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

Essentialism or Evolution: Do Both or Either Have a Place in an Orthodox Understanding of What It Is To Be Human? 

Science and the Christian Faith

After publishing my blog series of reflections on Christopher Knight’s  book,   Science and the Christian Faith: A Guide for the Perplexed, I decided to publish this blog series which I originally composed two years ago.  This continues looking at Orthodoxy’s relationship to science specifically focusing on Neoplatonic essentialism which the Church Fathers basically accepted as true since all great thinkers in their day assumed it to be true and the challenge to that idea presented by the modern scientific idea of evolution which rejects essentialism.

Our Church has a central tenet that God became incarnate, so we have to take seriously what the incarnation means.  The Word became flesh (John 1:14) – we now, because of science, have a much deeper understanding of what the material world, including the flesh into which God became incarnate, is.  Science is helping us understand the depths of the material world in a way that the Patristic writers could not imagine.  Science can give us insights into the hypostatic union that the Fathers could not conceive.  Jesus didn’t just take on some vague concept, “the flesh”.  He took on blood vessels, cells, organs, DNA, atoms, molecules, protein,  tissue, etc. Or, is it the case that when Orthodoxy talks about the Word became flesh, ‘flesh’ always is only a spiritual concept and has nothing to do with the material creation? The incarnation is not only a spiritual event, but a material one as well.  The Patristic writers made clear that the material creation is important in salvation (especially, for example the 7th Ecumenical Council and the entire debate on icons).  Though St Gregory of Nyssa thought the world was not material at all because all things exist as an idea in God (Knight,   Science and the Christian Faith: A Guide for the Perplexed, Kindle Location 1780-1791).

As St John of Damascus writes in the midst of the icon debate God becomes matter for our salvation:

I do not venerate matter, I venerate the fashioner of matter, who became matter for my sake and accepted to dwell in matter and through matter worked my salvation, and I will not cease from reverencing matter, through which my salvation was worked. … Do not abuse matter; for it is not dishonorable, this is the view of the Manichees. The only thing that is dishonorable is something that does not have its origin from God.” (Treatise 1.16)

I reverence therefore matter and I hold in respect and venerate through which my salvation has come about, I reverence it not as God, but as filled with divine energy and grace.’

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God works out our salvation in and through matter!  It is only those who reject the incarnation who devalue the material world.  Matter was brought into existence by God  to share the divine life with the material world. Archbishop Elpidophoros of the Greek Archdiocese says in his 2020 Sunday of Orthodoxy message: “… those struggling against the veneration of the icons were confining God in the heavens instead of recognizing the sanctification of creation ushered in by the incarnation of Christ.”  The sanctification of creation!  Science enables us to examine and study exactly what it is that God sanctifies.  Think for a moment about the rainbow which God says is a sign of the covenant between God and us (Genesis 9:13-16).  Both God and we can see the same rainbow.  It has a spiritual value but it is a physical thing.  We can understand its spiritual, covenantal value.  We also can study it scientifically and learn how God works in creation.  The material world is essential to God’s own revelation.

The flesh wasn’t subsumed into divinity – it didn’t disappear in the incarnation.  The flesh is created by God and is essential for our salvation.  We are not trying to escape the flesh or become disembodied souls.  Rather we believe God became human so we humans might become God.  God became flesh in order to raise our material bodies to heaven.  Science is shedding new light on what it is to be human, to have a physical body.  None of the major religions are as materialist as is Christianity – which celebrates the incarnation – God united to material creation in a hypostatic union.  By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God (1 John 4:2).

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It is true, however, that as the centuries passed, Orthodox writers became less and less interested in our empirical world and more interested in the spiritual life and the kingdom of heaven.  Elder Aimilianos for example commenting on St Maximos the Confessor and marriage says:

“In general, the Fathers were concerned about the Kingdom of heaven, and in a certain manner theologized based on their personal, spiritual revelations and eschatological experiences.  That is, they saw the world as a figure, a prelude, a passageway to the kingdom of God.  This is why they always endeavored to raise the human person from earth to heaven.

The Fathers did not focus their theology on matters pertaining to this world.  This is why they did not produce a theology of marriage.  They certainly taught marriage, and taught things about marriage, but always with an emphasis on raising the human mind from marriage itself to what marriage represents and symbolizes.  St Paul does the same thing when he says that ‘marriage is a great mystery concerning Christ and the Church’ (Eph 5:32).”  (Elder Aimilianos, THE MYSTICAL MARRIAGE: Spiritual Life According to St Maximos the Confessor, p 120)

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While the Fathers did not focus their theology on things pertaining to this world, this doesn’t mean the things of this world are of no value.  Christ became incarnate in this world, he took on flesh.  If escaping this world and the flesh was the real divine plan, why the incarnation at all?    The Fathers were interested in the spiritual life, which does not mean that the physical, empirical world does not matter to God.  And, it is interesting that Elder Aimilianos can state unequivocally that the Fathers did not produce a theology of marriage.  For many in Orthodoxy today are certain that the Church has an exact theology of marriage which applies strictly to one man and one woman.  The Church needs to open the discussion on marriage and on science  to clarify its understanding and these discussions may also help the Church in dealing with contemporary issues such as homosexuality.

Next:  The Incarnation and the Indispensable Empirical World

Ideologues: A Zeal Which is Not Enlightened

For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God.  (Romans 10:2-3)

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Having a zeal which is not enlightened (or not according to knowledge as some translate the verse) seems to me to be an appropriate description of the ideologues who want to run (= ruin) American politics.  They demand absolute allegiance to their ideas and ideologies, no matter how that might affect people.  I remember an elderly Russian couple, having escaped from the atheistic, communistic Soviet Union, always said that communists are not human.  That comment always puzzled me for I thought, but they are human, whatever else they might be.  Over time I realized what they meant was that the communists they knew were such ideologues that they were willing to sacrifice countless human lives in order for their ideology to succeed. They believed they would create a better world for humanity, but first had to eliminate (murder, enslave, imprison) a huge portion of humanity – the end justified the means.  Dictatorship and tyranny were justified as a means to the end.  It seems to me today that the extremists on the right and left in America have the same attitude.  They want to  eliminate the opposition in order to create their idea of a perfect society, caring nothing for how much they make their opponents (including children) suffer since that will bring about their desired goal.  St Paul tells us Christians: Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement offers us a far more Christian vision of what role Christians have in society.  It is a vision that offers a threat of danger – but only to our self in the form of martyrdom.  It is a vision with the wisdom of questions about how to accomplish it while imitating Christ.

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“Our cities desperately need the presence of Christians, enlivened by hope and intent on freedom; when they have studied the workings of society, like everyone else, they must make it their sole task to permeate its density with an unquenchable desire for communion.  Fedorov said, ‘Our social programme is the Trinity; everything else is society in decay.’  In this enterprise there can be no conflict between the insistence on fair dealing, the setting up of model communities and the reform of society; the last after all simply means that we house, clothe and feed, as we are bound to do, the ‘thou’ who is our neighbor, all over the world.  When St John Chrysostom began to preach the ‘sacrament of the brother’, he conceived the idea of reorganizing the society of Antioch in such a way that poverty would be abolished.  But society is an aspect of the person, not the other way round, and however ethical the social institutions are, they are of no value unless they are created by and for persons.  . . .

[Clement’s point should be noted: society is an aspect of the person – society is made for the human, not the human for society.  Ideologues set up their vision of society – conservative, progressive, whatever – and then endeavor to force people to conform to their vision (eliminating those who don’t), rather than valuing people and forming ideas that serve the neighbor as one’s self.]

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The theologians of violence forget the Beatitudes.  The theologians of non-violence forget that history consists of tragedies.  But amongst the violence of history, it is the duty of Christians to manifest the love of enemies, which is the strength of Christ himself.  The love of enemies, exercised in the most extreme circumstances, is the only cure for our political neurosis, the desire to escape one’s own death while projecting it on to the enemy; and the cure begins with me.  Only thus shall we achieve a life that is creative and free.  . . .

[Again, Clement’s thought is so important.  First he acknowledges that both those comfortable with the use of violence and those who oppose the use of violence have problems to deal with in the world.  He appeals to following Christ – let love be our guide in all we do, and that only begins with ‘me’ not with any ideology.  I just appreciate that he points out both sides of this debate face difficult problems in living their vision.  We still need to make Christ central to our thought and actions and that will not give us any easy solution.]

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It is the Church’s business not to impose methods, even non-violent ones, but to witness in season and out of season to the creative power of love. The problem is not one of violence or non-violence at all; and the solution, which can never be more than partial, lies in the ability to transform, as far as possible and in every circumstance of history, destructive violence into creative power.  The cross which, as Berdyaev memorably said, causes the rose of worldly existence to bloom afresh, here signifies not resignation, but service; not weakness, but creative activity.

[What Christians have to bring to any political discussion is the cross – first, Christ’s as we contemplate what His sacrifice on the cross means for the current situation.  Second, our own cross, for only by taking it up can we follow Christ in every political discussion or decision.]

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At the heart of Christianity is the tendency to desacralize power in order to sanctify it through the person who exercises it. (ON HUMAN BEING, pp 102-103)

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[A Christian having the responsibility of power must always remember Christ’s words about power and His showing His glory on the cross.  The power a leader wields is not sacred, but the leader can make the office holy by following Christ.  If we think power is sacred, we will use, abuse and sacrifice people.  When we remember Christ came to save sinners, not proclaim an ideology, we look upon people as sacred and realize power is a servant.]

Creation Awaits

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I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

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For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility,

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not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope;

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because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.

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We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit,

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groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  (Romans 8:18-23)

Final Thoughts Science and the Christian Faith

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This is the final post In this blog series  exploring ideas presented by Christopher Knight  in his book, Science and the Christian Faith: A Guide for the Perplexed. The series began with the post, Science and Orthodoxy: A Perplexing Issue.  In the previous post, Orthodoxy and Science (II), Knight extensively references the writings of Orthodox theologian Panayiotis Nellas to offer what he believes might be the Orthodox difference to the impasse which currently exists between science and Western Christianity (a version of the debate between faith and reason).  Nellas relies on the interpretation of one rather obscure sentence from Genesis 3:21 in which God is said to have clothed Adam and Eve after their fall into sin with ‘garments of skin.’  But the ‘garments of skin’ idea as presented by Nellas raises a few questions for me (I have no definitive solution to this, but think it is part of what Orthodox thinkers today need to discuss):

1)  One does not find in the Bible any further use of the ‘garments of skin’ phrase outside of Genesis 3:21 which I think is a caution for making too much of this one obscure verse.  My guess is  this  passage becomes significant in understanding humanity  mostly because the Fathers needed to make some accommodation with Neoplatonism to win over or evangelize the intellectuals of their day.  In so doing they adopt some ideas that are not biblical at all because they assumed these ideas were indisputable truths of natural science.  In their effort to make Christian theology rise to the level of the integrity which Neoplatonism had in their culture, they accepted these ideas and then read them into the Scripture.  This would be a strong case of eisegesis instead of exegesis.

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The whole notion that the humans fell from some spiritual state to a physical state seems to come from paganism and Gnosticism not the Bible, but it became the predominate way to read Genesis 3.   Does the Bible text itself oppose life in Paradise to life on earth to the same extent that the Fathers eventually will?   The idea almost suggests that the world we live in is either not God’s creation but rather comes from and is completely under the power of Satan or in fact is an evil world into which we fell when we sinned.  This goes against the Biblical account of creation in which there is clearly no god or gods opposing the Creator but rather the one Creator calls all things into existence and all that is created is good in God’s eyes.   The biblical text has it that all things are created by God and answerable to God alone.  Satan plays no role in the creation stories in Genesis.  Ideas of some evil ‘equal and opposite’ of God come from paganism, especially Babylonian ideas in which there is a constant struggle between the almost equal forces of good and evil.  A world which is under Satan’s power suggests the world is not really God’s to begin with.  It would be worth Orthodox scholars today looking at the role Neoplatonism or Gnosticism played in shaping how the Fathers read Scripture.   Do the Fathers overly oppose Paradise to the world we live in, based on their acceptance of some Hellenic ideas?  Do they end up reading into the biblical account of the Fall ideas which were born in paganism rather than in the Bible?

Some Fathers had a strong affinity to angels, and thought of humans as first created as spiritual/angelic beings who through the Fall become material beings.  Monks embraced a spirituality in which saints were supposed to be ‘angels in the flesh’ – the Tropar of Mary of Egypt for example tells us we are to disregard the flesh for it passes away.  All of these issues come to the forefront when we take seriously modern scientific thinking which views humans very differently.  What do the Genesis creation accounts say about any of this?  What did the Fathers read into Genesis because of their accepting Neoplatonic ideas?  What does Hebrews say about humans and angels?  And of course, why did God become incarnate as a human  if humans are to become angelic beings?

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2) Some Fathers thought there were two creations – the first in Genesis 1 in which humans are created apparently as genderless beings and only after the Fall do humans become gendered when the ‘garments of skin’ are added to humanity to help humans live outside of Paradise in the fallen world).  This thinking seems unbiblical and very shaped by pagan ideas that the soul fell to earth and took on a body and that what we live in today is not the world God created for us but a fallen world.  This seems to me to be the very idea the biblical accounts of creation reject – the bible has one Creator God who made everything, and the world is created as good not as evil.  God doesn’t in Genesis create two universes (Paradise and Earth) but forms one creation, and the humans lose access to Paradise but it clearly has some relationship (even geographical in the Bible!) to our earth.  Paradise seems to be a ‘physical’ and geographical place in the Bible.  Those Fathers who accept ideas based on the ‘garments of skin’ treat human biological functions as coming to us only after the Fall.  Knight seems to believe this can change the debate between evolution and biblical believers but I wonder whether it won’t in fact lead to a strange new dualism in which humans are created not as biological beings but spiritual ones and we are on earth only as a result of the Fall.  This might coincide well with the Fathers tendency through history to become more focused on the spiritual natural of humans while becoming disinterested in their physical nature, but I can’t see how this will create a needed synthesis between science and religion.  But the idea to me indicates that what God created in Genesis 1 and 2 was some sort of spiritual or ‘mythical’ creation but not the material world that we live in.  It would seem to mean God never intended for us to be physical beings, but how then does one relate this idea to those Fathers who thought the incarnation would have happened even if Adam and Eve never sinned because this was God’s purpose all along (the mystery hidden from all eternity until the theophany of Christ): to fully unite the physical human to divinity?    The garment of skins idea seems to deny both the goodness of creation in Genesis 1 and the incarnation in which God united Himself to materiality.

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3)  If one accepts Nellas’ interpretation of the garments of skin, what is one to make of the notion from Genesis 2 that:  A] God took the dust of the earth to create humans?  and,  B] that when we die we return to the earth from which we were taken (which Orthodox do mention in their funeral service – out of the earth was  I taken and unto the same I shall return again)?   The garments of skin idea seems to say we weren’t in fact taken from the earth but originally had a non-physical existence.  What was God then using in Genesis 2 to create humans?  The garments of skin idea  introduces into the Biblical account a dualism in creation opposing Paradise and Earth.  It seems to follow various forms of pagan thinking that the material world is evil but there is a spiritual world which is good.  I think the Bible’s creation stories both reject that idea and closely connect God with humans and humans with the earth.  The physical creation (earth) is called good by God in Genesis 1.  There doesn’t seem to be some other kind of spiritual universe opposed to a physical one.  Something is lost in the Fall but humans don’t fall from one universe into another.  Notions that this earth is totally depraved and evil seem to come from sources outside of Judaism, from Babylonian ideas which opposed the Creator God with a more evil god who rules the earth.  The total depravity of humans is reintroduced into Christian thinking only with the rise of the radical Reformers and does seem to embrace dualism.

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I favor more ideas like those of Fr Schmemann in which the physical world and spiritual world are the same realities, and basically the goal of the Church is to show how this is true.  The Liturgy, sacraments and all ideas of holiness thus are not adding something to material things, rather they are simply revealing what is there that we can’t see with physical eyes.  To me this is a better understanding of sacraments, icons, saints, liturgies, church buildings, etc.

4) The garments of skin idea suggests that all human biological functions were only added to humans after the Fall, so biology belongs only to the  fallen state whereas apparently we were created to be ‘angelic’.  This too seems to be the very point the Genesis creation stories reject.   In Genesis there is one God who intentionally creates (or calls into existence) all things and God intends for this world to be good.  It seems to me that this line of thinking will also have a very hard time explaining why the DNA of all living things on earth is so similar.  Did humans get ‘DNA’ only after the Fall?  Does Jesus have DNA or since it only belongs to the Fallen world, was He DNA free?  At some point in the creation event, the laws of biology and physics came into existence and are part of God’s order in the cosmos.  A notion that we were only spiritual beings originally and then at some recent date became biological and genetic beings is going to be hard to reconcile with scientific evidence.  It seems more likely we were biological beings from the beginning as is the witness of Scripture where God provides food in Paradise for all beings and witnessed by the evidence of science.

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One also has to take into account Hebrews 1-3 in which it is clear that humans are superior to the angels.  Additionally, why all the discussion in Genesis 1 of God providing food for the humans if they don’t really have bodies and bodily functions?  Why does Jesus continue to eat even after being resurrected if the body is unimportant?  Why is the Kingdom portrayed as a banquet, if the body and food are unimportant?  Also, we have to deal with  the incarnation of God in Christ– God doesn’t rescue us from the earth, God becomes incarnate taking on our human condition including a body with bodily functions.  It is possible that the ‘garments of skin’ advocates have answers to these questions.

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I think there are other questions as well to be asked, but I’m not convinced that the garment of skin idea can bring science and Christianity together.  [Though, admittedly if Orthodoxy takes a position like that of Gregory of Nyssa and treats Genesis 1-2 as being a ‘mythical’ or spiritual account of creation that has nothing to do with history or science, then Orthodoxy has no cause to question evolution or science at all.]   Rather, I think Orthodox today might want to rethink the idea by laying aside assumptions that were necessary to make Christianity seem superior to Neoplatonism (like essentialism) but which are not found in the Bible but were read into it.  The Fathers used these ideas to help make Christianity acceptable to pagan intellectuals, but they aren’t necessary for understanding the Scriptures.  Additionally, since modern science rejects Neoplatonic ideas like essentialism there is no advantage to Orthodoxy today embracing them in our rapprochement with modern science.  The Fathers for the purposes of evangelism needed to show that Christianity was able to deal with philosophical issues raised by Neoplatonism or Gnosticism.  However, this shaped the lens through which they read the Scriptures.  We no longer need to use the Neoplatonic lens or filter to form our theological questions or our answers.  We can accept that lens or filter as having been necessary in the Hellenistic culture of the Fathers, but now we can lay it aside because a new and different philosophy – scientific materialism—is the  major competitor to Christian theology and the philosophy that we must deal with just as the Patristic writers had to deal with Neoplatonism.  And since the Fathers at times are clear that they reject parts of Neoplatonism and were trying to graft into Christian theology the ‘acceptable’ ideas of Neoplatonism which were culturally considered as unquestionable, we don’t have to continue to embrace or promote a Neoplatonic reading of the Bible especially since current science rejects Neoplatonic thought.

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This to me represents a great challenge to Orthodoxy for it means to some extent embracing a modern scientific approach to the truth: as new data comes in, the scientific understanding changes, and truth is modified to correspond to the facts Or, perhaps better, our understanding of truth is improved by what new data reveals.  This would be much more like the Patristic idea that at the Transfiguration of Christ it is not so much that Christ is transfigured as it is the case that the apostles’ eyes were opened and only now do they begin to see Christ as He is.  This means truth doesn’t change, but our understanding of it does.  The Fathers worked hard to create a synthesis between the ‘unquestionable’ aspects of Neoplatonism and theology.  Modern science rejects Neoplatonic natural science, so we don’t need to hold on to antiquated ideas that came not from the Bible but from Hellenism.

Can Orthodox make such an adaptation and realize that certain aspects of the Patristic writings may have to be seen as scientific chaff which needs to be set aside so that the theological wheat can be harvested?  That remains to be seen.  In the Akathist, “Glory to God for All Things”, we sing:  “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!

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As Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia has put it, Tradition “is not static but dynamic, not a dead acceptance of the past but a living discovery of the Holy Spirit in the present. Tradition, while inwardly changeless (for God does not change) is constantly assuming new forms, which supplement the old without superseding them.”  (Christopher C. Knight, Science and the Christian Faith: A Guide for the Perplexed, Kindle Loc Location 678-680)

Orthodoxy and Science (II) 

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In this blog series I am exploring ideas presented by Christopher Knight, who is both a scientist and an Orthodox priest, in his book, Science and the Christian Faith: A Guide for the Perplexed.  In the previous post, Orthodoxy and Science (I), we begin to see Knight’s ideas about how Orthodoxy can help Christians avoid a trap that has snagged Western Christians since the European Enlightenment.  Knight relies heavily on the writings of Orthodox theologian Panayiotis Nellas to show that there is a dualism which has occurred in both Western Christianity and the scientific materialism which has opposed it.  Both have accepted a dualistic opposition between the natural and supernatural that has caused them to be at loggerheads.  Knight following Nellas thinks the solution is to understand that all the empirical world has a spiritual or divine dimension since it is created by God.  In a sense, he desacralizes the supernatural and says the work of God in creation is in fact natural and in life we can begin to experience God at work in creation.  We don’t magically make things holy (change them in some material way or make them something they are not), rather religion endeavors to show the spiritual or divine qualities inherent in all that exists.

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Knight takes this idea and applies it particularly to humans, following the theological writings of Nellas.  Nellas and Knight rely on the interpretation some Fathers give one sentence in Genesis that gets no further interpretation in the rest of the Scriptures including the New Testament:  And the LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them (Genesis 3:21).  While many today interpret this to be some vague reference that God mercifully clothed the naked Adam and Eve, some Fathers developed an elaborate idea that this was a kind of ‘second creation’ in which God provided not clothes that Adam and Eve could wear, but rather mercifully added something (biological processes and organs) to human nature to allow the humans to function outside of Paradise.  God expelled Eve and Adam from the Garden of Delight and sends them to the earth as we know it.  But they were created to live in the more ‘heavenly’ Paradise and so needed some help to cope with the reality of earth.  Thus God in His love for humans provides us with these ‘garments of skin’ which in some way correspond to our materialistic nature.  Not only were our bodies made more material, but this also drags our soul and mind down to the level of materialism.

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Nellas now tackles the question of the nature of the “garments of skin.” The notion of the empirical world as less than fully natural is, says Nellas, central to “the teaching of the Fathers on human nature,” which “forms, as it were, a bridge with two piers.” The first pier, he continues, is “the understanding of what is ‘in the image’.” The second is “the deeply significant notion of ‘garments of skin’.” These garments of skin are to be interpreted partly in terms of what is necessary for survival in man’s postlapsarian state, but also partly in terms of the need to foster in a more positive way “his return to what is ‘in the image’.”  Intrinsic to the notion of the garments of skin, says Nellas, is the notion of mortality. The fall, he says, though in one sense a fall into materiality, is not to be identified simply with a fall into created matter. According to St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, although the body has become “coarse and solid” through the fall, and is characterized by a “gross and heavy composition,” it will, at the general resurrection, recover its prelapsarian state, being “respun” into “something lighter and more aerial.” The body will not be left behind, as a Gnostic dualism might maintain, but will be transfigured into its original beauty. Moreover, Nellas notes, it is not only the body that is, for St Gregory, in need of this transformation. He insists that the functions of the soul must also undergo a transformation, having become “corporeal” through the fall.  (Kindle Location 2730-2742)

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The point here, says Nellas, is that although at one level the garments of skin are an evil, brought about as a direct result of human rebellion against the divine intention, God “changes that which is the result of denial and is therefore negative into something relatively positive.” The garments of skin are therefore, he goes on, “a second blessing to a self-exiled humanity.” God has added this blessing “like a second nature to the existing human nature, so that by using it correctly humanity can survive and realize its original goal in Christ.”  (Kindle Location 2750-2754)

In a related way, the fall was often seen, in the patristic era, as being not only a transition into our present biological state, but also into time as we now experience it. As Philip Sherrard has put it, it was a lapse “into a materialized space-time universe.”  In this perspective, the expulsion from Paradise involved much more of a discontinuity than is often appreciated, since not only was our “original” life not biological life, it was, in addition, not even a temporal existence in the usual sense of that term.  (Kindle Location 2790-2794)

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The “garments of skin” that are characteristic of the fallen world are not, as Panayiotis Nellas notes, “unrelated to the iconic faculties of man before the fall.” God, he goes on, has enabled “the attributes of that which is ‘in the image’—the attributes which were transformed into ‘garments of skin’ without being changed in essence—to be useful to man not only in his struggle for mere survival but also as a means of making the new journey towards God.”  (Kindle Location 2948-2952)

Even before the fall, says Nellas (reflecting a view found in St Irenaeus and others) man had “need of salvation, since he was an imperfect and incomplete ‘child’.”  Christ accomplishes man’s salvation “not only in a negative way, liberating him from the consequences of original sin, but also in a positive way, completing his iconic, prelapsarian ‘being’.”  (Kindle Location 2715-2718)

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While Knight sees Nellas’ garments of skin idea as helping us understand that humans are more than just their material nature (the mind, soul, spirit, God’s image, etc) and thus science can not really tackle these questions about what it is to be human, I think there are some problems with the garments of skin idea  which would have to be addressed – and those will be mentioned in the next post.   Orthodox theologians today need to consider the wisdom of Fr John Meyendorff:

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.”  (John Meyendorff, NEW PERSPECTIVES ON HISTORICAL THEOLOGY, p 26)

Next:  Final Thoughts on Orthodoxy and Science