Religion and Science Group
Chris Knight, Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (Cambridge, UK)
Elizabeth Theokritoff, Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (Cambridge, UK)
Elizabeth Theokritoff is a research associate and occasional lecturer at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, currently preparing lectures on the doctrine of creation and on Orthodox tradition and ecology. Over nearly 30 years, she has given numerous invited lectures or papers on ecological themes at events in several countries. She is co-editor of The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology and author of Ecosystem and Human Dominion (in Greek) and Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology, as well as some 40 articles and chapters.
Gayle Woloschak, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (Yonkers, New York, USA)
Gayle E. Woloschak is Professor of Radiation Oncology, Radiology, and Cell and Molecular Biology in the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. Gayle received her Ph.D. in Medical Sciences from the University of Toledo (Medical College of Ohio). She did her postdoctoral training at the Mayo Clinic, and then moved to Argonne National Laboratory until 2001. Her scientific interests are predominantly in the areas of molecular biology. radiation biology, and nanotechnology studies, and she has authored over 200 papers. She is editor-in-chief for the International Journal of Radiation Biology, is a member of various national and international committees and serves on the US delegation to the United National Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. She also received a DMin degree from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Eastern Christian Studies having worked in bioethical questions and science and religion studies. She is Adjunct Professor of Religion and Science at Lutheran School of Theology Chicago and Sessional Professor of Bioethics at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Her research interests there include environmental issues, bioethical questions, and evolution.
Andreas Chadjihambis, Cyprus Center for Environmental Research and Education (Limassol, Cyprus)
Andrej Jeftic, University of Belgrade (Belgrade, Serbia)
Basarab Nicolescu, Babeş-Bolyai University (Cluj-Napoca, Romania)
Efthymios Nikolaidis, National Hellenic Research Foundation (Athens, Greece)
The Church Fathers as well as modern scholars have discussed the consistency that should exist between the truth about the physical world and the universal Truth proclaimed by the Church. Those discourses that demand a choice between science and religion are based in a misunderstanding of faith, or science, or both. This “either-or” way of thinking has several possible causes, including a “culture wars” mentality, a confusion between the findings of science and the ideology of scientism—a confusion actively peddled by the “new atheists” but also quite widely accepted in society—or a static understanding of church Tradition. Fundamental to our work must be an understanding of Tradition that is—as Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia has put it—“exploratory, courageous and full of imaginative creativity.”
IOTA’s Religion and Science Group offers an opportunity to get beyond reassuring Orthodox Christians that science is not a threat to their faith, and instead to explore ways in which the sciences can provide insights into God’s handiwork that actually enrich and deepen our theological understanding (which does not mean tying our faith to any particular current theory). We would also hope to encourage more scientists who are Orthodox Christians to reflect theologically on their scientific work, assisting them in integrating the two sources of knowledge about the world and articulating how they fit together.
The practical needs
Such an exercise can be of practical use both in assisting people in personal decisions, and in helping to clarify thinking and discussion at the level of local Churches.
Discoveries made in science have already had a strong influence on thinking in many areas that have traditionally been the subject of religious teaching, such as human origins, the relationship of humanity with other species, and personhood. As science and technology continue to expand their knowledge base and capabilities, the Church must be prepared to step forward with perspectives to guide the faithful in the decisions they have to make. Technology is drastically changing the number of decision points in people’s lives, and too often the Church’s response is delayed, inappropriate, and/or without impact.
On the larger scale, there is a great need for precisely the sort of international forum for discussion that IOTA is designed to provide. Science is a language that is understood worldwide, and interchange among research groups from different nations across the globe is not only possible but occurs daily. Experiments in China are not unlike experiments done in Europe or the United States and interpretation of results occurs along a norm and standard that is understood by the very broad scientific community. Yet the same cannot be said of theological approaches to issues, even among Orthodox who claim a basis in the same biblical and patristic tradition. Official statements from different “local” Orthodox Churches show many divergences particularly on issues that relate to science, society and faith. While perhaps it is to be expected that there might be differences in opinion on many of these issues, the fact that the official positions of the Churches vary so much and seem based on arbitrary concepts instead of facts is confusing to the faithful as well as to the broader world. An international Orthodox discussion on these topics is warranted and can help serve the broad Orthodox community and even the global community.
The approach of this group
Reflection from an Orthodox perspective on the proper relationship of faith and science, on the place of science and technology in the modern world, and on ways to embed patristic, biblical, and historical insights into an understanding of science are all important aspects of the work of this group. But the starting point, and the main task of the group, is to provide a theological response to the sciences of our time. Here many issues need to be explored, and perhaps three in particular.
The first is the Fathers’ subtle and many-layered understanding of the interpretation of scripture. With such an approach, Orthodox of the present day have no need to adopt the sort of anti-scientific fundamentalism—often focusing on rejection of evolution—that is quite prevalent, especially in some Protestant groups. This needs to be emphasized because of the tendency among some Orthodox to succumb to influences of precisely this kind. At the same time, we see a need to engage respectfully with Orthodox who are troubled by scientific accounts of the world, especially by human evolution, recognizing that their objections often apply properly not to the scientific theory itself but to the ideological package within which it has been presented to them. Orthodox worship, spiritual writings and discussions of Christian anthropology are replete with references to the creation story and the figure of Adam. There is therefore a great need to work out how these are to be understood in a way consistent with scientific accounts of human origins, so that they can in turn shape the meaning we give to those scientific accounts. This demanding project can best be undertaken in the sort of non-polemical atmosphere that IOTA is ideally placed to provide.
The second topic to be explored arises from the fact that the Fathers’ scientific understanding – though often referred to in their work—was only rudimentary by modern standards, and on occasion was simply mistaken. In relation to science, therefore, we must be careful to do something that Metropolitan Kallistos also sees as necessary in interpreting the Fathers: to “separate patristic wheat from patristic chaff.” This is where what he calls a “courageous” approach to Tradition is of paramount importance. Not only must the chaff, in the form of mistaken science, be discarded. In addition, the wheat—the fundamental theological insight—must be recognized for what it is. In particular, we must build on the highly developed theology of creation that the Fathers expounded, with its strong sense that the cosmos must be understood christologically and in terms of its ultimate fulfilment in the new creation. This theology in fact provides us with an opportunity to do something of great significance: to develop a theological interpretation of current scientific understanding that is consonant with the patristic vision. The work of St. Maximos the Confessor seems particularly relevant to this task, though no doubt the relevance of other patristic writers will also be uncovered as the science and theology group’s labors proceed.
Theology and ecology
The patristic theology of creation—interpreted anew in terms of modern scientific perspectives—must also be at the heart of the third aspect of the group’s work to which we wish to draw attention: that of theology and ecology. We must go beyond the kind of “crisis management” approach to the environment that is characteristic of most secular responses to threats such as global warming and the collapse of biodiversity. We also need to resist the pressure to treat church tradition as a handy source of theological and spiritual arguments in support of an environmental agenda that has already been determined. It is increasingly recognized that Orthodoxy has a unique contribution to make in setting out the theological basis for Christian environmental concern, the “world view” on which our vision of creation as a whole is predicated. Some serious theological work has indeed been done in this area, but it is not well-known even among Orthodox theologians and clergy. Much Orthodox writing on environmental themes reflects a piecemeal approach, often enlisting slogans from other traditions such as “stewardship” or “creation care” or repeating well-worn tropes about the harmony of creation or the uniqueness of man. We see this working group as an opportunity to stand back from pressing environmental issues and take a long theological view of the relationship between Creator and creation. This will involve engaging with “eco-theology” and environmental philosophy, but also questioning some basic frames of reference such as “Man and nature” or “Man and creation.” It will equally involve engaging seriously with ecological science to enrich our understanding of God’s work in material creation, and exploring how traditional ways of speaking about creation may be understood today.
Given the topical importance of the ecological issue and its broad ramifications, it is hoped that this may become the focus of a separate IOTA group in due course.