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Tribute to an Orthodox Autodidact

Faith Seeking Understanding
The Theological Witness of Father Matthew Baker
Introduction by Alexis Torrance
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, pp. 368, $28

The Fathers are ahead of us, with Jesus — it is we who should be running to catch up to them.” This summary of the thought of the Rev. Dr. Matthew Baker (1977-2015) is the door into his brief but theologically fruitful life, cut short tragically in a car accident during a snowstorm outside of Boston when he was just 37.

Baker was a married parish priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and his wife had stayed at home when he took their six children to a vespers service at the church to which he had been recently assigned; the children were miraculously unhurt in the accident that claimed his life. American Orthodoxy responded with an outpouring of mourning and thanksgiving that included a multitude of sermons and tributes; this posthumous volume represents a stage in that collective grief.

Despite dropping out of high school and never completing a college degree, Baker had been acknowledged in his short life as one of the most important modern Orthodox theologians — the primary inheritor and interpreter of the work of the late Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), whose “neo-patristic synthesis” urged a return to the distinctive “mind” of the Church Fathers as the appropriate source for Orthodox thinking.

This new school rejected the “Western Captivity” of Orthodoxy between c. 1600 and 1900, in which Russian and Greek theologians used Roman Catholic and Protestant vocabularies rooted in the European Reformations, and called for a renewed, authentic modern voice for Orthodoxy. The neo-patristic synthesis flourished in the middle decades of the 20th century, especially within the Russian diaspora in Paris and New York. It notably informed the confident 20th-century Orthodox engagement with ecumenism — on its own terms, rather than only as an interlocutor with Western categories and traditions.

Improbably, the autodidact Baker read and prayed his way into the riches of this theological school while working the night shift at a gas station for many years. Raised an Episcopalian and attached to S. Stephen’s, Providence, as an adult, he became a Roman Catholic in 1997 and gravitated toward Latin Mass communities.

After converting to Orthodoxy in 2001, he attended St. Tikhon’s Seminary in Pennsylvania, completed a thesis at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts, and began doctoral studies at Fordham University (which waived its usual requirement of a BA). He was ordained to the priesthood in 2014 and was professor of theology at Holy Cross at the time of his death; Fordham awarded the doctoral degree posthumously.

This important new book gathers Baker’s scattered writings in several genres between two covers: eight academic essays from theological journals, three book reviews, 12 sermons, two interviews, and 10 groups of extended correspondence with colleagues, students, and friends. There are patristic explorations, engagements with Florovsky’s life and writings, truly beautiful sermons on various occasions in the Orthodox Church year, and important interviews that reveal Baker as an extraordinary interlocutor with a deep command of vast source material.

Non-Orthodox readers will be especially interested in Baker’s correspondence on Florovsky’s attitude toward ecumenism — a contested legacy within Orthodoxy. The collection proclaims over and again that “following the Holy Fathers must be a creative and existential endeavor” that “will continue to guide those sensitive to the need to think with the Church of all ages and zealous to advance her historic mission into the present.”

Together, the compilation is a testimony to the words of the greatest living Orthodox theologian, Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon: “Fr. Matthew Baker forced me to answer new questions which I hadn’t thought of before. He somehow entered into the deepest of my intentions. Most others don’t. … We had the one, and we lost him.”

Two aspects of the book are curious. First, that in a case in which biography and theology are so intertwined there is no narrative account of Baker’s life journey. And second, that in an anthology of relatively short works by any given author, there is no résumé of his published writings or indication of the unpublished manuscripts remaining at the time of his death. Faith Seeking Understanding is nevertheless an extraordinary witness to the capacity of modern American Orthodoxy to raise up minds of deep and synthetic theological creativity.

Richard Mammana Jr. is archivist of the Living Church Foundation and Episcopal Church Associate for Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations.


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