Summary of the Second International Conference

Summary of the Second SOW International Conference "Orthodox Christianity and the Reassessment of Scientific Knowledge",

Athens, National Hellenic Research Foundation, February 9-10, 2018

by Vangelis Koutalis

In the keynote address of the conference, Prof. Stylianos Antonarakis brought the concept of genome, as well as the challenges associated with it, into discussion. The human genome can be seen both as an organ and a system of expertise for the geneticist. But it is also an extensive book of information on our lives. What we are is the outcome of an interaction between our genome and the environment in which we live. The prospect that genomic information can be systematically used by medicine evokes a series of ethical questions, and more prominently those concerning the identification and management of reproduction risks. 

Rev. Doru Costache, in his own presentation, which was the first of Session 2, examined how Orthodox fundamentalism is fueled by the ideologization of science. According to Costache, we should insist on the distinction between the description and the interpretation of reality. Theological interpretations are as legitimate as atheist interpretations are. As the example of Saint Basil clearly illustrates, a thoughtful Christian believer should implement whatever, in a given period, is scientifically and culturally valid on Christian discourse, in order to fill the gaps within the Christian narrative. Prof. Stoyan Tanev, in his comment, noted that additionally to the distinction between descriptions and interpretations, we should also raise the question of appropriations. Prof. Gayle Woloschak argued that there should be no conflict between science and Orthodox Christianity, and highlighted the need for reflection and resolution from the Orthodox Church as for the opening of a space of dialogue with science, especially from a pastoral point of view. Rev. Razvan Andrei Ionescu, in his comment, maintained that whereas it is impossible to carry through the Christian mission without dealing with culture, the laboratory of the scholar is different from the laboratory of a person who actively participates in Church’s life, for whom life as such is a means of knowing.

Opening session 3, Dr. Basarab Nicolescu attempted to show that we are at the threshold of a new era of barbarism, comprised of three pillars: panterrorism, Anthropocene, and transhumanism. Technology has a dark side, indeed, and its present rapid development tends to eliminate any transcendence, to abnegate both the ‘hidden third’ and the human personhood as the interface between the ‘hidden third’ and the world. In this regard, Orthodox anthropology, in dialogue with science, is of vital importance. The use of a transdisciplinary methodology is also required in order to act effectively against the triple (ontological, logical, and epistemological) barbarism that tends to prevail in the very near future, and to render realizable the possibility of a new Renaissance. Rev. Jean Boboc followed, with his own presentation, also centered on the question of transhumanism. The promise of a cybernetic eternity, itself rooted in the long tradition of the utilitarianist philosophy, must be seen as inextricably tied to the dismal prospect of a groundless humanity. Commenting on Rev. Boboc’s presentation, Dr. Magdalena Stavinschi listed a number of topical questions to be asked, about the meaning of Ecumenism in the context of this discussion, about whether the natural-unnatural distinction can be used as a sufficiently trustworthy criterion here, and about how Orthodox thought could be updated in such a way that it would be capable of guiding the believers to follow, under contemporary conditions, God’s plan in the spirit, and not in the letter.

In the first presentation of Session 4, Dr. Sergey Horuzhly articulated the view that the framework which might bring together Orthodoxy and science can be provided by the concept of ‘cosmic liturgy’, as introduced by Maximus the Confessor. Under such prism, liturgy itself acquires a cosmic dimension, and, conversely, the existence of cosmos is invested with a liturgical function. Cosmos becomes involved in the process of deification, whereas the practices of cosmic liturgy are situated at the intersection of deification and scientific knowing. The mission of present-day theology consists in bringing about the union of ecology and ascesis, therefore giving rise to an integral ecology of a different kind. Prof. Mihai-Dan Chitoiu, in his comment, stressed the fact that the notion of ‘integral’ requires a deep understanding of the complexity of Orthodox tradition, and he also noted that yet another key concept present in Maximus’ writings, that of mystagogia, might be proven to be valuable for a spiritual humanism which is necessary today. Prof. Sergey Demidov, in the last presentation of this session, reassessed the discussion on the concept of infinity between Nicolai Luzin and Pavel Florensky, coming to the conclusion that a theological conception of infinity is important not only for theologians, but for mathematicians too. The comment made by Prof. Alexey Postnikov focused on the different, or rather opposing, attitudes towards the West evinced by the theological milieus in Moscow and in Saint Petersburg. Postnikov also underscored the advantages gained by the long-standing cooperation, in modern Russian culture, between mathematics and theology.

Prof. Argyrios Nicolaidis, the first of the participants of Session 5, took as his starting point the observation that in modern physics all dualisms have been replaced by triadic relations. This new scientific framework, in which the relational aspect of reality tends to serve as an irreducible basic datum both for ontology and for logic, converges with the old sophia and gnosis of the Patristic tradition, and more particularly with Gregory Palamas’ theology, which revolves around the concept of energy and may lead to the representation of cosmos as a web of relations. Prof. Alexandre Kostov, in his comment, advocated this emphasis on the relations and interactions of entities, and posed the question of the novelty of Palamas’ epistemology with respect to theology and the sciences. Dr. Georghe Stratan, in his own presentation, tried to reconstruct certain historical tensions between Christianity and modern scientific thinking. He made the remark that our century will probably be the century of biology, a science the findings of which challenge central pillars of the biblical narrative, and he also called attention to the peculiarity of Orthodoxy, which, among others, lies in the absence of a central unique supranational structure. Prof. Ronald Numbers, commenting on this presentation, noted that it is too early to predict what is going to happen, as our century proceeds, and he criticized specific parts of Stratan’s historical account.

Session 6 opened with the presentation of Dr. Jean Staune, who observed that the 19th-century cultural project which was motivated by the largely shared idea that science could be able to explain all reality through reality, only through reality, is no longer valid. Big bang theory, quantum mechanics, non-locality, Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, the evidence of channeled evolution, all these developments in a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines are indicative of the incompleteness of our level of reality, and they convey the message that we must look behind the scene. The path of incompleteness is the exact opposite of that which pertains to the ‘God of the gaps’, because now we know perfectly well why we do not know. In a period where science itself has already become apophatic, and it is as if we have returned in the midst of the cavern of Plato, apophaticism is a key element for a fruitful dialogue between Orthodoxy and science. Prof. William Shea, in his comment, expressed his reservations about Staune’s insistence on non-knowing. Prof. Alexey Nesteruk, in the next presentation, argued that the science-religion dialogue should be regarded as an attempt of a more articulate and precise demarcation of two different types of experience. The fundamental feature, however, of the human condition is the unknowability of man by himself. The human phenomenon exceeds science and philosophy, and necessitates a theological view. Science and theology accommodate different philosophical appropriations of the difference between the knowledge of the phenomenality of objects and that of the event-like phenomena. Prof. Vasilios Makrides, in his comment, wondered whether a stronger involvement of philosophy in the science-religion dialogue may render philosophy an ancilla theologiae in a novel form. He also noticed two different approaches to this dialogue, as far as Orthodox Christianity is concerned. The one, which could be characterized as ‘optimistic’, brings to the forefront the Orthodox potential in the dialogue, and the other, which could be described as ‘critical’, casts light on the deficits in the overall development of the Orthodox world.

Rev. Paraskevas Hamalis, in the opening presentation of Session 7, addressed the ethical issues arising in the pursuit of radical life extension. The progress of medicine and the development of new means to relief human pain have been always welcomed by the Orthodox Church, which has a thanatomorphic vision inscribed into the very core of its spiritual tradition, laying particular emphasis on the problem of death and being utterly oriented towards conquering death. But notwithstanding this prominence given to the rejection of death, Orthodox ethics cannot assent to radical life extension efforts, because the latter brush aside vital questions that have to do with human personhood and identity, as well as those that concern the purpose and meaning of salvation. Dr. Hilary Marlow, in her comment, raised the question how a genuine discussion between Orthodoxy and science can be possible, given the gap between the thanatomorphic vision of the Orthodox tradition, in which death is rejected and must be conquered, and the scientific view of death, in which death is deeply interwoven with life. Prof. Petar Jevremović, in his own presentation, broached the problem of truth in psychoanalysis, in the present-day Church, and in Christian asceticism, respectively. He maintained that the truth of the present-day Church is an ideological, pacified truth, corresponding to an ontological power, the power to control actuality. There is an essential split between institutionalized belief and charismatic, anachoretic monasticism, where truth itself is the real problem. Psychoanalytic truth, contrary to Ecclesial truth, is ontologically disturbing and subversive. And in this respect, it shares certain common features with the ascetic truth. Rev. Vasilios Thermos expressed his agreement with the contrast drawn by Jevremović between the ideological truth that pacifies and the ascetical truth that brings pain with it, and he invoked Jacques Lacan’s theory of the four fundamental types of discourse: that of the Master, that of the University, that of the Hysteric, and that of the Analyst. The discourse of the Church could be seen as a variant of the Discourse of the Master, whereas that of asceticism, as a variant of that of the Analyst.

In the Round Table of the Conference, chaired by Dr. Efthymios Nicolaidis, an open discussion took place with contributions by Prof. John Hedley Brooke, Rev. Doru Costache, Rev. Christopher Knight, and Dr. Donald Yerxa, who were the members of the panel. The role of tradition in the Orthodox world, the East-West differences in the conception of nature, the fact that historically Eastern Christianity seems to have displayed a higher degree of insularity from the emerging scientific culture, in comparison with its Western counterpart, the ways local variations affect the science-religion relationship, the importance of the existential dimension in Orthodox spirituality, these are just some of the many issues that were touched upon during this discussion.




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