I have heard that the Orthodox use philosophy to explain their beliefs, but that they do not mix science and philosophy with theology as much as does the West?
I think that Orthodoxy probably falls somewhere in the middle of many groups. We don't try to base our beliefs on science and philosophy to the point that we change what we beleive every time some archaeologist discovers something or some philosopher articulates a fairly innovative theory about something or other. We do tend to take all that science and philosophy has figured out over the years, however, and confirm what is true and good. I suppose, in a way, we are probably different than some western groups in that we don't use philosophy or science to discover or arrive at our beliefs, but merely to articulate them for people who are part of academia or the intelligentsia. Thus the Orthodox would see the use of Logic as a discipline as a helpful tool for explaining Orthodoxy, while for other Christians it might be a way of arriving at the truth. Another way of putting it is that Orthodoxy sees science and philosophy as disciplines which confirm or clarify what God has revealed, while some groups consider these two disciplines as being able to supplement or add to what has been revealed by God.
Now, first of all, is this completely true? Didn't many of the early Church Fathers use Neo-Platonic concepts (I believe St. Gregory of Nyssa is one name I've heard associated with Neo-Platonic concepts)?
Yes, the dominant philosophical thought at the time of the Fathers was derived from Platonic and Neo-Platonic speculations, so the Fathers sometimes entered the battle field using terminology that Platonists and Neo-Platonists would find agreeable. Up through the 6th century (at which point Emperor Justinian closed down the few remaining non-Christian universities), pretty much any male (and sometimes female) who was born into a rich family received a formal education, including platonic philosophy and rhetoric. St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian received such an education together, and the Apostate Emperor Julian, who tried to revive the older pagan ways, was one of their classmates. Whether Christian or not, most anyone who was rich got a formal education in Greek philosophy.
It is important to remember that the Fathers did not use Greek philosophy blindly, though. The literature against Greek beliefs by the early Church Fathers is extensive. So, they did not merely accept some concepts and reject others, but were actively engaged in both using the good and pointing out the bad in Plato and others. To take just the first three centuries of Christian thought, and just what is available at CCEL, I count at least twelve works
by Christians directly interacting with Greek belief, including texts by St. Justin Martyr, Tatian, Aristides the Philosopher, Theophilus of Antioch, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Minucius Felix, Origen, Hermias the Philosopher, and Arnobius. So, the Fathers did not just consider philosophy to be something that you could borrow terms from, but considered it to be something that had to be confronted and answered, as well as used to help articulate the Christian faith to those brought up being taught to think using Platonic thought as a belief system.
Also, are Orthodox great students of philosophy? Even if Orthodox do not fuse philosophy with theology, are they still just as well versed in it as are Western Christians?
This is hard for me to tell, because most of the people I know who are Orthodox I know from the internet, and what I see on the internet might not translate exactly to what one would see in the Orthodox parish settings. But fwiw, from what I have seen, Orthodox would not typically be considered great students of philosophy, though I think we are adequately knowledgable if the need arises. We are not, generally speaking, going to write a bunch of books on philosophy or science, but you will find one here and there on medical ethics, psychology, platonic thought in the fathers, etc. We probably aren't as likely--unlike the Fathers--to engage modern philosophers on their own ground. This is not to say that there are nor responses to Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche, etc., but only that you won't see such an emphasis on interacting with these philosophies. This is probably an interaction that Orthodoxy will have to involve itself in if it is ever to truly become a force for spiritual change in the west. We have done well at issuing flat condemnations of modern western philosophers, but we are still lacking in thoughtful critiques and interactions with them.
Do Orthodox seminaries require their seminarians to study philosophy (both ancient and modern) so as to better understand the philosophies which may further clarify or which may indeed blur the faith? How much philosophy do such seminarians receive?
This one I'm not sure of, though we do have some seminarians around here, so hopefully they'll answer!
I ask you: how much effort do you put into understanding ancient and modern philosophies?
Generally I try to view ancient philosophers through the Church Fathers. I find Plato, for example, to be boring and unhelpful. Yet, I've been told that he was the most quoted source, after the Bible, in the early Church. Why!? I don't know, I can't figure it out. Maybe his writings seem boring to me only because I already know what he's saying, whereas it was revolutionary for him to say at the time. Maybe certain things seem obvious or logical to me only because he first said them, and so they have come down to my generation as part of the conventional wisdom. Anyway, the point is, I tend to just read the Fathers and take what they consider good from Plato, Aristotle, etc. Regarding modern philosophers, I do read some from time to time (maybe a couple works a year), though at this point I am just trying to get deeper into an Orthodox mindset and so read mostly Orthodox books. I have seriously thought about writing an Orthodox critique of some of Nietzsche's works, like Twilight of the Idols
, but haven't felt up to the task. I do look forward to the day when I return to college and take philosophy courses, so that I can be forced into interacting with modern philosophers, but for now I'm just waiting.