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Metropolitan of Volokolamsk Hilarion speaks at the opening of the V All-Russian Theology within the Scientific and Educational Expanse conference

Metropolitan of Volokolamsk Hilarion speaks at the opening of the V All-Russian Theology within the Scientific and Educational Expanse conference
Version for print
2 December 2021 year 16:28

The V All-Russian (with international participation) Theology within the Scientific and Educational Expanse: The Theory, History and Practice of Inter-religious and Inter-cultural Dialogue within a Situation of Global Challenges conference opened in Moscow on 1st December 2021.

The conference is being held with the blessing of His Holiness the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill.

The basic events of the conference are taking place in Moscow on the 1st and 2nd December at the federal institutes of the National Research Nuclear University (MEPhi) (Moscow Engineering Physics Institute), the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economic and Public Administration (RANEPA) and the Higher School of Economics (HSE). All preventative measures as recommended by the Russian Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Protection and Human Rights Wellbeing aimed at combating the spread of the coronavirus disease have been taken. The conference is also taking place online with the use of video conference link technology.

More than three hundred and fifty people were registered for the conference.

Greetings fr om the Russian president Vladimir Putin were read by senior official of the Presidential Administration for Home Policy A. V. Tretyakov. In the greetings it was noted in particular that “theology performs an important mission in forming peoples’ outlook on life, enables inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue and plays a role in countering the terrorist threat.”

Greetings fr om His Holiness the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill were read by the chairman of the Department of External Church Relations, the rector of the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Institute for Post-graduate Studies and the president of the Scientific and Educational Theological Association the metropolitan of Volokolamsk Hilarion. “An important event,” the greetings states, “was the holding of a federal competition for grants in the field of theology. The Congress of Theological Journals and the Forum of Young Theologians also took place within the framework of the current year’s conference. I would like especially to note the work of the Scientific and Educational Theological Association, which at present brings together seventy leading Russian universities and colleges.”

Greetings fr om the Russian minister for science and higher education Valery Falkov were read by his deputy Dmitry Afanasiev. In the greetings there was emphasized the special role of the present conference in improving the quality of teaching and scholarly conferences in the sphere of theology in Russia.

Greetings fr om the Russian minister of education Sergei Kravtsov were read by the director of department for the training, professional development and social packages for educational workers under the ministry for education Andrei Milekhin.

The president of the Russia Academy of Education academician Olga Vasilieva in her greetings address to the conference participants emphasized the importance of theology in the formation of peoples’ outlook on life and suggested as an analogy the experience of the work of the Scientific and Educational Theological Association in setting up an association of teachers of the foundations of religious cultures and civil ethics and the foundations of the spiritual and moral cultures of the peoples of Russia.

Greetings to the conference participants were also sent by representatives of the legislature and executive: deputy head of the Russian Presidential Administration for Scientific and Educational Policy Yulia Linskaya, the mufti of the Spiritual Assembly of Russian Muslims Albir-hazrat Krganov and the Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar (Gershon Kogan).

In opening the panel discussion, the metropolitan of Volokolamsk Hilarion said:

“Dear conference participants,

I would like to begin with the words we heard today in the greetings by His Holiness the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill: ‘It is noteworthy that this present conference which concludes the year’s work has already become a good tradition. The past five years have been marked by significant achievements in developing theology as a new branch of humanitarian knowledge in our country: the scientific and pedagogical community has broadened; boards of examiners have worked intensively and the body of scientific and scholarly literature has been added to.’

All of these achievements that the Patriarch has indicated would not be possible without the coordinated work of a great many people. These are the representatives of the teaching and scientific and pedagogical community, these are the representatives of various religious traditions, these are the representatives of the various organs of state power.

This success would not have been possible had there been no demand for theology. And this demand arose immediately after the Church and the religious traditions within our country acquired freedom. The 1990s and 2000s were already marked by the gradual entry of theology into the scientific and educational expanse, and not only on the level of individual religious denominations, but also at the secular level.

Recent years have been marked too, I would say, by a noticeable breakthrough in this field because after many years of discussion it has been proved that theology has the same right to exist in the secular educational expanse as other humanitarian sciences. Theology has been recognized by the state as a scientific field. We now can issue theological diplomas which are formulated and recognized by the state.

It has to be said that fr om the very beginning theology has existed in our country as an inter-denominational and inter-religious project. We have always said that theology cannot exist beyond the confines of the denominational expanse. Theology can only be inter-denominational. But in what sense can it be inter-denominational? When we discussed the issue of setting up boards of examiners and theological departments, we heard various proposals on the necessity of setting up inter-religious boards of examiners or inter-religious departments.

Theology departments where both Orthodoxy and Islam are taught, as well as other religious traditions, exist. Regarding boards of examiners, we all came to the conclusion that they should primarily be set up according to the principle of the scholarly competence of the members of the board of examiners and, secondly, they should take into account their religious allegiance. But we can hardly create boards of examiners on the basis of inter-denominational interaction. Otherwise, each board of examiners would turn into a potential cause of inter-religious conflict, something which we least of all need.

Imagine an examinee who attends a board of examiners where, let’s say, seven people represent the Orthodox Church, five the Islamic community and two Judaism. He defends his thesis on a particular subject and fails his defense. Such instances have been known to happen as the purpose of boards of examiners is to evaluate research for a dissertation. And then the examinee can claim that he was failed because there were not enough numbers of his religion represented on the board.

Fr om the very beginning we decided to exclude this and set up boards of examiners on denominational lines, understanding fully that the primary and fundamental principle should be the scientific competence of the members of the board of examiners.

But the council of experts under the Higher Attestation Commission for theology is an inter-denominational body made up of representatives of all of our traditional religions. This is very importance as we should all support each other. We have an interest in the development of theological education in all of our traditional religions. I believe this to be a very important factor in the development of theology in our country.

The question is often asked why theology is necessary in the secular educational expanse. We know why it is necessary in theological colleges where we train priests. There is no way they can dispense with theology. But why, for example, is theology necessary for nuclear scientists, mathematicians, physicists or those engaged in research in the other natural sciences?

The answer is very simple. For example, Russian literature is taught in schools and universities not only with the purpose of preparing schoolchildren and students to become literary scholars. To do so they could join the Institute for Literature. Nonetheless, it is deemed right that all should study Russian literature. It is deemed right that all – physicists and lyricists alike – should study Russian history. 

Why, then, is theology neglected? Of course, we have no wish to impose theology as an obligatory subject as in the time when scientific atheism or the history of the communist party was made obligatory. I hope that this will never happen again in our country. But why not offer the chance to all those who wish to study theology so that they can make sense of religious issues and receive the fully-rounded education which universities are supposed to offer? Indeed, the level of illiteracy in religious issues at times is simply stunning. People can be quite well-informed in all sorts of areas but as soon as they touch upon religious topics or religious terminology or themes, they commit such coarse and absurd errors that one is amazed that people do not know such elementary things. So, if only with the aim of liquidating illiteracy in the field of religion, we should present students with the chance of studying theology.

I will give you an example fr om my own experience. When I started studying German, I used a textbook called Assimil. It’s a series of textbooks in various languages. And there I read one story in German.

An artist suggested to his student that he draw an angel. And he drew an angel wearing shoes. The teacher asked him where had he seen an angel wearing shoes. The student objected, answering: and where have you seen an angel not wearing shoes?

This is a funny story, but it does bear some relation to theology. Why? Because in the Christian tradition there exists a definite iconographic canon according to which angels are depicted. They have wings and certain garments and footwear.

When someone who does not know the elementary basics of theology looks at, for example, an icon or medieval painting or even a painting fr om the Renaissance era, then he looks at it as a dilettante. He cannot see or understand a great many things.

I will give you yet one more example, again from iconography. We all probably recall that the Annunciation is depicted on Byzantine, Old Russian and Balkan frescoes and mosaics. We can see on the frescoes a depiction of an angel and the Most Holy Mother of God holding in her hand a red-coloured fabric. The Gospel says nothing of how the Mother of God was holding something when the angel appeared to her. But we do have the apocryphal Proto-Gospel of James wh ere many gospel stories are described in more detail. It narrates how, when the angel appeared to the Virgin Mary, she was weaving a red-coloured canvas for the curtain of the Temple in Jerusalem and thus was holding in her hands a bundle of fabric. But in addition to this, an entire theological concept evolved on the basis of this bundle. When, for example, at the beginning of Lent we read the Great Penitential Canon of St. Andrew of Crete we encounter the image of how the flesh of the God-man Christ was woven like this bundle in the womb of the Most Holy Mother of God.

All of this is studied by theologians and by all those who study theology. Leaving aside our religious allegiance, knowledge in this area helps us to look not only at works of art and literature, but also the world around us in a new way. For many questions that have exercised human minds are in one way or another linked to religion, including questions concerning the security of the coexistence of our own religions.

Here I would like to quote the words of the Russia president who said that “theology as a science carries out an educative mission in forming peoples’ perspective of the world, it enables the preservation of the spiritual and moral values of the peoples of our country, it helps formulate responses to global challenges, among which are those such as terrorism and extremism In order to counteract them, it is not only important that the law enforcement agencies work effectively, but also that there is constant work in the field of enlightening people, and that there is serious research into modern-day social, public and ethno-cultural problems.” And this is what theology aims to do.

We can see how the religious factor is often used by the propagators of extremism or terrorism. They often veil their criminal actions in pseudo-religious formulas or slogans. Some people who fall victim to extremists’ and terrorists’ propaganda imagine that they thereby, in participating in these organizations, are fulfilling a special mission from God.

Our educational work is needed so that every person understands what a concrete religious tradition teaches: whether it calls people to terrorism and extremism, or whether it teaches peace, love and good neighbourliness. 

If we did not have such an unfortunately high level of illiteracy in religious topics, there would be no people who would be drawn into terrorist organizations or distracted by extremist ideas, thinking subsequently that they are still part of the religious landscape. Unfortunately, they are beyond the confines of the religious landscape and fulfill not the will of God, but the will of the devil. And we must speak openly about this. I believe this to be the position of all our traditional religions, and there can be no exceptions to this.

Theology fulfills an important, unifying and safeguarding function, it helps us to understand wh ere good lies and wh ere evil lies, wh ere there is purity and true religion and wh ere there is pseudo-religion.

New departments of theology have been set up in recent years and new study course are developing. We are in the process of writing textbooks for a bachelor’s degree in theology. Indeed, until recently no modern-day textbooks in theology were practically available. In the church theological schools and in the departments of theology in secular universities and colleges either literature published in the nineteenth century or in the twentieth century published in the emigration was used as theological textbooks.

We now have the opportunity to create new textbooks. Under the Patriarch’s direct supervision, we are doing just this. We have published around thirty textbooks and at least as many still are waiting to be published. It is practically through these textbooks that we are devote our undivided attention to the entire spectrum of disciplines that come under theology as a branch of science.

Why do I say that this project is under the direct supervision of the Patriarch? Not only because he gave his blessing to it, but also because literally every textbook that has come out in this series passes through his hands. He reads these textbooks after they have been reviewed in the theological schools, makes his own comments and notes, that is to say, he pays personal attention to this project. And occasionally, as a result of the Patriarch’s comments, we are obliged to rewrite completely some of these textbooks.

Theology is a powerful international and inter-cultural resource. Religious figures who are highly educated have the opportunity to speak at international forums on religious issues. But this pertains not only to religious figures. It pertains to all those who study theology, since the theological disciplines throughout the world are much in demand. It is only in Russia that for seventy years theology did not exist in the educational expanse, while in many other countries theology did exist. When we talk with our partners in other countries, in particular, in western universities, we can see that a very high level of theological education exists in these universities. But our task consists not in copying the achievements of foreign universities and colleges, but in creating the possibilities for studying theology at a qualitatively high level in our native educational expanse.

In concluding my speech, I would like to say a few things on the demand for theologians who have been educated at secular universities and colleges and on the teaching of religious disciplines in schools.

Those who study in the church’s theological schools know what future awaits them as they understand the purpose for which they have received a theological education. The majority of graduates then go on to be priests or church workers, or workers in their corresponding religious denomination.

When speaking of theologians who study theology in secular places of learning, then the question of the call for them is not always clear. What can they go on to do further? Wh ere can they apply the knowledge they have received? Wh ere will they ultimately work?

This is of course a question which we still have to resolve. With God’s aid, and with the help of the Russian president and the Russian state in general, we have managed to build a steady system of teaching theology at the level of universities and colleges. But we must admit that at the level of secondary and primary education in Russia religion and theology practically do not exist. Moreover, religious figures are not admitted into schools so that they can teach children about our religious traditions. This is, I believe, a serious problem because if a school leaver goes to university or college, he or she is usually someone with a formed outlook on life with a certain baggage of knowledge, and if in this baggage there is a serious gap such as knowledge of religious traditions, then it will be very difficult to fill this gap at the level of higher education.

Thus, the question of the call for theologians bears a direct relation to the question of by whom and how religious disciplines are taught in schools. Recently, His Holiness the Patriarch met with teachers of the foundations of religious cultures and civil ethics. But the teachers of the foundations of religious cultures and civil ethics ought to enjoy a special competence and have a mandate to teach on the behalf of their religious traditions. Moreover, the teaching of the foundations of religious cultures and civil ethics only in the fourth year of school for only one school year and for only one hour a week is of course a drop in the ocean. In many countries, including in those wh ere I have served, the teaching of religious disciplines in secular schools is done by ministers of the appropriate religious traditions. For example, in Austria (I often quote this example) it is enough for there to be in a single class only two Orthodox students for an Orthodox priest to come to them once a week and teach them the basics of their Orthodox religious tradition. Why is this possible in Austria, and not in Russia?

I would like us all to think about this issue together for ultimately the future of our theological science in many ways depends upon it.

And, of course, there is the question of how well known in Russia are works of religious literature. I will give you one example. When speaking in one of our Moscow colleges on the topic of Dostoevsky and the Gospels, I asked whether anyone had read Dostoevsky. I was pleased to see that practically everyone in the auditorium raised their hand. Then I asked whether anyone had read the Gospels. And, unfortunately, only about a quarter or a fifth of the people in the auditorium raised their hand. That is to say, people do not even know the Gospels as a work of literature. It is not part of the study programme. We read The Lay of Igor’s Host and various ancient epic stories, but we do not read the Gospels. Why cannot it be included in the school literature programme? Is this work of literature not worthy to be studied by our schoolchildren?

I would like to wish you all success in the labours which you carry out, each in his own way, as well as success in developing theology as a branch of science.

I thank you for your attention.”

Also taking part in the discussion were the president of the Russian Academy of Education Olga Vasilieva, the rector of the Moscow State Pedagogical University Alexei Lubkov, the acting rector of MEPhi Vladimir Shevchenko, the acting dean of the faculty of philosophy at Moscow State University Alexei Kozyrev and the director of the Pedagogical Institute at St. Petersburg State University Yelena Kazakova.

The moderator was the deputy rector of the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Theological Institute for Post-graduate Studies and chairman of the council of experts at the Higher Attestation Commission for theology under the ministry of education and science Dmitry Shmonin.

After the panel discussion was over, the conference continued in the format of two workshops entitled ‘Inter-religious dialogue and traditional values in the situation  of global challenges’ (moderator – Pavel Kostylev, advisor at the department of the Russia Presidential Administration) and ‘Preventative measures aimed at young people drawn into extremism’ (moderator – Vladislav Petrushko, deputy director of the Centre for the Prevention of Extremism and Deviant Behaviour among Young People and director of youth policy at MEPhi).

The conference will continue its work under the federal auspices of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economic and Public Administration and the Higher School of Economics.

DECR Communication Service/

Version: Russian

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