Communicating Theologically Interpreted Scientific Information to Christian Congregations: Patristic and Neopatristic Lessons

by Doru Costache

In the last seventy years or so, at least from the publication, in 1966, of Ian Barbour’s Issues in Science and Religion, the field of faith and science—also known as science and religion or theology and science—made significant strides towards dismantling the “conflict” narrative.

This conflict has premodern historical roots but became an ongoing reality with the “culture wars” of the early modern era, especially occasioned by the rise of geology and biology, in the eighteenth and the nineteenth-century, respectively. The fires of conflict were fuelled, again and again, by the progress of the sciences, which many Christians could not welcome because of misunderstanding Scripture as a scientific textbook that told them everything they needed to know about the world. And since the sciences unveiled phenomena that entailed nature’s autonomy, Christians considered any scientific discovery an attempt at undermining their sense of God’s sovereignty as creator. But it is not my intention to discuss the shaky theological foundations of Christian fundamentalist worldviews. What matters, here, is that this counterproductive attitude, doubled by the equally fundamentalist responses of the atheist ideologists of science, are what made the “conflict narrative” a dominant of Western culture to this day. True, historical scholarship, through Peter Harrison (see his The Territories of Science and Religion, 2015) and others, down to the recent input of Nicholas Spencer (see Magisteria: The Entangled Histories of Science and Religion, 2023) and James Ungureanu (see Of Popes and Unicorns: Science, Christianity, and How the Conflict Thesis Fooled the World, 2022, with David Hutchins), proved that the “conflict” stance is not the only kind of interaction between theology and science—after all, Barbour himself identified four ways of interacting—but the fact is that, at the grassroots of obtuse Christians and atheist propagandists alike everything looks like a zero-sum game.

Against this backdrop, researchers of science and religion, from Andrew Briggs (see Human Flourishing: Scientific Insight and Spiritual Wisdom in Uncertain Times, 2021, with Michael J. Reiss) and John Hedley Brooke (see Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, 2014) to Tom McLeish (see The Poetry and Music of Science: Comparing Creativity in Science and Art, 2019) and John Polkinghorne (see Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship, 2008)—and so many others—have painted a much more complex picture of the situation. From the vantage point of their contributions, the “conflict narrative” represents but a fraction of the spectrum of ideas out there. At least, this is the majority view in the academic discipline of science and religion, which has been operating in diverse settings, from historical to philosophical to religious studies. This discipline currently flourishes in Western Europe and North America, but not Down Under, definitely not among the very few theologians who dare to work across various disciplines. The fact that, for example, this year the “faith & science” stream of ANZATS includes only five papers is telling.

Audio recording of the presentation and the ensuing discussion

In this paper, I will not discuss the causes of the academic marginalisation of science and religion in our region; suffice it to say that ideological factors and an outdated sense of disciplinary boundaries play an important role to that end; instead, I am interested in the limited impact of this discipline on a popular level. Anecdotal evidence shows that many Australian Christians believe that faith and science are irreconcilable or, at best, that they have nothing to tell each other and that, furthermore, the sciences are of no use to believers. ISCAST’s recent survey (September 2023) in several Christian Victorian schools, to which 590 students responded anonymously, leaves no doubt about the level of misinformation at the grassroots. Seventy years of doing science and religion could not sway the people at the pulpit and in the pews, including the younger generations. Not even new approaches, such as Peter Harrison, John Milbank, and Paul Tyson’s “after science and religion” (see After Science and Religion: Fresh Perspectives from Philosophy and Theology, 2022) and Johanna Leidenhag and John Perry’s “science-engaged theology” (see Science-Engaged Theology, 2023; “What Is Science-Engaged Theology?” 2021) are expected to make a dent. Undoubtedly, these approaches bring with them something new and important, but they operate within the same parameters of science and religion as an academic discipline. As such, and in the terms of our conference, we cannot expect them to foster connection and community.

This being the case—at least from my viewpoint—herein I turn to a traditionally anchored approach, hermeneutical in scope, that proved to be efficient in communicating theologically interpreted scientific information to Christian communities, beyond academic purposes. In terms of the method, this approach resembles science-engaged theology. That said, its historical roots go deep, to the New Testament authors and other early Christian theologians. Importantly, this approach does not require expertise from either proponents or the audience, constituting a flexible framework that can be deployed pastorally as well as academically.

To clarify the workings of this method, I would describe its recent iteration, science-engaged theology, as tackling scientific information interpretively. As I see it, here, the sciences are neither challenged nor confirmed by theological statements. Instead, scientific information is taken as a given and duly incorporated into the architecture of the theological discourse. For example, a contemporary science-engaged theologian will not discuss Christian anthropology in the supernaturalist fashion of “creationism,” with a lifeless statue plugged to the powerpoint and become functional by divine agency, instead undertaking to present the mystery of humanity’s creation in God’s image against the backdrop of evolutionary biology. And so, “dust of the earth” (Genesis 2:7) captures metaphorically the entire history of life on earth. Here, evolutionary anthropology is taken for granted, as a description of human nature, but reinterpreted in the light of a theological criterion, the fact of being (re)made in God’s image. To give another example, the same or other science-engaged theologian will not discuss the foundations of Christian cosmology after the fashion of “young earth creationism” and the “flat earth” mythos, which focus on extraneous divine interventions that suspend the nature of a world made the other day, hocus-pocus, just the way we see it, instead considering the billions of years counted by contemporary cosmology. In this case, again, evolutionary cosmology is taken as a given, but reinterpreted in the light of a theological criterion, namely, by bringing to the fore the ongoing interaction of divine and cosmic energies in the infrastructure of our evolving universe.

This approach, I propose, helps believers to fly straight and level in regard to their faith, and to do so without getting worked up upon realising the difference between the scientific description of reality and the worldview of scriptural authors. After all, as John Henry Newman pointed out long ago, the “bearing of other branches of knowledge on theology,” including upon the scriptural worldview, is undeniable (see his On the Scope and Nature of University Education, 1965, 55-79). Accordingly, as the scriptural authors drew on ancient lore to communicate theological truths intelligibly to their readers, so must contemporary theologians connect their audiences to scriptural theology, including the doctrine of creation, but without the ancient cultural references available to the scriptural authors. Such references must be replaced, for the sake of intelligibility, pastorally, by contemporary references, including scientific ones. And this entails an interpretive engagement of contemporary science.

What I am proposing, concretely, is that, once we understood the lessons of the early Christian thinkers and learned how to replicate them within our cultural context, this pastorally grounded approach is suitable for popularising the findings of science to believers—including the findings of science and religion as an academic discipline—helping to deepen their faith.

I must now turn to examples of application of this approach in early Christian sources. I begin with three scriptural examples, where what would currently count as scientific information refers to ancient natural philosophy. First, let’s consider the single occurrence of the word Logos in relation to Christ’s identity as creator of the universe, in John 1:1. Here, the word Logos has the full weight it had in Philo of Alexandria’s Middle Platonic cosmology. But, scholars tell us, in the hands of John, the concept shows clear traits of reinterpretation (see Peder Borgen, The Gospel of John: More Light from Philo, Paul and Archaeology, 2014, 43-45, 63-64, 88-92; Sean M. McDonough, Christ as Creator: Origins of a New Testament Doctrine, 2009, 148-149). Significantly, John does not bother to discuss or to justify his terminological innovation; he deploys it as a known cultural trope, for the purposes of reaching out to audiences that were aware of this concept, and does so in view of different theological assumptions, pertaining to Christ’s Gospel. Second, related, in Colossians 1:15-18, Paul undertakes to map the invisible world after the Second Temple angelology, which has nothing to do with the cosmology of Genesis, of Job, or of the Psalms. Like John, Paul does not feel the need to explain this novelty and deploys it as a cultural reference familiar to his readers. Again like John, he does so by reinterpreting Second Temple angelology in the light of Christ understood as principle of creation (see Ronald Cox, By the Same Word: Creation and Salvation in Hellenistic Judaism and Early Christianity, 2007, 163-192; McDonough, Christ as Creator, 172-188). Third, in Colossians 2:8 Paul refers to “the fundamental elements (στοιχεῖα) of the cosmos,” the term στοιχεῖα being borrowed from pre-Socratic cosmology. Paul does not attempt to legitimise the use of a known trope; and even though he deploys it in a negative sense, what matters is that he expects his readers to understand the reference.

No wonder, given such examples, many early Christian authors followed suit, presenting Christian ideas by way of reinterpreted cultural, sometimes scientific, references. I have been discussing this topic since many years, and the most articulate accounts of my understanding can be found in the 2021 monograph, Humankind and the Cosmos: Early Christian Representations, and two recent journal articles, “Patristic and Neopatristic Antecedents of Scientifically Engaged Theology” (2023) and “The Cosmology of David Bohm: Scientific and Theological Significance” (2024), the latter written in cooperation with Richard de Grijs (Macquarie University). Interested people might also look for my forthcoming book, A New Copernican Turn: Contemporary Cosmology, the Self, and Orthodox Science-Engaged Theology, written with Geraint Lewis (The University of Sydney), to be released this month. To illustrate my above points, I shall give two more examples, one patristic, one neopatristic, which evidence continuity within the tradition of cultural contextualisation of theological ideas through the engagement of the available knowledge, including scientific.

Thus, Basil of Caesarea criticised the inconsistencies of Hellenistic natural philosophers (see Homilies on the Hexaemeron 1.2), but he also took Ptolemaic cosmography as a cultural given and presented the doctrine of creation through the Alexandrian system of the world, of concentric spheres. Awareness of the changing ideas of ancient scientists made him prudent about deciding on the number of celestial spheres; accordingly, he mentioned three to seven orbits (see Homilies on the Hexaemeron 1.3-4; 3.3). What matters is that he referred to Ptolemaic cosmography in order to render the theological discourse intelligible for his readers. Even where he criticised the natural philosophers openly, he did so on theological, not scientific grounds. Thus, he accused them of hypothesising about nature and the universe in ignorance of God; this, in fact, was the source of their confusion. Basil’s task, in turn, was to interpret the available information through the lens of theology, so much so that his cosmology and ontology are consistently God-centred. Typical of this interpretation is his take on the Genesis 1 commandment to the land to generate plant life, which he took as a divine energy that catalysed the natural generative potential of the earth (see Homilies on the Hexaemeron 5.2 and 8.1, for the sixth day; cf. Costache, Humankind and the Cosmos, 243-248). In short, he took Ptolemy’s spheres and the idea of the earth’s natural generative potential as scientific givens, incorporating them into his theological discourse about reality.

Many Christian authors, from Clement of Alexandria to John of Damascus, adopted the same stance. But let me turn briefly to a couple of modern, neopatristic examples. The twentieth-century neopatristic movement proposed a critical and creative return to the methods of patristic—or early Christian—authors, whose cultural exploits, it was posited, can inspire us today. Accordingly, drawing on the likes of Athanasius of Alexandria and Maximus the Confessor, Dumitru Stăniloae reformulated the traditional doctrine of creation in conversation with contemporary chemistry, physics, and cosmology, producing a complex theological, indeed theocentric, worldview where relativity, the universe’s expansion, and quantum physics feature as cultural givens (see “A Theology of the World: Dumitru Stăniloae, the Traditional Worldview, and Contemporary Cosmology,” 2019).

In turn, Panayiotis Nellas developed theological anthropology in the framework of evolutionary biology. Referring to ninth-century iconology, he discerned between the icon as a material object and as a religious item, showing that, while the material object can be studied by the sciences, its assessment as a religious item falls in the purview of theology. Similarly, he continued, theological anthropology does not confuse human nature, whose analysis is the province of science, including evolutionary biology, and “the-fact-of-being-in-the-image,” which requires theological expertise. What matters, however, is that Nellas was able to incorporate scientific information into his “iconic” or theological anthropology (see Costache, “Theological Anthropology Today: Panayiotis Nellas’s Contribution,” 2022). Thus, his approach is about maintaining disciplinary boundaries while ascertaining that the various perspectives—from biology and genetics to psychology and sociology to theology and spirituality—are competent in their specific ways of exploring reality. But this is not merely a matter of establishing the area of competence of each filed or perspective; it is also a way of saying that a fuller understanding of the examined objects requires the humble acknowledgement of the parties involved that none of them can offer the complete description of reality to the exclusion of other perspectives. This sense of complementarity of various incommensurable disciplinary methods brings this approach close to the transdisciplinary framework (see the International Centre for Transdisciplinary Research & Studies); the discussion of this connection will have to be reserved for some other time.

Obviously, while it establishes rigorous disciplinary boundaries, by comparing icon-veneration and Christian anthropology Nellas’ approach lends itself to a pastoral deployment better than other methods. The same goes for the neopatristic proposal more broadly, which can be replicated for various audiences, academic and popular alike. In so doing, in the footsteps of the scriptural and the patristic examples given above, it can effectively contribute to the integration of scientific—and broader cultural—information into the Christian discourse. No wonder this traditional method, namely, of taking the scientific culture of the day for granted and interpreting it theologically, proved time and again its effectiveness in facilitating the access of Christian communities to scientific information. As a result, and as recent research brings to light (see, e.g., Efthymios Nicolaidis, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization, 2011), until recently Orthodox Christians, the inheritors of this tradition, proved discernment and openness towards the shifting scientific paradigms across the spans of history. No wonder, again, until recently they did not succumb wholesale to the “the conflict narrative.” It is my conviction that this approach might succeed where seventy years of academic study of science and religion could not, connecting the dots of faith and science and building vigorous communities of believers conversant with the contemporary cultural context, which includes the sciences.

Acknowledgment A slightly shorter version was presented remotely for the ANZATS Conference 2024 Connection and Community, the Faith & Science stream.

Bio Very Rev. Dr Doru Costache is the ISCAST Research Director and an Associate Professor of Theology at the Sydney College of Theology. He coedits Christian Perspectives on Science and Technology. He is a Fellow of ISCAST and of the International Society for Science and Religion. He is a Selby Old Fellow in Religious History of the Orthodox Christian Faith at the University of Sydney Library. He co-chaired the Cosmology group of project “Science and Orthodoxy around the World” (Athens). Author of Humankind and the Cosmos: Early Christian Representations (Brill, 2021) and coauthor of Dreams, Virtue and Divine Knowledge in Early Christian Egypt (Cambridge, 2019).

2 July 2024 © AIOCS

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