A discussion with Daniel Buxhoeveden

Dr Daniel Buxhoeveden, Adjunct and Research Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Carolina

with Dr Kostas Tampakis

March 2018

Q: Professor D. Buxhoeveden, could you please introduce yourself?

A: I have an eclectic religious and educational background.My father died when I was 8 months old but my step father who was from Germany knew and studied under Rudolf Steiner in Austria. He also followed others of that kind later in the US. My mother was French and Roman Catholic but also critical of that church. Nonetheless, she was very spiritually oriented. Her best friend was cured at Lourdes of a gangrenous leg that was to be amputated. My brother in law was a noted parapsychologist who published over 80 books and taught a class on parapsychology at New York Tech.He had a doctorate from London University in religion.I have degrees in philosophy, biological anthropology and law. My emphasis was in comparative brain anatomy and I devised a computerized imaging program to analyze what is known as the cortical minicolumn of the neocortex.I ended up also applying this to clinical cases that have a genetic component such Down syndrome, schizophrenia, and autistic spectrum disorder. I experienced a number of paranormal phenomena in my youth and thus when I entered college (rather late as I spent 3 years in the army first and then worked before starting college) I found this aspect of life was absent from serious discussion.When I first came to see Christianity as the truth, it was as an evangelical and eventually after 7 or so years I burned out on that. It, along my education, turned me against Christianity as I knew it, and the Bible. When I came back due to an experience, I began tentatively.First with an Episcopal church, later in San Diego we went to diverse protestant Churches.It wasn’t the peoplebecause we had no problems with anyone but something was missing and I always had a problem with the theologies being taught. I even tried going back to my Roman Catholic roots ( I attended one year of Catholic school as a child) but was dismayed at how much it had changed after Vatican II.I was about to give up when I decided to look into Orthodoxy. I had thought it was the same as the RC but without a pope, but of course I was very wrong.I read an introduction to the church and when I heard about the theology (minus original sin, theosis,and so forth) I knew I had found it. We went to our first Liturgy and that was it.


Q: You are one of the senior scholars in the field of the study of the relationship between Orthodox Christianity and science. How did you decide to work on this subject? What influential books or scholars inspired you?

A: Thank you for the compliment though I do not see myself as senior, but simply engaged and continuing to learn.In any case, my decision to get involved in religion and science was a practical one that arose out of necessity if I were to continue doing any science and earlier on, if I was going to remain a Christian.Ever since I began to study human evolution as a student I had to tackle the apparent tension between my faith and the science I was learning.Because at the time I came from a Protestant evangelical background, I was taught that there could be no compatibility between the Bible and evolution. If the latter is true the former is false. That created a lot of problems, so much so that it was one reason I drifted away from any faith in Christianity and the Bible and that had bad consequences in my life. Later as a teacher, I did not want anyone else to feel they had to choose between one or the other and that has been a motivation for me to pursue this field. There was no single influential book that I can point to and say that was it that got me interested in the field, rather it was my life experience in having to work in a particularly difficult field of study (from a Christian point of view), and that field was biological anthropology.I also had training in philosophy so as to be cognizant that science does have epistemic limits. But it was also not just the material or the data from science that was an issue, but the ethos, the way of approaching life that bothered me.In Religion and science we constantly talk about the distinction of philosophical from methodological naturalism , but the problem I found in my own experience in the fields I worked in, was that this distinction for all practical purposes was eliminated in daily practice.As I progressed in both Orthodoxy and science over the years I see that science when used specifically as a method of inquiry has many great benefits, is a wonderful tool, and can teach us how to be honest and objective in our approach to knowledge. This was said by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom for example. But like him, I am not convinced that science is a way to lead us to an understanding of God.There are many things in science that are suggestive and insightful and useful for theology, but in the end, God is personal and God is love and those are not understood or made known by objective discursive knowledge. That is one of the things I love about Orthodoxy is the recognition of that distinction.


Q: You are the founder and Director of the Religion and Science Initiative. Can you describe this project for us?

A: I founded it probably around ten years ago and soon took advice fromthe VP for Research who supported and guided me in the beginning.IT was felt that best way to do this was for it to be a low key project that was multi faith in orientation. The idea was create an informal place for discussion by faculty from all areas of the university and was open to someone from any faith background or no faith at all.At its peak I have around 35 people in the group, representing physics, chemistry, biology, evolutionary biology, the nursing school, medicine, the honors college, social work, religious studies, philosophy, and even university project development. At one time it has included the chairs of physics and philosophy departments and the dean of the College of Social world and dean of the South Carolina Honors College, which as been awarded the best honors college for a public institution in the US for three years in a row now.Besides meeting and discussions, I was able to send 2 or 3 top students to Oxford and Cambridge over the summer to attend religion and science conferences which had a great impact on them. One of those went on to attend Oxford and obtain a Masters degree under Alister McGrath.We also have funding to bring in invited speakers and over the years and have some very good mix of speakers that included Orthodox such as Christopher Knight, Gayle Woloschak, and others from a Roman Catholic and Protestant backgrounds. Another thing I done with this is that it enabled me to create and teach Honors classes in religion and science, evolution and Christianity, and religious experience, in addition to brain evolution. Over time many of those that were heavily engaged in the project have either left the university or died, and the funding we have is more limited, so at this time I have cut back some of the work.I am work part time now and am focused more on my book and a potentially large project of which SOW may be a participant.


Q: Some of your recent work has focused on Orthodox Elders and Saints and their interactions with science in the 20th century. Would you like to share your views on the subject?

A: One the great attractions for me coming to Orthodoxy was the presence of true holiness in the form of these elders and saints.I came from an eclectic spiritual background and thought I had known about rather ‘special’ people in the form of some gurus and new age personalities, but nothing like these people. I can say like the Swiss convert Klaus Kenneth, that I did not know such people existed. Because I have a particular interest and respect for actual experience over theory, they demonstrated the reality of Christianity, not as an object of academic study or historical fact, but as life that can be lived in the present as it was in the past. Furthermore, many of these figures, especially those who had access to modern science like Saint Porphyrios opened up ways of seeing the relationship between science and faith in new ways.Not only in general terms but specific situations.There is a case where a wife goes to St Porphyrios in regard to her husband who has asthma as apparently uses this illness to manipulate her emotionally. The saint points out some interesting things; one is that the physical illness is real. The second is the husband is using it physiologically against the wife, and the third is that there is a demonic influence on the husband to do so. So what we have is a blend of the biological, the psychological, and the spiritual in the form of demonic influence. The medical doctor is correct is assessing the disorder as asthma, the psychologist would also be correct in noting the inappropriate use of it by the husband, and a spiritual father would be correct in seeing a demonic element. If you think about this you see how things can function on multiple levels and that an explanation at one level may not be the entire story. While this is a particular example, one can see how this could be a model in which to view the larger theories of science in the context of the spiritual.


Q: You have also written on the Orthodox experience and the challenge it represents for science. Can you say a few things about this theme?

A: This is an ongoing project for me. When I say it represents a challenge I mean not for science as a method of inquiry focused on knowledge about the natural world, but the world views that are associated with science that is so prevalent today; physicalism, scientism, and perhaps even the exaggerated idolization of technology. Experience for me is central. In my case, and that of many others, it is why I am a Christian at all. There was a point in my life that I had sworn to never read the Bible again or be a Christian. What brought me back was a powerful encounter. Then many years later another different experience was helpful in leading to the Orthodox Church. I had also practiced Eastern meditation in my youth and had an experience of the kind I have read about in that literature. In addition, there were a number of paranormal events, factual intersubjective phenomena that were indisputable. When I began college and relayed a couple of these to a physicist and then a psychologists, the responses I got made me realize that they did not know as much as they thought they did. My family had many events and my mothers best friend was cured of gangrene in a dramatic manner (she never went to the waters, it was a direct mystical experience followed by the healing of the tissue) while praying at the church in Lourdes. I could go on but the point is that I saw how this seemed all but invisible in the academic setting, yet were it not for direct experience, I might be an atheist materialist. I am still trying to work out the relationship between these kind of experiences and science. One area I see that is hopeful are for phenomena that have a physical component to them and public events. This would include weeping icons and the Holy Fire in Jerusalem. Both are areas where science has been engaged in a constructive manner. One area I would like to see Orthodox theologians and scientist get more engaged is the near death experience. I am not an expert but have studied it in some depth and even interviewed a couple of people who had one, and notice there are features present in them that are also found in ‘regular’ religious experiences.There is no time to elaborate but I just want to bring this out.There are a few Orthodox that have referred to them but I wish we could have more engagement on a larger scale.


Q: Maximus the Confessor seems to be a very influential Christian Father for scholars who are interested in the interaction of Orthodox Christianity and science. Do you agree with this? What makes his theology so appropriate for these kinds of questions?

A: I honestly feel unqualified to discuss Maximus the Confessor.When I was an early Orthodox, a priest suggested I should read Maximus and I did so but found I had no background with which to assimilate that material. So I have not read him since though I know he is very popular right now even among non Orthodox and that he synthesizes anthropology and cosmology among other things.One reason is that in my field of human and brain evolution I find caution must be applied when reading into what the Fathers say that might be interpreted in light of current science. While the big picture of human evolution remains intact, many details have changed radically since I first began to study it in the 1970’s.Things like the out of Africa hypothesis or multi-regional must be considered carefully and I would not apply theological insight to them until I felt these questions were firmly resolved. I also stay away from cosmology as that is not my field and I hesitate to talk about quantum physics because I have had discussions with physicists and philosophers of science and even panel discussions, so have seen how many popular renditions of these topics can be somewhat of a distortion.My general approach to RS is one of caution.


Q: Which characteristics of Orthodox Christianity, to your opinion, set it apart from other Christian denominations, when considering its interaction with science? Are there unique perspectives on science that Orthodoxy has to offer that may have been overlooked or are otherwise missing from Western Christian discussions and approaches?

A: It is much better suited I think to converse with picturesof the world coming out of quantum physics for one thing, psychology and mental illness,and anthropology to name a few. It is profound and broad in its conceptions and understanding of God, of the nous, and experiential aspect of knowing God.Because in Orthodoxy salvation means so much more than it did in Protestantism, because it involves the entire creation and is not simply individualized escape from hell,Orthodox theology can participate in many areas such as the environment, our relation to animals and to each other, evolution, anthropology, and so on.


Q: As a research scientist, you specialize in biological anthropology. How has your dual expertise in Orthodox Christianity and science affected your work in both areas? What role could Orthodox Christianity play today in current scientific practice? and to invert the question, how could science affect the practice and experience of Orthodox Christianity?

A: At the time I became Orthodox I was really focused on comparative brain anatomy as a subfield of biological anthropology, and later did work in clinical areas at the Medical college of Georgia. However I did teach some classes on human evolution at the University of South Carolina and this is where I think it helped. I was able to distinguish the current knowledge we had of human and brain evolution, from the worldview that stems from this.Because Orthodoxy is more experiential and mystical I think it makes it easier to relate to science..there is less of a sense of competition and more of cooperation, so long as science remains a method of inquiry and not a world view or religion of its own. My knowledge of God (so to speak) does not derive directly from any of the sciences, though there are papers written in religion and science that deal with St. Irenaeus and the picture of the human that comes out of paleoanthropology as one example of how the two can be merged. I am always tentative about being overly specific in merging theology with the current models in science because of the propensity of models in science to undergo change, sometimes radical ones.The ongoing dynamic of science makes it always somewhat tentative and correctable so I think we have to be careful in what topic in science we choose to apply theology to. Some are better established then others. For me, I am not sure how science can directly effect the practice or experience of OC. It is an interesting question on its own: should science be able to effect the practice and experience of the Church and at what level? If a scientific examination of the Eucharist shows it to be bread and wine, I doubt any Orthodox theologian would change our theology.Of course today there are highly publicized topics of gender, sex orientation, climate change, and so forth that ring loud. The problem with these is how heavily embedded they are with social and political ideologies, which can obscure the true science behind them. That is a concern. To some extent evolution has been subject to philosophical, political, and religious usage beyond the science itself.I suggest that we be open to it but proceed very carefully because science is a kind of knowledge, and not the last word on reality. We have to know when to allow science to inform and we must be certain the science is grounded and sound, not politically motivated.


Q: Which issues in particular do you think Orthodoxy should be more deeply addressing in the twenty-first century?

A: In the religion and science area I would like to see more engagement with the near death experience because there is a whole world of potentially challenging issues there that involve neuroscience, the philosophy of mind, quantum physics, and theology. Another area of concern might be trans humanism and of course anthropology meaning what is a human being?


Q: What thinkers, intellectuals or scholars would you identify as being especially prominent in the contemporary science and Eastern Christianity interaction?

A: There are many and some that come to mind for me are Fr John Breck, Christopher Knight, Gayle Woloschak,Alexei Nesteruk, Basarab Nicolescu. Richard Swinburne, Alexei Bodrov, and Doru Costache in regard to anthropology.


Q: How do you see the current status of the field of science and religion? What particular areas do you find remaining under-explored in the orthodox-science dialogue? To what direction do you see the discussion moving forward in the future?

A: First, I would like to see more engagement with the near death experience because there is a whole world of potentially challenging issues that involve neuroscience, the philosophy of mind, quantum physics, and theology.Unlike many other topics, the NDE has the potential to (and is being used by Dr Sam Parnia) as a test platform for the question of consciousness and the brain, is it local and produced by the brain or is mind distinct from it (not in a strict dualism) but that consciousness underwrites the material. It comes first. How much credence should we put into an NDE, compared lets say, to the experience of an elder of saint—whose mind is functioning perfectly well? Second, there is something called Neurodiversity, the idea that there is not a single form of normal human brain as exemplified by the autistic spectrum and Aspergers syndrome.High functioning autistics alter some of the basic traits of the human such socialization,the emphasis on language, and theory of mind. They are highly limited in all of these and they think visually, but struggle with language. Their visual thinking is sometimes amazing compared to ours. Might this have any theological implications?


Q: What are or should be, from your point of view, the limits of the dialogue between Science and Orthodox Christianity?

A: A good question.I am not sure. Perhaps It would be a cautionary note that we can get so entangled in the scientific and high end theological issues that we forget or overlook why we are here, why are we alive? Is it to obtain all knowledge about the creation? Is it to become Christ like? One does not cancel out the other, but I wonder about the focus sometimes.Also we need to keep in mind what do we expect of science? What do we think it is capable of informing us about? This also goes to how we understand our theology.Are there aspects of it that are really just a product of their time or are they revealed knowledge? If we say something is a product of its day does that not then also apply to current fashions in thought today? So why choose the current ones that may be outdated in a hundred years or more? I would like to close this with insight from a wonderful Albanian Priest living in America who had a profound NDE, that is, he was declared dead on site, brought to the ER, then to the morgue. He was in out for at least 24 hrs yetsuffered no physiological brain damage. In an interview he was asked what he saw and while he did not want to talk about the specifics, he made the following comment that I think we need to keep in mind in this dialogue: “A newborn has proximity to its mothers breast. They feel the sun on their face. They have an urge, it is not a desire but an instinct to feed, they feel the warmth, they have the comfort of their mother, but there are no linguistic signifiers.  They don’t have a word in any language for what it is. It is direct experience.  There is no epistemic cap, no linguistic barrier. Everyone knows the story of Achilles, the mother held him by the heel and dipped him in the river and he became invulnerable. Well, it was the thing she held him by that was his weakness. And it is the thing we hold the knowledge of about life after death and of God, the language, the words, its those things that are the weaknesses,  the gap in our knowing, here……….., and beyond this life.   There is a metaphysical reality that is not accessible to intellectual perusal or discursive objectified knowledge. The closest we can come from my experience (and what do I know?) is the liturgical encounter. All our senses are involved.”



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