Fr Alexander Schmemann held to particular ideas about the differing natures and roles of women and men. His ideas about what it is to be male and female were certainly based in the world in which he grew up (and this socialization created his “man box” some would say). Indeed, some today have questioned his assumptions (see for example Vol 16 of The Wheel) and have offered some justifiable criticism of his assumptions about what it means to be male or female. In quoting him here, I’m not defending his assumptions about the nature and role of women. I do think it is possible, to bracket those criticisms, accepting them as valid, and to read Schmemann for the point he was making even if his assumptions and perspective no longer satisfy the ideals of the 21st Century. In the quote below, I think his point is that all humans to be fully human must be capable of being receptive to God’s action, so all humans need what he considered to be a feminine quality. Whereas he attributes this receptivity to being a feminine characteristic, nevertheless his point is still that all of us, females and males, need this characteristic in order to respond to God’s salvation – in order to be fully human. In effect, we all need to learn “motherhood” in order to be fully human and Christian. And so naturally he sees the Virgin Mary as being a model for all Christians as the perfect human, not just a perfect woman. In his thinking she shows us what this perfect motherhood is – being receptive and obedient to the Word of God.
Fr Alexander wrote:
True obedience is thus true love for God, the true response of Creation to its Creator. Humanity is fully humanity when it is this response to God, when it becomes the movement of total self-giving and obedience to Him.
But in the “natural” world the bearer of this obedient love, of this love as response, is the woman. The man proposes, the woman accepts. This acceptance is not passivity, blind submission, because it is love, and love is always active. It gives life to the proposal of man, fulfills it as life, yet it becomes fully love and fully life only when it is fully acceptance and response. This is why the whole creation, the whole Church—and not only women—find the expression of their response and obedience to God in Mary the Woman, and rejoice in her. She stands for all of us, because only when we accept, respond in love and obedience—only when we accept the essential womanhood of creation—do we become ourselves true men and women; only then can we indeed transcend our limitations as “males” and “females.”
For man can be truly man—that is, the king of creation, the priest and minister of God’s creativity and initiative—only when he does not posit himself as the “owner” of creation and submits himself—in obedience and love—to its nature as the bride of God, in response and acceptance. And woman ceases to be just a “female” when, totally and unconditionally accepting the life of the Other as her own life, giving herself totally to the Other, she becomes the very expression, the very fruit, the very joy, the very beauty, the very gift of our response to God, the one whom, in the words of the Song, the king will bring into his chambers, saying: “Thou art all fair, my love, there is no spot in thee” (Ct. 4:7). (Fr. Alexander Schmemann from For the Life of the World, found in Building an Orthodox Marriage, p. 25)
If we can lay aside our concerns about whether Fr Alexander’s prejudices about the nature of male and female are correct, it is possible to hear his message about what it takes for each of us to be fully human. All of us need to be receptive to God’s Word and salvation. He is calling us to rise above the limitations which he himself understood to be true about the nature of males and females. Only when we receive God into our lives can we also incarnate Christ by becoming members of the Body of Christ. Then we bring forth the spiritual fruit like Mary the Theotokos did.
Whether or not Fr Alexander’s ideals of what it is to be male and female are current or correct, he still makes a point about what it takes to be human. Mary is the model human in her obedience to God and accepting God’s Word. She receives the Word into herself and incarnates that Word. Her life becomes the model for every human who wants to love God. When we each follow Mary’s lead, we transcend the limits of male and female and become the humans God intends us to be. The feminine and motherhood are thus categories which transcend gender and belong to our shared humanity.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)