Over the next several days, I will be posting reactions to the papers I heard at the annual conference of the Sophia Institute, but in order for that to make sense, I thought it best to briefly introduce what I understand the organization to be about.
(Disclaimer about not officially representing the Sophia Institute, etc…)
I became acquainted with the Sophia Institute five years ago. When I read that the institute was committed to doing Orthodox theology in/for the modern world, I let out a small squeal of delight. When I was present at the first conference and heard Fr. John McGuckin say he envisioned the institute doing research comparable to Put, a journal produced by Russian emigrants to Paris committed to bringing Orthodox theology into conversation with the best of modern scholarship, my inner leprechaun did a small, drunken jig.
I have attended all but one of the Sophia Institute’s annual meetings since its inception. I am always impressed by several things.
- The topics covered: The first conference was on women in Orthodoxy, then philanthropia (think: social justice), beauty, and most recently love, marriage, and family. I remember Fr. McGuckin relaying at the first meeting that several folks said they would have attended if the topic were not so controversial, to which he responded, “I did not know women were that controversial.” The conference was not about women’s ordination but the role of women in the life of the Orthodox Church. The institute seems committed to doing serious scholarship about important social and cultural issues, even the seemingly controversial ones.
- The scholars present: I am not an established scholar. I attended the Sophia Institute conferences as a graduate student, and then a recently matriculated doctor. But there are some “heavy hitters” present every year. The first year I enjoyed a long conversation with Boris Jakim, who translated the Major Trilogy of Fr. Sergei Bulgakov, and I learned just how much Bulgakov was in conversation with St. Augustine. Fr. John McGuckin always delivers some kind of short paper or keynote. This past weekend I met Fr. Michael Plekon, whose research first introduced me to St. Maria of Paris, and whose plenary paper convinced me to read more Paul Evdokimov. I love the fact that the Sophia Institute seems to be a place where grad students, new PhDs, and established scholars can “mix it up” and learn from each other.
- The ethos: Some conferences can be very cut-throat. There is always at least one jerk in the room who (as Nate Kerr once put it) tries to make his career out of a single question. I have never had that experience at the Sophia Institute. Even challenges to paper are friendly, because everyone present seems committed to Orthodox scholarly engagement with the modern world.
In case you were wondering, even though the conference last weekend was about marriage, I only heard one paper mention same-sex marriage (and it was just a passing observation about how Orthodox Christians have different opinions about the civil status of gay individuals). The Sophia Institute does not strike me as a “liberal” organization, except maybe in the fullest sense of the term. The institute gives me hope because it is a place where diverse scholars and researchers from across the Orthodox faith – in everything from philosophy and history to medicine and fine arts – are committed to the free and thorough exploration of the wisdom of a shared tradition in order to help sustain their beloved church in the modern world.