Focal points and methodological issues in the research of Science-Orthodoxy relations

National Hellenic Research Foundation | 26 February 2017


By Miriam Asliturk, Project SOW Researcher

Within the framework of the First International Conference held in Athens, Greece, in February 2017, a one-day workshop was held entitled “Focal Points and Methodological Issues in the Research of Science - Orthodoxy Relations”. Participants included scientists and scholars of religion who came mostly from countries where Orthodox Christianity is dominant. It pursued two goals: 1) to discuss methodological issues that arose from their study of the current science-religion dialogue in the Orthodox Christian world, and 2) to provide an overview of the individual research conducted by each of the participants. The discussion also included psychology and education, and focused on the state of the Orthodoxy-science interface in a post-Communist world as well as in émigré communities.

Ms. Miriam Asliturk, researcher for Ukrainian and Russian language sources, titled her research project: The Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia and its Views on Science. She first provided an overview of how the Russian Orthodox Diaspora was formed following the Russian Revolution, and how and when émigré churches and affiliated institutions were organized. Ms. Asliturk was particularly interested in the official and non-official reactions of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia (ROCOR) and those of its members to Soviet advances in science and technology, particularly in the wake of the Sputnik, as well as to research activities conducted by Russian/Soviet émigré scientists. She explained that both the availability and the absence of documented reactions are instructive as to our understanding of ROCOR: one can thus identify whether issues critical to the Russian Orthodox Church inside the Soviet Union throughout the 20th century were reflected in any way in the Diaspora.

Dr. Evdoxie Delli, researcher for French and English language sources, titled her research project: At the Intersection of Modern Psychology and Patristic Theology: Theoretical Pluralism and Methodological Issues on Soul and Anthropology. She spoke of the increasing interest of contemporary Orthodox Christian thinkers in modern psychology, and explained that this interest is closely related to renewed interpretations of Patristic theology and spirituality. She highlighted keys aspects of this dialogue: the plurality of modern psychological approaches and techniques concerned, the key Patristic writers and texts, as well as central thematic areas and methodological issues. She also focused on the impact of the relationship between modern psychology and Orthodox theology on Orthodox anthropology, conceptualized in the light of late Modernity.

Dr. Gianna Katsiampoura, researcher for Greek language and diaspora (USA/Australia) sources, reported on her project titled: A Debate on the Theory of Evolution in the Greek Education System. She outlined and analysed the discussions that arose in Greece following the 1984 publication of a school textbook, which, for the first time in the history of the Greek education system, included a chapter on evolution. This chapter provoked a reaction from the Church, and a sharp debate ensued between theologians and supporters of the book. The Ministry of Education was eventually forced to withdraw the book. Dr. Kastiampoura examined this debate and showed how the Greek Orthodox Church influenced the attempted modernization of the curriculum.

It is under the title Forms of Validation of Knowledge in Modern Sciences and in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition that Dr. Vangelis Koutalis, researcher for Greek and German language sources, presented his research project. He focused on the difference between the procedures and criteria for assessing knowledge claims usually employed in the context of modern scientific research and those employed in the context of Eastern Orthodox spirituality. He also raised questions concerning the character and magnitude of any variance between the two.

Dr. Ivaylo Nachev, researcher for Bulgarian language sources, reported on his project titled: Mapping the Science and Orthodoxy Dialogue in Bulgaria: Main Topics and Methodological Challenges. He presented an overview of the main Bulgarian sources on science and Orthodoxy, and analyzed the type of content present both in print and online. Commenting on the defining subjects most often discussed in Bulgarian sources during the past two decades, he noted that many topics of significance to the SOW project were largely issued from translated materials (Russian, Greek or Serbian), rather than sourced from Bulgaria itself. This, he concluded, could possibly be a result of lack of interest from the general educated public regarding these topics. What has drawn the most attention in Bulgarian sources have been discussions surrounding the relationship between religious and state institutions, and especially disputes regarding collaboration between clerics and state security services during the socialist period.

Dr. Dmitry Saprykin, researcher for Russian language sources, presented an ambitious panorama titled The Orthodox Tradition in the Formation of Personality and Scientific Interests of the 20th Century’s Greatest Russian Scientists and Engineers. In his presentation, he explained that Soviet and post-Soviet historical literature and publications claimed that the works of the most remarkable Russian scientists and engineers of the 20th century were a result of Soviet achievements and a triumph over the alleged political and religious obscurantism of the Tsarist regime. Most of the literature suggests an assumption of negative Church attitude to science, and, in turn, an antagonism on the part of scientists toward religion. Dr. Saprykin found that many Soviet scientists could trace their origin to the privileged estates and intelligentsia of the Russian Empire. Moreover, the sons of Russian Orthodox clergymen constituted a proportionally large percentage of leading Soviet scientists and engineers, with many of them remaining Orthodox even during the most severe years of persecution of the Church. He also argued that many 20th century Soviet scientists and engineers were engaged in theology, and that their religious and philosophical interests and upbringing were connected to their scientific activities. The main examples brought forward in this context were: Nikolay Nikolaevich Bogolyubov, physicist and mathematician; Ivan Ivanovich Artobolevskiy, scientist and engineer; Igor Ivanovich Sikorsky, aviation pioneer; and Alexei Alexeyevich Ukhtomsky, physiologist.

Dr. Alexandra Stavinschi, researcher for Romanian language sources, titled her research Science and Orthodoxy in Romanian Literature: Recurrent Themes and Emerging Trends. She affirmed that this is a first overview of Romanian literature on science and Orthodoxy, which shows that, in contrast to the West, Romania’s Orthodox Church and science coexisted peacefully, without a sharp rift developing between the two. Her research demonstrates that many scientific ideas were not perceived as threatening and were largely ignored by the Church. During the socialist period, there existed a degree of antagonism between science and religion stemming from the state’s ambition to strengthen control of the population by marginalizing and persecuting the Church. She identified the protagonists of that debate – both scientists and theologians- and showed how they communicated with each other. She concluded with an overview of how the emergence of new technologies and rapid secularization since the early nineties has influenced this discussion.

Ms. Aleksandra Stevanović, researcher for Serbian language sources, titled her project: The Question of the Orthodox Experience in Serbia. She presented three distinct events, which, in her view, have been significant in the science-Orthodoxy debate: the 1981 Dictionary of Technology; the writings of Žarko Vidović, a prominent philosopher and anthropologist in the 1990s; and the attempted Orthodoxy-inspired school reform by former Minister of Education and Sports Ljiljana Čolić in 2004. Ms. Stevanović explained that she chose these issues as they covered three successive decades and raised the question of religion in a modern framework, challenging the thought that science and technology are the only reliable drivers of social dynamics. The Dictionary represented a revival of Orthodox medieval legacy, Žarko Vidović was a notable Orthodox intellectual, and Ljiljana Čolić exemplified an attempt to reintroduce religion into secular life. All three cases met with a negative political response: Žarko Vidović was silenced, and the other two were publicly ostracized. Stevanović explained that any discussion of Orthodoxy was de facto political, and that technological modernization was not neutral, but rather it implicitly or explicitly deprecated any revitalization of the Orthodox worldview.

Dr. Kostas Tampakis’s research project was titled: Science and Orthodoxy in English: A Typology of Sources. He provided an overview of primary sources accessible to the public and gave preliminary remarks on their significance with regard to the relations and dialogue between science and Orthodoxy.

After each presentation, a question and answer period ensued, followed by a discussion on the methodology and typology of sources used. There was a particular focus on the recent resurgence of prolific non-scholarly sources on science and orthodoxy on the Internet, particularly on internet discussion fora and blogs, and whether these could be used as valid sources in the context of the SOW project.



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