East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 7, No. 3, Summer 1999, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Father Aleksandr Men:  In Dialogue With Society

Janet Wehrle

Aleksandr Vladimirovich Men was an influential Russian Orthodox priest who was murdered on 9 September 1990, while walking from his home in a small village outside Moscow.  He was struck on the back of the head with an ax.  Those who consider Fr. Aleksandr a modern martyr find it troubling that, to date, authorities have been unable to apprehend the person or persons responsible.

During his life Fr. Aleksandr had a broad sphere of activity that placed him in many different roles: a priest who officiated the liturgy and administered the sacraments to his parishioners; a spiritual father and guide to scores of people with whom he had a relationship; a lecturer who was invited to speak about Christianity to over 200 audiences during the last two years of his life; and an author who produced numerous books and articles on the history of religion, the Bible, and the Orthodox faith. Because of his activity, Men became well known and, just as with any prominent figure, was both criticized and praised.  Although he was never arrested like many Soviet era clergy, he was regularly the object of KGB surveillance and interrogation.  Persecution also came from within the Church, mostly from people who refused to consider Men, an ethnic Jew, a true Orthodox Christian.  However, by the end of his life he had become very popular among large groups of both local provincials and Moscow intellectuals.  Many of his followers likened him to the apostle Paul, someone who was "all things to all men."

Reviled and Revered
Since his death, Aleksandr Men has continued to be a controversial figure. The West is only beginning to hear about him, as some of his books are being translated into English, but in Russia he is more widely debated and discussed.  His opponents write articles attacking him for his Jewish heritage and accusing him of various heresies that they believe his books promote.  However, much of the focus on Aleksandr Men has been positive. His books are being published freely in Russia (during his life they were secretly printed abroad), organizations are carrying out charitable projects in his name, and churches are promoting his values and teaching.  The Open University, founded by Aleksandr Men, continues to offer a range of theological and other courses that center on religious culture. Some large churches in Moscow, such as the parish of Sts. Kosmos and Damian led by Fr. Aleksandr Borisov, minister with Men's zeal for biblically based traditional Orthodoxy and are ecumenically minded.  Hosanna Community, an essentially lay group that grew out of the house churches Fr. Men created, undertakes a variety of works, including a Youth Missionary School and summer camps. It is important for Western Christians working in Russia to know something about Fr. Aleksandr Men because he is such a prominent figure in Russian Christianity.  Most Russians, including non-believers, have heard of him and are familiar with his teaching as a result of seeing him on television or reading his books.

In Dialogue with Society
One of Men's strongest convictions throughout his life was that the Church needs to be in dialogue with society, thus his efforts to reach all groups of people with his ministry.  In particular, he had an active relationship with intellectual circles, including people such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Nadezhda Mandelshtam.  For most of his career as a priest, Fr. Aleksandr served in the village parish of Novaia Derevnia near Moscow.  Like most village churches of the Soviet era, the parish was visited primarily by faithful old women, but when Fr. Aleksandr arrived, new people--intellectuals, youth, visitors from Moscow--began to come.  Many people found the trip to Novaia Derevnia too dangerous politically, so Fr. Men often went to Moscow, where the foundation of his ministry was a system of small groups that met weekly in apartments.  The groups focused on prayer and mutual help, but each one also had a specific purpose, such as training new believers or Bible study.

Fr. Men's activities as a priest were a reflection of his convictions about the nature of Christianity.  He believed that Christian life is founded on a personal meeting with Jesus Christ who is "God-manhood, the union of the human spirit, which is finite and limited in time, with the divine, which is infinite" ("Khristianstvo," Russkaia mysl, no. 3850, 19 October 1990).  This meeting with Christ should not be placed in a box, isolated from the rest of a person's life; instead, it should be integrated. Christianity does not require a person to reject culture because every aspect of life is connected with God, and to take anything away from the world, except sin, would impoverish Christianity. Christians should also not reject other denominations because the Church, in reality, is united, and division among Christians is the result of sin.  Fr. Men embraced Judaism, as well, and saw his Jewish identity as a gift.  He believed that a Jewish Christian did not cease to be a Jew but became more aware of the spiritual calling of his people.

Apologist with Pen in Hand
Besides his pastoral activities, Fr. Men devoted a great deal of time to writing books, which he considered an important aspect of his ministry.  He recognized that books written before the 1917 Revolution were not always understandable to modern readers and foreign books were not always relevant to Russians.  His works include the following:  Son of Man, a narrative biography of Jesus Christ; In Search of the Way, the Truth, and the Life, a six-volume series that looks at Christianity as the culmination of the spiritual development of mankind throughout history; How to Read the Bible, a commentary on the Old Testament; Sacrament, Word, and Image, a book designed to help new Orthodox believers understand the liturgy; an unpublished seven-volume dictionary of biblical studies; and numerous articles.

English Translations
Most of Men's writings are currently available only in the original Russian.  However, there are several published English translations that make Men's works accessible to Western readers.  For years The First Hour (Patristic Society, 206 Sarles Lane, Pleasantville, NY 10570; e-mail: sigrist@pace.edu) regularly published Men translations and articles about Men.  Christianity for the Twenty-First Century: The Prophetic Writings of Alexander Men, edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Ann Shukman (New York: Continuum, 1996), is a collection of various interviews, articles, and book excerpts.  Many of the selections focus on Men's theories about the spiritual development of mankind, views which were largely influenced by Russian religious philosophers Nikolai Berdiaev and Vladimir Solovev.  Men believed that all humans, by nature, search for God, and the religions of the world have been an attempt to find the truth of God.  The history of religions in world cultures displays a process--a development of religious thought or a gradual revealing of the divine principle.  Christianity is the culmination of the spiritual development of mankind.  It is not another attempt by man to find God; rather, it is God's response to the spiritual searchings of mankind.  This response is namely the coming of Jesus Christ, whom Solovev called the "God-Man."  This coming of the God-Man is the perfect response to the spiritual searchings of mankind because the goal of religion is to somehow bind one's human spirit to the divine spirit.

Men said in a lecture that Christianity challenges many philosophical systems, but it is also the answer to the hopes of many of them.  Three volumes of Aleksandr Men's works are available in English from Oakwood Publications (3827 Bluff St., Torrance, CA 90505-6359; tel/fax:  800-747-9245 and 310-378-9245; e-mail: oakwood@oakwoodpub.com; web site: http://www.nettinker.com/oakwood/). Awake to Life! (trans. Marite Sapiets, Oakwood Publications, 1996) is a collection of sermons from the season of Lent and Easter, through Pentecost.  Another collection, About Christ and the Church (trans. Alexis Vinogradov, Oakwood Publications, 1996), contains a series of conversations that were recorded on cassette as Fr. Aleksandr talked with his spiritual children around tables in their private homes.  Because KGB surveillance often made it difficult for Fr. Aleksandr to meet with his parishioners in his office near the church, these home gatherings became his forum for teaching about Christ, the Church, and the Bible.

The third English translation is Aleksandr Men's first book, Son of Man (trans. Samuel Brown, Oakwood Publications, 1998), which he began to write when he was still a college student.  The book synthesizes the four Gospels to give an account of the life of Jesus Christ.  It also adds historical background and cultural information that is not found in the Gospels, such as geography, Jewish customs, and the political structure of the Roman Empire.  The book is written in contemporary language and in a narrative style because Men wanted to make it accessible to the modern reader and to help people to see the Gospels in a fresh, new way.  The style and language help to put the reader into the context of the Gospels and to feel like an eyewitness.  The reader becomes one of the many people who are trying to figure out who the Rabbi named Jesus is.  Like Jesus' contemporaries, the modern reader has the choice to either accept or reject Him as Messiah.

Oakwood also has published a translation from the French of Yves Hamant's biography, Alexander Men:  A Witness for Contemporary Russia (trans. Fr. Steven Bigham, Oakwood Publications, 1995).  The book is a captivating account of Men's life from his birth to the last years of his ministry, including a chapter on the mystery surrounding his murder. The author provides abundant cultural background that highlights the uniqueness of Fr. Aleksandr's ministry in the years of religious oppression under the Soviet regime.

Without question, it is necessary for those ministering in Russia to be familiar with Aleksandr Men, because he was perhaps the foremost evangelically and ecumenically minded Orthodox reformer.  His work will continue to influence the Russian theological and cultural landscape for years to come.  The best place to begin acquainting oneself with Men is Yves Hamant's commendable biography.  Of the limited body of biographical material, this book gives the most complete overview of Men's life, ministry, and philosophy.  To become acquainted with the actual work of Aleksandr Men, Son of Man is a good choice because it is one of his more well-known books among Russian readers.  The anthology, Christianity for the Twenty-First Century, will give the Western reader a broad survey of Aleksandr Men's ideas and teachings.

Janet Wehrle received her M.A. from Boston College in Russian language and literature after spending two years in Tiumen, Russia, with her husband, David.  Her 1998 M.A. thesis, "The Life of Aleksandr Men:  Hagiography in the Making," includes an extensive bibliography of Russian-language articles on Fr. Men.

Janet Wehrle, "Father Aleksandr Men:  In Dialogue With Society," East-West Church & Ministry Report 7 (Summer 1999), 1-3.
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© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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