Intro to Orthodoxy, pt 1

I went to Ideamensch in Albuquerque last night, a group of people gathered by a couple of friends who have been road-tripping through the entire continental US, organizing a little entrepreneurial/inspirational event in each state. I am not an entrepreneur, nor do I ever want to be. As the speakers there put it, a good one has to be very energetic and “all in” about whatever their current project is, and I don’t even want to do that, and couldn’t. Nonetheless, it was interesting, partly because the speakers, giving entrepreneurial testimonies, are in many ways quite foreign to me. They live in an alternate reality where you can start some sort of segmented internet-based marketing enterprise, make tens of millions of dollars, hire hundreds of people, have it crash and burn, then start something altogether different, perhaps five or six times in 30 years.

Also, I’ve been thinking about St Stephens, and these books I have for it. Especially in a correspondence course where one is only in communication with one’s course director once in three months, it’s important to study in the way one is best able to do so. In general, I’m not a big proponent of “educational trends,” because they often mean simply “educational fads.” At the same time, I am not, and cannot be, a “just the facts” sort of person. One reason I disagreed so vehemently in college with all the “critical thinking” jargon, was because I place so much emphasis on critical thinking by default, It’ll push everything else if I let it, and if I try to push it even further, I’ll wind up in the land of Kantian metacognition. Which is not a great place to be.

And then I encounter something like the guidelines for the introductory St Stephen’s course, and can see a little into why some Educators make such a big deal about this. It looks like this:


As the end of this reading period, the learner will:

  1. Be familiar with the major personalities and concerns of the Church during the age of the Ecumenical Councils
  2. Be familiar with the liturgical services and cycles.
  3. Have a basic understanding of the primary doctrines of the Church
  4. Be familiar with the Church’s experience in various regions of the world.


  1. Keep a notebook of important date, personalities, and definitions
  2. Read the entire text of Bp. Kallistos Ware’s The Orthodox Church
  3. Pass the final examination consisting of three questions in essay format

Focus Questions:

  1. What were the circumstances which led to the calling of the Ecumenical Councils? What decisions were made at the Councils?
  2. What were some of the issues that resulted in the “Great Schism?
  3. What were the major forces which confronted the Church since the fall of Constantinople? In what ways has the Church responded?
  4. What differentiates “tradition” from “Tradition?”
  5. What is the meaning of the terms “image and likeness,” “free will,” “the Fall,” and “deification?”
  6. How does the Church manifest itself as the “Body of Christ?”
  7. What is the nature of “private prayer” and “corporate prayer?”
  8. What is a “sacrament?”

This bothers me somewhat, and as I begin trying to articulate in what I am disappointed, I come up against a kind of tension that isn’t unusual in education more generally. Education is an iterative enterprise: in primary school we learn about, for instance, world history. And then we learn about it in more detail in high school. And then we probably learn about it in even greater detail in college. And then some of us go on to get majors or masters in it, and learn about it in yet greater detail. One of the challenges of good curriculum design is being able to accurately estimate where a student is coming from and where he is going: it can be damaging to falsely assume that a student has been exposed to your field before, but it can also be damaging to circle around and around at the same level by always teaching to the least knowledgable person in class.

It has been my experience that some of the same questions can exist in each iteration, but at different levels of meaning. You can say to someone entirely unfamiliar with Christianity that the Orthodox definition of grace is “the uncreated energies of God,” they can answer your question with that formulation, and they will have learned something. If they come back again, you can come back again to the topic of grace, and try to go a little deeper: what are the implications of that definition? What theological difficulties may it create or answer? What kind of understanding about God and Man does it imply? And so on. This could continue for many iterations, and still be a question about what grace is, and why it’s so important in Christianity.

This is possible, but it’s also a good deal more work than simply remembering and repeating the original definition (which is still true, and becomes more meaningful with repeated attempts). As a student, and especially an education student — even as a teacher — I’ve observed that students want to have an understanding with their teachers about the iterative aspect of education. If they’re asked to draw a still life, and they have previous experience in drawing still lifes, they want their teacher to acknowledge that, meet them there, and guide them through how to “take that to the next level.” They want “differentiated instruction,” even if it’s in the same exact assignment — unless they just want to be lazy and comfortable, which has been known to happen.

Now, I wouldn’t be taking this course if I didn’t believe it worthwhile to try another iteration of Orthodox studies. And some of those are questions with a great deal of depth, which will yield results upon multiple attempts. Simply asking about the Orthodox meaning of “sacrament” opens up an entire worldview with its own understanding of symbols, the interaction  and interpenetration of the created and uncreated, and so on. And at the same time, this is insufficient. I don’t see in these communications respect for students who have a solid initial understanding of all these things, are studying precisely because they know there’s more there to appreciate, and want some guidance in going a little deeper.

To be continued.

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