A Decade Hence: Dr. Brandon Gallaher Interview (SVOTS '03)

Author: 
Virginia Nieuwsma

Over Holy Week and Pascha 2014, alumnus Dr. Brandon Gallaher returned to St. Vladimir's to worship and visit with the community. A British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at University of Oxford, he has been serving as a Fellow of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study at University of Notre Dame this spring. We had a chance to catch up with all that has transpired in his life since he completed his degree at St. Vladimir's ten years ago.

 What brought you to St. Vladimir's for Pascha?

I am currently working at University of Notre Dame as a visiting fellow and did not have enough time to get home to Oxford. I have remained in contact with Profs. Bouteneff, Meyendorff, and Rossi—both personally as friends and academically as colleagues—and, in particular, I am in regular contact with Fr. John Behr who is a longstanding friend, mentor, and teacher (dating from before I went to St. Vladimir's). He was encouraging after I expressed the idea of coming for a visit.

Seminary community life, coupled with studies, fieldwork, and worship, often can be demanding. What are your personal recollections about your time as a student, and would you share your impressions from your recent visit?

Seminary often can be an intensive and difficult time, and it was no exception for me. Indeed, I remember Fr. Paul Lazor saying that "the devil stalks the hallways of the seminary," presumably trying to destroy a place intent on doing good in service to God. Personally, seminary was the "best-worst" two years of my life: it marked me profoundly and made me grow (often despite myself!) spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally in ways that have determined who I am today as an Orthodox Christian, husband, father, and academic theologian; at the same time, it demanded a certain "dying to self" that was very difficult.

I was struck at my recent visit by the beauty of the worship. I also was struck—in speaking to different seminarians and their families—how they too were struggling as I had struggled and found being at St Vladimir's difficult. Now this difficulty, I would venture, is partially due to the spiritual challenges of life in community as well as being spiritually "stretched." 

The focus of your work is religion and secularization and ecumenical dialogue. How do you think these aspects might be affecting the experiences of today's seminarians?

Personal difficulties arising from life at seminary, I would venture, are partially due to the spiritual challenges of life in community as well as being spiritually "stretched" as I have just described. Yet I also wonder if there isn't a new element. Seminary communities now struggle with a new landscape caused by social changes that have been divisive in American society in general. The U.S. is in many ways now a society undergoing a social and moral transformation into a post-religious and pluralistic society in the manner that has long existed in Canada and Western Europe. Such tensions are to be expected in the Church, which is in the world but not of it. As has always been the case historically, the Church continues to offer a spiritual home to people with a variety of political and social perspectives, and thus, as these perspectives are shared and challenged, creative tensions (and sometimes "clashes!") invariably arise. 

What years were you at St. Vladimir's, and what was your course of study? 

I pursued my M.Div. from 2001–2003. I had a previous M.A. so I was able to do the degree in two rather than three years. It was a strange time to be in New York as shortly after I arrived the tragedy of September 11 happened. I remember classes being cancelled that day and a special prayer service being held in the chapel, but also some of my fellow seminarians went down to Ground Zero to help.

I had my own strange experience of this event. On the night of September 10, I had severe chest pains, and a friend rushed me to the hospital in Bronxville where I would later do my chaplaincy training. They did a battery of tests and could not figure out what the issue was, but they were concerned as I had a history of lung collapses. In the wee hours I returned to St. Vladimir's. My wife and I were awakened in the morning in the basement of the North Dorm by a call from my mother from Canada. She said to my wife that she was astonished, as she "had heard the news." For a moment there was some confusion on my wife's part as to how my mother could have heard about my being in the hospital. My mother then told my wife that some sort of small plane had crashed into a tower in New York City. We immediately rushed upstairs to friends who had a TV. We then to our horror saw the awful and terrible events of that day unfold. It felt like America was under attack and we were in the midst of it, albeit marooned in "seminary land."

Later that night I was struck again with severe chest pains and went back into the hospital. Throughout the night and into the morning I watched as doctors went back and forth between the hospital and Ground Zero. The ones returning were covered with dust. In the morning I returned with a diagnosis of pleurisy and was given painkillers, forced bed rest and (several months later) a huge medical bill running into the thousands of dollars, as we had neglected, being dim Canadians, to purchase medical insurance. So September 11 for me, will always conjure up a strange time period at the seminary.

Dr. Gallaher (L) with other members of the American Academy of Religion's Eastern Orthodox Study Group Steering CommitteeDr. Gallaher (L) with other members of the American Academy of Religion's Eastern Orthodox Study Group Steering CommitteeI did all the normal training an M.Div. student would do including hospital chaplaincy and a summer internship, which I served at St. Herman's Sobor in Edmonton, Canada (both truly life-changing experiences). My M.Div. was done under the older curriculum, so there was the opportunity to focus intensively on academic study, and I very quickly took this track once I decided not to be ordained. I was greatly inspired by classes I took on canon law, the history of Orthodox involvement in ecumenism, liturgical theology, and Russian Church history with (then) Prof. John Erickson and Prof. Meyendorff.

My thesis, supervised by Prof. Meyendorff and born out of a paper written in a class of Prof. Erickson, was an important intellectual moment for me. I finally was able to deal with the claim of the Orthodox Church to be the "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church" of the creed and place in proper context the existence of other non-Orthodox Christians and churches. It was titled "Catholic Action: Ecclesiology, the Eucharist and the Question of Intercommunion in the Ecumenism of Sergii Bulgakov" (available here).  A somewhat condensed early version of the thesis was published as my first two articles in Sobornost.

What did you do after Commencement?

During my time at St. Vladimir's, I decided I wanted to do a doctorate in theology. I knew I wanted to focus on Bulgakov as one of the few Orthodox systematic theologiansBrandon (R) visits with old friends and new, on PaschaBrandon (R) visits with old friends and new, on Pascha in the 20th century. Father John Behr encouraged me to not just focus on one then quite obscure Orthodox figure, but to look at his thought in dialogue with other western theologians, and it is due to his guidance I decided to look at him in comparison to Barth and Balthasar.

After applying to many graduate schools in the U.S., Canada and the UK, I decided on University of Oxford, where I wrote my D.Phil. thesis (now forthcoming from Oxford University Press) under the British systematic theologian Prof. Paul Fiddes at Regent's Park College. It was examined at Lambeth Palace by Prof. George Pattison and Archbishop Rowan Williams.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware was already retired by the time I came to Oxford, but he gave generously of his time in commenting on numerous chapters of my thesis, and really, his witness, wisdom, and friendship continues to have a profound impact on me (I still feel like pinching myself, as his books led me to the Church) .

During my years at Oxford I have published a lot on many Orthodox figures especially Bulgakov, Solov'ev, Florovsky and Lossky, as I have tried to understand the largely unexplored terrain of modern Orthodox (especially, Russian) theology (the articles are available here).

My first year of my doctoral studies at Oxford my wife and I lived at C.S. Lewis' old home, The Kilns, where I served as the Warden. This was a wonderful experience as his bedroom and study was our living quarters. I re-read the Narnian Chronicles lying on my bed, trying to imagine him writing them in the next room. But in his old study I wrote on such distinctly foreign figures to Lewis as Hegel, Kierkegaard and Solov'ev.

In the last year of my doctoral studies I taught systematic theology, theological ethics, and 19th-century philosophy, literature, and theology as a Lecturer at Oxford's Keble College. I then was awarded a three-year university position: a postdoctoral fellowship held at my old college and Oxford's Faculty of Theology and Religion, and funded by the UK's national academy for the humanities and social sciences, the British Academy. My research for the last three years has moved in two directions: on inter-religious dialogue (especially with Islam—I have participated for three years running in Georgetown University's Islamic-Christian Building Bridges Seminar); and religion and secularization. My work at Oxford and, for the Spring term of 2014 at University of Notre Dame's Institute for Advanced Study, looks at how the role and theological conception of the episcopate has changed in Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the 20th and 21st centuries in light of the challenge of secularism.

I now am combining these two directions in my most recent post. From the autumn of 2014 I will hold a two-year Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Monotheistic Religions (CISMOR), School of Theology, Doshisha University, Kyoto. My research in Japan will focus on inter-religious dialogue and religion and politics. In particular, I am now writing on the interrelationship of nationalism, secularisation, and religious and political authority in modern and contemporary Russian Orthodoxy and Shinto and Japanese Buddhism. I am very excited about going to Japan, especially in encountering Orthodoxy in Kyoto at the Annunciation Cathedral. I am looking forward to meeting up with old friends from St. Vladimir's who now are serving the Orthodox Church of Japan, especially Fr Dn. Elijah (Toru) Takei in Tokyo and Masatoshi John Shoji in Yokohama.

Would you tell us a bit about the your family and what you do when you aren't busy with academic pursuits?

My home parish is St. Nicholas the Wonderworker in Oxford, UK (Moscow Patriarchate) pastored by Archpriest Stephen Platt (who heads the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius). My wife, Michelle, is the parish secretary. She also was touched profoundly by her time at the seminary. For the first year at St. Vladimir's, after having taught science to elementary students for some years in Montreal, she took a much needed sabbatical and enjoyed the rhythm of liturgical life, made friendships that are our closest till this day, and read every book she could find in the Crestwood Library.

In our second year at seminary Michelle got a job working for the N.Y. School Board and was a Science Specialist at an elementary school in the Bronx. It was an immensely challenging position given the social challenges and poverty faced by many of the children, but she remembers it as one of the best professional experiences of her career so far. We have four children, who were all born after we left: Sophie (9), Ita (7), Alban (3) and Maria (5 months).

If I had to name any hobbies that were non-academic and non-church related, I would have to say "walking." We have tried every summer to take a holiday to Cornwall, where we go on family walks in the countryside. I also recently went to Athos for several weeks and hiked around the peninsula, which combined all my interests: church, theology, and walking in the countryside.

Brandon Gallaher is currently a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Faculty of Theology and Religion, University of Oxford and (for Spring 2014) a Fellow of the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, University of Notre Dame, where his research focuses on secularism, politics, and the episcopate in modern Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. From the autumn of 2014 he will hold a two-year Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Monotheistic Religions (CISMOR), School of Theology, Doshisha University, Kyoto. His research in Japan will focus on inter-religious dialogue and religion and politics.

In particular, he is now writing on the interrelationship of nationalism, secularisation, and religious and political authority in modern and contemporary Russian Orthodoxy and Shinto and Japanese Buddhism. His D.Phil. thesis from the University of Oxford was on "Trinitarian Theology in Christian East and West" (looking at Sergii Bulgakov, Karl Barth, and Hans Urs von Balthasar), and it is forthcoming in an expanded form as a monograph, Freedom and Necessity in Modern Trinitarian Theology. He is co-editing a Reader which is forthcoming, The Patristic Witness of Georges Florovsky: Essential Writings. He also holds a B.A. in English and Philosophy from the University of British Columbia, an M.A. in Religious Studies from McGill University, an M.Div. from St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, and an M.St. from Oxford, in Modern Theology.