THE STATE OF ORTHODOX THEOLOGY TODAY by the Editors

This article marks the official launch of Orthodoxy in Dialogue. 

symeon

St. Symeon the New Theologian’s First Vision of Uncreated Light

When we speak of doing theology in an Orthodox context, we are always presented with a difficulty. In the holy tradition of Orthodoxy, theologians are those who have seen God in the uncreated light, and have spoken from their experience of this union. All of these persons whom we recognise as theologians are now canonised saints, from whose writings we trace the forms of their vision of God. The rest of us, though we stand upon the shoulders of giants, merely engage in discourse about theology. Some are great academics, others are articulate people of strong opinions; but in the final analysis, none of us are genuinely theologians in an Orthodox sense.

This reality generates a sort of dissonance in the lives of those who engage in academic theology, and in their relation to those people of other Christian traditions who proudly wear the title of “theologian.” At the end of the day, Orthodox theology is fundamentally and inescapably mystical, which puts it at an odd and difficult relationship with other traditions of doing theology.

In many ways Orthodox faithful have an identity crisis, and none more so than those who engage in theology. Today in the West, Orthodox believers live in societies that are distinctly alien to an Orthodox ethos, while in traditional Orthodox nations of Eastern Europe believers are living in a post-communist era, in many ways little different than it was. In the rubble of fallen totalitarian systems the Orthodox Churches are striving to rebuild an Orthodox culture.

Likewise, today there are indigenous Orthodox and Eastern Christian communities in the Middle East that live under the threatening cloud of jihadi violence; indeed, they have lived in a precarious state since the original Islamic conquests more than a thousand years ago.

Suffice it to say that these social and cultural conditions profoundly affect the expression and development of Orthodox theology.

Little more than a hundred years ago the vast majority of Orthodox laity were illiterate, effectively negating their participation in theological discourse. Even today there is the cultural disconnect of many Orthodox living in the West (especially in North America), who are reared in ethnic parishes, have little proficiency with the liturgical language, and only a passing mastery of their family’s language. It is little wonder that around 50% of young people raised in Orthodox parishes in North America will later on leave the faith. Citing the above realities, one might conclude that the Orthodox Church lives in a beleaguered state, and this is not entirely mistaken.

So one must ask, “What is the state of theology today? What is really going on?” Theology is the sound of the breath of the Spirit passing through the lungs of the Church. The Orthodox Church is not an institution, she is not confined to being merely a visible organisation; rather, she is nothing less than the Body of Christ, existing throughout all of time and space, and firmly rooted in the eternity of God. Theology is thus the visible sign of the pneumatic life of the Church.

Sometimes pronouncements or moral teachings of the Church are mistaken for theology. Sometimes regional churches get caught up in the worldly politics of their nation—thus is the fallen tendency of the human race.

In the last thirty years there has been an influx of converts to Orthodoxy in North America, many of whom have come to the Orthodox Church seeking a haven for their conservative values and political sentiments, without fully inquiring whether Orthodoxy is really speaking to their provincial values.

Orthodox Christianity stands above political sentiment. It is not a moralistic institution that promulgates a moral doctrine; rather, the holy dogma of Orthodoxy is the transforming message of God incarnate, whose incarnation has become the pathway and the means to the deification of humanity and the whole cosmos, and our participation in the eternal life of God.

We hear enough political and moral sentiments from the ambo already. Where is the genuine theology? Where are the words of life being uttered? What is being said theologically today…and more importantly, what is not being said?

We at Orthodoxy in Dialogue would like to present a forum in which there are no taboo subjects, no political correctness that creates defining lines of territory, no cultural barriers misrepresented as Holy Tradition. In this new blog we would like to explore Orthodox theology as it actually is today, its consequences, and where it is going.

It of course goes without saying that we seek by all means to foster kindness in our engagement, respect of persons, and the courtesy, sincerity, and honesty that engender polite discourse.

In the sometimes divide between what the hierarchy promulgates and what the people need for self-transformation, there is the very subtle but extremely important issue of relevancy. Are there issues of deep relevance to today’s Orthodox faithful that often go unaddressed? Likewise, are there issues commonly addressed that no longer remain at the centre of relevance? Between the issue of ecclesiastical relevance and what is socially relevant there persists the constant pole of necessity. Relevancy and necessity are important topics that we will be forced to examine with greater scrutiny in future articles.

Theology is not speculation about knowledge that remains above human understanding, but revealed signs in the garb of earthly language that securely guide us toward union with God. In this wise, the cataphatic approach leads us finally to the apophatic state, which brings us into conscious union with God. Orthodox theology is primarily apophatic and mystical—we come to experience God by negating all the things that God is not. Certainly, this is difficult to communicate, much less discuss. We are left with trustworthy paths, with dogmatic teachings of the Church that have been revealed by the Holy Spirit.

Despite the constant declaration that our theology is mystical, it is also eminently practical. It has consequences, and there is a trajectory that has a real terminus—which is full participation in the divine life of the Holy Trinity.

We extend a hand of welcome to our partners in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. From the late 19th-century Russian religious thinkers and the émigré theologians after the two world wars, we have inherited a tradition of openness and encounter with the Western Christian and non-Christian world in which God has placed us.

With these thoughts in mind, we inaugurate Orthodoxy in Dialogue. We welcome your contributions here and your participation in our Facebook group. It is our hope that this blog may be useful in furthering the work of the Kingdom of God, so we ask for your prayers, as we pray for the intercessions of the Most-Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary and all the saints.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Addendum (8/22/18): Our maiden article was written by Rørik Hróthgar, former associate editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue and current PhD Candidate in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto.