Moses Transfigured by God 

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Then the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and be there; and I will give you tablets of stone, and the law and commandments which I have written, that you may teach them.”  So Moses arose with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up to the mountain of God.  And he said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we come back to you. Indeed, Aaron and Hur are with you. If any man has a difficulty, let him go to them.”  Then Moses went up into the mountain, and a cloud covered the mountain.  Now the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.  The sight of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel. So Moses went into the midst of the cloud and went up into the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.  (Exodus 24:12-18)

On the eve of the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, we read the above scripture from Exodus, learning about Moses ascending Mount Sinai to meet the Lord God in the dark cloud of God’s glory.  St Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote an allegorical interpretation of Moses life and ascent on the mountain, says the cloud of God’s glory was impenetrable to the human eye.  The people watching Moses climb the mountain, lose sight of him and Moses realizes that in entering God’s presence, the people cannot see him.  God alone can.  Moses has become as invisible as God to the people of God.

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“… [Moses] boldly approached the very darkness itself and entered the invisible things where he was no longer seen by those watching.  After he entered the inner sanctuary of the divine mystical doctrine, there, while not being seen, he was in company with the Invisible.  He teaches, I think, by the things he did that the one who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible and (lifting up his own mind, as to a mountaintop, to the invisible and incomprehensible) believe that the divine is there where the understanding does not reach.”    (THE LIFE OF MOSES, p 43)

In Gregory’s interpretation of Exodus, Moses in climbing this mystical mountain, enters into the presence of God’s glory which is beyond human seeing, including beyond what the mind could reason.  Gregory connects ‘seeing’ with what the mind is able to do accomplish through reason or philosophy.  Moses is experiencing what God reveals about God’s self, something which cannot be attained by human effort.  Moses is interfacing with God, ‘seeing’ God to the extent that God chooses to reveal Himself.

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There is a sense that the luminous glory of God is experienced by us as darkness.  As we enter into God’s glorious and luminous presence we at first experience this light as darkness because it is not something we are familiar with.  Our minds cannot make sense of what we are seeing.  Only when God reveals to us what we are looking at do we comprehend God.  As we come closer to God we are moving into a realm which our minds cannot comprehend things in the normal way that we experience the material world.  We are entering into the incomprehensible, and thus we encounter the light of God as darkness, until God enables us to see the light.  St John Chrysostom notes how this light of God totally shocks us for it is not visible light, but divine light that we come to see.  As we pray in Psalm 36:9 – “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”  To see light within light is a mystical experience of God.

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“But ‘then the righteous will shine like the sun’ (Matt 13:43), or rather even more than the sun.  This comparison is made, not because their light will only be as great as the sun’s; but since we know nothing brighter than this star, the Gospel wanted to present the future brilliance of the saints in some familiar image.  Since it says, when Jesus was on the mountain, that ‘he shone like the sun,’ it speaks in these terms here for the same reason.  For the disciples showed, by falling on the ground, that the light was greater than this example.  But if that light was not immense, but equivalent to the sun, they would not have fallen down, but could easily have endured it.    So then, ‘the righteous will shine like the sun,’ and far more than the sun, in that time to come; but sinners will experience the ultimate sufferings.”     (LIGHT ON THE MOUNTAIN, p 80)

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For Chrysostom, the light which the 3 apostles experienced on the holy mountain at the Transfiguration of Christ, so shocked them that it knocked them down which shows it was not some kind of natural light.  As he says, this wouldn’t have happened if they had seen a light equal to the sun, for we commonly see sunlight without being knocked over.  This light was a force greater than the light of the sun.   We not only will see God, but ourselves will be so transfigured by the event that we will become righteous ourselves and shine like the sun ourselves.

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Mystery and Uncertainty

 This is the 8th post in this series which began with: Essentialism or Evolution: Do Both or Either Have a Place in an Orthodox Understanding of What It Is To Be Human?  The previous post is “Evolution Rather Than Essentialism?” in which we began to consider the advantages that the theory of evolution has in refuting the theology of deism.   

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If we think the discoveries of biological evolution and genetics are just a threat to religion, theoretical physicist Lee Smolin says the notion that things happen for non-mathematical reasons is a real challenge to science.  Randomness, probability (statistics), uncertainty and chance which are all known in science threaten to unravel the search for a mathematical formula to tie all things together.  He writes:  

“Perhaps the greatest nightmare of the Platonist is that, in the end, all of our laws will be like this, so that the root of all the beautiful regularities we have discovered will turn out to be more statistics, beyond which is only randomness and irrationality. 

This is perhaps one reason why biology seems puzzling to some physicists.  The possibility that the tremendous beauty of the living world might be, in the end, just a matter of randomness, statistics, and frozen accident stands as a genuine threat to the mystical conceit that reality can be captured in a single, beautiful equation.  This is why it took me years to become comfortable with the possibility that the explanation for at least part of the laws of physics might be found in the same logic of randomness and frozen accident.”  (TOBOMSW,  p 366) 

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Physicists like all scientists have to struggle with the implications of evolution just as theists do.  Free will, variation, change, mutation, uncertainty, ambiguity and mystery are all part of what God created. Physicist Alan Lightman notes that the recent discoveries in quantum physics have caused consternation in scientists themselves.  Writing about the notion of the multiverse which scientists believe might help give account for why our universe is the way it is, Lightman points out science finds itself in the exact position for which it has criticized theology and rejected a notion of God : 

“Because there is no way they can prove this conjecture. That uncertainty also disturbs many physicists who are adjusting to the idea of the multiverse. Not only must we accept that basic properties of our universe are accidental and uncalculable. In addition, we must believe in the existence of many other universes. But we have no conceivable way of observing these other universes and cannot prove their existence. Thus, to explain what we see in the world and in our mental deductions, we must believe in what we cannot prove. Sound familiar? Theologians are accustomed to taking some beliefs on faith. Scientists are not. Such arguments, in fact, run hard against the long grain of science. All we can do is hope that the same theories that predict the multiverse also make other predictions that we can test here in our local universe. But the other universes themselves will almost certainly remain a conjecture. “We had a lot more confidence in our intuition before the discovery of dark energy and the multiverse idea,” says [physicist and cosmologist Alan] Guth.”   (The Accidental Universe, Kindle Loc 246-255) 

4263499757_857d48413a_wOf course theists might suggest to Lightman that what scientists think of as “accidental and uncalculable” might only mean they are beyond the human’s ability to grasp or to see the pattern.  Perhaps they are part of God’s logic which is beyond human understanding and measure.  The issue is that there are things in the cosmos we cannot measure or understand – not because we don’t yet have the right equipment but because they are in fact beyond our understanding.  Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle comes to mind.  There are things we cannot know, not because we lack the will or instrumentation but because they are in fact beyond measurement and calculation.

Science and theology may have a lot more in common than science used to be willing to admit.  Concerning the mulitverse idea which has gained popularity among some scientists, one can contemplate what Origen wrote in the 3rd Century: “‘For no eye has seen . . . what God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor 2:9).  But the eye sees the heaven and the earth; therefore it should not be believed that this which is seen has been prepared by God for those who love  him.  Indeed there must be a heaven, indeed there must rather be heavens which are much more sublime and elevated than this firmament that can be seen by the eyes” (ORIGEN: SPIRIT AND FIRE, p 357).  The notion of a multiverse should not be a threat to theists because in fact even Scripture refers to the heavens above the heavens.  And if atheists demand that theists be honest and admit that in any case no one has ever seen God, well, that is well established in Scripture itself (see John 1:18; also Exodus 33:20).  It is a point that Fr Alexander Schmemann made frequently in his Radio Liberty talks that were broadcast into the then atheistic Soviet Union (see A VOICE FOR OUR TIMES).

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NASA Hubble Space Telescope Photo

To be continued on Monday: Essentialism, Natural Law and Scripture 

Evolution Rather Than Essentialism? 

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This is the 7th post in this series which began with: Essentialism or Evolution: Do Both or Either Have a Place in an Orthodox Understanding of What It Is To Be Human?  The previous post is Church Fathers and Essentialism – essentialism was the predominating view in the sciences until the 19th Century when the biological sciences taking the lead from Darwin began to change their understanding of how biology actually works.

The change was moving away from Plato’s essentialism in understanding what it is to be human.  (Has it proved essentialism false? I don’t know, not being a scientist.  This requires further study.  But if evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr is correct, essentialism is not supported by the findings of biology or genetics). The Church is going to have to decide whether it is committed to Platonism’s philosophical assumption of essentialism in defining what it is to be human.   If the Church embraces Plato’s idea of the norm (essentialism), of what it is to be human, the Church may not be able to embrace the insights that biology/genetics offers us about what it is to be human.  This in turn might raise the question as to whether we really believe that Christ is fully God and fully human (human as now understood by science).

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With the study of DNA and  genetics a real change has occurred in what we understand it is to be human and the Church of truth has to reconsider its understanding of human nature.  While many might be frightened by such a discussion, still the Church is committed to teaching truth, and has to be able to clearly express what it understands about truth in relation to genetics, biology, and science.   As the Leader of the Apostles, Peter, tells us: “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).

Interestingly, Anglican Theologian and biochemist Arthur Peacocke credits Darwinism with offering the most effective rebuttal of Deism because it causes us to take the material world seriously and to recognize that God is not just a Creator who only acted in the distant past in a one-time creative event.  Rather, we recognize that God is still at work in creation today as its nourisher and Lord.  “Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working still, and I am working’” (John 5:17)  The immanent God continues to be an active force in creation – all of the natural laws were created by God to make His will achievable on earth.  Peacocke writes: “But it was Charles Darwin’s eventually accepted proposal of a plausible mechanism for the changes in living organisms that led to the ultimate demise of the external, deistic notion of God’s creative actions and to a renewed emphasis on God’s immanence in the created natural world.” (“Theistic Naturalism” in ALL THAT IS: A Naturalistic Faith for the 21st Century, p 18)  God never disappeared from creation but has remained active in it through the very natural processes which God brought into existence (such as physics, chemistry, reproduction or genetics).  God has enabled humans to be part of this creative process – not only through41004769924_8d2d6631d1_w human reproduction but also in giving humans creativity and inventiveness. Humans have created substances and compounds which never existed in nature but which have benefited us in technology, industry and medicine.   Creation is ongoing and both God and humans are bringing about change in our world and in humanity itself.  Humans by being conscious no longer are carried along by evolution, but have begun to shape and effect genetics – both our own and that of every being on earth.   We sing a hymn which says “every soul is enlivened by the Holy Spirit” – the implication being that God is active in the creation of every human being, even in the mother’s womb where genetic change takes place).   God works in and through space and time to accomplish God’s own intentions.  As Peacocke says, “a revived emphasis on the immanence of God as Creator ‘in, with and under’ the natural processes of the world unveiled by the sciences becomes imperative if theology is to be brought into accord with all what the sciences have revealed since those debates of the nineteenth century” (“Theistic Naturalism” in ALL THAT IS: A Naturalistic Faith for the 21st Century, p 19).

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Someone might still object that evolution requires randomness in nature, and this is opposed to the idea of an omnipotent and omniscient God.   However, even Patristic theologians recognized there is a randomness built into God’s creation.  Elizabeth Theokritoff writes: “Side by side with his insistence that everything is rooted in the will of God, Maximus also sees in creation a certain ‘random movement devoid of divine presence,’ which will ultimately cease to exist when God will be all in all [Ambiguum 7 (PG 91, 1092C)” (LIVING IN GOD’S CREATION, pp 58-59).   Science has simply shown there is a randomness built into nature as can be seen in genetics, reproduction and in the quantum world. Science studies the fallen world, and all that is part of it.   These ideas do not just arise from atheistic presuppositions, as obviously St Maximus already accepted the idea as part of God’s creation, though admittedly he felt that randomness belongs to the fallen world and will eventually cease.  It is true that science is exactly limited to studying this world of the Fall.

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It is also the case that a certain amount of randomness in nature is also a sign that everything is not predetermined.  Orthodoxy rejects all manners of predestination whether theological or genetics.  God’s will allows for the unpredictable and for mystery in creation, something science continues to discover.  God’s way and logic is not limited to what humans can comprehend or quantify.  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).  Mystery or randomness may only mean that there is knowledge or a logic at work which is beyond what humans are capable of grasping (yet?).  It is an admission that there might be a limit to human knowledge or logic such as is suggested by things like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  This is not a problem for theists, but may be a roadblock for those who wish to believe that humans are the most intelligent beings (or the closest thing to an omniscient being as is possible) in the universe.

Next:  Mystery and Uncertainty

Church Fathers and Essentialism

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This is the 6th post in this series which began with: Essentialism or Evolution: Do Both or Either Have a Place in an Orthodox Understanding of What It Is To Be Human?  The previous post from last Friday is Essentialism vs Evolution.  While modern biological science has rejected the Platonic philosophy of essentialism, it was the reigning paradigm in the Patristic period.  It wasn’t derived from the Scriptures but was read into them by the Church Fathers as they accepted the assumption as all educated people did in their age because Neoplatonism predominated the thinking of the educated. 

The Church and the Church Fathers accepted Plato’s essentialism as would be expected within their cultures in the ancient world. For example, Robert Daly notes about the 3rd Century Christian scholar, Origen: “The mere fact that Origen’s thought can be described as ‘Platonizing’ is, in itself, only a sign that he was a Christian thinker in the third century.  There was at the time no thought system better suited to help Christianity in their theological reflection.  The real question is not whether Origen thinks like a Platonist, but whether in so doing he gives sufficient place to the incarnational aspects of Christianity” (SPIRIT AND FIRE: A THEMATIC ANTHOLOGY OF THE WRITINGS OF ORIGEN, note p xiv).  

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Archbishop Alexander Golitzin says of the Patristic authors: “This is not to say that the Greek fathers were Platonists pure and simple. …  Suffice it is to say here that the fathers sought to express the revelation in Christ with the vocabulary and ways of thought most ready to hand and, by the third and fourth centuries A.D., that meant in turn Neoplatonic philosophy.  Their struggle over just how to do so without at the same time betraying the faith compromises the history of Greek patristic theology from its beginnings in St Justin Martyr to the consummation of Byzantine thought in St Gregory Palamas”  (ST SYMEON THE NEW THEOLOGIAN: ON THE MYSTICAL LIFE Vol 3, p 164).  This begs the question then about the modern age – we work in “the vocabulary and ways of thought” not of Platonism but of scientific naturalism or materialism.  Does not Orthodoxy today need to work out the revelation of Christ with the vocabulary and thought categories of scientific thought just as the Fathers did in their day?  This would be the true Traditionalism of doing what the Fathers did.  As Fr John Meyendorff writes: 

True tradition is always a living tradition.  It changes while always remaining the same.  It changes because it faces different situations, not because its essential content is modified.  This content is not an abstract proposition; it is the Living Christ Himself, who said, ‘I am the Truth.’  (LIVING TRADITION, pp 7-8) 

The Orthodox theologian . . . is under a strict obligation to distinguish carefully in this heritage between that which forms part of the Church’s Holy Tradition, unalterable and universally binding, received from the past, and that which is a mere relic of former times, venerable no doubt in many respects but sometimes also sadly out of date and even harmful to the mission of the Church.”  (NEW PERSPECTIVES ON HISTORICAL THEOLOGY, p 26) 

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Rethinking the Patristic acceptance of Platonic categories will be a challenge for Orthodoxy, but a needed discussion if Orthodoxy is going to engage the modern scientific paradigm.  Of course, some Orthodox today think that those embracing modern scientific thinking are asking the wrong questions and so feel we need to stick to the questions that were asked and answered in the Patristic period centuries ago.  That is not what the Patristic writers themselves did and they managed to convert a whole culture to Christian thinking.  We will not be able to evangelize or even talk to non-believers if we dismiss their questions and the truths they have uncovered through science. 

8487727140_003c17208c_wPlato’s thinking totally dominates the assumptions of the intellectuals in the ancient world.   And this is something that keeps Orthodoxy locked into an idea that there is a normative/perfect human being.  This thinking manifests itself in many areas of church life.  Spiritually the male is considered to be the form closest to perfection (like the original Adam).  So, in Orthodox spirituality often the Church praises ‘masculine’ traits in both male and female monks and saints.  Feminine traits were also idealized even though the feminine could never be perfect like Adam.  The images of the  ‘perfect woman’ varied through history in different societies, yet one sees in Orthodoxy, the Virgin Mary being upheld as the perfect woman who best exemplifies what were conceived in that culture to be feminine traits – receptive, humble, pure, virginal, innocent, obedient.   [Many scientists today accept that gender roles are largely social constructs and not biological/natural ones.   In the animal world for example lemurs, bonobos (the animal genetically closest to humans), hyenas and lions all have female dominant societies. Zoologist Peter Kappeler says: “The fact that females are socially so powerful in [lemur] societies shows us that more traditional division of sex roles is not some inevitable destiny of mammalian biology.”   Studies show that in these species it is not that the females have “male-like traits” which give rise to female dominance.  There are other factors which give dominance to females in these animals (see “The Lemur and the Lioness” in DISCOVER magazine, March/April 2020, pp 44-51).] 

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Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr claims all racism is based in Plato’s essentialism. Because all forms of racism accept that there is an ideal or perfect human or human form/essence; we look with a jaded eye upon any who don’t measure up – because of skin color, size, physiognomy, language, etc.    We see dwarfs, the transgendered, men with one testicle as abnormal – these conditions represent errors or imperfections. In American culture there have been tremendous efforts made to accept as fully human people with various syndromes or varying abilities – but it has been hard conscious work to overcome prejudices.  [And what about racial and gender or age bias!].   

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Darwinism eventually realizes that individual variations naturally occur in the human population.  Variations are not failures of the essential form;  rather, they are part of the human population.  [Note, however, that Darwin himself believed in the superiority of European culture and thought that eventually the Europeans would civilize the barbarians in the rest of the world.  His writings are replete with his racist judgments against non-Europeans.  He did not rise above his Eurocentric prejudices.]   Biologically speaking there is no mean or average human in the sense of conforming to the Platonic essence/form.  Genetic studies of DNA have concluded there is no norm which all humans must conform to.  Any human that exists is within the norm of what is possible for humans.   

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That being said, Orthodoxy still sees all humans as created in the image and likeness of God.  Christ is the divine image which represents the perfect human and we all aspire to be like Him.  Additionally, Orthodoxy does accept that there is a nature which all humans share and which makes us human.  These ideas may have allowed for Neoplatonist thinking to be accepted uncritically by the Fathers of the Church, but they don’t have to be interpreted within a Platonist framework, for it would be possible to accept these ideas in a different paradigm. 

Next:  Evolution Rather Than Essentialism? 

Living the Christian Life

Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.  Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good.  Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  (Romans 12:6-14) 

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St Paul gives us a pretty good description of what it means to be a Christian in the above passage and we should consider how to live that life in Christ.  Let’s look at that list of behaviors to put into practice: 

show mercy, with cheerfulness. 

 Let love be without hypocrisy. 

Abhor what is evil. 

Cling to what is good.  

Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; 

not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; 

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rejoicing in hope, 

patient in tribulation, 

continuing steadfastly in prayer; 

distributing to the needs of the saints, 

given to hospitality. 

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 

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St John Chrysostom commenting on Psalm 128:1, “Blessed are all those who fear the Lord, who travel in his ways”, confirms there are many ways to do the Lord’s bidding: 

“He did not say ‘way’ but ways, showing  that they are many and varied: he made them many for the purpose of rendering our approach easy by the great number of ways.  I mean, some people become conspicuous for virginity, others are eminent for married life, still others bear their widowhood as an adornment; some people divested themselves of everything, others of half; some people proceed by a faultless life, others by repentance—he made many paths so that you might travel easily.  Were you not strong enough to keep your body pure after the washing?  You could make yourself pure through repentance, through money, through almsgiving.  But you have no money?  Still, you could visit the sick, go to see the imprisoned, give a drink of cold water to the thirsty, make the stranger welcome under your roof, part with two obols like the widow, and groan at the condition of those in pain—which is also almsgiving.  But you are completely destitute and indigent, weak in body and incapable of walking?  Bear it all with gratitude, and you will reap a great reward.”  (COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS Vol 2, p 180) 

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Chrysostom offers us an idea that at time, we can do that which pleases God, and he even goes through some extenuating circumstances which might make it difficult to be good disciples of Christ.  Have you gotten off track and sinned?  Then repent.  Struggling financially and can’t give to charity?  Then give of your time and talents to neighbor or stranger.  Are you completely destitute and crippled?  Then pray and offer thanksgiving to God.  No matter what your condition is, you still have something to offer God and the people around you.

Go to Church to Go into All the World

So Jesus arose and followed him, and so did His disciples. And suddenly, a woman who had a flow of blood for twelve years came from behind and touched the hem of His garment. For she said to herself, “If only I may touch His garment, I shall be made well.” But Jesus turned around, and when He saw her He said, “Be of good cheer, daughter; your faith has made you well.” And the woman was made well from that hour.  (Matthew 9:19-22)

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The Gospel lesson with the hemorrhaging woman is a favorite of mine, but it is the versions found in Mark (5:21-43) and Luke (8:40-56) which add the details which particularly attract me.  Both Mark and Luke mention the large crowds following Jesus and pressing in on Him.  I take their descriptions of the crowd following Christ to be a vision of the Church, albeit an unusual one.  For those following Christ include curiosity seekers, spies, His enemies, as well as those seeking a miracle, those interested in the truth, and those hoping Christ would lead an insurrection.  All of these are following Christ—not simply His disciples, but all kinds of people, the needy, the curious, those physically or spiritually hungry, those with no interest in being disciples but having a need they hope Christ will meet, insurrectionists, sinners, social outcasts, the religiously disenfranchised, and even those who want to destroy Christ. Yet, they are all following Him, and He sends none of them away.  Only if they follow Him will they know what He is teaching, who He is and what He is doing.  Icons of an assembly of saints with halos are beautiful, but the Church is also that larger conglomeration of people of all kinds who follow Christ for reasons both good and ill.  As the Gospels say, “For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).  The lost are in that crowd following Christ.

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It is with that thought in mind, that I found the quote below from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom so intriguing for he adds a dimension to the Church which frequent church attendees may forget:

“The Church—which should be the place where we discover life, truth, beauty, meaning; the place from which we go into the world to bring to others what we have seen—a glimpse of it, perhaps, tasted a little; the place from which we should go forth as witnesses who would say, ‘I have touched the hem of his garment.  I can tell you at least that with certainty.  Come, come and see for yourselves!”–the Church has become to us instead a place of refuge, an infirmary.  We come to it indeed infirm, but alas, we want to remain infirm, we want to be cared for, protected by God; when there is danger we run away from it to God: ‘Protect! Save! Defend me!’  It is a place of oblivion–’Let me forget the tragedy, let me have a moment of rest.’”   (CHURCHIANITY VS CHRISTIANITY, pp 73-74)

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As Metropolitan Anthony notes, the Church is to be the place where we discover life, truth, beauty, meaning, however, that is not her only purpose.  The Church is not merely a refuge from the troubles and sorrow of the world, though it can be that.  It’s real purpose is to equip us to go out of the church and into the world to be witnesses to the Gospel (Luke 24:48), to be a light to the world (Matthew 5:14), and the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13).  We don’t go to church to escape the world or to withdraw from it.  When Jesus prayed for us to His Father, he petitioned: I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one (John 17:15). We go to pray for the world and to prepare ourselves to go back into the world which God so loves (John 3:16) and to do God’s will in the midst of a fallen, troubled world.  Remember the woman in the Gospel lesson – she only wanted to touch the hem of Christ’s garment and then imperceptibly slip away.  Christ stopped her in her tracks and had her witness in front of a hostile crowd, who would not have approved or her presence in their midst.  Or think about the poor, cowering apostles hiding in the upper room.  When Christ appears to them He does wish them peace but then instead of coddling them He sends them into all the world, the very world they were terrified of and hiding from (John 20:19-23).

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We may touch the hem of Christ’s garment, like the woman in the Gospel in the hopes of receiving God’s mercy, but then we are not to withdraw into the safety of our homes, but rather to go into the dangerous world to share the experience of the blessings we have received.  We come to the Church infirm, as Metropolitan Anthony notes, but then we are not supposed to want to remain as an invalid to be constantly ministered to.  Rather, we are to become ministers of the Gospel and go into the world to share the light, the healing, the love and the truth which we have received.  We don’t go to the hospital to be taken care of and pampered for the rest of our lives.  We go there to be healed and then head back to our homes in order to live now healed.  In any case hospitals kick us out pretty quickly as they are not trying to make us dependent on their care.  They are aiming to heal us so we can go on with life.  That is what should happen in our churches as well – we assemble together to be one with those united to Christ, but then strengthened and healed we go back to the world to do the work of the Lord by ministering to others still in need.

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Essentialism vs Evolution 

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This is the 5th post in this series which began with: Essentialism or Evolution: Do Both or Either Have a Place in an Orthodox Understanding of What It Is To Be Human?  The previous post is The Changing Nature of Creation.  Our knowledge of the created cosmos has changed immensely in the past 200 years.  We only need to think about how many technological changes we have experienced within the confines of our lifetimes, let alone 100 years ago.   Science has changed our understanding of the world and of ourselves as creatures.

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For example, German evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr (“From the Growth of Biological Thought”, in THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, pp 259-262) says the guiding philosophical idea about humans in particular but about biology in general into the 19th Century was Plato’s essentialism.  Plato believed there existed ideal forms of everything, including a human.  Variation is attributed to the imperfections manifested in individuals (defects of the underlying perfect essence/form).  [This is not unlike building a huge Lego set – the instructions are the perfect form/essence and you are to follow the directions and you build it perfectly if you exactly follow the directions.  You simply make a clone of the perfect form/essence.  In essentialism each ‘perfect’ individual is really just a clone of the perfect form.]  Plato’s essentialism worked well in physics and chemistry, and it helped scientists discover some of the mathematical formulas (the perfect forms) that underlie all that is.  So there was good reason for biology, trying to be a hard science, to embrace essentialism as well.   To make biology a real science meant trying to conform biology to mathematical equations and ideas of the perfect and the normative, which the other physical sciences could do.

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Darwin however saw the biological world not from an essentialist viewpoint but from that of the individual.  For though we associate Darwin with the idea of species, his true insight was about the individual.  As evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers writes: “Darwin was very clear on the idea that natural selection favors traits that benefit individuals possessing them but are not necessarily beneficial for larger groups, such as the species” (in THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING, p 124).  Evolution and genetics are ever producing the genetically unique individual.  Mayr says all the major opposition or objections to Darwin’s ideas come from those holding to Plato’s essentialist philosophy.  As Mayr points out: “Genuine change, according to essentialism, is possible only through the saltational origin of new essences.  Because evolution as explained by Darwin, is by necessity gradual, it is quite incompatible with essentialism” (TOBOMSW, p 260).  Essentialism requires abrupt and large scale mutation to occur for change to happen.  Evolution allows for change to be gradual and occur over long periods of time, so the changes would not be perceptible from one individual or generation to the next.   “… he who does not understand the uniqueness of individuals is unable to understand the working of natural selection” (Mayr, TOBOMSW, p 262).

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What happens with Darwin is that he begins to consider the individual of any species and recognizes that each “person” (manifestation of a given species) is in fact different from all other “persons” of the same species. His insight was later supported by the discovery of genes and DNA.   No matter how small the differences (one gene!), no two individuals are perfectly identical – this is true because every individual is a unique combination of their parent’s genes – there is no norm/form/essence which all humans share (at least not biologically, genetically, evolutionarily speaking.  However, Orthodoxy would still think there is a human nature we all share – this nature is a spiritual dimension of creation).  Each human from conception is genetically different from his or her parent (receiving half their genes from each).  Each human represents a combination of genes that never existed before.  Thus, genetically speaking, there is no ‘perfect’ human form with which all humans are identical.  Each generation of humans is slightly different than the generation before it – genetically speaking.  This difference, however unnoticeable,  is expressed in each human individual.  Differences are not imperfections or defects.  Mutation, variation or change is built into the reproductive process by God who is responsible for the genetics of all living things.  Genetics are not somehow outside of God’s providence.  Genetics tells us that God is still at work in all life forms.  We can see what God is doing by studying genetics!  And indeed, some would say DNA is a form of ‘scripture’ which records exactly what God has been doing in living creatures through the long history of the cosmos.

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Humans are always combining genes in new ways through reproduction – this is God’s own mechanism for the continuation of the human race.  It is only we humans who impose on our fellow humans ideas of normal or better or superior or inferior – these turn out to be social constructs.   Mayr argues this is because Plato’s essentialism taught us there was a perfect form that we measure everyone against that imagined perfect human form.   It is totally social concepts which decide that some humans are ‘perfectly normal’ or aren’t ‘normal’ – dwarfs, people with autism or Down’s syndrome, or any of the many syndromes and variations we find in the human race, including homosexuality. The scientific or biological reality is that all these variations are normal within the human population – no matter what physical or mental ‘defects’ or differences a person is born with, he or she is still fully human. All have human genetics, and all differences are within the norm for what is possible for humans to be.  Variation occurs genetically because this is the method God built into created beings.  No matter how rare a condition or how different the individual, they are still human and so belong to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.  They each are among those for whom Christ died on the cross, are among those whom Christ is bringing to salvation.  This is what we believe in the sanctity of human life and a reason why we oppose abortion for we believe each conception to be fully human.

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Next: To be continued on Monday: Church Fathers and Essentialism

The Changing Nature of Creation

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This is the 4th post in this series which began with: Essentialism or Evolution: Do Both or Either Have a Place in an Orthodox Understanding of What It Is To Be Human?  The previous post is Ancient Philosophers and Modern Scientists.  The Church Fathers all wrote in the pre-scientific age, a time in which scientific knowledge (at least as we moderns understand it) progressed very little.  Gregory Palamas writing in the 14th Century AD holds to the same basic science as did Aristotle who lived 1700 before him.  The scientific age comes in at the close of the Patristic age and ushers in a time of rapid change in our knowledge of the empirical creation.  To give us a sense of how much has changed in recent years consider these statements from physicist Alan Lightman:

Foucault’s pendulum, along with the first microscope two hundred years earlier, marked the beginning of a new era in the history of human civilization, in which our knowledge of nature arises not from our own sensory experience but from instruments and calculations.  Since Foucault, more and more of what we know about the universe is undetected and undetectable by our bodies. What we see with our eyes, what we hear with our ears, what we feel with our fingertips, is only a tiny sliver of reality. Little by little, using artificial devices, we have uncovered a hidden reality. It is often a reality that violates common sense. It is often a reality strange to our bodies. It is a reality that forces us to re-examine our most basic concepts of how the world works.  (The Accidental Universe, Kindle Loc 1236-1241)

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All of these conclusions were hypothetical, mathematical symbols scrawled on pieces of paper. But throughout the history of science, we have learned to take such mathematical calculations seriously. They often describe reality, whether we can see it or not.  (The Accidental Universe, Kindle Loc 1250-1252)

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Part of the huge change in perspective (the paradigm shift) is that science has shown us that our sensory observations can be misleading.  We realize today that reality does not necessarily conform to what we can observe or think we are observing.  We now know reality also conforms to mathematical formulae which enables us to engage in great technological progress.  We realize through the use of technology and instruments that there is a truth about reality which is not available to us through sensory perception alone.   (For example science today has instruments which can see the universe through many different wave lengths on the light spectrum and this has allowed us to see and understand the universe in a way not even imaginable to the Fathers).

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We rely on technology and instruments to extend our sensory observations to get a better, more true picture, of reality (which allows us to form better theorems to describe or give account for the universe).  Beyond what we can observe through our unaided senses, different from what God chooses to reveal to us, there is a world which conforms to mathematical formulae which can only be revealed to us through math and technological instruments.  It was a world hidden from humanity for centuries, but now into which God is allowing us to peer.  This knowledge, revealed to us by science, is part of the same truth about the universe which God has been revealing from the beginning.  This is also why the ancient notions of “natural law” are questioned today.  What seemed “obvious from nature” has been questioned by science which has shown mathematically and from the study of nature through technological instruments that nature is different than we imagined.   Not all of our unaided observations have been proven incorrect, but we are beginning to see that the world is far more mysterious than we thought.  Only now, through science and technology, are we beginning to see reality more completely – the fullness of the truth is being discovered through science.

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We in the modern world have seen or lived through a series of scientific breakthroughs which have been earth shattering and mind bending in physics, genetics, aeronautics, computer engineering, medicine, technology, space travel, communications.  Most of us realize that science has changed dramatically within the few years of our own lifetimes, let alone compared to what they believed 600 years ago.  Platonism is no longer the main competing idea with which Christianity must contend.  In the modern world, Christians are confronted by the assumptions of secular science, of scientific materialism or naturalism.  If we are going to be faithful to the Patristic Tradition, we have to be able to do what they did – know the teachings of scientific materialism, and either show that Christianity is a better truth for understanding the material world, or accept that scientific materialism holds truths with which we must agree and find some way to incorporate into our Christian synthesis of truth.  For that is exactly what the great Patristic thinkers did.

Next:  Essentialism vs Evolution

Ancient Philosophers and Modern Scientists 

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This is the 3rd post in this series which began with: Essentialism or Evolution: Do Both or Either Have a Place in an Orthodox Understanding of What It Is To Be Human?  The previous post is The Incarnation and the Indispensable Empirical World.

Science today avoids the question which was important to Christian writers through history: ‘what does it mean to be human?’  ‘Meaning’ is seen as a philosophical question, not a question for scientific materialism.    Modern scientists might consider questions like – What is a human being?  Or, what exactly defines a human as a unique species?  However, we realize they are talking in terms different from ancient philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle.

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On the one hand, Plato thought of humans in concepts like forms/essences,  soul or mind.  The Church Fathers accepted these as the basic categories, framework or paradigm in which we understand what it is to be a human and they brought those ideas to their interpretation of Scripture.  The early Church Fathers needed to work in that established Hellenistic philosophical framework in order to show that Christianity was on the same footing intellectually with Platonism – that Christianity wasn’t just another silly superstition with another god but was in fact a viable competitor to any pagan philosophy, including the predominant philosophy of that time: Platonism [I’m not making a distinction between Platonism and Neoplatonism, though the difference is real.]

On the other hand, modern science views being human through categories like DNA, genetics, evolution, biology, chemistry, cellular structure and reproduction, physiology, and medicine.   When the Church Fathers thought of Christ the incarnate God being fully human, they were thinking in the categories of Plato – forms/essence, nature, person, mind, soul, body.  For us living in the 21st Century, when we hear Jesus is fully human, we more likely assume it means flesh and blood – Jesus had DNA and was genetically, biologically, chemically, physiologically human.  Some of our categories of thought didn’t even exist in the Patristic era.  We really don’t think in the same terms which they did.  This is not to downplay the existence or the importance of soul, spirit, mind, but only to say that in the modern view of humanity there are other categories than the Platonic ones for studying a human being.  I assume that the modern scientific understanding of what it is to be human applies to Jesus, because if it doesn’t, then he is not fully human as we understand human today.  If Christ didn’t assume in the incarnation genetics, then a huge part of what it is to be human are left untouched by salvation since the Orthodox believe only that which Christ assumed is saved.

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I totally grant that the Church Fathers cannot be expected to understand humanity from a modern scientific viewpoint, but I do assume that they would agree that whatever it is that defines a human, including a modern scientific definition, Jesus had to be that in order to be considered fully human – and therefore able to accomplish salvation (for salvation has everything to do with what it is to be human.  God became human!  This is salvation.).  When Orthodox say Jesus is fully human do they mean scientifically, biologically, genetically, chemically, physiologically human?  Or, human only as Plato defined being human and in the terms of Platonism?   The Church Fathers often took an interest in what they understood to be science and worked to reconcile the truths of their science with the truths of Scripture.  They didn’t think these ideas were necessarily opposed, they assumed the truths of nature and Scripture somehow had to be reconcilable since they all were created by the same God.   If we look at the great Christian thinkers who tried to form a synthesis between Christianity and the truths they accepted from science (what we moderns sometimes think of as only philosophy), we see they worked hard to weave together ‘science’ with the Bible – think of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Maximus.  All of them understood ‘natural science’ and they labored to create a synthesis of all the things that were thought to be true biblically, theologically, philosophically and naturally.  They assumed Plato’s ideas of humanity were unquestionably true, so they labored at creating a synthesis between scripture and the truths of Platonism.  Though they rejected some of Plato’s ideas about the soul, they did not question everything he or his followers said, as most people in those days accepted these ideas as unquestionably true.

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It is in the modern scientific understanding of a human that we see the seismic shift in thought which creates a chasm between the ancient understanding of humans (Plato and the Church Fathers) and the modern scientific understanding (scientific naturalism or even scientific atheism).  It is a paradigm shift.  Scientists today would say the ancient world view was based in philosophy, Platonic philosophy known as essentialism.  It is based on philosophical assumptions about humanity that science no longer accepts.  Basically, essentialism was discredited scientifically by the discovery of DNA and how genetics works.   The issue Orthodox theologians face is whether to accept the findings of science and its methods of testing hypotheses (even St Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 –  “test everything”) or whether they will decide to stick to ancient philosophical assumptions even if discredited by the findings of modern science.  To what degree does the Church accept what science is discovering and uncovering about the mysteries of the natural world, especially when they discredit the assumptions of ancient philosophers – some assumptions which the Church Fathers accepted.  All Patristic Fathers held to the pre-modern, pre-scientific worldview.  When the Patristic writers make references to ‘science’ (or the science of their day) they usually are quoting or paraphrasing Aristotle or Ptolemy or Galens (see for example my post St Basil the Great, Creation and Science).  Even Gregory Palamas  writing in the 14th Century (at the end of the Patristic era), far closer in time to us (600 years) than he is to Aristotle (who lived almost 1700 years before Palamas), holds to the same science as Aristotle.  Palamas occasionally references a natural/scientific truth and is usually quoting or paraphrasing Aristotle.   Nothing had changed in 1700 years in terms of the science of Gregory’s day – it was still based in Aristotle rather than in the modern view in which ideas are tested for their validity.

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We accept biblical truth as being non-negotiable, but there is a difference between the indisputable truth in Scripture and how we interpret biblical texts.  Hilary of Poitiers made it clear that “Scripture is not in the reading but in the understanding.”  There is a difference between what the Scripture says and how we understand it.  The Fathers sometimes wore a Neoplatonist lens when they read the Scripture, but we don’t have to use that lens especially when it has been discredited by the science we know.  We have to work on bringing science and theology together just as the Fathers did in their day.   They labored on creating a synthesis between the natural science of their day and theology.  We have to do the same thing, except we have to work on a synthesis between modern science and theology.

Next:  The Changing Nature of Creation

The Incarnation and the Indispensable Empirical World 

This is the 2nd post in this series which began with: Essentialism or Evolution: Do Both or Either Have a Place in an Orthodox Understanding of What It Is To Be Human?  In this series, I am reflecting on issues I think Orthodoxy needs to address in house before it engages modern scientific thinkers in a discussion about science and theology.

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The incarnation tells us to take the material world seriously, as it is God’s good creation.  Science opened the door for us to study creation from the grand scale of the universe down to the level of quantum mechanics.  The Church can only guide this study if it admits that science is revealing to us the truth that God has placed in His creation.   Origen comments: “... our spirit burns with an unspeakable longing to know the why and wherefore of the works of God which we see.  This longing, this love, we believe, has been without doubt planted in us by God” (ORIGEN: SPIRIT AND FIRE, p 37).  For Origen, the human desire to understand the empirical world is a form of our love for God, which God has planted in us.  In doing science we are not contemplating things too great and marvelous for humans (Psalm 131:1; as we might in doing theology), but rather are engaging in an activity which God has blessed us to do.  So we read in The Wisdom of Solomon (7:17-22):

For it is he who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists,

to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements;

the beginning and end and middle of times,

the alternations of the solstices and the changes of the seasons,

the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars,

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the natures of animals and the tempers of wild animals,

the powers of spirits and the thoughts of human beings,

the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots;

I learned both what is secret and what is manifest,

for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me. 

God created a material world and became incarnate in it. God gives us the ability to explore the cosmos through science.  Using science is our taking God’s material world seriously.   We study God’s creation because we love God and God’s creation. And it is God’s Wisdom which has hidden such knowledge everywhere in the cosmos and who gives us the ability to discover the knowledge of creation.

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The Church Fathers were clear that Christ is fully God and fully human.  The material side of the incarnation is considered as real as the spiritual or divine in Orthodox theology.   Now, science is challenging us to see if we will take the incarnation and hypostatic union seriously or if we really have a more monophysitic view of Christ and think that divinity is the only important nature in Christ or that our only interest in the human is the spiritual existence not the material (but then why did Christ heal people if the material is unimportant?).   Only that which was assumed by Christ is saved – that is Orthodox theology.  What does that say about genetics and the new insights science is giving us into the material flesh and the incarnation?  Science is opening our eyes to what it means to be human and also to what the incarnation fully means.

Many Church Fathers thought God gave us two sets of Scripture – the bible and the physical world.  Science is helping us to consider again that second scripture in which God’s hand has written what God is doing in the world.   The Patristic writers in commenting on the bible thought no word of the bible was superfluous.  Science is helping us realize that nothing in the material world is superfluous to our understanding God’s creation.  As scientific studies of the human body, human genetics, the mind and species give us new insight into what it is to be human, the Church should be interested in what this tells us about God, humanity and the relationship of the two.  We need to consider the full implications of the incarnation and hypostatic union – science can give us new insights into theology.

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St Paul writes in Romans 1:19-20 — 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 invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse…”  Origen commenting on Romans say that St Paul points out “that this visible world contains instructions about the invisible world and that this earthly condition contains ‘images of the heavenly things’ (cf Heb 9:24), so that from the things that are below we can ascend to the things which are above, and that from what we see on earth we can perceive and understand something of what is in heaven” (ORIGEN: FIRE AND SPIRIT, P 44).  Origen goes on to say: “it is my conviction that he who ‘made all things in wisdom’ (cf Ps 104:24) created each species of visible things on earth in such a way as to put in them a certain teaching and recognition of invisible and heavenly things by which the human mind would ascend to a spiritual understanding and seek out the causes of thing among heavenly things so that , instructed by the divine wisdom, it might itself be able to say: ‘All that is secret and is manifest is known to me’ (cf Wis Solomon 7:21).” (ORIGEN: FIRE AND SPIRIT, P 45).  We can use science to continue our search for God’s wisdom and instruction which God placed in the natural order He created.

Next:  Ancient Philosophers and Modern Scientists