International Consultation on “Eastern Orthodoxy and Inter-religious encounter in a secular age”
On September 15-17, an international consultation organized by the Volos Academy for Theological Studies (Greece) in co-operation with the Department of Theology and Religion of the University of Exeter (United Kingdom), was successfully held in Volos on the general theme “Eastern Orthodoxy and Inter-religious encounter in a secular age.”
After the welcoming greetings by Metropolitan Ignatius of Demetrias, the Director of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies Dr.Pantelis Kalaitzidis, and the co-organizer Dr. Brandon Gallaher, Lecturer of Systematic and Comparative Theology of the Exeter University, the consultation opened with the first session chaired by Dr. Athanasios Papathanasiou.
The first speaker Dr. Marko Vilotic, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Orthodox Theology, University of Belgrade (Serbia) and Member of the Steering Committee, Center for Philosophy and Theology (Trebinje, Bosnia and Herzegovina) spoke on the topic: “ Prolegomena for an Affirmative Orthodox Theology of Religions. ” In his presentation the speaker started from the assumption that there still is no such thing as a universally known and accepted Orthodox theology of religion, and aimed at identifying and (at least partially) answering the crucial questions that need be resolved in order to get a clearer picture of the extent to which an open, affirmative Orthodox theology of religions is possible. Given that theology of religions is much more developed among Western Christians, an Orthodox “counterpart” should not start from scratch, but make use of all the experience and fruits brought about by the discussions led in the West in the past decades. Finally, the paper tried to determine to what extent the current position of the Orthodox Church regarding other religions and the inter-religious dialogue is in accordance with the conclusions of the conducted analysis.
Next speaker, Dr. Petros Vassiliadis, Professor Emeritus, University of Thessaloniki (Greece) spoke on Eastern Orthodoxy and Inter-Faith Dialogue in a Secular Age, where a brief reference was made to the contrast and the successive stages of pre-modernity, modernity and post-modernity, the positive assessment of modernity in World Christianity, even within the World Christian mission, the Inter-faith dialogue and encounter in the New WCC Mission Statement and the decisions of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church. He further reflected on the shortcomings of the Orthodox Mission Statement and the recommendation of Orthodox missiologists to theologically substantiate the inter-faith dialogue. According to Vassiliadis the purpose of interfaith dialogue from a Christian perspective is to build upon what is left unfinished in modernity by the so-called “secular condition.”
The final speaker of the session, Rev. Dr. Emmanuel Clapsis, Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (Boston, USA) presented a paper on The Dynamics of Inter-Religious Dialogue where he argued that since the early seventies the Orthodox Church, through her participation in the World Council of Churches, has engaged in theological reflections concerning the significance of other religions and the need to be in dialogue with them. In their deliberations, the Churches have recognized the need to have a clear understanding of the nature, the limitations, and the goals of Interfaith dialogues. They have agreed that Interfaith dialogue should not and must not lead to any form of syncretism. An important issue that had received special attention in their deliberations is the relation of dialogue with the Church’s mission since some expressed fear that dialogue may be construe by some as a substitute for proclamation. In his paper Clapsis further explored the nature and the purpose of dialogue, since the recently convened Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church (June 2016) has affirmed the Orthodox involvement in ecumenical and interfaith dialogues.
In the first session of the second day chaired by Dr. Nikolaos Asproulis, Dr. Brandon Gallaher, Lecturer of Systematic and Comparative Theology, Exeter University (UK) spoke on The Word, the Words and the Trinity: An Eastern Orthodox Theology of Religions, where he argued that Eastern Orthodoxy, despite a few pioneering thinkers, has come rather late to the academic disciplines of the theology of the religions and comparative theology. In his paper, Gallaher presented a preliminary Orthodox theology of religions drawing on the work of both Raimon Panikkar and Maximus the Confessor. Particular attention was given on the logoi spermatikoi tradition in Patristic thinking and the notion (found in Panikkar, S. Mark Heim and Donald W. Mitchell) that religious plurality and the different world religions can be mapped on to the Trinitarian relations.
Next speaker Dr. Julia Konstantinovsky, Tutor, School of Theology, Oxford University (UK) presented a paper on Christianity and “religions”: some Orthodox perspectives on dual belonging and inter-religious contacts. The speaker wondered among others if it is possible for Christians to relate meaningfully to non-Christian “religions” or can Christianity learn from and enrich itself with “spiritual experiences” and “spiritual practices” of “religions”? Finally, what is an optimal way for Christians to relate to “religions”? By her paper Konstantinovsky attempted to open up some of these issues by sharing reflections on dual belonging and difficulties of inter-religious contacts, found them both unconvincing and problematic. Drawing on the ascetic theology of the traditional Christianity, the paper argued that the approach of the Church to different “religions” and their adherents is the true and fruitful one.
In the next session chaired by Dr. Marko Vilotic, the first speaker Dr. Athanasios N. Papathanasiou, Lecturer, Hellenic Open University, Editor in Chief of the theological journal Synaxi (Athens, Greece) presented a paper on Comparative Theology and the Orthodox: An inquiry into the tension between faith and the religious other, differences and dichotomies. In his paper the speaker argued that Orthodox theology needs to have a substantive encounter with the nature and the presuppositions of Comparative Theology, while he discussed whether Comparative Theology is an alternative to the theologies of religions or, on the contrary, a necessary supplement to them. Papathanasiou noted that comparative work exalts the significance of faith and acknowledges it not as an adversary, but as the host of the religious other. At the end, the quest for truth emerges as an important tool for humans in their endeavor to find meaningful answers and discern which differences can be overcome and which dichotomies cannot be bridged.
Rev. Dr. Andrew Louth , Professor Emeritus of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University (UK), Honorary Fellow, Faculty of Theology, Vrije Universiteit (Amsterdam, The Netherlands) on his part spoke on Philip Sherrard: An Orthodox Approach to Christianity and the World Religion. Philip Sherrard (1922–1995) became Orthodox as a result of reading some of the early poems of George Seferis. He was converted to Greek Orthodoxy, not to some abstract conception of Orthodoxy, and this, he argued, is the key to his approach to other world religions, and indeed to his other intellectual interests. His concern for the sacred traditions of the world led to, and was fostered by, his involvement in Temenos, the journal and more generally project. This lecture looked at the principles Sherrard embraced, and the dangers he saw and sought to avoid, in his advocating drawing on the resources of the world religions, including Christianity.
During the first afternoon session chaired by Prof. Petros Vassiliadis, Dr. Nikolaos Asproulis, Deputy Director, Volos Academy for Theological Studies (Volos, Greece) presented a paper on World Ecclesiology: Towards an Orthodox Theology of Religions. Living at the beginning of the new millennium religious but also political, national, ideological and many other kinds of divisions occupy a central place in the daily news reports. To some degree, this reality stress the fact that human beings in our age do not tolerate dialogue or the variety of diversities and pluralities in terms of ideas, cultures and religions, due to a fear of abolishing one’s individual identity within the context of the prevailing globalization and secularization. In this regards, world religions, Christian Churches and Orthodoxy included, often become, even though paradoxically, the driving force that leads to the growth of radicalism and extremism, as well as of all kinds of brutal violence. With regards especially to Orthodoxy, the recently convened Panorthodox Synod by reflecting on this hazardous reality, it made a plea for the great importance that inter-religious dialogue has for the promotion of “mutual trust, peace and reconciliation” (Message, 4) in the light of the respect for the “identity and culture of different people,” referring especially to critical situation of the M. East conflicts and the persecutions against Christians. At the same time the Synod boldly denounced secularization process due to the autonomy the latter seeks of man from Christ and the Church” (Message, 5), as a form of the prevailing evil (“The Mission of the Orthodox Church,” 2). By “World Ecclesiology” the paper suggested an alternative model of an open and inclusive theological imagination of the identity of the Church, based on concepts (e.g. divine providence) and realities (e.g. spirituality) more or less common in humanity in its entirety and in the main religious traditions, which without abandoning or minimizing its Christian premises (Trinitarian theology, Christology and Pneumatology) it searches for the possible “secular” foundations upon which a positive mutual reception and exchange between Christianity and world religions is possible.
Dr. Paul Ladouceur , Trinity College (University of Toronto), Montreal Institute of Orthodox Theology (Faculté de théologie et de sciences religieuses, Université Laval, Canada) spoke through Skype presentation on Religious Diversity in Modern Orthodox Thought where he explored different approaches to non-Christian religions in modern Orthodox thought. He presented an overview of the approaches of non-Christian religions of 12 leading modern Orthodox theologians from the perspective of the threefold soteriological typology of inclusivism, exclusivism and religious pluralism and the more recent models of theological approaches to religious diversity known as particularism and comparative theology. Despite the absence of formal Orthodox declarations concerning religious diversity, Orthodox thought on religious diversity since World War II converges around the notions of inclusivism and comparative theology, considering that non-Christian religions contain elements of truth as found in Christianity, that they are mysteriously “included” in the missions of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the world.
During the last session of the consultation chaired by Dr. Brandon Gallaher, the first speaker Rev. Tikhon Vasylev, PhD Candidate, Wolfson College, Oxford University (UK) spoke on Christian dialogue with Taoism in the works of Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, Father Alexander Men and Hieromonk Damascene . There are a number of publications in which non-Orthodox Christian authors engage with Taoist concepts and practices. However, only few Orthodox theologians dedicated their work to the analysis of the Chinese religion. The paper dealt with the works by famous Orthodox Christian authors and missionaries St Nikolai Velimirovich and Father Alexander Men and focused on their approach to Taoism. It also critically touched one of the most recent publications on this topic by an Orthodox author, Christ the Eternal Tao (1999) by Hieromonk Damascene.
Α video containing the presentation of Dr. Christine Mangala Frost, Lecturer and Research Associate, Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (Cambridge, UK) on A Reflection on the Challenges and Problems of Interfaith Dialogue as exemplified by translations of The Lord's Prayer into Sanskrit, was then shown to the participants. In her speech, Dr Mangala Frost based on her recently published book entitled The Human Icon: A Comparative Study of Hindu and Orthodox Christian Beliefs, she tried by virtue of the comparative theology method to show how these two ancient, vibrant and living religious traditions approach the human quest for the divine. At the same time she charted the convergences and divergences in the spiritual maps they provide for their followers, for fulfilling what they consider to be the divine potential within the human.
The paper of the last speaker, Dr. Angeliki Ziaka, Associate Professor, University of Thessaloniki (Greece), on Intereligious Dialogue in times of adversity: Christian and Muslim responsibility , was read in absentia. In her presentation Ziaka provided a brief historical overview of the interreligious dialogue between Christians and Muslims highlighting the duty of responsibility of the religious communities in this direction. In addition she pointed out the relevance of education to the degree that a religious education which respects religious diversity and makes religion a subject for study, developing critical thinking and common responsibility, is perhaps the only bright path for the secular societies of Europe.
The conference concluded on Sunday, September 17, 2017, with the celebration of the divine liturgy at St. Constantine Church, Volos.
During the conference enough time was given to the participants to reflect on different aspects of this delicate and critical issue. The basic tenets of the discussion have been summarized in the drafted communiqué, which is following, of the consultation, which simply expresses the richness of the Orthodox reflections on the topic.
On September 15-17, 2017, an historic international consultation organized by the Volos Academy for Theological Studies (Greece) in co-operation with the Department of Theology and Religion of the University of Exeter (United Kingdom), was successfully held in Volos on the general theme “Eastern Orthodoxy and Inter-religious encounter in a secular age.” This was the first ever international academic theological conference held in English on the subject of an Orthodox vision of world religions, after a similar one held in Thessaloniki in 2013 on inter-faith dialogue and the theology of religions in Greek. The conference explored the nature and history of interreligious encounter from an Orthodox Christian perspective as well as the differing Christian theologies of religion including the relatively new discipline of “comparative theology.” The conference was extremely wide-ranging, with papers looking at a Trinitarian approach to religious diversity, Hindu-Orthodox Christian dialogue as seen in Indian translations of the Lord’s Prayer, mission and the challenge of inculturation in the context of Orthodox encounter with world religions, as well as contributions presenting historical and contemporary examples of Orthodox thinking about religious diversity (from the Fathers to Philip Sherrard, Metropolitan Georges (Khodr) of Mt Lebanon, Archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos) of Albania and Father Alexander Men), and the need to reenvision ecclesiology in cosmic terms which would affirm religious difference as providential. It also underlined the importance of inter-faith dialogue in effectively promoting social issues from a faith perspective, like justice, peace, the integrity of creation, a just economic system, and, especially, a Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities, along with Human Rights.
Emerging from the conference was first of all wide-scale agreement that within Orthodox tradition and history, in areas where Orthodox have lived and engaged with non-Christian religions for thousands of years (e.g. Islam, Hinduism), there are rich resources that will help theologians develop theologies of religion and methodologies for comparative theology. Orthodox need to study the work of the Roman Catholic and Protestant inter-religious pioneers but they must avoid uncritical adaptation of already existing Western models. Thus, while it was argued that of all the now classic soteriological “models” used to account for religious plurality (inclusivism, exclusivism, pluralism), inclusivism was the most congenial to an Orthodox sensibility, none of the present models, including the newer approach called particularism, pays sufficient attention to the unbounded personal and providential love of the Creator for His creation, characteristic of Orthodox tradition.
There is, it was agreed, no comprehensively and systematically developed Orthodox theology of religious diversity. Over the last century, Orthodox thinkers have adopted a wide range of positions, especially those which argue that Christ is mysteriously present in other religions through the actions of the Holy Spirit, with the Church acting as the instrument of the mystery of the salvation of the nations drawing all peoples into union with God. It was particularly noted that the traditions of the logos spermatikos and the logoi in creation, developed by Fathers such as Justin Martyr and Maximus the Confessor, were invaluable resources for accounting for the providential character of religious difference and for seeing the face of Christ in the multiple eternal divine reasons, or variously, ideas, principles, possibilities, intentions and even wills of and for each created thing that exists or may exist in creation, especially in view of the “economy of the Holy Spirit”, suggested by some modern Orthodox theologians.
Lastly, it was affirmed that in this period of reception of the Council of Crete, that inter-religious dialogue and reconciliation between Orthodoxy and the religious Other was paramount. For this reason, the participants agreed that a) an edited volume in English be produced with the same theme as the conference that, it is hoped, will include many of the Volos consultation's papers; b) that other symposia, conferences and consultations on the same theme be held, with the next event in March 2018 in Bologna at the European Academy of Religion; and c) that the Volos Academy in collaboration with the University of Exeter might be a possible future venue for conferences extending the theme of the conference to include a careful, critical but hospitable dialogue with other contemporary religious traditions, especially meetings looking at Hesychasm in dialogue with the spiritualities of specific world religions.
Orthodox theological engagements with other religions must, on the one hand, be bold in seeking out points of contact between Orthodoxy as the Body of the Living Christ and the religions of the nations. On the other hand, these engagements must be maintain fidelity with Orthodox tradition. Orthodox theologians must carefully and painstakingly seek and test their thinking on religious diversity by the tradition of prayer and the Mind ( phronema) of the Church more generally and ultimately present them to the appropriate Orthodox canonical authorities for their judgement at what it is hoped will be the next Pan Orthodox Council, continuing the work of the Holy and Great Council o International Consultation on “Eastern Orthodoxy and Inter-religious encounter in a secular age” f Crete in 2016.
*Photos courtesy by Nick Kosmides