June 5, 2010 Length: 57:07
In this episode on the Darwinian Revolution and the relationship between natural science and Christian theology, Fr. Thomas Hopko reflects on the issue of death.
In series Darwin and Christianity
Continuing now in our reflections on the relationship between science and theology, Christian theology—and, as you know, I prefer to say “natural science and Christian theology” rather than “science and religion” because I do believe that “religion” is too vague and too general a term to be used, although it’s used all the time. There’s plenty of writings about science and religion, but I still like to hold forth and would like to affirm that I don’t think that’s wise, prudent, or helpful, to speak about religion, certainly not for Orthodox Christians. I think we should say: What does the Gospel of Christ, Christian theology, Christian doctrine, the teaching of the holy Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church and the Church herself, what does that tell us, what does it claim about truth, what does it claim about reality, and how do those claims relate to scientific study—biology, chemistry, physics? That’s, I think, the best way to formulate the issue. Lots of times the formulations… when the formulations are ill-conceived, you can’t possibly have any answers.
Here I would like just to affirm also and assure you, the listeners, that I do read the emails that are sent to me, but there are so many of them that I can’t possibly respond to them all. I try to listen to them. I try to think of including them in what else I have to say. Some of them I wouldn’t even know how to answer. A lot of them are suggestions for reading and topics to consider, and I’d like to thank everyone who does send the email. Please don’t be bashful in sending the email; even though you never hear from me by return email, hopefully I’ll hold it in my heart and in my mind and consider what you’re asking and what you’re telling, what you’re suggesting, and try to include it in my musings.
Someone recently said to me that they liked my stream-of-consciousness musings about natural science and the Christian faith, Orthodox faith, on Ancient Faith Radio. I love that expression, stream-of-consciousness musings, because that’s what they are. That person really understood exactly what I’m doing. I’m musing! I’m musing, not a-musing; maybe amusing, maybe irritating, maybe angering, I don’t know. Different people, different ways, but it’s musing in the sense of thinking, reflecting. I don’t have any answers. I said that many times: I do not have answers. I have lots of questions, and I know extremely little about natural science. I know extremely little about biology, about evolution, about Darwinian things. I’m very, very ignorant even of the Origin of Species and the Descent of Man and these writings of Darwin. I’ve read around in them, reflected on them. I’ve read writings of Richard Dawkins.
In fact, Richard Dawkins’ new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, about evolution, was very positively viewed by David Bentley Hart, who actually wrote a book called Atheist Delusions kind of criticizing Dawkins and Hitchens and Dennett and Harris and those people when they speak about religion or speak about Christianity or Christian theology. He was very critical, but this book, The Greatest Show on Earth, it’s a very, very good book for understand what evolution is contending to be and how different people understand it and what are the differences of the scientists themselves and the questions that remain.
Of course, there is no doubt at all—I think everyone should agree—that we have more questions than answers about everything. In life that’s simply the case. Even if you take a specific issue, like biblical interpretation, the texts that we have, the information that we have about them, I heard an expression recently where the professor said that we actually have a few small little islands of data in a massive, torrential ocean of ignorance. And that’s true. If you take the history of humanity and the history of Christianity, if you take the Old Testament, the scriptural history, if you take from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, what we know certainly from historical texts that are presented as history is extremely little, very little. What we know even about natural science, the origin of the universe, the plants, the animals, how they live, how they interact, interrelate. What they do is very little, really, and we’re trying to understand.
However, I would quote St. Basil the Great here, where he says that we may know very little, but we can know. We can still know. Even if we know a little, we can know that little, and on the basis of the little that we know, we can live. We can carry on, we can believe, we can make decisions, we can decide how we’re going to understand and life our life in this world, because there are things that we can know. Then he would add, St. Basil would, with the holy Fathers generally, that although divinity is unknowable by definition, there’s many things that we can still know of God and that Jesus Christ comes to reveal the true God to us as the true God truly is, as the real God really is. In and through Christ, as presented to us in the pages of holy Scripture, we can come to a knowledge of the truth, not a total knowledge, not a knowledge about absolutely everything, and certainly not a knowledge about all things human.
By reading the Scripture you cannot know everything about… I can’t know everything about the science of the tree that’s outside my window. By reading the holy Scriptures, there’s millions of things I’ll never come to know. I’ll never know Greek through reading the Scripture; I’ll never know Chinese. I’ll never know the history of—I don’t know what—the Essene community or something like that. There’s millions of things that we do not know, and it’s really important to address our ignorance.
We are all agnostic about most things. However, there are things that we claim to be gnostic about. Certainly Charles Darwin and scientists claim there are certain things about the nature of things that we can say that we know. Nowadays most people would say that the theory of evolution, yeah, it’s a theory, but it’s a theory that anyone who has a brain and a right mind and looks at the data will believe as true, and they will even say there’s no doubt about it; we know this now. Certainly Dawkins would say, “Any scientist knows that there’s some kind of evolutionary process going on.” In fact, Theodosius Dobzhansky would say, without some kind of theory of the evolution of life forms on the planet earth and the relationship and the varieties of all the different kinds of plants and animals and trees and beings that we know, including then the human being, nothing in science would make sense.
So we’re trying to make sense of reality. I always like that sentence of Reinhold Niebuhr, one great Protestant theologian in my youth, who said that he was a Christian because Christianity made the most sense of the most facts. But facts are things that we think that we really know. I think most people would say we know that the earth is billions of years old. We simply know that now. It’s not a theory; it’s not a belief—we know it. If you study reality and you do all the testing that you can possibly do, you come to [the] conclusion that the earth is not six thousand or ten thousand years old; it’s millions, billions of years old. We know that there are billions of galaxies in existence. We know these things. There’s plenty of things that we know, but the more that we know, the more we don’t know.
But what we’re trying to do now—and I’m not trying to answer anything; I’m trying to raise questions. I’m trying to muse, in even a kind of stream-of-consciousness—forgive me, but that’s the best I can do; I can’t do any better than a stream of consciousness with plenty of asides and diversions. Again, one of my grandchildren told me, “I like your diversions better than your talk, Grandpa.” When you get off the track and make a few comments, they’re usually the most interesting and provocative. But I am trying to be provocative; no doubt about it: I am.
I would like to provoke everybody I possibly could to go more deeply into Christian theology, Orthodox Christian theology. I’ll underline that: Orthodox Christian theology. To go more deeply into the Bible, the Scriptures, the prophets, the apostles, the saints; more deeply into the history of the Church; and certainly more deeply into the theology of our Church Fathers, of the great theologians of Orthodoxy through the ages. Oh, I would just love people… Because the ignorance of that tradition is unbelievable! You have professors in American universities who hardly know a thing about the theological teachings and traditions of Eastern Christianity, hardly know a thing about earliest Christianity.
I just read a book published by one of the premier, right-wing Evangelical seminaries where they were speaking about some of the writings of the early Church Fathers and the creeds, like the Nicene Creed and so on, as if they just discovered it for the first time in their life, and then they write about it as if it was a great discovery, not knowing that there are other people who just live by this all the time: their churches are formed by it; their hymns, their prayers are formed on that very tradition. And that, of course, would be the Orthodox Church, the ancient Christian Church that still exists in the Orthodox Church.
So I think that that’s very, very important, and it’s certainly important in relation of biblical studies, but it’s also important in relation to scientific studies. I would love to provoke people to study science more. I’d love to provoke every Orthodox Christian I know to read more about Darwin as a person, to read more about the time in which he lived, to read more about his spiritual and theological experiences, to read more about how Christianity was interpreting the Bible in his time, the various forms of Christianities. That’s why I mused in a stream of consciousness about Christianity in England at the time of Darwin, how diverse it was and how there were fights among the Christians themselves of understanding the holy Scriptures and so on.
So we’ve got to study more, learn more, get into it more, and what we really, really must flee like the plague is oversimplification, premature conclusions, untested dogmas, and simply repeating things in silly ways. We have to learn how to formulate questions also. We have to learn what was really going on: what was really going on in biblical times, what was really going on in early Christian times, what was really going on in modern Christian times, and what’s really going on in the scientific community. We really must do that. So forgive me my harangue; forgive me my plea, but our point here is not to close off discussion but to inspire it, to provoke it, to challenge ourselves, then of course to do so properly, in a proper spirit, not only civilly, as people say, “Let’s have a civil discussion about these things. Let’s not call each other names and argue against persons ad hominem. Let’s not demonize anybody, but let’s be serious about what we’re doing.”
We have this… not only the example of Jesus Christ himself, and it would be very, very instructive for us to see how Jesus spoke with people, how Jesus dealt with those who were around him. Oh, sometimes he could be very sharp, but he was never demeaning, and he was never lying, but he was always saying, “If I am wrong, point out the wrong, but if I’m right, why are you beating me up?”
Of course, we Christians are entreated in holy Scripture to be ready always to give an answer for the hope that is in us. I like to just read that again. It’s 1 Peter 3. I’ll read it. “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is right?” So we’ve got to be zealous for what is right, but we’ve got to be sure that it’s right. In the letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes about some of his fellow Israelites, Hebrews. He says, “I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it’s not right; it’s an unenlightened zeal.” He called it technically zeal that was not kat’ epignosin, not according to knowledge. RSV says “unenlightened,” but it literally says “not according to knowledge.”
So they replaced the righteousness of God with one of their own. We can be very, very afraid of replacing the truth of God with a truth of our own, the truth of the Church with a truth of our own, and then putting the name of God on it. We’ve got to be very careful, but we have to still be zealous for the truth, zealous for what is right. St. Ignatius Brianchaninov tells us that there is a spiritual zeal according to Christ, and there’s an animal zeal, a psychic zeal, that is really not a zeal for God; it’s not enlightened. And we’ve got to be very, very fearful that the devil doesn’t inspire us into some false zeal into which we put the name of Christianity or truth or Christ or God or the Bible, even.
The letter of 1 Peter continues. It says:
But even if you suffer for righteousness’s sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts reverence Christ as Lord.
Then he says:
And always be prepared to make an answer (an apologia, a defense) to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.
But then he adds:
You do it with gentleness and reverence and keep your conscience clear so that when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
Here are the words we want to hear. “With gentleness, reverence, and a clear conscience.” That’s what we want to have. So let’s beg God for that.
Today I would like to just make some very preliminary, very mildly provocative musings about the issue of death, because there is no doubt—it seems to me that there is no doubt—that it is absolutely the truth that natural sciences must study the issue of death. Death is all around. Death is everywhere. Extinction, even, of kinds of beings that we know have existed. The scientific claim is that there were lots of kinds of plants and animals and beings that once existed but they no longer exist. I listened to this lecture once where the professor from George Mason University said that probably 95% or more of all the kinds of things that existed once upon a time on the planet earth no longer exist. They are already extinct; they don’t exist any more. They died out.
The scientists definitely claim—I mean, just take dinosaurs as an example. There aren’t any around. They died out, if they existed at all. The scientists say of course they existed. You have fossil records; you have all kinds of things that show that they existed. But we know even nowadays that there are kinds of plants and animals that are becoming extinct, and perhaps more are becoming extinct now on the earth than are being kept alive, according to some scientific teachers. But in any case, you have the problem of extinction.
Now, if there’s a human race, if there’s a humanity, there’s death also. Human beings die. We die. Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of my father’s death. He died. My mom died. My grandparents are dead. Fr. Alexander Schmemann is dead. Fr. John Meyendorff is dead. Professor Verhovskoy is dead. Nicholas Arseniev, my teachers, they’re all dead. Death is all around. Then, of course, the philosophers and the thinkers point out something that anyone should realize. Human beings are most likely the only existence that we know on the planet earth who are aware of death, who are aware of their own death, who know that they will die. It doesn’t seem evident, even by scientific study, that plants know that they’re going to die. Certainly not animals; not all animals know that they’re going to die. They’re not aware of their death. They don’t live in function of death.
But certainly Martin Heidegger, the philosopher, was right when he says human beings may be defined as das Sein-zum-Tode, existence or living realities being toward death. The modern cliché and joke: there’s two things you can be certain of: death and taxes. Maybe taxes you can’t be totally certain of, but you totally can be totally certain of death. So death is all around, and scientists deal with death. They have to ask the question: Why [do] certain types of beings continue to live and why some die out?
That was Charles Darwin’s great problem. It was his great challenge, that which species… Here I wouldn’t make a big deal about the term “species” meaning kinds of animals or kinds of plants, because, as one man said on that movie by Ben Stein, Expelled—and someone did get expelled from George Mason University, the same university that the scientist I just quoted came from—he said, “We don’t even know what a species is? Where does one thing stop being one species and become another species?” But what Darwin certainly held was that new species come from old species.
There’s pre-existing species that mutate, that change, perhaps over a long period of time for various reason. One reason would be the ability to reproduce and to create strong offspring. Another reason would be to survive on their challenging and hostile climates. Another reason might be adaptation to environment that allows some to continue living and to reproduce and to go on and others to simply die out and become extinct. There might be other reasons why some beings become extinct. Some people think meteors hit the planet earth and killed of the dinosaurs or something. But in any case, there is extinction.
I think it would not be inaccurate to say that Darwinian theory in general, without getting into specifics, is certain beings persist and reproduce and keep going on and others die out. One thing we know for certain: human beings have not yet died out. My mom died, my dad died, my teachers died, I’m going to die at some point for sure. As one old priest used to say, “People are dying every day that never died before.” But dying is there, and it’s at the heart of science.
So we have to deal with the issue of death. In fact, some scientists claim that the whole issue of disease has to do with dying. All the cells in our body are constantly dying. There’s not one cell in my body that was in my body seven years ago, I’m told by scientists, but these cells have to die off properly. If they cannot remain alive when they have to stay alive and are not immune, do not have immunity against certain type of attacks of certain types of bacteria or viruses or something, the person dies. Diseases like AIDS, for example, are there because our body cannot fight off death-dealing powers.
On the other hand, cancer as a disease means that the cells don’t die properly; they don’t die in time. They keep on growing when they should have died. They should have been replaced by healthy ones, but they weren’t. So they just keep multiplying out of control, and a person has cancer. Then they die from cancer. They have tumors growing all over the place, or just things that shouldn’t… It’s called apoptosis, I understand. One of my friends told me that word once, about apoptosis, meaning dying in time, dying at the right time, so that the organism remains alive. So for an organism to remain alive, it’s got to die at certain times.
Then of course in the plant world—I have a plant that every winter it kind of dies. It looks dead. All the leaves fall off, it turns to nothing, and I’m tempted to throw it out—until my friend says, “Fr. Tom, don’t throw it out. It goes through that cycle every year. It’ll come back.” And sure enough, it comes back. Trees do die, too. Plants die, too. They become extinct, too. Now, if that’s at the center of the issue, if death is a central issue in science, then human beings have to come to terms with the issue of death. What do we mean by death? How do we relate to death? What is our answer to the fact that we die? How do we explain death? Where does death come from? Why do we die? Is it God’s will that we die? And what happens when we do die? Are we lost forever, or do our spiritual elements, if we have any at all, which some philosophers and theologians think we do, do our spirits somehow live on someway within the universe, or do we live on only in our descendants or in memories, or do we personally continue to exist in some way?
Then, of course, the key question that Christians would raise is: Is there resurrection from the dead? Will that which has died be brought to life again? Will the extinct species return? And is there a power in the universe that could raise them up? Is there a power over the universe that can raise them up, or are they gone forever? And when human beings die, are they gone forever? Do they simply cease to exist and collapse back into nothingness or back into—I don’t know—their physical parts return into the physical elements of the universe? Their body corrupts and turns to dust and goes back to the earth, or whatever. How do we come to terms with these particular issues?
The only point that I want to raise today is a very simple point, very, very simple. If there’s going to be a dialogue between natural science and Christian theology, death has to be at the center of it, not only because death is pervasive and scientists have to study [the] phenomenon of death and deal with death, observe death, but the philosophers, the metaphysicians, and certainly the theologians have to come up with their answer philosophically, so to speak, theologically, of how we come to terms with death.
Here we come to a very, very particular Christian—Orthodox Christian—conviction, and this Orthodox Christian conviction about death—these convictions which I will now list—they’re not held universally, that’s for sure. They’re not held even by all Christians. In fact, I like to half-joke but in a very serious way to say that most of the people whom I know who claim to be Christians, they’re not Christians at all as far as Orthodox Christianity is concerned, traditionally. They’re not. Even most Orthodox Christians, in my opinion are not Orthodox Christians. They are a blend of Hellenism and Platonism. They’re a blend of speaking about immortal souls, that somehow go to heaven and if they’re good they get rewarded; if not, they don’t, or go to hell; or others would say, “No, no, they all go to heaven,” just like Platonism or Hinduism, in some sense Buddhism, where everything somehow will persist in some way by being reabsorbed into the one and have some kind of an existence in a spiritual manner, purely spiritual manner, but perhaps not self-conscious, not free, and not personal. So there will not be personal survival; there will just be survival in what survives in some way.
But I think that a lot of Christians really just believe that we have souls and Christ saves our souls and the souls are the spiritual part of us, and death is even a kind of a friend because it gets us out of this fallen world, and who cares about the body, anyway—let it disintegrate, let it go into the earth, because only the immortal soul is what’s necessary. So they want to be consoled by the fact that someone who has died and died either by long-suffering, very prematurely as a child or very old, goes to heaven, so to speak, or is somehow saved or persists in a spiritual manner. But, before most Christians die, they don’t want to die. They don’t want to face death. They want to deny death. They want to cover death over.
Certainly, having been a priest for 47 years, I know how people come to the priest, and they want the Church to pray to people to keep them alive in this world, make them healthy, make them happy, make them live long. My son who is a priest told a story about how he visited a 90-year-old man in the hospital, and his 88-year-old wife said to the priest, “If God doesn’t heal Harry, I’m never coming to church again.” The guy’s 90 years old! So we’re a very much death-denying culture. But when people finally do die, they want to be assured by the priests and by the Church that, oh, the person’s in a better place, they’re now with God, they’re now in heaven, they’re now with the angels, or something, they’re now with grandma and grandpa.
Well, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t want to have God help you stay alive on earth forever and have a good, healthy life, and then when you do die, be assured that your soul goes to some holy, heavenly place. I would just say, point blank, that ain’t Christian at all. That is certainly not the teaching of the New Testament. It may not be the teaching of the Old Testament. The Old Testament, I think, is a little bit more ambiguous about death. I think the Old Testament would have been happy if a person just lived long, had lots of kids, and died a natural death. That would be about as good as it gets.
But then there was a huge argument among the Jews at Jesus’ time whether or not there’s a resurrection from the dead. The Sadducees denied it; the Pharisees affirmed it. St. Paul got himself out of all kinds of trouble by appealing to the Christian, or what he taught was the Pharisaic view of life and death, meaning that the life of a human being was in the hands of the living God, Yahweh, the Creator of heaven and earth, and that God was going to redeem the dead and raise the dead and that there was going to be a resurrection from the dead. Whatever the Pharisees taught, that is certainly what Christians teach. That is certainly the Christian faith.
But the Christians still have to answer pothen kakon, as Plato or whoever it was said. Whence evil? Because suffering and death exist. It’s all over the place. Now, stating it very, very simply, I would say this. In order to have a proper dialogue between Christian theology and natural science, you have to have the best possible scientific understanding about life and death that you can possibly come up with. Then, metaphysically, supra-naturally, so to speak, above nature, you have to say: Is there anything that we can say about understanding this death—whence it comes, why it exists, where it goes, what’s going to happen?
And then here you can have the Christians… And anybody can make their affirmation about what they think. I once contributed to a magazine about death, where they had a Buddhist say what they thought death was, an atheist say what they thought death was, a Hindu say what they thought death was, Christians saying what they thought death was, various Christians saying what they thought death was. I think I was the only one in that particular Parabola magazine who said for Orthodox Christians of ancient Christian tradition, the answer to death is resurrection from the dead, even the resurrection of the body, the reestablishment of all things by an act of God, by an act of God who created all things from the beginning.
Then we could say in the most simplistic form that from the point of view of Orthodox Christian theology it is certainly the providential will of God that there be death. It says even in the Scripture, Wisdom of Solomon, God did not create death; it came by envy of the devil. It came by rebellion against God. And I believe that would be Orthodox Christian dogma, that human beings were not made to die; that human beings should have a communion with God that would keep them alive, and that they would have a power over nature, a power over the animal and the vegetable realities of life that would allow them to keep themselves alive.
Here I think that a very debatable issue would be: What about the death of animals? What about the death of plants and animals? Here I think—I know that Charles Darwin definitely had a problem with that particular issue. He definitely had a problem with the suffering of animals. There’s no doubt about that. Darwin wrote that he was revolted by the understanding, for what advantage can there be in the suffering of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time? He thought that such an idea was abominable. He was deeply bothered by the suffering of the natural creation. Nevertheless, he saw it everywhere: survival of the fittest, predator animals, plants eating certain insects, other animals eating other animals, human beings killing the animals.
But here I would say that I believe that the holy Scripture and the early Christian teaching would be that for whatever reason it was God’s plan that there would be this kind of a natural world. Perhaps to have a natural world to have the way we have it on the planet earth it could not possibly exist without the trees dying and rising and being cut down and burned and new trees coming up and so on, and even the animals, that maybe it is God’s will that there had to be all these different forms of animals and so on and their relationship to each other. Because if God created—I don’t know—lions, and if God created—I don’t know—deer, then God created them knowing that the lion was going to feed off the deer and was going to eat them. That was going to be part of how the whole thing was going to work. Perhaps, from a Christian point of view, that particular type of suffering or activity in the animal world, although it can be very great suffering and terrible, was just an inevitability of having a creation at all of the kind that we have and know on the planet earth.
But in any case, I do think that according to Christian theology, Orthodox Christian theology, we have to make a radical distinction between the death of plants and even the death of animals and the death of human beings, because I believe certainly the Genesis story is pretty clear, at least to my mind, and certainly the whole Scripture and certainly the New Testament is, that human beings were made to live forever and death for human beings is an enemy. Nevertheless, that human beings do have bodies that are connected to the natural world that are in a constant change that you could call a way of dying; cells are dying all the time.
Here I think that the early Christian Fathers definitely thought and taught this. I believe the early Christian Fathers taught very clearly that we have all the elements in our bodies of plants and animals; that we do. We definitely do, but we’re not simply plants and animals; that we are unique creatures, with self-consciousness, with freedom, with power to live together with God and to govern and to take care of all the earth and to know how to govern and rule an earth in which death is an element in the natural order that simply belongs to creation as such according to the will—alas, I think we have to say—of God himself.
So I honestly don’t believe that the death of plants and animals should be a very insurmountable difficulty for Christians if we would say that Christians were supposed to know how to control it, how to govern it, how to deal with it, how to deal with it properly and in the most appropriate forms. And then to say that it is definitely a Christian dogma that we do not know how to do that. We don’t know how to do that. We’ve lost the ability to do that because of humanity’s rebellion against God. So the holy Fathers would say we are a combination of the noetic—sometimes they call it the angelic, which can be misleading, because it makes you think we’re like angels, but they simply mean noetic, spiritual, like the angels—and we have bodies like the beasts and like the plants.
But our noetic element—our spirit, our mind, our freedom—is supposed to govern our flesh and the flesh and blood of all the natural creation. That’s what we’re called to do. We should know how to deal with tsunamis and storms and earthquakes and so on, which are simply part of the natural order as created by God, and you can’t speak about that morally that they’re good or bad; they just are. But what is immoral, so to speak, is when human beings do not know how to govern and handle these things, do not know how to keep them from being death-dealing to human beings, to other creatures, to the measure that’s possible, when we ourselves not only become the victims of all these catastrophes, but we actually bring them on and contribute to them by our sinful and immoral behavior. We pollute and corrupt the universe instead of govern it and take care of it in a proper manner.
I think that’s why the Lord Jesus Christ, when he’s on earth, he has to show that he could be born of a virgin; he has to show that he can calm the winds, walk on the water, feed the five thousand in the desert. He has to show what kind of powers human beings were supposed to have and were intended to have from the beginning in an incorruptible life over a world in which phthora or corruption is simply a natural part.
If you take the Genesis story, it even seems that Adam and Eve, humanity was raised from the dust to spread the paradise, to bring the ordering, cosmic, harmonious governing powers of God to the whole of creation. But in the Genesis story there still is an outside paradise. There’s a chaos out there. Even the original creation is God giving the powers to human beings and raising up human beings to have power over the chaos, not to be the victim of chaos but to transform chaos into cosmos, to transform [corruption] into incorruptibility to the measure that that’s possible and not tragic. But I think we would definitely have to say that the death of human beings is a tragedy, and that death for human beings is their enemy, and human beings weren’t made to die; they were made to live forever. By the power of God, that is possible, and we will be raised from the dead in our bodies to live forever and never to die again, and to have control in the proper way over all of the creation that God made, perhaps even way beyond the planet earth, having powers maybe over the billions of galaxies that exist, we know by scientific research in the universe itself.
Charles Darwin himself, I think, he had real problems with death. He was a death-denier in many ways. He was absolutely appalled at the suffering that he observed in the universe, and he even thought that that was a powerful argument against God’s care for the universe, that God would make a universe where there’s so much struggle and so on. He just found that, in some sense, revolting. He didn’t know how to deal with it. Of course, the theology of his time didn’t give him much material to handle it. I don’t think they did at all.
But then you have the worse issue of human death. Then if you add to human death the issue of hell, then Darwin was really revolted. If he was revolted against the suffering of millions of creatures through millions of years of time, he was certainly struck by this. He said this; this is a quotation of Darwin:
I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true, for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men (the people) who do not believe—and this would include my father, my brother, and almost all my best friends (he didn’t include himself at that point)—will be everlastingly punished. This is a damnable doctrine.
So he could not accept hell as God’s punishing people, and he could simply not believe that unless you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior you were going to be punished forever by God by being burned in hell. He called that a “damnable doctrine.” But he still had his own inner agonies. That’s probably why he was sick all the time. When he wrote about what he saw in nature, he felt like he was committing murder, because people were dying all over the place. One of his uncles committed suicide. He had children who died. The most traumatic experience of his own personal life took place in 1851, when his ten-year-old daughter, Anna, died. His daughter, Anna, died in April of 1851, before he published The Origin of Species in 1859, eight years [after] she died. He couldn’t handle that. He never went to her grave. He didn’t go to her funeral. He never visited her grave. But almost all of the biographers of Darwin point out that it was the death of Anna that made him ultimately into an agnostic about religion. If he was an agnostic about lots of things of science, if he just didn’t know the answers and he claimed that he did not know the answers, but he couldn’t lie about what he did see, he had a real problem with the answer of Christianity, that we die because Adam sinned and everything dies and there’s suffering in the universe and God willed it but if we accept Jesus as our Savior our soul goes to heaven and that’s basically the teaching.
Then you had a couple of Christian versions in his time. If you were elect in a Calvinistic understanding, God just chose you and saved you for heaven, not even with your own will being involved, because he gave irresistible grace to some to believe in him. Then other people said, “No, you’ve got to accept Jesus as your Savior and believe in him, and if you don’t, you burn in hell.” Well, he just could not believe that. Frankly, I can’t believe that either, and I don’t think that’s the teaching of ancient Christianity or the Scripture at all. I think we’ll only know when Christ comes again in glory who is really with Christ and who is really against him, but Christians do believe that everybody will be raised.
In fact, Jesus said that he came that nothing would be lost. I really believe that Christians could apply that literally. Nothing will be lost. No kind of being that ever existed will be eternally lost. God will know how to save it, and he saves it in Jesus, and as one mystical writer, Julian of Norwich, said, “We not only will be delighted in the fact that everything will be saved and restored and that God will create everything that can possibly be created and he will keep it alive and in existence forever and ever in ways known to himself,” and this mystic, Juliana, said, “Not only will we be delighted in the fact that God does that, but we will be totally delighted—part of the delight, an essential element of the delight, will be how God does that, how it’s going to be.” Here we only have inklings through the Holy Spirit that’s been given to us in the Church.
St. Paul wrote the Corinthians, “Eyes haven’t seen, ears haven’t heard, it hasn’t even entered the mind of man what God has prepared for those who love him.” But at the same time, it says, “This has been revealed to us in a glimpse, through a veil, darkly, in Christ and the Holy Spirit that’s given to us now.” Our Christian saints would claim we could know that, not only believe it, but we could know it on the basis of the method of the way you come to theological knowledge, which we will deal with in future musings, future reflections.
Death was definitely a problem for Charles Darwin, and it was a terrible problem also for his friend, Thomas Huxley. Not only was Darwin outraged by the Christian answers about death, but Thomas Huxley, the so-called “Darwin’s bulldog,” was absolutely put off by what was taught about death. It says about Thomas Huxley that after his boy died, the beloved boy of Huxley, that he also would never go to church again and that he was absolutely outraged about what was said over the body of his dead son, Thomas Huxley was. Then he became a violent atheist. He fought against the teachings of the Church because he found them so revolting.
I think that we have to raise this question: What was being said to people by the preachers and the Christian ministers about death at the time of Darwin, and what is still being said today? That’s a very, very important issue. My guess—not my guess, my conviction is that most of the Christian teachers and theologians are not saying: Our hope against death is the resurrection of Christ. We are not saying that God himself reveals himself in this world in absolutely unsurpassable way when the Son of God is crucified and put to death in the most violent death that anyone can possibly die.
Violence is part of the Christian tradition. The Bible is filled with blood; it’s filled with warfare, it’s filled with killing. Moses himself is not allowed to enter the promised land because he didn’t murder all the women and children in the lands that he was ordered by God to take. So not only is death in the natural order, a survival, struggle for existence, as the poets say, “Blood of tooth and fang,” but blood is filled in the Scriptures. Christians, Orthodox Christians, go to church every Sunday and they drink the blood of Jesus, the blood that was shed for the life of the world. They eat his broken body, beaten, mocked, ridiculed, speared, nailed to a cross. That’s at the center of our faith.
So my only point today in these musings is: if there’s going to be a real dialogue between Orthodox Christian theology and natural science, death has to be at the center of it, and we’ve got to know that death is at the center of the Christian faith. Yes, it is. Christianity is a warfare against death itself of human beings. It’s the proper dealing with death in the natural animal and plant order. That’s what Christianity is, I believe, according to the Scripture. Yeah, that’s it.
But I think that so often in the debate with science, Christians in fact have an Aristotelian god, not a Biblical God. They have the god of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus and Proclus and God-knows-who; they don’t have the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and certainly not the God of Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul, who preached the word of the cross. So we believe—Christians, Orthodox Christians believe—that the ultimate revelation of God is in the crucifixion of his own Son, the Logos, the One by whom, through whom, for whom, and toward whom all things were created from the beginning as a human being on the tree of the cross in the midst of the earth.
So my only appeal today is: Let’s bring the cross into the debate. Let’s put death at the center of the debate. Let’s put death at the center of the Christian faith, which it is. Here I like to say, in recent years I like to say, basically Orthodox Christianity is about two things: God and death. It’s about God as God really is, and it’s how to deal with death. You might say that those are the philosophical problems raised by natural science also. They cannot be answered by science, because science can only deal with what it observes, by weighing, measuring, studying physical realities. Science cannot answer those questions. Those questions can only be answered by something beyond science, outside science, in other ways, by other human faculties. I would say they can only be answered by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, personally; I don’t think they can be answered by philosophy either, because philosophy is simply human musings about what you can observe in nature, but Orthodox Christianity is about God revealing himself in nature, over nature, through nature, for sure, with nature, for sure, not against nature, but certainly distinct from nature. God is not part of nature.
Here we also have to say that there’s probably only two metaphysical possibilities for human beings: that everything is simply nature, it’s simply known and revealed in the natural order and that’s all we have and there’s nothing beyond it; or the human person and the human being who has transcendence over nature, who can question nature, who is aware of his or her own death and who can raise the issue of the meaning of it all and particularly the meaning of death, that’s the only other possibility.
Even people like Dawkins and Hitchens and atheistic philosophers are philosophizing about things; they’re looking at nature and coming to conclusions. But the question is: How can you come to conclusion about the meaning of nature when the meaning of nature cannot be answered by nature itself? Or maybe you put it another way. Human nature, which is distinct from other natures because it’s made in the image and likeness of God, to use Christian terms—human nature, which is free, which is intelligent, if you put it in scientific terms, whose brain, the three-pound brain has evolved to the point where it’s self-conscious and free and can will and can choose and can debate and can converse and can talk on the radio and listen to the radio—that’s already a supra-natural possibility, or it’s a natural possibility that distinguishes human beings radically from the other types of beings that we know on the planet earth.
Lower, so to speak, animals can have brains and they can have certain types of instincts and behavior and knowledge. They may even have certain types of communication, but they certainly are not human beings. They are certainly not human beings. But human beings are capable of [asking] this question: What is the meaning of it all? Is there a God? If there is a God, what is God like? And trying to answer those questions. Then if you’re an ancient Christian, if you’re a Christian according to ancient, pre-modern-type, modern, Evangelical, fundamentalistic, scholastic-type of Christianity, if you’re a Christian like the Church Fathers were Christians of, I would say, the first thousand years of Christianity on the planet earth, your answer would be—Christ is the key.
There is a God who speaks, who reveals himself, who intervenes, who created everything the way it is created, including what the scientists study, and what they study is important for us to try to understand and to come to terms with and to deal with, but there is a God who did it this way. There is a God who, from time to time, for particular purposes known only to himself, intervenes. He interacts with human beings, and there’s a synergia between human beings and God. But those human beings have to be willing to deal with God; they have to be open to God. They have to be open to revelation. They have to desire truth; they can’t deny any kind of truth. And then they have to come to a knowledge of the truth according to Christianity, know the truth that will make them free in any way they can. And then, if they’re honest people, they have to examine not only the data that comes to us through observing and weighing and measuring and studying and analyzing physical, biological, geological, zoological realities, but we have to also come to terms with claims that are made, like, for example, the claims of the Christian Gospel.
Can it possibly be that all these things are true? What is truth? That’s what Pilate asked Jesus. Well, what is true about God? Who is the one, true God? What is the one, true God like? I think that’s the real question that Christians bring to the world. If there is a God, what is this one, true God like? But the other thing that Christians definitely bring to the table is what’s on their altar table every Sunday. We bring to the table of debate the broken body and the shed blood of Jesus and say: The answer’s there. That’s where the answer is. The issue is death—life and death. The issue is life and death of animals, plants, trees, and really, ultimately, the issue of the life and death of human beings.
Charles Darwin, I think, had no material to deal with that properly, theologically. The way Christianity was presented to him was revolting, and I think it really was revolting. Thomas Huxley said when he heard what the preacher said over the body of his dead boy, he hated Christianity with every cell in his body. But I would bet everything I own, I would give my life on the conviction that stupidities were said, stuff about God “choosing his finest flowers,” about the child’s soul going to heaven, about God, if the child accepted Jesus as the Savior, the child would be saved, but if not it would be damned and go to hell. Then there was probably some platitudes about hoping that the good God saves this pure, innocent child, but there were other Christians who might say the child is damnable and under sin and is going to burn in hell because God had decided never to let that child come to adult life so that they could accept Jesus as their personal Savior and therefore be saved. Only God knows what was said there; I don’t know what was said there, but I’m convinced that it had to be pretty awful.
But I’d love to know what Thomas Huxley would have thought if the preacher had come and said, “God does not will death. He doesn’t want this little girl to die, or this little boy. Death is an enemy. Death comes because of our human inability to keep ourselves alive. It comes from our immorality, our stupidity, our apostasy, our rebellion, and God will save everyone that can be saved. This little child who died is a saint according to the Christian view. They will be raised from the dead. Christ suffered with this child; she didn’t suffer alone. Christ died with this child; she did not die alone. If there is any comfort at all, it’s the comfort that there is a supra-natural meaning to the suffering of this world, a supernatural, theological use for this suffering, which is inevitable in the kind of world that God, alas, has made.
“But God had no other choice but to do it this way, and this is the way he did it. So our faith and our comfort comes from the crucified Christ. We believe that the suffering of this age, however horrible it is, one day we will see that it’s not even comparable to the eternal weight of glory that is prepared for us in the crucified Christ, and that we are redeemed and saved by his blood, and therefore our hope is in the resurrection of the dead and in everlasting life.”
So my point today: Let’s get to the heart of the matter, folks; let’s get to the issue of death. Then those who are “religious,” they’ve got to come out and say what they believe about death. Here I believe that the Christians will say things radically different from Platonists, Hellenists, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and Muslims, because we will preach Christ crucified, and we will say that suffering is ugly and death is the result of it, and it comes from human sin. It was inevitable, inevitable that there be sin, as the mystic Juliana also said.
But God, knowing that, did it anyway, entered into it, and saved it all, and nothing will be lost. We might even be bold enough to say that all the extinct bald eagles and I don’t know what, horned owls and dinosaurs, brontosauruses and whatever, all that existed and will exist and that which brought us to the point where there would be human beings, all that in some way also will not be lost. That might be what the Christians have to answer.
But in any case, the Christians have to come up with an answer. Our answer to the issues raised by natural science should come from the Gospel of Christ and not from somewhere else. At the heart of the matter is the Gospel of Christ, crucified and glorified. We preach Christ crucified—scandal to Jews and Muslims and maybe to Charles Darwin, too, the way he heard it; folly to the philosophers who want no part of it; but for us who believe, the wisdom and the power of God. The heart of our faith is a crucified, dead corpse, a blood corpse of a Jew, but we believe that Jew is God incarnate. The incarnation of the Son of God, in order to be crucified and suffer and die with us, that’s the center of the Christian faith, and that’s what has to be brought into the debate with natural science.