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Interview: Andreas Andreopoulos, theologian

26 February 2016

‘Art is, almost by definition, better suited to express theological thought than words’

For the first time in centuries, many Westerners look to Orthodoxy for a glimpse of an alternate way of worship, prayer, and living. Certainly this does not mean returning to the past, but recovering some of the ground we lost centuries ago. This is something that could change our world. Right now, we are building a ruthless society with no clear identity and vision, and with not much space for spirituality.


I’m responsible for postgraduate degrees in Orthodox theology at Winchester, about seven to ten doctoral students; and I contribute to the undergraduate programme in theology, religion, and philosophy. Like my colleagues, I do far too much administrative work. In the past few years I’ve also founded and run an Orthodox parish in Winchester, which has been moved to Southampton during my sabbatical year, under another priest.


I still run the postgraduate programme, and supervise my doctoral students, but this year I’m in Greece, researching modern Greek iconography, about which very little is known. I also hope to edit the proceedings of two conferences for publication, one of which is dedicated to Metropolitan Kallistos, and the other to one of the most influential living Orthodox theologians, Christos Yannaras.


It’s generally difficult to separate completely religion (Orthodoxy, Catholicism or Anglicanism, or even Islam and Buddhism) from the kind of culture that gives a people its identity. For many people in the traditionally Orthodox countries, it’s difficult to differentiate between their national identity and their Orthodoxy. Because of the lack of a strong centre, as in Roman Catholicism, in several countries the Orthodox Church is quite close to the political authorities, sometimes too close for comfort.


In doctrinal matters, there’s only one form of Orthodoxy. When we talk about Greek Orthodoxy, Russian Orthodoxy, and so forth, this refers to different administrative structures. A priest from the Greek tradition may serve (with the approval of the relevant bishops, which is given routinely) in a Russian church, and vice versa.


But the issue of primacy plagues the Orthodox world, as a contention between Greeks and Russians. Other than that, although different Orthodox Churches may face different pastoral problems, or may be shaped by different historical circumstances, there is not as wide a gap of views as in the Anglican Communion.


Other than the contended primacy, the other major plague of modern Orthodoxy, especially in non-Orthodox countries, is their identification through ethnic cultures. Many people think they need to convert to the Greek or Russian identity to some extent if they wish to become Orthodox.


In the UK, there are extremely few Orthodox parishes that celebrate in English. Nevertheless, this is changing. We have now Orthodox British people who are not of Greek, Russian, or Romanian extraction, and who are not converts themselves; so they don’t think of themselves as an ethnic minority or diaspora. As an Orthodox in the West, who holds a British passport, I certainly don’t feel an outsider here.


Many of my students are Roman Catholic and Anglican clergy, who wish to know more about Christianity. But in general, the UK needs an Orthodox seminary that will address the formation of ordinands in a specifically Western and UK context. Right now, most bishops either train their priests by apprenticeship, or by sending them to seminaries abroad.


Much separates theologically the Orthodox from the Anglican and the Roman Catholic Christians, but it’s nothing compared to the differences and tensions that early Christianity managed to settle. The real problem is not that our theological differences are insurmountable, but that we haven’t had an effective way to address them. The papal model — the imposition of unity from an ecclesiastical centre — has not worked. The imperial model — the imposition of unity from a political centre — has not worked, either. The fragmentation of Christianity, which is what we experience now, is not satisfactory, if we all wish to stay faithful to the message of the gospel. If we solved this problem, we’d find a way to address the differences in our theological approaches as well.


An Orthodox approach to worship is one that finds pleasure in the symbolic and dramatic language of the liturgy. When this is done effectively, relating to other people becomes an exercise of love. We often say that liturgical life confirms and makes us feel the presence of Christ among us, in each other — in a way as if the Second Coming has already taken place, and death does not matter any more. The real fruit of this is when we start discerning the reflection of Christ not inside us, but in each other — even in the most sinful among us.


When the prayer and liturgical life is not lived effectively, we try to see Christ inside us, or to hold on to him as we would to a thing. Then we become moralistic and legalistic in the very sense from which Jesus Christ liberated us. If you can discern the sainthood, the reflection and the love of God even in the most unworthy, if you see yourself surrounded by people who not only are called to be, but can be saints, then you will already have set a foot in Paradise. A strong liturgical experience can teach this.


Discussion about change and Orthodoxy is always difficult. God was revealed to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We cannot change this because it isn’t fashionable or politically correct. This revelation was given to us because it can lead to salvation. We cannot change the laws of the universe by declaring that they are different: we would only delude ourselves.


In this way, Orthodoxy is sceptical of change, and I believe rightly so. On the other hand, changes in the role of women in society, the significance, reality, and even necessity of divorce, and our democratic society, are aspects of the modern world that can’t be ignored. Some parts of the Orthodox world are not responding well to the challenge, and find safety in reproducing the old formula. I find this sad.


For better or for worse, the Eastern Christian world did not go through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, not really. This has created several problems, such as the lack of effective and fair state structures. It also spared its theological thought from a period of sterile rationalisation which has led the West to a religious reductionism, which separated theology from the experience of the ineffable that we are all given every day of our life. I think that the Western world, the world in general, is retracing the steps through which it separated logic from love.


I’m very happy that I wrote Metamorphosis: The Transfiguration in Byzantine theology and iconography, which remains the most complete book in its area; but I am also happy with The Sign of the Cross, in which I tried to write in a more direct way, yet backed up by a lot of research. My second book on the Transfiguration followed the same direction. With Gazing on God, I have started trying to draw on what I knew from iconography-as-theology, and to talk about a theology beyond words.


Thought, theological or otherwise, is often articulated in non-verbal ways, more completely than in discursive, “left-brain” language. Art is, almost by definition, better suited to express theological thought than words — certainly much more than philosophical, argumentative language.


Some Greek iconographers of the last generation critically engage with the tradition, and have a depth of metaphysical aesthetics that is rare in modern Western art, and a freedom of spiritual exploration lost in schools that simply copy traditional iconography.


I can’t separate theological or spiritual thought from everyday life. Everything is a spiritual challenge. Some time ago, I was diagnosed with diabetes. The day I received the blood-test results I thanked God. I saw it as a spiritual challenge, and although the doctor did not anticipate this result, I dropped a lot of weight, changed my life, and fought the causes of the disease. In the end, my system was as if it had not known the disease. This was a difficulty from which I benefited when I considered it in a wider context.


In the long term, I think that theology is about knowing that our life as we know it could finish in a second; but on the other hand, if we are kept in the memory of God, we are really immortal. How can we live our everyday life like that, on the edge between mortality and eternity? The only answer I have touched on is love, which became personal and incarnated for us. The main message of the gospel is that love is stronger than death. In the end, faith is not a set of beliefs, but feeling surrounded by the love of God and reflecting that love back to the world.


I grew up in a mid-size town in Greece, to a middle-class family, with a brother and a sister. Greeks come in two kinds: one which, like the rest of my family, rarely lives more than two hours away from the place they were born. The other, like Ulysses, keeps travelling. I belong to the second kind, always wondering what the next step may be.


I’ve lived in Greece, Canada, the US, Wales, and England, and created connections with people that haven’t diminished with time. In an extended, perhaps globalised, way, the people I consider family are in all the places that I have lived.


Also, after I became a priest, and especially after starting to hear confessions, I started thinking of some people as my spiritual family. When I was five years old, my grandfather, who was a priest, used to take me to the altar. My earliest memories in a church are those at the altar rather than in the nave. In some ways, this was my first experience of God.


At another time, when I was a teenager, I felt like I was drunk looking at the starlit night sky, and starting to take in the vast beauty and magnitude of the world, what Elytis calls “this world, the small and great one”. Then, later, other, more mature and more profound experiences followed. And I can see God in his body, in the personal and communal transformation of the people who gather around his name.


People with no vision make me sad.


I’m happiest when I see a difficulty behind me.


There are two sounds that are very soothing: the sound of waves lapping against the shore, and the crackling of a fireplace.


I pray that the people I have treated unjustly will not get hurt by my mistakes, whether they forgive me or not. That love is enough. That I find strength to see the wisdom in a difficult situation.


If I chose Harry Houdini as my companion in a locked church, we would not be locked in for long. . . But seriously, I would say John Chrysostom, to see him celebrate. Or perhaps Dionysius the Areopagite, to ask him who he really was!


The Revd Dr Andreas Andreopoulos is Reader in Orthodox Theology at the University of Winchester. He was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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