Science and Orthodoxy: Evidence of absence or absence of evidence?

by Kostas Tampakis, SOW Researcher

As a theme, science and religion is everywhere. While obviously a hyperbole, the preceding assertion is nevertheless surprisingly close to the truth, if one looks in English-speaking public discourse. We have only to consider how often relevant topics reach public awareness, to pause and appreciate science and religion’s omnipresent reach. A very short and inconclusive list would include creationism, the metaphor of the God particle, the alleged Dark Ages of religious darkness, climate change denialism or even Family Guy episodes. This vigorous cultural production is, wonder of wonders, mirrored inside the hallowed halls of the academia. Indeed, if ever there was a time where the analysis of the historical, social, cultural, intellectual and philosophical relations between the natural sciences and religion have bloomed, then surely it is now.

And yet, even a casual glance at the various Science and Religion volumes that have been published in the last few decades would quickly accumulate evidence of a curious absence: that of Orthodox Christianity.  One could start from the seminal historical essay of J. H. Brooke’s Science and Religion, first published in 1991. An exemplar of historical scholarship on the subject, the book nevertheless keeps its focus mainly on what we could call Western Europe. Protestantism and Catholicism are prominent themes of the book. But one is moved immediately to ask, what was the role played by Orthodox Christianity? Such a question would remain unanswered. The earlier God and Nature: Historical Essays on the Encounter between Christianity and Science (1986), edited by David C. Lindberg and Ronald L. Numbers, devotes only a page or so to the early Cappadocian church fathers, as does their more recent When Science and Christianity Meet (2003). And yet, the Cappadocian fathers form part of the spiritual heritage of all Christian denominations. The erudite The History of Science and Religion in the Western Tradition: An Encyclopedia (2000) includes only a single five-page lemma on Orthodoxy, but American religions get three lemmas, Judaism two and Protestantism two more. The Blackwell Companion on Science and Religion (2012) focuses completely on Western Christianity, with the dubious exception, once again, of the early Cappadocian Fathers of the Church. Despite its comprehensive title, Peter Harrison’s The Cambridge Companion to Science and Religion (2010) completely bypasses Eastern Christianity, except to apologize for doing so. His latest magisterial account The Territories of Science and Religion (2015) follows the same path. Finally, while Science and Religion: New Historical Perspectives (2010) does not even mention Orthodoxy, John Hedley Brooke ‘s and Ronald L. Numbers’ innovative Science and Religion around the World (2010) discusses Orthodoxy only in passing, and only in order to underline its absence.

On the other side of the Orthodoxy and Science dialogue, things are a bit different. Natural sciences, in their current or in an historical form, appear very infrequently in general introductions to Orthodox theology and ecclesiology, but appear nevertheless. A. Louth’s exemplary Introducing Orthodox Theology (2013) contains a discussion of evolution and cosmology, even if a brief one. The Orthodox scholar Christos Yannaras, in his 1991 Elements of Faith, also tackles the scientific worldview, albeit on his own terms. Finally, the magisterial Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christianity (2008) contains essays on creation and thus, on science. However, such ventures are not to be found in such foundational texts as K. Ware’s revised The Orthodox Church (1997) or A. Louth’s Modern Orthodox Thinkers (2015). The aptly named Eastern Orthodox Christianity: The Essential Texts (2016) by B. Geffert and G. Stavrou also chooses not to introduce any relevant essays.

Should this relative absence of evidence be treated as evidence of absence of a dialogue between Eastern Christianity and science? The answer is a resounding no. Project SOW may be at its early phase, but already hundreds of different articles, books, online texts and videos have been identified, in at least seven different languages. Some of then have been written by the same leading scholars and intellectuals whose textbooks we have just discussed. If anything, the first impression is of a plethora of opinions hidden in plain sight, like Poe’s Purloined Letter. A more careful consideration of the facts, I would argue, would point to a different direction: The dialogue between Orthodoxy and the natural sciences has not yet the prominence in public and expositional discourse that it deserves. It the main imperative of Project SOW to bring to the fore the significant and varied contributions that intellectuals, clergymen and scholars have made over the last decades.

Science and religion is everywhere. The next step should be that Orthodoxy reclaims its position in ‘everywhere’ itself.

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