Thursday, June 21, 2007

Science and Eastern Orthodoxy


LIGHT FROM THE EAST: Theology, Science and the Eastern Orthodox Tradition
by Alexei V. Nesteruk
Fortress Press (2003)

In the non-Orthodox world, a lively dialogue between science and theology has been taking place for decades. Among Orthodox, however, the theological response to modern scientific theory has hitherto been extremely muted. It has therefore been with great anticipation that they have awaited the study by Alexei Nesteruk which has now been published. For Nesteruk, as well as being a member of the Orthodox Church, is also a researcher at the University of Portsmouth, and, as such, he is someone who can speak of the scientific enterprise from within.

As a mathematical physicist, Nesteruk has clearly decided to stick to those aspects of science that he knows well. Some might regard this as a pity, since it leads him to ignore almost entirely the theological questions arising from some of the aspects of modern scientific theory that Christians tend to find the most disturbing, such as neo-Darwinism. This is, however, less of a problem that might appear at first sight, since Nesteruk’s approach is far more subtle than that of those Western theologians, who – through a methodology of beginning with questions about the perceived dissonance of science and theology – often by-pass important and necessary questions about the nature of the two disciplines.

His fundamental thesis is, in fact, not that theology and science can be interpreted in terms of some surfacelevel consonance, but rather that both can be “reinstated to their proper relationship to the Eucharist,understood in cosmic terms as the offering of creation back to God through art, science, and technology.” In this context, he goes on, scientific activity can be treated as a cosmic eucharistic work (a “cosmic liturgy”). Science can thus be seen as a mode of religious experience, a view obvious to those scientists who participate in ecclesial communities, but as yet undemonstrated to those outside such communities, (p.2).

To illustrate this view, Nesteruk provides, in the second half of the book, a number of extremely interesting but scientifically complex arguments. This scientifically informed argument is, however, based on a more general attempt, in the first half of the book, to develop a patristically-oriented rationale for seeing the sciences as an important aspect of our contemplation of divine realities. To expand on this he provides an extremely thought-provoking analysis of the patristic use of apophatic and cataphatic language in relation to God. He links this way of using theological language to the way in which God must be seen as immanent in the cosmos and yet as utterly transcending it. Like many Orthodox commentators, he sees the witness of St. Maximus the Confessor – especially in relation to the concept of the logoi of created things having their origin in the Logos himself – as central to the development of a contemporary understanding.

A recognition of the importance of this book does not, of course, imply that it is beyond reproach. Being both ambitious and complex, it inevitably has many features that raise critical questions. Some, for example, may wonder whether the concept of hypostasis can really carry the weight that Nesteruk makes it bear. Others,perhaps, will wonder whether a modern Orthodox theology really requires a utilizing of neo-Platonic categories of the sort that is attempted here (and, even if it does, whether modern cosmology can be used to underpin this usage in the way Nesteruk suggests). Perhaps more important than any of these questions, however, is one that arises from the way in which Nesteruk has – as he candidly admits – “been deeply influenced by the ideas of [the Presbyterian theologian] Thomas Torrance” (p. 2). These ideas are, admittedly, themselves deeply influenced by patristic (and especially Alexandrian) perspectives. They are also, however, rooted in important strands of continental Protestant (‘neoorthodox’) theology, and it is far from clear that Nesteruk has taken this adequately into account.

To recognize that such questions are posed by Nesteruk’s approach is not, however, to diminish the importance of what he has done. On the contrary, it bears witness to it. For, by setting off trains of thought of this kind, Nesteruk has surely done an invaluable service, both to his fellow Orthodox – who can now begin to see the sciences in a new and positive light – and to non-Orthodox, who can now see a way in which their own ongoing dialogue of science and theology can be expanded and deepened by Orthodox perspectives.

Nesteruk himself is modest enough to recognize (p. 12) that his efforts represent no more than “first steps ... with no pretensions to completing the enormous task” that lies ahead. It is, however, the first steps in any journey that are the most important, and for this particular journey Nesteruk has arguably not only pointed us in the right direction, but also provided us with many of the vehicles that we shall need as we progress. Our long term judgements of some of his specific arguments may, perhaps, turn out to be negative ones. Even if this is so, however, this will not prevent him from being remembered, in the history of the Orthodox Church, as the pioneer of a new frontier that had for too long remained unexplored. As the first clear expositor of the view that science is a cosmic eucharistic work and a mode of religious experience, he has begun a phase of Orthodox theological reflection which may have truly momentous consequences.

Christopher C. Knight
Condensed from SOUROZH:
A Journal of Orthodox Life and Thought, 2003, N 94, pp.45-49
Also reviewed in ESSSAT News, 13.4


David said...

Just found your blog. I know this is an old post , but I thought I'd comment anyway.

Are you aware that one of the leaders of the "Intelligent Design" movement , Dr. William Dembski, is Eastern Orthodox ? Raised Catholic, fell away from the faith, came back in through Evangelicalism, now Eastern Orthodox.

No special significance , I just thought it was interesting factoid that he was an Orthodox layman , not Evangelical Protestant as some might suppose.
I was surprised when I found that out.

dave said...

No , I believe I was misinformed.

A well-meaning Anglo-Catholic friend passed that info. to me and I never checked it out . Now that I've read some people who seem to know more about Dembski's current religious affiliation it does not seem likely that he is Eastern Orthodox after all.

(simply correcting this mis-statement above so no one else will read it and be mistaken as I was.)