John Burgess Interview

This post is the beginning of a series in which I will interview resident fellows in the inquiry on Law and Religious Freedom at CTI. This week I’ve spoken with John Burgess, who is Professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He is spending the 2014-15 academic year in residence at CTI.

Josh Mauldin: Your project this year at CTI is titled ‘Reconstructing an Orthodox Nation: The Problem of Religious Freedom in Post-Soviet Russia.’ What would you say are your main goals with this project?

John Burgess: My main goal is to complete a book manuscript that describes and evaluates the efforts of the Orthodox Church to shape a post-communist national identity in Russia. I am especially interested in the implicit theology of religion and culture that guides the Church’s efforts and the implications of this theology for how the Church thinks about religious freedom.

JM: I understand that you are a Presbyterian theologian on the faculty of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, a Presbyterian institution. How did you come to have an interest in Orthodoxy in Russia?

JB: I have long been interested in the churches in Eastern and Central Europe. In the 1980s I had the unusual opportunity to study at a Protestant seminary in East Berlin, where I closely observed the role of the churches in the emerging democracy movement. The East German experience of communism made me curious about the Orthodox Church in Russia both during the communist years and afterwards. In 2004-05 I spent a sabbatical year in St. Petersburg, learned as much Russian as I could, and visited dozens of parishes, monasteries, and pilgrimage sites. I was deeply moved by the revitalization of the Church after 70 years of intense persecution.

JM: Are there ways in which your study of Russian Orthodoxy has led you to reinterpret your own Protestant tradition?

JB: Very much so. Last year I published a book on my Protestant Encounters with Orthodoxy, which really is an extended personal meditation on how a deep encounter with another religious tradition (in this case, Orthodoxy) changes the way you think about your own religious tradition. I have come to feel very much at home in the Orthodox world, yet I remain deeply Protestant, always a bit suspicious of ritualism and claims about the miraculous.

JM: Clearly Russian conceptions of religious freedom will differ in important ways from conceptions of religious freedom in the United States; have you found there to be any surprisingly similarities in how religious freedom is understood in the Russian and American contexts?

JB: In Russia the Orthodox Church thinks of itself as deeply embedded in national traditions, whereas Americans more easily accept the notion of religious pluralism in society. But theologians in both places understand that religious freedom is first of all granted and guaranteed not by the state but rather by the God whom they worship. The gospel calls people into a freedom that no state can take away. At the same time, it seems to me that this “inner freedom” requires the churches to support social and legal arrangements that allow people to choose faith freely. A coerced faith is no faith at all.

JM: Has your thinking developed or changed as a result of dialogue with the resident members here at CTI?

JB: The dialogue among the fellows has been extraordinarily rich. Thanks to my colleagues’ comments my book will pay more attention to the whole notion of theological and political “freedom.” What kinds of social, legal arrangements provide for people to choose faith freely, and when do these arrangements tend to turn religion into an ideology that the state uses to secure its own power? More specifically, a key question for me has become whether the Orthodox Church can bring its values into post-communist Russian society while vigorously defending the rights of other religious bodies.

JM: Has your study of Orthodoxy in Russia yielded insights that might illumine how we view religious freedom in more western contexts such as the United States?

JB: I think that the Russian story illumines the extraordinary resilience of religion. After many years of persecution and state efforts to eradicate religion, it turns out that Orthodoxy still matters to most Russians as part of their social identity. They may not regularly attend church or observe religious rituals, yet Orthodoxy and its vision of transcendent beauty and glory still touches them somehow. The Russian story cautions us against narratives of the inevitable decline of Christianity in the West.

JM: You recently spent a year doing research in Moscow. Were there any memorable experiences from that time that deeply influenced how you understand Russian culture and Russian Orthodoxy?

JB: My research method is unusual perhaps for a systematic theologian. When I am in Russia, I spend little time in libraries or archives. Rather, I immerse myself in Orthodox Church life. I have come to understand that church theology is often expressed more implicitly than explicitly. Few Russian theologians write books about “church and culture,” but theological ideas very much guide the Church’s outreach to society through religious education, social work, commemoration of the martyrs of the 20th century, and parish renewal. I am trying to tease out these ideas and evaluate them.

JM: This final question is one I’ve mentioned before during our conversations here at CTI. I would like to hear more about how you see your role as a theologian being related to your role as an interpreter of religious life in Russia. To many people I’m sure it makes perfect sense that a theologian would be the one to help us understand the religious life of a culture; but as we know rifts in academic culture have led to deep separations between normative theological work and the description and interpretation of religious life. How do you see your own work as encompassing these various tasks?

JB: My training is in systematic theology and theological ethics, not anthropology or political science. Nevertheless, I think that as a theologian I am more alert than many anthropologists or political scientists to what we might call the “operative theology” of church people as they worship, observe religious rituals, and bring their values into society. I am attuned to the way in which Russian Orthodox believers draw on the Church’s theological traditions to make sense of what they are doing. And I want both them and us to be more aware of this operative theology and to evaluate whether it is consonant with the Church’s norms and its understanding of the freedom of the gospel.

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