Comments on Science-Religion Dialogue from an Orthodox perspective

Science-religion discussion has become important in the general Issues like evolution, ecology, consciousness, the physics of time and other similar areas are clearly at the forefront of the science-religion discussion and of academic and practical interest to me.  There are additional issues that belong more to the area of bioethics, such as the application of stem cell and beginning of life technologies, appropriate uses of end of life technologies, genetic counseling, etc. that are defining what procedures are ethically appropriate and which ones are not. 

Science-religion dialogue is important for a variety of different reasons. First of all, many people use science as their excuse for disregarding religion.  This is especially evident when one reads the works of many modern scientists who make inappropriate claims about religion based on what they have discovered scientifically.  It is predominantly in dialogue that these sorts of apparent conflicts can be resolved.  Through dialogue, it will be possible for scientists to better understand the limitations of empirical observations and at the same time help people of faith to understand the scientific basis of facts and acts of nature.  Secondly, the dialogue is important in interfaith discussions because science provides a topic outside of religion that can be unifying.  Often when Muslims, Christians, Jews, etc. gather together to discuss their beliefs, the differences become apparent.  When these same groups come together to discuss environmental issues, bioethical concerns, and other similar topics, a unity emerges showing underlying common concepts and beliefs.  This can become a doorway to openness to a better understanding of each other.  Finally, it is clear that science and technology are becoming a more and more important influence in our world.  A better understanding of how this science impacts us as human beings is expressed significantly in concerns about religious views.  It is through dialogue between science and religion that we can learn to deal with problematic ethical issues that are raised by the development of these new technologies. 

For Orthodox Christians the distinction between science and religion is not as distinct or as problematic as it is for many other religious traditions.  St. Maximus the Confessor (who was born in 580 AD) reflected an Orthodox view when he stated that there were three “books” of understanding--the law of nature, the written law (the Scripture), and the law of grace. For the law of nature, which is the study of science, he said: “The first (law) is engraved in nature—not simply in the human soul, but in the whole cosmos and in every one of its parts.  Through the contemplation of nature, the wise person acquires a natural knowledge of God, of His righteousness, wisdom, and goodness, and this knowledge is in the true sense a kind of “vision”, a “contemplation”.[1]  This meaning of the law of nature is much deeper than the one defined by Augustine and other scholars noted earlier.  While it does include an understanding of the physical world around us, it also includes the history of humanity and a deeper understanding of the physical nature of humanity and nature extending even into the psychological dimensions of human behavior, human choices, etc.  This more wholistic approach to studies of nature and religion is perhaps more consonant with Orthodox thinking, viewing the different “laws” more as a “deep understanding” that leads to contemplation.  While the contemplation of the different topics maybe somewhat different, it all leads to the same Truth, a closer relationship with God.  St. Maximus’ writings have been newly translated into English during the last several decades, and this has lead to a new appreciation for the depth of his understanding of numerous science-religion issues including ecology, environment, defining the human person, and many others.

Often when we Orthodox Christians are looking for answers to questions about science-religion, particularly topics related to ethics, it is not possible to pick up a book from the shelf of the Church Fathers library and find the direct answer.  They did not write about stem cells, in vitro fertilization, genetics, etc.  Nevertheless, one of our goals as Orthodox Christians is to acquire the “Mind of the Fathers” of the Church and thereby apply what we learn from them to modern questions.  This is difficult and requires study, discernment, and discussion.

The richness of the Orthodox teachings has so much to contribute to modern thinking about science and religion, but it is missing unless Orthodox Christians are at the discussion tables prepared to bring Church Fathers like St. Maximus the Confessor and so many others into the discussion. 

[1] Von Balthasar, Hans Urs.  Cosmic Liturgy:  The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor.  San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 1988, pp. 291-314. 

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Jordan Parro
It's fantastic to see Orthodox voices on this topic. I'm proud of our GOA for hosting this kind of conversation.
Posted on 5/14/14 5:42 PM.
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