Voices from Russia

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Theological Education in the 21st Century: An Excerpt from a Lecture of Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto

St Gregory Nazianzen

Aidan Hart

1990s-2000s

According to a classical definition by Evagrius, “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian”. In traditional Orthodox understanding, theology is not a science, or a scholarship, or an academic exercise. To be a theologian means to have experience of a personal encounter with God through prayer and worship. Theology ought to be inspired by God; it ought not to be the word of a human person, but, the word of the Spirit pronounced by human lips. A true Christian theologian is one who is able to be silent until the Holy Spirit touches the strings of his soul. It is only when the human word falls silent and the word of the Spirit emerges from his soul, that true theology is born. From this moment “a lover of words” is transformed into “a lover of wisdom”, a rhetorician into a theologian.

According to St Gregory Nazianzen, not everyone can be a theologian, but, only the one who purifies himself for God. Not all can participate in theological discussions, but, only those who are able to do it properly. Finally, not every theological concern can be discussed openly. “Discussion of theology is not for everyone, I tell you, not for everyone, it is no such inexpensive and effortless pursuit… It must be reserved for certain occasions, for certain audiences, and certain limits must be observed. It is not for all men, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study, and, more importantly, have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul”.

Theology, according to St Gregory, is nothing other than the ascent to God. Gregory uses the traditional image of Moses on Mount Sinai to emphasise that the true theologian is only someone who is able to enter the cloud and encounter God face to face. In this multidimensional, allegorical picture Moses symbolises the person whose theology emerges from the experience of an encounter with God. Aaron represents someone whose theology is based on what he heard from others; Nadab and Abihu typify those who claim to be theologians because of their high position in the church hierarchy. But, neither acquaintance with the experience of others nor an ecclesiastical rank gives one the right to declare oneself a theologian. Those Christians who purify themselves according to God’s commandments may take part in a theological discussion; the non-purified ought not.

Thus, purification of soul is a necessary precondition for practising theology. Its central point is summed up in the following dictum. “Is speaking about God a great thing? But, greater still is to purify oneself for God”. Here, purification (katharsis) is not opposed to theology; rather, theology is that ascent to the peak of Mount Sinai which is impossible without purification.

What is required for practising theology is not so much intellectual effort, neither external erudition, nor wide reading, but, first of all humility and modesty. According to Gregory, humility is not to be found in someone’s external appearance, which may often be deceitful, and perhaps not even in how someone is related to other people, but, in his attitude to God. The humble, in Gregory’s judgment, is not he who speaks but little about himself, or who speaks in the presence of a few but rarely; but, he who “speaks about God with moderation, who knows what to say and what to pass over in silence”.

In other words, everyone can be a good Christian, but, not everyone is able to investigate the depths of doctrine, where many things should be covered by an apophatic silence. Everyone can contemplate on matters of theology, but, not everyone can be initiated into its mysteries. All Christians must purify themselves for God, the more a person is purified, the more discernible are the words of the Spirit in his mouth. True theology is born out of a silent and humble standing before God rather than out of speculations on theological matters.

We can see that this understanding is radically different from what we normally mean by “theology”. One of the tragic consequences of the divorce between Christian theory and praxis, between faith and knowledge, is that nowadays knowledge about theological subjects does not necessarily presuppose faith. You can be a theologian and not belong to any church community; in principle, you do not need to believe in God to receive a theological degree. Theology is reduced to one of the subjects of human knowledge along with chemistry, mathematics, or biology.

Another divorce which needs to be mentioned is that between theology and liturgy. For an Orthodox theologian, liturgical texts are not simply the works of outstanding theologians and poets, but, also the fruits of the prayerful experience of those who have attained sanctity and theosis. The theological authority of liturgical texts is, in my opinion, is higher than that of the works of the Fathers of the Church, for not everything in the works of the latter is of equal theological value and not everything has been accepted by the fullness of the Church. Liturgical texts, on the contrary, have been accepted by the whole Church as a “rule of faith” (kanon pisteos), for they have been read and sung everywhere in Orthodox churches over many centuries. Throughout this time, any erroneous ideas foreign to Orthodoxy that might have crept in either through misunderstanding or oversight were eliminated by Church Tradition itself, leaving only pure and authoritative doctrine clothed by the poetic forms of the Church’s hymns.

Several years ago I came across a short article in a journal of the Coptic Church where it stated that this Church had decided to remove prayers for those detained in hell from its service books, since these prayers “contradict Orthodox teaching”. Puzzled by this article, I decided to ask a representative of the Coptic Church about the reasons for this move. When such an opportunity occurred, I raised this question before one Coptic metropolitan, who replied that the decision was made by his Synod because, according to their official doctrine, no prayers can help those in hell. I told the metropolitan that in the liturgical practice of the Russian Orthodox Church and other local Orthodox Churches there are prayers for those detained in hell, and that we believe in their saving power. This surprised the metropolitan, and he promised to study this question in more detail.

During this conversation with the metropolitan I expressed my thoughts on how one could go very far and even lose important doctrinal teachings in the pursuit of correcting liturgical texts. Orthodox liturgical texts are important because of their ability to give exact criteria of theological truth, and one must always confirm theology using liturgical texts as a guideline, and not the other way round. The lex credendi grows out of the lex orandi, and dogmas are considered divinely revealed because they are born in the life of prayer and revealed to the Church through its divine services. Thus, if there are divergences in the understanding of a dogma between a certain theological authority and liturgical texts, I would be inclined to give preference to the latter. If a textbook of dogmatic theology contains views different from those found in liturgical texts, it is the textbook, not the liturgical texts, that need correction.

“Crucify Him!”

Ivan Glazunov

1994

Even more inadmissible, from my point of view, is the correction of liturgical texts in line with contemporary norms. Relatively recently, the Roman Catholic Church decided to remove so-called “anti-Semitic” texts from the service of Holy Friday. Several members of the Orthodox Church have begun to propagate the idea of revising Orthodox services in order to bring them closer to contemporary standards of political correctness. For example, the late Archpriest Serge Hackel from England, an active participant in the Jewish-Christian dialogue, proposed the removal of all texts from the Holy Week services that speak of the guilt of the Jews in the death of Christ (cf. his article “How Western Theology after Auschwitz Corresponds to the Consciousness and Services of the Russian Orthodox Church”, in Theology after Auschwitz and its Relation to Theology after the Gulag: Consequences and Conclusions, St Petersburg, 1999, in Russian). He also maintains that only a “superficial and selective” reading of the New Testament brings the reader to the conclusion that the Jews crucified Christ. In reality, he argues, it was Pontius Pilate and the Roman administration who are chiefly responsible for Jesus’ condemnation and crucifixion.

This is just one of innumerable examples of how a distortion of the lex credendi inevitably leads to “corrections” in the lex orandi, and vice versa. This is not only a question of revising liturgical tradition, but, also a re-examination of Christian history and doctrine. The main theme of all four Gospels is the conflict between Christ and the Jews, who in the end demanded the death penalty for Jesus. There was no conflict between Christ and the Roman administration, the latter being involved only because the Jews did not have the right to carry out a death penalty. It seems that all of this is so obvious that it does not need any explanation. This is exactly how the ancient Church understood the Gospel story, and this is the understanding that is reflected in liturgical texts. However, contemporary rules of “political correctness” demand another interpretation in order to bring not only the Church’s services, but also the Christian faith itself in line with modern trends.

The Orthodox Tradition possesses a sufficient number of “defence mechanisms” that prevent foreign elements from penetrating into its liturgical practice. I have in mind those mechanisms that were set in motion when erroneous or heretical opinions were introduced into the liturgical texts under the pretext of revision. One may recall how Nestorianism began with the suggestion to replace the widely-used term Theotokos (Mother of God) with Christotokos (Mother of Christ), the latter was seen as more appropriate by Nestorius. When this suggestion was made, one of the defence mechanisms was activated; the Orthodox people were indignant and protested. Later, another mechanism was put into operation when theologians met to discuss the problem. Finally, an Ecumenical Council was convened. Thus, it turned out that a dangerous Christological heresy, lurking under the guise of a seemingly harmless liturgical introduction, was later condemned by a Council.

To rediscover the link between theology, liturgy and praxis, between lex orandi, lex credendi, and lex vivendi would be one of the urgent tasks of theological education in the 21st century. The whole notion of “theology” as exclusively bookish knowledge must be put into question. The whole idea of a “theological faculty” as one of many other faculties of a secular university needs to be re-examined. The notions of “non-confessional”, “unbiased”, “objective”, or “inclusive” theology as opposed to “confessional” or “exclusive” must be reconsidered.

22 October 2008

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna and Austria

Head of the MP Representation to the European International Institutions

Interfax-Religion

http://www.interfax-religion.com/

Editor’s Note:

Well said. It shoots down all the speculations of SVS and New Skete down in flames. Faith, not intellect. Prayer, not doctoral theses. The living experience of the Church, not the notions of prideful professors. Good sense, stated clearly and without equivocation. There are those in the OCA who are calling for Vladyki Hilarion to be elected Metropolitan of the OCA. Well… don’t say that you weren’t warned! I do daresay that he would clean up the standing pools of heterodoxy (not because he wanted to, only because it would improve his chances of being elected patriarch later on). A note to all the OCA liberals who are calling for Vladyki Hilarion’s election: Be careful what you ask for! You may get it! God does have His own way of doing things, doesn’t He?

BMD

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Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev Proposed that the West Revise the Nature of Its Theological Faculties

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev of Vienna and Austria (1966- ), the Head of the MP Representation to the European International Institutions

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev believes that the Western system of theological education is detached from the experience of spiritual life. “One of the consequences of the divorce between Christian theory and praxis, between faith and knowledge, is that, nowadays, knowledge about theological subjects does not necessarily presuppose faith”, Bishop Hilarion of Vienna and Austria, the Head of the Representation of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions, said in a lecture at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. “You can be a theologian and not belong to any church community; in principle, you do not need to believe in God to receive a theological degree. Theology is reduced to one of the subjects of human knowledge along with chemistry, mathematics, or biology”, he complained.

In his view, one of the urgent tasks of theological education in the 21st century would be to rediscover the link between theology, liturgy, and praxis. “The whole notion of ‘theology’ as exclusively bookish knowledge must be put into question. The whole idea of a ‘theological faculty’ as one of many other faculties of a secular university needs to be re-examined”, Bishop Hilarion emphasised. He asked us to reconsider notions of “non-confessional, unbiased, objective, or inclusive theology as opposed to a confessional or exclusive one”. Explaining his position to our Interfax-Religion correspondent, Bishop Hilarion said he did not suggest that [the West] should close theological faculties and open seminaries instead, but, rather it should revise its concept of theology as a “purely bookish science”. “I believe that educational establishments of a seminary type, where there is no gap between theology and church life, are more promising than theological faculties and are more corresponding to the present and future needs of our Churches”, he said.

24 October 2008

Interfax-Religion

http://www.interfax-religion.com/

Editor’s Note:

Vladyki Hilarion has voiced what I have always felt deep in my being. That is, the heterodox have a radically-different way of “doing” theology that they must unlearn before they can profitably learn Orthodox theology. Note well what he said! “One of the consequences of the divorce between Christian theory and praxis, between faith and knowledge, is that, nowadays, knowledge about theological subjects does not necessarily presuppose faith”. I would never have thought that Hilarion Alfeyev would come out with such a statement, but, it is very promising, indeed. Now… if he could just overcome his infatuation with the papists…

This has a very clear and chilling meaning for us as Orthodox in the West. It means that many so-called “Orthodox” voices (especially on the Internet) are not such, and that they are nothing but heterodox with a very thin surface patina of Orthodox liturgy and terminology. My readers have noticed, no doubt, that I avoid theology, the Fathers, or dogma. I concentrate on history, praxis, ecclesial politics (not always a bad topic!), and church news, insofar as the Church is concerned. I do not feel that I have the spiritual background to deal in theology. It presupposes a greater immersion in prayer and spiritual warfare than I have at present. That is why I find recent converts and their bloviating so irksome. They rush in after having this book or that, not realising that the work was written for a mature Christian with a long experience “in the life”. God is good… he has spared us complete and utter chaos from such foolishness. However… do be wary. There is more than one Angliochian or SVS commando out there, just waiting for the unwary.

Caveat auditor.

BMD

The Church Believes that Goths Are the Most Open to God of All the Youth Subcultures

According to staff-members of the Vyatka Diocese youth department, Goths show a great interest in their search for religious truth. “Goths often come to our Foma (Thomas) discussion club. They are very interested in the theme of death and the life of the soul after death. They think the traditional black clothing worn by clergy and monastics is hip. I believe that missionaries should pay more attention to Goths, as they are a social group actively interested in Orthodoxy”, Deacon Oleg Fominykh, the head of the diocesan youth department, told Interfax-Religion. According to Fr Oleg, when talking to members of any youth subculture, it is necessary to find common ground and mutual interests that can serve as a bridge for a chat about Orthodoxy. At the same time, it is important for young people not to isolate themselves in a certain subcultural milieu; they should participate in general good works and social service. The Vyatka Diocese has much experience with missionary work with other youth subcultures. For instance, Archpriest Aleksandr Perminov is the leader of the Orden Preobrazheniya (Transfiguration Order) Club for bikers. The Club helps orphans and holds demonstrations to return pre-Revolutionary names to the streets of the city.

24 October 2008

Interfax-Religion

http://www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=news&div=27063

Editor’s Note:

URA! Now, here’s some news worth attending to! To hear some talk, the Church is a conformist and middle-class club where everyone is a near-identical “Stepford wife”. AARGH! If the Church is the “soul-saving station for every nation” (and it IS), then, it stands to reason that there is room in it for Goths, bikers, jocks, punkers, rednecks, eggheads, fashion victims, nerds, and every other sort of human being that you can think of. I think this is great, and I am a certified card-carrying “old fart” (I shall be 55 on my next birthday).

Reflect on the fact that this is the Church that the OCA fanatics hate and keep saying is “out of touch”, “stuck in the past”, “corrupt”, and “narcissistic”. Hmm… I think that they are talking about themselves, not the spiritual powerhouse of the revived Church of Russia. I say that we should join ourselves to such LIFE and VITALITY. What about you? Are you coming along? There’s always room for one more at this inn…

BMD

Recent Attempts by Eastern European Governments to Glorify the Nazis are Criminal

Parade in honour of Latvian SS volunteers in Riga held with the full support of the Latvian government. For shame!

Russia condemned the recent attempts [in certain parts of Eastern Europe] to glorify the Nazis and their accomplices and urged that the United Nations quash the efforts in some quarters to whitewash the history of the Second World War. Russian representative Ruslan Bakhtin said this in a statement during a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly Committee on Special Political Issues. Moscow repeatedly voiced its criticism of policies pursued by the Estonian, Latvian, and Ukrainian governments, who glorify Nazi collaborators as national heroes today. This is all the more inadmissible in the light of two memorable dates that the world community will officially mark next year, namely, 70 years since the outbreak of the Second World War, and 65 years since the opening of the Second Front by the Western Allies.

In this context, pro-Nazi sentiment can be seen as a challenge to and desecration of the memory of those who gave their lives to liberate the world from the Nazi plague. President Viktor Yushchenko conferred posthumously the title of Hero of the Ukraine on Roman Shukhevich, one of the chieftains of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which fought alongside the Third Reich, and signed a decree on celebrating the day of the formation of the UPA. Latvia annually holds processions of former members of the Latvian Legion of the Waffen-SS, which was involved in mass executions of the Jewish population of the region. Today, Kiev and Riga choose to ignore these facts, which is a crime against the historical record, said political analyst Yevgeni Satanovsky.

Mr Satanovsky said, “It is no secret that the extermination with diabolical cruelty of both Jews and hundreds of thousands of Gypsies and Poles in the Ukraine and Lithuania has been covered up. Today’s Poland, part of a ‘New Europe’ that deliberately lays before the world community all sorts of accusations against Russia, carefully avoids any official mention of the victims of the Nazis, the Poles that were killed in the Ukraine. The hands of such people as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevich were sunk deep in the blood of tens of thousands of people”.

Meanwhile, officials in the Ukraine and the Baltic countries do not see the honouring of former SS legionnaires as a revision of history. Kiev and Riga point out that they only pay tribute to people who fought for their countries’ independence. They don’t bother to think that if Nazi Germany had won the war, the Ukraine or Latvia could have simply forgotten about their much-sought-after independence. In accordance with Germany’s “Plan Ost” (Plan East), the territories of the two countries were to have been Germanised, whilst the Ukrainian and Latvian population were to have been sent to concentration camps.

25 October 2008

Voice of Russia World Service

http://www.ruvr.ru/main.php?lng=rus&q=87476&cid=22&p=25.10.2008

Editor’s Note:

This is a point for all Americans (and all Westerners, in general) to reflect upon seriously. The American neocons support the whitewashing of the Nazi crimes of World War II; it is, indeed, a form of “Holocaust denial”. Unfortunately, those whom the neocons would ally the USA with are the spiritual descendants of those who willingly aided the Nazis in the extermination of the ancient Jewish community of Eastern Europe (not to mention thousands of Roma, Poles, and others the Nazis considered “untermenchtum”). If not that, the neocons favour those in the Balkans who took part in the murder of some 600,000 Orthodox Christians in Yugoslavia. It should be mentioned that Senator Biden was the willing pupil of a Catholic priest who was a sympathiser of the Ustashi murderers in Croatia. It is why he is so vehemently anti-Russian and anti-Serb.

This is one of the reasons why I refuse to vote for the four main candidates in the upcoming US presidential election. Mr Biden is reflexively anti-Orthodox, whilst Mr McCain supports the neo-Nazis in the Ukraine and the Baltic states unreservedly. Ms Palin is an ignoramus TV-presenter who is putty in the hands of Mr McCain’s neocon advisors, whilst Mr Obama has given no sign of abjuring the advice of such Democratic neocons (yes, there is such a thing) as Strobe Talbot, who belongs in a prison jumpsuit for his actions in the Balkans.

It is a hard thing being an Orthodox Christian in this present election. I cannot, in good conscience, give any advice on whom to vote for, given the list of candidates presented to us. DO vote for your representative and senator (if on the ballot), for such people are not as compromised as the four major figures are.

May God preserve us…

BMD

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