A unique East-West partnership aims to help rising Russian Orthodox Church leaders learn — and teach — about how science, faith, and philosophy interact.

There’s a traditional Russian Orthodox icon that depicts the Seven Youths of Ephesus, a legendary group of persecuted Christians who were sealed inside a cave in Turkey in the third century A.D. but emerged 300 years later, following a miraculous slumber, into a different world. During eight decades of atheist Soviet rule, the Russian Orthodox Church entered a metaphorically similar hibernation, as it was forced from the center of Russian society to the margins and cut off from most meaningful intellectual and theological engagement with the broader world.

In the post-Soviet era, the Russian Orthodox Church has found a new place in the culture and politics of Russia, but its bishops and theologians have often found it challenging to contextualize the faith they have sustained. In particular, the Russian Orthodox Church missed out on a century of often fruitful theological and philosophical investigation into the ways that churches can integrate the discoveries of science and the methods of analytic philosophy.

The St. Gregory the Theologian Charity Foundation is one organization working to help a new generation of Russian Orthodox leaders be ever more awake to religious, philosophical, and scientific discourse. The institution has strong backing from the church leadership — it was founded in 2010 by Archbishop (now Metropolitan) Hilarion at the direction of Patriarch Kiril, the church’s global leader. Its offices are located within the walled compound of the Danilov Monastery, the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church.

With assistance from the John Templeton Foundation, the St. Gregory the Theologian Charity is carrying out a three-year plan to train future theology professors and bishops to engage their theology with contemporary science and philosophy. The hope is that these leaders will then be able to share their insights with present and future generations of Russian Orthodox believers and with the broader culture.

OPENING THE DIALOGUE

The grant includes a survey of all Russian Orthodox Church seminaries to help leaders understand where science and analytic philosophy are and aren’t being currently taught. It is also funding some 30 academic visits and 12 fellowships for longer-term study at Western seminaries and divinity schools including Yale, Duke, and Notre Dame, as well as the creation of 24 new courses at the Russian Orthodox Church’s Postgraduate School and 18 three-day courses to be taught by visiting professors from Western institutions.

The grant’s roll-out has not been completely easy — midway through its programs a global financial crisis led the Bank of Russia to freeze much of its funding — but its leaders remain convinced of its importance.

“We need to import the West’s scientific heritage and build our own school on this heritage,” says Leonid Sevastianov, executive director of the St. Gregory the Theologian Charity Foundation. “So far it’s been beneficial because it’s opened the dialogue and opened our way of thinking.”

“In Russian society, the Orthodox Church needs to be more pragmatic, more analytical,” Sevastianov says. “Its leaders need to have some kind of scientific religious dialogue.”