We Become Who We Are”: Interview with Dr. Will Cohen ('02)

Will Cohen

Alumnus Dr. Will Cohen graduated from Brown University in Providence, RI in 1988, before earning his Master of Divinity at St. Vladimir's in 2002 with the thesis "Ecclesiology and the Dialogues between Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches."  At Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., he continued a similar course of study, and was awarded a "distinction" for his defense of his dissertation,"The Concept of Sister Churches in Catholic-Orthodox Relations since Vatican II."  In 2009, he joined the University of Scranton as an assistant professor in the Theology/Religious Studies department, where he recently received an award for "Excellence in Advancing Interdisciplinary Learning." 

Svots.edu asked Dr. Cohen to reflect on his experience as an Orthodox academic, and to explain how St. Vladimir's helped prepare him for his current responsibilities.

The University of Scranton is a Jesuit institution.  What are some of the challenges and rewards of being an Orthodox Christian academic in a Jesuit world?

I love where I work and I love my job.  I get to teach the Bible, to speak freely of God and faith to roomfuls of 18-year-olds, and there's absolutely nothing of what I believe to be important and true in the biblical revelation that I have to steer clear of in my teaching.  That strikes me as an extraordinary blessing.  Of course if the students weren't required to take a Bible course as part of their general education requirement, it's doubtful I would have a job (in this day and age, there aren't many theology majors, especially with the economy being what it's been).  But even though many of them come in feeling like they shouldn't have to bother with this sort of course, they're usually pretty engaged by the material once we dive in.  Who, in the end, isn't at least somewhat interested in what it means to be a human being?  

My colleagues in the Theology department are prayerful, deeply reflective people who have read widely not only in theology but in philosophy and literature.  They're also into things like the World Cup and the latest decisions of the Scranton City Council.  It's fun to hang out with them and I learn a great deal from them.  In terms of how I fit in as an Orthodox Christian, it's interesting, and I don't know if this reflects a general pattern or is more particular to me and to here, but to the extent that there's a theological spectrum among the Catholics in the department— of the fifteen of us, eleven are Catholic —I tend to be appreciated for different reasons by those on either end.  Overall, there's an immense respect for Eastern Christianity, and I think this is true at most North American Catholic schools today.  I suppose that if I felt, myself, that Orthodoxy and Catholicism were ultimately incompatible traditions, as some Orthodox (and some Catholics) believe, then being here would be alienating, but my own experience is that it's a context very nourishing of my own faith.  Incidentally, my department's most recent hire is a wonderful Scripture scholar, Dn. Michael Azar, also Orthodox and a graduate of St. Vladimir's.     

What are your thoughts on working with collegians in today's academic and cultural climate?

On the one hand, the world that today's students have grown up in isn't especially ennobling; I'm talking about the tendencies in our commercial culture to focus on what's superficial and trivial.  On the other hand, most students turn out to have had something happen to them that isn't trivial at all, like the divorce of their parents or the death of a family member.  Even what may seem less dramatic, like having had friends turn on them in middle school or high school, often came along with pretty serious cruelty that forced them to wonder about life.  As soon as existence takes on this element of being a puzzle one doesn't altogether understand, then one is ripe to learn—I mean the kind of learning that involves learning how to live, how to be, which is what philosophy and theology can address.  Theology isn't mere therapy in a reductive sense, but of course what is objectively true is also consoling and uplifting.  St. Irenaeus saw all of fallen existence as therapeutic, including death itself, since it spares us from eternal imprisonment in the delusion and darkness of our alienation from God.  This kind of an idea isn't floating around in the cultural experience of most of today's college students; but if they're exposed to it in a theology class, and if it's unpacked for them a little, it can speak to them.    

How would you describe the state of Catholic/Orthodox relations and ecumenical engagement today?

It's difficult to take the temperature of Catholic-Orthodox relations.  We know we're not in full sacramental communion; it's also clear that there's an immense amount of mutual exchange on various levels.  It's likely that there's more contact and influence today, running in both directions, than during certain periods when Christian East and West were "undivided" but already rather isolated from each other.  A key question today, I think, is whether one believes reconciliation is possible.  I can't count the number of people who've said to me:  "It'll never happen."  Of course I can hear this only so many times myself, from Catholics and Orthodox alike, before there's a despairing temptation to agree, but I don't agree.  I understand why people feel it's a long shot.  My dissertation director, Paul McPartlan, published a little book entitled One in 2000? Towards Catholic-Orthodox Unity—this was back in the '90s—and people joked that the title must have been referring to the odds.  It will take a miracle, no doubt.  But as we sing in the great prokeimenon at Vespers on the evening of major feasts, "What god is so great as our God?  You are the God who works wonders" (Psalm 77).   I believe God can pull off this miracle of Orthodox-Catholic unity and wants to.  Actually it will be a miracle comprised of countless little miracles, plenty of which have already happened.   

What would you say is most memorable or enduring from your SVOTS years?  How did your seminary experience influence your approach to theology and ministry?

Maybe I shouldn't go straight back to Irenaeus but another saying of his comes to mind.  He famously said that the glory of God is a human being fully alive.  What's had the most lasting impact on me from my years at SVS is without question the vitality of teachers and fellow students who reflected some of this radiance of the glory of God.  It's not a matter of idealizing people, nor of comparing one to another.  But where people have genuine hope in the process of being unshackled from whatever hinders them from the fullness of life, and submit themselves to this process, even if at times with a certain admitted reluctance, there's joy.  And I felt this joy in the presence of all sorts of people, only a few of whom I will name, and again not in any deliberate order.  Father Tom Hopko, Fr. Paul Lazor, Dr. Al Rossi, Dr. David Drillock.  I had the joy of spending some time with Mat. Julianna Schmemann when she asked for someone to edit some of her essays.  The day I first visited the campus, not yet decided between SVS and an M.Div. program elsewhere, a lecture by (newly retired ) Fr. Paul Tarazi blew me away.  It was extraordinary to hear him carry on, with a combination of nuance and ferocity I had never witnessed before, about the faith and the ease with which those who think of themselves as its standard-bearers can debase it.  He used to call me Cohen the Gentile, because at the time I wasn't yet Orthodox.  

Probably the person whose scholarship has had the most impact on my own is Fr. John Erickson, who wasn't yet a priest when I was there.  Anyone working today in the area of Orthodox ecclesiology is indebted to his remarkably careful and perceptive writings.  His church history lectures were works of art, and he always used to seem to have such a blast giving them.  He and Dr. Paul Meyendorff have been longtime members of the North American Orthodox-Catholic Consultation, and they've both given me a lot of gracious encouragement in my own ecumenical work over the years.  Father John Behr, though, was the one who was most relentless about pushing me to pursue a doctorate after I graduated from SVS, something I hadn't thought I would necessarily do (I had thought I was maybe too old).  I'm grateful for his prodding.

As to how the seminary more generally has influenced my approach to theology, I would say that it formed me to understand the need for theology to be personal.  It's always a selling point, and rightly so, that at St. Vladimir's, study and worship are inseparable.  Praise and love of God stand at the center.  And since this is a God not just of the universe —though He's that—but of people, a God who cares tenderly for people, it was always a given at seminary that if we are to grow in love of God we have to grow in knowledge of ourselves.  Father Tom used to say that there has to be someone on the planet who knows everything about you, someone from whom you have no secrets.  This basic point of transparency is something that has stuck with me:  the goal of being the same on the inside and on the outside. 

The word authenticity is sometimes overused, but I find that to be authentic, to be myself—not according to my own demands, nor merely according to the demands of others either, rather by opening myself to the demands of God—is the ongoing challenge that was laid out for me at St. Vladimir’s, in a way that hangs together.  God is who He is and we, by loving Him and one another through Him, become who we are.  

Will Cohen lives in Scranton with his wife Julie, the University's director of community and government relations, and their three children Ella, Matthew, and Jonathan. He is a Subdeacon at All Saints Orthodox Church in nearby Olyphant, PA and vice president of the Orthodox Theological Society in America (OTSA). Whenever he is able, he enjoys being in a coffee shop with a notebook and pen and/or spending time in New York City with his family.