Byzantine Orthodoxy, Hellenism and Science (PDF)

Science E OrthodoxyRecently I posted a blog series based on my reading of the book, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization , written by Efthymios Nicolaidis and Susan Emanuel.  I am always interested in understanding what the Church Fathers might have said about issues raised by modern science.  The book represents an impressive amount of research by the authors, but I didn’t feel it contributed a great deal to understanding modern scientific issues from an Orthodox point of view.  It was more an apology defending Hellenic Orthodoxy from Western critics who see little scientific interest or progress in Byzantine history.  In the end I was not convinced that the Western critics of the Byzantine heritage were exaggerating their negative appraisal.  At least in my read of the book, the earliest centuries of Byzantium saw the most creative and interesting  relationship of the Orthodox world with “secular” thinking.   Later Byzantium moved to a return to Hellenic ideas and became less engaged in the world of thought outside of Christian Byzantium.

The blog in the series is Byzantine Orthodoxy, Hellenism and Science.   The entire series of 4 blogs is now available in one document, a PDF, which can be found at Byzantine Orthodoxy, Hellenism and Science (PDF)  .

You can find links to all my blog series as PDFs at Fr. Ted’s Blog Series.

When Religious Leadership Gets It Wrong

 In the Gospel according to St. Luke (13:10-17) our Lord Jesus, while in a synagogue, shows mercy to a woman who had been afflicted with a disease for 18 years.  A leader of the synagogue, failing to see the hand of God in the miracle, passive-aggressively criticizes the congregation for the Sabbath day miracle.  No doubt he felt he couldn’t criticize Jesus directly, after all, Jesus had just performed a miracle!  The congregation apparently at first must have sided with Jesus’ adversaries, or were unsure how to react to such a sign in the synagogue.  For they only rejoice after Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the leadership.  And the adversaries of Christ feel no shame about their opposition to Jesus when they see the miracle.  They only feel shame when Jesus points out to them that they show more compassion to their beasts of burden than to a fellow human being.   Their hypocrisy is obvious: they show mercy on the Sabbath to animals and know this is in their power and right to do.   Jesus reveals He has power to show mercy as well, and that is why it is right for Him to do an act of mercy on the Sabbath, and for the people to seek such an act of mercy when they come to the synagogue.

Now He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  And behold, there was a woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up.  But when Jesus saw her, He called her to Him and said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.”  And He laid His hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; and he said to the crowd, “There are six days on which men ought to work; therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day.”  The Lord then answered him and said, “Hypocrite! Does not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or donkey from the stall, and lead it away to water it?  So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound-think of it-for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath? And when He said these things, all His adversaries were put to shame; and all the multitude rejoiced for all the glorious things that were done by Him.

St. Nikolai Velimirovic commenting on the Gospel lesson, himself indignant at the story, points out that it is almost as if a demon entered into the synagogue leader to cause him to react so caustically to Christ’s miracle.

 “And the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath Day, and said unto the people: ‘There are six days in which men ought to work; in them therefore come and be healed, and not on the Sabbath Day.’

These are the words of a wicked son of darkness. It is as though Satan, leaving the twisted woman, had entered into him. Thus speaks self-love accompanied by its inseparable companions: envy and anger. Christ healed, but the ruler of the synagogue resorted to vilification. Christ delivered a human life from its satanic prison, and this other reviled. Christ drove the evil spirit out of the sick woman, and this other was furious that He had driven the evil spirit out through one door and not another! Christ opened heaven to men and revealed the living God, and this other was angry at Christ’s opening heaven in the morning and not in the evening! Christ went with a lamp into the prison to the captives, and this other rebuked Him for not having left doing this till another day! See the frightful and vicious touchiness of self-love!

This self-centered ruler did not dare to rebuke Christ, and so he rebuked the people, although his tongue framed it the other way round. How were the people guilty in this? If anyone was at fault for this good work, this straightened woman was. But how was this poor woman guilty? She did not run after Christ and beg Him to heal her. On the contrary, Christ called her to Him and gave her perfect healing, far beyond any hope or expectation she had in the synagogue. It is, then, clear that if anyone was guilty of all this, that person was Christ. The rule of the synagogue did not, though, dare to look Christ in the eye and say: ‘You are guilty’, but turned his barbs on the people and rebuked them. Is there any hypocrisy more evident and more vile? And the Lord calls him a hypocrite:

The Lord then answered him, and said: ‘Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the Sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath Day?’

The Lord knows the hearts of men, and He knew that the ruler of the synagogue meant the reprimand for Him, even though his tongue directed it at the people.” (Homilies, p 281)

The Invaluable vs. The Valueless

Our Lord Jesus Christ taught:

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”  (Matthew 5:44-45)

As recorded in THE PHILOKALIA,  St Peter of Damaskos writes:

“I marvel at God’s wisdom, at how the most indispensable things – air, fire, water, earth – are readily available to all.”

St. Paul the Apostle says in his Letter to the Romans (6:23), words that have become well known to most Christians:

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

How hard we work for the valueless; how freely available is the invaluable.  St. Peter of Damaskos continues:

“And not simply this, but things conducive to the soul’s salvation are more accessible than other things, while soul-destroying things are harder to come by. For example, poverty, which anyone can experience, is conducive to the soul’s salvation; while riches, which are not simply at our command, are generally a hindrance. It is the same with dishonor, humiliation, patience, obedience, submission, self-control, fasting, vigils, the cutting off of one’s will, bodily enfeeblement, thankfulness for all things, trials, injuries, the lack of life’s necessities, abstinence from sensual pleasure, destitution, forbearance – in short, all the things conducive to the spiritual life are freely available. No one fights over them. On the contrary, everyone leaves them to those who choose to accept them, whether they have been sought for or have come against our will.”

The Lord Jesus commanded:

“Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.”  (John 6:27)

Staying with the same text from THE PHILOKALIA, we find St. Peter of Damaskos next says:

“Soul-destroying things, on the other hand, are not so readily within our grasp – things, like wealth, glory, pride, intolerance, power, authority, dissipation, gluttony, excessive sleep, having one’s own way, health and bodily strength, an easy life, a good income, unrestricted hedonism, lavish and costly clothes, and so on. People struggle greatly for these things, but only a few attain them, and in any case the benefit they confer is fleeting. In short, they produce a great deal of trouble and very little enjoyment. For they bring to those who possess them, as well as to those who do not possess them but desire to do so, all manner of distress.”

In the bible, we find these words attributed to St. Paul the apostle:

“For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Timothy 4:4-5)

The text from St. Peter of Damaskos concludes with these words:

“None the less, it is not the thing itself, but its misuse, that is evil. For we were given hands and feet, not so that we might steal and plunder and lay violent hands on one another, but so that we might use them in ways agreeable to God.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 28332-56)

Thanksgiving (2014)

“When you sit down for a meal, pray.

 As you take bread, thank the Giver.

When you are strengthening your weakened body by drinking wine, thank him who bestowed on you such a gift to cheer your heart and fortify your infirmities.

As you get dressed, thank him for what he has given you. When you wrap your cloak around your shoulders, so increase your love for God, who has provided us with clothing suitable for winter and summer, to maintain our life and cover us modestly.

Is the day at an end? So thank him who gave us the sun by which we can perform our daily work,

and fire to enlighten the night, and who has bestowed on us all the rest of life’s needs.

The night gives us other opportunities for prayer. Look up to the heavens and consider the beauty of the stars, and so give prayer to the Lord of visible things, and worship the Creator of all, who has made all by his wisdom.

When you see living creatures dropping off to sleep, so again worship him, who cuts short our labors by forcing us into sleep, thus providing us with new strength through a brief rest.”

(Saint Basil the Great, On Fasting and Feasts, pp 112-113)

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Love; An Action Verb

“So often when we say,  

‘I love you’

we say it with a huge


and a small


A New Commandment: Love One Another

We use love as a conjunction instead of it being a verb implying action. It’s no good just gazing out into the open space hoping to see the Lord; instead we have to look closely at our neighbor, someone whom God has willed into existence, someone who God has died for. Everyone we meet has the right to exist, because he has value in himself, and we are not used to this. The acceptance of otherness is a danger to us, it threatens us. To recognize the other’s right to be himself might mean recognizing his right to kill me. But if we set a limit to his right to exist, it’s no right at all. Love is difficult. Christ was crucified because he taught a kind of love which is a terror for men, a love which demands total surrender: It spells death. If we turn to God and come face to face with him, we must be prepared to pay the cost. If we are not prepared to pay the cost, we must walk through life being a beggar, hoping someone else will pay. But if we turn to God we discover that life is deep, vast and immensely worth living.” (Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, p xiv)

Greed: A Deadly Sin

In our consumer driven culture, the sin of greed is often forgotten, buried under our ever mounting possessions.   Consumer spending in the US in 2013 was said to comprise 71% of the US economy.   I suppose that means we even think of our purchasing ever more goods as being both patriotic and a sign of being blessed.  As an alternative to giving things to people who already have more than they want, many charities in the US offer chances of giving Christmas gifts which actually benefit others and which don’t add items to our closets, attics, basements, garages or landfills.  While obviously Christmas gift giving often is done for pure love and joy, I certainly do hear a fair amount of comment from people who feel compelled to give or participate in gift exchanges which they aren’t interested in and sometimes can’t afford.   I also hear of those who feel completely frazzled by the frenzied shopping sprees they have to go on to meet all of their ‘gifting’ obligations.  And there is a degree for many that the lure of shopping is that power to purchase which makes us feel good about ourselves.

Since we Orthodox are also in the Nativity Fast, we have reason to consider whether any of our own desires or behaviors in this season are in fact sinfully selfish rather than done for others in love.   Sinfulness and repentance are not what some people want to hear about in the Christmas Season, but we Orthodox are in a lenten time as well, and so should joyfully welcome clear sightedness about our own behavior.  Socrates thought the unexamined life is not worth living.   Repentance and confession tell us our life is worth living that is why we examine it!

St. John Cassian reminds us that greed is not a minor sin, but has shown itself to be a deadly one.  Cassian points out that it is greed, avarice, which leads Judas down a deadly path.

“Consider Judas, who was numbered among the apostles and who did not wish to crush this serpent’s deadly head – how it destroyed him with its poison, entangled him in the snares of desire and drove him to a criminal and speedy end by persuading him to sell the world’s redeemer and the author of human salvation for thirty pieces of silver. Never would he have fallen into the abominable villainy of betrayal had he not been infected with the disease of avarice, nor would he have been guilty of sacrilegiously denying the Lord if he had not first been in the habit of stealing from the purse that was entrusted to him.” (The Institutes, p 181)

Abba Chomai said: “Do not let your hands be stretched out to gather in; let them rather be stretched out to give.”    (GIVE ME A WORD: THE ALPHABETICAL SAYINGS THE DESERT FATHERS, p 317)

Byzantine Science (III)

Science E OrthodoxyThis is the 4th and final blog in this series which began with Byzantine Orthodoxy, Hellenism and Science.   The previous blog is Byzantine Science (II).   In this series I have been considering the relationship between “science” and Eastern Christianity through history as presented by Efthymios Nicolaidis and Susan Emanuel in their book Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization .

After the Turks conquered Constantinople and the Orthodox lands in the Balkans, responsibility for education for Christians in the Turkish empire was overseen by the patriarchs living in Istanbul.  Attitudes towards science among the Christian population of the millet followed the policies determined by the patriarchate.  As Nicolaidis and Emmanuel note, the centuries following the Turkish conquest were not particularly bright ones for scientific interests among the Orthodox population.

For example, in the first half of the 17th Century, Theophilus Korydaleus encouraged a “revival of the sciences” among the Greek population.  However his efforts did not include the ideas of the scientific revolution sweeping Western Europe.   Korydaleus  like all the Greek humanist was advocating for a return to ancient Hellenistic ideas.  “Korydaleus’s ambition was to offer a panorama of Greek natural philosophy as if the Christian religion had never existed.”   Korydaleus ignored the Patristic critique of pagan Hellenistic ideas and promoted Hellenistic philosophy as ‘science’.

“Little by little, the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church came around to the idea of teaching ancient natural philosophy independently of the teaching of Creation. This acceptance was prepared by the idea—increasingly widespread in the seventeenth century—that Orthodox believers were the heirs of Greek splendor and learning. This idea was a comfort to the Orthodox of the Ottoman Empire, who felt subjugated to the Muslim state and, at the same time, threatened by the specter of Uniates, meaning Orthodox believers who had converted to Catholicism. Without political power, and wedged between Islam and Catholicism, the Orthodox Church sought support. Because the Greek heritage provided such a support, Greek philosophy could therefore gradually assume its place in the education controlled by the Orthodox Church.”   (Kindle Loc. 3069-74)

Seeking comfort in what they saw as the Golden Age of Greek thinking, the Orthodox in the Ottoman Empire embraced ancient Hellenistic philosophy, avoiding the new ideas of science coming out of Western Europe.  Not until the middle of the 18th Century did the Greeks begin to consider the heliocentric ideas of Copernicus.

The book tends to be very Greek-Hellenistic in its orientation and gives only slight attention to Orthodoxy beyond the Greek world.

Outside of the Ottoman Empire, the main Orthodox population was in the Russian Empire.   From the book’s viewpoint, the Russians having inherited Christianity from the Byzantines, followed Byzantine thinking in many areas of life.  The Russians accepted and followed the mystical theology of the Greeks, but did not have the deep abiding love of the Pre-Byzantine Hellenic culture.  Nicolaidis and Emmanuel write that “the ancient Greek scientific corpus was almost unknown in Russia until” the 17th Century.   Additionally the Russians holding strongly to the mystical tradition were dubious of any scientific culture whether Western or Byzantine.   The Russian Orthodox disinterest in scientific knowledge and technology would be confronted by Russian church and secular leaders and intellectuals who became increasingly enamored with Western ideas and alarmed at the backwardness of Russia when it came to science and technology.  The reforms of Patriarch Nikon and the vision of Emperor Peter the Great both were greatly influenced  by Western educational, scientific and technological progress.

And while Western church ideas would come to dominate the Eastern Church leading to what some theologians called a “Western captivity of the Eastern Church”, the Orthodox lagged far behind in scientific thinking as compared to the West.  An example in the book of the state of “science” in the Greek Orthodox world is reflected in the comments of Metropolitan Paisios of Gaza who gave a sermon series in Jerusalem.  As Nicoliadis and Emmual report it:

“Paisios began by comparing the twelve signs of the zodiac with the twelve major festivals of Christianity, showing off his knowledge of astrological signs. In his History of the Condemnation of Patriarch Nikon, he gives a description of Nikon that is based on astrology, palmistry, physiognomy, and dream interpretation.”  (Kindle Loc. 3198-3200)

The effects of the discovery of the New World and the new scientific ideas which swept through Western Europe were slow moving into the Orthodox world, according to the Nicolaidis and Emmanuel.

Christopher Columbus contemplating the new world.

The new science was revolutionary and the Orthodox leadership under the Turks was committed to its ancient Greek roots.  Additionally the Turks had no interest in revolutionary ideas of any kind moving through their Christian subjects.  The seeds of restlessness were still sown in the Orthodox populations under Muslim domination.  Eventually revolution broke out and the Orthodox overthrew their Turkish oppressors.  Even so, the Greeks continued to mostly look to their ancient Golden Age of philosophy for scientific ideas and inspiration.  In 1895, a Greek philosophy student in a funeral oration which was soon published denounced Western scientific ideas, especially of evolution, as “supreme treason to Greece” and called for the death penalty for anyone teaching such ideas.

As the book points out the ideas which the  Greek church advocated regarding science in the modern Greek state usually reflected the ideas of the Greek government.  When the conservative government saw “science” as a tool of communism, the church too denounced scientific ideas.  The intermixture of church and state which were part of the Byzantine symphony continued in the modern Greek Church experience.  For me, this was one of the things disappointing in the book: the the view of the authors was sometimes myopic, reducing “Orthodoxy” to mean “Greek” or Hellenic.  The Orthodox experience worldwide and through history was greater the Byzantine experience.  Orthodoxy is not coterminous with being ethnically Greek.   So, we read as part of the book’s conclusions :

“The most significant characteristic that differentiates the history of science in the Eastern Orthodox world from what happened in the Latin West (through the nineteenth century) is the East’s continuing pride in its ancient Greek patrimony. Although “Hellene” was synonymous with “pagan,” the Greek fathers based their Creation exegesis on their Greek education; later, Byzantine scholars (most of whom were clerics) regarded it as an honor to be “Hellene.” Greek Orthodox communities of the Ottoman Empire, seeking a national identity, claimed their affiliation with the ancient Greeks. Through the centuries, this affiliation gave rise to a relatively stable relationship between Eastern Orthodoxy and science, during which the Orthodox Church accepted and taught science.”  (Kindle Loc. 4208-13)

At least from this book, my impression of the history of the Eastern Church, is that after the early Patristic creative engagement with the pagan culture and an effort to form a particularly Christian perspective on nature and science, the Greek Church slowly reverted to Hellenic ideals.   Byzantium through time got reduced to a Greek state, and the Orthodox Church in this state became largely fixated nationalistically on an ancient Golden Age of Greek thinking.  It becomes disappointingly obvious through the book, that it was more fixated on the Greek church’s attitude toward Hellenic culture than it was on an Eastern engagement with ideas of modern science.   In the end the book did not provide a great deal of insight into how contemporary Orthodox can deal with the modern worldview in the age of science.  The books wants to proudly show that despite a modern Western bias against Byzantine culture, that Greeks engaged “science” throughout their history.  While the book’s scope is truly impressive, it did not convince me that the Western critique of Byzantine culture as being seriously deficient in scientific thinking is mistaken.  The later Byzantines and the Greek Orthodox of the modern Greek state have been far more interested in promoting a golden age of Hellenic thought than in engaging modern science.  In this sense, modern Greek Orthodoxy is not at all like the early Patristic period in which the Orthodox thoroughly knew the scientific debates of their day and actively engaged in those disputes.  Rather it appears in the book that the Greek Church is more interested in heralding a nostalgic golden age of Hellenic culture while mostly ignoring the scientific culture that dominates the world today.

For the Salvation of All

“In the words of a modern Hesychast, Father Seraphim of the Russian monastery of Mount Athos: To pass through the summit of sacrifice is to discover that nothing belongs to “me.” Everything belongs to God. It is the death of the ego and the discovery of “true self.” Meditating like Abraham means adhering by faith to the One who transcends the Universe, means practicing hospitality and interceding for the salvation of all human beings. It means to forget oneself and to break even the most legitimate attachments in order to discover oneself, those close to us, and the whole Universe, inhabited by the infinite presence of “The One Who Alone Is.”  (Efthymios Nicolaidis and Susan Emanuel,  Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization indle Loc. 2226-31)

God’s Blessings: Treasures to be Shared

In Luke 12:16-21, our Lord Jesus tells us the parable of a rich fool.  Rich in terms of worldly possessions, but foolish in living only for this world, for life is short.   Death shows us that we are living on borrowed time, and our possessions are really just a temporary loan.  We do not truly own our possessions as we cannot take them with us when we depart this earth.  All of our possessions remain behind.

Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully.  And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods.  ‘And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.” ‘ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.

St. Gregory Palamas (d. 1359AD) commenting on the parable says:

St. Metrios the Farmer

“That rich man whose ground brought forth plentifully (Luke 12:16-21), and that other one who was clothed in purple and fine linen (Luke 16:19-31), were justly condemned, not for wrongdoing anyone, but for not sharing what was theirs. Treasures are common to all, as they come from the common storehouses of God’s creation. Anyone who appropriates what is common as his own is greedy, though not perhaps to the same extent as someone who openly takes possession of other people’s belongings. The first, as an evil servant, will, alas, undergo the terrible punishment of being cut off. The second will be submitted to things even  more dreadful and terrifying. Neither will ever be able to escape these penalties, unless they receive the poor with hospitality, the one making good use of the things entrusted to  him by God, the other distributing what he has accumulated by evil means.” (The Homilies, p 98)

The Theotokos, Motherhood and Salvation

“Conqueror, adventurer, builder, man is not fatherly in his being.

An ancient liturgical text projects upon the motherhood of the Virgin the light of the divine fatherhood: ‘You have given birth to the Son without a father, the Son whom the Father brought forth before the ages without a mother.’ The virgin Mary’s motherhood is thus a human figure or image of the fatherhood of God. Here we have an explanation of why the religious principle of dependence on the beyond, of receptivity, of communion is expressed so immediately by woman. The particular sensibility to pure spirituality resides far more in the anima than in the animus. It is the feminine soul which is nearest to the sources, to the origins, to birth. The Bible presents woman as the quintessential image of human nature’s spiritual receptivity. In actuality, the promise of salvation was given to woman, for a woman received the Annunciation of the birth of Christ and it was a woman who first saw the Risen Lord, and it is a woman ‘clothed in the sun’ who is the image of the Church and of the heavenly city in the Book of Revelation.

Further, it is in the images of the beloved and the bride that God chose to express his love for us and the marital nature of his communion with us. Finally, the most important fact is that the Incarnation was accomplished in the Virgin’s feminine nature. It is she who gave the Word of God her flesh and blood. To divine fatherhood as a specific feature of God’s very being directly corresponds the motherhood of woman, her receptive capacity for the divine. The whole goal of Christian life is to make of every human being a mother, a being predestined for the mystery of birth, ‘so that Christ may be formed in you’ (Gal. 4:19). Sanctification is precisely the action of the Spirit who makes possible the miraculous birth of Jesus in the depths of the soul. This is why the Nativity symbolizes and expresses the charism of every woman, that of bringing God to birth in destitute souls: ‘The Word is constantly born anew in our hearts.’ says the Letter to Diognetus. For St Maximus the Confessor, the mystic is the one in whom the birth of Christ is manifest. In order to describe his spiritual fatherhood, even St. Paul used the image of motherhood: ‘I undergo the sufferings of childbirth’ (Gal. 4:19).”   (Paul Evdokimov, In the World, Of the Church, pp 234-235)