Orthodoxy and Higher Education
Recently, I was alerted to several photographs of a visit Fr. Alexander Schmemann made to Detroit in the winter of 1962. Today would have been Fr. Alexander’s ninety-first birthday, so I thought this to be as good an opportunity as any to share these pictures with our readers.
1962 was a turning point in the history of Orthodox theological education in North America, and in turn was a major transition for Fr. Alexander as well. As our readers surely know, Fr. Alexander is best known for his involvement with St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Fr. Alexander arrived at the seminary as a faculty member in 1951, and was part of the institution’s growth into one of the major centers of Orthodox thought and scholarship in the western hemisphere by the end of the decade. By 1962, the seminary had grown to the extent that it was prepared to move into a permanent facility, the now-familiar campus in Crestwood, New York. The move to Crestwood also marked Fr. Alexander’s move to the position of seminary dean.
The two photographs shown here show Fr. Alexander at the cusp of these major developments, speaking at what appears to be either an event sponsored by the Federated Russian Orthodox Clubs (FROC, now the FOCA) or the Detroit Council of Orthodox Christian Churches (COCC), who have organized evening vespers services in Orthodox parishes around the Detroit area each Sunday evening during Lent since the late 1950s. The venue appears to be Holy Ghost Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church, a parish founded in 1919, which in the 1960s was under the jurisdiction of the Metropolia, and subsequently the OCA (though later it was a part of ROCOR, and now is a parish of the Patriarchate of Bulgaria).
The early 1960s were a transformative time in the history of the Metropolia, with St. Vladimir’s Seminary and its faculty playing a key role. Fr. Alexander was instrumental in the early meetings of the Standing Council of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA), which held its first meetings in 1960, and was an Orthodox observer to the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), when it opened its sessions in 1962.
This era found the Metropolia, especially Fr. Alexander and his colleagues at St. Vladimir’s, interested in the jurisdictional trajectory of the canonical chaos which defined Orthodoxy in America in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Amongst the early academic explorations of the movement towards the granting of autocephaly to the Metropolia in 1970 was the publication of Alexander Bogolepov’s Toward an American Orthodox Church in 1963, early, tense encounters between the Metropolia and the Church of Russia that same year, and Fr. Alexander’s three-part exploration of the problems facing Orthodoxy in North America, which appeared in the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly in 1964.
When Fr. Alexander came to Detroit on a winter’s evening in 1962, he was at the cusp of a truly transformative decade in his own career. On November 30, 1962, following the institution’s move to its new Crestwood campus, Fr. Alexander was appointed to the position of Seminary Dean, replacing Metropolitan Leonty. For the Life of the World, the book for which he is perhaps best known, was published the next year, which was followed by a string of similarly seminal works of Orthodox thought in the West, including The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy (1963), Introduction to Liturgical Theology (a reworking of his doctoral dissertation, first published in English in 1966), Great Lent (1969), and an edited anthology of modern Russian religious thought, Ultimate Questions (1964).
Of course, far removed from a Detroit church fellowship hall in 1962, the culmination of this decade of constant productivity was the granting of autocephaly to the Metropolia by the Patriarchate of Moscow in 1970. This was a process of intense negotiations (what he would later term “a meaningful storm”), in which Fr. Alexander was intimately involved at nearly every stage.
Those of us in the Academy are (our should be!) quite aware of the limitations of Wikipedia. Of course, some of the weaknesses are the same as they have been for any encyclopedia. Students too often think research begins and ends with them (alas, even in college). Too many citizens share that approach. Also, encyclopedia entries cannot take the time to be as nuanced as perhaps they should. In the case of Wikipedia, this can become a real problem. Recently, Timothy Messer-Kruse wrote from personal experience about how this is so (http://chronicle.com/article/The-Undue-Weight-of-Truth-on/130704/). I’d recommend reading the article, but in a nutshell, Dr. Messer-Kruse edited a Wikipedia entry on the Haymarket trial of 1886 based upon primary source research he had done through the Library of Congress. Wikipedia reacted by deleting his comments and noting he had to cite reliable sources! He tried again, again citing the court documents and also his own published work. It didn’t matter.
Now, on the one hand, one might argue that such is all an encyclopedia can do. It must simply add up the number of secondary sources making a particular point (that no evidence was presented by the prosecution at the trial–yeah, that was the point). Anyone stating otherwise, even if supported by primary sources, won’t be given a say. To some degree, that is what encyclopedias have always done–tried to present the general consensus on a given topic. Furthermore, Wikipedia is not a peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps it shouldn’t be expected to prioritize primary source scholarship.
On the other hand, it is difficult to understand how a platform that is supposed to be open to editing can dismiss the actual primary sources (say letters or diaries or court documents) in favor of historiographical ignorance (which happens for various reasons–no judgment intended at all toward other scholars of the Haymarket riot and trial).
Furthermore, this is a perennial problem within American Orthodox history. Both Matthew Namee and I have encountered it on more than one occasion, especially when discussing what we’ve called “the myth of unity”–the idea that all Orthodox in America were always under the Russians until 1917 and/or that the Russians always worked hard to demonstrate that they always clearly had jurisdiction everywhere and anywhere on the North American continent (or perhaps Americas more generally). Often those screaming the loudest were used to doing “history” work by collecting a bunch of secondary sources together. Similarly, when discussing Archbishop Arseny of Canada, those who seemed most upset with what I found in the court documents were not those who had actually read the court documents (we at SOCHA read them and made them available). Sometimes, people simply like the “conventional mendacity” (to quote Lord Acton) built up over the ages.
One of the long-term goals of SOCHA is to provide a platform that highlights primary sources and their importance. Exactly how this will be done is still coming into view, but certainly this blog is a beginning. We have posts by the four of us directors as well as by others who are knowledgeable in particular primary sources. We will continue to provide informative articles based on primary source work. More than that, once we are able to move forward with our future digitization project, readers will have access to primary sources themselves. We even envision a platform in which readers will be able to submit primary documents to the database. This will make it similar to Wikipedia, in that people will be able to add to the knowledge base and influence what is known and learned. Yet, it will differ in that it will be source material that is added, not conventional mendacity nor even a well documented interpretation. There will be limitations, of course, as readers won’t be spoon fed interpretations but would have to read, say, Bjerring’s writings themselves to determine what he tended to emphasize in his extant sermons, but I think this is actually better. Encyclopedias can be nice starting points, but a platform that forces people to think critically and rely on primary sources is better.
Of course, scholars and researchers are seriously questioning the degree to which people are prepared to think critically (you could follow the trail starting with this: http://chronicle.com/article/Academically-Adrift-The/130743/) but that’s a different discussion for another time.
Thus far, on the third Thursday of each month this year, I have written a post concerning Orthodoxy and higher education in America. I conclude this half-year mini-series by announcing that the authors and titles of the papers to be delivered at this fall’s symposium are now online. In addition to the four keynote presentations, we will have fourteen other papers:
The topics, institutions represented, and authors speaking are all diverse in a most intriguing way and a testament to the breadth of American Orthodox history. I am very truly thankful to Seraphim Dankaert at Princeton Theological Seminary and to all the scholars who submitted abstracts for this year’s event. It is my hope and prayer that this will become a regular gathering for SOCHA and all who may be interested in American Orthodox history.
I hope my adding this post will not damper people’s interest in Fr. Andrew’s book. I have listened to some of his podcasts and they are good. Nonetheless, it’s time for my regular monthly post . Each monthly post in 2011 has concentrated on Orthodoxy and higher education in America and this one will continue that theme, though not in quite the same way.
In this post, I thought I’d mention the People’s University in Chicago and put out a “call for more information.” I do not know much about this school and therefore would greatly welcome any reader from Chicago (or elsewhere) who has more information on this. What I do know is that it lasted from 1918 until 1920. It was a night school that met in public school classrooms with the twofold purpose of Americanizing Russian immigrants and teaching Russian to Americans for business purposes. Boris Bakhmeteff, the ambassador for the provisional government in Russia, had allocated $10,000 from embassy funds to start this venture. The financial aspects were overseen directly by the Russian consul, Antoine Volkoff. Although this venture did not last I find it quite intriguing. Perhaps others know more about it than the bare-bone basics I’ve been able to find. I should note I haven’t scoured the Bakhmeteff archives as I maybe should, though a quick skim through the contents (as available online) did not jog anything in my mind. Nor have I had a chance to figure out what archives in Chicago might contain information on this enterprise. If someone knows better, please do let me know. This is no do or die matter but I suspect that a fuller history of the Russian People’s University in Chicago could offer a unique view into the world of the Russian emigre community and those who fled turmoil of Russia for the safe haven of America.
Those interested in Russians in Chicago more generally might wish to start here, though one would have to go far beyond this to learn more:
During this Holy Week time, I am going to shift just a bit on my running series regarding Orthodoxy and higher education here in America. Instead of mentioning an historical event, I thought I’d share something from Fr. Georges Florovsky. If you need to know a little something about his life, go here:
The following quote is from “Faith and Culture,” St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly 4:1-2 (1955-56), 44.
“Either Christians ought to go out of the world, in which there is another master besides Christ (whatever name this master may bear: Caesar or Mammon or any other), and start a separate society. Or again they have to transform the outer world and rebuild it according to the law of the Gospel. What is important, however, is that even those who go out cannot dispense with the main problem: they still have to build up a “society” and cannot therefore dispense with this basic element of social culture. “Anarchism” is in any case excluded by the Gospel. Nor does Monasticism mean or imply a denunciation of culture. Monasteries were, for a long time, precisely the most powerful centers of cultural activity, both in the West and in the East. The practical problem is therefore reduced to the question of a sound and faithful orientation in a concrete historical situation.
Christians are not committed to the denial of culture as such. But they are to be critical of any existing cultural situation and measure it by the measure of Christ. For Christians are also the Sons of Eternity, i.e. prospective citizens of the Heavenly Jerusalem. Yet problems and needs of “this age” in no case and in no sense can be dismissed or disregarded, since Christians are called to work and service precisely “in this world” and “in this age.” Only all these needs and problems and aims must be viewed in that new and wider perspective which is disclosed by the Christian Revelation and illumined by its light.”
Definitely wise words to heed as we continue to plan and develop Orthodox engagement with higher education. Definitely fitting words for this time of year.