Beliefs Opinion Politics

COMMENTARY: Ancient Orthodoxy enters contemporary cyberspace

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Frederica Mathewes-Green is a member of the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is the author of “Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy” (HarperCollins), and a frequent contributor to Christianity Today magazine.)

UNDATED _ On the cover of In Trust magazine there is a photo of Metropolitan Theodosius, primate of the Orthodox Church in America. He is robed as an Orthodox bishop and monk, in a cassock with a pectoral cross, and a round, brimless hat topped by a veil. His moustache and beard are gray, and, there is a mouse in his hand.

Not the St. Francis of Assisi kind of mouse. A computer mouse.

The photo shows Theodosius seated at a desk, looking at a computer screen that displays the web site for St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary ( St. Vladimir’s, a seminary of the Orthodox Church in America in Crestwood, N.Y., has been progressing toward full-fledged cyberhood for a dozen years now, but without compromising the ancient ways. Thanks to advancing computer technology, the metropolitan is able to surf through an unprecedented merging of cultures _ old and new.

The Orthodox Church in America, one of several expressions of Orthodox Christianity in this country, is a body with Russian roots. Two hundred years ago, missionaries journeyed across the Bering Strait and made their way into Alaska, where they were the first to impart the Christian faith.

Orthodox Christianity is unusual in that it is the only Christian expression of faith to come to the United States from the East, rather than from Europe and the West. The faith spread down from Alaska to California and outward; one of the church’s first saints in this country is Peter the Aleut, who was martyred in San Francisco. Compared to Catholicism and Protestantism, Orthodox American history reads geography backwards.

The average American associates Russian Orthodoxy with Dostoyevsky and other literary figures, but the history goes back much further, to the original St. Vladimir for whom the New York seminary is named. At about the midpoint of the Orthodox Church’s current lifespan _ 1,000 years ago _ Prince Vladimir of Kiev undertook to choose a religion for the people of Rus. As the legend goes, representatives of Judaism and Islam had visited him, as well as Germans proposing he adopt the Christian faith as practiced in the Latin West. Greeks visited as well, presenting the Christian faith of Constantinople.

Rather than limit research-gathering to the claims of these spiritual traveling salesmen, the prince decided to send emissaries to the native lands of each faith, in order to observe first-hand how each worshiped. These travelers found little to impress them, until they reached Constantinople. In the Chronicle of Nestor for the year 987 A.D., the delegates’ report is recounted:”The Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on Earth. For on Earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.” This ancient faith now has spread far beyond its ethnic origins. St. Vladimir’s has an advisory committee including the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Moscow, and Antioch, as well as James Billington, the Librarian of Congress. The student body is drawn from around the world, including Slavs, Arabs, Greeks, Ethiopians, Albanians, and Romanians.

But computerizing such a global and ancient faith has had its bumps. The seminary has gone through three different computer systems during the past 11 years. The goal now, which is one objective of a $20 million capital campaign reaching completion, is to make the catalog of the seminary’s extensive library available on line and searchable through its web site. This will make it possible for scholars of all faiths to have access to ancient documents in a comprehensive way never before possible.

Of course such an undertaking is expensive. Ironically, computerizing has itself made fund raising possible on a scale never before anticipated, as demonstrated by the $20 million campaign.

But the dean of St. Vladimir’s, Thomas Hopko, thinks its worth it and recognizes the significance of moving onto the web.”Too many people still think that Christianity is limited to Roman Catholicism and Protestantism,”says Hopko.”By entering into cyberspace, the seminary … hopes to change that understanding and open Orthodoxy to millions of men and women seeking for God and spiritual life in the Christian way.” MJP END MATHEWS-GREEN