John Burgess: A View from Orthodoxy

 

John Burgess is James Henry Snowden Professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He was a Research Fellow at CTI in the 2014-15 Inquiry on Law and Religious Freedom. This article was originally published in CTI’s Annual Yearbook, The Commons. 

 

It was the icon of Christ the World Ruler that caught my attention. Against the flickering candles of the darkened church, the icon’s burnished gold glowed, as though Christ himself were present. Next to me, a handful of parishioners were making prostrations; above us, the choir sang the biblical story of salvation from the first Adam to the second. Then the priest in his black gowns turned to us and recited the prayer that accompanies Orthodox believers through the eight weeks of the Great Lent:

 

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.

(St. Ephrem the Syrian, 4th century)

For a moment, I was transported back to Russia, where I have spent two sabbatical years over the past decade. I remembered times of great loneliness in a culture whose ways were foreign to me and whose language I was still learning. I thought of the tremendous efforts that my family and I had made as Western Protestants to enter into the very different world of Eastern Orthodoxy. And I gave thanks for the special friends in Russian parishes and monasteries who have welcomed me as a Protestant theologian into their lives.

But now I was not in Moscow or St. Petersburg but rather a small Russian Orthodox parish in Princeton, New Jersey, where the liturgy was in English and the priest a convert from Methodism. This church, only a five-minute car ride from the CTI townhouses, proved to be an important part of my year. At CTI, I was writing a book about Orthodoxy and Russian national identity since the fall of communism, and my trips to Russia have taught me that theological reflection depends not only on scholarly insights from books and papers but also lived experience with other believers in worship and Christian service. If I were to finish my work at CTI, I would need the prayer of St. Ephrem.

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The year at CTI kept opening up for me spaces of wonder, beauty, and thoughtful reflection between different worlds of discourse: religion and politics, Russia and the United States, and the Orthodox Church and my own Reformed, Presbyterian tradition rooted in the theology of John Calvin and his successors. The 2014-15 CTI inquiry, “Law and Religious Freedom,” brought together a remarkable team of theologians and legal scholars who helped me understand that religious freedom cannot be sustained by laws alone. Religious freedom ultimately depends on spiritual freedom—the realization that one’s life is held in the hands of the One who is the very source of being. Those who have been nurtured in Christian freedom commit themselves to freeing every human being from oppressive ideologies, so that we may together shape a more just, peaceful society.

It was indeed an important year to think about freedom. U.S.-Russian relations were quickly deteriorating. In the spring of 2014, the events on Kiev’s Maidan had ended in violent revolution, establishment of a pro-Western democracy, and deep tensions with Ukraine’s large and sometimes overbearing neighbor, the Russian Federation. Some political observers spoke of a new cold war. And while the threat of nuclear war seemed remote, the world was again divided between “West” and “East,” with each side unable or unwilling to understand the other’s point of view.

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It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The end of communism had brought unprecedented opportunities for Americans and Russian to travel to each other’s countries. Trade and political ties were developing. The Internet had made it as easy to cross national boundaries and time zones as to walk across the street in my hometown of Pittsburgh. Even at CTI, I regularly spent Friday afternoon in the Commons talking by Skype to my language teacher in Moscow.

But for communication to become communion takes more than technological prowess. Whether theologians and legal scholars, Russians and Americans, or Orthodox and Protestant believers—people think in different categories and begin with different assumptions. The weekly Tuesday colloquium at CTI provided for rich cross-fertilization of ideas and humbling reminders that people do not always understand each other. We needed many conversations—at the colloquium table, over lunch, in the members’ lounge, and in each other’s homes on Ross Stevenson Circle—to build intellectual trust and friendship.

Making a home for scholars to move between different worlds of discourse is what CTI does so well. Director Will Storrar and Senior Research Fellow Robin Lovin invited me to organize two small but groundbreaking conferences. The first gathered historians, anthropologists, political scientists, theologians, and government officials to discuss the religious dimensions of Russian and Ukrainian politics, something that policy makers and the popular media neglect, even though it has played a central role in recent events. These scholars were meeting each other for the first time, sharing insights across disciplinary boundaries, and contributing to wiser U.S. foreign policy.

At the second conference, a group of Orthodox scholars and priests discussed my manuscript about Orthodoxy and national identity, raising key questions about the relationship of hierarchical politics and popular piety, and personal religious faith and cultural religious heritage. I benefitted tremendously from the discussion, and they discovered the unique space that is CTI. One of the participants turned out to live across the street from us on Ross Stevenson, and on my last day in Princeton I joined him and his wife for a two-lap walk around the Circle, as we returned to the question of how the Church can nurture a responsible freedom that speaks truth in love.

Earlier in the year, an Orthodox priest had invited me to speak to his congregation. Another had asked me to present my research to the Orthodox Student Fellowship at Princeton University. Protestant scholars and friends at Princeton Theological Seminary had helped me think about larger questions of religion and politics. And the university and seminary libraries had provided materials in Russian that I needed. I took pleasure in ordering the books from storage and watching the librarian place a check-out sticker on the inside back cover: I was the first person ever to use them.

By the end of the year, I had a manuscript ready to take to a publisher. The prayer of St. Ephrem had sustained me—as had Wednesday morning prayers at CTI, led by Will Storrar. And the experience of intellectual friendship and Christian community with Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant believers had taught me, as Robin Lovin has written so insightfully in reference to interdisciplinary inquiry, virtues of humility and hope. I see that humility and hope in Christ’s face in Princeton’s small, quiet Orthodox church, and I am thankful to CTI for a home in between different academic disciplines, national perspectives, and religious traditions.

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