St. John of Damascus and the Planck Satellite Telescope

While I’m not a scientist, I do find many scientific stories and discoveries to be fascinating as they give us greater insight into the empirical universe.  Our understanding of the physical universe can also contribute to both our experience of God and our understanding of our God.

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I find scientific inquiry into the beginnings of life, of humanity and of the universe to be particularly interesting.  Science keeps trying to peer deeper into the mystery of the beginning of all things, which can also be of interest for anyone who believes there was a moment of creation of the universe.  By studying what scientists call the Big Bang we get ever closer to an act of God.  The Big Bang is an act of God we can actually study scientifically.

A number of the Patristic writers in the ancient Church were very cognizant of and convinced by the truth given to us through science and the study of nature.  But the ancients had far more limits on their knowledge of the universe than we do, lacking the instrumentation which exists today, but also being limited by their philosophical assumptions on the nature of the physical universe.  St. John of Damascus (d. 749AD)  in his very theologically dogmatic work, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, writes about the physical universe and says:

“For the great part the heaven is greater than the earth, but we need not investigate the essence of the heaven, for it is quite beyond our knowledge. It must not be supposed that the heavens or the luminaries are endowed with life. For they are inanimate and insensible.” (Kindle Loc. 810-12)

Much of what the Patristic writers saw as beyond the reach of human knowledge, is now attainable through science and technology.  I think it is completely wrong to imagine that the ancient Christian writers were trying to obscure the truth of science or that they were intentionally superstitious and anti-scientific.  They were as interested in knowing the truth about the cosmos as any scientist today.  But they were people of their time and did rely on both revelation and traditional knowledge to guide their thinking.  They wanted to know the truth, but did so within their philosophical understanding of what truth and nature are.  On the other hand, modern science is based in skepticism and has an ability to test and disprove hypotheses which the ancients lacked.

St. John of Damascus  in his EXACT EXPOSITION writes not only about theology but also about science and he is as confident in his science as he is in his theology.  Many of St. john’s scientific presuppositions and “facts” have been disproved by modern science.  He certainly belongs to the pre-scientific age and accepted what was the traditional view of the universe of his day.  He is well aware that there existed competing theses to explain the universe and sometimes mentions the different theories he has heard about the nature of the cosmos. But lacking any means to test or prove their theories, they often accepted them as the best explanations possible.  For example he writes in his dogmatic treatise:

“Now there are, it should be known, four elements: earth which is dry and cold: water which is cold and wet: air which is wet and warm: fire which is warm and dry. In like manner there are also four humours, analogous to the four elements: black bile, which bears an analogy to earth, for it is dry and cold: phlegm, analogous to water, for it is cold and wet: blood, analogous to air, for it is wet and warm: yellow bile, the analogue to fire, for it is warm and city. Now, fruits are composed of the elements, and the humours are composed of the fruits, and the bodies of living creatures consist of the humours and dissolve back into them. For every thing that is compound dissolves back into its elements.”

The above are all common scientific presuppositions from what even in his day was considered antiquity.   These were assumed to be non-negotiable truths about the world around them which had been handed down by the wisest of philosophers.  St. John doesn’t question this science but rather relied on the science and philosophy of his day to guide his own scientific thinking.  I would assume he would, if he were alive today, embrace the science of our day as he did the science which he believed to be factual.  He never doubts scientific claims but accepts them as being as true as the Scriptures themselves.  But if we Orthodox think everything St. John included in his dogmatic work is infallibly true, we will find that he includes his scientific claims in his doctrine.  We who have been taught a different science, will find his ‘science’ to be far removed from scientific truth as we know it today.   We are not under any obligation to accept what he claims to be scientifically true, especially when we know modern science has revealed facts which disprove what he assumed to be absolute truth about the world.    Still, sometimes I am amazed at what the ancients knew in that pre-scientific world (he knew for example, the world was a sphere, he knew an eclipse of the moon shows the earth’s shadow, he knew night time was nothing more than being in the shadow of the earth).

That he could write about such things in a document dealing with the church dogmatics shows how certain they were of the science of their day.   It also shows he did not consider science and theology to be in opposition to each other.   He accepted that science had discovered truths which are not found in the Scriptures.  This idea we find in St. Paul in the First Century as well:

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”  (Romans 1:19-20)

Both the Scriptures and the created world reveal to us the Creator.

Next:  St. John of Damascus and the Planck Satellite Telescope (II)

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9 Responses to St. John of Damascus and the Planck Satellite Telescope

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. kennieb says:

    Discoveries by science have always made me think of one more way to praise and to glorify God with more thanks of all we have.

  3. Pingback: St. John of Damascus and the Planck Satellite Telescope (II) | Fr. Ted's Blog

  4. The physiology part is definitely outdated, but I was actually quite surprised by this when I first read it: “Now there are, it should be known, four elements: earth which is dry and cold: water which is cold and wet: air which is wet and warm: fire which is warm and dry.” Apparently the four “elements” were more akin to the four states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma) than the elements of our periodic table. Not a perfect analogue, but perhaps not as outdated today as they are often portrayed.

    • Fr. Ted says:

      One difference being that solid, liquid, gas, plasma are states that the elements are in, while in the ancient world view all things are made up of a combination of the four elements (earth, water, air and fire). The ancients believed the 4 elements are the building blocks from which everything else is made. So if you were able to break down a human say into his/her component parts you would end up with earth, water, air and fire. It’s not a thinking that would allow for medical science as we know it to be done. Nor could we do chemistry with that thinking. Could not create plastics or ceramics or anything based in carbon chains. Could not do genetic studies, etc.

      • Right, yes. I did not mean to imply that it was a perfectly transferable concept, only that it was not as distant as I had originally thought.

      • Fr. Ted says:

        What I see in their thinking is that they had no interest in superstitions, they really wanted to know the universe as we post-Enlightenment people do. They were limited by technology, instrumentation, and because they assumed that the best thinkers from ancient times had solved the issues as good as any human could, so they accepted as scientific certain ideas which could have been tested if they had that skeptical mindset. Nevertheless, I am impressed by how they tried to understand the universe with all the limits of their time. They knew the world only to the extent that eyes and ears and touch allowed them to know it – so the micro and the macro escaped them, and yet they postulated ideas within their own understanding of atoms and other things that we now far better understand due to technology.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree. It is very interesting to me how much, for example, St. Basil alludes to the science of his day in his Hexameron (typically favoring Plutarch and Aristotle over Plato, if I remember correctly). He clearly did not think faith and science needed to be opposed to one another and happily affirmed anything that did not contradict any fundamental doctrine of the faith (such creatio ex nihilo, which he criticizes the Greeks for missing).

  6. Pingback: St. John of Damascus and the Planck Satellite Telescope (III) | Fr. Ted's Blog

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