Can a person without an education be a believer?

14 April 2016
An interview with the Reverend Professor Georgy Kochetkov, Rector of SFI
Fr Georgy Kochetkov
Fr Georgy Kochetkov

St Philaret’s Christian Orthodox Institute (SFI) in Moscow has been operational for almost a quarter of a century. Founded in Soviet times, when it was not possible even to mention its activities over the phone, it has become an independent school of theology, licensed by both state and church. Each year, the Institute hosts over 300 students, most of whom are lay people. Who in Soviet Russia needed a Christian school? Why has Catechetics become the major subject at SFI? What does adherence to the Bologna Process mean for schools of theology? Professor Fr Georgy Kochetkov, the Rector and founder of St Philaret’s Institute, answers these and other questions.

Working at Revival

Question: Father Georgy, when you started your ministry, why did you decide to channel so much effort into spiritual education?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: The idea of creating a Christian school was a long time in gestation; its inception was in the 1970s when a group of friends and like-minded associates started collecting books for the library of our then-hypothetical institute. By the mid-1980s I had begun to think seriously about the creation of an Orthodox school of higher education, which would be sufficiently free from the influence of external factors – especially that of the then-all-encompassing Soviet reality. In Soviet times, ordinary lay people – especially if they had a good secular education and a position within society – had no way to enroll in a seminary or theological academy. Such academies and seminaries were very few, and subject to external constraints. It was vital for us recall that before the Revolution of 1917, Russia was home to the highest level of spiritual culture, knowledge and education. We knew we needed to adopt and revive all of this – to fix the broken chain of church tradition and church praxis and, most importantly, somehow to move forward. After all, the 20th century was extremely eventful the world round. The Russian Religious-Philosophical Renaissance of the first half of the 20th century was extremely fruitful. The pleiad of these most significant figures belongs to the Paris school and is primarily made up of the circles around Fr Sergius Bulgakov, Nikolay Berdyayev and others from St Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris. This tradition has to be restored and applied to modern life. We need spiritual education in order to be able to live an Orthodox life, transmit our faith, and overcome the ‘conspiracy of silence’ of the Orthodox about Orthodoxy. To do all this without education is impossible.

Later I articulated the idea of creating a Christian school of higher education for lay people in my M.A. dissertation, which was entitled ‘A Mystagogical Introduction to Orthodox Catechetics.’ While working on this subject, I realized that if people are properly catechized and thus actually initiated into church tradition in its fullness, they will necessarily feel the need to continue their spiritual education. After all, if catechesis itself is education (obrazovaniye), than only in the original, mystical sense of restoring the image (obraz) of God in the human being. Only to a minimal extent is catechesis education in the modern sense of transmitting specific knowledge, skills and abilities. But in today’s world, if one wishes to live a full life in the church after catechesis, a very good education is required – both a liberal arts education and a church/theological education. Therefore, the very logic of patristic catechesis implies that everyone who has been catechised should have the opportunity for further spiritual education.

How do you prepare Catechists?

Question: As I understand, your original idea for a Christian school of higher education included the training of catechists. At one time, SFI was even referred to as the “school for mission and catechetics”. Does SFI still maintain this profile?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: Insofar as the Institute arises out of what is needful for a full programme of patristic catechesis, we could never leave out Missiology and Catechetics. The Department of Missiology, Catechetics and Homiletics is our highest priority, and we set the highest premium on teaching disciplines related to these fields. Catechetics itself is one of the major subjects. In light of recent church-wide decisions, the general trend to establish a system for training catechists is very natural, and it is something we have been eagerly waiting for. We have been accumulating experience since 24 years ago, when the Institute first opened its doors. Of course, we would always like to complete and improve our experience of catechesis, but at the same time, we have reason to believe that what we have to offer is not that bad, and we are glad to share all the treasures we ourselves have access to, thanks to Orthodox Church tradition. Our Institute has already published quite a number of books, and held international conferences on church and society, as well as on specialized theology and training conferences at which people from different dioceses, countries and churches come together to exchange their views and experience.

Question: SFI, which was founded at the close of the Soviet era, was the first school of Theology in Russia to welcome both future clergy and lay people. And schools of Theology haven’t often been founded across our country’s history, so even the appearance of SFI on the scene was a bit of a milestone event. What were your main supports and foundation when you started SFI? What are the main pillars that support SFI today?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: In the first place, we draw on church tradition including the tradition of church education that goes back to the earliest centuries of Christian history. Secondly, we have our modern experience of catechesis, which is important because we are faced with many questions – sometimes awkward ones – which are not usually addressed to and/or rarely answered by the church. The catechetical tradition developed in our Brotherhood has now existed for over forty years. Like it or not, over such a period, we have acquired a certain experience which has been tested by real life practice. Thirdly, we make use of educational experience which has been accumulated in various countries and in various Orthodox churches. Each school has something valuable to offer. We travel a lot to glean this experience, meeting with people and becoming acquainted with their various forms of education, relevant publications, etc. Above all, we draw on the experience of people with faithful hearts, that is, we draw on the living action of the Holy Spirit’s grace. After all, it is the Lord God who teaches and sends catechists into the church. It is the Lord God who gives spiritual gifts, strength and the faculty of cognition for this ministry, although, of course, these gifts of God must be accepted, comprehended and adequately expressed.

A Synthesis of Secular and Spiritual Education

Question: You mentioned your aspiration to combine the best of secular and spiritual education. What exactly does this mean?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: Yes – in fact we had to set this goal for ourselves at the very outset. During Soviet times such a synthesis was impossible because of external factors, and nowadays historical inertia is an impediment. This gap, however, must be bridged: secular education has its own value, and thank God our church hierarchy understands this well. It is not by chance that the church now faces the challenge of adopting the Bologna system of education, which requires a certain spiritual culture and a level of culture, which is sometimes lacking amongst our faithful and, not infrequently, even amongst our church teachers. It is becoming clear to everyone, however, that our approach to education requires some adjustment, so as to make up for time lost by the Russian Orthodox Church during the 20th century. Therefore, ecclesial education has to be restored through close cooperation between any and all who are able to reveal creative things, which are of a piece with Reality and belong to the truth of God. Education is a delicate matter, meaning that for some time to come we will have to resort to practices learned and refined in both secular and ecclesial circles, both in Russia and abroad, where in times now past, the world of education could “breathe more freely.”

Question: Since 2011, many institutions of higher learning have begun to adopt the Bologna system. What is the significance of this move? Can you tell us something about the process at SFI?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: By the grace of God this transition was easier for SFI than for other institutions of higher learning. This is because of the fact that the educational system our teachers, friends and I developed a quarter of a century ago for SFI was essentially based in the same principles as the Bologna system. Of course in the early 1980s I could not have known anything about the Bologna system, which had not yet found its way onto Russian soil; so we consider the correspondence between Bologna and that which we created 25 years ago remarkable, though not entirely coincidental. We have always had a high proportion of independent student work. From its very inception our system was multi-level, and included that which is now called bachelor (undergraduate) and masters (graduate) studies. So dovetailing with Bologna was not that difficult for us. Of course, as we learn more, we adjust our curriculum to the modern requirements of higher education. The only thing we are behind in – and this is a general problem in our country – is in the teaching of foreign languages. We have not yet been cured of the diseases that were part and parcel of the Soviet era. After all, lack of linguistic proficiency comes from being closed off and from lack of communication – from being turned inward towards oneself. It was long ago that we got out of the habit of language learning, though our young people learn languages eagerly and are sometimes very successful. For those of us who are older this poses a problem, and our institute welcomes both young and old.

Question: Today the Institute cooperates with numerous schools, both secular and theological. Recently, for example, you delivered a lecture at Novokuznetsk Theological Seminary. Can you tell us something of the current prospects for this type of cooperation?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: Of course I think it is very important that not only I, but all of our professors and lecturers speak as often as possible at major forums in Russia and abroad. We have sought to do this for many years already. We are very glad to see this sort of cooperation is on the rise. You mentioned Novokuznetsk Theological Seminary: until recently we had not yet had the opportunity to visit institutions of higher learning beyond the Urals, but now such opportunities are also beginning to arise. It is very important not to be fixated only on institutions of higher learning in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, and Minsk – not only to participate in conferences in Italy and France – we need also to think about the prospects of development across our country. Cooperation between institutions – both secular and theological – offers opportunities for joint work, which is particularly important in our current context, in which people are experiencing a deficit in communication and trust. For our Institute, such cooperation is also an opportunity to share our knowledge and experience, which is not yet well known across our church and society for various reasons, which are mostly of an external nature. It is no secret that our Institute faced certain difficulties until very recently – a sort of information blockade – which is only now being quickly overcome, thanks to the efforts of a number of people. We hope cooperation is of interest to any and all who are willing to raise new, difficult, and sometimes awkward questions, whether they relate to theology, church praxis or purely research issues.

On Teachers, Students and the Least Utilitarian Occupation of Them All

Question: Father Georgy, you have mentioned your friends, teachers, and those with whom you developed the future education system of SFI. I believe some of these later joined the SFI Board of Trustees. Could you please say something brief about these people?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: We have been very fortunate. For many years the SFI board was honored to have prominent members such as Sergey Averintsev, Protopresbyter Vitaly Borovoy, and  Archbishop Mikhail (Mudyugin), who was at one time the Rector of the Leningrad Theological Academy and Seminary. Archbishop Mikhail is both a Ph.D. and a committed believer, who was involved in the Alexander Nevsky Brotherhood in Leningrad. We have had other prominent members, too, and have always tried to invite board members whose example we can follow. We are proud of these people and they actually contribute to our work, helping and supporting us not only with kind words but also with advice and criticism, when necessary. Our Board of Trustees is made up of not only church figures and scholars, but also personalities such as poet Olga Sedakova (Sedakova is primarily a poet and philologist, though she is also Doctor of Theology honoris causa) and the nationally honored artist Sergey Yursky. Our Board of Trustees has both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, living both in Russia and abroad: Bishop Seraphim (Sigrist), Archpriest Pavel Adelgeim, Don Patrick de Laubier, Nikita Struve, Archimandrite Robert Taft and Deacon Vasily (Karl Christian) Felmy are all people of great spiritual experience who have served on our board.

Question: Many of those familiar with the SFI teaching staff ask how Fr Georgy ever managed to gather and keep such a group of people together.

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: Firstly, it was a long-term process and did not happen over a single year. Secondly, we have always tried to maintain our reputation, aiming to maintain high educational standards, and – perhaps more importantly – an atmosphere of trust, openness, love, creativity, tolerance of different positions and opinions in the field of research. Our institute can be proud to have such an atmosphere.

Question: As a student at the Institute, I am often asked: ‘what will be your profession after graduation?’ Looking around at SFI alumni, that is a difficult question to which to give a definite answer. Can one talk about theology as a future full-time occupation?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: Of course, ‘first-class professional theologian’ sounds a bit ridiculous. I think everybody understands that it is very difficult to apply such a utilitarian yardstick to any serious school of theology and religious studies. “What” will you be? What is the point of having a spiritual education? These questions sound very strange in the given context. If you ask a student: ‘what do you want to do after graduation?’, he or she might not be immediately able to answer. But upon completion of his education, not one of our alumni who has applied himself during his studies is left without the ability to apply his knowledge and effort if, indeed, he has the desire to do this. Of course some students make insufficient effort, and then the skills and capabilities that might have been acquired during the educational process do get lost. But such occasions are rare. Most often, after graduation people seek to be useful in serving God and becoming part of a common effort towards revival in the Orthodox Church, especially the church in our own country.

Question: Father Georgy, what is the source of inspiration for your ministry?

Fr Georgy Kochetkov: Ministry, as such, is both the fruit and the source of inspiration. The fact that the work continues and is blessed by the Lord brings joy, gratitude and the will to carry on with the work. We all have one source of inspiration, which is the grace of God itself. Rectifying old mistakes and sins, solving long-standing problems in cultural, social and church life and helping each other, brings joy and inspiration to our hearts as the Lord God extends his helping hand to us, as He reveals Himself and His Light. This is when education really becomes enlightenment – a pouring out of the heavenly Light. 

Interviewed by Sofia Androsenko in April 2012
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