This post is a two-part reflection by a father and son who traveled from Alaska to attend the inaugural conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association (IOTA) in Iasi, Romania.
Fr. Marc Dunaway
Many Christians are suspicious of “academic theologians,” and this is understandable. I remember as a young man eagerly tuning into TV documentaries about how the early Church grew or what the world Jesus lived in was like, only to realize in a few minutes that many of these supposedly “Christian” scholars didn’t actually believe in Jesus, or even in God for that matter. I was horrified.
Last month, over 250 Orthodox Christian scholars gathered in Iasi, Romania for the inaugural conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association, and things couldn’t have been more different. After an opening prayer service led by Archbishop Teofan of Iasi, Dr. Paul Gavrilyuk, founding president of IOTA, welcomed the participants with these words: “As scholars and professionals, we wish to contribute our ‘iota’ to the life of the Church and to do so with due humility….IOTA will succeed as long as Jesus Christ remains the foundation of our work, Jesus Christ as He is proclaimed in the Scriptures and confessed in the Creeds, Jesus Christ Whom we have put on in baptism and Whose Body and Blood we receive in the Eucharist, Jesus Christ Who as the eternal Logos is the beginning and the end of all things.” I cannot imagine wanting a scholar to say any more than this.
Today the Church is challenged with a rapidly changing world and scientific knowledge that requires thoughtful responses to such things as evolution and creation, questions about gender and sexuality, and the role of technology in human life.And yet at the same time our Church is dysfunctional in its administrative structures, as seen in its jurisdictional conflicts, its shortage of bishops, and the inability to meet and discuss critical issues. Orthodox scholars, who are faithful children of the Church and true lovers of God, have the potential to help the Church understand and meet these challenges. Along with our hierarchy and our monastics, they can provide the “third leg” needed to strengthen our Church in these days. The Orthodox Church is not just an “ancient faith.” It is, as we proclaim in every Divine Liturgy, the “true faith,” and, therefore, it rightfully can embrace all truth as its own, while still directing all people to the fullness of truth in Jesus Christ. We need scholars to help us discover history, theology, and science on a deeper level than a simple Google search will provide.
My son Benjamin and I made the long trek from Alaska to the IOTA conference not as scholars but as interested participants. The seriousness and enthusiasm of the scholars gathered there was matched only by the support and hospitality of the Romanian Church. It was impressive. That such a conference could be successfully convened in the short span of only two years, with over 250 scholars from 40 countries, in Iasi Romania, in mid-January, is, I believe, evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work in our Church here. The question is will we ask for their help and listen?
I am cradle Orthodox, a young father, and an oncology nurse. I love the Christian faith, but from my perspective, the Orthodox Church has a relevancy problem. In this age of information, the Orthodox Church too often lacks answers. Tough questions surrounding sexuality, modernity, and politics are being discussed by parishioners of all ages, and Orthodox leadership remains silent and out of touch. Instead of clear answers and thoughtful responses to tough questions, the visible and public Orthodox approach consists of a conglomeration of parish priests writing blogs, Sunday sermons being turned into podcasts, and bishops releasing flimsy statements on issues years after they are relevant. But, there is hope! IOTA can be the answer to this knowledge vacuum in the Church. With Christ at the center of all their academic endeavors, brilliant Orthodox Scholars from around the world gathered in Iasi to help stimulate discussion and thought. These scholars did not provide all the answers, but rather they dared to venture into the intellectual arena few Orthodox dare to go. This is what the Orthodox faithful need: real, honest discussions grounded in biblical tradition and patristic interpretation, and this is exactly what IOTA provided.
The IOTA conference was a wonderful experience to be part of. Life in this complex world cannot be defined in terms of simply black or white. This is a world of gray. It is not enough to quote a 4th-century monk or rely on an obscure canon to dismiss a difficult conversation and provide a “will-not-budge” answer in the name of tradition. Answers must be thoughtful, loving, sincere, and most of all Christ-centered. IOTA can help the Church to form these answers. The work of these scholars needs to be explored, questioned, expanded and distributed on the parish level to all the faithful. Christians do not need the thinking done for them by the Church. Rather, they need the tools, experiences, and wisdom of the Church to help them think critically and face uncertainty with faith, hope, and love.
I was constantly impressed with the quality and sincerity of the IOTA scholars. I quickly realized these scholars were not merely echoing old ideas, but they were using the fathers as a foundation to build on and apply their ideas to modern questions. Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and other fathers were among the “Who’s Who” of educated people in their time. They were learned in philosophy, art, and history, and they were faithful Christians and critical thinkers. Many in America today see Christians as ignorant, and Orthodoxy is not exempt from this stereotype. I believe we must employ our God-given brains and reclaim the idea of Christian intellect. Maybe the Fathers don’t have an adequate answer on modern birth control? Maybe, science isn’t undermining God and the Bible? Maybe St. Paul’s epistles were framed by a primitive Jewish understanding of women? In his first Epistle St. Peter implores us to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” I am hopeful that IOTA can help the faithful articulate these answers and make Orthodoxy relevant again.
Fr. Marc Dunaway is the pastor of Saint John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska, home of the Eagle River Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies. Benjamin Dunaway directs the Eagle River Institute’s podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, “Everyday Theology.”
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.