand the liturgy outside liturgy—what does this mean, and what are the implications for Christians once they walk out the door Sunday mornings?

Fagerberg: I am proposing that in addition to looking at liturgy (a perfectly responsible scholarly thing to do) it is also important to look through liturgy – through it at life, spirituality, faith, theological understanding, providence, asceticism, justice in society, and so forth.

When Schmemann gave his 1963 keynote lecture that spoke of liturgy existing For the Life of the World, he was aware of liturgical scholarship, but that was of secondary concern to him. He repudiated the view of other liturgical scholars who interpreted him as the sort of person who wanted to “prepare grounds for a liturgical reform that would restore the ‘essence’ of the liturgy” and relegate accessories to their place. He patiently explains that this is not his concept of liturgical theology at all. Rather, he seeks to show how the fruit of our new life in Christ is grounded in the Church’s leitourgia. So my idea is that liturgy gives birth to something beyond itself.

CWR: Your introduction notes that your first reading of Schmemann, for your doctorate, was focused in one way, but for this book you had a chance to widen the focus to other writings. Which ones in particular, and why?

Fagerberg: It was a risk to return to an author who was so important to me over three decades ago – will I find him passé? Will my interests have moved on?

I am happy to report that Schmemann was as stimulating and fruitful a tutor as he ever was. For my doctoral study I zeroed in on articles where he defined liturgical theology, and explore the relationship between liturgy and theology. For these lectures I tried to speak to the liturgical question by staying in Schmemann’s voice, but gathering material from a much broader range of essays he wrote, in which I had not yet read. With the benefit of digitalized journals now, I downloaded about seventy essays, of all sorts of genres: reports to the holy Synod of bishops concerning OCA concerns, history of Byzantium, memoria to deceased Orthodox theologians, the Western rite in Orthodoxy, secularism. Three might be singled out from 1964, which were a sequential series in the St. Vladimir’s Quarterly, and bore the common main title “Problems of Orthodoxy in America,” but three subtitles: The Canonical Problem, The Liturgical Problem, The Spiritual Problem.

CWR: You begin with Schmemann’s famous “negations” of what liturgical theology is not—not a theology of worship, and not a “reduction of theology to liturgy.” What, then, is it in both his eyes and yours?

Fagerberg: I had begun graduate school as a systematic theologian, intent on finding some topic on worship, or sacraments, or prayer to make the object of my study. That was my understanding of what “liturgical theology” was. The academy had taught me that the best way to investigate something is to dissect it, and to do so, of course, one must kill the object of investigation, pin it open on the board, and look inside.

Kavanagh and Schmemann suggested I might learn more if I watched the liturgy in motion. And as it moved, it would throw off theology, like a grinding wheel throws off sparks. The question Schmemann asked—which leads people to describe him as having started a revolution in liturgical studies—was whether liturgy is an object of theology, or the source of theological thinking? What if liturgy is not just the pious straw of simple believers that awaits an academic Rumpelstiltskin to spin it into real theological gold (Western scholasticism)? What if instead we follow the Church fathers’ approach? “Just as they do not theologize about the Church, the Fathers do not theologize about the liturgy. Liturgy as the life, as the ‘sacrament’ of the Church is not the ‘object’ but the source of their theology because it is the epiphany of the Truth, of that fullness from which the ‘mouth speaks.’”

CWR: You quote Fr Alexander as noting that too often people are not interested in understanding liturgy, much less theology, because instead they are in search of some mystification—some kind of “’spiritual experience, spiritual food’” provided to those in a “’cultic society’.” How does he recommend Christians begin to overcome this kind of thinking?

Fagerberg: Schmemann loves the liturgy because he loves his Lord. I often begin my semester with an anecdote about the time I was dressed in cap and gown waiting to enter for commencement exercises, and the person behind me, knowing I did liturgical studies, said “you must like this sort of thing.” Yes, I sarcastically thought; this excessive pomp and extravagant formality is the shiny object that attracted me to it.

Schmemann does not seem to swoon over liturgy, rather liturgy is the Paschal mystery encountering us in the deepest moments of our lives. I suppose he thus disappoints activist liberals because he stands firmly in Church liturgical tradition, and I suppose he disappoints spiritualist conservatives because he is not enraptured by rite. He wrote, “I realize how spiritually tired I am of all this ‘Orthodoxism,’ of all the fuss with Byzantium, Russia, way of life, spirituality, church affairs, piety, of all these rattles. I do not like any one of them, and the more I think about the meaning of Christianity, the more it all seems alien to me. It all literally obscures Christ, pushes Him into the background.”

CWR: You note the importance of antinomy to Schmemann, and for this you draw on Pavel Florensky. Tell us a bit about the connections between the two, and how they help us understand antinomy.

Fagerberg: While I do not find quotations of Florensky in Schmemann, I know he knew about him by his introductory survey to Russian theology. Florensky provides a very valuable way of dealing with contradiction as paradox. He writes in his thesis, “Life is infinitely fuller than rational definitions and therefore no formula can encompass all the fullness of life. … Antinomicalness does not say, ‘Either the one or the other is not true.’ It also does not say, ‘Neither the one nor the other is true.’ It only says, ‘Both the one and the other are true, but each in its own way.” In my earlier works I tried to explain Schmemann’s idea of “cultic antinomy”: the Church uses cultic categories to express something that cult cannot contain. In this book I use the concept to explain how Christians are all the time leaving the world, but all the time remaining in it.

CWR: In your section on the consecration of the world (also addressed at greater length in your Consecrating the World: On Mundane Liturgical Theology), you note that liturgy, properly speaking, must have an impact on matter, anthropology, hearts, and history. Tell us a bit more what you mean here and how you see its impact on each.

Fagerberg: Suppose that liturgy puts a light into our eyes by which we can see. Suppose it is the light of Mount Tabor illuminating creation so that its truth, beauty, and goodness glorifies God. And suppose having a theological eye means seeing by this light. If all this is so, then Mrs. Murphy is a theologian not for having attended academic courses to learn scholarly jargon: she is a liturgical theologian for having this charismatic sight by which to see matter, persons, hearts, and history.

This idea, sketched out in my book Consecrating the World, derives from Schmemann’s complex (antinomous) understanding of world. On the one hand, world means rebellion, death, communion with a dying world; “food itself is dead,” Schmemann writes, “it is life that has died and it must be kept in refrigerators like a corpse.” But on the other hand, world is simply “in which and by which we live,” and if we could reestablish the world and its proper relationship to God then we could be said to consecrate the world. This, of course, would require overcoming the passions so that we no longer misuse the world. That’s why liturgy and asceticism are connected. There’s nothing wrong with money, sex, or beer; the problem lies in avarice, lust, and gluttony.

CWR: Sum up what you were hoping to accomplish in Liturgy Outside Liturgy: the Liturgical Theology of Fr. Alexander Schmemann, and tell us who would benefit from reading it.

Fagerberg: Tradition has said that liturgy has two purposes: the glorification of God and the sanctification of man. I hope to suggest to people that the former is accomplished when the latter occurs. God sanctifies so that we may glorify. When we are given new life, then God is glorified. This means that liturgy has consequence on every aspect of Christian life, and it is not confined to the temple etiquette alone. Another of my other mentors, Paul Holmer, wrote “It would be odd to say that Christian worship and liturgy are only stimulating or expressive. For worship requires not that one like the liturgy but that one come to abide in God himself.” The Fall was the forfeiture of our liturgical career, but in his grace God redeems and deifies, and liturgy becomes the trysting place for a cosmic and eschatological liturgy. My hope is to explain what Schmemann meant when he said liturgical theology is not academic theology staring at liturgy: liturgical theology is the reunification of liturgy, theology and piety.

CWR: Having finished Liturgy Outside Liturgy, what are you at work on now? Any new publishing projects?

Fagerberg: I don’t know what will come to fruition, but there are two subjects intriguing me now. First, current reading of spirituality in Western sources has made me think this should be better connected to liturgy, so I am thinking about Liturgical Mysticism.

Second, if liturgy is as connected to theology as Schmemann suggests, I wonder if one could write a Liturgical Dogmatics. I can express myself in an interior conversation I had with myself in a second and a half. One day I was asked if I could teach the course on liturgical history, and the following shot through my mind: “Liturgical history is an important topic; where shall we begin? I suppose with Abraham, then find ourselves with Moses at the burning Bush, and then Israel’s Kings and prophets. No, wait, probably the Noachic covenant needs to be mentioned. No, actually, liturgical history begins with Adam and Eve’s cosmic priesthood, the forfeiture of their liturgical career, and the long story of salvation history designed to restore man and woman to their liturgical state by making them apprentices to Christ, the premier liturgist, to be led to the heavenly Jerusalem. That would be a liturgical history of man and creation and redemption.”

But, of course, my interlocutor was only asking if I could teach a history of the liturgy. It seems to me a parallel move could be made about liturgical anthropology, liturgical cosmology, liturgical ecclesiology, liturgical exegesis, liturgical morality, liturgical Mariology, liturgical eschatology. I wonder.

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About Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 110 Articles
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor at the University of Saint Francis in Ft. Wayne, IN., where he also maintains a part-time private practice in psychotherapy. He is the author and editor of several books, including Orthodoxy and the Roman Papacy (University of Notre Dame, 2011).


    • Can someone whose mind is closed to anything other than scholasticism read Schmemann or any contemporary Eastern theologian and gain valid theological insights? I don’t believe so. For some East is East and West is West and never shall the two meet. Fr. Schmemann is no more akin to an Eastern guru than Benedict XVI. The idea of a cosmic priesthood as mentioned by Schmemann has nothing to do with the likes of Fox or his followers. If you don’t feel the review is substantive and you’re really interested read Schmemann’s works and get a context for his theology. It is most certainly Orthodox/orthodox.

  1. Funny! I recall the liturgy speaking of the “sacrifice of Abel the just” but not of the cosmic priesthood of Adam and Eve. Also… “food itself is dead,” Schmemann writes, “it is life that has died and it must be kept in refrigerators like a corpse.” (Actually, in the case of vegetables and fruits, these are God’s gifts of sustenance, fully-grown produce, meant to be harvested in their full perfection, given to man who preserves them in cool settings – and meats were once salted before refrigeration – not sure if corpses were) This statement of Schmemann about food (and a few other items quoted here) seem like the words of some Eastern guru who is less wise than he sounds. I’ll pass.

    • “… seem like the words of some Eastern guru who is less wise than he sounds. I’ll pass.”

      Your loss. Seriously. Read “For the Life of the World” and get back to me. One of the best books I’ve ever read.

      • “For the Life of the World” is not under review here, so why change the subject? This review is not substantive and what it does put forth is not convincingly Catholic – at best it is ecumenical – but neither impressively so. And as noted, the quotations selected such as – “tired of all this… spirituality… piety” are not clarifying in their criticism (or examination) of liturgy. Sure, I could be more “open” to understanding what the brilliant men and women who author books are trying to say, but I figure its their responsibility to say it in a way that is instructive, clear, and distinct – not just for me but all the other people I have to explain it to these days because of their sincere confusion.

  2. “In this book Bishop Marc Andrus and spiritual theologian Matthew Fox challenge believers and non-believers alike to develop a new practice based on very ancient teachings and the new cosmology: The Stations of the Cosmic Christ. In this time of wars and unprecedented challenge to the planet from human-induced climate change, how will humans integrate the teachings about the awesome universe in a way that empowers our joy and compassion?” (Stations of the Cosmic Christ). I must agree with Inigo on this one. Matthew Fox formerly Fr Fox OP now an Episcopalian cleric was and remains a New Age heretic forbidden to teach by Cardinal Ratzinger, who objected to his feminist theology calling God “Mother” and preferring the concept of “Original Blessing over Original Sin” and notion of a cosmic Christ. Dear Eastern Rite Catholic friends I don’t criticize your personal faith in Christ, far from that or the intent of Fr. Alexander Schmemann. But this notion that “liturgical history begins with Adam and Eve’s cosmic priesthood” is much too close to the New Age heresy that reaches back to the ancient Gnostic heresy of a Cosmic Christ inherent in all believers now held by Episcopal Bishop Andrus and his compatriot Matthew Fox.

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