Theology in a Scientific World


First of all I would like to thank you for inviting me to speak this evening about Theology and Science, and for being here with us, not simply in this historic University and City of Oxford, where Theology and Science, and, we may hope, Wisdom are cultivated by so many eminent people, but also in the lan Ramsey Centre, whose Director, Professor John Hedley Brooke, is the first holder of the Chair of Science and Religion, founded by my old friend and fellow countryman, Dr Andreas Idreos, of blessed memory.

In the Orthodox Church a bishop is ordained at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, before the reading of the Gospel. This is because the primary task of the bishop is to proclaim and teach the Gospel, the Good News of Salvation. The bishop’s role is to be a Shepherd, to guide and lead his flock along the true path, along the Way, which is Jesus Christ.

Therefore I stand before you this evening as an Orthodox bishop, not as an academic, not as a ‘scientist’, not even as a professional theologian. But an Orthodox bishop is a teacher, and my task is not simply to listen, but also to pass on, both to my own people, and also to any who are ready to listen, the Church’s understanding of this important question of the relation between theology and science.

In the West, since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, Science and Religion have often been thought to be in conflict, though the historical evidence does not entirely support this. Moreover many of the greatest natural scientists since the sixteenth century, right down to our own days, have been people of deep religious faith. However, we must admit, that at the present time, much of the scientific world increasingly regards religion as irrelevant, as a mere survival of a primitive pre-scientific view of the world. This is also the view of much of the media. The present conflicts between scientists and fundamentalist Christians, particularly in the United States, over ‘creationism’ and ‘evolution’ are vivid illustrations of this. It is quite wrong to suggest, as some Christians do, that the account of creation in Genesis and the modern theory of evolution, associated in particular with Charles Darwin, are two different, and competing, scientific theories about human origins, and that they should be taught side by side in school science lessons, as alternative scientific theories about creation. Such people would do well to heed the observation of one of St John the Chrysostom’s contemporaries, Severianos of Gabbala, in his work On the Creation of the World.

“Moses did not say these things as an historian, but as a prophet.”[PG 56:431].

I was interested to read in Monday’s Times, in an article by Sir William Rees-Mogg, some remarks made by the head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Paul Poupard, on this subject. I draw your attention to two sentences. The first is, ‘Fundamentalists want to give a scientific meaning to words that had no scientific aim’. And the second, ‘Science and theology act in different fields, each its own’.

For historical reasons the Orthodox Churches have not always been deeply involved in this debate, although some Orthodox writers have tended to display sympathy with the more fundamentalist Christians in the West. This is largely because they see the fundamentalists as defenders of Christian orthodoxy against increasing atheism and secularism. What should an Orthodox bishop say about all this?

To begin with I would like to make a general observation addressed to both believers and non-believers. To the believers I would say that too many of us seem to be content with what can only be described as an infantile understanding of religion; that we rely on what we learned as children, and do not, apparently, feel any need to have an adult knowledge and understanding of our faith. Many highly educated believers keep abreast of their own particular or professional interests, but never take up a serious work of theology. Not that this is always easy. Take a walk round any large branch of Waterstone’s or Borders and have a look, not only at the amount of space devoted to religion and theology, but also at the sort of titles that are considered worth including under these headings.

To non-believers I would say something similar. Writers of letters to the serious newspapers and many of their journalists, when commenting on religious questions, often display an abysmal ignorance of theology. More seriously, some professional scientists make statements about theology which suggest that their knowledge of theology and philosophy leaves something to be desired. For example, Professor Stehpen Hawking in his bestseller A Brief History of Time, writes that “so long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end. What place, then, for a creator? [A Brief History of Time]. But theology does not ask the question “How things are”, but rather “Why things are”. For theology, it makes no difference whether or not the universe had a beginning. Too often when people use the expression “creation out of nothing”, they seem to think that “nothing” is in fact a sort of “something” out of which God creates. But, as King Lear said to Cordelia, “Nothing will come of nothing”. What Christians mean, or should mean, when they say God creates ex nihilo, it that God is not, in the scientific sense, the explanation of the material universe. God is not part of the process of creation. The doctrine of creation ex nihilo is the affirmation that all that is not God, is wholly contingent. This applies, as the Creed states, to both the visible and the invisible, to the material and the spiritual. It also applies to time, as St Augustine pointed out in his Confessions.

According to the biblical understanding of creation, God is the cause of all things, both visible and invisible. Science itself is to be found within God’s design. For Christianity, progress is to be found not only in the scientific world – which is always teaching us new things about man and the world -but also in the theological world- where man’s understanding of Divine Truth and God’s Will for humanity is not static, but dynamic. In and through scientific progress, we can come to a more profound understanding of the Creator, through whose Word -whose Logos- “all things were made”. As St Basil says in his homilies on the Six Days of Creation.

“If sometime, then, on a serene night, you gaze up at the ineffable beauty of the stars, you can form an idea of the creator of the universe, who has embroidered the sky with these flowers, and how, in what you see, necessity takes the form of the delightful. Again, during the day, if you consider the wonders of the day with sober thought, and from what you see, form an idea of what is invisible, you will become a hearer, fit and made ready for the fullness of this solemn and bIessed theatre”. [Hexaemeron 6,1]

It is with good reason that the Orthodox Church sings of St Basil in these words,

“When you had meditated on the nature of what exists, and observed the instability of all things, you found the only unmoved Being, the Creator of all things, who is above being. You attached yourself to him and cast away the longing for things which are not. Intercede that we too many find divine longing, Basil, teacher of mysteries”. [Vespers for 1 January, Aposticha].

There are, unfortunately, writers on our topic this evening, who ridicule Christianity, or theology in general, by assuming that it entails taking every sentence in the Bible as literally true; that Christians, as a writer in the Independent wrote recently, are committed to the belief that the story of Jonas and the whale is an historical fact. It is odd that people who are well aware, in their own disciplines, of the complexity of their subject, and who are careful not to claim expertise in other areas of science, do not hesitate to make pronouncements on theology without any serious knowledge of the subject or its methodology. In his recent book, Science and Religion, Professor Robert Winston writes, “Today, as a researcher in human reproduction, I would be viewed with askance by my scientific colleagues if I started to publish papers on engineering or heart surgery”. It is therefore somewhat surprising to find that he has no hesitation about making pronouncements of singular ineptitude on theological questions, such as, “How do we account for the fact that the prime minister and the Queen of England both believe in a God-made-man, born of a virgin, impregnated by a ghost, who rose from the dead?” In his review of Winston’s book in The Times, to which I am indebted for the preceding remarks, Robert Cornwell named this sort of thing ‘Winston Syndrome’, that is, “a faiIure to recognise the intellectual integrity of disciplines outside the natural sciences.” [Sunday Times, 30.10.2005]

For example, the concept of ‘creation’ is different in cosmology and in theology. One of the great dangers in talking about God as Creator is to think of him as part of the process -even if a very superior part- like Paley’s divine watchmaker. God is not one more ‘thing’. Nor is the word ‘God’ a proper name. If it were, we would not translate it into our many languages. In this connection, it is worthwhile pointing out that the same is true for Judaism and slam. In Judaism the name of God is not to be pronounced, but not the Hebrew word for God. With regard to Islam ‘Allah’ is not a proper name, but the Arabic word for God, and so the Arab speaking Christians of the Middleast and Malta also worship Allah. In our present situation think we need to avoid giving the impression, to put it no nore strongly, that our Muslin brothers and sisters do not worship God, but Allah. For Christianity, Judaism and slam, God is beyond naming. This is not to deny that all three religions have different understandings of God.

In his work On the Orthodox Faith, Saint John of Damascus discusses various suggested etymologies of the Greek word ‘theos’. In this company I do not, I imagine, need to explain that ‘theos’ is the Greek for ‘god’! What is interesting about his suggestions is that they are all verbs indicating activity. God is known to us only in his actions, or, as orthodox theology prefers to say, his ‘energies’. And the New Testament confirms the idea, when St John writes ‘God is love’, or, as the old Latin hymn for Holy Week has it, “where there is love, there is God”. Love is an activity, and it is an activity that God is known. This means that wherever true love is present, particularly in the midst of suffering and death, that is where God is present. It is in the Death of the Crucified that God is most intimately involved in the darkness and the suffering of the world. Throughout history men and women have shared in that darkness and suffering and have thereby revealed God’s presence; people like Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta, and all those, whether believers or not, who dedicate their lives to the relief of suffering in many different ways. I think also one of this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize for Medicine, the Australian, Professor Batty Marshall, who helped to prove that bacteria can survive in the stomach by infecting himself and falling sick himself.

As pure act, God cannot be pinned down, cannot be located in any particular image, and Orthodoxy has always viewed with suspicion attempts to depict the Father, though, as in Hamlet’s Denmark, it is a principle frequently breached rather than observed. In traditional Orthodox iconography of the Creation, it is the Word who is depicted as creating. Michael Angelo’s famous fresco of the Creation of Adam is not Orthodox. Indeed, there is a tradition of exegesis in the Fathers which holds that all manifestations of the deity in the Old Testament are manifestations of the Word, including the appearance of three men to Abraham by the oak of Mambre in Genesis 18. St Andrei Rublev’s well known icon of this scene can be read as the appearance of the Word, accompanied by two angels; a reading that, in fact, fits the rest of the story much better than one which finds in the scene a manifestation of the Trinity.

When Moses asks God for his name, he receives, in Hebrew, the answer ‘I am who I am’ -almost ‘that’s none of your business’. In the Greek Bible, which is still that of the Orthodox Churches, God says, “I am the one who is”, which is not much more helpful, though perhaps slightly more philosophical.

For the Orthodox, one of the principal points of reference is the tradition as it is expressed in Holy Scripture, the Fathers of the Church and the Church’s Liturgy and hymnography. It is therefore worth looking briefly at the way in which the tradition has understood these questions.

First, of all, it is worth remembering that the writers of the biblical books and the Fathers of the Church were people of their own time. They had no extraordinary knowledge of I scientific matters. On the other hand, many of them were highly educated in the pagan universities of the day. St I Basil and St Gregory were fellow-students of the future Emperor Julian in Athens. St John Chrysostom was a pupil of the greatest professor of rhetoric of his day in Antioch, Libanius. Indeed, it is said that when someone asked him who would succeed him as head of his School, Libanius replied, “John, if the Christians hadn’t nobbled him. In his commentaries on the Bible, John Chrysostom uses exactly the same methods of exegesis as Libanius does in commenting on the poems of Homer.

The Fathers are not fundamentalists and there is no reason to suppose that were they alive today they would not embrace the methods of exegesis used by contemporary biblical scholars. A knife can be used to murder someone, but in the hands of a skilled surgeon it can also save a life.

I was interested to see that the Roman Catholic Bishops of Great Britain recently issued a Teaching Document on the use of Scripture in the Church, in which they explain in clear and simple language the various ways of reading the Bible. Some letter writers to The Times protested indignantIy that the Papist bishops were once again, as in the Middle Ages, trying to take control of the Bible and denying biblical truth. And it must be confessed that on questions of biblical truth Christians are only too often their own worst enemies.

How, then, do the Fathers understand the sacred text? Let us look at a couple of examples.

One of the greatest biblical scholars in the history of the Church was the third century teacher, Origen of Alexandria. Some of his theological ideas were, let us say, eccentric, but as an exegete he has much to teach us. In his book On First Principles he discusses how we should understand certain passages in the Scriptures, and he points out that there are many places where the writers clearly did not claim to be giving a literal account of things. He points out that in the first chapter of Genesis “day” and “night” exist before the creation of the ‘sun’, and even, he adds, of the ‘sky’. Therefore ‘day’ and ‘night’ are not meant to be taken literally. ‘Who is so ignorant, he writes, as to suppose that God planted trees in paradise, like a gardener; or that he took an afternoon walk there? In the story of the temptations of Christ in the Gospels, the writers say that the devil takes Christ to the summit of a high mountain and shows him ‘all the kingdoms of the world and their glory’. But Origen points out that there is no mountain in the world from which all the kingdoms of the world are visible and that the passage is therefore not intended to be taken literally.[De Principiis, 4.3.1.]

In other words Origen understands that when reading a text, one must understand what is nowadays called its literary form. When the Psalmist says that the sun comes out like a bridegroom from his marriage chamber, he is not writing as an astronomer, or even a marriage counsellor, but as a poet.

In a few weeks’ time, the papers will carry articles with titles like ‘What was the star of Bethlehem?’, and we shall no doubt be told that some ancient Chinese manuscript has shown that there was an explosion of a super nova in 6 B.C., or something similar. But how does St John Chrysostom deal with this question? He begins by imagining an objection, “You Christians condemn astrology, and yet you say that your Saviour’s birth was revealed by astrology”. Part of St John’s answer is to point out that the ‘star’ seen by the Magi cannot have been any of the ordinary, visible heavenly bodies. The sun, moon and stars travel from East to West; this star travels from North to South -from Persia to Palestine. This star, unlike the other celestial objects, stops when the Magi do and moves on when they do. Moreover, it points out one house in a small village. If we look up at the stars, how could one of them do this? Therefore, says St John, the Star of Bethlehem cannot have been any ordinary astronomical body. He believes it was an angel appearing as a Star; and we find this idea in some of the icons of the Nativity. A modern New Testament scholar might well disagree with St John’s explanation, but the point I am making is that the Star does not obey the laws of nature as they were understood in his day, and would therefore have no need to defend the truth of the Gospel by an appeal to ordinary astronomy. The true explanation of the Star is to be found in the book of Numbers, in the prophecy of Balaam, I will point to him, but not now; I bless him, but he does not draw near: a star shall rise out of Jacob, a man shall spring out of Israel. [Numbers 24:17 (LXX)]

You will have noticed that the Greek Septuagint, which is still the text used by the Orthodox, has ‘a man shall spring out of Israel’, not, as the Hebrew and most modern versions, ‘a sceptre’.

In our days, we witness many scientific achievements, which help us to understand not only the natural world around us, but which also help us to understand ourselves and how the mind and body of man functions. Science has given humanity a new perspective on nature and its laws. Furthermore, science has also helped man to live a healthier life, to better understand the visible world, and to appreciate and respect the environment.

We continue to learn more about the world around us thanks to the genius of scientists. There is no need for science and theology to sit at opposite poles and to fight one another. Rather, these two sciences (for theology is also a science) should work together and complement one another, not only so that we may better understand nature, but that we may also increase our knowledge of God, who is the cause of nature.

If we look at scientific progress in the light of the Holy Spirit, which ‘will lead us to all truth’, then theology and science are not irreconcilable. In today’s world of technology, which has profoundly influenced our whole way of life, it would be impossible to live without the discoveries of science. We only have to think of almost any area of human existence, from the internet and e-mail, to the application of genetics; from the harnessing of renewable sources of energy, to advances in microsurgery; from satellite technology, to developments in psychology and sociology to become aware of the immense debt that we owe to natural science, or, as it was once called, natural philosophy. St Ephrem the Syrian speaks of the two books that God has given us, the Bible and Nature, and St John of Damascus, at the beginning of his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, reminds us that ‘God has not left us in total ignorance. For the knowledge of God’s existence has been implanted in us naturally by God’. [Expositio Fidei, 1, ed. B. Kotter, Die Schriften des Johannes von Damaskos, vol. 2 [Patristische Texte and Studien 12. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1973]]. St John was no doubt inspired by St Paul’s words in the Epistle to the Romans,

“Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made”. [Romans 1 :20.].

And in Acts, St Paul says to the pagans of Lystra, in bestowing his goodness, (God) did not leave himself with- out witness, for he gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filled you with nourishment and gladness for your hearts. [Acts 14:17.]

But does science solve our existential problems? In the face of pain, death, anxiety, calamity and war, does science ever get to the heart of the matter? In my opinion, the answer is ‘no’. Science may be able to answer the question ‘how?’, but it can not answer the question ‘why?’. The purpose of theology is to answer the second question through faith. Theology, particularly Christian theology, helps us to enrich our everyday life and to learn the value of life. Theology teaches us to see the spiritual world through the natural world. Theology lifts the human person beyond natural determinism, beyond animal nature. Theology reminds us that the physical world is imbued with God’s energies, and that we are created to live in an intelligent relationship with the divine and with our fellow human beings, our neighbours. As His All-Holiness Patriarch Vartholomaeos said in a lecture to the London School of Economics a week ago, ‘God is communion, koinonia’. And a little later he went on, ‘Every form of community – the workplace, the school, the city, the nation, even the European Union – has as its vocation to become in its own way, a living icon of the Trinity’. Ultimately, theology teaches us to see the divine in the natural world. And uniquely, theology gives us the assurance and the hope that our life is more than finite, more than the pains and pleasures of this world. Theology is no less necessary for human life than science, and I believe it will continue to be of equal importance in times to come. Scientists must free themselves from what St Paul calls ‘the folly of the wisdom of this world’ [cf. 1 Corinthians 1 :20-24.] and from that of the secular culture of today, and humble themselves in order to see their work and their labours through the eyes of devout believers throughout the centuries. Many of them have served in the field of theology, but many also have devoted themselves to science, without compromising their faith in God, who endows us with knowledge in order that we may understand the world around us. But God also gives us the vision with which to approach the mystery of Divinity and, like the mystics, to experience his presence, as did Moses and Elias, and all those who, in the words of Gregory of Nyssa, enter the darkness, where God dwells in unapproachable Light. [De Vita Mosis, 2:164. 1 Tim. 6:16.]

Lecture delivered by His Eminence Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira at the lan Ramsey Centre (Theology) in Oxford on 10th November 2005