The Culture of Theological Thought as a Part of Educational Universum

I enter into the walls of a new for me educational institution on average about two to three times a week. And, of course, not seldom I find myself in a situation where the hall looks on me like I was Lenin facing his hated bourgeoisie,” We have an academic center, and here a priest has come to us! Well, what can he say to us?” I already have a prepared greeting designed to open a dialogue even with the most hostile young auditorium. I recall the secret wisdom of our court: the best way to meet is to fight.

Interview by Peter Korolev
Translated by fr. Savatii Lewis.

Do you know how to read?

            Just as in past times, so today there is in Russia a kind of unpleasant uniqueness among the family of European countries. Russia is among them the as only country where theological studies are not part of the curriculum of higher education. And so before us is the question, in general what forms is the presence of Orthodox theology possible in the framework of the secular university?

            But first, it is necessary to say a few words about what is contemporary theology. The meaning of the word “theology” has seriously changed over the ages of its existence, and even church figures have not always paid attention to this. If it is possible to believe father Alexander Shmemann, the very word “theology” meant “to sing”, “to sing to the Lord”. Later, Abba Evagrius said the famous phrase, “he who prays truly is a true theologian”. However, since the time of Abba Evagrius hundreds of years have passed, and over that time theology became more of a science then the simple experience of a spiritual life. Today it is very important to remember that when we knock on the doors of the secular education institution, whether it be a school or a university, we do not go there with the formula of Abba Evagrius, and not so that school children and students learn true Orthodox prayer.

            Contemporary theology, including what is taught within the walls of the spiritual academies, is a normal humanitarian science, according to its methodology, the subject of its investigations, and the procedure of its demonstrations and refutations. In general, theology teaches what the majority of the other humanitarian sciences teach, whether it be history, sociology or psychology, that is—texts. We learn to read. We have to diligently work for this not only in the first classes of school, but throughout our entire lives.

I am grateful in first place to the Moscow Seminary, namely it taught me again how to read. In university we more likely had to read through, pass over the text. They even taught during the soviet period in classics how to look down from above, “Hegel went, but did not attain, Hertzen understood, but did not comprehend. But we, of course, are the most intelligent, white, pretty communists, and we look down on all the others”. And only after finding myself in the walls of the Seminary did I meet with a totally different attitude toward books. There appears to be a Book which is undoubtingly smarter than I am. If there is something in it which I do not comprehend, that is my problem, and not a problem with the book. I myself need to grow in order to understand it.

The Logic of an Impelled Jack

            The culture of reading suggests such strange procedures as reconstruction of the progress of the authors thought. But what for? It is better if the author does not give his thought. What is reconstruction for then? Is it for something sociological, psychological, historical, logical, textual, or something else? But the problem is in this, that each of us has his or her own blind zones, and zones of obviousness. And namely the latter has greater need for a special, attentive attitude. What is obvious for one person on the basis of his or her personal experience and cultural surroundings may not be obvious for another person.

            I am very grateful in my life first of all to the theological rector, also the main editor of the journal “Alpha and Omega”, Marina Andreevna Zhurinskaya. When I brought me first article for the journal, she made the following friendly note, “father Andrei, you have the logic of an impelled jack here working for you. The first phrase is understood, the argument is true, and I can generally guess how you went from the first to the second. But it would be better to put two or three paragraphs so that it would be understandable to more than just me.”

            Not all the writers of antiquity, or even the holy Fathers, had such good editors. They did not explain and spell out what was obvious and logical to them, and it is namely this that is lacking in translations to languages of our modern culture. Therefore the knowledge to read texts, especially what developed in other traditions, is an art which we need our whole lives to master. Theology uses here all the same methods as hermeneutics, interpretation of texts, which are accepted in contemporary humanitarian sciences.

            There can only be a difference in one thing. There is something which is only a desire in secular sciences, but is a blaring and formal requirement in church sciences. It is merely recommended in the world of philologists and historians to love the subject of one’s investigation. No one requires an oath to life-long love for the poem of Alexander Sergeevich when defending a graduate thesis on Pushkin. Everyone understands no less that if your are in fact a secret fan of Lev Tolstoy then it is better not to touch the works of Dostoevsky. This informal desire becomes completely formal and fundamental in Orthodoxy. You must love what you are learning, whether it be the world of church history, Holy Scripture, or the holy Fathers. The investigator must strive to touch the same existential experience which was the base and point of departure of those people who the texts belong to.

            A Factory of Syllogisms

            Theology is rational. But rationality is defined not by materialism, but by method of investigation, and the method of processing this material. It was said by Goethe:

In the brain, like in manufacturing,

are defects and bottle-necks.

And the misshapen package

threatens to tangle the conveyor.

            Our thoughts are a kind of conveyor, a factory of syllogisms, which works the same for secular and church scientist. Everything depends on how the material is laid on the conveyor. If cucumbers are put on the pickling line, then at the other end you get jars of pickles. If you put tomatoes on it, at the end of the same line you will have pickled tomatoes.   It depends on man to chose what segment of human experience he will learn, be it religious experience, economics, or something else. The culture of logical thought needs the same thing. Therefore theology is the modus of the presence of logic in the irrational world of religion.

            The culture of contemporary universities is far more tolerant than the culture of the 19th century. Culture considered only a mathematical paradigm of thought to be the one true scientific thought for the educated class. The educated person now must be a polyglot and master several languages. I am not speaking about Italian or Swazi, but about how the educated person of today must master the language of natural sciences, the technical language of computers, the language of poems and myths, the language of theology, and the language of philosophy. These are different languages, but the man of modern culture must master all these languages, and understand the peculiarity of each of them. Contemporary culture is taught to understand that there are different rationalities. The rationality of myths is one thing, the rationality of psychology is another, and the rationality of philosophy is a third. And they are all different than the rationality of formal logics and mathematics.

A Philosopher Before Young Inquisitors

            My next thesis is that in university, theology is unavoidably turned into philosophy. It is necessary here to define our terms.

            Philosophy is a special register of work of human consciousness. This register is completely different from the register of the activity of a prophet. A man who proclaims the truth in the name of some sacramental authority, which he feels behind his back, is not obliged to care about arguments and how convincing his words are. The situation with a philosopher is entirely different. As a particular thinker, he puts before himself his own opinion. From the beginning his opinion is open for critics, and he knows that they may not agree with him, and so he looks for rational arguments. It is namely in this thought that theology unavoidably turns to philosophy when it appears in a secular university. It must look for logical arguments.

            When I look through pre-revolutionary courses which they read in spiritual academies, and compare them with the lectures on the same theme in universities, I am always amazed that the more interesting and lively lectures are found in namely university church-historical and theological courses, and not in the academies. The reason is clear. For the 13 years of my own teaching in universities I feel it very well. Imagine to yourselves an auditorium in which sits students from various faculties: physics, mathematics, biology, philology, history…These people are not obliged to hear my lectures, and are not obliged to go to them. This is in very fact a council of young inquisitors. They only wait for a chance to enter into a polemical discussion and say, “oh, father! What did you blurt that out for, how can you speak like that? Come to our special courses, and listen, so that everything becomes clear”. Teaching in university teaches people how to answer for there own words, thankful namely to the fact that people of different scientific schools gather there. It teaches extremely accurately how to depart past the limits of one’s own competence, and it is generally better never to do that. It teaches strictly how to separate factual evidence from personal opinion.

The Higher the Fence, the Stronger the Friendship

            If theology appears in the walls of universities, and is registered normally, it will not be a kind of “non-scientific injection” into the thought of the university. Theology does not pretend to be universal, not in its method or its language. The long and complex history of Christian Europe culture teaches us only one very good principle, which can be expressed by the words of a German saying, “the higher the fence, the stronger the friendship”. This is the excellent formula of the peaceful existence and cooperation between theology and science.

            In order that the fence is not destroyed, the teacher who is opening the world of Orthodox theology to a secular auditorium must clearly differentiate the two intellectual procedures, to “explain” and to “prove”. To “prove” means to force the auditorium to agree with the defined position, and to “explain” means to present the inner logic of the position I am expounding. Any philology will work with explanations, and not proofs, when it takes up the position of an author. It is important to note that the book becomes interesting to us the very minute when it ceases being obvious. It is boring to read a text that we are in complete agreement with. But when the little red light comes on in the brain and it begins to deliberate, “how can the author be an intelligent person and say such nonsense…Strange, he can’t be an idiot…From what perspective did he see and appraise this situation?” That is when we begin to reconstruct the logic of the author, his position, and try to explain it to ourselves, and try to find a kernel of reason.

            The logic of myths, symbol of rituals, and Christian dogma can be explained but not proven. In the secular auditorium I can explain what kind of principle the reverse perspective of iconography has for us Orthodox people. But this does not mean that I proved that sacred painting is obliged to be like that. In the world of religion there is nothing done without thought, but there is much that is not proven. Every detail of faith and ritual is full of thought for those who bear a living religious tradition. The job of the investigator is to show this thought and translate it into the language of a university lecture.

            Therefore the job of the university professor of theology is more to explain than to prove, although the ranks of theses on theology are full of proofs according to the exact terms of secular science (dating, establishing the author of the text, determining the meaning of any particular term within the defined group of texts, and other similar examples).

            The most important thing here is to avoid acting like an authority. I remember the comment of one German philologist who was learning Russian and Russian literature, “the Russian language is an unusual language because in all the European languages there are three intonations: narrative, exclamatory, and interrogative; but in Russian there is a special, fourth intonation, that of a Soviet teacher”. May God grant us in middle school, and even more so in the university, to speak about our faith with such intonation.

Lack of Culture and It’s Offspring

            I would like to repeat the thesis that theology is the modus of the presence of the rational and irrational world of religion. When today secular scientists at times distain contact with the world of theology and do not allow theological courses into the frame of a secular program of education, it is important to understand what these people are risking. Any lack of culture revenges itself, including lack of culture in the areas of religion, religious studies, and theology. Theology is a discipline of thought, and a system which unavoidably lays a limit to the voluntary flight of fantasy. If there is no limit to something, then it has no definition either. It is possible to stand forever at the crossroads and not pass by any possibility, but you will not realize any one of them either.

            It is just like that in both the intellectual and theological worlds. If we ask theology to exit through the door, “oh this scholastic, dogmatizer, inquisitor!”—who is left in the class? Good little boys? No, there are no good little boys. Alternative courses of theological enlightenment are only the games of unenlightened religious instincts. Such a lack of culture will turn into either extremism, or coarse faith in everything.

            I enter into the walls of a new for me educational institution on average about two to three times a week. And, of course, not seldom I find myself in a situation where the hall looks on me like I was Lenin facing his hated bourgeoisie,” We have an academic center, and here a priest has come to us! Well, what can he say to us?” I already have a prepared greeting designed to open a dialogue even with the most hostile young auditorium. I recall the secret wisdom of our court: the best way to meet is to fight. The most difficult auditoriums in such institutions are girls. The girls came from villages in order to simply live a little in the city, and it is the same to them what to study, and with whom to later work. But they still consider themselves the intellectual elite because they are learning in a university.

            And so I ask the “educated girls”:

            “Do you really live outside religion?”

            “Yes, we have nothing to do with it. We are an academic school!”

“Okay. But, then tell me, girls, how much does a love charm cost in the city?”

And there has not been a single instance when they could not name the price exactly to the dollar! The notorious “religionlessness” of our contemporary universities is only an illusion of the chancellery. In actual fact the world of real students is very religious. But, unfortunately, religiousness is the child of occult-magic street literature. To refuse in such a situation to offer a systematic course of the European and Russian tradition of religious thought—and that means theology—is simply merciless.

Published in Russian by “Vstrecha” (“Encounter”), Orthodox student magazine, # 3 (21), 2005

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