Russian Orthodoxy Open to Dialogue: A Conversation with Dr. Aleksei Bodrov

Article excerpt

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the appearance on its ruins of a new democratic Russia brought about a series of unprecedented changes to the country. Recent transformations in Russia have radically challenged not only the previous Soviet order but also the whole tradition of Russian culture and statehood. A newly established republic represents a complete break from centuries-long authoritarian rule in Russia, including that of Soviet totalitarianism. Similarly, an attempt to develop a capitalist-style market economy is a step in an opposite direction from the usual in Russia, whose paternalistic, socially oriented economic structure culminated in the Soviet experiment of a total welfare state.

In the domain of religion, the tendency toward radical change displayed itself in a movement toward renewal, openness, and dialogue that became visible in Russian Orthodoxy in the last decade of the twentieth century and that moved away from the spirit of inflexibility so characteristic of both Orthodox Christianity and orthodox communism in Russia. One of the pioneers of the Orthodox Christian movement for renewal is St. Andrew's Biblical Theological College, which is located in Moscow and open now for its tenth academic year. I asked the rector of the college, Dr. Aleksei Bodrov, to recount the history of this institution and its guiding principles, projects, and perspectives, while we both attended the American Academy of Religion meeting in November, 1999. His comments follow:

"St. Andrew's Biblical Theological College (B.T.C.) is a blend of a confessional and a secular teaching institution. Its hallmarks are its appeal to laity and its openness to interconfessional dialogue and free discussion. The need to create such an open Orthodox theological school became particularly acute at the onset of perestroika, when the change in social orientation brought many new people into the church. At that time a remarkable pastor and preacher, Fr. Alexander Men', was actively engaged in this work of Christian enlightenment and catechization of the newly converted. He was a gifted writer and theologian whose books, first published abroad and then in Russia, were always extremely popular." Fr. Alexander gave public lectures on the Bible, the history of world religions (particularly of the Christian church), and on religious philosophy and theology. A Sunday Orthodox University was formed under his leadership and based on his existing lecture courses. The first academic year started on September 8, 1990, with his lecture on Christianity. On the following day, a Sunday, Fr. Alexander Men' was brutally murdered on the way to his church. The university, despite the tragic martyrdom of its inspirer, carried on with its mission. In 1991, it was formally registered as a noncommercial public organization. In 1993, the work of the Open Orthodox University was blessed by Patriarch Aleksii. In 1995, the Biblical Theological College of higher education was established.

"B.T.C. carries through the tradition of open religious education that was the characteristic feature of the Open Orthodox University. The first-year courses at B.T.C. consist of general lecture material accessible to all people, regardless of age, education, or denomination. These lectures serve as a general introduction to Bible study, church history, art, liturgy, etc. The second-year program offers more specialized courses in religious education and other disciplines that are indispensable to future teachers of Christian catechization in Sunday schools and secondary schools and institutes. During the third to fifth years of study, students specialize in biblical languages, philosophy and theology, church history, Christian culture, and liturgics. B.T.C. now runs a five-year program of education with approximately sixty students and forty highly qualified instructors. Some lecture courses are presented by staff of the Bible Society of Russia, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Moscow and St. …