What Do You Look for in a Bishop?

With the death this past week of Met. Philip, of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America (about whom Fr. Oliver Herbel’s most recent book offers  fascinating insights–I urge you to read it) and of Mor Ignatius Zakka, Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, two important primatial positions have become open. If you were one of the electors, or were called upon to advise them, what would you counsel? What kinds of things are essential in a bishop?

More than ten years ago now, I published, in a tiny obscure Canadian journal (is there any other kind?!) a “top ten” list of qualities bishops should possess. I can’t find that article just now to see how well it holds up, and I confess I can’t remember most of what I wrote. But one thing I have started to think about, which I did not include in my original list, was the issue of celibacy. (I’m at work on a book right now about married Catholic priests.) I know many fine married priests, Catholic and Orthodox,  whom I should happily appoint bishop were such an appointment within my gift. How sound is the argument for maintaining a celibate episcopate? (I confess that in many cases with which I’m familiar, the number of possible celibates is so small that by the time you root out the flagrant psychopaths you are left with a tiny handful of mere mediocrities–if you are lucky.) And, married or not, what would you look for in your new North American primate if you are a member currently of the Antiochian Church–or of the Syriac Church?

Leaving the Orthodox Church

Today, we are blessed to have a guest reflection from Fr. Richard Rene.  I expect this will lead to follow up posts!


As an Orthodox Christian priest, I am always interested in how people find and (sometimes) abandon their Orthodoxy. In a recent conversation with a close friend of mine, we found ourselves reflecting on friends of ours who have risen to prominence in parishes or theological or academic circles, only to ‘implode’ in a variety of ways, even going so far as to abandon their faith in God entirely.

As we speculated on these sad stories, we wondered if they shared something in common, and the conversation turned to the ways in which converts to Orthodox Christianity describe their encounter with the Church. We realized that in all of the stories of conversion, two metaphors are so prevalent as to be ubiquitous—that of the journey and the story. More than that, we saw the ways we tend to understand and apply the metaphors of story and journey have profoundly exacerbated (if not caused) the spiritual breakdowns we have witnessed in the lives of those converts who have lapsed from Orthodoxy.

In pre-modern societies, a person’s identity was forged almost entirely in relation to his tribe. In the context of family and clan, the metaphors of story and journey were well-defined and concrete. The story was the ancestral history—a collection of myths and customs by which the tribe identified itself—and the individual’s purpose was to assimilate himself into this pre-existing narrative. The journey was the process of assimilation, which also had a well-defined markers in the form of rituals of birth, coming-of-age, marriage, the making of war, the establishing of peace, and death.

By their communal nature, tribal societies guaranteed the safety of the metaphors of story and journey. Individuals journeyed into a story their community had defined, on a journey their ancestors had taken before them.

By contrast, modern societies have consciously abandoned the tribe as the locus of personal identity. Since the industrial revolution, the tie between the individual and their community has largely been severed. Detached from these roots, our understanding of the metaphors of story and journey have also become unmoored. While the tribal story was collectively known and understood and handed down from generation to generation, now we have no narrative to adopt, and are compelled to create our own myths from which to draw meaning. While the journey that one undertook to become part the tribal story was well-established in communal rites and rituals, now we must invent not only the destination (whatever constitutes personal fulfillment), but also the route and the markers of meaning along the way.

I think of myself as a typical example of this modern situation. Upon learning that I am an Eastern Orthodox priest, people have often asked whether I am ethnically Slavic. The question itself is telling: the assumption is that I entered the priesthood because it is my tribal religion. In reality, I was born in the Seychelles, raised in southern and eastern Africa, and immigrated to western Canada. I chose to attend an Orthodox Church independently of my family, who found my decision strange and alienating. Far from being an inevitable step in the fixing of my tribal identity—a Slavic boy following taking up the clerical family business—my entering the priesthood was very personal: my journey, a development in my story. In a pre-modern society, I could not have conceived of such a path. Modernity has allowed me to make the kinds of social decisions that led to what I have become.

In one sense, then, we converts can be grateful for the breakdown of tribally-defined barriers that the modern ethos has afforded. For one thing, it has made it possible for us to discover a rich Orthodox spiritual heritage that would otherwise have remained sequestered in Slavic, Greek or Palestinian tribal ghettos. At the same time, the detaching of the individual from the tribal in the forging of spiritual identity has a dark side, and it is this that I would like to draw our attention to here. For the very same modern phenomenon that has permitted some of us to discover a faith that would otherwise have been concealed from us also contains within itself a set of assumptions that, as long as we ignore them, could lead us to abandon the same faith almost readily as we embraced it.

Consider the metaphor of the journey to faith. As long as we accept as axiomatic that the individual is on a personal journey whose destination is self-defined and determined, two assumptions follow. Firstly, we come to assume that every destination is equally valid. Secondly, because each individual is on his own journey, we assume that he must know the best way to get where he is going; to that extent, we tend to regard whatever path he chooses as the right one relative to him.

Similar assumptions may be made when we as moderns interpret the story metaphor. If we believe that the individual must conceive his own story, rather than simply appropriate the tribal story, then forging our identities primarily involves conceiving of and articulating a myth that is uniquely our own. Rather than asking how we fit into the story that we have inherited, we ask how our experiences fit into a story whose lines are necessarily in flux, developing according to our subjective inclinations. As a result, we make choices, not so that we can better approximate our place in the communal narrative, but on the basis of whether or not we believe that those choices fit into a narrative we have constructed.

These approaches to the metaphors of journey and story are potentially dangerous for the modern Orthodox convert. If every spiritual destination is valid, why should one’s encounter with Orthodoxy be the end point, and not simply a temporary stop along the way to somewhere else, equally fulfilling? And if every path one chooses is right as long as you consider it a part of ‘your journey,’ then Orthodox Christianity, which considers itself the fullness of the way to human salvation through Jesus Christ, is no more right than any other system that claims to offer spiritual guidance in human life.

Likewise, when we make our encounter with the Orthodox Church merely a part of ‘my story,’ we build in the possibility that the encounter may not be the ‘end,’ but rather just one chapter, to be followed by others. And if our life in the Orthodox Church starts to involve uncomfortable, inconvenient and even unpleasant experiences that don’t ‘fit’ our notions of how things should unfold; if our newly-adopted Orthodox narrative comes into conflict with other narratives, such as those of the LGBT or feminist communities—what then? Might we not tempted to turn the page on Orthodoxy and ‘start a new chapter’ in our lives, seeking to weave in the alternative plotlines we find so personally compelling?

In short, when we uncritically adopt the modern interpretation of these key metaphors, we unwittingly allow for the possibility of reducing Christianity to a purely subjective faith whose staying power depends on our fickle notions of ‘personal fulfillment.’ Planted in such rocky soil, our spirituality may quickly and joyfully spring to life when it suits us, but lacking a root, it may wither and die just as quickly.

The antidote to this malaise would seem to involve restoring a tribal basis for personal identity. However, this too is fraught with pitfalls. Too often, especially in convert circles, the return to tribalism has devolved into sectarianism as members, perhaps unconsciously aware of their modern spiritual fragility, adhere to communal rules that focus on externals (such as beards, head coverings and so on), while adopting a rigid formalism and literalism in their interpretation of liturgical and biblical texts. In this way, they hope to restore the understanding of journey and the story to its pre-modern state, containing the destructiveness of individual autonomy that modernity has unleashed.

The dangers here are relatively obvious. Aside from robbing a rich spiritual tradition of its depth and nuance, reducing it to a collection of mere forms to be observed unquestioningly and unthinkingly, such sectarian endeavours inevitably deprive the Gospel of its power to penetrate and overcome cultural, social, economic and religious barriers. Quite simply, the artificial and superficial restoration of tribalism that we see in many convert communities perverts the apostolic understanding of a Church and a unity in Christ where there is truly neither Jew nor gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.

Rather than applying such simplistic answers to the question of modernity, we must begin by confronting the extent to which modernity has shaped and continues to shape our sensibilities, regardless of whether we brand ourselves ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal.’ Second, we must actively engage in reclaiming the metaphors of story and journey, rather than simply adopting them wholly and uncritically. We can and should celebrate the power of modernity to break down barriers and allow the Gospel to flourish in places from it would otherwise be excluded; however, we should avoid its tendency to relativize and render all things equally valid (and therefore equally meaningless).

If we are to talk about a ‘journey of faith’ (and not to do so would be difficult), we need to consciously recall that the destination—the fullness of Christ—is a given, as is the way to get to that destination in the tradition of the one apostolic Church. The paths we take, therefore, are not all equally valid or good, but must prove themselves consistent with the path of the saints—those who have walked before us.

Similarly, if we must think of our journey as being a part of a larger narrative, we need to remind ourselves both individually and collectively this is not a narrative of our own making; it too is a given. Our responsibility is not to continually deliberate on how the events and experiences of our lives ‘fit’ into the myth we have created for ourselves. Rather, our task is to make the most informed and wisest choices in council with the Body of which we are members, and then leave the Head of that Body, the Author of lives to establish their ultimate significance in relation to His story, the story of universal salvation.

Can You Teach Orthodox Practices in a University to Non-Orthodox?

Following up on Dr. Christopher Johnson’s recent post on here, I wanted to raise a few questions that emerged after I read this fascinating article, “Colleges Should Teach Religion to Their Students.” There the author rather strikingly and boldly argues that even in state schools, we should not be afraid to teach not merely the beliefs about, or theory of, religions, but actual practices of actual religions as lived by people every day. We should, moreover, not be shy about doing so in order to provide guidance and structure to students who often end up drifting rather aimlessly through university and through life without having any sense of purpose or coherent meaning to their life. As the American university has moved more and more towards specialization, and has shied every more strongly away from helping students find meaning and structure, order and purpose, in their studies and perforce their life and the life of the world, can teaching religious practices help remedy these crying absences?

I confess that even as one teaching in a private Catholic university, and even as one who, twenty years ago was deeply influenced by Stanley Hauerwas’s argument that the study of theology requires, as he puts it, the “qualification of the self” (an argument the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre fleshed out in detail in his Gifford Lectures, published as Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry), I find myself stopping a bit short of Poe’s proposal. Why is that? I suspect that again Hauerwas might have the answer: we have no problem with experts telling us that you have to diet or exercise, or believe certain things and live certain practices about health or science or geometry, or biology, but when it comes to “religion” it’s suddenly every man for himself, and every person’s an expert. The idea, as Hauerwas puts it, that to become a Christian might require a long, rigorous “apprenticeship” under a trusted senior Christian offends American individualism. Or, to use a story of his I’m fond of quoting: consider the difference between a medical student and a seminary student. The seminary student says “I don’t want to take a course about the doctrine of God. I want to spend a semester just finding myself.” Too many times the response is “Yes, that’s right. Go find yourself and discover your own spiritual identity.” Contrast that with the medical student who says “I don’t want to study gross anatomy and physiology. I want to spend a semester finding myself.” The medical school says “To hell with that. Take anatomy and physiology or get out!” Is it any wonder, Hauerwas says, that doctors are today’s high priests and real priests are increasingly irrelevant?

Poe’s article, combined with another article I read recently about how music affects our brains, has got me to wondering about possible changes to my courses. We spend weeks talking about the theology of liturgy, the role of liturgy, and the actual structural units of liturgy before we watch clips of liturgies and before students attend a local Orthodox church to observe a liturgy first-hand and then write about it. But what if I changed my class and started teaching them how to join in the chanting at the liturgy–what if I brought in a music instructor (because, as my late granny used to say, “you can’t carry a tune in a bucket!”) to teach them Byzantine or Galician or Kyivan or Serbian chant? What if we spent a few classes doing nothing but quietly reciting the Jesus Prayer together, or, during Lent, reciting the Prayer of St. Ephraim with prostrations in between listening to readings from St. John of the Ladder or the vita of St. Mary of Egypt? What if we had a cooking session in which we learned to prepare vegan dishes suitable for those keeping a strict fast? What if I brought in an iconographer in my course on icons, and instead of reading about iconoclasm and iconography, and about the techniques of icon painting and the theology of icons, we actually all painted an icon ourselves?

What if we moved from individual practices to talk to students and tell them that the ultimate purpose, order, and meaning in life is to be found in theosis–in becoming like God and entering into deeper communion with Him?  That, it seems to me, would likely be the outer limit of what would be possible in an academic context: after that, they would need to step into a parish or monastic community and enter into the sacramental life of the Church.

But could we do even this much? Perhaps more important, would we allow ourselves to do it? Are there dangers here?

When Orthodox Were Told to Become Episcopalians:

One of the Orthodox responses against ecumenical relations that one hears now and again may be that “all of church history” or “all of the tradition” weighs against joint “non-sacramental” services (e.g. an Akhathis or even Adam’s suggestion of joint participation in Forgiveness Vespers) and “praying with heretics” (where “heretics” is applied to all non-Orthodox, even other Trinitarian Christians).  If one is to appeal to all of Orthodox Church history, though, one will find that the responses toward non-Orthodox have varied quite a bit.  In North Dakota, one such variance occurred in the early twentieth century.  Although many people might not know this, North Dakota actually received a small influx of Syro-Lebanese immigrants in the late nineteenth century.  There never was a Syro-Lebanese Orthodox Church established anywhere on the plains of North Dakota, from what I’ve been able to learn thus far.  What happened, instead, was a more “circuit-riding” approach, of priests (and once a bishop) who traveled now and then into the area.  North Dakota was fairly remote at the time and travel would have been a long one, with clergy coming from Minneapolis/St. Paul, Sioux City, Iowa, and once, apparently, Nebraska.

In 1914 an “archbishop” and a “priest” held a liturgy in the rural school of Reno Valley Township, south of Rugby, ND.  The bishop in question informed the faithful that they should attend the Episcopalian churches and that is also the message the faithful seem to have received from priests who would visit as well.  So, who was this bishop and why would he do such a thing?  Isn’t communion with non-Orthodox against the whole of tradition?  Well, we should keep in mind that at the time, the relationship between the two churches was close, much much closer than today.  It wasn’t perfect, though, and the case of Fr. Irvine shows that quite clearly (Irvine was a converted Episcopalian priest and his ordination in November, 1905, to the Orthodox priesthood caused a stir across the Protestant Episcopal Church at the time).  So, this bishop in question knew the complexities and yet still gave the recommendation he gave.  One could, of course, point to exigencies, but still, he could have insisted on the founding of an Orthodox parish.  There are enough people in a picture from the event to justify such a demand.  Yet, the demand was not made. In fact, the practical consequence of what they were told was that they became Episcopalians, and it would seem the bishop had to know this would be the case.

I am unsure who this “archbishop” was.  It is difficult to tell from the photograph.  It was not Archbishop Alexander (Nemolovsky).  It likely was not Metropolitan Platon, as he left for Russia on June 2nd of 1914.  I must also admit the pictured bishop does not look much like Metropolitan Platon to me anyhow (but I cannot share the picture due to copyright concerns at the moment).  It is possibly St. Raphael (Hawaweeny), who did take a trip through Minneapolis in 1914.  Did he journey into North Dakota?  I haven’t had the time to research, but it seems likely, especially since he was already in Minneapolis.  It’s not like there were many Orthodox bishops on American soil at the time and if not Bishop Alexander or Metropolitan Platon, St. Raphael is the next logical choice.  The Greek bishop, Metropolitan Meletios wouldn’t arrive in America until 1918 and I’m not aware of bishops other than those from the Russian Orthodox Church being in America at that time.

So, it seems that when it came to facing the realities of Orthodox on the plains, rather than tell Orthodox immigrants to found parishes, St. Raphael did the prudent thing and told them to go to Episcopalian parishes.  Nor was this unique, by the way, as Orthodox immigrants elsewhere did this as well.

This helps remind us that sweeping generalizations against inter-confessional prayer involving Orthodox do not hold up upon close examination.  In fairness, the opposite extreme should also not be concluded from this.  My point, here, is not to champion ecclesiological relativism.  Rather, my point is that we do possibly have a saint who sought to balance a faithfulness to Orthodoxy with a willingness to see what was good and true in a non-Orthodox Church, to the point of telling his flock to go to that other church.

I dare say this is in contrast to the knee jerk (“all of tradition” or “all of church history”) reactions to Adam’s more recent post.  Given that it’s Lent, I thought Adam’s point worth praying over more thoughtfully.  Those who wish to so pray might be encouraged to know that it is not simply a perspective found only here on this website in the twenty-first century, but one that can be found in other times and places as well.  Hopefully, in the future, I can post on some of those other times and places (lest someone conclude this is merely the “one” exception that proves the rule).  Times have changed and the Protestant Episcopal Church has certainly changed, to the point where telling Orthodox to commune at Episcopalian churches would be highly questioned.  Nonetheless, perhaps with other traditional, liturgical Christians, we Orthodox have more to draw on from our Tradition than merely a dismissal of serious interactions and joint prayer.

The Great and Holy Synod Approaches?

The recent gathering of Orthodox hierarchs in Constantinople seems to have settled on 2016 as the date for the much-promised, but much-delayed, “great and holy synod” of all Orthodox leaders, the first such gathering, we are told, since Nicaea II in 787. If this comes to pass, it will be news of the first order, and a cause for bells to ring throughout the world in thanksgiving to God who makes all things new.

If it does come to pass, someone will need to do some thinking about the meaning of the phrase “ecumenical council,” which the Latins have continued to use to describe their councils up to and including Vatican II. Will this promised council be the eighth ecumenical council recognized by the Byzantine Orthodox Churches? Will it be more fully ecumenical by including the Oriental Orthodox? Will it be more fully ecumenical still by including Catholic and Protestant participants? And then, after it happens, how will Catholics and Orthodox, separately and together, reckon (and perhaps reconcile?) their respective meanings of “ecumenical council”?

As an ecclesiologist, I have followed these discussions with great interest, and I very much hope that this synod not only comes to pass, but actually manages to be a productive and profitable encounter for all concerned. (I should be happy to fly to Constantinople as an official observer, or unofficial valet or sous-chef or whatever it takes to be the proverbial fly on the wall.) The fact that it has not yet happened, after more than a half-century of promises, reminds me of the saying, attributed to various people, that “Eastern Christianity is the right religion given to the wrong people.” Or, to use another aphorism a friend of mine often uses in response to the people who say “I’m not into organized religion”: try Eastern Christianity–we’re not organized at all!

Organization is not everything, but it’s not nothing. One of the things I’ve learned as a professor, and more recently a departmental chairman reviewing student complaints about colleagues, is that you can easily avoid many student complaints by nothing more dramatic or complicated than having a coherent and clear syllabus, and sticking to it–following a set schedule for lectures, assignments, exams, etc. Deviate from that more than once and you are in trouble, but if you do what you planned to do most busy and anxious students are happy to go along, and grateful for the clarity.

The “syllabus” for the upcoming synod is said to include ten points, including topics such as fasting, autocephaly, the social challenges of our present economic and political contexts, and ecumenical relations. If you were present at the synod, what would you say? What are the greatest priorities for the Orthodox Church to address today and why? What things do you think the bishops have not put on their agenda, but should?

In Which We All Run Screaming into the Sea…

Can we bear one more article on same-sex marriage without running screaming into the sea? I cannot. So let’s not talk about it. Instead, let me ask a question I’ve been asking for five years now. I am still trying to work through a coherent answer, but have moved from assuming there must be one to wondering whether a coherent and fully developed answer is even possible. That question is the following: what is the theological purpose of human sexual differentiation? What, that is, do we think/know/assume to have been God’s purpose in creating us male and female? In other words, why does God create us male and female? Is there a purpose to that differentiation, and if so, what is it? Can we know what it is, and if we can know it, can we draw conclusions from that purpose governing our behavior? (Pace Hume, I’m inclined to think that in some cases at least you can draw an ought from an is.) E.g., if we assume that God had a purpose in mind, can we derive from that purpose, say, a prohibition on sex-reassignment surgery?

Forgive me for sounding like a pedant, but as I always have to tell my students: consider carefully what the question is asking and not asking. As I’ve been thinking about this question, and trying, and then failing, to write a book about it (though I’m still hoping to salvage an article and publish it later this year), here are some dead-ends I will not go down again because I think they are unprofitable or just plain wrong:

  • God is some great “complementarian” who somehow matches up male and female bodies as well as personalities, psyches, temperaments, etc. This, it seems to me, was the great weakness of the much overblown “theology of the body” of the late John Paul II (and many other Christians I’ve read–Orthodox, evangelical, and Catholic) which, frankly, I’ve largely considered a weird mixture of cultural nostalgia and philosophical romanticism but theologically vacuous.
  • Sex and gender are the same thing. Here I would agree with much of feminist thought that sex and gender are not in fact the same thing, and that the former may be biologically determined in significant measure while the latter is much more culturally conditioned. Thus even if I conclude that God has a purpose in creating us male and female, I find it very hard to believe that such divine teleology goes so far as to assign cultural roles too. In other words, God may have a purpose to our being male and female, but He likely doesn’t care that a man is a stay-at-home dad while his wife is a cut-throat CEO.
  • Male and female are the same as masculine and feminine: From my second point this follows closely. I generally subscribe to the belief that notions of “masculinity” and “femininity” are largely culturally determined and not theologically significant or even very interesting. In other words, I don’t think God cares two hoots if I join a crochet club while my wife joins the Marines. I am not, in other words, an “essentialist.”
  • Sexual differentiation means nothing theologically: Some would have us believe that God creating the human person as male and female means nothing–that it is no more theologically significant or even interesting than the fact that some of us are Chinese, black, or Polish; that some have red hair or black; that some eyes are blue and others hazel. I don’t buy this argument at all, and find it very trivializing. Eye color and race do not merit discussion in Genesis: sexual differentiation does. However you interpret that text, it’s not nothing.
  • Sexual differentiation means nothing eschatologically: Some Orthodox theologians (e.g., Valerie Karras), ostensibly basing themselves on a difficult and controverted text of St. Gregory of Nyssa, seem (if I understand them correctly) to argue that sexual differentiation is given to us now as a post-lapsarian concession purely for reproduction, but in the eschaton all this will disappear or at least be irrelevant, and that therefore it can hardly be said to have great relevance or meaning now. (Through this dodge one is able to smuggle in approval for both same-sex relations as well as the priestly ordination of women.) Having read Nyssa, I think his ambiguous text is made to bear too much weight here. Moreover, I’m not concerned with trying to peer into the eschaton and then retroject meaning from that back into our temporal existence here and now. The plain fact is we are sexually differentiated now. Why?
  • Procreation: I’m not convinced that procreation is the sole reason, though I think it is one of the significant reasons, and any theology of sexual differentiation cannot overlook it–nor rest its case entirely on it.

So, to return to my question: why does God create the human person male and female?

Let me tell you where I’m at with this question in my own on-going reflection: I think that there must be some purpose to it, that sexual differentiation is not irrelevant, and that a coherent theology of sexual differentiation will be useful in shoring up traditional teaching on marriage as well as the restriction of presbyteral ordination to men. My hunch–a very inchoate hunch at this point–is that the theological meaning of differentiation must lie in Trinitarian theology in which there is difference that does not destroy lived in unity that does not consume. But how to, well, “flesh” this out?

Red River Valley Atheist-Orthodox Exchange Post 1

With this post, I introduce what will (hopefully) exist as a monthly series on this blog.  Jon Lindgren, professor emeritus of economics at NDSU and former mayor of Fargo, ND, who is a member of the local Red River Freethinkers group, and I have decided to go public with our exchanges online.  Now, please note that although it says “atheist” in the headline and title, Jon would tend to prefer “skeptic” or “humanist.”  I, of course, will be coming from an Orthodox Christian position.  It is who I am and so to claim anything else in this dialogue would be disingenuous.  Originally, we had conceived this exchange as something that could occur monthly in the regional newspaper here but we have decided to move forward with this and start posting it here instead.  You will notice that we tend to have two different styles of writing, representing two different processes for thinking.  I’m sure psychologists could have a field day with that alone!  Rather than being a distraction, we hope it will add a layer of depth and interest.

Readers should also note that we are neither scientists nor philosophers.  To some, this could be seen as a weakness.  We hope it will be seen as a strength.  The issues we will discuss are important to humanity and important issues should be taken on (with humility of course) by all serious thinkers and anyone willing to put in the hard work necessary.  We also hope that our essays will therefore avoid overly technical terminology and phrases.  Readers should also note that our essays are short–400 words each.  We did this because we originally had the newspaper in mind.  We hope by keeping to this format, we will stay on topic and provide a column that is digestible.

Readers should also note that these essays each derive from at least one conversation prior to their posting.  Jon and I are known to chat over coffee and email each other and so when we write an essay, we will have a previous conversation in mind.  The point is to try to introduce you to an ongoing conversation.  We hope this format will be more reflective and helpful than a tit-fot-tat debate style.

To keep things a bit even, I will rotate which essay is listed first and which one second.  For this first post, mine is listed first and Jon’s second and then we alternate thereafter.  These two initial essays simply introduce our goals–why it is we are doing this and what we hope to achieve.

So, with no further ado, here is my first essay: Why Do This

And here is Jon’s first essay: Intro

Lenten Lessons: Preparing to Meet Christ

I remember visiting my grandparents when I was in my early twenties. My grandfather was a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. As immigrants from post-WWII displaced person camps, they always lived on the border of poverty. One day during Lent, I dropped by their house for a visit. It did not take long for me to notice the smell of meat baking in the oven. I had learned long ago to be wary of challenging my grandfather, but since he welcomed discussion, especially when it concerned the Church, I asked him quite bluntly: “why are you having meat for dinner during Lent?” His response was equally blunt: “our Lord teaches that it is not what a man puts into his stomach that causes him to sin; it is what comes out of his mouth” (Mark 7:15-23)

I knew that it was time for me to shut up, but I thought about that episode for many years since then. It occurred to me that my grandparents were on an incredibly strict diet. They did not have a “Lenten cookbook,” and they did not know what “Whole Foods” is, much less Trader Joe’s. The turkey thighs they baked were inexpensive, served with a plain potato and iceberg lettuce salad. They were living within their means; this particular meal was remarkable in its utter simplicity. Their observance of the fast was more faithful than my own because they did not talk about what they were eating; they did what they could.

I thought of this story on Monday when I spent over an hour preparing an eggplant meal that fulfills the fasting requirements. In my zeal to fulfill the dietary requirements, I spent an enormous amount of time focusing on the details, time I could have spent praying, reading, sitting in quiet, or playing with my daughter. The story is one of tradition: when we inherit tradition, we must consider its inner content and allow it to shape the external observance. In this instance, my grandfather continues to teach me an important lesson about fasting.

We might identify two elements of the inner content of fasting that are relevant today: the desire to become like Christ by literally imitating him, and preparing to meet the Lord in eschatological anticipation. We might allow these principles to shape our fasting by posing the following questions: when we meet Christ, who will he meet? Does Christ want to meet a community that perfects dietary modification for one season? Or does Christ want to meet men and women who have prepared to live in his community for eternity? The Lenten season is all about intense preparation for life with Christ, with the hope that he would come again.

Anyone can create a fasting discipline that facilitates preparation for this eschatological encounter. I would like to quote Metropolitan Volodymyr of Kyiv, who sums up the point of Lent succinctly: “During Lent, it is most important to not eat one another.” Imagine for a moment prioritizing a fast from hurting the other with words and deeds, and applying this fast to the entire year; not just Lent. Such a fast would observe the inner content of Lent and has the capacity to prepare communities to meet Christ. Perhaps it is time to prioritize how we treat one another over the ingredients we use to prepare meals this Lent.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Religious Studies

In this essay, we are honored to post a reflection by Christopher D.L. Johnson, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Dakota (which, for those who are unfamiliar, is just over an hour north of Fargo, ND, in Grand Forks, ND).  Johnson is the author of The Globalization of Hesychasm and the Jesus Prayer: Contesting Contemplation (Continuum, 2010). Johnson poignantly problematizes the current situation of Eastern Orthodoxy within the Religious Studies discipline.  I think some of what he says is actually pertinent to the study of Eastern Christianity more generally, including from the vantage point of history and theology.  Indeed, I must admit that the few times I’ve seen a position opening that highlighted Eastern Christianity, it was concentrated on the Byzantine or early Christian periods.  So, as one who has worked on Orthodoxy in the modern and American contexts, I find much that resonates with me in this piece.  Enjoy!

Does Eastern Orthodoxy end with Byzantium?: The value of a Religious Studies perspective of Eastern Christianity


The first thing that scholar of Eastern Christian Studies notices when reviewing the yearly round of faculty job openings is that there are precious few jobs that relate to Eastern Christianity. Many, like me, end up teaching in more general areas such as World Christianity or World Religions, or else face a change in careers. The second thing that quickly becomes apparent is that, out of the handful of positions that do relate to this area, almost all are in Byzantine theology and history and are located at religiously affiliated schools. I consider this a step in the right direction and applaud schools and seminaries for opening up such positions. Yet, despite the religion’s continuing influence in the lives of over 200 million individuals and their societies, it is quite rare to come across an ad for a relevant job opening at a public university and almost unheard of to spot a position that deals with the contemporary practice of Eastern Orthodoxy as a living religion rather than simply a historical curiosity or an exotic theological system. I make note of this trend not simply to grumble (okay, partially) about the difficulty of finding suitable employment for myself and others like me who have Religious Studies degrees that focus on contemporary Eastern Christianity. Instead, here I would like to consider why this trend might be the case, what it says about perceptions of Eastern Christianity more generally, why this is a bad thing, and how to correct this.

If the job market were to be trusted, one would have the impression that the development of Eastern Orthodox Christianity ended with Byzantium. This is simply another way of stating what is actually a very commonplace and widespread idea – that Eastern Christianity as a religion has been frozen in time since the loss of Constantinople to the Ottomans, or even before. Those mainly concerned with doctrinal purity may view this as a good thing, while for Enlightenment-inspired progressives it could be interpreted negatively, yet it is a view that cannot be taken seriously. As any scholar in the field knows, there have been many important modern and late modern developments that also deserved to be researched. It is my suspicion that this idea of changelessness (not doctrinal fidelity) has its origins in caricatures of the silent, passive, mysterious Orient, which then influenced American and European descriptions of ‘Oriental’ Christianity. I have several articles forthcoming on this topic, one to be published later this year in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Another of these articles shows that Eastern Christianity is described in some 19th century sources as a primitive ‘survival’ and ‘Oriental Other’ in relation to Western Christianity. This description often seems to have been internalized in Orthodox apologetics and conversion narratives that describe Orthodoxy as primarily defined by its theological stasis and mysticism. If this misperception prevails and Eastern Christianity is seen as having undergone no substantial changes since Byzantine times, then it makes sense that research should stop there and have no need to continue into more recent times. But one cannot fully understand Eastern Orthodoxy by only accounting for what happened five hundred or more years ago. Only recently has Byzantine Studies truly begun to grown into its own, but the field is still often disconnected from its historical legacy. Yet, most contemporary Eastern Orthodox Christians see themselves as inheritors of this Byzantine theological and historical legacy to various degrees. My guess is that traces of these stereotypes can still be seen in the types of positions typically available in Eastern Christian Studies, though there may be other factors also at work. To respond to this tendency, there must be a push for serious scholarship that considers Eastern Orthodoxy as a living religion in which individuals and communities are still responding to new situations both traditionally and creatively.

This issue is not simply one of an external caricature affecting the study of Orthodoxy. As I already mentioned, such stereotypes can be internalized and perpetuated by Orthodox themselves. But there can also be an allergic reaction on the part of some Orthodox Christians to any study of their faith that does not keep its focus at a safe historical distance or in the realm of theology and doctrine. Other methods of study beyond the theological and historical can be viewed with suspicion or disdain as innovations inimical to a traditional, meaningful study of Orthodoxy. Like proponents of the ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ movement, these critics see applying the largely secular (or at least non-confessional) lenses of fields like Religious Studies to Christianity as inherently problematic. Often, there may be a sense that the faith is profaned in being subject to critical scrutiny. As a scholar of Religious Studies, I am the first to admit that there are many important aspects of religion that are best understood theologically ‘from the inside’ and are unavailable to a strictly secular approach by its very nature (though this approach brings its own rewards). Yet, if Eastern Christianity continues to only receive scholarly attention in historical and theological programs at seminaries, the widespread popular ignorance about this largely invisible third major branch of Christianity will persist (and, yes, ‘branch’ is appropriate to use in this academic context). It will remain as something bizarre and exotic for most people and will continue to be defined in opposition to more familiar forms of Christianity, interesting only to those rebelling against these familiar forms or those with a purely historical interest but little appreciation for the living tradition. Eastern Orthodoxy cannot continue to be an esoteric domain of an educated elite or an obscurantist hideout for the religiously disaffected. The images of Orthodoxy that these outlooks project to the wider culture may not be completely wrong, but they are often woefully incomplete, like a damaged mosaic.

It is vital that Eastern Christianity should be presented as a complex, thriving, adaptive, and global faith to students in religion courses at public universities throughout the country to combat the appalling general lack of awareness of this major Christian tradition. For the instructor at such an institution, this aim involves conforming to a recognized academic standard in terms of a methodology that does not presume confession or religious adherence. At a public university, Religious Studies (or Comparative Religion, History of Religions, etc.) is the appropriate approach and so it plays a central role in presenting Eastern Christianity to classrooms full of students who only associate ‘Orthodoxy’ with Orthodox Judaism, if they associate it with anything. This aim of raising awareness in the public classroom also involves not sugarcoating the faith’s history or presenting a one-sided and simplified narrative. Besides its suitability for public education, the strengths of a Religious Studies approach lie mainly in its neutrality and its interdisciplinarity. Making use of many methodologies from the humanities, social sciences, and beyond, the field recognizes our inability to ever be completely objective but still strives to not engage in overt, intentional proselytizing, whether religious or atheistic. This approach to teaching should not be pursued for the sake of apologetics, though inevitably some students usually become more than intellectually curious about any given subject. In insists that there is a way to talk productively and meaningfully about religions in a non-apologetical, non-confessional, non-proselytizing way and that this is the appropriate method for teaching in the pluralistic sphere of public education. For scholars of Eastern Christian Studies who are also Eastern Christians, the need for a Religious Studies approach to Eastern Orthodoxy should not be seen as a threat to the traditional fields of theology or religious history (or to one’s faith), but rather as another lens with which to view the faith and discuss it in the context of public education and comparative study. The complete aversion to such an approach can certainly come across as more of a sign of doubt or fear rather than a sincere concern for preserving the truth.

One of the only exceptions to the historical and theological ‘Byzanto-centrism’ of Eastern Christian Studies jobs is found in areas such as Modern Greek Studies, Russian Studies, etc. The study of contemporary Eastern Orthodoxy is too often subsumed under such departments, which are very valuable in their own right but are not dedicated to the religious element per se. This fact of the job market is an indicator of more general views of Orthodoxy Christianity. As a way of organizing the study of Orthodoxy, such an approach presumes an ethnic fragmentation that may often be a reality on the ground from a sociological standpoint, but does not correspond to the unity of Eastern Orthodox Church as a single religious entity. Despite occasional rivalries and bad blood, this communion is the recognized ecclesial model of the church and (usually) how its members view themselves. There is a urgent need for academic positions in Religious Studies departments that study Eastern Christian lived experience, material culture, identity formation, and interactions with modernity not as an aspect of Russian culture or Greek history, but on the religion’s own terms as a major global religious tradition that continues to shape individuals and societies today, not just in the past. To avoid this confrontation of Orthodoxy with contemporary cultures and scholarly disciplines amounts to an attempt to bury one’s head in the sand and helps keep the study of Eastern Christianity isolated in an academic or sectarian compound. Hopefully, the field of Religious Studies will come to better appreciate the need for positions in Orthodox Studies and Orthodox Christians will come to better appreciate the need for a Religious Studies approach to Orthodoxy in public education. Until then, the working knowledge of the average American citizen about this tradition will likely be that it is static, bizarrely non-Western, and involves food festivals.