What does it mean for Christian worship to descend into mere secularism? According to Fr. Alexander Schmemann, the secularist mindset has an inability to appreciate symbol. This failure leads to the use of symbols as only teaching tools, a utilitarian move that ultimately leads to the destruction of Christian symbols themselves and Christian worship as a whole. This is particularly true when one looks at the misuse, abuse, or poor celebration of the sacrament par excellence, the Eucharist:
But the whole point here is that the secularist is constitutionally unable to see in symbols anything but ‘audio-visual aids’ for communicating ideas. Last winter a group of students and teachers of a well-known seminary spent a semester “working” on a “liturgy” centered the following “themes”: the S.S.T., ecology, and the flood in Pakistan. No doubt they “meant well.” It is their presuppositions which are wrong: that the traditional worship can have no “relevance” to these themes and has nothing to reveal about them, and that unless a “theme” is somehow clearly spelled out in the liturgy, or made into its “focus,” it is obviously outside the spiritual reach of liturgical experience. The secularist is very fond today of terms such as “symbolism,” “sacrament,” “transformation,” “celebration,” and of the entire panoply of cultic terminology. What he does not realize, however, is that the use he makes of them reveals, in fact, the death of symbols and the decomposition of the sacrament. And he does not realize this because in his rejection of the world’s and man’s sacramentality he is reduced to viewing symbols as indeed mere illustrations of ideas and concepts, which they emphatically are not.
It seems to me that the elephant in the room here is the extreme anti-Catholic wing of Reformation, represented by folks like Zwingli for whom that which church throughout time and space has called sacraments are reduced, instead, to mere “symbols.” As a professor of mine once said, “If they are just symbols, then the hell with them!” Point being, there is no reason to make the entrance to the church (baptism) and the meal that constitutes the church and continually feeds us of God’s grace (Eucharist) such central acts of Christian worship if they are only “symbolic.” For there are other symbols. There are simpler symbols, more relevant, more accessible, more modern and easier to market. Schmemann concludes this section with the following:
To anyone who has had, be it only once, the true experience of worship, all this is revealed immediately as the ersatz that it is. He knows that the secularist’s worship of relevance is simply incompatible with the true relevance of worship. And it is here, in this miserable liturgical failure, whose appalling results we are only beginning to see, that secularism reveals its ultimate religious emptiness and, I will not hesitate to say, its utterly un-Christian essence. (For the Life of the World, 125-126, emphasis added.)
Note: This post was edited to reflect a corrected understanding of Zwingli within the history of the Reformation. I had incorrectly associated him with the Radical Reformation, while he was clearly in the reformed camp. I only meant to associate him with the anti-sacramental edge – he did go further away from Rome on the Eucharist than did Luther, Calvin, and the Anglicans – but I had listed him in the wrong tribe. Thanks to Shaun Brown for the correction.