Associate Professor of Religious Studies I Indiana University
Orthodox Christianity is one of the largest Christian denominations in the world, second only to Roman Catholicism in confessional size, cultural variety, and historical influence. It is a dynamic, diverse, and active form of Christian practice and thought that provides sustenance to millions of the faithful. Orthodox Christianity also directly shapes the politics, culture, and society of those communities which are framed by its traditions, making it a vital force in the modern formation of national and cultural identities.
I study one current of Orthodox Christianity, namely modern Russian Orthodoxy (ca. 1721–present). All my publications, as well as one of my courses, focus on the intellectual history of Russian Orthodox thought—that is the tropes, concepts, and narratives generated by Russian Orthodox thinkers, both clerical and lay, as they sought to make sense of and respond to the historical contexts around them.
My published work mainly focuses on the various ways in which historical actors in Russia’s late imperial period (ca. 1801–1917) interpreted scripture, patristic texts, theology, doctrine, and religious practice, as well as contemporary philosophy, in an attempt to make sense of and give meaning to the world around them.
Below are a few of my publications, as well as reviews of my two books.
Beyond the Monastery Walls: The Ascetic Revolution in Russian Orthodox Thought, 1814–1914 (2017)
This impressive, carefully argued book is more than a survey of Russian Orthodox thought in the nineteenth century; it is also an interpretation of Russian intellectual history in the period. Liberal perspectives on the century following the Napoleonic wars emphasize challenges to autocracy, signs of pluralism, and the growth of ideas about freedom. Left-wing approaches touch on similar themes, but from the perspective of the emergence of the popular voice, urban and rural. This book comes at the period from a different angle altogether, through linking a spiritual-ethical debate (about asceticism) to ongoing discussions about Russian identity. A fascinating and unexpected picture emerges, even if many of the most familiar names in Russian thought remain in evidence… Michelson is alert to the fact that asceticism was not an exclusively Russian preoccupation. Indeed, the ethical debates of nineteenth-century Russian Orthodoxy can be seen as a variant of the broader discussion taking place within Christianity over how to accommodate modernity. It is because of the potential for broader comparisons that this book will be of interest not only to specialists on Russia, but more generally to historians of religion in the modern world.Journal of Modern History (March 2019).
In this beautifully written and important book Patrick Michelson contends that for many Russian Orthodox hierarchs today, “asceticism is generally considered to be the practice of national and confessional identity, a method of life that both generates and embodies a specifically Russian Orthodox mind-set” (4). For these thinkers, to be Russian is to be Orthodox and to be Orthodox is to be ascetic. Russian Orthodox asceticism is often contrasted favorably to the corrupt ideologies associated with the West—individualism, sexual license, secularism, or capitalism. How did a set of Christian practices become part of a national myth? Michelson argues that the equating of “Russianness” with “asceticism” originated in the theological academies of the 19th century, during a long period of patristic and monastic revival… By analyzing these myths and the discourse that generated them, Michelson has illuminated an important aspect of the debates over the “Russian idea” and the continuing efforts of politicians, statesmen, and church leaders to justify the multicultural union that was the Russian Empire, and is the Russian Federation. By tracing the development of these nationalist myths and setting them in their 19th-century philosophical contexts he convincingly demonstrates the power of religion to shape politics. Anyone interested in the relationships between religion, nationalism, and empire will find this book enlightening.Reading Religion (February 2019)
Historians of Russian Orthodoxy… have reconfirmed for us the central role of monastic institutions in modern Russian history. Seeking to add intellectual context to this monastic renewal in late Imperial Russia, Patrick Michelson in Beyond the Monastery Walls addresses the much broader “discourse of asceticism” that not only inspired the nineteenth-century monastic revival but came “to occupy a central place in Russian Orthodox thought” (20). His book is both a history of how this ascetic turn, or “ascetic revolution,” developed and an exploration into the diverse intellectual and cultural worlds of those who framed the asceticism discourse… Readers will appreciate the breadth of Michelson’s reading and the finely tuned interpretive force of his intellectual history… Such probing of the politics of asceticism ultimately reinforces the importance of Patrick Michelson’s ambitious contribution to modern Russian Orthodox thought.Slavic Review (Winter 2018)
The aim of this fascinating book is to understand the way asceticism discourse came to occupy a central place in Russian Orthodox thought, and to recover all the divergent meanings it acquired throughout a century of modern Russian history… This well-written, comprehensive history of asceticism discourse in modern Russia highlights three important findings: hermeneutical shifts in interpretative authority; the conflation of national and confessional mythmaking; and asceticism as a contested key concept in Russian intellectual history… Michelson’s in-depth research is a great contribution to the field of religious and intellectual history, but scholars of nationalism and literary studies will also find the book relevant and revelatory.Ab Imperio (2018)
Reading this extraordinary book is like having missing pieces of a puzzle click together at last. Actors normally examined separately—radical socialists, theological academies, hermits, great writers, bureaucrats, lay intellectuals—emerge as part of the same religious culture that placed asceticism at the center of discourse and practice in imperial Russia's defining century. Nadieszda Kizenko, University of Albany, SUNY
Michelson’s groundbreaking study of discourses on asceticism makes a valuable contribution to the religious and intellectual history of both imperial Russian and Europe in the century prior to World War I. William Wagner, Williams College
Impressive in its analytical breadth and astute in its interpretive depth, this is an engaging, lucid, an original contribution to the history of modern Russian thought and modern Orthodoxy. Vera Shevzov, Smith College
Co-Editor, Thinking Orthodox in Modern Russia: Culture, History, Context (2014)
This collection of essays is a testament to the high level of diversity, vibrancy, and innovation currently present in the study of Russian religious thought and Russian Orthodoxy. It is axiomatic that religion, in its various manifestations, played an extremely important role in shaping modern Russian politics, society, and culture. The significance of this volume is that it emphasizes the contextual and contingent quality of that role. As Orthodox believers negotiated their way in an increasingly modern world, they often reconfigured or refashioned their personal and institutional religious beliefs and experiences to comprehend more fully the new realities before them. And even though individual Russian thinkers and writers relied on different and contradictory aspects of their common religious heritage as they confronted that changing world, they were always, in their own minds, thinking Orthodox. American Historical Review
As Patrick Lally Michelson and Judith Deutsch Kornblatt stress in their introduction, the “religious turn” that occurred in western and Russian historiography after the collapse of the Soviet Union has challenged many long-standing stereotypes related to the history of the Orthodox Church in the imperial era. The “dominant faith” of the Russian empire is no longer considered a monolithic and socially passive body totally submissive to the secular bureaucracy. These reconsiderations, however, have not yet touched on the history of Orthodox theology, especially its “official” branch, represented by the writings of the church hierarchs and professors at the theological academies. This area is still being treated as something static and isolated from both contemporary intellectual trends and the vibrant lived Orthodoxy. One of the goals of this book is to rethink these stereotypes… [This] book should be considered a serious contribution to the analysis of Russian religious history and will hopefully stimulate further reconsiderations of the role of lay and ecclesiastical religious thought in Russia’s intellectual and cultural development… [This] book should be considered a serious contribution to the analysis of Russian religious history and will hopefully stimulate further reconsiderations of the role of lay and ecclesiastical religious thought in Russia’s intellectual and cultural development. Slavic Review
In their insightful introduction, Michelson and Kornblatt seek to clarify what we mean by religious thought in the Orthodox Russian context. Emphasizing the polyphonic and sometimes contentious character of their subject, the editors argue for an integrative approach to studying the production, distribution, and consumption of Orthodox thought, one that takes us beyond the limiting binaries of clerical/lay, spiritual/secular, and Russian/Western. Challenging the presumption that Russian religious thought was confined to a handful of elites addressing limited audiences and operating in rarified spaces, Michelson and Kornblatt suggest rather that Orthodox religious thinkers should be seen in much the same way as the scholarship has come to view their Catholic and Protestant counterparts, namely, as “public intellectuals deeply invested in the political, social, and cultural dilemmas of their day” (p. 7). Thus, Russian religious thinkers both informed and were informed by contemporary currents in thought and culture at home and abroad… [This volume offers a] panoramic view of how Russian Orthodox thought informed religious practice, shaped church politics, and permeated virtually every aspect of Russian cultural production. Russian Review
This volume does a lovely job of demonstrating the interdisciplinary nature of religious thought in the Russian context as well as the variety of individuals who were engaging in it in the modern period. The authors are in conversation with each other’s work, which adds to the success of the collection. The editors recognize the porous nature of the boundaries between the clergy and the laity, and also between works of theology, philosophy, literary criticism, and so on… Overall, they have produced a significant contribution to this “multivalent, multidisciplinary, and often contradictory enterprise” – the study of Russian Orthodox thought (19). It will certainly stimulate conversation and inspire further research across the disciplines.Canadian Slavonic Papers
It is very heartening indeed to read the papers collected in this volume and realize just how vibrant the study of Orthodox Christian thought and culture in Russia has become… [T]his new collection constitutes an immensely valuable exercise in ‘taking stock’, while at the same time covering new ground which has long deserved and needed sustained scholarly attention, both within and beyond Russia's borders. The editors have also taken great pains to achieve a joint focus on sound methodology for the study of religious philosophical thought, inviting their contributors to place reflection on it at, or close to, the centre of their essays. This emphasis is set, firmly and articulately, in the editors' Introduction. Slavonica
This is a hugely informative collection, rich in detail, meticulously referenced, and accessible to the scholar of Russian religious thought as well as to the interested layperson. The essays can be read in isolation, but it is when they are read together that they make their strongest impact. An interesting pattern emerges, and I wonder whether the editors fostered it deliberately. Through the focus on the relationship between Orthodoxy and Enlightenment values, the collection serves as a reminder of the fact that Orthodox thought is part of the wider pattern of European thought. Ab Imperio
Ce recueil offre un ensemble d’idées très stimulantes, particulièrement dans le contexte actuel, où la conception de la modernité comme mise à l’écart du religieux montre ses limites, en Russie comme partout ailleurs…. Le mérite de ce volume, à la fois très varié et rigoureux dans l’exposé de sa problématique, est aussi de poser préalablement les principaux points de repère pour un public large, puis, en ﬁn de volume, de mettre en situation les études sur l’orthodoxie russe. Revue des Études Slaves
Perhaps no Russian social class has been more colorfully and crudely pigeonholed than the ‘ecclesiastics’—from the nihilistic seminary student through the village priest, exotic sectarian, and high-ranking but obscurantist religious bureaucrat. This path-breaking volume corrects the picture with fascinating unexpected histories… A treasure-house of solid research and intellectual rigor, in which we see the believing Russian mind working together with the Russian heart. Caryl Emerson, Princeton University
Whereas scholarship has focused on Church history, the clergy, and popular Orthodoxy, it has largely neglected Russian religious thought. This volume examines leading figures, from Platon (Levshin) to Pavel Florenskii, as well as critical issues, such as Imiaslavie and miracles; its impressive erudition, original research, and critical rethinking of key texts and figures make this a major contribution to our understanding Russian Orthodoxy. Gregory Freeze, Brandeis University
"Freedom of Conscience in the Clerical Imagination of Russian Orthodox Thought, 1801–1865" (2018)
I have delivered talks, papers, and lectures on a variety of topics related to modern Russian Orthodoxy. The venues include:
The American Academy of Religion
The Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies
The British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies
Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies
Indiana University’s Russian and East European Institute
The University of Montana’s Russian Studies Program
The University of Tartu
October 4, 2018
Many of the scholars who study Russian Orthodoxy as lived religion have unknowingly become entangled in the very categories they seek to move beyond—that is, church, theology, and doctrine. This talk at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia explores these entanglements and their implications for the ways in which we understand this complex, contingent, and multivalent thing called Russian Orthodoxy.
Introduction to Religion
Philosophies and Theologies of Religion
A History of Orthodox Christianity
Jesus: Modern Interpretations
The Death of God
Introduction to Religion
Christianity and Modernity
Teaching & Learning
I teach a variety of courses related to the history of modern Russian Orthodoxy, the history of modern Christian thought, and the history of religious studies. Regardless of the subject matter, my courses are mainly designed to teach students how to question inherited assumptions about politics, culture, society, and everyday terms like religion. My intent is not to generate skepticism among students, but to cultivate their capacity for self-reflection, critical thinking, and what might best be called productive distanciation.