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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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)