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  • Mary, Unity, and the Pathos for EqualityAlexander Schmemann's "Scandalous" Embrace of Difference
  • Andrew T. J. Kaethler (bio)

On February 11, 1976, Alexander Schmemann1 wrote the following question in his journal: "Why can't a woman be a priest?"2 What inspired the journal entry was the backlash Thomas Hopko, Schmemann's son-in-law, had received in response to an article he wrote titled "On The Male Character of Christian Priesthood." In the article Hopko argues that only men can be priests and concludes that "it is not weakness, inferiority or sin that prevents women from holding the episcopal and presbyteral sacramental offices of the Christian Church, but rather their unique mode of human being and action which is incompatible with exercising these positions in the community."3 He is clear that women are not the lesser sex; in fact, "feminine humanity is absolutely necessary for the perfection and fulness of human life, without which the human community cannot reflect the being and life of God, the uncreated Trinity."4 And he does not purport that women should be relegated to limited roles, but rather there are "as many forms of realization as there are women created by God."5 In short, we could call the position that Hopko defends complementarianism. Presenting the traditional view held by the Church, it was surprising that Hopko's article stirred up so much [End Page 64] controversy within the Orthodox community. Schmemann's opening question marks the beginning of a two-and-a-half-page theological reflection concerning the underlying assumptions of those who so adamantly disagree with Hopko. In these unedited reflections––bear in mind that this is from his personal journal––Schmemann exposes what he argues is one of the foundational vices of the modern Western world, that is, equality.

There are two aspects to this claim that make it exceptionally interesting. First, rather than moral theology, in large, theologians have turned to Schmemann's work to explore sacramental and liturgical theology, and rightfully so.6 Thus, there is something novel about looking at Schmemann's moral theology. Second, equality is the flagship of the Western world as seen in our art, politics, and legal constitutions. There are numerous issues, related and unrelated, that fall under the "equality debate," not all of equal concern: male-only priesthood; domestic roles; same-sex marriage; gender; LGBTQ discourse; employment opportunities and salary equity in regard to race, color, religion, and sex (Affirmative Action); and the list goes on. Equality is part and parcel of rights discourse based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In short, equality is essential to the very framework of secular Western life. Hence, there is something audacious, if not courageous, to Schmemann's claim that equality springs from the principle of comparison which, he argues, is the logic of the devil.

Schmemann's bold argument against modern secular equality is not a free-standing notion, a unique foray into the world of moral theology and theological anthropology, but naturally follows from his relational view of the world––relational ontology––which is grounded in the mystery of the Trinity. In the journal entry Schmemann alludes to four key problems that exist at the heart of the modern secular notion of equality: (1) equality is based on a flawed conception of freedom, (2) equality is an abstraction, (3) equality destroys persons, and (4) equality is inimical to love. Yet Schmemann does not simply tear down the edifice of secular equality; he offers a [End Page 65] counter vision and a new definition of equality grounded in thanksgiving and in a Trinitarian conception of personhood. In light of Schmemann's relational ontology, this article explores and expands upon the four problems of equality and provides a theological alternative to the modern notion of equality that incarnationally stands before us in the person of the Virgin Mary.

Equality is Based on a Flawed Conception of Freedom

In the journal entry Schmemann posits that for contemporary culture "the whole concept of liberation is totally negative. The idea 'all people are equal' is one of the most erroneous roots a priori. Then follows: 'all people are free.'"7 Here the term...


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