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What I didn’t tell the President, or The city without a head

28 ноября 2011 г.
In his own column the editor in chief of the Bogoslov.ru portal, priest Pavel Velikanov, shares his thoughts on the meeting of the President of the Russian Federation D.A. Medvedev with the clergy and representatives of the church community.

It is a pity that the meeting of the RF President with the Orthodox community during the Orthodox Russia exhibition ended up being so brief. For some reason the Commander-in-Chief’s choice kept falling on someone else. And it’s not as if there wasn’t plenty to say.

Exactly four years ago, when he was still the first vice-premier, Dmitry Anatolievich [Medvedev] visited the Trinity-Sergius Lavra and the Moscow Theological Academy. At the time of the visit a meeting took place with the Academy administration on the topic of resolving problems connected with the accreditation of theological educational establishments. The future President also visited the IT Centre at the Academy, where he viewed the Bogoslov.Ru web portal, which at the time was still under development. Having exhibited a lively and genuine interest, the future President especially liked the main idea of the web portal; the unlocking of the system of church education, creating a platform for academic publication and discussions, open to any – both churchgoing and secular – person. The main task, as seen by its editorial, was the overcoming of the estrangement between secular and church science, the proof of a fact that is very clear to us – that theology is not shamanism, it is not astrology and not ufology, but a fully-fledged humanities discipline, with its own axiology, methodology and source base.

Four years have passed. What has changed? Quite a lot, it would seem. Yes, the website really did become a leading platform for theological discussions. Yes, it is here first and foremost that the passions ignited by the Inter-Council Presence documents are raging. Yes, we did take the first place in being quoted in the religious sphere of the Russian internet (according to Harvard university research). Yes, during these years we have “sprouted” an information and analysis centre, four foreign versions with separate editorials, a film and a radio studio, started to create separate websites inside the web portal, publish digests and books and actively gain ground in podcasts and social networks. It would seem that everything is developing splendidly - you can just relax and enjoy life.

But in actual fact, this is not all the case. The main task that was set was never reached: for “major” sciences, theology has remained the marginal discipline that it has been in the past. Despite the abundance of writers on Bogoslov from outside church circles, our platform still remains “an internal church get-together”, where people do engage in heated arguments, but these are not the parties with whom it is desirable or even necessary to enter into discussions and debates. In a word, the task still remains unfulfilled to this day.

Why? It’s all very simple. Theology still remains “outside the law”. Theology is a personal matter of each person’s “freedom of conscience and worship”, and not a socially significant occupation that has been acknowledged by society. For a normal, academic science all our scientific knowledge and academic degrees are the same as some “doctorate in information studies”, if not worse. The barrier is still exactly where it was. And not even a crack has appeared in it in the last four years. It might seem that the undoubtedly positive fact that the third edition of FGOS [Federal State Educational Standard] was approved and the subsequent emergence of the opportunity for the accreditation of theological seminaries fades in comparison to the decisions taken by the Ukrainian and Georgian governments not to bend the existing church education to the point of breaking, but to adapt the state standards to fit with it. There is little need to talk of the significance of the accreditation of seminaries for the lawful inclusion of theology in “major science”, but even if there is, it is like homoeopathy, and if we recall the official refusal to put the seal with the coat of arms on state diplomas, then things are not looking at all cheerful.

Even when steps that could significantly change the situation of church education in the country are taken, this happens only after enormous efforts on the part of the Church and is not always successful by far – as in the case with theology and the list of academic disciplines of the VAK [State Commission for Academic Degrees and Titles]. How is it possible to speak of any “entry” into public educational space when the matter of including theology in humanities cannot, in principle, be raised in any European or American university – any thinking person can see the in-depth connection between university education and Christian epistemology?

But this is not what I would like to tell the President.

There is another sore spot, which is perhaps smaller in scale, but in no way less important. This is the town of Sergiev Posad. If you subtract the Trinity-Sergius Lavra from the town, there remains only a completely neglected and dirty, theft-ridden provincial little town, which is muddled in the squabbles of officials. Today Posad is not only a town without a head in the direct sense of the word, but also a town without a purpose, without an idea. If before, in previous centuries, the monastery was the heart of the town and all life revolved around it, and later also around the Academy, then the attempt by the Soviet regime to introduce new meaning to the town as the centre of the military and industrial complex and the repository of all kinds of pollutants – from biological weapons to nuclear waste – did little to inspire the Sergiev Posad residents. Thus the town gets divided in two, to put it mildly, not very friendly parts – the believers, the clergy and the employees of the Lavra, and “ordinary residents”, who quietly hate the “churchmen”, seeing how the Lavra slowly but surely towers higher and higher over the town.

There is no need to comfort yourself with sweet illusions that one day Posad would be a New Rome, Jerusalem and Constantinople to boot. Either the tension between the disintegrating town and the actively developing Lavra will increasingly grow, or some new type of change both in the format and in the very essence of relations between them should take place. Neither will Lavra ever be able to swallow up the town, nor will the town ever be able to isolate itself from the monastery. But what could be such a new chance, beneficial and creative in equal measure both for churchgoing people and for townspeople who are far from the faith?

I only have one answer for this: a Russian Oxford. The turning of Sergiev Posad into the largest Russian centre for humanities, where there would be specialised humanities universities and institutes, lyceums, classical gymnasiums and various research centres. Please note, we are not talking about giving this undertaking the status of “little orthodox schooling”. Posad should really be made into an intellectual and cultural centre, quite secular – and the spiritual inheritance of St. Sergius will light up in henceforth unknown ways; the liturgical, spiritual, educational, tutorial and research activities will flow together into the one river of traditional Russian classical education. There are sufficient pre-requisites in place for this: there is both the geographical location of the town, which is not too far but not critically close to the capital; the beautiful landscape, which, if approached with love and thoughtfulness, could become a setting for the creation of architectural complexes for any purpose – you could have boarding school gymnasiums, you could have universities or colleges. There is also the closeness to St. Sergius, the main patron of teachers and students. There is the theological academy with all its structural subdivisions, including the library, and, most importantly, the unique tradition of a holistic educational and study process. There is no need to speak of the Lavra’s historical significance. The appearance in Sergiev Posad of such a high concentration of intelligent and creative youth cannot fail to change in the shortest possible time the very face of the town, give it new colour and – forgive me, but this is so lacking today – a healthy glow and freshness! On the other hand, a strong centre of the humanities will also become a serious challenge for the theological schools – communicating with each other, debating and agreeing – would this not become the main source for a real rebirth of the Russian theological school? Does not the upcoming 700 year anniversary of the birth of St. Sergius of Radonezh demand exactly that?

Nevertheless, what am I talking about…? It is enough to look at the lonely rusty excavator in an unfinished foundation pit for the building of the seminary accommodation and you can understand the real worth of these high and noble words – no matter what platforms these sound from, either from the theological academy, university departments or public and  political events. Why don’t we start a daily prayer procession of students to the “Great Foundation Pit”? – what if God's mercy will break through the reinforced concrete dome of earthly “guarantees” and “assurances” of those in power? Can at least one building – forget the “Russian Oxford”! – be built for the seminary students?

... The Ancient Greeks had this saying: If there is no old man in the house, you should get one. Today in the Russian education system and national science there is an acute need of an “old man”: an “old man” as a guarantor of decency, honour, integrity and truthfulness. For centuries the position of this “elder” was held by theology, which crowned the complex and multi-levelled building of the educational universe – theology, that stood on the firm foundation of Divine Revelation, gaining insight into the limits of the meaning of existence, both that of the bygone years and present moments. Alas, today our “elder” is in a hospice and not at home. At some point he was simply thrown out onto the street and recently someone had pity on him and sent him there to live out his years, out of everyone’s way and not involved in anything. It seems that his distant descendants really forgot that as long as there is an elder person in the house, the house will stand firm; and things would be well for its residents, their years on this earth would be long, and they will also be blessed in heaven.

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