"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, March 6, 2017

Eastern Orthodoxy in the Academy Today (I)

When, in 2004, I was invited to give a paper in Prince Edward Island at an international conference, "Faith, Freedom, and the Academy," I tried to address the topic from an Eastern Christian perspective. In doing so, I realized that little had been done at that point. Indeed, one of the rare essays I found, by Alexander Schmemann from the 1960s (shortly after the deplorable Land O' Lakes farrago), explicitly wondered aloud whether questions about faith and theology in the modern university were an exclusively Western problem, there being, then, no significant presence of Orthodox academics in Western institutions.

That has all changed, especially in the last two decades. Now there are dozens of Orthodox in several disciplines (most, but not all, in theology and history) teaching at institutions in Europe, Canada, and these United States. Some of them contribute to, and reflect on, that academic experience in a handsome (and rare hardback for this press) new book I just received this week in the mail: Ann Mitsakos Bezzerides and Elizabeth H. Prodromou, eds., Eastern Orthodox Christianity and American Higher Education: Theological, Historical, and Contemporary Reflections (University of Notre Dame Press, 2017), 454pp.

About this collection we are told:
Over the last two decades, the American academy has engaged in a wide-ranging discourse on faith and learning, religion and higher education, and Christianity and the academy. Eastern Orthodox Christians, however, have rarely participated in these conversations. The contributors to this volume aim to reverse this trend by offering original insights from Orthodox Christian perspectives into the ongoing discussion about religion, higher education, and faith and learning in the United States.
The book is divided into two parts. Essays in the first part explore the historical experiences and theological traditions that inform (and sometimes explain) Orthodox approaches to the topic of religion and higher education—in ways that often set them apart from their Protestant and Roman Catholic counterparts. Those in the second part problematize and reflect on Orthodox thought and practice from diverse disciplinary contexts in contemporary higher education. The contributors to this volume offer provocative insights into philosophical questions about the relevance and application of Orthodox ideas in the religious and secular academy, as well as cross-disciplinary treatments of Orthodoxy as an identity marker, pedagogical framework, and teaching and research subject.
"Seldom have so many scholars representing such a wide range of disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities (even the hard sciences) been brought together to address the important issue of faith and learning through the prism of various aspects of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The fact that all but one of these contributors are themselves Orthodox Christian scholars provides ample proof that most likely representatives of Orthodox Christianity will be active participants in the ongoing debate addressing the crucial question of faith and the academy, or Athens and Jerusalem, to borrow Tertullian's much abused epigrammatic description of the phenomenon. Eastern Orthodox Christianity and American Higher Education will be useful to the growing number of classes on Eastern Orthodox history and culture taught in American colleges and universities." —Theofanis G. Stavrou, University of Minnesota.
If you peruse the table of contents here, you will recognize some familiar names but also some new ones. I am happy to count several of the contributors as my friends, and naturally turned to their chapters first.

I began with Michael Plekon's chapter, "In the World, for the Life of the World: Personal Reflections on Being a Professor and Priest in a Public University." Fr. Michael, for those who don't know him, has taught at Baruch College in the City University of New York since 1977. (A recent piece about his life there may be found here.) In that time, he has published a long list of books and articles, and I have interviewed him on here several times about some of his recent books.

He begins on what I would call a quintessentially Plekonian note, by arguing that in addition to being a priest, he has spent his whole working life as an academic, and that the latter is not merely an adjunct to the former, a way of paying the bills so he can concentrate on "spiritual" matters: rather, as he says, the university is "my primary location for Christian vocation and ministry" (p.315).

That primary location is an enormous school (17,000 students and faculty) of the greatest diversity anywhere in the country. That diversity shows itself in the classroom with the type and range of questions asked and issues examined.

That diversity all but requires a gracious hospitality on the part of professors, as Plekon notes. I can attest, having been graced by his friendship for a decade now, that he is indeed an enormously hospitable person, and so is the parish, St Gregory's in Wappinger Falls, NY, to which he is attached. (I have often said that were I to find myself living in the lower Hudson Valley, the first thing I would do would be to join St. Gregory's, whose wonderful community has numerous times been wonderfully welcoming to me.)

How, Plekon asks in the latter part of his essay, are we to balance hospitality and ecumenical sensitivity in public settings while being faithful to Orthodoxy? This is a question he has elsewhere addressed, perhaps most importantly in a collection edited by his Doktorvater, the eminent sociologist Peter Berger, ed., Between Relativism and Fundamentalism: Religious Resources for a Middle Position (Eerdmans, 2009).

He cites a number of familiar examples of people who have grappled with earlier versions of that question--Schmemann, Meyendorff, Skobtsova, et al. In a move that is typical of all such figures, and faithful to Orthodoxy's liturgical ethos, Plekon ends by noting that perhaps the greatest way Orthodoxy can teach the truth and exercise hospitality at the same time is through the Eucharist.

In future installments, we shall look at some of the other chapters. In the meantime, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and American Higher Education: Theological, Historical, and Contemporary Reflections is a landmark collection not to be missed.


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