Trinity College

Modern History of the Orthodox Churches (1204 to Present)

Course Code: 
Last Offered: 
Winter/Spring 2020
Next Offered: 
Winter/Spring 2023

While the Great Schism between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches is usually said to begin in 1054, in many respects the sack of Constantinople 150 years later marks the beginning of the modern history of the Orthodox Church. Though a few more attempts at East-West reunion would be made through the 15th Century, the experience of the crusades would prove decisive in keeping Eastern and Western Christians apart until the present day.

Not long after this sealing of the Great Schism, the Church in the East would undergo the traumatic and formative experience of the collapse of the Byzantine Empire. Once the state religion of the Roman people, the Orthodox Church would now be forced to redefine itself as a religious minority within the Islamic world on the one hand, and as the religion of the increasingly powerful Slavic kingdoms (especially in Russia) on the other.

As the centuries rolled forward, the Orthodox churches would find themselves increasingly bound with specific ethnic identities--Greek, Russian, Coptic, Armenian and the like. Yet, simultaneously, substantial contributions to Orthodox theology, praxis, and liturgical art helped these same churches to graft a unifying cross-national identity and attendant political structure. While the West underwent the challenges of the Reformation, the birth of the early modern world witnessed an Orthodox Church in some ways more diverse and divided than ever, yet in other ways increasingly united.

As the 20th Century dawned, most of the Orthodox world would be shaken by the militant atheism of Communist regimes across Eastern Europe and the increasing hostility of Islamic states in the Middle East. The Church witnessed a massive resurgence in bloodshed and martyrdom, but also engaged actively (and even willingly) in the fraught politics of atheist regimes. Owing in large part to political pressures at home, huge numbers of Orthodox Christians departed for Western Europe, North America and Australia, bringing their faith with them. Orthodoxy in the “diaspora” was born, and many Orthodox communities in the West, such as the Russian community in Paris, quickly grew to become focal-points of intellectual and political activity. Before long the ethnic walls of these Orthodox communities proved permeable. Western converts, and new generations of Orthodox born in the West, began to craft a uniquely Western Orthodox identity, one often marked by contradictory forces of resistance to other Western forms of Christianity combined with interest in ecumenical dialogue.

The Orthodox churches today are a group of dynamic communities building new, yet consciously traditional identities in the West as well as in traditionally Orthodox countries now free from Communism, while still struggling for the same goals in places of continuing repression such as Egypt and Syria. Freedom, identity, survival, and the encounter with modern Catholic and Protestant thought will mark the terms of Orthodoxy's engagement with the rest of the 21st Century.

In this course we will explore the story of modern Orthodoxy, and the thinkers, bishops, priests, laypeople, and monastics who have made it what it is, and who will define its future in an ever-changing world. Who are the Orthodox, where have the been in recent centuries, what makes them unique today, and what will define them tomorrow? Join us as we ask these questions through the most engaging primary sources, the best in modern secondary scholarship, and plenty of good conversation.