"Orthodox Missiological Education for the Twenty-First Century"


Orthodox Missiological Education for the Twenty-First Century


Michael James Oleska


            The task of training Orthodox Christian missionaries for the next century worldwide is a topic too great and too grand to discuss adequately in a chapter, for the Orthodox Church embraces tens of millions of believers, dozens of languages and cultures on every continent.  This chapter will therefore initially present some historic and theological principles of Orthodox missiology globally, and in the second part focus on Orthodox Christian mission in America, specifically in Alaska.




            The Eastern Orthodox Church traces its origins historically and geographically to Pentecost, when with the coming of the Holy Spirit the ancient Christian community began the evangelization of the world.  Already on the first day of missionary outreach two basic principles were eternally established: (1) each nation must hear the wondrous works of God, that is, the gospel—and not some other message—(2) in its own language.

            The message the missionary is to deliver is the salvific story of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, crucified, dead, risen and ascended in glory.  Each person and each culture and nation will receive this message differently, uniquely, and respond accordingly.  This difference or uniqueness in hearing and receiving is inevitable.  The gospel becomes incarnate in each human personality and in each cultural setting in a unique and irreplaceable way, and this variety is not only to be anticipated and respected but treasured.  The came gospel, the same Christ, manifests itself in multiplicity.  The story must be “translated” into the language and the cultural categories, the world view, of the hearers with meticulous attention to the accuracy and adequacy of their language.  Finding “words adequate to God” in Greek required eight centuries of debates, discussions, and decisions, the history of the ancient councils of the undivided Christian church of the first millennium A.D.  The first missionaries must approach any new situation with humility, learn its language, study its customs, ideas, and ideals, present the Christian message within this framework.

            The Greeks had a particular advantage in that the Christian Scriptures were already available in their language.  Other nations have had to rely on translations of the Greek texts into theirs, and this has been the special initial task of Orthodox missionaries, who have often had to create an alphabet for peoples who lacked any literary tradition.  St. Cyril invented a writing system for Slavonic before traveling to Moravia, in Central Europe, at the invitation of Prince Rastislav in the ninth century.  St. Stephen of Perm had to create a Zyrian aphabet at Perm in Siberia.  The Tatars received the written gospel from St. Hourg and St. Barsanuphius at Kazan.  St. Innocent of Irkutsk continued this tradition near Lake Baikal in the seventeenth century, as St. Innocent Veniaminov and St. Nicholas Kasatkin did in Alaska and Japan respectively in the nineteenth century.  The initial goal language and culture, realizing that this task will require centuries to complete.  The model for this enculturation of the Christian message historically has been the experience of the eastern Mediterranean, essentially that of Byzantium.

            This does not mean, however, that in order to become authentically Christian each person or nation must be culturally or linguistically Hellenized, for the very struggle between the gospel and its original cultural context was precisely between Greek culture and philosophy and the Hebraic God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Ultimately, it was Hellenic culture that was Christianized, not the gospel which was Hellenized, at least in the East.  The missionaries, therefore, must be thoroughly familiar with the process by which the living God triumphed over or rather transformed this first culture as a paradigm for the process they are initiating.  The experience of the first thousand years and the correct decisions, the consensus, of the undivided ancient church –what the Orthodox call Tradition (upper case T)—is not only informative but normative for Orthodox theology, worship, spirituality, and mission.  It is faithfulness to this heritage rather than any cultural or administrative unity that constitutes the unity of the Orthodox communion.

            Preparation for missionary outreach must necessarily focus on the Holy Scriptures, church history, and patristics, and the indigenous language and culture of the particular tribe or nation, so that the people too may hear the wondrous works of God in their own language, conducting the worship and celebrating the sacraments of the ancient undivided church in their own musical tradition. Architectural heritage, and artistic expression.  The ultimate goal would be the eventual creation of an autonomous or autocephalous (self-governing) church within the worldwide community of Orthodox churches.







            The theology of the Eastern church tends to emphasize certain aspects of the Christian faith that Western theology has tended to neglect, and this also has an important bearing on missiology.  The Greek fathers understood the creation of human beings in God’s “image and likeness” in a variety of ways, never arriving at a precise definition of what constituted these.  The consensus, however, distinguished between the two terms, image being the unique status of human persons as existing and eternally existing, as free, creative, autonomous creatures—characteristics humanity still possesses—and likeness being those divine attributes humans have distorted or lost through sin—kindness, gentleness, generosity, patience, joy, peace, love.  This likeness-to-God was not Adam’s static condition, but a goal he was to attain.  Sin has redirected humanity in a harmful and self-destructive direction, but it has only distorted, not destroyed, the image of God in humanity. This distinction between image and likeness allows Eastern Christianity to be more open, more tolerant and accepting of creative expressions and spiritual impulses that may be culturally different but not necessarily alien or antithetical to the gospel.  Orthodoxy rejects cultural or linguistic uniformity as incompatible with respect for human beings created in God’s image, as free, unique, autonomous creatures.

            Likeness to God, however, is not only a goal Adam did not attain but no people can now reach by their own efforts.  God has revealed himself in these latter days as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three divine (uncreated, eternal, omniscient, almighty, transcendent) persons so united in love that they are also undivided.  No individual person can be “like God,” for God is a community of persons.  Orthodox doctrine affirms personal but not individual salvation, for to be saved is to attain to the condition of God-likeness, to become, by grace, by God’s energy and power as well as by human consent and determination and effort, like God in “goodness and wisdom,” as the holy fathers say.

            This process of divinization (theosis), which the catechumens are invited to begin at baptism, constitutes an eternal quest for and growth toward restoring the likeness of God in each Christian.  Salvation, defined as becoming God-like, is a never-ending transformation “from glory to glory” undertaken as a member of the body of Christ, in communion with God and in unity with one’s neighbor.  It is a communal process which no one can undertake or accomplish alone.  To be saved is to be in the right relationship with God, neighbor, and the entire created universe.  No one is ever, from this perspective, permanently or irreversibly “saved,” not even the missionary.

            All humankind is either actively pursuing this goal, fulfilling this task, or not.  The non-Christian or per-Christian or even anti-Christian person may be already on this quest or completely unreceptive, unresponsive, or hostile to it, consciously or not.  The missionary’s task is to clarify and articulate this message, knowing, as Alexei Khromiakov wrote, where the church is, but never knowing where it is not.  Onbe might say the Christian is on e who knows where Christ is, but can never be certain where he is not.  It is his identity which will constitute the essence of the good news the missionary will bring to another person, place, culture, or nation.  Jesus is the good news.  Jesus is salvation.  It is he who restores the proper balance, the harmonious relationship between God and humanity, between Creator and creation, and between humankind and the entire cosmos.  This vision of God, the world, and the human place in it is celebrated and affirmed in public worship, the liturgical life of the Christian community.  It is in the context of the liturgy that the individual believer becomes embued with these biblical, doctrinal, theological, and spiritual principles, and is restored to communion with God, neighbor, and the created universe in Christ.  He is the origin, the means, and goal of Christian life. 





            In September 1794 the first Orthodox Christian missionaries arrived in the New World to announce the good news of salvation as described above.  They discovered at Kodiak, Alaska, that before they could begin to challenge their target population to orient their lives toward the living God, they had to defend and protect them from the abuses and exploitation to which they were subjected by officials of the Russian-American Company, the trading monopoly which dominated colonial life from 1784 to 1867.  It is impossible to initiate the process of growth toward God-likeness in a community oppressed by violence, injustice, and immorality.  If Alexander Baranov, the governor, and his regime were representative of Christian behavior, mass conversions would be extremely unlikely, so the mission had to denounce his inhumane treatment of indigenous peoples immediately upon arrival, not only to their ecclesiastical superiors  at home but to company officials and Baranov’s victims on site.  This led to strained and eventually hostile relations between the missionaries and the governor, but faithfulness to Christ demanded that they assume this position.  To act in a Christ-like way in any given circumstance is basic to the Christian life, and the missionary is called not only to talk about, to teach and preach the gospel, but also to live and to exemplify it.

            Risking their lives to visit and tend to their flocks, the missionaries familiarized themselves with the beliefs and religious practices of the Kodiak Aleuts and began presenting Christianity as the fulfillment of their age long spiritual strivings.  They were tolerant and respectful of traditions that were foreign to them, seeking a way to accommodate these within the broadest possible Christian setting.  While they were critical of polygamy, they were more concerned with promoting harmony among peoples rather than introducing new sources for strife among them.  Most impressive was their positive evaluation of Alaskan spirituality, which affirmed the sacredness of life and life-sustaining forces.

            Western Alaskans spoke of this life force as the Inua, Yua, or Sua, depending on the language, each term closely related to their word for human being—Inuk, Yuk, or Suk.  Their traditional art depicted various animals with a human figure or face “inserted” somewhere inside, an iconic depiction of the life that enlivened not only all humans but all creatures.  Tribal ceremonies annually “recycled” the inua/yua/sua of the animals whose lives had been voluntarily offered to the hunters so that the human beings could live.  The walrus, whale, seal, sea lion, and otter, as well as the salmon, were considered intelligent, sensitive, and therefore willing victims of the hunters, and their cooperation was considered necessary for the success of any hunt.  If people wasted meat or spoke disrespectfully of the animal, the entire species would withhold itself, and the people would suffer deprivation or even starvation.  Hunting and eating were therefore rituals by which the people and the animal respected each other, and all the implements of the hunt, together with cooking and dining utensils, reflected aspects of this interdependence.





            This reverential awe of the mystery of life is celebrated and affirmed in Orthodox worship and sacramental theology.  Mission extends beyond the human community to the natural world God so loved.  St. John the Evangelist could have chosen to use the word oikoumene and written, “For God so loved the inhabited earth that he sent his son…”  but the text reads instead “For God so loved the cosmos”—the entire creation, the whole universe—that he sent his son.  The whole creation suffers the effect of human sin.  The modern ecological crisis only demonstrates that individually and collectively humans are getting better at disrupting and destroying the natural environment, using more efficient technologies to desecrate and destroy it.  Christians are often accused of complacency regarding the pollution and exploitation of the world’s natural resources, since Genesis confers dominion of the earth on Adam.  But this status as ruler of the world predates sin.  Humans were indeed intended to be God’s image and likeness and therefore his presence in the world, but in their fallen, sinful condition they only appropriate the world and each other for their own self-centered and self destructive purposes.  Sin and the mortality it has introduced into earthly existence set each person and creature against every other.  Darwinian survival of the strong over the weak has become the new norm.  But this is unnatural, against nature, against God’s oikonomia, his saving plan.  The Holy Scriptures are the historical record by which he has acted to restore and transfigure the cosmos he still loves.

Confronted with this reverence for life, Orthodox missions everywhere have affirmed rather than denounced it.  In the agricultural societies of the Middle East and southern Europe the Great Blessing of Water at Epiphany each year resonates with the pre-Christian spiritual intuition that water is life-sustaining and essential to life.  God has used water throughout the history of salvation.  In the old covenant, he began the creation of the world with water, separating the waters of the universe into seas, oceans, and rivers.  Paradise is bounded by rivers, as is the Promised Land.  Sin is drowned by the flood in the days of Noah.  The infant Moses is taken from the waters of the Nile.  Water gushes from the rock in the wilderness when Moses strikes it with his staff.  The children of Israel are saved from bondage by passing through the Red Sea.  Elijah uses water in his contest with the priests of Baal on the mountain top, and crosses over the Jordan before ascending in his fiery chariot.  And Christ begins his public ministry by coming to the river to be baptized, to begin anew the re-creation of the world, the Spirit of God again appearing on the face of the waters.  All of this is recounted in the waters in the midst of the congregation, the water in this way “projected” into the kingdom “which is to come” in order to be for the believers an eschatological sign, a tangible, visible, drinkable symbol of the cosmos as it will all be on the last day.

            In fact, for those who are acquiring the “mind of Christ” the whole creation is already filled with his presence.  The Aleuts and Eskimos were right, but they never could have guessed the personal identity of the Inua/Yua; it is all Christ.  By conforming ourselves to the paradigm he is, each person becomes fully the human being God intended from all eternity.  By behaving in a humble, reverential, and respectful way to all creatures and to all creation, each believer affirms the vision of the created universe the New Testament conveys in Colossians 1.  This is not “paganism” but a Christian understanding of the eternal significance of the cosmos as sacramental sign, the means by which God reveals and communicates himself to humankind.

            In addition, therefore, to the traditional disciplines of scriptural, liturgical, patristic, and historical studies, Orthodox missiological education in the next decades must concentrate deliberately on this cosmic dimension in the Orthodox exegesis of the Bible, celebration of worship, the patristic theological legacy, and the history of missions.  Besides having a mission to Alaska and similar places, the church must recognize that it is in dialogue with these cultures, and that they have something to offer the church.  Alaska has a mission to the Christian community in the United States and the world.

            This mission is to remind the church of its own history and theology, the ecological significance of which may have been dismissed in some earlier are as merely poetic or marginal, and to focus the church’s attention on the cosmic dimensions of Christian doctrine, Scripture,  and liturgy.  Eastern Christianity is not pantheistic.  It does not believe that God and the creation are contiguous, for God is transcendent, pre-existing, having no necessity to create the world.  He exists beyond, outside, and without the cosmos.  But within the world he is present in every person and every thing.  There is no place where he is not, for he is before all things and in him all things hold together and in him all things subsist.  Having created the universe because of his pre-existing love for it and all that is in it, God sustains it at each moment by his energy, his grace, his agape.  Creation is not a long-ago act, the first in an infinite sequence of historical events, but an ongoing process.  God creates the world at each moment.

            Christians are therefore not pantheists but pan-en-theists, and it is the function of liturgy to manifest this experience and apprehension of reality, to move it from mental concept to concrete realization, from doctrinal proposition to a cosmic event.  This is what is fulfilled in the sacramental and liturgical life of the church, but it is poorly appreciated or understood, even by Orthodox theologians, hierarchy, clergy, and pastors, especially in the secular West.  The peasants of eastern and southern Europe and the hunters and gatherers of Africa, Asia, and Alaska probably understand it better.  A dialogue needs to be reestablished between them “for the salvation of the world.”

            The Christian, as my beloved teacher of blessed memory, Father Alexander Schmemann wrote, is a person who, wherever he or she looks, sees Christ and rejoices in him.  This is the vision, the experience of the world which the missionary of the next century  must convey to and celebrate before all people  everywhere, not only in remote tribal communities of the developing world but in the cities and suburbs of the developed world, where this witness is, perhaps, more desperately needed.  Orthodox theologians must look afresh at their rich heritage of the ancient Orthodox Catholic faith.  Appropriating that heritage, the church ca be more truly herself, the body of Christ, existing for those outside her, for their transfiguration, redemption, and eternal salvation.

            In most of the millennium now ending, the Orthodox churches have been suppressed by hostile rulers—the Islamic Arabs and Turks in the Middle East, Greece, and the Balkans, the Tartar, the secularized Western-oriented aristocracy, and later the Bolsheviks in Russia.  These silenced the free voice of the Orthodox churches beginning in the seventh century.  Only now, with their collapse in this century, do most Orthodox Christians  enjoy freedom to explore their spiritual legacy and begin their mission to the world unfettered by political oppression or interference.  This too seems providential, not only for Eastern Orthodoxy but for the planet.  The missiological task is enormous, but certainly no greater than that which the church faced two millennia ago at Pentecost.  May the same “Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who is everywhere present and fills all things, Treasury of Blessings and Life-Giver,” as the Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit begins, guide, inspire, and sanctify this evangelical mission as the third Christian millennium begins.  Maranatha.