Natalia Pecherskaya is the founder of the St. Petersburg School of Religion and Philosophy, now the Center for Science, Religion and Philosophy Programs. She has been a Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute several times, most recently in Fall 2019. She is currently involved in organizing and developing programs under the heading Visions of Beauty. Susan Sink sat down with her to discuss her work and experience promoting theological and philosophical thinking in Russia.
Tell us about your current project, which is intriguingly titled “Visions of Beauty.”
My project began in 2010 as a way to engage people, at home and internationally, with the spiritual beauty that is found in Russian art, culture, and holy places. It began on a small scale, taking groups to different Christian sites in Russia and engaging them with Christian art and places that see Christ through a Russian Orthodox lens. It could be architecture, an icon, music, or literature. In addition to small pilgrimages, the Visions of Beauty project also included lectures and forums, interviews and master classes that gathered believers and specialists from multiple disciplines.
For seventy years, religion in Russia was suppressed. But the sites—the art, the architecture, the music—still exists. You can walk right by it, however, and not know the significance. People need to be reintroduced to the Christian context.
In addition to Russian groups, we take international groups on these pilgrimages every other year. I hope to find a co-sponsor to shape a tour and bring an American group in 2021-22.
What is religious life like in Russia today?
I think Russians are generally religious people. People still go to church, participate in liturgy, receive sacraments. Confession is an important sacrament for us. There is a willingness to participate in church life even after seventy years of repression. Seven decades of persecution did not remove the desire of the people for Christ and the Church. However, it did disconnect them and prevent formation over generations.
Tell us about the school of higher education you founded, the St. Petersburg School of Religion and Philosophy.
I founded the SRPh in 1990, and it had its state-approved opening in 1992. It was not state sponsored and it is not affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church or any other church. This educational institution became possible because of Perestroika and the opening to reestablish religious life in Russia.
It was a big struggle to form the SRPh. On one side, the Orthodox Church authorities saw religion and theology as their territory. They thought we were taking their students. However, we were also offering coursework and degrees for secular students, people who were not going to go into church work but would benefit from that kind of education. Teachers, for example, could use a background in religious studies or theology. In any profession, a theological education would be useful.
It wasn’t until 2015 that coursework was offered in secular universities under the heading “theology” and those students could get degrees in theology.
On the other side, SRPh was one of the first institutions to provide coursework for secular students that approached religious studies from a theological perspective. In the state universities, religious studies was disconnected from theology. After the Soviet era ended, atheist Marxist teachers continued to offer courses in the history of religion. They used “objective language” only. They weren’t teaching the discipline of theology, which involves exploring belief and faith in concrete terms and uses the language of the church. In fact, it wasn’t until 2015 that coursework was offered in secular universities under the heading “theology” and those students could get degrees in theology. We really struggled to introduce theology to schools and universities.
Were there even teachers available for the institute?
I had to find them. No one had advanced degrees in religious studies or theology in Russia. They weren’t offered, except at Russian Orthodox theological academies, where we found the graduates were not really prepared to teach our students. We recruited exceptional people to teach at the SRPh. I had to find faculty who had received degrees from other country’s universities. I myself have a PhD in mathematics. I spent 19 years in the world of scholarly research before deciding to found this institute. We had to start from the beginning, to develop curriculum, to send teachers for internships abroad, to recruit students, find funding.
Do you think things have progressed in the 30 years since you started the SRPh?
Theology and religious thinking is still a struggle in Russia. There is a lack of a contemporary vision of Christianity. We are reclaiming and republishing a former age of theologians and philosophers. We have to fill in studies of religion, theology and philosophy that were simply not available during the decades of religious suppression. And not as a history of religion but as a living thing that can be built upon and applied to the world around us.
Contemporary students don’t recognize the ways the symbols and ideas in Russian culture are connected to the history of the Church and Christianity. The story of the history of our Russian state is closely connected to the history of the Russian Orthodox Church. That still has to be pointed out.
It is the beauty of Christ that will save the world.
People often repeat a famous quote by Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world,” but he wasn’t talking about any and all beauty. He was speaking specifically about the beauty of Christ. It is the beauty of Christ that will save the world, and that is the beauty we are exploring in the Visions of Beauty program.
What is the status of the school now?
After several years struggling with the state and the administration of the Russian Orthodox Church, we received official recognition and accreditation, and began our work to shape and build religious education.
My colleagues and I wanted to find a way for the work of the SRPh to continue in a new way on the same property. After nearly twenty-five years, the Russian state recognized the desire of the Russian Orthodox Church to be involved in educating students beyond their religious academies and passed a law allowing them to teach theology at secular colleges and universities.
I am glad to be part of this long and lasting process recognizing the necessity of religious education in my country. The degree-granting mission of the SRPh has now been passed to the Russian Orthodox Church and I am keen to see how it will be developed on the state level.
Christian art and contemporary philosophy needs to be encouraged and developed.
In 2016, we restructured as an institute. It is now called the Center for Science, Religion and Philosophy Programs. The Center sponsors research and projects that provide curricular resources for secular institutions, where the study of Christianity, Christian art and contemporary philosophy needs to be encouraged and developed. The Visions of Beauty initiative I spoke about earlier is a good example of one new direction our center is taking. It gives people from all backgrounds the opportunity to connect faith and contemporary experience.
How has this visit to the Collegeville Institute been for you?
I feel much nearer to God when I am here. Praying is easier for me here. It’s not just the presence of the Church everywhere on campus, the monks and the Abbey Church and liturgies and people talking about religion. It is also the beauty of the place, which makes me respond with prayer and helps me hear God’s response to my prayer.
Collegeville is a special place. It is a place where I can bring my dreams to the surface and make plans. What has linked my projects throughout my life is me, my own interests and ideas. I am drawn to God, a religious person as well as a mathematician engaged with science. I’m interested in beauty and Russian culture and identity, the presence of the Church in Russia. When I come to the Collegeville Institute I can see more clearly who I am and the shape of my life. My dreams come to the surface.