What are the limits of academic freedom for Orthodox scholars and students of theology as we approach the end of the first quarter of the 21st century?
Given that the terms theology and theologian have assumed an academic and professional meaning entirely unknown to the patristic age, we do well to bear in mind that our search for “words adequate to God” comprises a fundamentally spiritual, ascetical, and especially ecclesial task. The characteristic ethos of Orthodox theology requires that each new generation strive to discover anew—in and for its own time and place—not our individual minds, but the Church’s unchanging mind. Only in the Church’s communion of faith traditioned once for all to the saints, and through each Orthodox believer’s personal practice of humility, prayer, and repentance, do we as the Church possess the mind of Christ. The Church proclaims before the Symbol of Faith at every Divine Liturgy that this ecclesial oneness of mind springs from our love for one another. Thus in the mystical life of the Church the Holy Spirit bestows both the one and the other—our mutual love in Christ and our unanimity with Christ—upon purified hearts of flesh as a gift of divine grace and a foretaste of consubstantiality in the age to come.
In no way does this diminish the importance of Orthodox scholarship. Yet it makes our scholarly enterprise the servant of the whole body of the Church on earth and in heaven as the pillar and ground of the Truth. Orthodox theology “happens” not so much in the academy or at the conference as among the two or three gathered meekly around the Lord’s Table. There the scholar brings the fruits of his or her labours as a humble offering to God and the Church, to be accepted and sanctified, or consumed by fire, as seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.
In a Church self-named for her wholeness (catholicity) and for the rightness of her doctrine and worship (orthodoxy), we place a superlative value on Holy Tradition as the living integration of Scripture and dogma, liturgy and prayer, word and image, body and soul, episteme and gnosis, doctrine and life, and ultimately, the created and the Uncreated, into a seamless whole. For us traditionalists (we need to reclaim the word in its positive sense), the question of academic freedom evinces no easy answers. How do we Orthodox, in one and the same movement, submit obediently to Tradition and participate freely in it, as something deeply interior to ourselves both as Church and as individual persons baptized into Christ and endowed with the Holy Spirit? How do we receive Tradition in reverence and love from those who came before us, and transmit it whole and intact, with “nothing added” and “nothing taken away,” to those who come after us? How do we avoid a “theology of repetition” without falling headlong into a “different gospel?” How do we ensure that the creativity necessary to respond to the unprecedented questions of our time not violate the once-for-all nature of the Orthodox faith? What does it mean—and not mean—when we assert that the Orthodox Church does not “change,” that our doctrine does not “develop?” How do we distinguish between the Orthodox Church, infallibly led by the Holy Spirit into all truth, and her ecclesiastical institution, with its endless betrayals of the Gospel? How do we understand—and not understand—the charism of our bishops, individually and synodally, “rightly to define the word of truth?”
Finally, how do we reconcile objective truth with its necessarily subjective reception and internalization by the individual seeker of truth? If we balk at this crucial element of subjectivity in our shared life of faith, why do we recite the Creed in its first person singular baptismal form at every Liturgy—I believe—rather than its first person plural conciliar form—We believe? How do we affirm the personally experiential or experientially personal quality of our Church’s living faith without descending into pietistic individualism?
The limits of Orthodox academic freedom become all the more blurred when we consider whether the professor, student, or author is a layperson, candidate for holy orders, monastic, clergyman, or hierarch. Whether an educational institution is a seminary for the training of future clergy, a graduate school or program under some form of ecclesiastical authority, or a university or college with no formal ties to the Orthodox Church, but having an Orthodox professor on the faculty. Whether a theology department or faculty member has the interest or even the willingness to support a prospective student’s project. Whether a given hierarch or synod sees fit to keep silence or to censure when an Orthodox professor teaches views that prove questionable, controversial, or demonstrably harmful to vulnerable segments of the Church or the wider society.
To all the foregoing we must add the extreme social, political, and cultural polarization of our time. Like an incurable cancer metastasizing day by day, this sickness produces levels of division, contempt, and outright malice even in our Church, such as I have never seen during my long life as an Orthodox Christian. The slightest difference of opinion provokes shrieks of heresy. The endless loop of accusations on social media—where even our priests shamelessly lead the charge to sling mud at bishops, at their brother priests, at those who undertake the often thankless ascesis of theological studies—inflicts ever deeper wounds on that love that ought to show whose disciples we struggle to be. Freedom of thought becomes the supreme heresy; anti-intellectualism and ignorance, a strange virtue. Consciously or unconsciously, these factors too will affect how those in positions of ecclesiastical and academic power will envisage and execute their task of moderating—or dictating—the limits of Orthodox academic freedom.
I began this reflection with a question that I cannot answer. Yet I hope that articulating some of the immense challenges facing the Church and her scholars today will have proven a useful exercise. Perhaps my brothers and sisters can take this up where I leave off and remedy its shortcomings.
Above all else, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess the consubstantial and undivided Trinity.