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Dreaming Dreams Without Meaning

Generally speaking, when a conference is over, I try to move on and start formulating my thoughts for the following years event. If I come across something that relates to the previous year’s theme, I might note it and even file it for later reference, but I don’t like harking back and manifesting my regrets.

This is different. I trust God to give us what we need when we need it, so I won’t say any more about this after this paragraph. From my limited perspective, I wish I had included this passage in my conference talk. It’s that good. It’s that fitting. It’s that necessary. Read it and see if you agree with me:

Indeed, the fundamental disease of our time… must be termed anthropological heresy. Its rot is a deeply distorted understanding by man of his own nature and life. The most amazing, truly paradoxical aspect of that heresy, the aspect which strangely enough seems to be ignored by the defenders as well as the enemies of that heresy, is its fundamental inner contradiction, its being simultaneously an anthropological minimalism and anthropological maximalism.

First, an anthropological minimalism. It is revealed and affirmed above all in the so-called human sciences whose entire emphasis lies precisely in the reduction of man to a phenomenon wholly determined by a network of impersonal natural laws of which man himself is but a result and “instrument.” This reduction is studied and affirmed on many levels: the biological and genetic, the economic, the sociological, the psychological, but in all of them what is really absent is precisely freedom, the possibility in man for a true personal self-determination….

At the same time, however, our culture is permeated with and truly based on an unprecedented exaltation of man, is the expression of an anthropological maximalism of proportions unknown in the past. The pathos of our “modern world” is the endless affirmation of man’s absolute rights and freedom, the seeking of his liberation and self-fulfillment, the rejection of any limits to his “potential.”

The amazing paradox of our culture, however, is that these two views of man, these two “anthropologies” so obviously excluding one another, are, in fact, “held together,” constitute the fundamental worldview of the “modern man” who, in addition, seems to be totally unaware of its basic absurdity. The man is “nothing” yet he shall be “everything.” there is no “freedom” in him, yet he is free. The person does not exist as a subject “transcending” its nature, but man has personal “rights.” He is determined by his body but has the right truly to “dispose” of it. He has no “soul” but is an “absolute value…”

Had this paradox, this absurdity been confined to the area of mere theoretical speculation, it could easily be dismissed as a curious example of logical inconsistency. In reality, however, it is the very source of the present tragedy and predicament of man, of the apocalyptic flavor more and more evident in our culture. In Christian terms, it itself is precisely that heresy about man which, as all heresy, is above all an existential, and not merely theoretical, mutilation and distortion, resulting sooner or later in total chaos and total darkness. It is of this darkness that we have today the unmistakable foretaste… And the darkness is in this: that however exalted and liberated, i.e., “maximalized,” man remains inescapably a slave of his own ontological “minimalism,” a slave whose very dreams of happiness and self-fulfillment are– in the absolute sense of this world–meaningless.

It is this “broken anthropology,” the source of all our tragedies and dead ends, that Christians ought to seek to heal today.

Alexander Schmemann, Celebration of Faith, Volume 3

I find in that last sentence my marching orders, for nowhere is this all pervasive reduction more pervasive than in education, and nowhere are souls more placed at risk than when they are being educated.

From what we teach, to the way we order our curricula, to the way we teach, to the way we govern and market our schools, we function within that anthropological brokenness. I could not have put it the way Fr. Schmemann did, but this section states precisely why we made “What is man?” the theme of our 2011 conference. As we move into 2012 beginning “A contemplation of creation,” it is not possible that we could forget this practical, existential context.

May He who enlightens every man who comes into the world enlighten us. May we become hands of healing and arms of resistance rather than naive co-workers with the enemy of the Glory and Image of God.

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