Fidelity to Living Tradition:

An Interview with Dean John Erickson  

[Fall, 2003]

by Fr. John Shimchick  

   Educated at Harvard and Yale, it would be easy to imagine that Professor John Erickson, the new Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, is primarily an intellectual.  Yet, while there is certainly an intellectual side to him, those who have known him over the nearly 40 years since his reception into the Orthodox Faith, or others who have just had casual conversations with him, will recognize a man with broad interests and experiences in Orthodox life.

    Well read in many areas, he is personable, a wonderful storyteller, and a remarkably good cook (my wife uses his recipe each year at Easter for “cheese pascha”).  Much to his surprise he is perhaps best known to many lay people for his work from the 1970’s and 1980’s in church music, often done in collaboration with his wife Helen.  He has, in fact, been greatly influenced by “the aesthetic aspect of Orthodoxy, of which music is such an important part; the affective aspect of Orthodoxy, the holistic approach to life that one can see and feel in Orthodox worship.”  Erickson remarks:  “It may be tempting to think that I read my way into Orthodoxy.  I would say rather that ‘I sang my way into Orthodoxy.’  Even though I don’t sing very well, it was worship - the Church’s worship - that formed me in Orthodox church life, and it’s certainly worship that I always turn to when I’m upset, when I’m worried, when I’m otherwise preoccupied.  It’s liturgical music that gives me some comfort.”

     Raised in northern Minnesota , far from any local Orthodox churches, he was limited to simply reading whatever he could find about the Orthodox Faith.  His first regular contact with Orthodox Christians took place during his college years at Harvard.  He had an Orthodox roommate whose father was a priest, as was that of another fellow student, Serge Schmemann.  While in college he began visiting St. Vladimir’s Seminary where he met Frs. Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff, and Professor Serge Verhovskoy (whose daughter Olga was also at Harvard and was, coincidentally, Helen’s roommate).  “These people took theology seriously.  They were concerned about ultimate questions.  They were devoted to truth.  They also were very much engaged with the real world.  They were people with ideas of all sorts.  They were at home with books.  I got to appreciate much more about Orthodoxy then I had been able to gain by any book knowledge.”

   The vision of the Seminary faculty also included their concern for the place of Orthodoxy within American life:  “What was striking for me was the hope that St. Vladimir’s Seminary offered for Orthodoxy in America , for Christians in America generally.  They believed that Orthodoxy had something to say to the world today, something to say to the world I knew.  And they presented Orthodoxy as a place where even a plain old American like me could fit in.  So, I entered the Orthodox Church in St. Vladimir’s Seminary chapel in 1964, nearly 40 years ago.  It seems hard to believe it was that long ago, because I remember it as though it were yesterday.”

  His parents, while not familiar with Orthodoxy were nevertheless very supportive.  His father, however, had one concern:  “My father’s first question was whether I would have the same patron saint and the same name’s day – because this was something we celebrated in our family.  I assured him that this was the case, and he was very pleased.”

   Erickson has been teaching Canon Law and Church History at the Seminary since 1973, and became Dean in July 2002, following the retirement of Fr. Thomas Hopko.  While there have been laymen who have served as dean at other Orthodox seminaries throughout the world, he is the first at St. Vladimir’s.  What, given the personalities and strengths of the former deans, does he bring to the position, and how does being a layman shape this role?   To such questions Dean Erickson replies rather simply:  “At this point, I suppose, the main strength that I bring to this position is that I’ve been associated with the seminary a long time and also with Orthodoxy for long time.”  Also, being a convert immediately identifies him with what continues to be a growing reflection of the Seminary community and Orthodoxy in America .  “1978 was the last year that a majority of entering students at the Seminary were cradle Orthodox.  Our parishes throughout the United States , often across jurisdictional lines, are peopled by converts like me.”

  As for being the Dean of the Seminary?  “I would say that, being a convert and a layman, I can understand and speak to people who are also converts and laymen.  In addition, in the actual operations of the Seminary, in some ways being a person who is not immediately involved as a confessor of students and faculty is also an advantage – not simply because of the time that might be involved but because it’s possible to avoid some of the conflicts of interest that beset some of my predecessors.  Poor Fr. Meyendorff would complain from time to time about students coming to Confession and then ending by asking if they could have an extension on a paper.  I would not want to be in the position of encouraging what would be called a ‘bad’ confession on the part of a student who had cheated in my class, for example.

     “At the same time, in my relations especially Orthodox settings, it might be an advantage at some point for me to be a priest.  In my early years at St. Vladimir’s there was little need or reason for me to be ordained – I would have been the fifth or sixth priest in the Seminary chapel.  I certainly didn’t want to tempt students into thinking that the only way people can serve in the Church is by being ordained.  At this point, however, the situation may have changed, and certainly in some circles it would be very useful for the Church and for the Seminary for me to be a priest, to be able to represent that pastoral ministry which is part of the main reason for our existence.  Certainly this is not ruled out even now.  From time to time I even have dreams of retirement, and one of the most wonderful things being retired might offer would be to become a parish priest.  The life of our parishes has always been for me very exciting.  One of the great joys of being Dean is that I’ve had many more opportunities to visit parishes in many parts of the country.  I hope that this will continue, because this is where the life of our Church in America really is going on and - I hope - going forward.”

    Dean Erickson, his wife Helen, and others who converted in the 1960’s represented a “first generation” of converts to Orthodoxy in America, converts to a Church that was itself starting to become more open in many places – through the use of English, less emphasis on ethnic identify, etc.  Can he observe any noticeable differences in the motivations or attitudes of those who convert today?

    “Certainly when I became Orthodox, I had no dreams of becoming Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary.  It never occurred to me as a possibility.  In those days, it would have been very easy for a convert like me to feel like an outsider.  I was very thankful that this was not the case - that people encouraged me in various ways.  In any case, in those days people entering the Orthodox Church did so with the expectation of being transformed by the Church, of orienting their lives to the Church, and not the vice versa.  They had no grandiose dreams of transforming the Church.  They had no grandiose dreams of setting Orthodoxy on a new and better path.  Today, in many cases, people enter with a lot of ideas of what Orthodoxy is or what Orthodoxy should be.  They are much more eager for an opportunity to demonstrate their own ability to transform and reform Orthodoxy.”

    “Another change, I would say, is that we find a far greater diversity in converts.  Throughout the decades people have converted to Orthodoxy because of its claims to present Christian truths in integral form, in their most compelling form.  But today converts come from a wider variety of religious – or non-religious - backgrounds than once upon a time, and very often they have less experience of actual church life then even I had back in those days.  This means that at the Seminary, just as in church life generally, there is very little that we can take for granted any longer.  There’s no longer a shared educational background, there’s no longer a shared experience of church life.  New students no longer arrive at the seminary with a common stock of conceptions and misconceptions about Orthodoxy.  They arrive with an incredibly wise range of conceptions and misconceptions.  This makes it necessary to spend more time getting to know each person as an individual.  This also makes it important to go back to basics.  You can easily find people with a fine ability to explain the essence and energies structure in the theology of St. Gregory Palamas but with very little practical experience of church life.  All this is relatively new.”

    When theological education is discussed one sometimes hears that there are particular approaches represented by different seminaries.  Can it be said that there is a St. Vladimir’s “school” or “approach” to theology, worship, and pastoral work?

     “The answer has to be ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Very often St. Vladimir’s Seminary is associated with ‘Eucharistic ecclesiology’ as pioneered by the ‘ Paris School ’ at St. Sergius.  At St. Vladimir’s this was exemplified by people like Fr. Schmemann and Fr. Meyendorff.  But anyone familiar with St. Vladimir’s Seminary in their days recognized that there was no one single approach to theology.  The approach to theology of people like Professor Verhovskoy and Professor Arseniev in many ways was different, though not necessarily opposed.  In any case, certainly the Seminary was always much more diverse then people sometimes credit it.”

    “There were, however, some unifying elements.  First of all, there was the conviction that Orthodox theology should be characterized by fidelity to a living Tradition.  Fidelity to Tradition is not simply the repetition of past formulas.  It requires that Orthodox theology be able to address new situations, including the situation of Orthodoxy in America .   In addition, there was an emphasis on the Seminary - and the Church itself - as a community, and above all as a worshipping community.  The idea that worship is a collection of rites performed to serve God with no relationship whatsoever with the people present or absent – this was foreign to the Seminary.  Emphasis was on the entire community – students, faculty, staff - gathered together for worship.”

    “In terms of pastoral work, the emphasis at St. Vladimir’s again was on fidelity to Tradition, but students were always reminded of how important it is to be able to articulate this Tradition - how important it is to put it into practice - in new situations and new contexts, including our North American context.  The professors we all remember best from those days – Fr. Schmemann, Fr. Meyendorff, Professor Verhovskoy,  Professor Areseniev and so many others – were Russians.  In some cases they spoke with very amusing accents.  But their vision was always global.  They were not content simply to try to recreate Russia in America , and they weren’t content simply to emphasize one or another old world heritage.  Their interest was the continuing relevance of Orthodoxy for our world.”

    You are a specialist in Canon Law and Church History.  Are there lessons and mistakes from history that we as Orthodox have not learned, and perhaps risk repeating ourselves?

    “One temptation in the history of Orthodoxy has been to identify this or that system of this world, this or that empire, with the Kingdom of God .  And along with this have come the temptation of ethnicism and the tendency to emphasize our particularities.  Another temptation common enough today is a relatively recent one -  the tendency to dichotomize, the tendency to emphasize how different we are from everyone else, how different we are especially from the West.  This tendency to dichotomize very often leads to triumphalism – the idea that with us everything is right, with us everything is good, and that with everyone else everything is bad.  This triumphalism, on the one hand, is spiritually dangerous.  It creates pride where maybe we should have more humility; we should recognize the dark aspects of our own past as well as its glorious moments.  This triumphalism also undermines any evangelical message that we have to the world.  Very easily and all too often, we create stereotypes of others; we spend our time denouncing ‘straw men.’  This makes our witness to the world much less persuasive than it would be if we were a little more honest about ourselves and more willing to see others as they are rather than as we think they are.”

    St. Vladimir’s Seminary is located within several hours driving time of the majority of our diocesan parishes.  According to Dean Erickson there are a number of ways that we can mutually encourage each other’s work.  One of the most important things that parishes can do “is simply to be open to visits from people from St. Vladimir’s Seminary.  This may seem self-evident, but it’s not always so.  I have strongly encouraged faculty and staff to be much more open to invitations and to visiting parishes, whether in a formal or an informal way, especially here in our New York/ New Jersey area.  And how could the Seminary be of support to our parishes?  This is where we would appreciate input from the parishes themselves.  I hope that the parishes in our area will suggest what we here at the Seminary can do to help them in ways that are truly meaningful.  We don’t want to intrude, we don’t want to impose a program or an agenda.  I hope that you will tell us what we can do to be most helpful to you.”

   How can this be done?  First, Dean Erickson is open to being emailed directly at: jhe@svots.edu.  In addition, the Seminary has, for many years now, been sponsoring lecture series at various sites here in the northeast, and it may be possible to have even more of these.  In addition, there are usually quite a large number of priests attached to the Seminary chapel.  Sometimes it’s been possible to utilize these clergy when diocesan priests need a replacement for vacation or illness.

    Seminary students are also involved in “field education.”  It is hoped that there can be continued placement of students in diocesan parishes, which will allow them opportunities to participate in many aspects of parish ministry.  Parishes are encouraged to support the summer internship program of the Orthodox Church in America , whereby seminarians are given the opportunity to spend an entire summer working in a parish, under the supervision of the parish priest and helping the parish priest.  This provides a wonderful experience for our seminarians and would make them much more effective pastors in the future.

     Parishes here in the New York / New Jersey area are encouraged to come to events at the seminary.  Many people are familiar, of course, with the annual Education Day, held the first Saturday in October.  People may be less familiar with the many events that take place in the new Rangos Building .  There is the annual Father Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture, which this past year was delivered by Professor Albert Raboteau, an African-American Orthodox professor at Princeton University and member of the diocese.  One can learn about these events by checking the Seminary’s website: www.svots.edu.  Finally, there are the resources of St.Vladimir’s Seminary Press and Bookstore (800-204-BOOK).

      When I was one of his students, Professor Erickson often suggested books that he hoped we had read or, at least, should read.  Besides the Scriptures and the generally required theological literature, what I wonder, would he like his students to be reading today?

     “These days, there are more mainstream, mass-market books that touch on Orthodoxy or that raise issues relevant to Orthodoxy in the world today than was the case in the past.  One of these is Phillip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, a book that came out from Oxford University Press last year.  This book, I think, presents in a very convincing way the great growth of Christianity in what was once called the “ Third World .”  It also demonstrates, in very gloomy ways, the decline of Christianity, especially in Western Europe , but also, very likely, a coming decline of Christianity and Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe.  It’s important that Orthodox Christians be familiar with what’s going on in our world today.  I would hate to say that the best thing we can do is get up in the morning and read the New York Times, but I do think that it is more important than ever to be aware of the world in which we live - the world in which are called to witness to our faith - and also to be aware of the many ambiguities of it.  We have to be aware of its wonderful accomplishments, but we also have to be aware of the shallowness that one finds so often, and of the sense of hopelessness felt so often by young people today - and for that matter by many others.  What do we have to say to the world in which we actually live?  I would encourage people to read not only great classics now, but also books of current interest.”

     Finally, is there one thing that Professor Erickson could identify now that, in his eventual retirement speech, he would like to say was accomplished during his tenure as Dean?

     “I would like to be able to say that, in my term as Dean, the Seminary remained true to its most basic principles, true to the vision that has guided the Seminary through so much of its history.  I would identify at least three areas here.  First of all, I would emphasize the Pan-Orthodox character of the seminary - the concern for Orthodox unity that the Seminary has had through so much of its history.  Second, I would emphasize the importance of Tradition – of living Tradition - and therefore the need for critical appropriation of this Tradition on the part of our students.  They must be familiar with the Fathers of the Church, with Scripture, with church history, etc., but they also must be able to relate all this learning to our contemporary situation.  Finally, a third area - something that for me and for the Seminary has always been very important – would be an emphasis on the holistic nature of Orthodox theology and Orthodox theological education.  Seminary education is not just a matter of accumulating a certain number of credits.  It involves formation in virtually every aspect of life, in all of our reactions.  For this reason participation in the worship life of the seminary community has been an integral part of seminary education.  This is also why community service, expressed in such humble things as work on the breakfast crew, has been an important and continuing part of seminary education.  This is why we have always tried to maintain the residential character of the seminary, with single students with us, married students, their families, the faculty and their families, living in close proximity.”

    “I would hope, at the end of my time as Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, to say that we have remained faithful to this animating vision of the Seminary:  faithful to its concern for Orthodox unity, faithful to its concern for appropriation of our Tradition, and faithful to its emphasis on community, all of which have provided the context for theological education.”

 [Special thanks to Anastasia Shimchick for help in transcribing this interview.]

 

 

 

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