August 16, 2010 Length: 59:09
In this final installment in his Darwin and Christianity series, Fr. Tom Hopko compares the task and method of natural science with the task and method of Christian theology.
In series Darwin and Christianity
This is number 17 in my reflections on natural science and Christian theology in relationship and being inspired by the so-called Darwinian revolution. In this final reflection, which I’m sure will not be final! There are questions coming in, comments, corrections, additions that, when I reflect through them, I’m sure that I’ll go on Ancient Faith Radio again and pick up some of these, but as far as the formal series is concerned, this will be my final presentation in a more orderly fashion, even though the order is not very orderly. The great philosopher of science, Alfred North Whitehead, on whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation, as I mentioned, he once said, “Given enough time, you could make order out of any chaotic scene.” So these may be somewhat chaotic reflections, but hopefully there’s some order.
In any case, this is the last formal, and what I’d like to do in summing up—I’d like to sum up a bit—is to compare and to contrast the method and the task and the goals of natural scientific study, natural science, to the method and the task and the goal of Christian theology, very specifically Christian theology—not religion in general, whatever that might mean (you know I have problems with that), but with Christian theology. In other words, when a person is engaged in natural science, how do they do it? What are they taught to do? How are they told… What are they told to do if they want to be successful in their task of being a natural scientist, of doing science on nature, on the things that exist that can be observed and weighed and measured and analyzed?
And what is the advice to a person who would want to come to know God and therefore all realities in relationship to God, as to their origin, their goal, their destiny, their significance and meaning? What would a person who wanted to be a Christian theologian in the Orthodox Tradition—what would they be counseled to do? How would they be counseled to proceed? Here I do believe that there are very many similarities, and thence, obviously, because of the very nature of natural science and the very nature of Christian theology, there would be significant differences, just because the one has to do with natural realities and the other has to do with God and all things’ relationship to God.
If we wanted to kind of begin with similarities, one thing would be sure, and that is that natural science exists and Christian theology exists, and there are people who have done it for centuries, from many centuries. There are people who studied the natural world. They studied the earth, the water, the air, the elements, the plants, the animals, the birds, the fish, the stars, the planets, the galaxies. People have done this, and they have come up with methods that they would advise us to follow if we want to be successful in doing our work. The same thing is true with Christian theology, theology in general and Christian theology in particular. It’s an old, old enterprise, and there are people who have been engaged in it, people who have worked in it, people who write about theology, about Christian theology, about what theology is for Christianity and for Christians and how it works and what you do and what are the dangers, what are the temptations, how can one have some level of certitude that their enterprise will be successful or fruitful, what is the task, what is the method, how do we go about it.
Well, we have records of these enterprises, both in natural science and in Christian theology. So the first thing I think that anyone would do who’s interested in natural science would read books about natural science. They’d read books about natural scientists. They would read what scientists who are celebrated and successful and have really contributed things that nowadays are pretty much believed and even known by and studied by people who are natural scientists. They would go to those people and see what they have said and see what they have done and see how they did it, and to see what conclusions they came to, and then to see where they would agree, to see where they would differ, and then to see how things unfolded and to see how things worked themselves out over a period of time. That would just be a very normal beginning.
So if a person wanted to do Christian theology, if a person wanted to be engaged in theological studies and theological reflection, the theological enterprise as far as Orthodox Christianity is concerned, then the persons would do the very same thing. They would read the books. They would find out who are the big names, who are the great theologians, who are even called “the Theologian.” For example, in the Orthodox Church we have the author of the fourth gospel and the three letters and the Apocalypse being called the Theologian—John the Theologian. You have Gregory the Theologian. You have the Symeon the New Theologian. Then you have the Cappadocian Fathers, who are theologians—Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom. You have a whole, well, to use a biblical expression, cloud of witnesses to what Christian theology is.
And, of course, in that whole history, there are names that you’re warned against following, at least following completely or following even at all. They would be the ones who were mistaken, the ones who could lead you astray. But let’s not be concerned about them right now; let’s be concerned about those who have the seal of approval of those who are in the enterprise.
So in science, for example, you would have the names. I read a kind of a pop essay about the theory of relativity, where the author who is a Ph.D. student—a member of the Orthodox Church, by the way—writes about Arry and Izzy and Al, and who she is writing about are Aristotle, Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein. She kind of compares and contrasts their teachings and showed how they relate to each other and showed how the enterprise developed relative to the understanding of the physical world: time and space and gravity and that whole area of physics.
If you were doing science, you would read Aristotle. You would certainly read Ptolemy, in the time of the early Christian era, “common era” as they call it now, common between Christians and Jews. And then you would read certainly about Copernicus. You would read about Galileo. You would read about Newton. You’d read about Kepler. You’d read about Einstein. You’d read about Darwin. These are the people—and many, many more—that you would read about, that you would study. Then if you were in a very particular area of study, you would study very particular teachers.
The same thing would be true about Christian theology. If you were interested in Orthodox Christian theology, ancient Christian theology that’s considered to be true and dependable and reliable and not false and deceiving, then you would read Ignatius of Antioch. Well, first you’d read the New Testament; you’d read the 27 writings of the New Testament. But then you would read the interpretation of those writings in people like Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Alexandria and Cyprian of Carthage and Irenaeus of Lyons and the Christian apologists. Then you’d have the great Cappadocian Fathers whom I just mentioned, and the Fathers through history: Athanasius the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Basil the Great, Ambrose of Milan, Hilary of Poitiers. You would have in the East also Cyril of Alexandria in Egypt. You would have John Chrysostom, of course.
Then you would have the names connected around all the Ecumenical Councils. You’d have the writings attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite. You would have in the theological area Maximus the Confessor and all his teachings about christology. You would certainly have Gregory Palamas. You’d have Symeon the New Theologian. You would have a whole slew of people whose writings that you would read to see what they did and to see how they even developed each other. I mean, the same way that Einstein somehow picked upon Newton and then affirmed things and changed things and developed things and sometimes even majorly altered, you’d have the same things among the Christian theologians in the Orthodox Tradition.
St. Maximus the Confessor wrote a pretty hefty work called De Ambigua where he wrote about the ambiguities that are found in the writings of Gregory the Theologian. Certainly Athanasius the Great was the teacher of Basil and Gregory, but they adopted some things, they tweaked some things, they developed some things—they even changed terminology, and terminology changes in history, too, both in science and in theology—natural science and Christian theology.
So here you somehow begin exactly the same way. You study what is said; you study what is taught. You learn about it. You begin by learning about it. Before you start learning it, you learn about it. Here in the Christian tradition, Gregory of Nyssa would make that statement very clear, as would the other Fathers. It’s one thing to know about theology, or, to be more accurate, to know about God, about Christ, about what is claimed about God and his relation to the world and his relation to Jesus of Nazareth and the Holy Spirit. You could know about it, but to know about it is not to know it. You’ve got to come to know it for yourself. You have to have the insight yourself.
I’m pretty sure I would not be mistaken to say that the same thing is true in natural science. You could read about what Newton taught or about what Einstein taught or about what Darwin thought, but then you yourself would have to study the same data that they were studying, the givens. You’d have to study the same realities that they studied in order to draw conclusions for yourself. Then you would be told how to do this.
Now, in the natural scientific world, there are plenty of books that tell what the various aspects of scientific study are. There’s geology, there’s biology, there’s zoology, about the rocks and the earth, about the plants and then about the animals. Then you have also all other kinds of -ologies in natural science. You have biology, and then you have chemistry and you have physics. You have various sciences that belong to what is generally called natural science, the various scientific disciplines.
The same thing would be true in the area of theology. You have theology, which has to do with the nature of God and how God is and how God acts and what God does. Then you could speak about the relationship between God and Jesus Christ, so you could have christology together with theology. Then you could have pneumatology, about the Holy Spirit. Then if you’re studying the relationship between God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, you have trinitarian theology or triadology. Then you could have, I don’t know, a study of the Church, called ecclesiology. Then you can study what is claimed to be expected in the future, which is called eschatology, on the basis of what we know, what may we possibly expect. Same thing happens in natural science: on the basis of what we know about the earth and the universe, what can we expect that might happen in the future, based on what we know?
So there are various disciplines within the discipline, and then various methods which deal with each one in particular and their integration and relationship with each other. So the same thing would be in natural science and in Christian theology.
When it comes to the method of the scientific method or the method of natural science, you could say, as some people have said, and here I can even read a little bit from the coursebooks that go with The [Joy] of Science lectures by Robert Hazen from George Mason University, where he would say the idealized scientific method is a cyclical process of inquiry based on observations, synthesis, hypothesis, and predictions that lead to more observations, further syntheses, more hypotheses are developed that need to be tested, and therefore more predictions are made about what one might expect when one gets into this particular study.
In this view, I think which would be a pretty general view, natural science, first and foremost, is a search for answers that have to do with the nature of things that we observe. We have very many different kinds of questions that can be raised. For example, a question can be raised: What is to be observed? What realities are there? What kind of questions should be asked about what’s out there? about the earth, the air, the water, the trees, the plants, the birds, the fish, whatever it is—what is there to be studied? Then you could ask also the question about the origins of these things. How did they come to be?
That’s what Darwin himself did in Origin of Species. How did the various species come to be? And he came up with a theory about how he understood how he came to be, and he saw them all interrelated, and he saw coming from earlier existence. He saw mutations taking place and people argue over a long period of time or quickly or in jumps or whatever, but certain mutations or transmutations or metamorphoses or whatever you want to call them that then produce really new types of beings that can be called new species. Then it’s a question: Where do you have simply a variation within a species and where do you have an actually new species, a different kind of a thing? That’s what he tried to do. So you have the issue of origins, and people even tried to study the origins of the universe or the origins of life. How did it come to be? What can we do by observing the data?
Then you have other kinds of questions like how it all works. How does nature work? How do the trees grow their leaves? How do they get their nourishment from the earth and from the air and from the water? Why are they shaped the way that they are shaped? How do they operate? How do they work? How do they reproduce, for example? That would be a very important question. How do realities, natural realities, reproduce themselves? What is the place of death? They die out, they come again, new forms come, some become extinct: you just don’t even see them any more, but you can claim that, through study and observation, like fossil records, that there were once types of animals or types of beings, if you want to be more general, that existed—plants—that no longer exist. Well, why not? What happened? All those things can be studied, and how it all works.
Then there’s questions about how do you manipulate nature. How do you manipulate the physical world? How do you make changes? How do you deal with ecosystems? How do you produce new kinds of breeds of animals? How do you prevent extinction? In other words, there’s the human being—and of course all this is done by human beings. Human beings are doing these enterprises, and in science the human being has a certain transcendence and a certain governance over everything else that exists. No other existence do natural science; only human beings do natural science. Chimpanzees and apes and plants and fish don’t do natural science. You’ve got to have a certain kind of a brain. As someone called it, that little three-pound organ in the human head: you’ve got to have it, and it’s got to work in a certain way, and it’s got to be shaped in a certain way, and it’s got to be functioning in a certain way for you to be able to think and to talk and to speak and to study and to know. But it’s only human beings that do this.
The systematic framework in which these kind of things are done to answering these questions—the questions of what exists, where did it come from, how does it work, and how do we control it or take care of it or what do we do with it—there are other steps that are also not only recommended, but they seem to be absolutely essential. First of all, in natural science, you’ve got to collect data. You’ve got to collect through data. How do you collect it? Through observation and through experiments. You look and you see and you test and you study and you combine and you put together, so you have a collection of data through observations and experimentation.
Then you can recognize a pattern within the data. You can see how things work and how they might even compare to each other, how different plants grow, how big trees grow, how little flowers go, where there’s buds, how are they reproduced, and all this kind of stuff. So you recognize patterns, and then you can develop hypotheses and theories to try to systematize what you observe and the patterns that you see, allegedly see, functioning.
So you set up experiments. You try to combine this, combine that, mix this, mix that, observe this, do that, heat this, cool that—just to see how the realities will react—high temperature, low temperature, whatever you do, mixing this gene and that gene and so on. This is how it’s done. Hypotheses and theories are then tested so that one can make further hypotheses and further theories with greater predictions and therefore in the most simple sense, you learn more and more through more observations and more experiments. You have observations, you have syntheses, hypotheses, and predictions, through all of these experiments.
In the natural science, these things are very controlled and very limited. There are some questions that just don’t apply there at all, like: What is the meaning of all of this? What is its destiny? Certain explanations remain kind of beyond anything that observation and hypothesis and theory can explain. There are certain realities that you can observe that don’t seem to fall within natural scientific boundaries, although some folks say if you study more and observe more and make more experiments, you’ll see that in fact they do. Well, that’s why natural science keeps going on and on and never reaches an end.
When it comes to what we really do know, I heard someone once say: What we really have are certain really tiny islands of data and knowledge and certitude in a grand, practically infinite ocean of ignorance, of things that we don’t know. And it’s a truism, of course, that in whatever you study—certainly natural science—that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. And the more you know, the more questions you have and the more intricate and the more awesome it becomes. This is an enterprise that really never ends.
But the claim is: You can really know certain things. You can know certain things. You could know, for sure, that that is a pine tree and not an oak tree. You can know that if you do mix this chemical and that chemical, this is what’s going to result. You can know that if you do certain things you’re going to make an atom bomb where you can blow up half the world. You know those things. They’re not any more things that are not known. They are known.
And when you study the phenomena, and then especially when, in natural science, you can make paradigms through mathematics, so on the basis of what you can observe and what you can actually see, through mathematical formulas you can come to conclusions about that which you really don’t have direct access to, but on the basis of what you do have direct access to, you can make conclusions about which you can be virtually certain on things that are beyond your ability to have actual observation.
An example of this would be: You could do some experiments on the planet earth and then realize what you’re dealing with with time, space, gravity, distance, travel of light, and so on. You could make mathematical formulas like Einstein and all the other great physicists do, and you can actually come to conclusions about what’s going on throughout the whole universe in other parts of the universe just because of the same realities being there and how they might work within their particular context: how they might work within their spacial, temporal context. For example, their nearness to the sun or their size and mass or whatever. I mean, all this can happen.
So what happens is, in the realm of science, science is addressing really only those questions that can be answered by reproducible observations, controlled experiments, and theory guided by mathematical formulas and mathematical logic. But you have reproducible observations. If you keep doing the experiments, you get the same results, so you can conclude this is true. Then you make experiments and you control them, and you see what the controls are and then what makes the experiment “work” or “not work.” Very often, you have to have a theoretical insight into what you think might work before you actually do the experiment. In fact, as the philosophers of science say, there is no experiment that the scientist doesn’t already have an inkling and an insight and an intuition of what she or he are actually looking for before they do the experiment. That’s why they can say, “Oh, it worked!” [or] “Oh, no! It didn’t work.” “Ooh, eureka!” That’s one of the words when people discovered an experiment. “It’s a wonder! Look what it is!” and so on.
So the scientific questions, that’s basically how you do it, but where you cannot have a controlled experiment, where you cannot have reproducible observations, where you cannot transfer what you see into mathematical formulas, then you could really say you don’t have natural science. Here, of course, there’s interactions between natural science and then things that go beyond science, like, for example, music or poetry or language or virtue, like saying this is beautiful, this is ugly, this is good, this is bad. You don’t get answers to those kind of questions through natural science and through experiments.
That’s another realm of being, a philosophical realm of being that there are philosophers who can discuss these kinds of things, also based on certain observations, but if somebody’s observing a person in love and how that person acts, or is observing a musician and listening to the music, well, there are elements there that make it very different from natural science as such. That’s why you have areas that are called things like philosophy and morality and ethics, anthropological studies that somehow go beyond the purely scientific. Then the relationship between what is, so to speak, purely scientific and what goes beyond it is, of course, very debatable.
But still most of the scientific questions fall into one of these four broad categories: existence questions, origin questions, process questions, and practically applied questions. The existence questions: What objects and phenomena occur in the natural world? What is out there? Origin questions: How did they come from? Where did they come from? Especially how do they interrelate to each other relative to their existence and their reproduction and how they came to be? Then you have the questions of how it all works, process questions, connected to origin questions. And then you have the applied questions like: How do human beings manipulate the physical world, the natural world for various reasons?—hopefully good reasons like curing diseases and devising new materials and modifying the environment and cleaning up oil spills and things like that, or making airplanes fly. But they can also be used very badly, because all of these things, of course, could be used for evil. The same processes that can help us to heal diseases can help us to make a bomb that can kill millions of people in a matter of seconds.
This is basically how we would look at it. Of course, the scientists all feel that, as they keep studying, what we don’t know we will come to know, what seems now chaotic or seems almost impossible will then become possible and we’ll explain how it’s done. I’m sure there were people a couple hundred years ago, very recently, who would say: You could never sit in your living room and watch the Super Bowl that’s taking place thousands of miles away and to see it while it’s actually happening. They’d say that’s completely impossible. Or that people would get into some kind of instruments that they would invent and go off and walk around the moon. They would just consider that would be impossible, but it’s not impossible. Now it is possible.
Then of course in the area of genetics and DNA and all that kind of stuff, lots of things become possible, which raises then the moral questions that are outside the realm of natural science, like: Just because we can do something, should we do it? Just because we can go to the moon, should we go? If we have powers and know how to manipulate things, should we really do it? Should we, for example, take human embryos that would potentially be human beings if we let them grow, and then just produce them by reproductive methods in order then just to study them, kill them, take their stem cells. So there’s all these moral, ethical issues that transcend the pure natural scientific activity. That’s why there have to be controls on science.
People have to make decisions relative to science, and I think that you can just pick up a newspaper any day and you can see how these decisions are made and how we still fight about them. You could open up the newspaper and say: Should human embryos be used for scientific purposes in order to get stem cells to fight diseases? Or should you drill thousands of feet below the sea surface, risking the fact that your device may explode and you may pollute the whole oceans with oils and other poisonous things that would kill off the wildlife and so on? All of these are huge decisions. Should you take certain medications? Should you imbibe certain drugs? If you do, what’s going to happen if you take them? It might help something; it might destroy something else, might hurt something else. How many side effects we hear about when we hear about drugs and so on.
So this is the area where it is, but it’s very limited. It’s boundless somehow within, but it doesn’t answer and solve all the questions at all, but it has a method that it must follow if there are going to be fruitful results.
I believe that we can say exactly the same things about Christian theology, which is a very, very different science than natural science. There are some people who would say Christian theology is not a science, because science has to do with the kind of method we just described. You can’t call theology a science. Now, there were some who thought that you could call it a science if you had the proper data and the proper reasoning attitude. I would say that I don’t think that would be the Christian view at all, because of what else is required in order to come to knowledge that is theological and which is distinct from knowledge which is about the natural world. In other words, when your object of study and knowledge is God, you’re going to have very many different things than if your object of study is the created universe or the bird sitting on my bird-feeder or the skin on my body or the water in the glass on my desk.
When it comes to theology, you can say the method is not that of natural science for sure. It’s a different method, because it’s a different enterprise entirely, and the object of the knowledge that we’re looking for is not part of the natural world.
Here, however, I think that we can say that theology is a science, if you just use the term “science” in the most general term, which means “knowledge.” The word “science” comes from the Latin word scientia which means “knowledge.” So the point is: You can know things about God. And the Christian claim would be even: You can know things not only about God, but you can do experiments, so to speak; you can test what is claimed about God in order that you can come to know for yourself whether or not this is true or not.
For example, if we took an example from science, natural science, if someone said scarlet-breasted grosbeaks exist—I have a picture of one in front of me now, and it’s my favorite bird; one was on my feeder the other day—but I can tell a person they exist, I saw them. That person can believe me or not, but then I can tell them what they could do if they want to see that grosbeak for themselves. They can put out the birdseed, preferably these black seeds that come from sunflowers, and then sit at the desk at the window for several days in a row and see if one comes. If one comes and you see it, then you can say, “I know it. I don’t just believe it any more. I know it. I’ve seen it for myself, and that’s what it is. The name I can put on it.” So I can tell you just how to do it. Or if you mix, I don’t know, oxygen and hydrogen you get water. Or whatever it might be. There’s a controlled experiment which you can know about, you can even believe—for example, I have no reason to disbelieve certain things that Einstein says—he seems like an honorable man, telling the truth—but I don’t really know them for myself unless I would be able to test them and do the experiment myself and say, “Yeah, now I really know this, and now I will defend it on the basis of my own observation and not somebody else’s that I happen to believe and to trust.”
When it comes to Christian theology, I think we can say the same thing. I can say plenty of things—and I do, all the time, and certainly on Ancient Faith Radio I do—that I can say this is really a teaching of Christian theology. Or I could put it another way: This is a dogma of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church. If you’re in this Church, all of the authoritative witnesses and testifiers and the people who have done all the experiments and have claimed to have the experiences and observations, this is what they say. They say, “God exists,” for example, but they say God is not like anything else that exists. Then they give a method about how you can come to know that God who exists, who is even beyond existence.
Then they could say that when you do know God, this is how God is: he is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and mercy. He is love. He is beauty, he is joy itself, but he is even beyond joy and beauty and anything that we can contain. They say that they know that experimentally, experientially, existentially. Then they will tell us what we must do if we’re going to come to know those things for ourselves, just like the natural scientists can tell us what we ought to do if we want to come to know what they know. They say, “If you want to know what I know, do this experiment and you’ll see.”
The question is: Can Christian theology do the same thing? And I answer: Yes. Changing the changeable in the task, in the enterprise, in what’s going on, the difference between natural science and theological science, if you change those things, but still I honestly do believe, having engaged with theology my entire life—I’ve never been engaged with anything else, but I can claim that I’ve been engaged with theology… Just the other day, I was talking with a friend of mine, Fr. Paul Lazor, and we came to the conclusion that we are very fortunate guys, because when we were in our young age, between 18 and 23, 24, when we were at the seminary and the university and then the theological school, St. Vladimir’s, we had the best possible teachers in Orthodox Christian theology that existed on the planet earth at that time.
There was Communism in the world, there was Muslim captivity, there were no schools in the East, but we had these men and women—Mrs. Koulomzin, for example—who were the fruit of this whole tradition of theological study, the enterprise, who had great teachers themselves, who read all the sources, who not only read the sources but did the experiments so to work, lived the life, and therefore were able to show us, teach us and show us not only what they discovered and what the great names of theological tradition discovered and agreed upon, but they could also tell us how we could come to know these things for ourselves, and they did do that. I will share that with you right now.
In theology, in Christian theology, the object is God and all things in relationship to God and how God relates to all things and how the real God is. You could say it’s the truth about the real God, about God as God actually is, which means, right away, that there can be false theologies, just like there can be false sciences. There can even be pseudo-sciences, so there can be pseudo-theologies. There can be people who don’t know what the heck they’re talking about, invented it themselves and are dabbling around in things that they don’t know anything about. Well, that happens everywhere about everything. That happens in the arts, that happens in music, that happens in literature—it happens in everything. So a basic question now is: Whom do you follow? If you want to be a natural scientist studying species of existent plants and animals, whom do you follow? Whom do you study? Well, I’m afraid you’re going to have to study Darwin, because he’s a pretty big name and wrote big things and did a lot of study. You’ve got to come to the conclusion was he right or was he wrong, but you’ve got to study him. Then you’ve got to study those who criticize him. You’ve got to study those who say, “No, we don’t think he’s right,” and see why they don’t think he’s right. That’s how it’s done.
Now, in Christian theology, we Orthodox would tell you who we think was right. But we still would invite you to study them for yourself. You’ve got to study them for yourself. So we have the Scriptures. We have the New Testamental interpretation of the old Scriptures, the Hebrew Scriptures. Then we’ve got the patristic interpretations of the New Testament Scriptures. Then we’ve got the interpretation of the community of the Christian Church through the centuries in its worship and in its spiritual life and in its saints. So I like to say that the testimonies to theological truth and theological knowledge in Eastern Orthodox tradition are the Scriptures; the sacraments of the Church; the services of the Church, the liturgy; the saints of the Church, particularly those who were teachers and preachers. We have their writings. We have the example of their lives.
And then we have other testimonies. We have conciliar decrees, where groups of Church leaders came together, prayed, fasted, did all that they needed to do and came to conclusions that they agreed upon, which others didn’t agree upon. But then you’ve got to decide: which group do you agree upon? Are you going to hold this theory of evolution or that theory of evolution or no theory of evolution? Well, it’s the same thing in theology.
Now, those theologians that I and we would affirm, certainly that the Eastern Orthodox Church would affirm: we know their names, and I’ve said them already and I won’t repeat them. But we know the councils that we think are right, too. We know the services and the sacramental rituals and prayers that we believe are right and if you follow them you will come to know the truth. We know the saints and what they taught us about how to do that for ourselves. So we could read it, but you’ve got to put it into practice. You’ve got to do it. And that would be the same in natural science. You can’t just read about it; you’ve got to do it. So you’ve got to do it.
If we were going to just make up a methodology for Christian theology, what would we say? What would we say? Well, number one, we would say: You have to believe that you can come to know, just like in natural science. You have to trust your senses, your experiences, your mind. You have to know that you may be deluded. You have to learn how to overcome delusion and error by following certain proper methods, but you’ve got to believe, still, that knowledge is possible, that the New Testament, for example, St. John’s Gospel wasn’t kidding when it said this is eternal life: to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. And that’s knowledge. Or when the Apostle Paul would say that in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. You have to still accept as a hypothesis that that may be true and then ask them, to say, “Hey, how do I know that for myself? What do I need to do myself?” And the first thing that they would tell you is: Really want to know, and therefore don’t be prejudiced. Don’t come up with your opinions before you do the tests. Don’t think you know and you don’t know.
So they would say: You really have to be humble. You’ve got to be really humble before the reality of things. Here this would be an absolute axiom, not only of science, I would think, but let the scientists answer for themselves, but the theologians would certainly say a proud, arrogant person will never come to know the God who is love and mercy and kindness, just never. So there is a moral dimension in Christian theology that may or may not be present in science. For example, some would argue: Yeah, you’ve got to be a moral person to be a good scientist, because if you’re a liar, a cheat, stealing other people’s stuff and twisting the material, the data, for your own success, well, if you’re a bad, evil person, you’re just going to end up a scientific liar, so you’d better be an honest person and be honest and love the data and treat it with respect and not treat it to your own advantage. Well, the same thing would certainly be true in theology, but in theology it would become an absolute principal.
I had a friend who worked in a lab in one of the greatest science centers in the United States of America, and that poor person had to work in a lab right next to another person who, all day long, listened to scatological, pornographic radio while doing scientific experiments. Somebody could say: Well, you can listen to pornographic, scatological, disgusting radio that some people, Christians certainly would think is just degrading, disgusting, and destructive of human beings, but probably that wouldn’t have much to do with how much you counted your statistics and what you did your scientific experiment. However, in Christian theology, the teaching would be very clear that if you are not a humble person, if you are not pure in heart, if you do not really desire to know and let the facts speak for themselves, you will never come to know anything, and you will certainly come to know God and Christ as God and Christ really are. You just will not do it.
The principles are: The Lord teaches the humble his way. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for what is right. They will be successful; they will be satisfied. So the minute you enter the arena of Christian theology, you enter the arena of spiritual and ethical and moral behavior. So together with the desire to know and not to lie and not to deceive and not to distort and not to pervert, you yourself have to work in the ways that you’re taught to work in order to be free from everything that’s going to blind and distort your vision.
Then in Christian theology it would definitely be said: If you are going to be successful and fruitful in theology, you have to pray. Now, maybe a scientist prays that they can come to a knowledge of the truth, but a theologian is a person who prays. The old, ancient Christian saying of Evagrius and Nilus of Sinai and others is: A theologian is the one who truly prays, and the one who truly prays is a theologian—because God is known through prayer. God is known through living communion with God. You have to at least begin by praying hypothetically—“to whom it may concern” or whatever—but you have to call out to the reality, because Christian theology is based on a personal God revealing himself to us and revealing himself only to the people who are capable of receiving the revelation. So the same way the natural scientist has to make himself or herself capable of receiving the revelation of the natural data that’s before them on the table or in the test tube or wherever it is, so the Christian theologian has to do those things that make himself capable of receiving the epiphany, the phenomena, the shining-forth of the One that they want to know, namely, God Almighty, if that God really exists.
So you hypothetically have to believe that it exists, and you have to call upon the God to show himself. Therefore you have to make an act of faith. Now there’s a faith in natural science, too, because if I don’t believe that I could know, I’m never going to know. If I don’t believe the scientist who says, “Do this experiment and you’ll know,” I can’t say, “No, I’m not going to do that experiment!” They say, “Okay. You’re never going to know,” but he’ll say, “Believe me. Trust me. Do it, and you’ll see.”
So the Christian theology says the same thing. In fact, we claim that God Almighty is saying the same thing: Trust me and you will come to know. Become my disciple, and you will know. Become the disciple of Jesus Christ as given to you in the pages of the Scripture and don’t make him up for yourself. Pray and know that Jesus Christ who makes an epiphany to you through the Holy Spirit in your worship. Then you will come to know for yourself, and nobody will be able to convince you that you do not know. You will become a martys, a testifier to a truth of which you are convinced. Then you yourself will be able to tell other people what they ought to do if they are going to come to know.
So far we’ve said if you’re going to be a Christian theologian and come to a knowledge of the truth in God and the things in God, you’ve got to count the cost, you’ve got to be willing to know, you’ve got to make acts of faith, you’ve got to pray, and you’ve got to struggle to live a moral life. Put another way, you’ve got to keep the commandments. Here, all of the masters of Christian theology and Orthodox tradition would say this. I’m reading now Elder Sophrony, the great contemporary who died in the 1990s in the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England. He said the only way you can come to know God is by keeping the commandments of Christ in the Gospel. He says contemplation without a keeping of the commandments will be fruitless, and Christian activity without the keeping of the commandments will just be fraudulent. So keeping the commandments is basic, so you’ve got to know what those commandments are, just like the rules of science: you’ve got to know what they are.
But the commandments are moral commandments: Love your enemy. Bless those who curse you. Give to those who ask from you. Love your enemy. St. Silouan would say: If you do not love your enemy and desire to love your enemy, and you can only do so by the grace and power of God for which you pray and in which you believe, you will never come to know anything. If you do not love your enemy, you will never know God. You will never know that Christ is the truth. You will never know even what the truth is. So the truth has to be tested according to the rules and commandments that are given by which you come to know that truth. In Christian theology, these are spiritual activities: hunger, thirsting, purification, purification of the heart, fighting the passions, fighting delusions, overcoming sins (which means “to miss the mark”). We would be told that this is what we have to do.
Then other things would be told. They would say: You cannot quarrel about things. You can test and you can discuss, but you can’t be polemical. You’ve got to listen to everyone and test everything to see whether it’s true. You cannot be ideological. You cannot be prejudiced. You cannot say ahead of time, “Oh, this is all stupid baloney, malarkey, and superstition.” You’ve got to test it. If you’re not willing to test it, you will never come to know. But you test it by making an act of faith and following what Christ and the Scriptures and the great saints and prophets and apostles have taught, as certainly have those of the Christian Church, if you want to know if Christianity is true. Then these same saints would tell you: Keep the commandments of Christ. Read the Sermon on the Mountain and try to put it into practice.
Then they would add things: Practice silence. Practice sitting in silence a little time every day before the face of God. They would say: Don’t eat too much. They would say: Fast. All of the Christian theologians were great fasters, because you cannot come to know the realities of God if you have a full stomach filled with ugly, bad food that destroys you. You certainly cannot be an alcoholic or a drug addict, a sex addict.
And sexuality here would be important. If you want to be a real Christian theologian and know whether Christianity is true or not, you have to follow the classical teachings of Christian morality in regard to sex, which by the way were kept by Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and so on, namely, you cannot be a sexual lecher. You cannot simply live for carnal pleasures. You have to have respect and love for those whom you have sexual intercourse. It should even be heterosexual and you should be committed in marriage, otherwise it shouldn’t exist. So chastity becomes a huge part of it. If a person is simply satisfying carnal pleasures, St. Maximus says, anyone who satisfies carnal pleasures as an end in themselves is cut off from God, just cut off from God, because God is a kind of reality that cannot be known together with mammona, together with mammon. You cannot serve God and mammon; that’s the New Testament teaching.
So a person has to practice chastity, has to practice all the virtues. Instead of gluttony, there has to be temperance. Instead of anger, there has to be peace. Instead of condemnation, there has to be blessing. Instead of cursing, there has to be affirming. Instead of harming and hurting, there has to be helping. Instead of receiving, there has to be giving. Instead of deceiving, there has to be revealing. There cannot be lying. This whole area of moral and ethical life is part of the theological enterprise if a person is going to come to know the holy, true, living God. And without these things, you’re never going to know, no matter how many books you read. And if you do read books, you’re not going to understand them, because you’re not going to have the equipment to understand them.
Here comes a very important principle of Christian theology, namely, human reason and human mind cannot work properly in an immoral person. That’s true in a limited way even in natural science. If a person is a deceiver, a liar, a twister, a perverter, they’ll never come to know the origin of species. If they’re prejudiced, they’ll never come to know. You’ve got to be pure at heart. You have to be open to reality. But in theology, the claim would be: You will not know at all, and you will pervert by definition, because your mind cannot operate properly. Maybe your reason can operate properly when you’re counting stones or looking at fossils, but your mind cannot function properly when it comes to God and to spiritual truth, to divine truth.
Here you may have noticed I have not even used the word “supernatural,” because I think there are supernatural things that belong still to the natural order, like poetry, music, love, virtue. These are not yet theology. People can speak about what love is and how to behave properly on the basis even of scientific knowledge that takes them above the scientific, which is usually called supernatural or metaphysical, but Christian theology isn’t dealing simply with the metaphysical and the supernatural. They’re dealing with that which is beyond all nature and non-nature. They’re dealing with the holy God who’s a completely different category and who is involved in all natural and all supernatural activities of human beings within the created cosmos of which he is the Lord and Master.
When it comes to the method of Christian theology, it is fundamentally an ascetical and spiritual enterprise, not disconnected from the mind and the nous, the reasoning power, the dianoia, but the nous, the mind, and the dianoia, the reasoning, cannot operate properly in a lecherous, gluttonous, greedy, lazy, perverting person. It just cannot work. So Christian theology is an ascetical enterprise. So is science, because you have to be disciplined, but Christian theology is an ascetical enterprise relative to human behavior. And the keeping of the commandments of Christ in order to test them to see whether they are true, they are both moral and philosophical, if you want. They’re theological and ascetical. They’re spiritual and epistemological, that you have to come to real knowledge.
The claim is that the knowledge is really real. So if you just made a list of what are the principles and the task and method of Christian theology, we could say: [First,] really desire to know. Don’t pervert reality. Be real humble before the truth. Accept what is claimed and put it to the test. Do not lie to yourself. Do not argue with others. Do not try to enforce your own opinion, certainly not prematurely, until you have a conviction. And do not end in quarreling and vain arguments and polemics that get you nowhere. Then it would say: Desire enlightenment. Hunger and thirst for what is true. In Christian terms, that would be “pray.” And pray even to God. Say: God, if you are there, reveal yourself. God, be with me. God, show me. Like Gregory Palamas; he allegedly prayed for three straight years in a cave: O God, illumine my darkness! Enlighten my darkness. Teach me thy statutes. Show me thy way. And then he got taught and he got enlightened.
Then in praying there has to be study, work. You have to read the data. You have to read the Scriptures, the lives of the saints. You’ve got to read what is claimed, what is said, so that you can test it and put it into practice. Then you have to worship; in addition to prayer, you have to worship. You have to adore. You have to be ready to be grateful. The teaching is that an ungrateful person will never know anything in the divine realm. You’ve got to be eucharistic and doxological. You’ve got to show honor where honor is due and be grateful where gratitude is due. You can’t think that you have rights over anything.
Then you have to participate with those who know. Interact with them. Go to the laboratory of the liturgy, for example. Enter into the work of the Church. It’s not for nothing that common worship in the Church is called work. Leitourgia means “work.” You go there to work. You go there to do the experiment, to put yourself in the presence, to put yourself in the hands of God, to be open to those realities that are not of this world.
Then you have to practice morality. No lying, no cheating, no deceiving, no greediness, no distortion, no harming, no hurting, no killing. You have to keep those commandments, and then the disciplinary commandments. You have to fast. You have to practice silence. You have to guard your eyes, your ears, your mouth, your tongue. You cannot let certain ugly images come into your system that can cloud your mind and darken your reasoning. You can’t watch pornography, for example, and then come to know God, because you cannot do both. As it says in the letter of James, you cannot be dipsychos; you cannot be double-souled. You have to have one soul, one vision.
And then you have to be really free, free from polemics; you don’t condemn anybody. You don’t hurt anybody. You listen to everyone. You test everything. Then you have to make a kind of a checklist of your own behavior. Are you addicted to food? Are you addicted to sex? Are you addicted to alcohol? Are you addicted to rage? Are you in control of all kinds of passions and compulsions and addictions? Then you get every possible help you can to handle them properly, and that would include psychological things. St. Seraphim of Sarov, who claimed that any person who is pure at heart and calls on the name of the Lord and receives grace can know God through the Holy Spirit by experience. It’s not just for the elite, because Christianity doesn’t have to do with gnosis; it has to do with agape. It has to do with the love that produces the gnosis and the epignosis, the super-knowledge of the super-non-knowable God.
And then when you actually do this, you make incredible conclusions, like Maximus the Confessor would say. You come to realize that God himself is the super-non-knowable who can only be super-non-known through an act of super-non-knowing, and you stand in awe before a reality of which you are perfectly convinced, and you know that any word you speak about this reality is somehow wrong. It’s somehow right, but it’s somehow wrong. It has to be corrected, because you’re dealing with a reality that is not simply capable of being contained by words or concepts or images or experiments. It’s something different and beyond.
But this is how that works. So you do everything you can to follow those commandments, I would say, not just suggestions or whatever. They are commandments. Here I would say natural science has its commandments, and so does theology. If you’re not ready to follow the commandments of natural science, you will never come to know scientific truth. But if you’re not ready to follow the commandments of theological knowledge, you will never come to theological truth either. There are different theological schools that will give different principles, but the ones that I just elucidated, they are present, in some form or another, practically in all theological enterprises, and if they’re not, then the theological enterprise is going to be a dead end.
But the only the thing we want to say right now is that when it comes to Christian theology, Orthodox Christian theology, there are the methods that are very similar in some sense to natural science but very different. The methods that have to do with visible, weighable, observable realities are one set of methods and disciplines. The methods and disciplines that have to do with divine reality, that’s not visible, not comprehensible fully, that is living and active but beyond, well, what we could call holy: just completely different from anything in the natural order—then they have their methods, too, and so we have to follow them.
Then, I know I’m going on too long today, but one final thing. Anyone who is working in the natural science realm should in some sense be a theologian, too, and know how to relate what they learn in science to what is beyond natural science and different from natural science. And the theologian should be interested in natural science, so that she or he who deals with God Almighty could know also the proper way of dealing with the things of nature, which they would believe are created by God and have their own realities and their own laws. So there is an interrelationship between the two, but the two are in many ways the same, but in many ways radically different.
But the end is the same: to come to a knowledge of the truth; to know how things really are: things of nature and things of God Almighty, who some of us believe is the Maker, the Lord, and the ultimate Source and Goal of everything that is studied in natural science.