Nun Vassa Larin: This is Not a Religion of Fear


Nun Vassa Larin

Interviewer’s Question: After Archimandrite Robert Taft’s presentation at the ROCOR Women’s conference last summer, I was told by one of our clergymen that non-Orthodox people should not offer instruction to the Orthodox on matters of faith. Would you please comment on this idea?

Nun Vassa’s Response: This is a very important issue, and since it disturbs many people I will try to answer in some detail.

Let me first comment on the fear of the non-Orthodox that appears to have inspired the comment of our clergyman. It seems that some of our faithful experience Orthodoxy first and foremost as fear, while their faith remains largely uninspired, incurious, and hence uninformed. Such an Orthodoxy often has no idea about its own tradition, about the wealth of history behind the liturgy one attends every Sunday, or even about scripture itself. At the same time, a fearful Orthodox is often willing to spend hours on the Internet, feeding on church politics and dulling the theological senses all the more. To such a culture of ignorance and fear, even the most brilliant non-Orthodox scholars of our Byzantine liturgy are seen as threats, rather than a humbling admonishment to our own negligence of Orthodox tradition.

Let me recall the lecture to which you are referring. At the ROCOR Women’s conference Professor Taft gave a talk on the topic “Women at Worship in Byzantium: Glimpses of a Lost World,” in which he described the liturgical life of women in the Byzantine Empire based on 5th-14th c. historical witnesses. The participants of the Women’s Conference learned that there was a women’s choir in Hagia Sophia; that Byzantine women once took part in all-night vigils; that there were barriers in the church restricting the mingling of men with women in the church; that several Church Fathers admonished the Byzantines for their misbehavior in church etc. If the clergyman you mentioned intended to say that this lecture was an example of “non-Orthodox instructing Orthodox on matters of faith,” I would have to ask: exactly which “matters of faith” were touched upon in this lecture? Does our clergyman consider the history of women in Byzantium “a matter of faith”? Would an “Orthodox” description of a women’s choir in Hagia Sophia differ from a “Roman Catholic” description?

Be that as it may, I would nonetheless agree that history is generally a “matter of faith.” Especially because there is no such thing as completely impartial, objective history. However, a knowledge of history requires education. And in the past the Church has hardly been self-sufficient in matters of education, utilizing not only non-Orthodox, but completely secular and even pagan institutions/systems of thought when needed. Beginning at least with the Gospel of John, the Church turns to the terminology developed by pre-Christian philosophers to formulate her own dogmas. An openness toward secular education – with a firm grasp and love for one’s own faith – characterized later apologists and teachers of the Church as well. Saints Gregory the Theologian and Basil the Great took pride in having been educated in a pagan school at Athens. The great Chrysostom was taught by Libanius and Theodore of Mopsuestia – the one a pagan, the other a heretic. Although these Holy Fathers lived in times of rampant heresies and dogmatic confusion, they did not cultivate an Orthodoxy of fear. It was rather an Orthodoxy of responsibility and dogmatic awareness, inspired and fortified by a thirst for education.

Many centuries later the Russian Church had no formal system of theological education until it was imported from the Roman-Catholic West via Kiev around the middle of the 17th c. It is an historical fact that St. Peter Mogila organized his theological schools according to Jesuit models, and it was this educational system that was instituted in Muscovy. The reason for importing our educational system from the West was very simple: this was not only the best educational system at the time, it was the only one at the time. The alternative to learning from the West was remaining uneducated. Should the Russian Church have rejected Western education and preferred to remain uneducated? Let me put it differently: If given a choice, would any of us prefer for our children to remain uneducated rather than giving them an education? So the Russian Church chose to learn from the West, demonstrating common sense and, I might add, humility.

Today we have a similar situation. Many Orthodox families in the West send their children to Catholic schools and universities, or to non-Orthodox public or private schools. In these institutions our youngsters are taught, among other things, history, literature, philosophy – subjects that could involve “matters of faith.” In school the children have contact with non-Orthodox in religious matters: for example, they recite the Pledge of Allegiance, pronouncing the name of God together with non-Orthodox, Muslims, Jews, and perhaps atheists. Many of us allow our children to watch movies such as “The Passion” by Mel Gibson, a non-Orthodox. Indeed, we allow ourselves and our children to have contact with non-Orthodox in “matters of faith” on various levels and on a daily basis.

Is it the will of God that we find ourselves in this situation, surrounded by this non-Orthodox world? The Church has never taught us otherwise. The Founder of the Church left His disciples in this world, having said, “Take heart, for I have defeated the world.” And so the Church sings, “Take heart, ye people of God, for He has defeated the enemies… (Derzayte lyudie Bozhii, ibo toy pobedi vragi…).” This is not a religion of fear.

Of course the faith of the Church is exclusive, and we owe our loyalty to her alone: we embrace one faith, and not many different faiths at once. But this does not mean that we have no contact with people of other faiths. Marriage is also exclusive, but a married couple does not lock itself in a closet, excluding all contact with other men and women. That would be absurd and unhealthy, and the same would be true of the Church if it ghettoized its everyday life.

* Mind in the Heart


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