St. Vladimir’s Seminary Commencement Address Delivered May 19, 2018
By David Bradshaw
Your Beatitude, Your Grace, Reverend Fathers, fellow scholars and students of Holy Orthodoxy, graduates, family and friends,
It is a great pleasure to be with you on this happy occasion. Like many of you, I had heard of St. Vladimir’s through its publications and graduates many years before I visited here. St. Vladimir’s has a long and distinguished history, as well as a global reach, and I am grateful to you to now be included in that story.
The graduates we are here to honor are also now part of the St. Vladimir’s story. When they go forth it will be to carry what they have learned here into new forms of service to the Church and the world. With that in mind, I would like to offer some thoughts about the form that our service ought to take given the challenges we face today. I hope you will take these thoughts in the spirit in which they are intended, simply as some notes along the way of one who is still very much in the trenches and still struggling every day to learn better what it means to be Orthodox.
Let me begin by sharing with you a passage from a paper a student wrote recently in my philosophy of religion class. We had read the opening chapters of Genesis, and, as with most readings, I had the students write a short paper giving their initial impressions and reactions to the reading prior to our discussing it. The student wrote as follows:
The Old Testament god of Christian faith always reminds me of an annoying, clingy, and toxic girlfriend. He creates the earth and people, solely so they can provide attention and worship for him. He gives humanity free will, but then punishes them for using it. Even as a child, I could never understand why god would forbid Adam and Eve from the fruit just for the sake of testing their obedience and loyalty to him. Upon eating the fruit, god would not die, the earth would not explode, nor would the oceans turn into fire, it would simply just displease him because it wasn’t what he had told them to do. He deliberately made humans imperfect, gave them free will, curiosity, a hunger for power, and created temptation for them. He created Lucifer and then allowed him to continue his existence as Satan, and expressly gave him permission to try and trick Eve…Then, when they inevitably succumb to these things he directly gave them, he punishes them and the rest of mankind for eternity. It feels to me as though god set humanity up for failure from the very beginning of creation.
I won’t say that this paper is entirely typical of those I receive. This student is more blunt than most. Still, the attitude she expresses here, and her basic incomprehension of the biblical story, are quite typical.
Several thoughts may occur to you as you ponder this passage. Those of us who have raised children may feel a certain sense of familiarity, for much of what she says is the typical teenager’s complaint against adults and authority everywhere. In saying this I do not wish to belittle her complaints. The biblical text truly is mysterious and she is right to raise such questions. However, there is a great difference between pondering a text, recognizing that one may not have understood all that it is truly saying, and thinking that one has understood it and rejecting it on that basis. It is the latter that we see here.
You may also have noticed that she does not mention the prelude to the story of the Fall, the magnificent creation account in Genesis 1 and 2. The story of the Fall, after all, does not occur in a vacuum: it is a fall from communion with a supremely good and bountiful Creator, who creates the entire world as something beautiful and gives us a special place within it. Seen in this light, disobedience to His command is hardly like disobedience to anyone else; it is turning away from the very source of life and goodness, and can only have the consequences that such a turning must bring. The subsequent history, beginning with the story of Cain and Abel (which my student also does not mention), bears this out.
I hope it will not seem ungenerous to youth if I say that to focus on the Fall to the exclusion of all else is also an adolescent trait. Youth, which is struggling to understand and define its own identity, necessarily sees all questions in relation to itself. This is especially the case when it feels itself to have been blamed. My student can see nothing in Genesis but the story of how she is somehow at fault, and so she lashes out at the one she feels has wrongly blamed her. All the more positive reactions one might have to the text—such as a sense of awe, of gratitude, and of reverence—are thereby placed at once beyond her reach.
The question I wish to ask is what we as Orthodox can do to help persons such as my student overcome the hurdles that stand between them and the Gospel.
To start with, I would say that we must begin from the premise that they can overcome these hurdles, and indeed that at some level they want to do so, however much their angry defiance may seem to say otherwise. This is a basic tenet of Orthodox theological anthropology. St. Basil offers a particularly clear explanation of this point near the beginning of his Long Rules. One of the questions posed to him is as follows: “Speak to us first, therefore, of the love of God; for we have heard that we must love Him, but we would learn how this may be rightly accomplished.” Basil replies:
The love of God is not something that is taught, for we do not learn from another to rejoice in the light or to desire life, nor has anyone taught us to love our parents or nurses. In the same way and even to a far greater degree it is true that instruction in divine law is not from without, but, simultaneously with the formation of the creature—man, I mean—a kind of rational force is implanted in us like a seed, which, by an inherent tendency, impels us toward love. This germ is then received into account in the school of God’s commandments, where it is wont to be carefully cultivated and skillfully nurtured and thus, by the grace of God, brought to its full perfection.1
The divine commandments are for Basil a kind of “school” that directs our innate love of beauty and goodness, and our innate sense of gratitude for the goods we have received, toward their proper end. One might think of this as like how a mother, in teaching her child to sound out the letters in a book, enables the child to develop fully its own rational capacity. Granted that the mother must sometimes be strict in insisting that a given letter makes a given sound, this hardly makes her a legalist or one who commands arbitrarily. She realizes that only by being taught to absorb and habituate itself to the rules of the alphabet can the child grow into maturity. To put this another way, to absorb such rules does not close doors, but opens them, for it opens up the entire world that is available only to those for whom the rules have become second nature. The same is true of learning proper manners, or a language, or any skill or craft. All of these require discipline, but they also open up doors into whole worlds of experience and enjoyment that otherwise would remain closed.
For Basil, it is axiomatic that the commandments of Scripture open up a “door” in just this way. This is no doubt part of what he would say in answer to my student: that it is only by learning to obey God in the first elementary steps that we can grow to the point of being able to know and love Him more fully. We should not be surprised if some commandments seem arbitrary at first, for we are in relation to them much like children in relation to the letters of the alphabet, or like anyone learning a language in relation to its peculiar idiosyncracies.
Basil’s view of the divine commandments is founded upon a certain way of understanding the strivings of the human heart—one that sees them, however confused or even sinful they may be, as ultimately ways of seeking God. Basil continues by explaining:
Men are by nature…desirous of the beautiful. But that which is truly beautiful and desirable is the good. Now, the good is God, and since all creatures desire good, therefore, all creatures desire God.2
The term translated ‘beautiful’ here is kalon, a word which indicates that which is noble, fine, and intrinsically fitting. It is the word used in Genesis when God sees that what He has created is good, and again in I Timothy when St. Paul declares that “everything created by God is good,” or, as one could equally well translate, beautiful (4:4). It is also the term used by St. Dionysius the Areopagite when he identifies beauty, to kalon, as one of the names of God3. We are made to rest in and enjoy that which is beautiful in this sense, and when we fail to find it, or to recognize it when we have found it, then we begin to seek it in the wrong ways and the wrong places, and so twist our souls into something that they were never made to be.
My student, and those who are like her, are people who have not been taught through the school of God’s commandments to have their innate love of the good and the beautiful directed toward its true end. Nonetheless the innate love remains, and that fact should give us hope for her and the countless others who are like her. In fact, some of the very ways in which modern society seems most to distance us from God can also be what makes the new life offered by the Gospel stand out most vividly by contrast. I am sure that you all know these aspects of our culture well enough, and there is no need to belabor them here. However, let me just list a few of those that I think loom largest, especially among the young. I certainly would not claim that this list is exhaustive, but it will serve to remind us of what we are up against.
First, and most importantly, there is the break-down of the family. Only a minority of children today are raised by their biological parents in a stable household. The remainder are raised in various other arrangements, some of them stable and healthy, but many others not. For all too many children, the absence of their father is the great looming fact that shapes their early lives. Let me illustrate the spiritual consequences this can have by quoting for you the comment I wrote at the bottom of my student’s paper. I do not mention this comment because it was particularly wise or insightful (it was not), but because it illustrates how to address my student’s complaint may require a moral context that simply is not there. Here is what I wrote:
I understand your point—but couldn’t the same thing be said of any parent? Parents have to give their children freedom in order to help them reach maturity. Part of what it means to call God ‘Father’ is to see him as a loving parent who is trying to help us grow despite our failures.
Of course, I knew even as I wrote this that my student quite possibly had never known her father, and quite possibly had never experienced a loving parent who tried to help her grow despite her failures. She may not even have encountered such a stable and loving family within her circle of friends. Given that this is the world in which children grow up today, is it any wonder that they rebel against the story told in Scripture, in which the authority of a firm but patient and loving father is the central image?
What fills the void left by the family is, of course, the child’s network of peers. Such networks take a very different form today than when most of us were young, for they exist largely on-line. Those of you who are currently raising children probably know better than I do the pressures and anxieties that the electronic world has brought into childhood. I hear from friends that it is hard to get children today to play in ways that do not involve a screen, and that even when they are physically together they often prefer to sit alone with their devices. In fact, even those who are raised device-free cannot wholly escape this constant gravitational pull, for they have trouble finding friends who want to do anything other than play video games. And that is not even to mention the truly dark side of the web, such as the on-line bullying, the pressure on young girls to sext, and the pervasive pornography that is destroying the innocence of both sexes and teaching them to regard one another with cynicism and contempt.
It is not hard to see how to have grown up in this strange new world may make it hard to hear the message of the Gospel. In part this is a result of moral degradation. Can those who have grown up in a world of sexting and pornography take seriously the sexual ethic of the Bible? Can they understand the high destiny to which we are called and the gravity of what we do to ourselves when we sin? Indeed, can they truly understand the concept of sin, as opposed, say, to a faux pas that brings condemnation from one’s peers?
There is also a certain flattening of the imagination and loss of appreciation for the sheer density of reality that comes of living in the digital world. Most of us, to the extent that we ever really attain self-knowledge, do so by engaging in great effort and sacrifice, and finding that our best efforts often lead to failure. In a world where everything is subject to electronic manipulation and the measure of success is the “likes” and “views” of others, how can one achieve that kind of self-knowledge? And without it, can one truly understand the call to repentance?
I suspect that most of you are already familiar with these aspects of modern life, and many of you have dealt with their consequences directly in your counselling, pastoral work, and in other ways. The point I wish to make which may be somewhat less obvious is that the very power they have in stunting the growth of the human soul also creates a particular opportunity for Orthodoxy. We must remember that even someone who has suffered the worst moral and spiritual deprivations is still made to rest in and enjoy true spiritual beauty, to kalon. The very shallowness and loss of a spiritual dimension that modern life seems to impart can also mean that, when the soul encounters true spiritual beauty, it reacts with a shock of recognition. The shock is all the greater because what it encounters is so different from what it has known before, and yet somehow answers to a need deep within.
The question for us is how we as Orthodox can build the kind of churches that remain very different from the world and yet answer to the deepest needs of the human soul. In what remains of this talk, I wish to offer a few partial thoughts in this direction.
I would suggest, first, that our churches must be places where questions are welcome. This is not only because ignorance is common and we are all in need of instruction. It is also because questions are a way of seeking truth, and thereby a way of seeking God. Even questions that are sarcastic or combative often have behind them a sincere desire for truth and deserve respect on that account.
I freely concede that in many and perhaps most parishes, this is already a priority. Most clergy I know value Christian education highly and do a good job at it. However, if I may sound professorial for a moment, it is not enough merely to address the questions that people actually ask; one must also raise oneself the questions they ought to ask and would ask if they were more on the ball. This may mean, in some cases, making the case for X even if one’s task to teach not-X. The reason is that our goal is not merely to deliver a settled and known body of truth—although that is certainly important—but to help people learn to think and feel as Orthodox, so that they know how to face on their own questions that may arise in raising their children and discussing Orthodoxy with their friends.
To be more specific, I would encourage those who are or may someday be parish clergy to spend time reading the great atheists and skeptics who pioneered the modern outlook: authors such as Voltaire, Diderot, Hume, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Russell, Camus, and Sartre. At their best, these authors confront squarely the question of what it is like to live without God and how any meaning or value can be found in such a world. For this reason they are far more interesting than most more recent atheists, who are simply defending an entrenched position. By reading them you can come to understand from the inside why modern society has cast off its belief in God and why thinking such as that exhibited by my student has become so common. Unlike those with a merely secular education, however, as Orthodox you are also in a position to recognize what a large part has been played in this story by the absence of our own Faith. The absence of Orthodoxy is in a sense the greatest cause of modern secularism, just as the absence of the father is the greatest cause of the despair and nihilism of our youth. As Orthodox we have the unique privilege of bringing to the secular world what it has always been seeking, but we can only do this by understanding from within its own anguished quest for meaning.
If I may offer one example by way of making this point more concrete, consider Darwin. I was surprised on first reading The Origin of Species to find how much Darwin engages in theology. But a moment’s reflection will show why he must. No matter what evidence Darwin produces for evolution, that evidence could always have been produced equally well by the fiat of a Creator. Darwin therefore must show that God would not have created the fossils, homologous structures, vestigial organs, and other key pieces of evidence he cites, despite having perfect power to do so. Naturally in order to do this Darwin must make some assumptions about the nature of God. Those assumptions turn out to be precisely those of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment: that God is a perfectly rational being who, if He does anything at all, acts in the most efficient way possible to produce results that are simple, harmonious, and rationally intelligible. There is no mystery in Darwin’s God, any more than there is in the God whom my student so vehemently rejects. Given these assumptions, Darwin naturally concludes that living things as we find them could not have been produced by God. Later, in his Autobiography, Darwin goes on to explain how—given the same assumptions—he found it necessary to reject the miracles of Scripture and ultimately even the vague Deism he had held when he wrote the Origin.
It was, then, the theological rationalism of the Enlightenment that led to modern evolutionary naturalism. From an Orthodox standpoint, the obvious question is what led Darwin and others like him to take such a truncated view of God. I believe, with many other Orthodox scholars, that the answers to this question lie well before the Enlightenment within the intrinsic developments of western theology. There is a long trajectory leading from Augustine in the fourth century, through Anselm, Aquinas, Scotus, Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, and Leibniz, to Darwin in the nineteenth century. However one may wish to parse the details of that story, the point remains that Orthodoxy was not part of it and offers a radically different way of conceiving of God. It therefore offers hope to those who may otherwise be tempted to think that the entire development that has brought us to where we are now was necessary and inevitable.
To be open to questions, then, should be one of our first priorities. It is perhaps even more important that our churches be places of spiritual beauty. Indeed these are not truly separate characteristics, for to care for truth and the soul that is seeking truth is itself a form of spiritual beauty, one that we see exemplified in the lives of many saints and Fathers.
The forms that spiritual beauty can take are too many even to try to list here, but let me mention a few to which I think we should give special attention. First and most obviously there is the beauty of Orthodox worship. We Orthodox are blessed to have received as our legacy all the intricate hymns, Scripture readings, liturgical rites, icons, vestments, and everything else that goes into forming the inexpressible beauty of our divine services. You who are graduating from seminary have been studying these matters for years, and I am sure you do not need me to tell you how important it is that we treasure and preserve this legacy. At the same time, we must recognize that the very act of worship is deeply foreign to modern society. Many even of our fellow Christians simply do not understand that there is a difference between worship and a kind of collective emotional high, and so they have no inkling of what they are missing. With that in mind, I would say—though with some caution—that our worship ought not to remain hidden behind our own doors. Many parishes have already been pioneering the practice of using photos and videos on social media and other platforms to show the world, tastefully and reverently, what historic Christian worship actually is like. I hope that you who are going out into positions of leadership will consider this too part of your ministry. The world is thirsty for beauty, and especially for this particular form of beauty that it scarcely knows exists.
Next let me touch on a form of beauty that may seem very different, but is also both precious and unknown to the world. This is the beauty of our saints and monastic elders. I place these two together because so many of our saints were themselves monastics, and even those who were not exhibit the same self-renunciation and absolute devotion to God that is most visibly evident today in monasteries.
I suppose it goes without saying that any parish that can cultivate a relationship with a healthy and active monastery should do so. We forget that the ‘secular’ was originally simply that which belongs to this world or world-age, the saeculum, and so stood in contrast, not to the religious, but to the monastic. (This is a usage that still survives in Roman Catholicism in terms such as ‘secular clergy.’) Monasticism truly is the other lung of the Church, and we who live in the world need it to maintain our sense of balance and perspective, as well as for the spiritual guidance that experienced monastic elders can give. And, of course, we need the prayers of our monastic brethren. In my own observation, the fruit that comes of such a connection is immeasurable. It includes not only a deeper sense of devotion and a higher notion of the spiritual life among parishioners, but also a source of hope for people in their darkest times.
Without at all meaning to suggest that every monastic is a saint, I think it is fair to say that our saints and Orthodox monasticism as a whole exhibit the beauty of holiness. Here too is a form of beauty of which the world knows nothing, yet one that even secular-minded people can find strangely appealing. In my own classes at the University of Kentucky, I have used at various times the sayings of the Desert Fathers, the lives of St. Moses of Egypt, St. Pelagia the Penitent, and St. John the Almsgiver, and a video I am sure many of you have seen, Beyond Torture, featuring interviews with Fr. Roman Braga and Fr. George Calciu, all generally to good effect.
More recently, I invited my students, instead of writing a term paper, to perform spiritual exercises modeled partly on those of the ancient Greek philosophers and partly on those of Christian monasticism. The exercises included fasting for a week, either via a vegan diet or eating only one meal per day; a total fast from electronic devices for 24 hours; and journaling for a week about a character flaw that they recognize in themselves and their attempts to deal with it. I was greatly impressed both by how many students chose to do these exercises and how seriously they took them. Those who chose the food fast often commented how surprised they were to find that they could function well enough while hungry, and several mentioned that they intend to fast or at least eat less on a regular basis. The e-fast also gave the students a sense of freedom in breaking their routine, as they reported playing games with friends, taking walks, having conversations, and simply sitting and thinking in ways that they never would have otherwise.
The journaling exercise was, however, the most illuminating. Here the students took on real and important challenges like laziness, lack of self-discipline, impatience, anger, resentment, and ingratitude. For the most part they reported that they had been aware of these problems but had never had a particular opportunity or motivation to confront them. Although no one claimed full victory, many did say that the mere act of naming the problem they faced, trying to address it directly, and reporting the results, gave them a sense of purpose they had not felt before.
Two of the most touching papers dealt with the challenge of forgiveness. That brings me to the final form of beauty I wish to consider, the beauty of forgiveness. The ills of society that I mentioned earlier inevitably affect all of us, and often the young most of all. Yet there is nothing in a secular education that gives any help with the terribly difficult task of learning to forgive those by whom one has been wronged. In fact, I was surprised some years ago when I began reading the secular literature on forgiveness to learn that many secular philosophers regard forgiveness itself as wrong. They think that forgiveness means somehow persuading oneself that the injustice one has suffered either was not truly unjust or does not really matter. Accordingly they see it as a kind of servility, an acquiescence in wrongs that ought to be resisted. We must remember that, for these authors, the only justice is human justice, and a wrong that is not righted within human society is never righted at all. Given those premises, one can see the logic of their view; yet it remains that such a view must inevitably leave those who hold it bitter and angry, for there is no one alive who has not suffered wrongs that are beyond the reach of human justice.
That is the world that our youth are growing up in—a world in which they not only suffer immense wrongs, but are told, explicitly or implicitly, that they ought to strike back, and if they do not they are merely servile. It would be hard to think of a more poisonous combination. Here again is a way in which Orthodoxy offers a kind of beauty that the world has not conceived but that speaks to the deepest needs of the human heart. Orthodoxy follows our Lord in teaching unconditional forgiveness, even when the wrongdoer has not repented, and even when he would do the same again if given the chance. There is scarcely anything in our Faith that more clearly flies in the face of the wisdom of this world. Such a power to forgive is possible only through the Cross, the same Cross from which our Lord himself prayed for the forgiveness of his enemies.
Of course, one can recognize this truth intellectually and still find forgiveness hard, and perhaps impossible. It is part of the genius of Orthodox worship that it teaches us to forgive gradually in small steps, through example as well as precept, and through ritualized actions that over the years sink into one’s bones and change the way one experiences the world. Above all, it teaches us to forgive by at the same time helping us learn to face squarely our own sins. As you all know, the Lenten Triodion begins by giving us three icons of judgment and repentance—the Prodigal Son, the Last Judgment, and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Lent itself then begins with Forgiveness Vespers, followed by the deeply penitential Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. Through the whole Lenten cycle, repentance and forgiveness are constantly interwoven, culminating finally in the triumph of Christ over death that gives both their final meaning and purpose. I am sure that many of you still have ringing in your ears, as I do, the hymn we sing so often during the Paschal season:
Let us be illumined by the Feast!
Let us embrace each other.
Let us call brothers even those that hate us,
And forgive all by the Resurrection.
What does it mean “to forgive all by the Resurrection”? It means at least this, that to forgive finally and completely is possible only through Christ, and that in so doing one begins to share personally in his triumph over death. It is the wisdom of the Church to take us by the hand on this journey year after year, so that we begin to find that what earlier was impossible is now as natural as life itself—indeed, that it is life itself, and anything else now seems like a mere distraction.
This is the immense treasure that we Orthodox have to share with the world. If I have learned anything over the years I have spent teaching, it is that our secular friends want and need this treasure. Some will respond when it is offered, others will not, at least so far as we can see. That is in God’s hands. We can trust that, whatever our own small efforts, He will weave them into a design that is far greater than the limits of our own comprehension.
To those who are graduating today, I say, welcome to the trenches. But perhaps that is presumptuous, because you are already in the trenches and that is what brought you to St. Vladimir’s to begin with. May the Lord bless your work and give you much wisdom, and bring about much good by your hands, as He has for St. Vladimir’s itself.
1. Basil,Long Rules, Q.2; trans. Sister M. Monica Wagner, C.S.C., Saint Basil: Ascetical Works (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1962), 233.
2. Ibid., 235.
3. Dionysius the Areopagite, Divine Names IV.7.
About the Author
David Bradshaw (PhD University of Texas, Austin) is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. He specializes in ancient and medieval philosophy, philosophy of religion, and the interactions of theology and philosophy.
He is a contributor to Turning East: Contemporary Philosophers and the Ancient Christian Faith (ed. Rico Vitz; St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012), which also features Richard Swinburne, Terence Cuneo, and H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr. He is also the author of Aristotle East and West: Metaphysics and the Division of Christendom and is editor of Philosophical Theology and the Christian Tradition: Russian and Western Perspectives and Ethics and the Challenge of Secularism: Russian and Western Perspectives.