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.