by Irina Paert
Just when we all thought that global Orthodoxy was in a state of deep crisis, God had a surprise for us.
Indeed, when four member churches of the Orthodox global family rejected the invitation of Patriarch Bartholomew to attend the Holy and Great Council of Crete, which had been in preparation for several decades, and when the saga of Ukrainian autocephaly unfolded before our eyes during the last few months, many felt that the worst stereotypes about Orthodoxy were coming true. And yet, in January 2019 in the Romanian city of Iasi, an impressive gathering of people took place. A mixed crowd of people who gathered for a four-day conference were people who had just the same right to represent the Orthodox Church as those whose names are usually preceded by numerous medieval titles but who need much less maintenance than the former. To be sure, there were all ranks of the Orthodox cosmos, those whose heads were decorated with miters and those whose were not. Yet, here was a gathering of intelligent, interesting, socially and ecclesiastically engaged, passionate, humorous people, some of whom happen to be bishops and priests. Here was IOTA.
When a little over a year ago I was asked to become a co-chair of a IOTA’s Asceticism and Spirituality section, I said yes and then asked, ‘And what is IOTA?’ I was not the only one who asked this question. IOTA, the acronym for International Orthodox Theological Association, was an organization that did not yet exist but was already eagerly awaited. It was an organization that confirmed the treble meaning of the Greek concept of kairos: It happened at the ‘right’ time as opposed to at ‘any time’. It happened in the time of ‘crisis’, meaning that the course of events poses a problem which calls for a decision at that time. And, finally, it happened at the time when something should happen or be done, that is, at the ‘best’ time. The IOTA idea was conceived in the rooms designated for external observers of the Council of Crete. It has been brought to existence by people who have positions in academia. It is firmly committed to conciliarity and academic quality, to serving the Church through engaging scholars in dialogue and making their voices heard in the field of ecclesiastical politics.
IOTA is a pan-Orthodox scholarly and professional organization whose meetings take place under the auspices of a local church. Several primates look favorably upon the endeavor. While the organization is registered and governed from the USA, the conferences and other gatherings of the association take place outside the US. The activity of the association is academic: it commissions conferences, seminars and other forms of academic practice. The first inaugural conference took place last week in Romania with the blessing of the Romanian patriarch Daniel and was launched in Iasi, whose metropolitan Teofan provided kind hospitality that exceeded all our expectations (especially given the relative poverty of the country). IOTA has 26 study groups focused on topics ranging from patristics to political theology. Each group has a chance to propose a pre-arranged session at the inaugural conference, either alone or in collaboration with another group, and also accepts proposals to the so-called “open sessions.” In my experience, for a new association to harvest more than 250 proposals was an exceedingly good result. My own section had twelve proposals, of which we could only accept five. Despite the normal dropout rate, and the failure of some speakers to appear for various kinds of reasons (including snow), the total attendance was no less than 300 people. Despite the fact that 5-7 parallel sessions were running at any given time, I cannot remember another time when papers discussing the Philokalia would attract about 50 people in the audience.
But let me start from the beginning. The orchestration of the conference was a work of creative minds. The conference opened with a Te Deum service with the Metropolitan of Iasi, held in the Cathedral, which is famous for hosting the relics of St Parascheva (the Romanians received them in the 17th century as a reward from Constantinople for paying the debts of Constantinople’s patriarch). Conveniently, the massive Cathedral was opposite the National Theatre of Iasi, and the crowd of ‘iotians’ proceeded gracefully across the street, still lit with Christmas decorations, to another magnificent venue. If guests expected some glamor at the opening, their expectations were exceeded on the scale of 1:10 at least. At conferences we all behave a little like children, as we are temporarily relieved of our normal routine work and family duties. There, in the old-fashioned theater with its red velvet chairs and golden balustrades, I felt like Natasha Rostova at her first ball. While I may have not met my Andrey Bolkonsky there, I certainly fell in love with the inimitable Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), who in his 80s still dazzled our minds and satisfied our intellectual senses with his beautifully crafted and worded presentation. Even more than his graceful presentation, we were stunned by his words of wisdom and of warning. His Excellency did not mince words about the Council of Crete or about Ukrainian autocephaly. To me, he was quite clear about the Cretan conciliar agenda hopelessly lagging behind or not even trying to catch up to the real issues of the Orthodox world. He challenged the historical argument about Ukrainian autocephaly but pointed out that the breaking of Eucharistic communion should not be used as a weapon. He definitely set the tone for the discussions to come.
What followed was simply an intellectual feast. The range of topics discussed at IOTA could be described as “everything that you ever wanted to know about Orthodoxy but were afraid to ask.” Why did Palamas refrain from distinguishing between essence and energy kat’ epinoian? How should theologians approach the Orthodox diaspora? Who has the right to grant autocephaly? Why do the conservative trends in Orthodox countries prevail on the issues of marriage and sexuality? What are the goals of religious education from an Orthodox point of view in public schools? Can we approach the Fourth Crusade as an act of colonialism of the West, and Ukrainian autocephalous movement as an act of decolonization? How to distinguish primal power from authority in the Church? And finally, my favorite, is there a place for humor within the Church?
The experience of IOTA was both strange and familiar: sitting long hours in closed rooms, waking up tired gray cells with strong coffee, returning to the same position, walking 20 meters to the nearby restaurants in order to sit down and engage in a conversation with the speaker from the previous session, ending the day in drinking with a speaker and discussing his or her paper and going to bed late, waking up with a headache, going to sit all day long once again. And so on. Yet, apart from the familiar exercise in physical immobility which seems to be a prerequisite for intellectual luminosity, IOTA was also an occasion for some new experiences. I cannot recall any paper which was simply boring. Discussions spilled out of the conference rooms into the floor; the air was thick with conversations and exchange of opinions. There were differences in viewpoints between the speakers, and this was embraced as positive. The atmosphere was amiable and positive. It was not enforced or faked; it was genuine. One attendee compared it to a youth conference experience. A serious scholar said that he had met his intellectual opponent for the first time, and they had a great conversation. We learned to disagree in a genial way. We learned to be friends with those with whom we disagree. We embraced unity in diversity. Perhaps this is the future of Orthodoxy, through this creative approach to dialogue and conciliarity.
The next conference of IOTA, wherever it will take place—in Bulgaria, or Cyprus, or Estonia, who knows—will bring even more participants and the word will spreads and some skepticism and reservations will be overcome. We have at least one space where the Orthodox, as diverse as they are, will be able to speak openly, intelligently and respectfully to each other.
Irina Paert is Senior Researcher at the School of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Tartu.
For more information about IOTA and the inaugural conference, visit https://iota-web.org/
Videos from the inaugural conference are available at IOTA’s YouTube channel.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.