Each summer since 1995, St. John Orthodox Cathedral has conducted the “Eagle River Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies” which draws extraordinary Orthodox clergy and scholars to Alaska to speak on a variety of Orthodox topics. I’ve enjoyed attending these seminars for several years. They’ve provided me, as a scholar and historian, with a better historical and theological understanding of Christianity in general, and the ancient Orthodox faith more specifically.
One example is one of last year’s speakers, Syrian-born Rev. George Shaloub, who articulated how Muslims and Christians coexisted then and could now — a dialogue many of us need to understand. I wrote about an interview I conducted with him in a column last year, “Does your churchgoing give you a settled faith?“
A busy schedule this year only allowed me to attend the Thursday sessions, and Friday’s final question-and-answer session. The sessions I attended would have been of interest to a broad range of individuals exploring current religious issues.
This year’s presenters were a pair of scholars and professors from Fordham University. Aristotle Papanikolaou is the Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture, and co-director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham. George Demacopoulos is the Father John Meyendorff & Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies, and shares co-directorship of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center with Aristotle.
The title of their presentations was “Orthodoxy and Culture: Past, Present, and Future.” Demacopoulos dug into Byzantine Christianity, asceticism and monasticism, tradition without fundamentalism, and war and violence in early and Byzantine Christianity. Papanikolaou explored the purposes of religion and Orthodoxy, spiritual practices, Christian secularism, war, violence and virtue.
Eagle River Institute is always held at the beginning of August, a two-week fasting period preparing for the Celebration of the Transfiguration of Christ (last week), and the Dormition of the Theotokos, falling asleep of Mary (this week). At dinner breaks, spare cuisine in line with Orthodox fasting practices was served — a great introduction to a key Orthodox belief. Orthodoxy is more rigorous with schedules of fasting than any other Christian religion I’ve observed. Feasts such as these are preceded by fasts.
Demacopoulos, in his session on “War and Violence in the Early Church,” noted the Orthodox church has been ambivalent about war and violence over its 2,000-year history. Prior to the conversion of Constantine (approximately in 313) it tended toward nonviolence but became more accepting of war and violence. Killing during war required canonical penance — often with 20 or more years transpiring before Eucharist was allowed to be taken. According to St. Ambrose, a 4th century bishop of Milan, clerics must not be involved in armed combat, but as the Roman empire had become Christianized, it had duties to uphold with regard to maintaining the empire and the inhabitants thereof.
Taking an audience question about whether the U.S. was a Christian nation, Demacopoulos emphasized we weren’t a Christian nation and we don’t wage war to protect a Christian nation. The founding fathers, he said, were deists, not Christians, and wanted to avoid the governmental systems that promoted religious persecution and caused waves of immigrants to flee Europe and populate America. Demacopoulos stressed the current position of the Orthodox Church as, “our church prays for peace.”
Telly, as Aristotle Papanikolaou is known, addressed “War, Violence, and Virtue” in his session. He alluded to St. Maximus and his “Peace of Virtue.” Maximus (580-662) wrote and taught extensively. Well known for his work, “400 Chapters on Love,” he had a profound effect on the post-Byzantine empire. Papanikolaou noted Maximus said “self-love and self-loathing” get in the way of virtue. Saying there is no “just war” theory in Orthodox, he further noted that the effects of violence on the poor were tragic.
Many of Papanikolaou’s thoughts on virtue are contained in his scholarly essay, “Learning How to Love: Saint Maximus on Virtue.” I particularly liked his statement, “In the writings of St Maximus the Confessor, communion with God, which is an embodied presencing of the divine, is simultaneous with the acquisition of virtue: Virtue is embodied deification.”
The question and answer session was dominated by war and violence questions. Several participants talked about growing up with violence in the family, child trauma, war experiences, addictions, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Both speakers noted the church can offer victims of trauma community, hope and therapy choices.
Both speakers urged the practice of asceticism: Self-denial for the sake of the kingdom. They say it equals faith formation. Typical Orthodox aesthetic practices are prayer, fasting, and repentance. They said our entire life should be one of faith formation. The war and violence and question and answer sessions had a deep impact on those present.
“The speakers at this year’s ERI — one a professor of theology, the other of church history — succeeded admirably in obliterating any impression of Eastern Orthodoxy as less intellectually rigorous than its Western counterparts,” said St. John parishioner John Morrison. “Their presentations were provocative in the best sense of the word; thought-provoking and challenging us to more critically examine what we thought we knew about church history, and giving us a swift kick out of the comfort zone of our faith. At the same time, I kept my own sense of balance and perspective by remembering that Orthodoxy does not believe in papal infallibility, nor the infallibility of the saints … much less the infallibility of professors!”
These sessions were a blessing to me. Though I’m not Orthodox, I’ve come to love and appreciate this fine community of Christians who daily show that their ancient traditions have relevance for life here and now. Due to global connectivity, we are now privy to the toll war and violence inflicts on individuals. Orthodox faith has some great answers.
Previous ERI speaker presentations are available and this year’s audio presentations will be posted shortly at ancientfaith.com/podcasts/everydaytheology.
The Alaska Greek Festival is almost here
Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church holds its annual Alaska Greek Festival Aug. 19-21. Find more at akgreekfestival.com. This wonderful festival is used to raise money to build and maintain their beautiful new church. The Rev. Vasili Hillhouse will give daily tours and explanations of their faith, iconography, and worship meanings, and there will be food, wine and dancing for all who attend.