Each and every day of our lives we are confronted by different ideologies and philosophies that attempt to answer for us some of the great questions of life. Some of these are very obvious, such as the views of different religions or the multitude of political and economic theories and systems that we find in our modern world. Others are much more subtle and can often affect our lives in significant ways. In our contemporary American culture we see a strong emphasis on material wealth and possessions. A "successful" or "good life" is measured in terms of how much a person owns or how "comfortable" a lifestyle he or she has. Our culture is also characterized by an attitude of relativism, i.e. what may be true for one person may not be for another, or what is moral for one person may not necessarily be so for another. The challenge of these types of philosophies and ideas is that they are both appealing and deceptive. They are appealing because of our desire to "fit in"—to find ways to adapt peacefully with the culture around us and to be accepted by others. They are deceptive, as with many other ideas and attitudes, because they can lead us away from the truth of the Gospel and cause us to marginalize the role of faith in our lives.
In examining all of this, the following question may come to mind: "How do I live as an Orthodox Christian in a world filled with competing ideas that challenge the very nature of the Gospel, my understanding of God, my relationship with Him, and the purpose and mission of the Church?" We can find assurance in knowing that a question such as this is not a new one at all for Christians. Rather, a question such as this provides a healthy opportunity to consider the role of Orthodox Christian education in our contemporary lives.
Since the time of our Lord's earthly ministry, Christians have been confronted with philosophical ideas and cultural influences that led many to offer their words and even their lives as a witness of the truth of our faith. In fact, the Church was inaugurated at a time in history when a full spectrum of ideas and related philosophical schools were vying for the attention and commitment of people. In the midst of all of this, it was the Christian Gospel that brought truth, hope, and life to an ever-increasing number of believers.
Today, we can continue to find educational guidance in the writings of the great Fathers and Ecumenical Teachers of our Church, such as Sts. Gregory the Theologian, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, and Gregory of Nyssa, who each wrote voluminously and preached passionately regarding matters that people of their day struggled with as they endeavored to learn more of what it meant to be a Christian living in a complex world. Even the early theologians of the Christian Church; such as the Apostolic Fathers Ignatios of Antioch and Clement of Rome, or the apologists Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tertullian, and Theophilos; offered applicable insights for their times which are equally applicable to our own age. For example, in the first of his three letters to Autolycus, who was not a Christian, the apologist Theophilos engages him in a meaningful dialogue. This dialogue focuses not on how we know God and truth, but in what manner we know God and truth. Theophilos states, "God is seen by those who are enabled to see Him when they have the eyes of their soul opened." Theophilos exhorts his reader to trust Jesus Christ, "Entrust yourself to the Physician…who heals and makes alive through his word and wisdom." Through this healing, a person will be able to live in purity, holiness, and righteousness and will be able to discern what is true from what is not.
Certainly, not every ideology, philosophy, or cultural trend is beneficial or even good; but the soul that engages the world with a firm grounding in the Christian faith and with instruction in the nature and character of the Christian life will be able to discern what is truth and what is not. The societal issues raised by the great Fathers of our Church and the questions raised by apologists like Theophilos are clear: What is the condition of your soul? If your soul is blinded by sin, or if you do not seriously engage yourself in a real, full, and genuine Orthodox education, can you know the will of God? Or will you remain a child in the faith, easily misguided by vain and empty ideas?
These questions lead to a logical conclusion that if one does not cultivate the soul under the guidance of able and spiritual teachers of the faith, he will not have the maturity to discern between what is righteous, holy, and true and what is not. However, through the struggle for purity of soul, truth will be revealed; and as the soul is nurtured through prayer, worship, learning, and ministry, God will bless His servants with wisdom and understanding, equipping all who are committed to following Him to recognize and turn from what is deceptive and destructive and to embrace what is true, life-giving, and eternal. These questions and conclusions drawn from our Christian past continue to have an applicable relevance for our present age. They are matters that touch and concern issues of our education as Orthodox Christians, and thus will always serve as an appropriate subject of reflection for the continued growth of our souls.
Archbishop of America