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Public Statements of Interest

HOMILY By His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew On the Occasion of the Honorary Degree Awarded by the University of Sofia For Librarian Studies and Information Technology

November 14, 2007
Sofia, Bulgaria

Your Beatitude Patriarch Maxim of Sofia and all Bulgaria, honorable brother and concelebrant in Christ,
Most erudite Chancellor, together with the distinguished members of the Academic Council of this esteemed University,
Most reverend and beloved brothers in Christ,
Honorable faculty,
Beloved students,

Theme: Truth and History

It is a particular honor to communicate with you in this spiritual institute of higher learning, in response to your gracious invitation to attend and receive an honorary doctoral degree from the State University of Librarian Studies and Technological Information. We accept this honor as attributed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which we lead and by whose ecumenical spirit we are inspired, and which respects the universal and particular values of each nation.

A characteristic example of this ecumenical spirit lies in the ministry of Saints Cyril and Methodius, who were sent to this region by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in order to work with great zeal and love, respecting the local traditions. This is precisely why they are honored here not only as saints but also for contributing substantially to the spiritual and cultural life of Bulgaria by “transplanting” the mature Byzantine civilization and “assimilating” it into the life of your people. Indeed, we rejoice in the fact that you continue to commemorate these saints, regarding them as patrons of Education and Letters.

On this occasion, then, we congratulate you all – both teachers and students, as well as administrators of this university – on the work that you perform, especially in the field of librarian studies in an age of immense technological development and digital information, but also in the field of electronic books that are expected to replace printed publications of former eras. Much like many of you, as part of an older generation, we have been raised with less familiarity in the rapidly progressive electronic means. It is natural that we have a preference for traditional libraries, where illustrious publications are collected, categorized and catalogued in accordance with scholarly principles in order to preserve and promote written knowledge and information in general on all matter related to human affairs. At the same time, however, we appreciate and admire the vast possibilities of accessibility to resources and sources of information across the planet, which are made available through electronic libraries and information technology. It appears that the two systems of knowledge will long coexist, and so your university has the unique responsibility and task of studying and developing both alike.

We pray that God will grant you health, strength and inspiration to continue your work with enthusiasm for the benefit and development of all those who love knowledge and wisdom. As you rightly emphasize, both forms of librarian studies are areas of the preservation of cultural and historical heritage. This heritage may be variously evaluated, but – as we also stated in the conference at Plovdiv – it cannot be altered. This is precisely why there is an effort to reprint the classical books of history with the purpose of reconciling peoples and serving their peaceful coexistence.

We have, therefore, elected to explore briefly with you a subject that pertains to your profession and interest in order to draw certain crucial conclusions regarding the development of an ecumenical spirit. Let us, therefore, outline certain dimensions of the subject “Truth and History” in order to arouse your interest and deliberation. For the preservation of historical and cultural heritage is directly related to truth. This is particularly important because, in our age, there appears to be confusion, albeit not explicit, between the truth and appreciation of reality. That is to say, instead of appreciating certain events that occur in certain places, people seek to portray an unacceptable distortion of these events.

The Old Testament preserves a wonderful account, whose conclusion is that truth supersedes everything else, including power itself. Thus, Zorobabel, namely the protagonist of the story, confesses: “‘Truth is greater and more powerful than all else; … it remains and prevails to the ages; it lives and triumphs to the ages of ages. … Blessed is the God of truth.’ And the people confirmed: ‘Truth is great and powerful.’” (Ezra 4.35-41)

Truth supersedes, then, and it is foolish for anyone to endeavor to conceal or change it. Indeed, every institution of higher learning is committed and sworn to serve the truth, as we observe in the graduation ceremony, where each student declares: “I shall live in accordance with science.”

Placing truth at the very summit of pursuits in an academic institution is an inevitable consequence of its scholarly identity. It is characteristic that, in one Japanese university, a column is clearly and manifestly inscribed with the words of Christ in the original language of the Gospel: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” (John 8.32)

Contrary to the pursuit of truth is the ideology – any ideology and conviction – that normally leads to fanaticism and the distortion of truth. For, the bearer of an ideology is primarily interested in securing ways of confirming his ideology through argumentation, rather than in discovering the truth, especially when the latter jeopardizes his ideology.

Naturally, we are neither interested in stirring the passions of the past nor in justifying all the actions of our ancestors, or even to justify all of our own actions, but instead to preserve history in a way that is uninfluenced by emotions, no matter how noble or good these may be.

Thus, our theme has two dimensions, namely history and truth. Let us begin with history, both general and ecclesiastical. Moreover, it is fitting to begin with a definition of history. In the Greek language, the term history derives etymologically from the word istor, which in turn is a derivative of the verb “to know” and signifies someone who has knowledge, skill and wisdom. Originally, history implied studying and learning about something, while later it included narrating an event or describing an acquaintance; again, in later centuries, it signified depicting or decorating temples, homes or public spaces.

Nevertheless, in speaking today about history, we primarily mean the reflection and recording of events that occurred in society at a specific time and place. Thus, in examining the history of history, we ascertain the existence of numerous forms of history and historians in accordance with the era and conviction of each historian. In the beginning, what prevailed was “primitive history,” comprised of the simple recording of chronology and general information. Subsequently, “natural history” was developed, namely the description of events connected by time and place. Afterward, “cultural history” was emphasized, as a way of portraying events connected to peoples and races. Still later, historians developed the concept of “critical history,” which judges events that occur in particular places and times on the basis of various methods and principles.

The ancient Greeks developed three forms of history, identified with three great historians. Herodotus, who is also considered the father of history, introduced “narrative history” as a literary form, which records the establishment of cities and the sequence of genealogies. Thucydides was concerned with the so-called “political history” as a way of discerning the causes of events, which are interpreted in light of the universal human spirit. Polybius was especially interested in “pragmatic history” as a way of examining popular customs and laws, as well as religious and social structures.

Since then, these three historians (Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius) greatly influenced numerous historians through the centuries. These historians imitated their ancestors and in turn developed further dimensions of historical research, each building on the contributions of the other. So much, in brief, for the appearance of the science of history in ancient times as well as its subsequent influence upon Greeks and Latins, but also all historians through the centuries and throughout the world.

Now, as a Hierarch and leader in the Orthodox Church, permit us to say a little about ecclesiastical history, which has certain unique characteristics. First, as Orthodox clergy, we speak of “sacred history” inasmuch as this relates to our faith. For, we believe that human life and history are not directed by invisible or indefinite forces; we are not victims of fate or chance, or even of some mechanistic determinism. Rather, it is God who personally directs our life and history.

In the Orthodox Church, we do not believe in the phrase “In the beginning, there was an idea” or “In the beginning, there was matter.” Instead, we believe that “In the beginning was the Word,” namely the hypostatic or Trinitarian God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Accordingly, God directs and supervises history through His divine and uncreated energies. Moreover, in these latter days, the Word of God became human, assumed flesh, taught, suffered, was crucified, arose, and ascended into heaven. In the Orthodox Church, there is no contrast between “the Christ of faith” and “the Christ of history.” For, the Christ in whom we believe and are saved entered history in order to transform it.

Thus, Christ is revealed in history; the kingdom of God is manifest in history; and adoption in Christ takes place within history. In this way, “sacred history” is identified with “salvation history.” Among other things, this means that the interpretation of the Holy Bible and ecclesiastical texts does not occur outside of history; these are not perceived as a code of divine commands. Rather, it occurs within history, through the Church, as an expression of divine love for the transformation of history.

In other words, the Church moves within history and not outside of history. The church lives in historical time and space; it embraces humanity within history and its diverse problems, transforming and sanctifying both time and space, while at the same time sanctifying humanity within a particular age and place. Thus, the Church is not characterized by manicheistic or monophysitic tendencies. For, it sees humanity in its entirety, comprising of body and soul, while at the same time facing numerous problems arising from the mortality and corruption of this life.

In any case, in the Orthodox Church, the concept of time is not defined as cyclical or repetitive, in the way that classical Greek thought perceived it. Nor is it understood in linear fashion as directed toward the end of history and the experience of the heavenly kingdom, in the way that Hebrew theology believed. Rather, it is distinguished by the cruciform concept of time, by time in light of the Cross, whereby the Kingdom of God approaches us as we live in history and time, while at the same time expecting the completion of the kingdom in the future. In order to appreciate this cruciform concept of time, we might take the example of the conch (or sea-shell), which makes both a circular and forward movement.

The experience of “sacred history” leads to the “theology of reality,” which is none other than the experience of the heavenly kingdom in specific human lives expressed through words and actions. When Moses ascended Mount Sinai in order to receive the divine commandments; when St. Paul ascended the third heaven and “heard ineffable words, which no human words can utter” (2 Cor. 12. 4); when those who have acquired deification through the ages – Prophets, Apostles, Fathers, Saints, Righteous, Confessors, Ascetics – ascend to divine vision and know God “face to face,” they all behold the uncreated light, the light and brilliance of the transfigured Lord; then, whatever these people write and enact comprise the theology of reality. All of the written texts of the Fathers and of the local and ecumenical synods, the liturgical sources as well as the saints’ relics: these constitute the “theology of reality.” One cannot be a Christian if one is disassociated from history.

On a purely historical level, at least within ecclesiastical history, errors are recorded on the part of human beings replete with passions. Yet, in truth, the Church proceeds in history by means of its saints. This means that certain members of the Church may create schisms and divisions as a result of a spirit of self-centeredness and arrogance; they may question sacred canons established by local and ecumenical synods; they may resort to various secular means in order to overthrow peace in the Church; they may distort the truth. Nevertheless, in the end, the Holy Spirit, which acts within the Church and which directs the institution of the Church, prevails through its deified members.

Furthermore, “sacred history” and the “theology of reality” are not only closely interrelated by the stifling circle of time and space; they are also experienced beyond space and time, without at the same time abolishing history. We are speaking here of “eschatological history.” For the Church Fathers, history (as time and space) is transcended but not abolished. In the Orthodox Church, we do not speak of the end of history but of its transcendence to a higher plane of perfection. This means that Christ, who assumed human flesh at His incarnation, preserves and deifies this to the ages. Therefore, the Body of the risen Christ exists eternally; and, since every human body will rise and the saints will live in paradise, both in body and in soul, history too will never cease to exist.

The Body of Christ is an indispensable part of history and the sanctified body of its faithful is a historical reality. Thus, the relics of the saints – just as, in your own country, the blessed relic of St. John of Rila, which abundantly contains the grace of the Holy Spirit – imply that history is not abolished but instead transformed, ascending to a higher plane.

In this way, the terms “sacred history,” “theology of reality” and “eschatological history” contain the entire theology of the Church concerning historical being and historical becoming. But enough said about history. Let us, as originally stated, briefly explore the concept of truth and its relationship to history. We have stated from the outset that our theme is “History and Truth” because existing history is inevitably judged as truthful or false. After all, our whole life is distinguished by these two characteristic features, namely truthfulness and falsehood. By what criterion, then, are we able to distinguish between truthful and false history?

In speaking of truth, we might consider the etymology of the word, namely that the Greek word for truth (aletheia) derives from the deprivative “a” and the root term “lethe,” which implies a forgotten or concealed reality. Thus, the word truth signifies departure from obliteration from memory into disappearance. Indeed, since forgetfulness includes also the false interpretation of reality, historical truth denotes the description and presentation of reality and events in their ontological expression. Therefore, truth is whatever has not been forgotten, whatever is preserved alive in memory, and whatever is restored from forgetfulness.

Of course, whenever history is narrated not according to how events took place but instead according to how the narrator desires events to have taken place for personal reasons, then this is not history; it is certainly not truthful history. Rather, it is deliberate falsehood, which does not serve truth but only an ideology or prejudice, normally political in nature. This means that we are to judge historical events and condemn unjust or wrongful actions, but we are not to conceal or change events in order to displace or distort responsibility. In this respect, by knowing the truth of people and events, we live freely, “with sound soul,” as Pericles would put it. For, evil things that occur are corrected by repentance and confession and not by ignorance or denial. This is precisely why, empowered by such presuppositions about historical knowledge, an ancient sage stated: “Blessed is the one that has learned history” – namely, history that is transformed by truth and not deformed for personal expediency.

Thus, modern man struggles to acquire the truth about all things, about science, about politics, about religion, and especially about history, both present and past. The question is how one may discern true history from false history, and this subject is precisely the object of scholarly research. Now, many people claim to express the truth, even as they record various individual aspects of an event. So there must be certain clear boundaries and authentic measures, through which the truth of historical reality is ascertained. Allow us at this point to underline some of the more significant criteria for the assurance of truth.

The first is the transcendence of subjectivism and the search for objectivism in the interpretation of historical reality. The historical scholar understands – or, at least, ought to understand – that human knowledge has limitations, which he cannot supersede without the risk of deceit. So this scholar must overcome hurdles that he comes across in the search for historical truth, namely: “reliability of sources,” which must be objective; an “authentic criterion of interpretation,” which must be beyond personal ideology; and “collective subconscious,” which is related to the cultivation of the cultural superiority of each race at the parallel expense of achievements of other races, which are undermined or overlooked. By overcoming these hurdles, in reality what is overcome is subjectivism and what is achieved is objectivism in historical knowledge.

The second criterion consists of the so-called “hermeneutic keys” or interpretative measures that secure historical knowledge. It is beneficial for us to learn how to study or examine each historical event. In this respect, we feel that it is important that all knowledge embrace the study of three necessary elements, namely: the narration (or description), the explanation, and the critical evaluation of each event and its consequences. The first element involves the questions: “What? Where? When? Who? How?” The second asks and endeavors to discern “Why?” And the third adopts a scale of values on the part of the person who is performing the critical evaluation as well as of that person’s social environment.

The historical scholar must study what and where an event occurred, where and by whom it occurred, as well as the way in which it occurred. An intensive, objective analysis of the event constitutes the surest method of study and evaluation. In the search, then, for truth through study of past events and historical sources, what assumes critical importance is not only the precise study of the “letter” of an event or phenomenon, but especially the careful analysis of the “spirit” or “mind” of the person who recorded this.

In this regard, Athanasius the Great offers a critical insight in his confrontation of the Arian heresy. In his work, entitled Against Arians, he develops the fact that in order to explore and express truth, and in order not to err in the hermeneutic analysis of a Scriptural passage, we must comprehend and acquire the knowledge of the “time” in which the specific passage was written, the “person” to whom it refers, and the “reality” or reason for which the author wrote this particular passage. The words of St. Athanasius are quite expressive: “Therefore, we must reveal the mind (or spirit) of what is said; we must seek to comprehend what is concealed and not simply what is stated explicitly, so that we do not mistakenly wander from the truth.” Elsewhere he observes: “We are not simply to conceive the words on the surface, but rather seek to understand the person to whom it refers, thereby applying our mind (or spirit) with piety.” Thus, St. Athanasius notes that we must learn how to “return from the letter to the spirit.”

These authentic hermeneutic criteria are crucial for the understanding of words – both written and spoken – as well as of events that occurred in particular times. This is what we also emphasized in our doctoral dissertation On the Codification of the Sacred Canons and on the Canonical Regulations in the Orthodox Church, where we appropriately underlined that the Holy Canons of the Church should be examined on the basis of principles formulated by the Church Fathers, such as St. Athanasius in the above-cited texts.

The fourth criterion for interpreting reality is the study of historical rule called “heterogeneity of purpose.” This phrase implies that reality may begin with a particular purpose but, along the way, it is influenced by different motivations, thereby concluding in another purpose. The scholar must by all means return to the past and search for the cause that precipitated this change in purpose. For example, it is quite possible for an ideologue to develop a certain theory in a selfless manner; but in its application by other selfish people, this theory may be transformed and forcefully imposed upon others, so that, in the end, it becomes a bureaucratic authority. It is clear, then, that the interpretation of historical events and reality must discern the original purpose from the final result.

As a continuation and consequence of the previous ones, the fifth criterion implies that the interpretation of reality must be liberated from personal passion, diverse dependence, and all nationalism. This is not, unfortunately, to be taken for granted because, in interpreting historical events, we also confuse these with various forms of nationalism and political presuppositions. And this means that historical research is no longer promoted; instead, we are led to divisions in the name of unilateral and individual perceptions. Christ said: “Know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” (John 8.32) Throughout our life, we must be seekers of the truth – not only of historical but also of existential reality. Then, the discovery of truth will set us free from all sorts and forms of dependences, which are not the truth but only ghosts of the truth.

By way of conclusion, then, we would like to say that, beyond historical reality and events that occur in historical time and space, there are also existential events within the depth of our hearts, causing us profound suffering. These are existential questions related to life and death, to the meaning of life and existence, of ecstasy toward another being, and of personal encounter with the living God. These existential problems greatly plague the human person. An example of this is the late Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov, Russian in origin, living in the ecclesiastical and spiritual jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, first on Mount Athos and then in England, who experienced the events of World Wars I and II, as well as the Russian Revolution of 1917. Fr. Sophrony felt profound sorrow for the shedding of so much blood on the earth; yet, above all else, he felt much pain in his heart for the existential and spiritual problems related to God, which he experienced but which he especially witnessed in all those estranged from the God of truth.

Therefore, living in a world filled with such problems, we must study the historical events of the past and interpret them accurately in order to improve the contemporary social conditions of life, to offer meaning and purpose to young people of our age, but especially to transform and raise the natural and cultural history of humanity to the level of “sacred history” in order to discern the meaning of life.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate is the bearer of this spirit, which we have endeavored in brief to expound today. We feel a sense of deep sorrow and pain in our hearts for the many disturbing events that occur in our time, such as the selective interpretation of history, the pollution of our planet, the religious controversies and divisions, the social injustices and inequalities, the material deprivation and hunger of human beings, but most especially the hunger and thirst among people for righteousness and the encounter with the Trinitarian God, particularly in light of the fact that, according to St. Gregory Palamas, Christ is the truth, the Father is the Father of truth, and the Spirit is the Spirit of truth. In this way, we work within history from the privilege of the first throne in the synaxis and administration of the universal Orthodox Church – at once a privilege and a service, witness and martyrdom, for the transformation of the whole world and for the discovery of the living and saving truth by all people.

It is the same purpose of serving the truth that is embraced by the Schools of Librarian Studies and Information, such as your own, which are the very archives that safeguard knowledge and historical heritage. And so we feel obliged to congratulate this institute wholeheartedly for your wonderful and beautiful initiative, expressing also our sincerest wishes to all of you, faculty and students alike.

We thank you once again for our invitation and communication, invoking upon everyone the boundless mercy and love of the Trinitarian God so that we may live in history, move in truth, and proceed toward the eschatological completeness of truth. May it be so!

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