The Sophia Institute Conference



Icon of Holy Wisdom (via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
The Sophia Institute 2009: Society of Fellows Meeting

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.

The Sophia Institute is on Facebook and Twitter.

7 thoughts on “The Sophia Institute Conference”

  1. Hi Daniel,

    I was working on Afanasiev’s discussion of the boundaries of the church in relation to other modern Orthodox discussions of that question (namely Florovsky and Zizioulas), and particularly as it relates to baptism, which he discusses tangentially in the opening chapters of The Church of the Holy Spirit and the question of the “laic.” At some point I had to reduce my engagement with that topic and it ended up turning into only a study of Zizioulas’ relation of baptism (and chrismation) to the eucharist. And that’s a chapter of a larger project that I need to complete before I can return to the work on Afanasiev. But, I’m still very interested in that question in Afanasiev, especially since he had drawn up a plan for a book on the boundaries/limits of the church in relation to the ecumenical situation shortly before he died. And I suppose I’ve been gaining a growing interest in the question of “law” in Afanasiev. There was an excellent article on the law-love dialectic in Afanasiev in a recent issue of Sobornost that got me thinking about his relation to Protestant theology (I’m an Anglican, for full disclosure). Peace!

    dave b

  2. I am so glad you could attend! Your words on it make me want to go if only that it is overseas and I have to pick such conferences carefully. Maybe next year… What will be the theme? Fr Michael is an old and dear friend (the godfather of my eldest child, Sophie) and really the person who introduced me to modern Russian theology after I met him at a retreat at my church at the time in Montreal based on his book Living Icons. However, interestingly enough I had first encountered him through his pioneering (a SK scholar told me this who does not know him) work on Kierkegaard’s ‘religious’ works and especially an impressive piece he wrote on the Eucharist in SK found in Studia Liturgica. You should read the rest of his trilogy on holiness in our time which abounds with great insights (after Living Icons there is Hidden Holiness and Saints as They Really Are) especially the latest volume on sanctity in and of the ordinary with a long chapter on his decade as a Carmelite. His thought is in some ways profoundly sophiological in that he sees the holy everywhere so that the world is tacitly church. But this is as I now believe something he got from the years translating Evdokimov who was a disciple of SB (and for the last poster, a close friend of Afanasiev). BG

  3. If I was to “imitate” any of the 20th century Orthodox theologians it would definitely be Evdokimov. I am always encouraged and enlightened by his work.

    @Dave — I am interested in your work on Afanasiev – what in particular?

    I hope I can make it to next years Sophia Institute…

  4. I’m of the opinion that everyone should be reading more Evdokimov. Very glad you got to meet Fr. Plekon! I have not met him, but I have read quite a bit of his work–and especially his work with Afanasiev (you and I haven’t talked in some time now, so you may not have known that I’ve been reading and wrestling with Afanasiev’s work for the past few years). Regardless, I am convinced both that Afanasiev is a very misunderstood figure in modern Orthodox theology and that Evdokimov understood him rather well. I look forward to hearing more about the conference.


    dave b


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