by Dr. Demetra Perlegas
At almost every hiking trip with my good friends in the last few years, we have held fast to a tradition of chanting a most beautiful Akathist Hymn, Glory to God for All Things . On a recent camping trip in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah National Park, my friends and I were chanting this prayer on the top of Loft Mountain on our day hike, and this particular part inspired me for this essay (Ikos 7):
The breath of Thine Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets and scientists. The power of Thy supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Thy laws, who reveal the depths of Thy creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of Thee. How great art Thou in Thy creation! How great art Thou in man! Glory to Thee, showing Thine unsurpassable power in the laws of the universe! Glory to Thee, for all nature is filled with Thy laws! Glory to Thee for what Thou hast revealed to us in Thy mercy! Glory to Thee for what Thou hast hidden from us in Thy wisdom! Glory to Thee for the inventiveness of the human mind! Glory to Thee for the dignity of man’s labor! Glory to Thee for the tongues of fire that bring inspiration! Glory to Thee, O God, from age to age!
From several years of studying biology in college, graduate school, and now in my early career as a college instructor, I have personally seen and experienced that science is a detailed and concrete description of God’s creation. It is even more than that—science is a means by which man glorifies God. According to the prayer above, God reveals Himself in the laws of nature, which are discovered by people whose professions are full of creativity and wonder—it is no surprise that they are inspired by the breath of the Holy Spirit with the brain power and skills to reveal God in their work. They are called even ‘prophets and interpreters’ of God’s laws, strongly suggesting that they have been endowed with these special gifts or χαρίσματα (charismata) from God Himself and we see how great He is when humanity uses these gifts rightly to glorify Him. This concept of the proper use of scientific and creative knowledge is later referred to in the verse “Glory to Thee for the dignity of man’s labor”.
This Ikos of the Akathist shows us that a faithful scientist is one who truly sees that God speaks to us and shows Himself to us within the laws that are discovered through scientific observation and inquiry. This is in stark contrast to the answer that scientist and devout atheist Dr. Richard Dawkins gave to Ben Stein’s question, “What would you say to God if you encountered Him upon your death one day?” Dr. Dawkins said “I would ask this: ‘why did you take such pains to hide yourself?’” in the movie, Expelled, No Intelligence Allowed.
Coming back to the verse from the Akathist verses: “Glory to Thee for what Thou hast revealed to us in Thy mercy / Glory to Thee for what Thou hast hidden from us in Thy wisdom”—we give glory to God for revealing certain things to us in His mercy, but also, we glorify Him for hiding certain things from us in His wisdom. This is referring in one way to the level of great complexity found within nature. This complexity will never be totally unraveled and understood by the human mind, and we need to be at peace with that, it’s good for our humility to not know everything. However, God has revealed and continues to reveal to us so many beautiful things in science that speak of his presence. In my studies as a PhD student in physiology, I had many frustrating and exhausting experiences, but even in the midst of those challenging times, I have tasted a bit of the presence of God. He was present in the long, tedious hours I spent in the lab, huddled over a microscope, studying the really beautiful anatomical structures of developing blood vessels and the complexity of gene combinations and pathways that help direct their growth and cellular specialization. I truly realized that my challenges in my research studies were themselves concrete evidence showing the vast complexity of the created world that could never be totally elucidated and explained within a the few years of a graduate program, and not even in a lifetime career. Further, I have been completely convinced that nothing in this world came about by a series of accidents over millennia of time.
It is not the purpose of this article to fully address the concept of evolution in great depth; however, you are probably wondering what a “faithful scientist” thinks about it. The term “evolution” in science is defined as a process of change in the genetic composition of a species over successive generations. These changes or mutations in a species’ genes often come about from adaptation of the species to changes in the environment. The individuals with the strongest genetic traits that promote survival are more likely to reproduce and so, these traits remain in the succeeding generations. It is often thought that mutations could result in stronger genetic traits, and that has been shown in some cases (such as the mutation for sickle cell anemia that is advantageous for malaria-resistance) but more often, mutations in genes actually cause major problems that usually lead to not very “fit” traits. Evolution simply means that changes and adaptation of a species occur to promote its survival. This scientific definition must be distinguished from the view that is highly prevalent today among the atheist persuasion that evolution essentially replaces God because it is the process that occurred over time to explain the origin of all species. Here is where the controversy takes a stronghold on our culture and can easily persuade young people, and here is where we are all encouraged to ask questions and to view this very critically.
As faithful Orthodox Christians, we state in the Creed that we believe “in One God, the maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.” And so, for us, there should be no question that God created everything Science can explain some things about changes in the genetic make-up of species over time (i.e. evolution) and it is useful knowledge. However, evolution is not the answer to our questions about the origins of life, nor does it completely address the complexity and precise design seen in the physiology and structures of all living things that makes scientific inquiry so challenging. It is actually a very simplistic attempt to explain things that have not been revealed to us in God’s mercy and wisdom. Because I am still an inexperienced scientist, here is a quote from a Nobel Prize winning scientist, who explains this topic infinitely better:
To postulate that the development and survival of the fittest is entirely a consequence of chance mutations seems to me a hypothesis based on no evidence and irreconcilable with the facts. These classical evolutionary theories are a gross oversimplification of an immensely complex and intricate mass of facts, and it amazes me that they are swallowed as uncritically and readily, and for such a long time, by so many scientists without a murmur of protest.
~Professor Sir Ernst Chain, 1945 Nobel Prize Laureate for Medicine or Physiology.
And, because I continue to be a struggling-to-be-faithful Orthodox Christian, may these verses (30-31) and the entire Psalm 104 (103), chanted at Vespers, give you some food for thought about how the Lord is solely responsible for all of creation and how He even renews it Himself, and not by accident:
“You send forth Your spirit, they are created; And You renew the face of the earth / May the glory of the Lord endure forever; The Lord shall rejoice in His works.”