Scholar Discusses Future of Orthodox Christianity in America
Though he lived more than 17 centuries ago, the Greek Orthodox saint Athanasius is an exemplary model for Orthodox Christians today, a scholar and theologian said at Fordham on Feb. 18. "St. Athanasius stands as the supreme model of successful surviving, learning and living for Christians in a hostile world," said the Rev. Stanley Harakas, Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology Emeritus at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
Father Harakas, a prolific author and priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, was the keynote speaker at Fordham's Orthodoxy in America lecture, which took place on Fordham's Rose Hill campus. His talk, "The Future of Orthodox Christianity in America: A Normative Approach," was the sixth in the annual series.
Father Harakas said St. Athanasius is a useful model for Orthodox Christians as they anticipate their future in this country because "his battles for the Orthodox faith, his acceptance of repeated exiles and his unrestrained resistance against opposing forces in high places earned him in history a description as Athanasius contra mundum, or 'Athanasius against the world.'"
Also, Alexandria, the city in which St. Athanasius was born and raised, was, in the first few centuries of Christianity, "a pluralistic place, full of variety and within the Christianfold of a wide range of contrasting beliefs, especially about the person of Christ," Father Harakas said.
"In that vital and pluralistic context so similar to our own, the life of St. Athanasius stands out as a model for the Orthodox Church to prepare for its future in the United States."
Father Harakas said Orthodox Christians have "a message and a way of life" that they must present as "an alternative to the morally and spiritually down-spiraling contemporary American lifestyle."
Christianity in the United States faces a challenge in that the secularizing spirit of Europe will continue to spread in the fabric of American life, Father Harakas said.
"It should not be perceived as the essence of America," he said of secularization. "It is one of many variant ideologies seeking expression in American life, but as a church and as Christians we must not succumb to it, but we need to engage with it."
In regards to whether Orthodoxy can be American, Father Harakas said:
"Being American is the acceptance of the fundamental principles of freedom in community as declared in our Constitution. We must believe that we are free to be Orthodox Christians and that we will be good Americans if we affirm our identity as Orthodox Christians, while acknowledging that others have the same right."
"Neither secularism, nor capitalism, nor socialism, or any other ‘ism' is an authentic component of what it means to be American," Father Harakas added. "Freedom of belief, of worship, speech and political exercise are the only things that are authentically American."
Father Harakas emphasized the importance of teaching youth about the faith, referring to St. Athanasius, who was brought early in life under the immediate supervision of the church in his native city of Alexandria.
"One of the important keys to the formation of a strong Orthodox identity in children is the full immersion in the liturgical worship," Father Harakas said. "It is not everything, but if we do not immerse our children in the worship experience, unconsciously, semiconsciously and ultimately, consciously, there will be only a tepid future for Orthodox Christianity in America."
Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, said the University has great ambitions to be a center of Orthodox study, thought and debate.
"This evening we were really quite fortunate in Father Stanley [Harakas]'s address to us did precisely that," Father McShane said. "It did not shy away from any of the difficulties that Orthodoxy in America faces. He examined and explored the topic with great honesty and with great breadth of wisdom as well as learning."
About 300 people attended the event, held at the McGinley Center Ballroom at Fordham's Rose Hill campus in the Bronx. Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, was present.
In addition, Fordham announced at the event that it has received a $2 million gift to establish the Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture. The gift comes from the Jaharis Family Foundation, which provides grants to arts, cultural and religious institutions.
The Orthodoxy in America Lecture Series is designed to strengthen the ties that bind the Fordham and Orthodox communities and address the history, theology, spirituality and worship of the Orthodox tradition as it relates to contemporary American culture. Additional information about the lecture series is at www.fordham.edu/orthodoxy.
Fordham is the only university in the United States to offer an interdisciplinary minor in Orthodox Christian Studies, and has the only theology department in the United States with two graduates from an Orthodox seminary on its faculty. The co-founding directors of the Orthodox Christian Studies program at Fordham are Aristotle Papanikolaou, Ph.D., associate professor of theology and associate chair for undergraduate studies, and George Demacopoulos, Ph.D., associate professor of historical theology.
Founded in 1841, Fordham is the Jesuit University of New York, offering exceptional education distinguished by the Jesuit tradition to approximately 14,700 students in its four undergraduate colleges and its six graduate and professional schools. It has residential campuses in the Bronx and Manhattan, a campus in Westchester, and the Louis Calder Center Biological Field Station in Armonk, N.Y.