A New Beginning

jbehr

It has been a busy summer: the conclusion of a wonderful year at the seminary, with a large graduating class of outstanding students, a record number of whom were already ordained, a number of very interesting and stimulating conferences, and, of course, in the broader world of Orthodoxy, the first meeting of the Episcopal Assembly. Palpable in and through all of these was the sense of an optimism at a new beginning, mixed with caution as we move, as we always must, into uncharted territory — "the best of times, and the worst of times."

That the times are changing was evident from the conference held at the Volos Academy for Theological Studies, Greece (in collaboration with, amongst others, the Orthodox Christian Studies Program of Fordham University) on the question "Neo-Patristic Synthesis or Post-Patristic Theology: Can Orthodox Theology be Contextual?" Just as Orthodox theology was reborn during the early twentieth century, with émigré theologians in the West liberating themselves from the "Western Captivity" that had dominated Orthodox theology (in the East, no less!) over the previous centuries, so now, with the historical perspective that the change in the century opened up, it is possible to see anew both the strengths and weaknesses of that era. Especially, we begin to take to heart the lesson learnt during that period — that tradition is not merely repetition, but a creative fidelity — so as to begin coining new words for our own century.

It was remarkable to see so many theologians of a younger generation come together, from different contexts (especially North America and the Volos Academy itself), working within different fields, carrying on and carrying forward a constructive theological dialogue. It was a testimony to the fact that Orthodox theology is not monotonous — a single voice, the "consensus of the fathers" (a Protestant formulation, trying to restrict authoritative theology to the earliest period of the Church), or even a "Neo-Patristic Synthesis", which in fact owes as much to nineteenth-century German Idealism (in its appeal to "the mind" of the Fathers) as does the Sophiology that it tried to oppose — but a symphony, each theologian being trained to follow the various lines of earlier singers, and then carrying the melody forward by contributing their own voice.

Many of the themes explored in the Volos conference were picked up by two other conferences held in June. The first was our own summer symposium on "Hellenism and Orthodoxy," which likewise pursued similar lines of reflection (for part of the "Neo-Patristic synthesis" was its appeal to "Hellenism" as a permanent category of Orthodoxy). This year's symposium also continued the work of the previous summer's (on the Moscow Council of 1917/18 and the path to the Autocephaly granted to the Orthodox Church in America and its reception), exploring the particular histories of the Orthodox on this continent so that each can become a shared heritage for all. The second conference was that sponsored by the Orthodox Studies Program at Fordham University on "Orthodox Constructions of the West," looking in particular at the ambiguous role that "the West" has played in Orthodox self-understanding.

By a remarkable synchronicity, our summer symposium was held in the weeks following the first meeting of the Episcopal Assembly in North America (remarkable, for when we first began planning our symposium, the Assembly had not even been announced). We were blessed by having, amongst many other notable speakers, two who are particularly significant for the process and implementation of the Episcopal Assemblies — His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America, and Archimandrite Elpidophoros (Lambriniadis), chief secretary of the Holy Synod of Constantinople. They offered their reflections on, first, the abiding value of the ideal of Hellenism (as distinct from the "nationalism" characteristic of modernity), and, second, on how this supra-ethnic ideal translates into the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate through history and on the configuration of Orthodoxy on this continent, with especial attention to the place of the Orthodox Church in America.

Clearly in all this there is much to think about. The successful conclusion of the Episcopal Assembly has shown the possibility, and more importantly, the desire, to work together more closely, gradually beginning to rectify problems caused by the coexistence of many jurisdictions in one territory resulting from the rise of nationalism and patterns of migration over the last centuries. As theologians grapple with learning how to bear witness in the twenty-first century, so must we all learn how to sojourn as a Church, to pitch our tents, in a world that is becoming ever more desertlike. It is a commonplace saying, but nevertheless true, that together we can do so much more than we can individually. It would be foolish to underestimate the difficulties standing in the way, but also shortsighted not to realize that they are largely man-made, a result of pride and obstinacy. The one thing needful is, once again, to follow Christ and to acquire a Christlike humility.