Interview with fr. John Behr, St. Vladimir’s Seminary, NY

And so the Russian tradition has become American - we are American, the 4th-5th generation in America. So in St. Vladimir's we do everything in English. But if the people we are teaching need Slavonic to serve in their Church, we have classes in Slavonic, but our main liturgical language is English. Like Orthodoxy in any country, American Orthodoxy has come to have its own particular feeling. Orthodoxy in Bulgaria, in Romania, in Greece, in Russia - all of them have their own flavor.
| 09 April 2007

Q: Why should theological institutions communicate amongst each other and what is the importance of such communication?  
 
A: Because ultimately theology is always a dialogue. We are always working to understand our inheritance, our tradition, we’re coming to fuller contemplation of Christ and we are doing it together. As schools, we are always involved in teaching, but teaching means always reading, studying, talking to others, engaging in dialogue with them, and as we continually move forward in contemplation of Christ and the teachings of the Church, we must do it together, in dialogue. It was essential from the beginning the Christians have spoken with each other, about their teaching and what they were doing.  
 
Q: You mean that no union is possible without dialogue. But the opposite can happen, for example, Churches step aside because they have different opinions, conflicts?  
 
A: From the times of the Early Church, from the proclamation of the Gospel, we have Paul’s letters to the communities, and he already has to correct their actions. So, from the beginning, we’ve always been in dialogue and in discussion. The theological discussions can cause separations only if they are not undertaken in the spirit of love. But it is better to approach each other and to talk about the differences we might have, to make everything surface and then come to a resolution of the conflict rather than not talking to each other, pretending everything is OK. Hopefully there are no problems, but Church history shows that there always were dialogues, further discussions. Sometimes these dialogues brought about the excommunication of heretics by the Council, other times it led to a further understanding of the Revelation of God.    
 
Q: Does theology move forward because of these dialogues?  
 
A: We must see how much things have changed from the 19th century to the 20th century in theology. The style of theology, the way it was taught, as it was called, “the Western captivity”, the textbook scholastic style of theology in the 19th century. Compare that to the way the Orthodox teachers have taught in the 20th century, that movement, that growth. But I don’t think we must stay where we are. Instead, we must also grow in our understanding. From the beginning we have been commissioned by Christ to go and to teach all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Go and teach all nations! But the nations we have to teach are continually changing. The people whom we speak to today live in a different world than those who lived in the 19th century in Russia or under the Turkish occupation in Greece – different people, different world, different politics, society, culture, philosophy – everything. We’ve got to talk to these people, we’ve got to teach these people the same Truth that we have always taught. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory Theologian said: “We’ve got to coin new words, find new words to express the same Truth.” That can also be done only in dialogue with each other.  
 
Q: Metropolitan John Zizioulas said that in the non-Orthodox countries there are more opportunities for growth of theology, it can be more fruitful.  
 
A: Being in a non-Orthodox country, one must be much more explicit and conscious about what you are saying with regard to theology. In a traditional Orthodox country you can assume quite a lot as given. The people you are talking to are also Orthodox Christians, they live in the Church, they also are baptized and receive Communion. In other words, that whole context is already there. And you can speak within that, taking some things for granted, so the theological dialogue becomes internal. In the West, we have to speak to non-Orthodox people all the time: a lot of the students at St. Vladimir’s are converts, have their own background, they come by all sorts of ways to Orthodoxy. And we must be much more conscious and explicit about how we’re teaching theology, what our presuppositions are; we must articulate them to present the fullness of our vision.  
 
Q: The Russian Revolution made theologians leave to find new places for their work.What are the fruits of this exile?  
 
A: In the 20th century, Russian theologians, diasporas, emigrants coming to the West had to talk about themselves to the Western people, whom they studied with, worked with and lived with. That meant being more conscious of oneself. Also an example: the work of Schmeman, his Liturgical theology. It basically brought about the revitalization of the experience of Liturgy.In addition, it’s only because of that circle of Russian emigrate theologians that Orthodoxy came to rediscover Saint Gregory Palamas. In 19-century Russia, Saint Gregory Palamas was not taught. He was not part of the catechism, his works were not published, and there was no Greek printed edition of the text. In some ways, that rediscovery of Saint Gregory of Palamas was a response to an article written by Roman Catholic theologian Jugie, who said that Orthodox theologians have abandoned Palamas for the last 7 hundred years: they haven’t taught him, he wasn’t part of the catechism, and he hasn’t been part of theology. You keep his name for the second Sunday of the Lent, but nowhere do you find him in the teachings of the Church. In response to that, theologians in the West began to reexplore Palamas, and that brought about the rediscovery of palamism. And I don’t think that anybody would regard that negatively. Though some may regard works of Schmeman negatively, I don’t think anybody would regard the rediscovery of Palamas negatively. Finally, the fruit of exiled theologians was the interest in Philocalia, which was published in Greece in 1782, then translated into Slavonic and Russian (and many times reprinted). In the 20th century the Western bishop Callistos called the Philocalia the “spiritual time-bomb whose real influense is now being felt.” As a result of the rediscovery of palamism, rediscovery of Orthodox monasticism – we have the Optina monastery. 
 
Q: Can we talk about the Russian tradition in the life of St. Vladimir’s monastery?  
 
A: The very name of Saint Vladimir’s comes from its Russian heritage. The  monastery was started 60 or so years ago, and has been continually teaching since. It was made up of Russian emigrate theologians only. These are Great teachers of the past. Fr. Shmeman and Meyendorf, people like that came to Saint Vladimir’s to teach. We don’t have any objections to the fact that our tradition is a Russian. That’s what we’ve inherited, that’s what we live with, so our Liturgical singing is in the Russian chant style, and our service style is Russian. But we also have many students with Greek, Antiochian backgrounds. We teach them, too, and we have to be sensitive to their needs. They have to learn how to sing in the Byzantine chant if they’re going to serve in that Church. They have to learn how to serve in the Greek style for the Antiochian Church. We serve Matins and Vespers every day during the week. Sometimes Vespers is served in the Antiochian style.

Also true is the fact that Orthodoxy has been in America for a while now (Orthodoxy first came to America 250 years ago – with St. Herman of Alaska). And so the Russian tradition has become American – we are American, the 4th-5th generation in America. So in St. Vladimir’s we do everything in English. But if the people we are teaching need Slavonic to serve in their Church, we have classes in Slavonic, but our main liturgical language is English. Like Orthodoxy in any country, American Orthodoxy has come to have its own particular feeling. Orthodoxy in Bulgaria, in Romania, in Greece, in Russia – all of them have their own flavor.Yet a Greek, for example, coming to St. Vladimir’s today clearly regards it as being solidly in the Russian tradition. Somebody coming from Russia now, on the other hand, standing at Vespers or Liturgy will recognize it as being Russian tradition, but will also feel it is Americanized. And there’s nothing wrong with that.  
 
Q: What’s the influence that students from different countries studying in the Seminary have on their home countries when they go back? What’s the importance of this with regard to the unity of Churches?  
 
A: Yes, every year we have students from Eastern Europe: Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Serbia, as well as students from India, Africa, Syria, Lebanon. Not every year from every country, but we have a mix of students. And most of them go back to serve in their countries. We have a large number of bishops and a large number of priests who graduated from St. Vladimir’s and now serve in their own countries. Without question, they have brought with them the taste of St. Vladimir’s. That is where they studied theology, where they matured in their life in Christ, maybe they were ordained there, maybe they were ordained after, in their home country, but they all bring the feel of St. Vladimir’s with them. We would like our students to go back to Syria and be a 21-st century American in Syria or somewhere else… They are still Syrian or Romanian students, but they have had that experience of being in America. They bring it with them, they spread it where they are and that only serves for the greater unity of all of Orthodoxy in the world. Not in the sense that we want everyone become like we are, but in the sense of that mutual dialogue, mutual exchange, mutual experience and coming to the fullness of the Body of Christ – together.  
 
Q: St. Vladimir’s does a lot of publishing work, and maybe it is one of the biggest Orthodox publishing companies in the US…  
 
A: It’s the biggest publisher of Orthodox literature, theological literature, in the Western world. Maybe there’s something like it in Belgrade or in Bucharest, but certainly in the English-speaking world it’s the biggest. We’re trying to publish a wide variety of material. We publish translations of patristic works; we publish works in liturgical theology, patristics, dogmatics, spirituality. Finally, we publish works which are heavily academic, but also works on a more popular level.   

I meant to say earlier, when we were talking about the experience of teaching in the Western world, when teaching there, we’re engaged in dialogue with Western scholars. It’s a challenge for us to make sure our scholarship is of the highest level. That doesn’t mean capitulating to Western scholarship, though. In my subject of Patristics I cannot simply say “the Fathers said this” and get away with this – I have to show that it is indeed what St. Iraeneus said, or whoever. If it is indeed what he said, if it were indeed his words, then I should be able to defend that logically in the highest academic settings.We are forced to engage our mind to the fullest level that we can in order to present history acurately in the different disciplines we study. And, going back to publishing, it is necessary that we publish works that other, non-Orthodox people, are compelled to read and study and take seriously. It’s not merely: “It is an Orthodox work, they’ve got their own position and it doesn’t matter” – no. It should be: “This person has written the work on some subject (e.g. about St. Basil) and it has got serious arguments which are challenging us. We should rethink what we are saying about St. Basil.”  
 
Q: Do you think that publishing should belong mainly to theological institutions? In Russia not so many books are published by the Moscow Theological Academy, but there are many other publishing companies.  
 
A: There are a number of other publishing companies in America: “Light and Life”, “Consilia Press” and so on. Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary in Boston also is a publishing house, and St. Tikhon’s also is a publishing house. But you’re right. In Eastern Europe, it’s not common for theological institutions or departments to have a publishing house. Yet I think that it’s important in the Western context, where for the works we publish St. Vladimir’s stands behind us. It is again, part of the concept of good scholarship. We may not agree with all of that we publish. We publish a variety of works in many disciplines, but we say: “this is a solid work”. So we give our name to it: “St. Vladimir’s Press”. It stands with authority.We know that a book published by the Oxford University Press is going to be a serious book – we know it’s written in the spirit of serious scholarship. So, too, a book published by St. Vladimir’s, we hope, is taken by people seriously.  
 
—  
Русская версия: http://vstrecha.mpda.ru/archive/19/19_37-39_Behr.pdf   

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