Authenticity to Tradition: Presenting the Unchanging Face of Christ to an Ever-changing World

jbehr

After all the initial rush of a new academic year, and the various feasts and special events that we have celebrated, I am left with two very clear impressions.

First, how different things are now compared to when I arrived here seventeen years ago. There have been, of course, splendid new buildings, the result of very hard work by the Board and administration over many years. There has also been an almost complete changeover in faculty over that period: many dear friends and respected teachers have retired, and, in turn, we have been blessed by new additions to the faculty. Equally significant, we have now gone through three years of our new curriculum, which itself was the culmination of a decade or more of preliminary work, reflecting together with our hierarchs, alumni, and parish priests and their people on what constitutes a “good pastor.”

After one complete cycle of the new curriculum, it is very pleasing to see the various elements taking shape and falling into place; it is as if the jigsaw is finally coming together and we can now see the larger picture. The M.Div. program has really developed from being a primarily academic program, with additional requirements, to being fully—intentionally, coherently, and comprehensively—three-dimensional: academic, liturgical, and fieldwork. The work that has gone on, over the past years, to make sure that our liturgical instruction and fieldwork training, now both extending over three years, is the best that it can be, is remarkable. Likewise with the pastoral care and formation of our students: the addition of the new position of Chaplain, together with a number of others being responsible for specific aspects of student formation, and a committee overseeing all this, means that we are again doing the best we can to prepare our students for a life of service to Christ and his Church.

The second impression that remains with me is the visit this fall of Professor Christos Yannaras, the most prolific Orthodox writer alive today. Especially enjoyable was the faculty seminar with him, also attended by Fr. Alexander Atty and others from our sister school, St. Tikhon’s, Fr. Daniel from St. Nersess, and other friends from Fordham and Princeton. It was, however, when I introduced him at the convocation in the evening, when he was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity, honoris causa, that I was struck by just how profoundly similar his spiritual attitude is to that of St Vladimir’s. The great patristic revival of the twentieth century, forever associated with names of former Deans of this school, especially Fr. Georges Florovsky and Fr. John Meyendorff, and, although not his own field, Fr. Alexander Schmemann as well, emphasized that it is not enough merely to repeat the Fathers, but to think through what they said so as to be able to address our own contemporary world, finding the right words and language—“coining new words” as St. Gregory the Theologian put it—to be able to present the unchanging face of Christ and his Gospel to a world that has itself changed much over the last two thousand years and continues to change at an ever increasing rate.

To do this requires, on the one hand, courage: not to be fearful of critically appropriating the tradition, so that we can be authentic witnesses to that tradition, for our own time and place; and not being afraid of the criticism that will come, as it always does, when we do this. And, on the other hand, it also requires that we strive to use all our God-given intellectual faculties to engage as fully, and prayerfully, as we can with the problems and questions that beset us today, with the thinkers—the philosophers, economists, political theorists, and scientists—of our own times, and with the culture and environment in which we live.

Hearing Professor Yannaras describe how the Seminary has encouraged him in his own work provided a beautiful and eloquent testimony to the witness of St. Vladimir’s and its worldwide significance, and encourages us to continue our important work:

The School of St. Vladimir's, thanks to Father John Meyendorff and Father Alexander Schmemann of blessed memory, but thanks also to the theological “climate” that St. Vladimir's has represented for so many decades, has been for me a real “nursery,” a point of reference, a place that I have always experienced, even from a great distance, as a place I belong to. Today you are bestowing on me a great academic honor. But for about fifty years you have been nourishing me with something of great importance: with criteria of a theological orientation. I believe that in the consciousness of the Orthodox, the school of St. Vladimir's, along with its sister school of St. Serge in Paris, has deeply marked the history of the Church. These two schools have preserved theology as the primary expression of the Church's experience. And they have done so in a climate, lasting for centuries, of the “Babylonian captivity” of the Orthodox to a scholastic mentality and to a religious attitude centered on the individual that only served to alienate the ecclesial event.