by David E. Sumner
Dr. Robert Saler is a former Lutheran pastor and currently a professor and associate dean at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana. After growing up in southern Illinois, he received a bachelor’s degree from Valparaiso University. He earned two master’s degrees from the University of Chicago and a master’s and PhD from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. He was pastor of a Lutheran Church in Gary, Indiana, from 2010-2012. He was chrismated into the Orthodox faith in May 2020 at St. Stephen the First Martyr Orthodox Church (an OCA parish) in Crawsfordville, Indiana. He lives with his wife and their five children in New Palestine, Indiana.
Tell me about your family.
I was raised Lutheran, along with my sister, by very devout parents who continue to inspire me with their quiet faith and determination. Their support of my turn to Orthodoxy, along with the support of my wife and children, has been a real blessing to me.
What is your educational background?
I majored in religion at Valparaiso University, and went on to earn three masters’ degrees in religion (an M.A. from the University of Chicago and an M.Div. and Th.M. from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago). I received my first Ph.D. from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago in systematic theology in 2011, and I am currently working on a second Ph.D. in American Studies at Indiana-Purdue University in Indianapolis. I’ve written or edited five books and many articles, both scholarly and popular.
Describe your current job at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.
I teach in the area of religion and culture, with special focus on literature, the arts, politics, and theological aesthetics. I also oversee the Center for Pastoral Excellence, which offers programs designed to support pastors at various stages in their careers. In 2018 I became Associate Dean, focusing mainly on evaluation and assessment. I enjoy both teaching and administration, so it is a good mix.
When and how did you first start thinking about becoming an Orthodox Christian?
I wrote my first book in 2012 on contemporary Protestant theologians who convert to Roman Catholicism, so the issue of conversion has always loomed large with me. My first concrete encounters with Orthodoxy came in the form of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, where I became involved with the Arvo Pärt Project in 2014 (Arvo Pärt is an Estonian composer of classical and religious music). I began to become more heavily involved in Lutheran-Orthodox dialogue via the International Orthodox Theological Association, where I chair the Ecumenical Observers group. I began making prayer pilgrimages to Orthodox settings, in particular the Mull Monastery of All Celtic Saints on the Isle of Mull in Scotland. Trips to parishes and monasteries in Romania, Estonia, and Jerusalem, usually connected to my academic work, were also vivid and definitive. I don’t draw very strong distinctions between my theological work and my personal spirituality, so the deeper I went into the one the more the other would emerge.
Is there one person who most influenced you in becoming an Orthodox Christian?
For a variety of reasons related to personal journeys of repentance, I became intrigued by the story of Moses the Black. In particular, I was fascinated by the accounts of his martyrdom, in which he willingly submits to the violent hands of those whom he must have recognized as images of himself in a previous spiritual state. The peacefulness and power of that image both stayed with me and guided me. I should say too that the privilege of working so closely with faithful and brilliant Orthodox theologians through IOTA and St. Vladimir’s also gave me visceral encounters with what it means to have one’s theology operate in service to the church, and to think within the church on the basis of matters that are firmly settled and issues that remain contested.
What books and authors were most influential in your journey?
Fr. John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ is perhaps the single best account I have ever read as to the shape of how to think like a disciple. I also have been heavily influenced by both the poetry and prose of Scott Cairns, whom I regard as perhaps our greatest living Christian poet. My godparents and friends, Peter and Patricia Bouteneff of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, have also written and lectured in ways that have been quite helpful for me. I was privileged once to have a brief but deeply impactful conversation with the Orthodox composer Arvo Pärt that shaped my view of spirituality and art quite deeply. I should mention too that the entire journey was soundtracked by both Pärt and also Cappella Romana, my favorite choral ensemble. Finally, Paul Gavrilyuk, Sergei Bulgakov, Fr. Seraphim Aldea, Frederica Matthews-Greene, Eugene Vodolozkin, St. Maria of Paris, Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, Justin Marler, and Fr. Thomas Hopko are writers who have and continue to give me food for the journey.
What parts of Orthodox theology were most attractive to you?
As someone who has long wrestled with the question of discipleship (influenced perhaps by my teaching and writing about Dietrich Bonhoeffer), I became deeply struck by the ways in which the lives of the saints serve as a sort of “living exegesis” of the gospels. This may sound obvious to cradle Orthodox, but as a Protestant the idea that engaging Christ through the lives of the saints is more like a ladder than a barrier was new to me. To be clear, Luther and other Reformers thought that the lives of the saints were helpful models for the Christian life, but the more I walked alongside the saints in the path of discipleship the more I realized that I was not relating to their examples – I was relating to them. And it was a short leap from wanting to be in their company to wanting to share the same sacramental mysteries as them, especially the Eucharist.
What do you appreciate most about Orthodox Christianity?
When I am engaging the liturgy, all of the important but penultimate matters with which we are called to wrestle – justice, the family, our vocations, politics, all that – are placed in their proper subordination to the core struggle, the beautiful struggle, between God the healer and the soul crying out for (and resisting) healing. There is no room for pride or agendas from me. When I am in the liturgy, I am thinking of nothing else but God and the nakedness of my soul before God. Once I encountered God there, nothing else would do.
Lots of converts talk about the solidity of Orthodox doctrine and the fact that core components (e.g. the creeds, Christological doctrines, etc.) are settled and unchanging. I value that, too, but I value, too, the fact that lived Orthodoxy contains a great deal of ongoing variety and willingness to debate matters that are not settled. As a new Orthodox, I will not be bold enough to say what the church “should” do, but I can testify this: the matters of ethics, society, politics, etc. that are left fluid and unsettled around a theological core that is unchanging and eternal was and is a powerful combination and lure for me.
Orthodoxy is an intriguing and powerful mix of sublime mysticism and deep practicality. Learning the Orthodox life drives us upwards into the eternal mysteries of Christ and the Trinity, and then right back down into the foibles and messiness of how we eat, how we sin, how we fall and rise up again. In Christ, we can be unafraid of both mystery and of the messiness of our own lives as we are on the journey to theosis.
David E. Sumner is a parishioner at St. George Orthodox Church in Fishers, Indiana, and a professor emeritus of journalism at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.