Sydney lecture

Relating Science and Religion

Friday, 30 June 2017, 7-9 pm

at the Sydney College of Divinity Headquarters, 5 Talavera Road, Macquarie Park NSW 2213, Australia

A public seminar featuring Peter Harrison | Denis Edwards | Doru Costache & moderated by Jim Harrison

Organized by the Australian Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (AIOCS) on behalf of the Project Science and Orthodoxy around the World (SOW) of the Institute of Historical Research/National Hellenic Research Foundation, Athens

Reflections on the “Relating Science and Religion” lecture
by Chris BaghosTheologian, AIOCS Co-Founder​

On Friday 30 June, at the headquarters of the Sydney College of Divinity (SCD), AIOCS held the much-anticipated Relating Science and Religion seminar on behalf of Project Science and Orthodoxy around the World (hereafter Project SOW), an initiative of the Institute for Historical Research at the National Hellenic Research Foundation, Athens. To be sure, having assisted in the preparation and promotion of the event, I was very excited to hear the presentations by the Reverend Professor Denis Edwards (Professorial Fellow in Theology, Australian Catholic University, Adelaide), Professor Peter Harrison, FAHA (Australian Laureate Fellow; Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland), and Protopresbyter Dr Doru Costache (President of AIOCS; Senior Lecturer in Patristic Studies, SCD). Before the distinguished speakers took the stage, the moderator of the seminar, Professor Jim Harrison (SCD Director of Research), welcomed the enthusiastic audience of fifty people. He subsequently introduced each of the speakers. Furthermore, Nikos Livanos (Project SOW’s Events & Communications Officer) provided a concise and engaging history of Project SOW.  

Before commencing his talk, titled ‘Christian Origins of Modern Science,’ Prof. Peter Harrison humbly noted how much he has learnt about Orthodoxy since becoming a member of the Scientific Committee of Project SOW. He then affirmed that his presentation would focus on the Western Christian tradition. That is, he would be discussing the distinctive features of this tradition, and how these help explain the emergence of modern science in Europe during the seventeenth century. The professor highlighted that his talk would focus on how Christianity: (i) helped motivate the development of modern science; (ii) gave social legitimation to modern scientific practice; (iii) provided presuppositions without which the emergence of modern science would not have been possible; and (iv) contributed to specific methods of enquiry that are distinctive of early modern science. Regarding the topic of motivation, Harrison revealed that modern scientific enquiry would not have been possible without the Christian presuppositions of its pioneers. This shattered my assumption that there has been a perennial battle between science and religion in the West. The professor pointed out that the following fathers of modern science were committed Christians, contrary to modern assumptions: Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, René Descartes, Robert Boyle, and Johannes Kepler. Boyle, a key figure in the development of modern chemistry, is an interesting example. He affirmed that the rational contemplation of nature, today considered an intrinsically scientific practice, constitutes Christian worship! Harrison then moved on to the topic of social legitimation, which is more difficult to comprehend since most people now consider the scientific disciplines self-evidently useful. He noted that they constitute a central aspect of Western society, “the golden standard for our knowledge.” I was surprised to discover that this was not the case during the seventeenth century. Back then, a relatively small group of intellectuals had to establish the credentials of each discipline of science. The speaker amusingly related how, during this time, the famous cleric, poet, and satirist Jonathan Swift even mocked the Royal Society (a group of important intellectuals responsible for revolutionary scientific achievements, which has since developed into a prestigious academic institution). With great skill, the professor went on to identify the cultural variables that led to the consolidation of the sciences in the West (which was markedly different from the “boom and bust pattern” of development that occurred in the Eastern and Oriental cultures). In short, there was a particular set of Catholic and Protestant values that gave rise to the idea that science per se ought to be pursued. These included the Augustinian notion of original sin and an activist understanding of how humanity must overcome its disastrous effects on the world. Harrison then cited the renowned philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon, who affirmed that humanity could only restore its control over nature – the loss of which was a major outcome of the Fall – by investing in science. Demonstrating his masterful knowledge of the subject matter, the speaker next revealed how Christian thinkers were responsible for the distinctive set of presuppositions that became essential for modern science, paying close attention to the laws of nature. He returned to Kepler, who expounded upon such laws whilst appealing to mathematics. It is remarkable how Kepler maintained that God instantiates the mathematical relations by which humanity can effectively interpret and predict what happens in the world. Harrison also mentioned Descartes, who held that God directly imposes a distinctive set of laws upon creation. It is fascinating that the natural philosophers Boyle and Samuel Clarke adopted this idea, as did Newton, who in turn proposed that in order to discover why God made such laws as he did humanity must perform experiments. The speaker adeptly outlined how the justification for empirical investigations to discover the laws of nature ultimately derives from theological convictions. Lastly, with regard to methods of inquiry, Harrison investigated how scientists went from basic, intuitive observations to complex experiments in order to determine how things function. He proposed that this methodological change was instigated by a strongly Protestant view of the fallen nature of human beings. Harrison stated that since Calvin and Luther held that humanity’s capacity to reason was compromised after the fall of Adam, the natural philosophers whom they influenced came to see the experimental method as a therapeutic regimen; one which enables humanity to overcome the limitations of its fallen intellect. They thus promoted the use of instruments in order to aid what they perceived to be the corrupted senses. At this point of the presentation, I could see that the audience was profoundly impressed by how much history the professor had managed to relate within the space of thirty minutes, and how many misconceptions concerning science he had addressed.  

Fr Denis Edwards subsequently discussed a crucial aspect of the science-theology discussion, namely the topic of God’s transcendence and his engagement with the natural world. More precisely, the speaker challenged the audience to consider God’s presence and transcendence as both reflecting his humility. He also discussed how one should think of these attributes of God in relation to the integrity and autonomy of the evolutionary processes described by the sciences. Father Denis affirmed that theologians have been forced to contend with the issue of evolution throughout the modern era. Charles Darwin and his successors indicated that predation, competition, death, and extinction have always been part of life on earth. According to the speaker, this has obliged theologians to deeply reflect on the transcendent God’s concern for what St Paul termed the groaning of creation (Rom 8:22). Consequently, part of the theological response to these challenges has been to affirm the compassionate presence of God amidst the suffering of the created order. Father Denis in turn highlighted how the conception of God as a transcendent being has been contrasted to the idea of him as radically present within creation. He revealed that two highly influential theologians, Sts Irenaeus of Lyons and Athanasius of Alexandria, presented a solution to this problem whilst affirming that the true nature of divine transcendence found expression in the down-to-earth, self-humbling love of Christ. In other words, the same love revealed during the crucifixion also characterised the act of creation. The scholar’s genuine affection for these saints was apparent throughout the remainder of his presentation, making it all the more inspiring. With discernment and dispassion worthy of imitation, Father Denis next examined the gnostic sect known as the Valentinians. This group affirmed that the world of matter stemmed from a primordial near-catastrophe within the divine realm. The Valentinians therefore had a pessimistic view of the natural world, which they considered an evil place characterised by suffering. As indicated by the speaker, Irenaeus opposed this idea. The saint maintained that since God the Father freely fashioned the world through his two ‘hands,’ the Word and the Holy Spirit, matter is inherently good. Father Denis went on to discuss Irenaeus’ perception of divine transcendence. Whilst this is quite a difficult topic, he addressed it in laymen terms, making it very easy to comprehend. I will attempt to do him justice here. Unlike the Valentinians, who affirmed that divine and mortal beings are part of the same existential continuum, Irenaeus maintained that there is a distinct world of creatures whose existence nevertheless depends on the one transcendent God. Accordingly, God is the only reality; he called the entire cosmos into existence and has always sustained it. Whilst God contains all things, he is contained by nothing, and is therefore distinct from humanity on the level of being. Interestingly, Father Denis described Irenaeus’ conviction that there is still an intimate connection between God and his creatures. The saint affirmed that God took the initiative to bridge the gap between himself and humankind via the Incarnation of the Son and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Salvific knowledge of the Creator, whose glory is ultimately beyond comprehension, was thus made attainable through Christ, in whom God’s profound love for humanity was revealed. According to the speaker, Athanasius similarly maintained that God is beyond all creaturely limits yet at the same time the ultimate source of being. Like Irenaeus, Athanasius interpreted the world from a Christ-centred perspective. He maintained that the cosmos was not created out of necessity, and that it therefore exists only on account of the divine benevolence. Indeed, Christ demonstrated such benevolence during his crucifixion, sacrificing himself for the sake of his creatures. Father Denis rightly pointed out that merciful love should therefore be considered an essential aspect of the divine nature. For the speaker, Athanasius’ insistence against his Arian opponents on the full divinity of the Word and the Spirit meant that he had an intense understanding of the immanence of the Holy Trinity. Contrary to the Arians, Athanasius denied the idea of a semi-divine intermediary between God and humanity. Rather, the saint maintained that God is immediately present in creation. That is, he affirmed that God has ultimately created each entity through the Word, in the Spirit. Father Denis wonderfully pointed out that in both the act of creation and the Incarnation, the transcendent God condescended to be directly present to his creatures out of altruistic compassion. He movingly concluded his presentation whilst reiterating that God’s humility and love have been at work not only in the emergence of the universe but also the evolution of life on earth – in all its joys and sufferings.

Fr Doru Costache began his talk, ‘The Kenotic God, the Principle of Synergy, and the Evolutionary Universe,’ by affirming that he would address the resistance towards the modern sciences by certain groups claiming to be Orthodox. He asserted with conviction that it has never been the Church’s position that the world is static as contended by these milieus. Dynamism and movement did not necessarily imply sin and corruption for the saints of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Indeed, some of the most important theologians of these eras explicitly stated that nothing in nature has been produced solely through supernatural intervention. Rather, they held that the cosmos is subject to God-led evolutionary processes. The speaker similarly challenged those with fundamentalist propensities who contend that death is an outcome of the Fall and therefore unnatural. He went on to outline how their denial of contemporary scientific representations of reality is entirely foreign to Orthodoxy. Father Doru systematically addressed what has challenged many within the Orthodox Church to resist the modern sciences. He identified the following unproblematic aspects of the current scientific worldview: (i) the universe is billions of years old; (ii) it continually expands according to natural laws; (iii) it is in constant motion, and therefore evolving; (iv) the same natural laws apply everywhere within it; and (v) all things contained by it are connected. Father Doru highlighted how this last scientific principle contradicts the supernaturalist paradigm, which illegitimately divides the universe by stipulating that all things have been created independently from one another. The speaker then indicated that contemporary Orthodox should ponder the abovementioned scientific ideas in the way that the saints of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages considered those of their respective times (e.g. of Ptolemaism and Aristotelianism) when representing the cosmos. Present-day Orthodox must therefore be willing to engage with the ideas of the major representatives of the sciences. Father Doru suggested that the resistance to the sciences on the part of certain Orthodox is a product of their misinterpretation of Scripture; the belief that the act of creation immediately resulted in a perfect world. As indicated by the speaker, this belief is entirely mythological; even a superficial reading of Genesis and Revelation indicates that there is a progression of the created order towards perfection. Father Doru proposed that another reason for the fundamentalist opposition to the sciences is the supernaturalist conviction that nothing in the universe exists without special intervention from God. If one maintains that everything in the universe has been supernaturally produced by God, without any mediation from the natural energy that he has imbued within it, they are bound to be unable to give account for the universe’s evolution and expansion. Often coupled with the resistance to the notion of evolutionary motion is the illusion that natural movement constitutes a derailment from an original state of perfection. According to the speaker, there is nevertheless a legitimate claim from such milieus within Orthodoxy that the current scientific discourse is laden with eighteenth-century ideological convictions: e.g. atheism, naturalism, positivism, and agnosticism. One can therefore understand why those who construe themselves as traditionalists resist the sciences. However, the speaker suggested a few ways in which the gap between Orthodoxy and the world of science can be bridged. Firstly, one has to recognise that there is no formal doctrine of creation according to the Church. That is, there is no official statement as to how God technically created the world. Of course, it is certain that God created the universe out of nothing through the Word. However, this affirmation, as featured in the Symbol of Faith, allows for freedom on the part of theologians who are required to engage with contemporary cosmology for the sake of mission. For Father Doru, proper analysis of key Christian texts also constitutes a major way of bridging the gap between the worlds of faith and science. The first chapter of Genesis, for instance, features theological affirmations together with a scientific-like representation of reality stemming from Jewish culture. Interestingly, St Basil the Great drew upon a different scientific paradigm in his interpretation of this chapter. Basil realised that the Semitic interpretation of reality in Genesis was not immediately intelligible to his audience, which consisted of Greek speakers. He therefore interpreted the book in a manner which was more comprehensible for it, namely within the parameters of Greek science. The speaker then revealed that certain figures of modern Orthodoxy, particularly Vladimir Lossky, recognised the need to translate the traditional ecclesial message in a language that takes into consideration the current scientific paradigm. Having cited Lossky, Father Doru reiterated that the saints often combine theological and scientific affirmations. He asserted that what changes throughout the ages is the scientific dimension of the Church Fathers’ discourse, not the theological content. Hence, Basil’s theological interpretation of the world is not erroneous on account of his incorporation of outdated, Ptolemaic scientific ideas. Contemporary theologians should imitate Basil’s appropriation of the available sciences within a theological framework, not appeal to his scientific assertions as such. Father Doru then described how various influential theologians interpreted the Genesis narrative using an apparatus consisting of theological, philosophical, and scientific elements. Demonstrating his thorough knowledge of patristic literature, he went on to cite Sts Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Maximus the Confessor, in addition to Nemesius of Emesa. I was intrigued by his revelation that Nemesius and Maximus anticipated the theory of evolution by over a millennium whilst affirming that God created all things in the universe with a natural tendency for movement and change! The speaker concluded by presenting in contemporary idiom the various scientific assertions of the saints he had cited. Moreover, in agreement with Father Denis, he affirmed that the evolution of the universe attests to the humility and loving patience of God; God compassionately bears with the weaknesses of his creation whilst seeking its perfection.

In summary, the seminar, which concluded with a lively Q & A session, was an outstanding success, and a great contribution to the current discussion between science and theology. All three speakers displayed intimate knowledge of, and profound respect for, the sciences, whilst remaining faithful to their respective Christian traditions. It is rare for scholars of such calibre to come together in an amiable setting with an audience comprised of appreciative Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians. The warm reception of the talks was evidenced by the many stimulating conversations during supper. 

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