There is a widespread view that traditional Christianity is fundamentalist and, as such, that it is opposed to rational thinking, philosophy, science, and technology. People who entertain this view, Christian and secular alike, usually refer to the scriptural stories of the Fall and the Tower as their proofs. The Fall of Adam and Eve from paradise was caused by an act of free thinking (Genesis 3). The people who wished to build the Tower of Babel had grown overconfident in their scientific prowess and technological might (Genesis 11). Such endeavours displeased God and were duly stopped. On this ground, both Christians and their deniers infer that believers must not think and that they must reject science and technology. On this ground, furthermore, Christians accuse their deniers of irrational ambitions, while secular people despise Christians for their fundamentalism. No wonder that both sides accuse each other of causing an imbalance that ruined our world, our lives, even our future. Against this backdrop, theology, spirituality, science, and technology appear to be strange bedfellows—if their encounter is at all possible. At least this is how the two scriptural passages are taken by careless readers.
As for me, and assuming that I am not a careless reader, I propose that both passages are not so much about what was done; they are about how people did whatever they did, the spirit which motivated their action. From my viewpoint, their undertakings failed because they introduced a rift, an imbalance between faith and rational thinking, between theology and science, and between spirituality and technology. Way before the modern era, the early Christians, my witnesses in what follows, thought and acted differently. They were convinced that faith and reason, theology and science, or spirituality and technology must cooperate in order to secure humankind’s flourishing and a hopeful future for our world. It is true that the tendency to reject rational thinking, science, and technology can be identified in some quarters—throughout history and across the diverse Christian spectrum of our age—but I refuse to identify traditional Christianity with fundamentalism. In what follows I give some of my reasons. But before that, I wish to point out that, due to time constraints, I shall not discuss what prompts secular people to refuse Christian theology and spirituality.
The author’s page at COSAC 2020
First, I subscribe to Jaroslav Pelikan’s clarification that tradition and traditionalism are not the same. In a famous little book, The Vindication of Tradition, published in 1984, Pelikan described the tradition as “the living faith of the dead” and traditionalism as “the dead faith of the living.” Said otherwise, tradition means mindfulness of the achievements of those before us; by contrast, traditionalism is the rejection of development and progress in the name of past achievements. By the way, Pelikan, a twentieth-century scholar, was very familiar with the early Christian manner of engaging the available sciences. For whoever is interested in this area of research, I believe that his works, What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? (1997) and Christianity and Classical Culture (1993), are still very useful.
Second, while it is true that the early Christians manifested prudence towards the scientific culture of their time, their overall outlook was positive. Their prudence was largely caused by the misuse of science for nonscientific purposes, such as astrology and foretelling. Nevertheless, they also decided to celebrate Easter in relation to the March equinox and Christmas in relation to the December solstice, dates calculated by astronomers. These central festivals of the Christian tradition prove openness to the available natural sciences.
Third, my own research over many years led me to conclude that the early Christians were very much open to rational thinking, philosophy, science, and technology. I discussed relevant matters in a journal article I published recently, in 2019, ‘The Orthodox Doctrine of Creation in the Age of Science.’ I also discuss related topics in a book chapter to be published this year, ‘Maximus the Confessor and John Damascene’s Cosmology.’ The conclusions I reached in these two recent papers confirm my earlier findings. But let me give you a trivial example from my own church tradition, Orthodox of Byzantine background. When the Byzantines introduced the use of cutlery at meals in the eighth century, fairly quickly the church adapted these objects for the ritual preparation and distribution of holy communion. You might be tempted to dismiss this example as not meaning much, but you must know that, while at the time many voices screamed against this innovation, the mainstream church went on with it. For me, this is a clear proof of Christian openness to novelty, to invention, to innovation. I am sure that similar examples can be produced from within other historical forms of Christianity.
To return to my scriptural examples, in the light of the above the stories of the Fall and the Tower could have ended better than they did—well, if their protagonists adopted the generous and open early Christian outlook. Anyway, these and other reasons encourage me to affirm that fundamentalism has no traditional roots.
Below, I focus upon two early Christian examples, seeking to illustrate how the minds of our forebears in the faith worked. My first witness is an anonymous work, Letter to Diognetus, possibly written in the second half of the second century. My second witness is one of the greatest Byzantine theologians, Maximus the Confessor, who lived in the seventh century. Chapter 41 from his Book of Difficulties is relevant here. I chose these examples deliberately, to illustrate how things progressed within the Christian tradition—from the already generous worldview of Diognetus to Maximus’ detailed map of reality. And while progress and change in history are expected, these two sources also give us a sense of continuity within the tradition. Indeed, although differently, both tell the same story—that Christians aren’t supposed to dismiss rational thinking, philosophy, science, and technology wholesale, in the name of faith, spirituality, and theology.
Turning to Letter to Diognetus, first of all it would be useful to remember that it was written in an era when the Christian faith and way of life were forbidden in the Roman Empire. During those times, many Christians suffered persecution and many were even killed for their convictions. This surely explains their misgivings about what they called “the world,” by which they meant the empire itself, as well as various aspects of ancient culture and civilisation, including scientific knowledge and technology. And while one might understand their prudence—even the fear of “the world” some of them exhibited—the learned Christian who authored Diognetus thought otherwise. For this author, while Christians are “not of the world” (meaning, they live by other principles), they are not outworlders either, so to speak. In short, “Christians live in the world” (Diognetus 6). As such, “Christians do not differ from the rest of people in regards to land, or language, or their habits. For nowhere do they dwell in cities of their own, nor do they employ some unusual language, nor do they practice a strange lifestyle” (Diognetus 5). In other words, Christians mingle with people of other convictions, sharing in the everyday life of their neighbours. In terms of the broader attitude towards culture and civilisation, the author’s position conveys two things. First, Christians differ from other people by their high ethical standards; for example, by cultivating virtue and compassion (Diognetus 5, 11). Second, and relevant to my purposes, Christians do not oppose “the world,” its progress, rational thinking, philosophy, and science. No wonder the letter makes recourse to the available sciences in order to describe God’s creation. Indeed, Diognetus 7 mentions the cosmic regions known to the ancients, the starry sky, the earth we inhabit, and the ocean. Also there we encounter references to the fundamental elements known at the time—earth, water, air, and fire—which correspond to the realm of contemporary quantum physics. My earlier examples regarding Easter and Christmas established by astronomical criteria show that the author’s position was not singular.
The summary of Diognetus presented just above is based on a journal article I published in 2012, ‘Christianity and the World in the Letter to Diognetus.’ In turn, in a book I am about to finish, Humankind and the Cosmos in the Early Christian Centuries, I give an account of Diognetus’ use of ancient scientific knowledge. As far as I know, scholars have not examined this side of the letter yet. But what matters is that in Diognetus we have a clear proof of faith’s contextualisation—Christians are open to the scientific culture of their time, which they use in order to understand the universe and to better their lives. Other early Christian writers adopted similar views. But the time has come for me to jump several centuries ahead, to my second, and last, witness of the tradition, Maximus the Confessor. Largely, the summary presented below draws on my 2015 chapter, ‘Mapping Reality within the Experience of Holiness,’ together with my forthcoming work, already mentioned, ‘Maximus the Confessor and John Damascene’s Cosmology.’
Maximus’ Book of Difficulties is a lengthy treatise written in the form of answers to a series of questions he received from two of his friends. These questions referred to enigmatic passages from a couple of earlier authors, Gregory the Theologian and Dionysius the Areopagite. Relevant here is Difficulty 41, a chapter where Maximus drew a map of the universe, which I usually call a theory or a narrative of everything. He outlined five layers of reality, each containing two aspects or poles, every second aspect of each layer sheltering a narrower layer. His map can therefore be represented as a series of five concentric circles, looking like the layers of an onion. The largest circle is the ultimate division of reality, between the created and the uncreated, or God and the universe. The narrowest layer is the anthropological one—the gender division—comprising maleness and femaleness. The other three circles contain the visible and invisible universe, then only the visible universe, divided into sky and the earth, and finally the earthly domain, divided into paradise and the inhabited land. This might not be the most detailed description of reality—for example the earthly biosphere is not mentioned—but it still is an impressive way of looking at things. Equally impressive is the cultural dimension of this narrative, where one discovers the same generous idea encountered in Diognetus.
But let us look at the five layers of reality through the lens of their cultural source. The broadest circle, referring to God and the creation, draws on theological convictions anchored in scriptural wisdom (Genesis 1:1). The second circle, however, referring to the visible and the invisible aspects of the creation, marks the supreme division of reality according to Plato and his school. Obviously, Maximus considered the division between God and the creation more profound than the one between the universe’s visible and invisible sides. Next, the third circle refers to the visible universe in the physical terms of Aristotelian cosmography: the astronomical sky and the earth. The last two circles, located on earth, are again scriptural: the polarity between the paradise of Genesis 2 and the inhabited land of Genesis 3, as well as the gender division, of Genesis 1. In short, Maximus’ grand scriptural worldview includes the Platonic universe, which, in turn, includes the Aristotelian universe, which, finally, shelters the scriptural depiction of earthly realities. In so doing, it shows how various perspectives, scriptural, philosophical, and scientific, can be brought together without committing any violation to their competences and boundaries.
Indeed, within Maximus’ map of reality, the Aristotelian universe does not dissolve into the Platonic one, which shelters it; instead, it finds completion within an ampler perspective. Likewise, the Platonic cosmos does not disappear into the scriptural perspective, which cradles it; instead, it is given more depth and breadth. And so, Maximus’ Christian worldview bridges scriptural wisdom, Platonic philosophy, and Aristotelian science without replacing one by another and without dulling their contours. Whether we find his map of reality satisfactory or not, it is quite difficult to ignore that what Maximus offers here is a genial way of bringing together various perspectives on reality without forcing them into some kind of artificial agreement. And if we pay closer attention to the fourth circle of reality—which includes the paradise and the inhabited land—more important nuances come to the fore. The paradise signifies the spiritual life, while the inhabited land stands for culture and civilisation, science and technology. In gathering together the paradise and the inhabited land, Maximus therefore conveyed a powerful message, namely, that science, technology, theology, and spirituality can peacefully and creatively coexist and interact—that they aren’t strange bedfellows.
In this light, while the two writings differ in terms of their form and the details they offer, the anonymous Letter to Diognetus and Maximus’ Difficulty 41 converge into depicting Christianity as open to science and technology. To be traditional is not the same with being anachronistic and fundamentalist. Through this traditional lens, the scriptural stories of the Fall and the Tower do not signify Christianity’s innate aversion to rational thinking, philosophy, science, and technology; instead, they refer to failures to bridge theology and science, spirituality and technology, faith and rational thinking by giving preference to rational thinking, science, and technology. We know from the Scriptures that these failures were not without consequences for humankind’s flourishing and the world’s wellbeing.
I hope that the lesson of these examples is clear: there is nothing within traditional Christianity to prevent it from being open to “the world,” with its progress, its rational thinking, its philosophy, its science, and its technology. For a better future, therefore, Christians should learn how to integrate harmoniously science, technology, theology, and spirituality. I also hope that our secular neighbours could learn something from these examples too. After all, we all wish to secure a better future for ourselves and the world we share.
The author read this text for ISCAST‘s COSAC 2020 Conference: “A Hopeful Future? Christians, Creation, and the AI World” (10-12 July 2020). Because of the pandemic, the conference was held online.
14 July 2020 © AIOCS
The audio recording of the talk