Towards a Scientifically Engaged Theology

Towards a Scientifically Engaged Theology: Traditionally Anchored Methodological Considerations

(Paper presented at IOTA 2023 Conference, Volos, Greece, 11-15 January 2023; NB the resulting article is under review, July 2023)

Doru Costache

I must confess that I prefer the concept of scientifically engaged theology to its alternatives, science and religion, faith and science, or science and theology. The latter three variations evoke a history of misunderstanding, dissension, and conflict. We should keep in mind the methodological difference between science and theology, of course, but we should not take it as a pretext for warfare, mutual indifference, or lack of communication. Methodologically incommensurable though they might be, theology and science can talk to one another politely and interact creatively. They did so in the past, they do so in places to this day, and they might do so more openly in the future. However, until the rise of a theologically engaged science, it is theologians who should engage the scientific culture of our age. To do so, they won’t have to become scientists—unless they wish to train—but they should nonetheless acquaint themselves with the dominant methods and ideas in science. Also, they will have to reacquire the traditional skill of tackling scientific matters, more specifically, by interpreting science theologically. The last step is what, hereafter, I understand by a scientifically engaged theology.

One could wonder, however, why would theologians bother to engage science. Well, while certain theologians ought to continue exploring the experience of God’s people, others must engage the contemporary world, including the scientific culture of our age. The latter should do so for various reasons, but especially in order to communicate the Christian message effectively. And since the world is not conversant in “ecclesialese,” theologians must learn its language. From the day of Pentecost on, traditional antecedents aren’t missing (See Alexey Fokin, ‘Natural Theology in Patristic Thought: Arguments for the Existence of God’ in David Bradshaw and Richard Swinburne (eds), Natural Theology in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition (St Paul, MN: IOTA Publications, 2021) 23-49). Let’s give a couple of examples.

Many would list Saint Basil the Great’s Homilies on the Hexaemeron among his exegetical works, pointing to a couple of passages in his ninth homily as denoting a literal interpretation of Genesis. I have bad news. Recent research has led to a shift of the consensus towards understanding him as a sophisticated interpreter. Furthermore, I have discovered that what Basil does in Hexaemeron is not typical interpretation. While he often highlights theological and/or formative dimensions, his goal is to translate the message of Genesis from its Semitic setting into the Hellenistic concepts of his time. Some of you will undoubtedly hurry to remind me that, in the fourth century, Hellenistic culture was at a premium in parts of Cappadocia. That might be so. However, Basil did not speak to the hinterlands and did not write for some back of beyond; his audiences were Hellenised and Greek-speaking; accordingly, he cogently spoke to them in Greek and wrote elegantly.

To the point, now. Together with translating the message of Genesis into Hellenistic categories, Basil explains things. He explains the natural world as his contemporaries represented it, namely, in the language of late ancient science. “Grass is grass,” remember? No room for the Semitic symbolism still present in Origen’s earlier interpretation. The same goes for Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s An Apology for the Hexaemeron, where scientific information features prominently, forcing pious readers to close the book after the first few pages. In both cases, Basil’s and Gregory’s, theology reaches out to believers, and does so by engaging the θύραθεν σοφία, outside wisdom, here, scientific information. In short, what we encounter when we read their Hexaemera is scientifically engaged theology, not exegesis. Other works of this genre confirm my point (see the studies published in Almagest 11:1 (2020), edited by Eudoxie Delli and Efthymios Nicolaidis). If interested in this, please read chapters five and six in my 2021 book, Humankind and the Cosmos.

Thus, Basil and Gregory immersed themselves in the scientific culture of their age in order to make the scriptural message comprehensible to those within and, possibly, to outsiders. What matters is that they and other ancient theologians paved the way for us, showing to us what to do. A new scientifically engaged theology won’t have to be groundbreaking, methodologically speaking; it would have to replicate the achievements of the ancients by learning their lessons. But it would have to replicate lessons, not to copy/paste ready made answers.

The process of retrieving this approach has already begun with the twentieth-century neopatristic movement, but there is long since anything of note was achieved in this area. However, neopatristic theologians have suggested ways of replicating the lessons of the ancients. No reinventing the wheel is in order. To substantiate my claim, I will review the thinking of three representatives of this movement, Vladimir Lossky, Panayiotis Nellas, and Dumitru Stăniloae.

I begin by paraphrasing a passage from Father Stăniloae’s 1972 article, “The Problems and Perspectives of Orthodox Theology,” where he outlines the tasks of contemporary and future theology (Dumitru Stăniloae, Theology and the Church, trans. Robert Barringer (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980), 224; thoroughly edited). Thus:

A theology interested in emphasising the destiny of humankind and the meaning of history cannot avoid facing the world in which people actually live out their lives. Orthodox theology must therefore become … a theology of the world, thus returning to the tradition of the Eastern Fathers themselves, who perceived the cosmos as recapitulated in God … the most important challenge for the Orthodox theology of tomorrow will be to reconcile the cosmic vision of the Fathers with a vision which grows out of the results of the natural sciences.

Pretty clear! Stăniloae returns to the same mandate for the next generation of theologians—i.e., ours—saying the following in a note to his 1987 translation of Saint Athanasius the Great’s Against the Gentiles (Dumitru Stăniloae, ‘Introduction’ to Sfântul Atanasie cel Mare: Scrieri [St Athanasius the Great: Writings], first part, Părinţi şi Scriitori Bisericeşti Series [Church Fathers and Writers Series] vol. 15 (Bucharest: Editura Institutului Biblic și de Misiune al Bisericii Ortodoxe Române, 1987), pp. 5–26, at 24; my translation):

Subsequent to the highlighting, by the natural sciences, of the universal importance of movement and the energies that sustain it within the laws they have discovered throughout the created reality, a task for the thinkers of tomorrow is to develop a theology of movement, its theological appraisal.

Here, the task of engaging science clearly aims at the universe in expansion. Stăniloae himself pursued this goal consistently, by reinterpreting the traditional doctrine of creation against the backdrop of modern cosmology, quantum physics, and evolutionary biology. I have discussed his relevant contributions in a number of studies (‘A Theology of the World: Dumitru Stăniloae, the Traditional Worldview, and Contemporary Cosmology’ in Vasilios N. Makrides and Gayle Woloschak (eds), Orthodox Christianity and Modern Science: Tensions, Ambiguities, Potential, Science and Orthodox Christianity 1 (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2019), 205-222. ‘At the Crossroads of Contemporary Cosmology and the Patristic Worldview: Movement, Rationality and Purpose in Father Dumitru Staniloae’ Studii Teologice (3rd series) 9:2 (2013) 141-163. ‘Colocviul fără Sfârșit: Rațiunea de A Fi a Creației în Gândirea Părintelui Stăniloae’ in Theodor Baconsky and Bogdan Tataru-Cazaban (eds), Dumitru Stăniloae sau Paradoxul teologiei (Bucuresti: Anastasia, 2003) 183-241). My findings have been recently corroborated by Dionysios Skliris (Dionysius Skliris, ‘Reactions of Modern Greek Theologians to Natural Theology’ in Natural Theology in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, 125-148, esp. 129-130). In the light of my research, I would say that Stăniloae is the only Orthodox theologian of his century who managed to articulate the traditional worldview in conversation with modern cosmological and physical ideas.

I shall end my review of his thinking by quoting a passage from the monumental Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, more precisely from the preface to the first edition, 1978, of this work (Stăniloae, Teologia dogmatică ortodoxă (Bucharest: Editura Institutului Biblic și de Misiune al Bisericii Ortodoxe Române, 2003; first edition 1978) 1: 6; my translation). Thus,

We have endeavoured to understand the teaching of the Church in the spirit of the Fathers, but also to understand it the way we believe that they would have understood it today. For they would have not ignored our time, the way they did not ignore their own.

This passage perfectly captures the spirit of the neopatristic movement and iterates the traditional wisdom within the modern setting. The fact that Stăniloae’s successors did not continue this work is no fault of his, nor is it an inherent problem of the tradition of scientifically engaged theology he and others of his generation represented.

For Stăniloae was not the first modern Orthodox theologian that grasped the spirit of cultural engagement pertaining to the patristic tradition. A message to that effect is found in the fifth chapter of Lossky’s 1944 classic, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. There, he sketches a programme of inculturation of Christian cosmology. Here is a relevant passage, which, for the benefit of the oblivious theologians of our time, is worth quoting at length (Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimirs Seminary Press, 2002), 104-106):

The cosmology of the Greek Fathers is necessarily expressed in terms of the conception of the universe which prevailed in their own age; a fact which takes nothing whatever away from the properly theological basis of their commentaries upon the biblical narrative of the creation. The theology of the Orthodox Church, constantly soteriological in its emphasis, has never entered into alliance with philosophy in any attempt at a doctrinal synthesis … Having no philosophical preferences, the Church always freely makes use of philosophy and the sciences for apologetic purposes, but she never has any cause to defend these relative and changing truths as she defends the unchangeable truth of her doctrines. This is why ancient or more modern cosmological theories cannot affect in any way the fundamental truth which is revealed to the Church … In the face of the vision of the universe which the human race has gained since the period of the renaissance, in which the earth is represented as an atom lost in infinite space amid innumerable other worlds, there is no need for theology to change anything whatever in the narrative of Genesis … Christian theology … is able to accommodate itself very easily to any scientific theory of the universe, provided that this does not attempt to go beyond its own boundaries and begin impertinently to deny things which are outside its own field of vision.

Let’s process the meaning of this passage. First, past theologians rephrased the Christian worldview with the aid of the available sciences, deployed as a cultural framework for communicating the message; second, they secured the theological independence of the message from science. They realised that Christian theology remains unaffected by the sciences employed for communicating it. This realisation is crucial, and Lossky identifies here the elements of a method. Furthermore, he suggests that, as the ancient sciences did not impact the theological nature of the Orthodox representation of reality, contemporary sciences cannot do that either. And he states that, while the Christian worldview engages new cultural contexts for missional purposes, it is not attached to any such contexts. It follows that the contemporary sciences could and should replace the ancient knowledge as a vehicle for the theological discourse on reality, while theology should avoid treating the sciences of our time as the ultimate say about reality, allowing for encounters with the sciences of tomorrow. Either way, we should not expect our audiences to learn ancient languages in order to understand the Orthodox representation of reality.

While Lossky himself did not go the proverbial extra mile to show in what manner could Orthodox theology engage modern cosmology, the above excerpt spells out his views with clarity. As we have seen above, it was Stăniloae who completed that task, by working along the lines of Lossky’s view of things. So did, too, Nellas, in contemplating the human phenomenon. Indeed, in his masterpiece, Deified Animal, Nellas boldly integrates evolutionary biology into his liturgically, patristically, and scripturally based Orthodox anthropology. The result is a double, dynamic and iconic, view of humankind rising from the biological mould—for which reason it can be examined by the sciences—and whose destination—given its making in God’s image—is theological, amounting to spiritual transformation. Here, I shall merely illustrate his achievement by way of a passage that compares creation and the icon (Παναγιώτη Νέλλα Ζῶον θεούμενον: Προοπτικὲς γιὰ μιὰ ὀρθόδοξη κατανόηση τοῦ ἀνθρώπου (Ἀθήνα: Ἐκδόσεις Ἁρμός, 2000), 44. Panayiotis Nellas, Deification in Christ: Orthodox Perspectives on the Nature of the Human Person, trans. Norman Russell, Contemporary Greek Theologians 5 (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1987) 41–42. See also Skliris, ‘Reactions’ 129-130; and my chapter, ‘Theological Anthropology Today: Panayiotis Nellas’s Contribution’ in Orthodox Christianity and Modern Science: Past, Present and Future, ed. by Kostas Tampakis and Haralambos Ventis, Science and Orthodox Christianity 3 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2022) 167-182). In my translation:

Our understanding of humankind and of creation more generally does not refer only to the process of change observed in the matter of the image. Without ignoring this first aspect, our viewpoint fundamentally extends to and captures the image’s evolution towards or ascent to the Archetype. The evolution of the image thus exceeds the bounds of creation … and arrives at the infinite one. In this manner, development is perceived in all its dimensions and significance, not only those established through scientific observation.

There are two sides to the human phenomenon, one that can be scientifically analysed and one open to theological interpretation. While the two approaches differ, both are legitimate. Nellas’ articulation of humankind as revealing itself differently to various modes of perception mirrors Lossky’s programme of inculturation and Stăniloae’s interdisciplinary cosmology.

I shall end by attempting to answer a crucial question, namely, what made possible the above theological engagements of science, old and new. To do so, I must return to Saint Basil’s approach, where the elements of a method are clearly visible. As I show in Humankind and the Cosmos, Basil addressed the matter of theology’s scientific contextualisation from two angles, theological and scientific. The theological dimension of the method corresponds to his approach to Genesis, i.e. transferring its message from the Semitic setting to the Hellenistic culture of his audiences. What made this possible is the traditional distinction between letter and spirit or text and message. Accordingly, he disentangled the message from its Hebraic letter and rendered it by way of Hellenistic concepts. In terms of science, Basil dissociated the available data from its ideological interpretation. Only rarely did he oppose the established description of nature, but he consistently pointed out the theological inanity of how the ancients interpreted nature. As a result, he replaced their ideological interpretation of the data by a theological interpretation.

The great merit of neopatristic theologians such as Lossky, Nellas, and Stăniloae is the fact of having learnt from patristic lessons. It is these lessons they replicated, not ready made solutions to ancient questions. It is these lessons a contemporary scientifically engaged theology must discern, appropriate, and apply, as Richard Swinburne emphasises in the 2021 IOTA volume (Richard Swinburne, ‘Natural Theology for Today ’ in Natural Theology in the Eastern Orthodox Tradition, 175-195, esp. 194). And if we still think of why would anyone need to do so, I’d point out, in closing this talk, that the Gospel passage of our Christmas liturgy—with the Magi in search of the universe’s maker and saviour—enshrines scientifically engaged theology and, perhaps, theologically engaged science, as the thing Christians will always need for guiding people to Christ, especially in this our age of science.

15 July 2023 © AIOCS

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