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An Orthodox University: Higher Education for Orthodox Christians

by His Grace Bishop Thomas, Ed.D.

In "the founding of explicitly Orthodox Christian schools of higher education...we must seek out men and women who are willing to offer up their academic learning and other educational talents to God for His Eucharistic sanctification for the salvation of the world."If we were to survey the Orthodox Christian private grammar schools that currently exist in our country, we would discover that they exist for one of two reasons. The first, and probably the more common, is that parents want a place for their children that is safe from the evil influences found in the secular schools that will also give to them an adequate academic education. Such schools do not particularly exist as Orthodox schools for the sake of Orthodoxy, but rather as safe havens, sheltering students reassuringly under the preferred religious branding.

By contrast, the other kind of Orthodox Christian school that exists in our country is dedicated to immersion in the Kingdom of God. Their purpose is not to provide a shelter from the world that happens to give a decent education, but rather it is to use education sacramentally to unite students mystically with Jesus Christ. Indeed, far from providing a shelter, we may think of such places as a barracks or as a training camp, raising up soldiers for Christ’s mystical army. Such schools have one purpose: the salvation of students and of the world. For them, education can become a mystery of the Church.

I believe the same sort of twofold distinction exists within the Orthodox homeschooling world, as well. Some homeschooling parents are trying to hide their kids from the world, while others are arming them for the confrontation with the powers of darkness, which they will meet at some point, even if only because they will eventually grow up and move out of their parents’ house.

With this in mind, we come to the question of Orthodox Christian higher education, that is, Orthodox colleges and universities. As Orthodox Christians, our basic philosophy when thinking about any educational endeavor must be the theology of the Church. There is no point in seeking to found academic institutions that merely carry a particular label. Our purpose is not to create or reform institutions that will simply rival or exceed the world’s achievements, but be done under the auspices of our brand, thereby making them appropriately “safe” for a niche market. We do not build Orthodox schools so that we can train fine doctors, businessmen, lawyers, scientists, writers, and teachers, etc. We build Orthodox schools so that Orthodox Christians can use medicine, business, law, science, literature and teaching for their own salvation and for the salvation of the world.

If salvation is our core and guiding desire, then it is obvious that certain things should exist in an authentically Orthodox Christian educational environment. Clearly, the heart of Orthodox life is worship, and so chapels and churches should be at the center of any school that aspires to being an Orthodox school. The Eucharist and all the mysteries and prayers of the Church should be offered up in such a place. Worship is not some ancillary component or a “chaplaincy” in an Orthodox school. It is the center and purpose of the place.

And if that is true, then our educational vision should be in keeping with the one elucidated so many centuries ago by St. Basil the Great, who imagined whole villages and towns of Orthodox Christians with schools, hospitals and, of course, churches. Such a vision can have many kinds of expression. One of those expressions is monasticism, a life not only of prayer but of every kind of work necessary for sustaining life. Likewise, Orthodox Christian education can be an expression of this same vision.

If we are to pursue such a vision, then we have to ask what the practical road to realizing it might look like. One option is to seek to transform existing institutions from within, saturating them with serious Orthodox Christians, developing within the existing community an authentic Orthodox spiritual life that will shine radiantly through the university like Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration of Christ. Universities that follow the British pattern, where there are multiple colleges that are relatively independent of one another yet all part of the same university, could facilitate this approach.

There may well be other colleges and universities that would be willing to host such an Orthodox community, that would be willing to give some sort of recognition to the Holy Trinity, opening themselves to the Divine Liturgy and all the mysteries of the Church. If such places are found, then by all means, we should accept the invitation to bring into them the mystical life of the Church, sanctifying them and transfiguring them from within, transforming them from secular institutions to holy communities.

I fear, though, that almost all of our institutions of higher learning are not only inhospitable to believers in the Holy Trinity, but are so drowning in the error of secular fundamentalism that we will find that we not only have no invitation to bring Christ into them, but are continually limited and even rejected in what we can accomplish. I know that many have hoped that Orthodox Christian Fellowships (OCFs) would be able to undertake this task of sanctification, and while an OCF may be a lifeline, it is not the ship. Most OCFs function as small pockets of Orthodox exiles, surrounded by a hostile faculty and a hostile administration who are not at all interested in their salvation. Please don’t misunderstand me—I am in favor of OCFs, but I do not believe that they can be the instruments of transformation of our secular schools into places of holiness and salvation.

That leaves us with the more viable and consistent option, the founding of explicitly Orthodox Christian schools of higher education. This approach will take a lot more work. Because we will need a faculty and staff who are pursuing their own salvation or at least are willing to sign on to the vision and not oppose it, it will be harder to find such people. But just as we seek out men for the priesthood who are willing to take their lives and offer them up to God “on behalf of all and for all,” we also must seek out men and women who are willing to offer up their academic learning and other educational talents to God for His Eucharistic sanctification for the salvation of the world.

Professors, administrators, counselors, custodians, cafeteria workers, etc., should all manifest Christ’s Kingdom into the world, because an Orthodox university should be nothing less than an extension of the Kingdom of God. Yes, we might need to hire some non-Orthodox people if qualified Orthodox Christians are not available for particular roles, but everyone who is on staff at an authentically Orthodox university has to understand that where they’re working is an outpost of the Kingdom of God.

Likewise, non-Orthodox students could certainly be admitted to an Orthodox school, but they, too, should know that the school’s vision and goal is evangelism, to bring the light of the Gospel into the hearts of both the local community and the world. Only if we are committed to building a community that is centered on salvation will we enjoy the seal of the Holy Spirit in blessing such a pursuit.

Further, because our Orthodox vision will probably cut us off from many forms of grant money and other funding, we will have to find Orthodox Christian people whom God has blessed with both the financial resources and the vision for salvation to fund an Orthodox university. These people are out there. All we have to do is look around at the many glorious churches built in this country to know that God has not kept His Orthodox American people in poverty.

Getting wealthy Orthodox Christians to be inspired by this vision will probably require an incremental approach, to prove that there really can be such a thing as an authentically Orthodox school of higher learning. Some programs of study are inherently more expensive to maintain than others. Thus, we probably will not begin an Orthodox university by founding a medical school (unless any of you are multi-billionaires and ready to go from day one), but we may start with exploring degree programs in education, business, or some of the humanities, as the budget allows.

Whatever we do, however, it must not be for its own sake, nor even for the lofty secular goal of “education” in itself. Just as bread and wine do not in themselves save us, but can become the very presence of God, education does not grant us salvation, but it can become a servant of salvation. What transforms the mundane into the mystical is the offering by mankind and the sanctification by God in response.

At its foundation, Orthodoxy is about the salvation of mankind. We pursue salvation through every means necessary. If we can be saved where we are, then we stay put. But if we cannot be saved where we are, then we have to go somewhere else. For example, we may even soon find it a necessity to set up a parallel medical community, because there are now legal standards being pursued that would require medical students to perform abortions. We cannot violate our faith in order to pursue our careers, no matter what they are, nor can we violate it in order to be educated.

If that means we can be true Orthodox Christians who are being trained for salvation in existing institutions, then it is blessed. If it means we have to found our own communities of education so that we can train for salvation, then that it blessed. No matter what we do or where we go, our purpose is the same, and that is the salvation of our souls and the souls of those around us. While we should try to become educated people, God will not ask us when we stand before His throne how many or what kinds of degrees we earned or what our grade point average was. He will look at us to see how much we resemble His Son Jesus Christ. How we orient ourselves toward that awesome and fearful Day of Judgment will determine our vision for Orthodox Christian education, whether it is for grammar school, homeschooling or higher education.

What we must not do is pursue this, frankly, silly idea that we should found Orthodox educational institutions merely to shield our children from evil. Make no mistake—sooner or later, they will encounter evil, even if it is simply the evil that resides in their own hearts. And when they do, will their educational training have been dedicated to keeping that evil hidden from them, or will it have been dedicated to arming them to fight the good fight, to finish the course, to keep the faith (2 Tim. 4:7)?