Scientists and Angelic Thinking

One of the most famous and also controversial writers in Church is Evagrius Ponticus (d. 399AD).  His writings on the desert fathers and mystical spirituality were very influential in monastic circles.  His works and spirituality were geared almost exclusively to monks.  He died in communion with the Church but by the 6th Century his writings were rejected along with the works of Origen as they tended to be taken to heretical conclusions.    But by that time they  were so wide spread that it was impossible to retract them, plus they continued to be circulated under pseudonyms.

In one quote from him that caught my eye Evagrius is distinguishing between angelic, human and demonic thoughts. In the Patristic period it was common to believe that there are different levels of meaning found in things – whether in reading Scriptures or studying nature; and there being three levels of meaning was also a common assumption.

Evagrius is said to have rejected the dualism so common among the gnostics of his day which condemned the physical world as evil.  However, Evagrius’ anthropology and cosmology are very different from thoughts we who live in the modern scientific world might have today.  Nevertheless I found his contrasts between the three types of thought to be interesting, for the questions he says angelic thought would ask about the world are completely what we would see as scientific questions.  What he calls “spiritual reasons” we would call truth or facts and we see them in the realm of what scientists try to answer.  I just find it interested that a 4th Century writer saw as angelic (or advanced) thinking what we today would see as just plain scientific thinking.

In the following quote from Evagrius, even the opening line comes right from rational, scientific thinking – you base your ideas on what can be observed.  Evagrius says they frequently observed these things which even gives some further credence to a sort of scientific method!

“After frequent observation, we have found that …

Angelic [thoughts] scrutinize the nature of things and search out their spiritual reasons.  For example, why gold was created and dispersed like sand and disseminated in the valleys of the earth, and is found only with great effort and toil; and why, once found, it is washed in water and committed to the fire, and then put into the hand of artisans who fashion it into the lamps of the tabernacle and the altar of burnt offerings and the censers and the bowls, from which, by the grace of our Redeemer, the king of Babylon now no longer drinks…  

Second, demonic thought neither understands nor knows such things.  It only suggest shamelessly the acquisition of the gold …  

Lastly, human thought seeks neither to acquire gold, not is it concerned about what gold symbolizes.  It merely brings before the mind the bare image of gold, devoid of the passion of greed.     By applying this rule mystically, one can say the same about other things.”  (DRAGON’S WINE AND ANGEL’S BREAD, pp 116-117)

Demonic thoughts in Evagrius really involve using the created world, which He believed to be good since it was created by God, for evil purposes.  It is demonic to take God’s creation and turn it to some evil purpose – greed is evil in his Christian worldview.

On the other hand, human thought is basically just seeing the world as it is without assigning any meaning to it.   Created things are not evil in and of themselves, and we can see them as being animal, vegetable, mineral, etc, and they remain neutral in value until we put them to some use.   In some ways the human thought when applied to nature is how many Patristic writers saw a basic reading of scripture:  its face value void of entering into its deeper meaning.

But the angelic thought in this quote is interested in the truth or truths about things – understanding God’s creation and the mysteries that the created order presents to us.  We see things and wonder “why?” in regards to so many things about them.  This seeking of knowledge was considered angelic by Evagrius.  Interesting also that artisans who make use of these things are listed within the angelic thinking level.   Obviously Evagrius’ world is very different than our own, but one has to allow that seeking knowledge about created things would still be considered angelic by Evagrius.  Though science today is not also pursuing understanding the Creator through creation, still science continues to ask the “why?” question regarding creation.  We believers do not have to assume that scientific knowledge will always lead to atheistic ideas.  That was not the assumption of Evagrius in the 4th Century.

“Science” in the Library of Congress

Evagrius’ attitude toward scientific knowledge being angelic thinking reminds me also of a verse from the Akathist service, Glory to God for All Things, written by Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Tryphon (d. 1934), who lived and died in an atheist culture.  He places in his his hymns these words:

“The breath of Your Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets, scientists. The power of Your supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Your laws, who reveal the depths of Your creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of You. How great are You in Your creation! How great are You in man!”

Perhaps we too often accept the view of those who want to oppose scientific thinking to that of believers.  Maybe we Christians would have a better comprehension of scientific knowledge if we looked at Christians in other centuries long before the modern debates which pitted secular science with fundamentalistic biblical literalism.  Then we might see that some of the very thoughtful writers of the ancient Christian world saw no need to oppose science and Christianity but rather assumed they were working to understand the universe truthfully.

Like 4th Century Evagrius, 20th Century Metropolitan Tryphon understood the pursuit of knowledge, truth, science is also a pursuit of knowing God’s creation.  The truths uncovered by science obviously can be interpreted in an atheistic way but they also can, even if unwittingly, speak to us about God’s hand in the universe.   Evagrius thought such knowledge was angelic.  Evagrius also does not assume that all of the answers to these angelic questions are found in Scripture.  He understands that there is valuable knowledge (angelic!) which we learn from nature and observation.  He would also, I think, assume that when nature and biblical texts don’t agree, the problem is not that they must be put in opposition to each other, but rather than it demonstrates our understanding of things is inadequate.  He would not see a need to hold to a wooden literalism of the biblical text but would look for a deeper meaning in it.

The knowledge of creation is a wisdom which comes from God:

“And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and largeness of mind like the sand on the seashore,  so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. …  He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall; he spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish.  And men came from all peoples to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom.”  (1 Kings 4:29-34)