Theological Illiteracy

A talk given by Archimandrite Vassilios Papavassiliou on Clergy Laity Conference, November, 2010.

“People are not interested in theology these days. We need to address the issues which concern them”. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard comments like this, even from clergy and theologians. This seems to have become our mantra of defeat, and we have somehow allowed this world to convince us that theology is not relevant or of interest to modern man. As a result, adult catechism or religious instruction, where it has not disappeared altogether, is often reduced to an explanation of symbols, customs and rituals. Often these explanations are disassociated from theology, and the explanations are, therefore, sometimes erroneous. Furthermore, we find ourselves unable to explain the Church’s position on a whole host of issues which are rooted in theology, for example: why can non-Orthodox not take communion or play an active role in Orthodox sacraments?

The first challenge for adult catechism, therefore, is to find ways to get people interested in theology and to help them understand why it is important. Furthermore, we must stop seeing theology purely in terms of a field of academic study, of interest only to priests, professors and theology students, and start seeing it for what it is: the very essence of Christian life and faith. The absence of theology in Christian catechism and the theological incoherence of some ecclesiastical practices mean that the average layperson is able to understand little of the Church’s services, scriptures and rules. So often we hear people complain that they do not understand the language of Greek Orthodox services. But the issue of language is oversimplified, as though the answer to all our problems is abandoning New Testament Greek for Modern Greek or English. We need to address the problem not only of language comprehension (whether the solution is using a modern language or teaching an ancient one), but also the problem of what I would call ‘theological and ecclesiastical illiteracy’. Whatever language we use, many people are unable to understand the scriptures, hymns and prayers of the Church, because they are not familiar with basic theological language, e.g. God the Word, Incarnation, Resurrection, Consubstantial, Catholic, Apostolic, Ecumenical. The problem of language is therefore first and foremost one of acquaintance with the language of the Church and of Orthodox theology.

It is important to find new ways of making theology fresh and interesting, and to provide examples of how theology has direct and practical implications for our whole ethos and way of life. For example, does believing that God is Trinity make any difference to how we live our lives and how we treat other people? And let us not make the mistake of assuming that everyone knows the basics about Christianity. A good many people, Orthodox and otherwise, have never had the Trinity or the Incarnation explained to them. We too often make the mistake of casually repeating biblical phrases which, while true, are meaningless to a great number of people these days. We forget that the Bible is above all the Scripture of the Church, and that it can be properly understood only by those who already believe and have been instructed in the Faith. “Christ died for our sins”, for example, does not mean much to someone who has not been taught anything about the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the Fall of man.

The second challenge we face is the process of catechism itself. There is very little in the way of systematic catechism and reading material in the English language. There are many books and introductions to Orthodoxy, but they are invariably either too simplistic or too academic. The knee-jerk reaction of many clergy is to tell people to acquire a copy of ‘The Orthodox Church’ by Timothy Ware. While this is certainly one of the best, if not the best, written introduction to Orthodoxy in English (it is the first book on Orthodoxy I ever read and from which I learned a great deal), it is for many people today too difficult and heavy-going. We are dealing today with many people who, while not illiterate, struggle with the language and style of this and other such books. But even when someone understands and enjoys such books, a teacher and guide is still needed to explain in simpler and clearer terms or in more depth and detail what they have read. It is careless to just tell someone to read and leave them to it. Books are an introduction, not a conclusion. But the level of literacy of many people today is very poor, as I am frequently reminded at baptisms, when the godparent or candidate for baptism, though a native English-speaker, struggles to read the Creed in English. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard Pontius Pilate said correctly and the number of times someone has not struggled with the word Apostolic or Incarnate.

This leads us back to the issue of theological illiteracy. No doubt people who struggle to read church texts do not struggle half as much when reading the Sun Newspaper or the latest best seller, but religious education has plummeted spectacularly in this country. They may have never even heard of Pontius Pilate, and the words Apostolic and Incarnate are certainly not ones that they have come across before or very often. We must not equate this ecclesiastical and theological illiteracy with stupidity, any more than we should equate someone who is not familiar with economics with stupidity for not knowing what gross profit and net profit mean, or someone who is not advanced in computer literacy for not knowing JavaScript. On the one hand, we should not patronise our pupils and talk to them in such a way that they feel like they are being treated like idiots, presenting them with theology fit for a 6 year old child –many of them are well educated and are capable of understanding complex subjects – but on the other hand we should not assume that everyone has had adequate R.E. lessons at school. Often, what someone knows will become clear during catechism itself, and we should make sure that the person feels comfortable revealing that they do not know what certain words mean. When doing group catechism, this difficulty becomes greater, because we are then dealing with a variety of levels, and trying to pitch things at a level suitable for all is not always easy. In such cases, it is important that the subject being taught is presented in a fresh way, so that those who already know (or think they know) the subject can still engage in it and learn. Furthermore, there are so many opportunities here to correct the misconceptions that many have on issues such as Holy Communion, icons, memorial services etc.

Recently, I began group catechism classes at All Saints’ Cathedral (Camden Town, London) every Saturday, which are attended by approximately 10 – 15 people every week, most of whom are between the ages of 20 and 40. Some are Greek Orthodox Christians who wish to learn more about their faith, others are non-Orthodox Christians who are curious about Orthodoxy, while others are planning to be baptised in the near future. Even those whose imminent reception into the Orthodox Church has been prompted by plans to marry an Orthodox partner have a sincere interest in theology. What has been pleasantly surprising about these sessions is the fascination with theology that the pupils have. The material I am using for the sessions is largely my own, though I do sometimes borrow from other sources. In addition, a good number of people who are unable to attend receive written material for the sessions by e-mail, and follow the lessons that way. The sessions are half-hour talks (sometimes including supplementary handouts and visual aids) plus another half-hour of questions and answers, which I try to make sure are relevant to the topic in question. The sessions are quite theological – dealing with topics such as Trinity, Ecclesiology, Ancestral Sin, etc. but also practical, when covering liturgical subjects. But I think it is about time we began seriously considering a catechetical book for our Archdiocese which all of our clergy and teachers could use to teach the Faith systematically, as well as simple but comprehensive reading material for our parishioners and catechumens.

There is another important form of catechism, apart from classes, which I have not touched upon, and that is the sermon. The sermon is, above all, a catechism, but unfortunately this aspect of preaching has largely disappeared from the Liturgy and other services. Sermons should always be instructive, be they sermons on the gospel reading, the Divine Liturgy or the feast of the day. Developing a structured series of sermons for a long period of time is difficult and time-consuming, and it can be problematic when the congregation varies greatly from one Sunday to another. But sermons are an ideal way to teach the Faith on a weekly basis in the context of worship. It is here that we can work on improving the theological literacy of the people, with explanations of such words and terms as ‘The Word of God’, ‘the Fathers of the 1stEcumenical Council’, ‘the Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts’, ‘Dormition’,‘Incarnation’, and so on. Fr George Zafeirakos and I have recently begun discussing the idea of dedicating the Sunday Sermons at All Saints’ Cathedral to explaining the Divine Liturgy. These will be given alternately in Greek and English over the period of a year or maybe a few months. We hope that this may prove to be an effective form of liturgical catechism.

These are but a few ideas for how we can go about bringing theology back into the lives and concerns of our people and restoring a degree of theological literacy among the laity. Theology matters! It is what the Orthodox Church is all about. For if God becoming a man, dying for our sins, rising from the dead and granting us all eternal life is not theology, I don’t know what is. Theology should therefore be the concern not only of a select few, but of every Orthodox Christian. While we must of course learn to adapt our methods of teaching according to the different age groups and cultural backgrounds of our people, the Orthodoxy we teach them must be the same. For theology is relevant precisely because it concerns eternal truths about God and man, about the Church and the salvation of the world – things which should surely concern all Orthodox Christians. If it does not interest them, then we should try to find ways to engage them in theology, not brush it aside. Only when we begin to understand and teach that theology is relevant to all can we begin to properly instruct our people in the Orthodox Faith.

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