Approaching Science with the Mind of the Fathers

by Dr. Gayle Woloschak

I am currently a Professor of Radiation Oncology and Radiology at Northwestern University School of Medicine where I have an active research lab focused on questions of radiation effects and studies of nanotechnology.  For many years now I have been involved in the science-religion dialogue in the broad academic community having served as Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology Chicago and now as Associate Director of the institution.  I recently received my Doctor of Ministry in Eastern Christian Studies from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in a program designed by the Antiochian Orthodox Church; this is a fabulous program that I highly recommend.  In addition to my scientific interests, I am also interested in the religion-science interface at several levels.  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.

I strongly support the concept of science-religion dialogue for a number of reasons.  First of all, I believe that 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, I believe 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.

I think for Orthodox Christians the distinction between science and religion is not as distinct nor as problematic as it is for many other religious traditions. During recent years, as scientists and theologians alike have attempted to develop models for the relationship of science and religion, many people have adopted the “two books” model.  Most modern scholars accept that the idea that the book of nature as a “book of God” was first introduced by Augustine when he argued that (fallen) creation is essentially good when fighting the Manichaean claim that the material world is intrinsically evil.[1] This model was perhaps first defined by Sir Francis Bacon who wrote:  “God has, in fact, written two books, not just one.  Of course, we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely Scripture.  But he has written a second book called creation… ……Let no man… maintain that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or the book of God’s works.”[2] This idea was also picked up by Luther and Calvin who claimed that the physical-scientific interpretation of the book of nature (which can be defined as humanity’s experience in the realms of physical and biological reality) should be coupled directly with a hermeneutical understanding of the Book of the Bible.

Saint Augustine of Hippo

I’m not sure the Orthodox perspective is accurately reflected by this view, and I am excited by the work of St. Maximus Confessor who has much to add to this thinking.  He addressed this issue in several ways examining the question of whether this distinction between the “two books” was appropriate or not.  At present it is unclear if St. Maximus was aware of Augustine’s work specifically, or if he was just responding to various theological issues of the time.  Several authors note common references between Augustine and St. Maximus suggesting that the latter was aware of at least some of Augustine’s writings.[3]

Regardless of whether St. Maximus had read the “two books” idea in Augustine or not, he addressed the issue in several texts where he talked about the relationship between Natural and Biblical Law[4] in the context and with an approach quite different from those of Augustine.  Maximus in his own writing propounded not two laws or books, but three””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”.[5]  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.

Saint Maximus the Confessor

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.

In my opinion, 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] (a)Peter Harrison. The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science. Cambridge University Press, 2001

(b) Augustine, Contra Faustum Manichaean (Against Faustus the Manichean). c.400 A.D. Section 32.20

[2] Sir Francis Bacon quoted at the website:

[3] (a) Thunberg, Lars.  Microcosm and Mediator:  The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor, Chicago and LaSalle:  Open Court, 1995, p. 50, 73, 256

(b) Sherwood, P. St. Maximus the Confessor:  The Ascetic Life, The Four Centuries on Charity, New York:  The Newman Press, 1955, No. 21 in Ancient Christian Writers series, p. 230.

[4] Maximus’ Questiones ad Thalassium32, 63; Mystagogia 7

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