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Faith and Science as a Theological Problem



We shall now attempt to approach this topic, from within the perspective of the Orthodox Patristic Tradition. In this way, a historical-spiritual perspective is opened up, which simultaneously reveals the variation and the difference between the world that we have voluntarily incorporated ourselves in, with the world of our Romanian (Hellenic-Orthodox) tradition.

1. Problem, or pseudo-problem?

The antithesis and consequently the “a priori” conflict between faith and science constitute a problem for Western (Franco-Latin) thought and a pseudo-problem for the Orthodox Patristic tradition. This observation is based on the historical data of these two realms.

The (supposedly) problematic choice between “faith, or science” appears in Western Europe in the 17th century, at the same time as the development of the positive sciences. It is a fact that all the developments in Western Europe during the last centuries were taking place in absentia of the ancient, unified Europe and Orthodoxy.  The “de-Orthodoxing” and “de-Ecclesiasticizing” of the Western European world was achieved through the “philosophization” and “legalization” of the Faith and its eventual “religionization” (for these developments, see Chr. Yannaras, “Orthodoxy and the West”, Athens 1992).

Landmarks in the alienating course of Western Europe include: Scholasticism (13th century), Nominalism (14th century), Humanism/Renaissance (15th century), Reformation (16th century) and the Enlightenment (17th century).  This was a series of revolutions and simultaneously rifts in the fabric of the Western European civilization, which was born of the dialectic relationship between these trends.  Nominalism (i.e., “dualism” philosophically and  “individualism”/ “utilitarianism” socially) was the foundation of scientific development of the European world and its socio-political evolution.

The Orthodox East had a different spiritual course, by remaining faithful, in the persons of its Saints naturally, to the Apostolic-Patristic Tradition, which is at the antipodes of scholasticism and all the other historical-spiritual developments of the European sphere.  In the East, that which survived was the ascetic-neptic and empirical participation in the Truth, as a communion with the Uncreated. It was in this framework that the sciences developed in Romania (“Byzantium”). On the contrary, the scientific revolution in the West in the 17th century contributed towards the distancing between faith and knowledge, which resulted in the following axiomatic principle: of this new, positive philosophy, the only truths that are accepted are those verified by logical explanation – that now absolutized self-centeredness of Western thought (rationalism).  These truths are the existence of God, soul, virtue, immortality, judgment etc.  Their acceptance of course can find a place, only in deist enlightenment, given that Enlightenment’s atheism exists in parallel, as a structural element of this latter-day thought.  However, basic ecclesiastic dogmas are rejected by the Enlightenment’s logic (for example the triadicity of God, the Incarnation, Christian soteriology and the like); this is actually the “natural” religion, which, from the Patristic aspect, not only does not differ from atheism; it is in fact the worst form of it.

2. Two-fold Gnosiology

But why is it, that in the Orthodox East the antithesis between faith and science is a pseudo-problem? Because gnosiology in the East is determined by the “object” being recognized, which is twofold: the Uncreated and the created. Only the Triunal God is Uncreated, Who “is beyond everything” (Gregory the Theologian); He is the entirely “Other”, incommunable and inaccessible.  The universe (or universes) are the “created”, in which our existence is actualised. “Faith” is the knowledge of the Uncreated and “Science” is the knowledge of the created. We are therefore looking at two different kinds of knowledge, each possessing its own method and instrument.

The believer, who moves within the territory of supernatural knowledge, or the “knowledge” of the Uncreated, is not called upon to learn something metaphysically, or to accept it logically, but to “undergo” something, by communing with it.  It is at this point that the Church’s mission as the body of Christ is substantiated, as is Her reason for existence in the world: to render  Man receptive of that knowledge, which is simultaneously his salvation.

Supernatural-theological knowledge is understood Orthodoxically as “pathos” or an experiencing; as a participation and communion with the transcendental personal Truth, and not as a mere lesson. Thus, the Christian faith is not a theoretical (abstract) acceptance of “metaphysical” truths, but is rather an empirical communion with the Uncreated God, through one’s spiritual labours.

This makes it evident why, in Orthodoxy, authority is acknowledged as being the experiencing of participation in the Uncreated – as the “sighting” the Uncreated – and not any texts or Scriptures. The dogma of SOLA SCRIPTURA (only the Scripture) is a Protestant one; the Pope was substituted in this manner by a “paper pope”, as they themselves derisively proclaim.  The pre-eminence of texts – proof of the “religionizing” of the Faith – led to its ideologizing and idolizing (fundamentalism) , with all the consequences this obviously entails.

A prerequisite for the functioning of one’s “knowing” the Uncreated is, in Orthodoxy, the rejecting of every “analogy” (Entis: of being and Fidei: of faith), during the encounter and the association between the created and the Uncreated. The blessed John the Damascene (†750) summarizes at this point a previous Patristic tradition as follows: “It is impossible to find in Creation an image that reflects in itself the manner of the Holy Trinity; For how can the created, which is both complex and changeable and describable, with form and perishable, clearly denote the “beyond-essence” Divine Essence, which is exempt of all these (aforementioned attributes)?” (P.G. 94,821/24).

Following the above, it becomes obvious why school education and philosophy more specifically, do not constitute prerequisites – according to the patristic tradition – for “knowledge” of God (theognosy).  We, in our non-Patristic arrogance, are filled with self-admiration for the scientific titles we acquire, when they have no power whatsoever for the attainment of divine knowledge and salvation. In our Orthodox-Patristic tradition, alongside the major academician Saint Basil (†379) – who is honoured as “Great” – we also honour the unwise in the worldly manner yet “possessing” the ”upper” or divine wisdom (the knowledge of the Uncreated), Saint Anthony (†350).   A deviation from this point is the blessed Augustine (†430), who disregarded Patristic and Scriptural gnosiology and was  essentially neo-Platonic. With his axiom of: “credo ut intelligam” (I believe, therefore I understand), he introduced the principle that man is led to a logical conception of Revelation through faith (an external consent).  But in this way, priority is given to logic (intellect), which is recognized as a Gnostic instrument – both in natural as well as supernatural knowledge. God is understood as a Gnostic “object” that is “perceived” by man’s intellect, in the same manner that it perceives natural objects.  The completion of Augustine’s principle, through Thomas Aquinas (†1274), will be effected by DesCartes (†1650), whose principle of “cogito, ergo sum” (I cogitate, therefore I exist) exalts the intellect as the main constituent of human existence.

3. The two types of knowledge

The rescinding of the (apparent) contradiction in the field of gnosiology is achieved theologically, with the clear distinction between the two kinds of knowledge/wisdom: the “divine” or “upper” one and the “lower” or “secular” one (James 3:12).  This was the distinction that Saint Gregory Palamas had counter-posed before Barlaam the Calabrian in the 14th century.

The first kind of knowledge is the supernatural kind, and it is bestowed by God; the second kind of knowledge is the natural kind, which is attained through scientific research. These two Gnostic functions correspond to the clear distinction of Uncreated and created; of God and creation.  However, these two types of knowledge also require two gnostic methods. The method required for attaining divine wisdom-knowledge is the “neptic” method, otherwise known as catharsis of the heart (Psalm 50:12, Matthew 5:8), which leads to the indwelling and the manifestation of the uncreated energy of the Triadic God within the heart. God bridges the gap between Him and the world, with His uncreated energy.

The method required for attaining secular wisdom-knowledge is science, which is the exercising of man’s intellectual/logical power.  Orthodoxically speaking, both kinds of knowledge and their methods are gradated according to their carriers ( e.g., Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Photios the Great etc.)  The method required for supernatural gnosiology is referred to in the Orthodox tradition as “Hesychasm” and it identifies with “nepsis” (alertness) and “catharsis” (cleansing) of the heart (Psalm 50,12; Matth. 5:8). Hesychasm is the quintessence of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy – outside of hesychastic practice – is patristically inconceivable. Hesychasm, in its essence, is an ascetic-therapeutic treatment; a cleansing of the heart of its passions for the rekindling of the noetic faculty, the function of the “nous” (not the mind) within the heart.  The noetic faculty is a mnemonic system parallel to the cellular and encephalic ones, which preserves the “memory of God” within the heart, as extensively expounded by the memorable fr. John Romanides from within the Philokalian tradition.

It must however be noted that the method of Hesychasm as a curative treatment is purely a “scientific” one. In this method, an “observation” is a “sighting” of the Uncreated Light (divine energy); an “experiment” is a repetition of that experience among theumens-Saints.  Consider what a telescope is for a physicist; for a hesychast, its equivalent is a cleansed heart  (necessary for “theoscopy” – the observing of God).  That is why – according to fr. John Romanides – theology is a positive science; not in a university version thereof, but as a knowledge and a wording that pertains to God.  Its classification among the “theoretical” academic sciences presupposes its changing into a “metaphysical”, that is a speculative kind of theology.  The scientist-theologian – who is qualified regarding the Uncreated – is, in the Patristic tradition, the Spiritual Father – the “Geron” or Elder (note the characterizing of major ascetics as “professors of the desert”).  The recording of knowledge in both cases presupposes an empirical knowledge of the phenomenon. This is precisely where Orthodox-Patristic hermeneutics are founded.  The Saints (men and women) become authentic interpreters of the Scripture (=the experiences of the Prophets and the Apostles therein), because they are equally “divinely-inspired”; equally participants of the same experiences as them. However, the same thing applies in the field of science.  Only a specialist can comprehend the research performed by others in the same field. The non-specialists, who cannot verify with experiments the research of the specialists, must necessarily accept their findings, based on the trust that they have in the credibility of the specialists.  Science would otherwise not have shown any progress.

Something analogous takes place in the “science” of Faith; that is, the same kind of trust is displayed by its own “specialists”, towards the “knowledge of God (“theognosy”) of the Saints – of those who have reached the state of “theopty-theosis” (the sighting of God – deification).  It is on the basis of this provable experience that Patristic tradition and the (Ecumenical) Synods of the Church function.  Without theumens (“theoptics” – scientists with knowledge of the Uncreated), there cannot be an ecumenical synod; and that is the main problem nowadays, when convening an ecumenical synod, because it must either be composed of theumens-Fathers, or, it must move faithfully along the teaching of older theumens. In other words, it is not possible for Saint Mark of Ephesus (15th  century) to have said one thing, and for us to say other things.  Needless to clarify what this implies….

The Orthodox significance of the dogma also arises from this association. The dogma-teaching on Faith is not an intellectual invention; it presupposes the experiences of the theumens on God (Prophets, Apostles, Church Fathers). Thus, Patristic faith is just as dogmatic as science. The “dogmas” of science are its “axioms”.  This is why Mac Bloch had said that those who speak of “prejudice” in Faith are forgetting that scientific research is also prejudiced, otherwise progress in research would not have been possible.

In making this distinction between the two kinds of knowledge, their methods and their instruments, Patristic Orthodoxy avoids every possible confusion between the two, but also every conflict. Conflict can arise, when the findings of the one knowledge are monitored by the other one’s method; in other words, when science theologizes and theology judges secular science.  If God does or does not exist is not a problem that pertains to science, because science can neither prove it, nor reject it, with the means that it possesses.  The natural scientist who theologizes, using the means that belong to his area of knowledge, transforms his science into a metaphysical one; that is, he alters it altogether. In this way, the coast remains clear, for both comparison and conflict.

The theumen (the “theoptic” who has attained divine knowledge) reveals “faultlessly” that which pertains to God, as well as the association between God and creation, because the theumen-Saint is one who is aware of the “logos (reason) of beings”, although not aware of their nature or their cause, which are undertaken by scientific research.  The “logos of beings” refers to the cause of their existence and their associations within the world, which are attributed to God.  A theumen can be unfamiliar with scientific knowledge, which is why he can make scientific mistakes when talking about scientific matters. From an Orthodox point of view, certain “paradoxical” analogies can be observed, such as –for example- the possibility for someone to be a scientific genius but spiritually infantile (in divine knowledge). Reversely, one can be superior in divine knowledge and entirely ignorant in school knowledge (for example Anthony the Great) .

However, nothing can preclude the possibility of possessing both kinds of wisdom-knowledge, as one can observe in certain of the major Fathers and Mothers of the Church. This is what the Church chants on the 25th  of November, in praise of the great mathematician of the 3rd century, Saint Catherine – the wise bearer of both kinds of knowledge: “Having acquired the knowledge from God since childhood, the Martyr also learnt the exterior knowledge full well….”. A congruence such as this is also found for example in Saint Gregory of Nyssa – the younger brother of Basil the Great – one of the greatest Saints and sages of mankind.  When referring to the beginning of the universe, he somehow prepares the ground for the formulation of the “Big Bang” theory (Lemaitre, 1927). According to this theory, the “big explosion” took place in a “microscopic, homogenous and super-condensed mass”; Saint Gregory said that the beginning of the universe was a “seminal power, set down (by God) towards the genesis of all things” (PG 44,77 D). This “seminal power” can be comprehended as the “super-condensed mass” that Physicists refer to.  Gregory’s use of the preposition “towards” (the genesis of all things) is indicative of the dynamics of an explosion and a movement, from “potentially” something to “actively” something. Gregory’s theological status and his heart-centred association with Uncreated Grace are what permit him to speak of a God-Creator, Who created everything “out of nil” and Who places everything into motion “in the beginning”.

4.   God-human dialectic

Thus, from within this interrelation of the two kinds of knowledge-wisdom, the Orthodox faithful experiences a divine-human dialectic. However, every kind of knowledge (should) remain and move within its own bounds. This means there is an issue, whereby each kind of knowledge has its limits. The power of proof that each kind of knowledge possesses applies only in its own area. Consequently, the existence of God is not a problem for physical science to handle, because would involve crossing over its own boundaries. When Natural Science preoccupies itself with the issue of God, it becomes metaphysical and when Faith (theology) monitors science on the basis of the Scripture, it is warping the meanings of the Scripture, and is converting it into a scientific manual.  Although the Holy Bible may contain scientific misstatements (for example the age of the universe, of mankind, etc.), it does not, however, contain any theological errors.  In the Bible, God reveals His association to the world and the purpose of the world and of mankind. Thus, regardless when mankind was created, the important point for a theologian is that Man is a creation of God and that albeit an “animal”, it is nevertheless an animal with the potential to become a “theumen” (deified) according to Gregory of Nyssa, or “a god by calling” (he has the inbuilt command-potential inside him to become deified) according to Basil the Great. To overstep the boundaries of the two kinds of knowledge will lead to the confusion of their functions and finally to a conflict between the two.

With his “Hexaemeron” (PG  29,3-208), Basil the Great provides a classic example of Orthodox use and utilization of various examples of scientific knowledge. He manages to conjoin biblical and scientific data by means of a continuous transcendence of science. He debunks materialistic theories and heretic fallacies and passes over to a theological (but not metaphysical) interpretation.  The central message of his opus is the impossibility of logically supporting the dogma, because the dogma belongs to a different sphere – as something “scientific” within the bounds of another kind of knowledge. Consequently, the notion of “believe, and do not search” cannot exist in the Christian sense – and neither does it apply.

Even Basil the Great, in consenting to science – being versed as he was in all sciences – concedes to the God-centeredness of science. God sheds light on matters of revelation, leaving scientific research to Man. As the great Father says: “Many things have been silenced (in the Bible), thus exercising our mind towards deeper study”. The penetration and in-depth study of Creation is left to Science, which God bestowed on Man.

The tragic case of Galileo (whose pardon was rightly asked – albeit belated) shows us where the confusion and the overstepping of boundaries of knowledge can lead. But in the West (as well as in our own, mostly Westernized science) something even worse occurred: intellect (logic) was promoted to instrument of both divine and human wisdom. Thus, in the field of science, intellect rejects everything supernatural as being incomprehensible, while in the area of Faith, the findings of Natural Science are rejected, because they are often regarded to contradict the Bible (fundamentalism). This is the mentality that the rejection of the Copernican system in the East (1774-1821) also betrays, as well as the same loss of criteria (ref. Vas. Makrides: „Die Religiöse Kritik am Kopernikeniscchen “ Weltbild in Griechenland zwischen 1794 und 1821, Frankfurt am Main, 1995).  Science took its revenge for the condemnation of Galilee in the West, with Darwin’s “Theory of evolution”.

5. Conclusion

The supposed conflict between Faith and Science, along with Korais’ theory of “metakenosis” (trans-vacating), infiltrated to “our East”, when and where the hesychastic-Patristic tradition had indeed begun to wane.  From an Orthodox point of view however, a conflict between the two is not something self-evident. Nothing can preclude their co-existence.  Besides, contemporary scientific terminology is a significant aid in a mutual understanding between the two.  For example, theology’s apophatism – as Man’s inability to define (and essentially to confine)  God on the principle of indeterminism, was accepted by science also (see Chr. Yannaras, “Contents and Works of Apologetics Today”, Athens 1975). The return, consequently, to the Patristic outlook does help to transcend any conflicts.