Where are you from originally?
I grew up in Colorado and, except for 1 year of college and 7 years of graduate school, I lived and raised my family there. My parents and my wife’s parents and all of our siblings still live there, as well as half of my own children and all my grandchildren. So, you might say I’m still invested in the place.
What is your area of research and teaching?
My doctoral research was driven by the desire to understand the divergence of Latin and Byzantine theological traditions. To that end, I wrote my dissertation on Gregory of Nyssa’s place in the thought of the great early medieval writer John Scotus Eriugena. It was instructive to see Eriugena wrestling to harmonize the philosophical and theological anthropology of Augustine with the thought of his major Greek sources, namely, Ps-Dionysius, the two Gregories, and Maximus the Confessor.
All my degrees were earned in inter-disciplinary programs. Consequently, I was hired at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in 2002 as a generalist willing to teach a wide variety of courses. For most of my time there, my research was dedicated to getting ready for the next new course I was teaching, but my regular courses over the years turned out to be Sacred Arts, Patristics, Christology, and Theological Anthropology and Eschatology.
Now that I am at BCS, I’ve decided to bring those interests to bear in the areas of Spirituality and Iconology, with probably one more related area. I would really like to do something in poetics. I had a course at SJV called “Poetic Theology: Virgil, Dante, and Milton.” I would like to find a nice Byzantine complement to that.
What attracted you to this subject?
I guess what attracts me to poiēsis in general, both visual and literary, is the role that stories and images have played in my own spiritual life and intellectual development. Scholastic definition and argument are necessary for reason and dogma, but intellect and spirit crave the food of symbols, which, as has often been said, are the native language of faith. That’s why our Bible and Divine Liturgy are what they are and not a philosophical manual or public disputation.
I suspect that for most people the battle for faith is won or lost in the imagination more often than in the reason. Right now, Netflix and other formators of imagination are winning the day. Our collective Christian debt to the small literary group called the Inklings is incalculable because they remind us of the Gospel’s potential to inspire more than moral philosophy and charitable works. Sadly, we are poorly equipped to follow their example. There weren’t many of them and they could hardly produce more than a handful of stories anyway, good ones, but not nearly as many as the world needs. Without a halo of imaginable beauty, the true and the good lose their attractive power.
How did you come to teach at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary?
I first taught here during the spring and fall semesters of 2017 in connection with my presbyteral formation for the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Phoenix. After my ordination to the priesthood, my bishop loaned me to the Archeparchy of Pittsburgh for work at BCS where my title is Director of Human Formation. Teaching is one of the perks of my assignment.
How many years have you taught at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary?
I’m in my second year if you count 2017, but my wife and I moved here, and I took up my full-time appointment, in July 2019.
What is the most challenging part of teaching for you?
The most challenging and inviting part of teaching is the learning. I don’t think I’ve ever taught a course that didn’t include at least one major text that I hadn’t taught from before. At the same time, I prefer my courses to be rooted in readings of great texts that have shown themselves worthy of rereading year after year over the centuries.
What keeps the material fresh are the questions the texts provoke. Opening space for real, and sometimes inconvenient, questions to emerge and be given hospitality in class requires agility, patience, and courage, which can be very challenging, a challenge I love. Consequently, for my day-to-day pedagogy, I am happiest with a very interactive form of lecture or, better, with a seminar discussion.
Challenging, in a less happy sense, is the cultural shift that I finally, and regretfully, acknowledged as probably being irreversible after my experiences during the 2013-2014 academic year: I could no longer ignore that too many of my seminary students–good, bright students–were no longer able to learn anything for themselves just by reading books. I could no longer assign readings and expect that enough of the students would come to class having understood the texts sufficiently to raise and discuss interesting and pertinent questions. The instruments that Christian culture has relied upon since the days of late-antiquity for the preservation and transmission of its hard-won wisdom are no longer accessible by many, many people, even though it is easier than ever for them to put their hands on more of them than ever before.
The most challenging part of teaching for me now is how to teach the Christian tradition without relying on books. I’m learning, but the necessity to do so still makes me sad.
State one thing you wish you had known in your undergraduate days.
Latin-and-Greek. (That is one thing by 19th- and early-20th-century standards.) I made a pretty good start in my junior year of college, but by then it was too late and I’ve never been able to catch up. My own education was already severely limited by the cultural shift I mentioned above.
What experiences have shaped you spiritually?
Confronting death and loss, and the fear of death and loss, at several key developmental stages throughout my life have kept the question, “What is really real?” alive and central. Those experiences were the matrix in which I received and questioned, and deepened, the faith learned from my father, and from the crucible I found the beginnings of prayer.
Then there was the year of the Millennium of Christianity in Kievan Rus, when every Saturday evening I experienced Byzantine Vespers, celebrated with hauntingly beautiful music at the Ukrainian Catholic parish in Mishawaka, Indiana. The effects have lingered.
What do you do to de-stress?
Mostly, I allow/beg my wife to read me books in the evenings. I used to do almost my fair share when we had kids at home, but now it’s her doing most of the reading. We recently finished The Lord of the Rings–probably for the 12th or 13th time since we got married–and we are currently reading The River of Doubt, a book about Teddy Roosevelt’s post-presidency expedition to explore an uncharted tributary of the Amazon.
I also own an astrolabe, astronomical binoculars, and an 8-inch reflector telescope for the odd foray into the night sky. I haven’t managed to integrate my interests in natural history into my daily habits as consistently as the Evening Read, but we do visit Riverview Park and the Pittsburgh-area museums and conservatory often.
Cat or dog person?
As in other religious areas of life, I am a convert. Leslie and I started our married life with cats, but my allergy to them would have eventually killed me, so we switched to dogs, principally Newfoundland Retrievers and Corgis.
If you are interested in having Fr. Joel—or any of our faculty—speak at your next event, visit www.bcs.edu/faculty-directory.