Eastern Orthodox Christianity and American Higher Education

Theological, Historical, and Contemporary Reflections

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Editor(s): 
Ann Mitsakos Bezzerides, Elizabeth H. Prodromou
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , January
     2017.
     454 pages.
     $60.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780268101268.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Since Late Antiquity, Christian scholars have debated the relationship between secular learning and Christian faith. Reading patristic literature reveals as much about the paideia—Late Antique secular education—or, “outside wisdom,” as it does about the inner wisdom of Christian faith. Eastern Orthodox Christianity and American Higher Education reflects the attempts of contemporary Orthodox scholars to engage the relationship of faith and learning from a uniquely Orthodox perspective. The editors and several of the contributors acknowledge that such an Orthodox voice has been utterly absent from conversations about faith and learning in America academia, both in the Protestant and Roman Catholic long-standing engagement with these issues, and in the history of Ottoman, or Soviet, silencing of Orthodox speculative voices. As a result of a “tradition of limited engagement” in their countries of origin, and in American immigration, as Bezzerides notes in the introduction, Orthodoxy is not merely “underrepresented” in American higher education, but rather utterly absent (213). The contributors to this volume have begun the work of presenting an Orthodox Christian voice to a conversation that has so robustly been dominated by Western Christians whose perspectives on faith and learning continue to interact with post-Enlightenment categories.

The edited volume has two main sections. Chapters One through Seven comprise the historical and theological roots of Orthodox perspectives of faith and learning. Drawing upon these, Chapters Eight through Eighteen feature Orthodox scholars “Engaging the Contemporary Academy” from a variety of perspectives. In Chapter Nineteen, Andrea Sterk, a non-Orthodox scholar of Late Antiquity, reflects upon Orthodoxy in contemporary academia through the lens of three ancient thinkers. The majority of these chapters reflect upon how the Orthodox theoria developed in the first part influences or could shape contemporary curriculum, teaching method, programs or mission. Some scholars spoke about how they drew upon their Orthodox faith in a secular academic setting.

Having the advantage of a liberal arts education from a Benedictine college and a M. Div. from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, I read this book looking for the particularly “Orthodox” vision of faith and learning. Contributors drew from several theological and spiritual concepts to reflect upon concrete ways that an Orthodox school could engage the academic world, other religious schools, and secular culture. Drawing on a basic belief in Theosis, or union with the triune God, the scholars in this volume suggest that Orthodox teachings about human freedom, a holistic worldview, apophatic theology, appreciation for mystery and the ineffable, hospitality, and social justice provide possibilities for Orthodox engagement in higher education and popular culture.

Several scholars note that the concept of human freedom (autexousion) gave Orthodox scholars space for debating controversial topics affecting faith and learning. With a holistic worldview, Orthodox scholars can account for a richer field of possibilities than can their Western Christian counterparts. Apophatic theology and appreciation of mystery leads Orthodox scholars to conversations about beauty and poetry in the classroom. Hospitality and justice can lead the Orthodox, who have been conditioned to be inward looking by historical circumstances, to look outward to ecumenism and social justice action. Candace Hetzner’s chapter, An Orthodox College, provides a particularly apt reflection on how the theoria discussed throughout the volume might be put into praxis.

In all, this book is a successful and welcome beginning to a long-overdue conversation. The multiple voices heard in this text provide rich possibilities for response, critique, and further engagement. In general, I was convinced by the ways that various scholars drew from Orthodox theology and spirituality to address a fuller presence in higher education. Absent from the text were “traditionalist” Orthodox voices that might call for resistance to ecumenism, or caution in engagement with non-Orthodox or even other Orthodox jurisdictions. Various scholars alluded to these elements in Orthodoxy, but given the influence that these conservative voices have in contemporary Orthodoxy, their response to the open and progressive tone of this volume should be part of the ongoing discussion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Justin R. Rose

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ann Mitsakos Bezzerides is director of the Office of Vocation and Ministry at Hellenic College.

Elizabeth H. Prodromou is visiting associate professor of conflict resolution at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

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