Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Harmony of Orthodox Theology & Science

A mistake often made by Westerners is the misguided attempt to study Orthodox theology through scientific approaches or philosophical models (including metaphysics).  Orthodox theology exists outside of the limited scope of scientific inquiry as well as the speculative arguments and rational categories of Western philosophy (and secular religious studies).  Science and Western philosophy are concerned with the knowledge of the rational mind, but theology is concerned with gnosis, the knowledge of the heart (nous), the spiritual intellect.  Science and philosophy are based on humanly-derived principles and theories.  Orthodox theology is rooted in divine revelation.  Philosophy and science deal with concepts.  Orthodox theology is a Mystery beyond concept.  Scientific study and philosophy are limited to the creation.  Theology involves experiencing the Uncreated.  In the West, a "theologian" is an educated scholar who knows about religious beliefs, ideas, and practices.  In the Orthodox Church, a theologian is one who acquires divine knowledge in the heart through humility, repentance, and prayer.

While scientific understanding of the creation and technology have progressed through the centuries, the dogma of the Orthodox Church does not change or develop. Scientific theories and Western philosophical ideas are adaptable and constantly change in light of new evidence and ideas, but theology is unalterable.  This is why the same theological experience is expressed through the writings of the Fathers of the Orthodox Church from the 1st century to the 21st century.  (Remember that the dogma of the Church is not just a collection of philosophical propositions to be rationally accepted, but boundaries to keep us on the path of authentic theological experience, which is the Way of personal knowledge, healing, and transformation.)

In the West, the boundaries between science and philosophy (secular and religious) are blurred.  Philosophy of science is mistaken for science and religious philosophy is mistaken for theology.  In such an environment, spirituality and science may be considered incompatible approaches to life.  No such contradiction exists between Orthodox theology and science, properly understood.  In an article published in Christian Bioethics (Oxford Journals/Oxford University Press), Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos (Greece) wrote,

As Christians, particularly as Orthodox Christians, we are certainly not opposed to research and progress.  Nor do we want the Western conflict between the Christian faith and science to be repeated.  To avoid this, science itself ought to set limits and conditions for research, and theology should be occupied with giving meaning to human life and guiding people toward putting right their relationships with themselves, their fellow human beings, creation, and God.  The aim of science is to improve human life, and the aim of theology is to help human beings acquire existential peace, freedom, and knowledge of themselves and God.  When both sides stay within these boundaries, there can be no conflict between theology and science. (1)

(1) Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, "Christian Bioethics: Challenges in Secularized Europe," 30, Christian Bioethics, 14(1), 29-41, April 2008.

Image: NIH/Public Doman