Though he lived more than 17 centuries ago, the Greek Orthodox saint Athanasius is an exemplary model for Orthodox Christians today, a scholar and theologian said on Feb. 18 at Fordham.
“St. Athanasius stands as the supreme model of successful surviving, learning and living for Christians in a hostile world,” said the Rev. Stanley Harakas, Th.D., Archbishop Iakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology Emeritus at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
Father Harakas, a prolific author and priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, was the keynote speaker at Fordham’s Orthodoxy in America lecture, which took place on the Rose Hill campus. His talk, “The Future of Orthodox Christianity in America: A Normative Approach,” was the sixth in the annual series.
Father Harakas said St. Athanasius is a useful model for Orthodox Christians as they anticipate their future in this country because “his battles for the Orthodox faith, his acceptance of repeated exiles and his unrestrained resistance against opposing forces in high places earned him in history a description as Athanasius contra mundum, or ‘Athanasius against the world.’”
Alexandria, the city in which St. Athanasius was born and raised, was, in the first few centuries of Christianity, “a pluralistic place, full of variety and within the Christianfold of a wide range of contrasting beliefs, especially about the person of Christ,” Father Harakas said.
“In that vital and pluralistic context so similar to our own, the life of St. Athanasius stands out as a model for the Orthodox Church to prepare for its future in the United States.”
Father Harakas said Orthodox Christians have “a message and a way of life” that they must present as “an alternative to the morally and spiritually down-spiraling contemporary American lifestyle.”
Christianity in the United States faces a challenge in that the secularizing spirit of Europe will continue to spread in the fabric of American life, Father Harakas said.
“It should not be perceived as the essence of America,” he said of secularization. “It is one of many variant ideologies seeking expression in American life, but as a church and as Christians we must not succumb to it, but we need to engage with it.”
In regards to whether Orthodoxy can be American, Father Harakas said:
“Being American is the acceptance of the fundamental principles of freedom in community as declared in our Constitution. We must believe that we are free to be Orthodox Christians and that we will be good Americans if we affirm our identity as Orthodox Christians, while acknowledging that others have the same right.
“Neither secularism, nor capitalism, nor socialism, or any other ‘ism’ is an authentic component of what it means to be American,” Father Harakas added. “Freedom of belief, of worship, speech and political exercise are the only things that are authentically American.”
He emphasized the importance of teaching youth about the faith, referring to St. Athanasius, who was brought early in life under the immediate supervision of the church in his native city of Alexandria.
“One of the important keys to the formation of a strong Orthodox identity in children is the full immersion in the liturgical worship,” Father Harakas said. “It is not everything, but if we do not immerse our children in the worship experience, unconsciously, semiconsciously and ultimately, consciously, there will be only a tepid future for Orthodox Christianity in America.”