NEW YORK – The Greek American Behavioral Sciences Institute (GABSI) presented George Demacopoulos, PhD, co-Founder of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University for a discussion of the way the Centers explores Hellenic and Orthodox heritage “within the context of a vigorous intellectual environment,” at Holy Trinity Cathedral on October 10.
Tom Mallios, the president of GABSI, welcomed guests and offered an overview of the organization largely comprised of psychologists and counsellors. He told TNH GABSI chose the topic because “we have always paid attention to the study of identity, and Orthodoxy is part of our Greek identity.”
Julie Economou, a Board member, introduced Demacopoulos and two students who spoke about their experience at Fordham, Demetri Florakis and Michael Palamara.
The future of the community is also a GABSI concern and Demacopoulos began by sounding the alarm on three crises: 1) “When most of our kids go to college, they don’t return to Church; 2) The intelligentsia within the Orthodox and Hellenic tradition has failed to adequately engage modernity, what modern thinkers say about matters of interest to them; and 3) Greek-Americans are not equipped to confront what western narratives say about their own identity – which is the subject of a book in progress.
He introduced himself by noting that he and his colleagues, including co-Founder Aristotle Papanikolaou, “First and foremost, we are teachers. We get up before our students and share our passion for what we study and we hope to inspire them to ask hard questions.”
Demacopoulos then offered a taste of how students are challenged and enriched by the program. “Many committed Christians are flawed intellectually,” he said “because they have bought into the myth that you cannot simultaneously be a person of faith and a person of truth, that the pursuit of science dispels the world of faith…that is other nonsense.”
Demacopoulos explained that “every society in history has asked the God question: is there something else…so the believer has absolutely nothing to fear,” he said, “be it Darwin, Freud or even Marx…because they can’t tell me anything that dispels the truth of the universe… and with that approach…a believer can benefit from what is good in their thought…they may have gotten things wrong, but they are super geniuses and you also find in them the deepest desire for transcendence.“
In addition their dedication to their students’ education, Demacopoulos said “we made the strategic decision to be primarily a research center. We have generous benefactors and we put their money to work by sponsoring research, the production of books, the expansion and dissemination of knowledge.” He provided a powerful example of the impact that kind of research can have when he reminded the audience that when they were growing up, Orthodox Christians did not receive communion every Sunday – which was the practice of the ancient church. But in the 1960s, Demacopoulos said, two Russian priest/professors wrote about it. Their books were taught at seminary and the students who read them became priests a generation later, and now millions of people have changed their practice.
Demacopoulos is thrilled they are attracting top students to Fordham, “Orthodox or not, who want to study Orthodoxy.”
He boasts “an incredibly vibrant student body,” and noted that this semester’s first meeting of the Orthodox Christian Fellowship last month drew 40 students. “They got 30 students to come to a midnight liturgy,” he said with awe.
Palamara and Florakis are OCF President and Vice President, respectively. The former was born and raised in Flushing and has roots in Kalymnos and Cappadocia. He is finance major, but being an Orthodox Christian Studies minor contributed to his decision to attend Holy Cross/Hellenic College.
Palamara prefaced his words about Fordham by talking about how difficult it was to talk about his faith “about what you cared about and are passionate about,” early in his schooling. “Then I went to Fordham and immediately I found a home… finding a place where there was an intellectual understanding of my Hellenic and Orthodox background was beautiful.”
Florakis, who grew up in New Rochelle, NY was born James George. He recently changed his name legally to Demetrios. He said the Fordham environment has a lot to do with his decision.
Both of them are also in the Greek clubs that attracts 300 people to its annual Greek night. Florakis said he also appreciates meeting Orthodox with other than Hellenic backgrounds and is delighted when non-Orthodox at Fordham embrace practices like venerating icons.
All three speakers demonstrated the importance community financing Modern Greek and Orthodox Studies programs nationwide.
There was a lively Q&A and among the points Demacopoulos made was the importance of knowing Orthodox history to understanding the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and to challenge the broad but ultimately intellectually shallow generalizations of authors like Samuel Huntington who denigrate Orthodox civilization.
He despaired that “the few remaining Christians in the Middle East, the ones getting their heads cut off, are Orthodox Christians, and we just ignore them.”
The Center makes Fordham the epicenter of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue in America. Asked about the prospects full communion, Demacopoulos said not in his life time, but who knows what his children and grandchildren will witness.