Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth

“He who restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding. Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.”  (Proverbs 17:27-28)
“Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said.”  (Amos 5:13-14)


I first head of Bishop Synesius (5th Century) in a hagiography course.  He was pointed out as a person who held some personal beliefs not in consonance with official church doctrine.  Yet, the local Christian flock held him in such honor that they demanded he accept election as their congregational bishop.  He resisted their demand, pointing out that some of his ideas were not in agreement with the church.  The flock persisted as they believed him a man of integrity despite his sometimes errant theological opinions.  He was a learned man and had a great reputation for thoughtful honesty.  As the flock continued to demand that he accept the office of bishop he told the flock that he would never teach them anything that he did not personally believe.  However, because there were some things the church held with which he disagreed, he told them he simply would not speak on these issues.  He would not teach them anything false, but he would not address some issues on which the Church had established doctrinal positions because he did not personally believe these teachings.  He was educated in Neoplatonists ideas and felt that on some issues the Neoplatonic ideas were more reasonable or stronger than church teachings and logic.  He became their bishop and because of his stated position was seen as a true witness to Christ – always and only speaking about what he believed to be true.  The people could rely on him to speak with conviction, and were not bothered by the fact that there were some beliefs of the Church which he simply didn’t teach.  He didn’t speak against them, he passed over them in silence.  Recently I noticed that Fr. Lawrence Farley mentions Synesius in one of his books.  Fr. Lawrence is not making the point I am making, but here is what he wrote:

An example of such a bishop is Synesius, bishop of Ptolemais. He was born around 370 in North Africa to a wealthy landowning family. He had a successful secular career and a proven track record in the civil service, was married, and was perhaps as much Neoplatonist as Christian. It is significant that when the people wanted to elect him for their bishop in 411, he consented, after great hesitation, on two conditions. He would cease his hobbies of hunting, sport, and time for private study, but two things he would not give up. One was his wife. He demanded that he be allowed to keep her openly and not be forced to hide her away in secret. “On the contrary,” he said, “I want many, well-bred children”—and this in a time when celibacy was increasingly encouraged. The second condition was that he not be forced to renounce his Neoplatonic philosophy. He agreed to “speak mythologically” while in public, as his episcopal duties required, but he would not say anything with which he sincerely disagreed.   (The Empty Throne: Reflections on the History and Future of the Orthodox Episcopacy, Kindle Location 952-959)

doublehelixIt is not just in the modern age that Christians have had to deal with complex ideas which are not easy to reconcile.  Synesius in the early 5th Century was committed to certain philosophical ideas, some of which he could not reconcile with his Christian faith.  He believed the philosophy had, on some issues, stronger logic than what the Church offered on their teachings.  Today, it can be philosophical ideas that trouble us but more likely it will be ideas related to science and the scientific relationship to atheistic materialism which will continue to challenge our thinking.  And certainly the ideas of post-modernism remain at odds with traditional Christian ideas on morality. And it may be that some modern Christian leaders will have to follow the lead of Synesius and simply not teach anything on some issues.  Better that our leaders speak with complete integrity and sincerity on any topic they address while remaining silent on issues with which they have no informed opinion or with which they are not convinced or even disagree with a known Church teaching.  The silence may be wisdom and preferable to them simply giving lip service to teachings with which they disagree or even feel uncomfortable with.

Ideologues often want church leaders to agree with their strong convictions and like to force leaders to have to take a stand, but that does little for the unity of the Church and may never be true Wisdom.   Better to remain silent as a form of wisdom than to speak on issues which are beyond one’s education or ability to reason and reveal one’s folly.

We can think about the Prophecy of Job and how he had to deal with long winded men who felt they rightfully spoke for God.

The Prophet Job cried out:  “Oh that you would keep silent, and it would be your wisdom!  Hear now my reasoning, and listen to the pleadings of my lips.  Will you speak falsely for God, and speak deceitfully for him? Will you show partiality toward him, will you plead the case for God?  Will it be well with you when he searches you out? Or can you deceive him, as one deceives a man?  He will surely rebuke you if in secret you show partiality.  Will not his majesty terrify you, and the dread of him fall upon you?  Your maxims are proverbs of ashes, your defenses are defenses of clay.”  (Job 13:5-12)


God Himself rebuked the three verbose men who tried to force ideas on Job as to what God’s justice and righteousness mean.

After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.  Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”  So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the LORD had told them; and the LORD accepted Job’s prayer.   And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends…   (Job 42:7-10)

4440153997_fdf59bed87_nThere are endless issues over which debates rage in the modern world.  The Internet allows instant polarization on issues at the total expense of wisdom, knowledge or reason.  While we can be drawn immediately into every raging controversy on the Internet, we might remember words which St. Augustine said warning the Christians of his day not to rush into every controversy with science and philosophy:  “In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search for truth justly undermines that position, we too fall with it.



Science and Experience

“It is one of the laws of life that new meaning must be lived before it can be known, and in some mysterious way modern man knows so much that he is the prisoner of his knowledge. The old dynamic conception of the human spirit as something living always on the frontiers of human knowledge has gone. We hide behind what we know. And there is an extraordinarily angry and aggressive quality in the knowledge of modern man; he is angry with what he does not know; he hates and rejects it. He has lost the sense of wonder about the unknown and he treats it as an enemy. The experience which is before knowing, which would enflame his life with new meaning, is cut off from him.

Curiously enough, it has never been studied more closely. People have measured the mechanics of it, and the rhythm, but somehow they do not experience it.”  (Sir Laurens Van der Post, found in Stephen Muse’s When Hearts Become Flame, p. 75)

Knowledge and Keeping God’s Commandments

In the Gospel lesson of Matthew 19:16-26, a man asks Jesus, Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”  Jesus tells him, “… if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.

Of course there are 613 commandments in the Torah, so the man seeks further clarification, so he asks Jesus:

“Which ones?”

Jesus said, “’You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ’Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’“

Jesus names five of the Ten Commandments and then adds another commandment from the Torah that he must love his neighbor as if the neighbor is his own self (Leviticus 19:18).  Jesus neither limits God’s commandments to the Ten, nor does he treat this other commandment as any different or less than the Ten.

St. John of Kronstadt comments on keeping the Commandments:

“One definite commandment was given to Adam and Eve, in order that by fulfilling this one commandment – which was, moreover, a very easy one – men might acquire the habit of fulfilling the will of God, the fulfillment of which constitutes the whole well-being of creatures, and might be strengthened in the love of God.

If we turn our attention to the contrary – to the non-fulfillment of the will of the Creator and the fulfillment of our own will, in opposition to the Creator’s – we observe that little by little a man changes for the worse and perverts his own right nature, created after the image and likeness of God, and becomes God’s enemy. So important is the fulfillment of God’s commandments, and so destructive is their non-fulfillment! By giving to the first men His definite commandment not to eat the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the Lord God revealed Himself as the Guide of the newly-created reasonable creatures, of His children by adoption. Whose fault was it that this guidance was rejected, and that man preferred to be governed by his own will? Even until now, notwithstanding all the progress in sciences and arts, notwithstanding all the treasures of human wisdom, neither the man of ancient nor of modern times can educate himself, because he rejected even from the beginning the guidance of God; for, say, who but God should be our guide? And both at present and in the past only those men successfully completed their mental and moral education who trusted in God and lived in accordance with His commandments, or who now live in accordance with the Gospel and the teaching of the Church, submitting themselves to her guidance. This is useful for all modern teachers to remember.

“Science” – Library of Congress

We have many sciences, but the result obtained is small; our youths have much in their heads, whilst in their hearts they have little – very little and often, alas! Even nothing. Life, then does not correspond with education and science. But ‘though I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.‘ (1 Corinthians XII. 2, 3.).”   (My Life in Christ, pp. 150-151)

Genetics: Ethics and Editing

DISCOVER MAGAZINE’s January 2016 issue is devoted to the top science news stories of the year 2015.  I’m not a scientist but am fascinated with what science is doing, especially on the cutting edge.


Number 10 on the list of stories is “The Ethics of Editing Human Embryos.”  Science is never simply about data and proving or disproving theories.  All activities in science and technology involve decisions that can affect human life and therefore have an ethical dimension.  There are two very different questions when it comes to any specific scientific experiment:  Can it be done?  AND  Should it be done?

So the magazine reports researchers are applying those to questions to human genetic engineering.  The potential for good is very alluring.

doublehelix“Imagine if genetic diseases could be removed from the very biological code of our species — a future in which the likes of hemophilia, cystic fibrosis or dozens of other afflictions are simply edited out of human embryos.”

If doctors could simply remove the code for certain diseases from the human genome, there would be great rejoicing in the medical world and in the population as a whole.  The trouble comes with the word “simply” for indeed a tool has emerged in biology which makes changing the DNA of embryos fairly easy:  the gene-editing system known as CRISPR/ Cas9.   However, the success of the technology on human embryos has had not positive results.  Chinese scientists tested the technology on 86 human embryos, “But the editing worked for only four of the embryos and created numerous unintentional mutations.”  It is these unintentional mutations that have alarmed some scientists.

“Those accidental mutations illustrate the concerns some scientists have about using the tool in humans. Earlier in the year, when the Chinese team’s experiment was still a rumor, 18 researchers co-authored a letter in Science that called for the community to address the ethical questions and potential hazards of using CRISPR in humans. Until we can wield CRISPR more precisely and understand the implications of its use more fully, said the scientists, it should not be used on humans.”

Introducing “unintended” consequences into the human gene pool should alarm all scientists.  This is science fiction horror come to real life.   Once such mutations were introduced into the gene pool, the entire future population of humans could be at risk.  So a battle against certain diseases might be won, but a war on being human would be lost.

In the same issue of DISCOVER MAGAZINE, story #66, “One Little Gene Could Explain Our Big Brains”, we read about what a difference one gene can make.  Neurobiologists discovered a “DNA snippet” that is present in humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans, but not in chimpanzees.  These scientists are becoming more convinced that this one gene might in fact explain the difference between human and chimp brain size and development.

The introduction or removal of one little gene in the human genome can have massive effects on the species – as big as the difference between chimps and humans who otherwise share 99% of the genome. So those researchers and scientists who are alarmed about using the new technology to tamper with the makeup of human embryos have much to be concerned about – as do we all.  DISCOVER MAGAZINE notes:

“Despite the concerns, in September researchers at the Francis Crick Institute in London applied to the United Kingdom’s governing authority on fertility research for permission to use CRISPR on human embryos. The need for clear guidelines has spurred the organization of an international summit on human gene editing. As of this writing, it was scheduled for early December in Washington, D.C.”

It is not only scientists who have a stake in this.  This is of concern to all humans.  And while some will label those concerned about where science might go with this technology as being reactionary or alarmist, all humans should be concerned about the ethical issues of this science.  And it should be noted that even if scientists propose “clear guidelines” on the use of this technology on embryos, guidelines won’t stop researchers who want to push the limits of science or ethics, not to mention the very big concern these days over terrorist and rogue governments.   As is reported in the magazine articles, even with some scientists issuing alarms about what is happening in genetic editing, there are already scientists applying for permission to go ahead with the research.  What ethics guides them?

This is why Christians need to be following what is trending in science.  Humans, though created in the image of God, can have that image altered genetically.  And God only knows what that will introduce into the human race.

September 1: The Day of Prayer for Creation

Poster Creation

Since the time of the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox Church has kept September 1st as The Church Liturgical New Year.  In recent years, following the inspiration of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Orthodox churches have also kept September 1 as The Day of Prayer for Creation.   This year, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America issued an archpastoral letter on The Beginning of the Ecclesiastical Year & The Day of Prayer for the Creation, giving mutual recognition to the New Year and day of prayer for creation.   The Roman Catholic Church this year also joined the Orthodox in honoring September 1 as a day of prayer for creation.   The Church has always recognized that “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein; for he has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the rivers” (Psalm 24:1-2; 1 Corinthians 10:26).  We Orthodox recognize God is the creator of the world and the Lord of all the universe.  We are stewards of God’s creation.  As such, we have a prayerful responsibility for the environment.

Here is one of the traditional hymns honoring the Church’s liturgical New Year:

Creator and Master of time and the ages,

Triune and merciful God of all,

Grant blessing for the course of this year

And in Your boundless mercy save those who worship You and cry to you in fear:

Savior, grant blessing to all humankind.

(Kontakion of the New Year)

And a more recent hymn from from Vespers for the Environment, September 1:

Joy of heavenly hosts, Christ our Savior, Lover of humankind

Who brought all things into being from nothing,

And with ineffable wisdom arranged for each one

To accomplish unerringly the goal which You laid down in the beginning,

As You are powerful, bless the whole creation which you fashioned.




Soul, Mind, And Brain

Mind & BrainOne interesting question ponder is: What is the exact relationship between the mind and the brain?   It is a question for scientists, as well as philosophers and believers.  The materialist says the mind has no existence apart from the brain for it is merely a function of the material brain.  Philosophers and believers look beyond the material existence, to the existence of self or soul and what it means to be human.

The Fifth Century Christian author, St. Mark the Monk, reports on a conversation which deals with these very issues of the relationship between the physical and spiritual worlds.  Christians of the 5th Century were well aware that the desires and passions of the body often went against what a person willed to do by choice.  That spiritual warfare is obvious to anyone who attempts to practice self denial or self control.  The ability to exert self control was often thought to be a hallmark of the human being who was not guided by animal instinct but had free will.

The attorney then asked, “Does the flesh have will apart from thought?”

The monk answered, “It does, in accordance with what the Apostle says: ‘We ourselves were once disobedient, doing the will of the flesh’ [Titus 3.3; Eph 2.3], and again, ‘What the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh’ [Gal 5.17]. So, you see, the flesh has desire and will, and we are ignorant of this fact on account of the carelessness and assent of our thoughts. Because of this fact, not only those who neglect prayer, but also those who do not pay heed to their thoughts are injured.  (Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 4523-4529)

braingodWhat was obvious is that apart from the mind or the self, the body has a will of its own, which the goal of the Christian life was to control.  We are always trying to exert our spiritual will to govern the body, rather than having bodily urges control the person.  The mind in this worldview is not identical to the physical brain and the rest of the human body.  The body is capable of creating desires which might go against what the mind wants to do.

In a more recent book, Dr. Clark Elliott (The Ghost in My Brain: How a Concussion Stole My Life and How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Helped Me Get it Back), writes about his personal experience with brain trauma and the effect it had on his life.  In the book he describes the effect the brain trauma had on his spiritual life and reflects exactly on the relationship of the brain to the self and one’s spiritual life.   To be honest I didn’t find the whole book that compelling a read, but I did find this one section interesting.


Since my very early teens, I’ve had the sense of a dialogue with God. Though I did not grow up religious, praying was easy for me. I talked to God, and God listened. God talked to me (in pictures, and through intuition), and I listened. Dialogue with the spirit was easy and natural: comforting, occasionally demanding, real. Almost immediately following the crash, this dialogue disappeared. I recall very distinctly entering the small chapel at DePaul’s downtown university campus, sitting alone on one of the chairs to pray for my students, and for my ability to serve them as their professor—something I often did. In a profoundly disturbing moment I realized that there was no longer anyone there. No one was listening. I thought: These are just empty words I am saying to myself. My prayers are no different than if I were reading aloud from an auto repair manual. I felt a deep sense of loss, but in a weird way. Though I understood, intellectually, about the loss of dialogue with God, and I felt quite disturbed about how sterile my life had become because of it, I nonetheless couldn’t quite “see” what was missing. It was like trying to remember a dream. I still believed in God, but viscerally it was an entirely different experience: there was no longer anyone there. When we consider the nature of my later recovery, and the many examples we’ve seen of how our internal world is so very symbolic in nature, it becomes apparent that it was the loss of my visual/spatial ability to represent symbolic relationship that was at the heart of my troubles with God. If so, then losing the closeness to God I felt pre-concussion raises some interesting questions about our connection to the larger universe around us. Could this sense of connection be located entirely in one of the visual/spatial centers of our brains? After all, in my case I had this easy faith up until the moment of the crash. I lost it in the days after the crash. I didn’t have it for eight years. I got it back again after treatment for my concussion. This is pretty strong evidence that it is our brains—our physical brains—that support this kind of spiritual faith. What this means is still up for grabs, however. As scientists, we have to allow for at least two possibilities. On the one hand we could take this as evidence that a sense of God, and the spirit, is just an artifact of the neural, and possibly other, programming in our brains—a purely physical uprising from a locus in our heads. Certainly there are researchers who talk about the “God spot” in the parietal, and other, regions of the brain that are thought to give rise to spirituality. Some have even have claimed to have created a “God Helmet” that artificially stimulates a profound religious experience via artificial manipulation of the brain.* On the other hand, we could just as easily imagine that these parts of the brain allow us to connect to a real channel of spirituality, and that without them we have simply lost one dimension of our sensory capabilities. That is, if we lose our hearing, the world is still full of sound; in the same way, if we lose our sense of God, that doesn’t mean that God is not still out there.     ( Kindle Location 1350-1373)

Obviously the mind and the brain, or the self and the brain, have a relationship.  One enters into relationships in and through one’s physical body.  And yet, we believe that the self is not identical to the body.  The self can have a relationship with God, using the body as a means of voicing prayer and of physically moving one’s body to correspond to one’s prayer and thoughts as in bowing in repentance.  The soul comes into existence when the breath of the Spirit enters into the physical dust of the earth to cause into being a living soul.  Acts of the Holy Spirit, touching a human will register in the brain of a person.  The physical and spiritual are not in opposition to one another but rather are united in the human being.

Is Yesterday Just Another Tomorrow?

I have a curiosity about certain scientific topics.  But I’m not a scientist, and so I read science mostly at a popular level, things like the magazine, DISCOVER: SCIENCE FOR THE CURIOUS.  These are not peer reviewed scientific articles, so the scientist may only pay scant attention to these articles, even if they are written by scientists for the curious.

One issue which I think is related to both theology and science is the issue of time.   Certainly at one point even scientists imagined time was a fixed value, and Western thinkers imagine time as marching on in a progression from past to present to future (if one pays attention in Orthodox liturgy and to certain writings of the Orthodox, one will note the Eastern Christians do not hold to a strictly linear understanding of time, especially once the eternal God enters into time through the incarnation!).  Albert Einstein changed the thinking on time and how time (or the experience of it) is understood as being relative to one’s position in the universe.  Einstein and many scientists think of time as being an illusion with the future being fully set with no difference between the past and the future.  This thinking is very contrary to what theists understand about the universe which is unfolding as God wills, changed by God’s will and also by human choice.   Avowed atheists hold solidly to a notion that there is no free will, no consciousness and  thus believe everything is simply an effect of past cause unfolding in mindless predetermination.

So it was interesting to read in the June Issue of Discover an article about one cosmologist, George Ellis, who disagrees with Einstein.  And though the ideas of Ellis have not garnered much support in the scientific world, still he is a scientist attempting to offer a scientific alternative to what is considered dogma for most physicists.   The article, titled Tomorrow Never Was, written by Zeeya Merali.

Ellis is troubled by the implications of Einstein’s theory, for if the past and future are no different, but everything is already set, then humans have no free will and there is no reason to hold people accountable for their behavior since all things and all actions are fixed by what came before them.   Ellis’ questions are the questions that any theist has to wrestle with.  Ellis questions Einstein because of these philosophical implications.

 “If we are just machines living out a future that has already been set, then Adolf Hitler had no choice to do other than what he did; Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, had no choice,” Ellis says. It would be meaningless to tell them they were doing something wrong, he adds. “To me, that’s an untenable view of the world that will lead to great evil because people will just stand by as evil takes place.”

Ellis’ questions about Einstein’s theory are philosophical and ethical – looking at the question as to what it means to be human, something many scientists do not think to be mere speculation but not science.  However, his questions are also based in physics, for scientists have known for a long time that general relativity and quantum mechanics are incompatible.  These problems have been demonstrated in laboratory experiments.   Those scientific problems have not led to an abandonment of Einstein’s theory by scientists, but pose a challenge to be solved.  Ellis sees the problem as perhaps a reason to rethink Einstein on the philosophical and moral levels as well as on the scientific level.

Of course having one cosmologist thinking outside the box does not mean that he is correct and the rest of the theory is wrong, any more than finding one theologian who abandons Orthodoxy in favor of a novel idea makes the new idea correct.  But Ellis’ ideas do give theists and the curious a chance to reflect on whether perhaps the universe Einstein describes in his theories is perhaps not exactly correct either.  Of course many mainstream physicists still see ideas of free will or a God as belonging to an archaic way of thinking which is no longer supported by scientific fact, mathematics or scientific theory.

As best as I can make sense of the universe and time, the universe is believed to be expanding.  Some question what the edge of the universe could mean.  Is the universe spreading into something that exists outside the universe?  Many think the universe is simply creating space as it expands – there truly is nothing beyond the universe but the universe is growing in size.  It seems to me the same concept applies to time.  The future does not exist, but time and space do exist and they do expand.   Time is expanding, creating new time, as it does so.  The future is not fixed, but the actions within the existing universe shape the future.   In their expansion, space/time are pushing the outer edges which are simultaneously creating more space and more time.  Space and time work in the same way in their expansion.

Ellis attempts to explain the evolving universe in quantum terms to show how the future is not in fact the same as the past and is not fixed.

He contends that at the front edge of his evolving block universe, the uncertain future crystallizes into the past through a sequence of microscopic quantum events. At each event, particles are forced to transform from their original uncertain quantum state — where they juggle multiple conflicting identities — and settle into one rigid identity. As adjacent particles go through this process, a wave of certainty converts the open future to the closed past.

His scientific peers think Ellis is far from proving his ideas. Ellis contends since observers in fact influence or alter events on the quantum level that shows that time is not fixed as Einstein envisioned it.  His critics object

“that vast swaths of the universe are devoid of people to observe quantum processes, which physicists traditionally say is what triggers particles to transform from their uncertain superpositions into defined states. So who or what is observing these quantum particles and forcing them to change their nature?

Ellis counters that quantum collapse can occur without a conscious observer, whenever particles collide with each other, knocking each other out of their uncertain states. This idea, called decoherence, is already gaining popularity (independently) among physicists.”

Believers of course would offer that the entire universe if always being observed by God and so quantum events can occur without human observers.  The God solution would never be acceptable to scientific materialists.

At least in the article, Ellis does not bring God into the equation but continues to try to show from science why time is real, not just an illusion, and why it matters what we do and who we are.

Brain and Mind; Flesh and Spirit

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Mind & BrainOrthodox Christian writers have had at times a hostile relationship with Freudian psychoanalysis, seeing its assumptions and goals as being godless and hostile to religion.

Psychoanalysis has also been held in disregard by neuroscience which has often doubted and sometimes discredited the ideas of Freud as being philosophical/religious rather than based in the scientific method or in materialism.

Despite Orthodoxy and neuroscience sharing a suspicion of psychoanalysis, the two have not found having a common enemy makes for friendship on any level.  Neuroscience has been founded in scientific materialism and to the extent that its practitioners hold to materialistic assumptions there is no common ground between neuroscience and  Orthodoxy.   In fact a number of atheists in their arguments against religion have pointed to neuroscience as having disproved any idea of a self or of consciousness.  They claim free will is a delusion created by the brain’s chemistry.

Because of these apparent oppositional ideas between neuroscience and psychoanalysis, I found an article by Kat McGowan  in the April 2014 issue of DISCOVER, “The Second Coming of Sigmund Freud”, to be interesting because it is showing some of the dividing walls of knowledge are coming down between the science of the brain and the science of the mind, and this might have implication for how believers approach these sciences. McGowan points out that:

“By the end of the 20th Century, the two disciplines (psychoanalysis and neuroscience), did not seem to be talking about the same thing.  Psychoanalysis was hostile to the idea of testing hypotheses through experiments.  Neuroscience claimed to explain the brain but ignored its finest product: the dazzling, intimate sensations of human consciousness.”

brain scanBut a few scientists have begun to realize the brain and the mind are not separable and must be understood as a whole, which has resulted in the creation of Neuropsychology which blends knowledge from both sciences into a more holistic understanding of the human.   One of  the founders of this new science, Neuropsychologist Mark Solms says the purpose is:

“to put the study of the mind back in the study of the brain … ‘What neuropsychoanalysis is all about is this: How does the actual stuff of being a person relate to the tissue and physiology and anatomy and chemistry of the brain?’”

The questions,”what is to be human?”, or “what does it mean to be human?”, become scientific questions.  They are also the questions religion has been asking for centuries.  The relationship of the ‘self’ or soul to brain tissues, to the  “anatomy and chemistry of the brain” are questions that are of great interest to the believer who also values the work of science.

“These observations, and the experiments that followed, led (Neuroscientist Antonio) Damasio to conclude that emotions are not irrational intrusions into reason.  They are intrinsic to rational thought.”

brain2The relationship between emotions and reason are issues discussed frequently in the fathers of the church.  That science might now be recognizing these issues as real  knowledge opens many doors for Orthodoxy and medical science.  The new thinking of neuropsychology should be of interest to all those who study the fathers and their discussion of depression.

“Psychoanalytic thought is fundamentally humanistic.  It honors the unique experience of individual human beings – something often overlooked by the current medical approach to the mind.”

“Depression is a perfect example.  The prevailing theory in biomedical research is mechanistic: Depression is just another biochemical problem, essentially no different from diabetes or gout.   That approach leads to the creation of dozens of medicines that tamper with serotonin and other brain chemicals – drugs that, for more than half of patients, don’t work.  ‘Pharma has dumped a gazillion dollars down the drain and never [has] come up with a new concept,’ say (Neuroscientist Jaak) Panksepp.

Like most psychiatrists, he and Solms say the place to begin is with the existential reality of depression—the soul-crushing hopelessness and despair.”

Raising LazarusThe approach being described will be of interest to those Orthodox who are interested in the relationship between Orthodoxy and medical science including psychological illnesses.  The book RAISING LAZARUS: Integral Healing in Orthodox Christianity  comes to mind

“’What is most significant about the brain, in comparison to other bodily organs, is that it’s not just an object but subject,’ says Solms.  ‘To truly recognize that has massive implications.  That’s really what’s motivated me consciously in my scientific life.’  We must embrace the fact that a brain is also a mind, that it thinks, it experiences, it suffers.  In a word, that it is us.”

The ideas of Mark Solms should be welcomed by Theists as a possible bridge between psychoanalysis, neuroscience and Christianity.   They may also have an impact on the ideas being pushed by some atheistic materialists that say the consciousness and free will have been disproven and so our efforts to deal with criminals, addicts and miscreants is totally misguided. (see my blog Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will)

Though some like evolutionist Jerry Coyne seem to think that modern science is the first to consider these issues, St. Basil the Great  (d. 379AD) raises similar issues in the 4th Century.

“If the origin of our virtues and of our vices is not in ourselves, but in the fatal consequence of our birth, it is useless for legislators to prescribe for us what we ought to do, and what we ought to avoid; it is useless for judges to honor virtue and to punish vice. The guilt is not in the robber, not in the assassin: it was willed for him; it was impossible for him to hold back his hand, urged to evil by inevitable necessity. Those who laboriously cultivate the arts are the maddest of people. The laborer will make an abundant harvest without sowing seed and without sharpening his sickle. Whether he wishes it or not, the merchant will make his fortune, and will be flooded with riches by fate. As for us Christians, we shall see our great hopes vanish, since from the moment that one does not act with freedom, there is neither reward for justice nor punishment for sin. Under the reign of necessity and of fate there is no place for merit, the first condition of all righteous judgment.”    (St. Basil  the Great,  A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 3624-31)

Predestination whether ordered by Fate or by genetic determinism is an old idea which Christians rejected long ago as being pagan mythology and not capable of fully understanding humanity.   We might hope that the new science of neuropsychology might be open again to the insights of those great observers of humanity and human psychology, the Fathers of the Church.  And while neuropsychology admits that both mind and brain are real, their interests in the mind/brain will continue to be different from that of Christianity which further understands that the mind and brain relationship is also looking at the soul, the very place where the Spirit of God interfaces with the physical brain/body.

“God formed the human out of dust from the ground, and breathed in his face the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”  (Genesis 2:7)

Seeing The Truth of Colors

The truths of science can help us spiritually because they can challenge our understanding or misunderstanding of the world around us.  What we see may not give us the exact insight into what is actually transpiring on a scientific level. Vision in itself is a perfect example of this as there is a difference between how we conceive of sight and what is happening in scientific terms.  Consider for example the colors we see every where and every day.  We can function perfectly well in the world with a non-scientific understanding of sight and color and can assume that things all have color in them.  But if we look into the scientific understanding we come to see the world quite differently.  Take for example the description of color and sight from  Rodney A. Brooks,  Fields of Color: The theory that escaped Einstein (Kindle Loc. 941-54)

“Colors are determined by the frequency of radiation, with red being the lowest visible frequency, followed by orange, yellow, green, blue and violet, in that order. When all colors are present, as in sunlight, our eyes perceive the result as white. The component colors of white light can be demonstrated by passing it through a prism, or by looking at the rainbow created by “nature’s prisms” (water droplets). However, and it’s a big however, the colors we see do not exist outside of our minds .”

It is actually our brains that turn the wave frequencies into color.  Our eyes translate the wave lengths into colors.  Our eyes and brains are thus constantly interpreting the world around us which help us to distinguish things and to make sense of them.   Brooks continues his description of Electromagnetic (EM) radiation:

 “EM radiation has no color; it is simply an alternation in the EM field intensity. It is only when this radiation reaches our eyes that it starts a process that turns the oscillations into sensations of color. What happens is this: There are three types of photosensitive molecule in the eye that respond predominantly to three different frequencies of light. (This is why display devices such as a TV screen are able to reproduce the full range of color using only three phosphors.) Each photosensor, in turn, is connected by a different neural pathway to the mysterious part of the brain where the sensation of color is created. However, we are not aware of the separate intensities of the three neural signals; our brain combines them to create a host of color sensations, depending on the amount of each component that is present.”

“It’s a bit like a chef mixing different flavors to create a new taste, or a composer putting tones together to create a chord, except that a good chef can detect the individual elements in a mixture and a good musician can distinguish the component tones in a chord. This is not the case with color. The component colors do not survive, but are lost to the new color sensation produced by the combination. For example, if red and blue combine to produce purple, the red and blue hues can no longer be separately identified (although they are still present). Our brains process color very differently from the way they process other sensory signals.”

The observer (you, me, any human) interprets and makes sense of the radiation waves which strike our eyes.  It is a marvelous and mysterious process in which the brain is translating the various wave lengths into the sensation of different colors.   What is also known is that other creatures on earth whose eye structures are slightly different than human eyes, “see” the world slightly differently than we do.

What fascinates me in this scientific world is the essential role of the observer in being able to see anything, let alone understand it.  Objective reality is dependent on an observer.  This is a truth which quantum mechanics fully recognizes as well.  Even the mathematical truths of the universe are there only in as much as there is a conscious observer of them, someone who can then make use of them for further action.  At the heart of science and math is the need for an anthropic principle: the observer is essential to doing math or science.  Circumference and radius only have a mathematical relationship if there is a someone to relate them and to make use of that relationship.   That is the simple truth which is reflected in Shroedinger’s thought experiment for quantum physics.

The existence of conscious beings in the universe brings us to an understanding of the universe that enables us to interact with the universe and even cause change in the nature of events.  Cause and effect are operative, but humans can and do alter the causes of things and the effects of things.  Just by observing things, we can alter the course of cause and effect.  It is an anthropic principle.  Humans are changing the course of events merely by observing them at the quantum level.  We also have the ability to change the course of events because we know how to interrelate with our universe at a macro level as well.  The mere existence of humans, or really of any sentinel beings, means the course of the universe is being altered.  Humanity interacts with the universe and affects the course of events.  The cause and effect initiated by the Big Bang is not a mindless process for it produces minds which interact withe the process and can change the course of events.

And obviously for believers, there never was a time when the universe wasn’t being observed by its Creator.  And as we know from science, the very existence of an observer changes everything.

Discerning the Spirits and Scientific Materialism

This is the concluding blog of a trilogy that began with Demons, Free Will and OCD.  In the blog series I have explored the work of Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, MD, a psychiatrist who is responsible for developing a groundbreaking therapy to treat obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).  Steve Volk writing in the November issue of DISCOVER MAGAZINE , “Rewiring the Brain to Treat OCD”,  writes about the efforts of Dr. Schwartz in helping to bring sanity to people with this brain disorder. 

I commented in the earlier blogs on how though mental illness was well known and documented in the ancient world, ancient writers and modern ones have very different assumptions about how to understand mental illness and how to cure it.  The church fathers allowed for the fact that some mental illness was caused by demons, though Jean-Claude Larchet in his book, MENTAL DISORDERS AND SPIRITUAL HEALING: TEACHING FROM THE EARLY CHRISTIAN EAST, notes that the fathers did not assume all mental illness was caused by demons.

They recognize for example that alcohol has an effect on mental health, and allow that some manifestations of mental illness are physical disorders, not spiritual ones.   He also notes that it is a false idea that only modern psychiatry based in scientific atheism rejects spiritual or demonic etiologies for mental illness.   He reports that “The celebrated Hippocratic treatise entitled On the Sacred Disease …  takes to task all those who would attribute to epilepsy and to mental disease in general a divine or demonic cause…” (Footnote 4, p 46).  So not attributing mental disease to spiritual, divine or demonic causes, was an opinion held in the ancient world as well.  The Fathers would not have been unaware of this as many of them came from the educated, cultivated and trained ranks of the Byzantine empire’s citizenry.

Larchet however does note that there are some differences in understanding and approach of modern secular psychiatry and the ancients.   The Fathers while not attributing all mental illness to spiritual causes, did have that as part of their diagnostic methodology and used discernment based in experience to determine the causes of various illnesses.   Modern medical science based in scientific materialism cannot allow for there to be divine, spiritual or demonic causes for illnesses and so has to ignore that possibility.    Larchet comments:

“If ‘profane’ or ‘rational’ medicine chooses to ignore such a demonic etiology, this is because it accepts phenomena as the only reality that can be considered.  With everything subordinate to this methodology, it finds itself completely unable to understand, and is indeed obligated, by its denial of the supersensible, to explain such effects only in terms of their appearance.  Such an explanation is without doubt possible since demonic action, even though it is spiritual in nature, is widely expressed in the domain of the senses and can therefore be clinically apprehended by its effects.  Demonic etiologies are all the more apt to be confused with and taken for organic diseases, since they frequently manifest in bodily disorders which, externally, look like standard illnesses.  In effect, demons frequently act upon the soul by means of the body, for it is the latter which is more easily and directly accessible to them.  Thus they use they ordinary laws of the physical world, the same laws that can play a role in other purely physiological etiologies.”  (pp 47-48)

Basically modern psychiatry ignores or denies spiritual causes and so can only treat behaviors – it can only treat symptoms of a problem, but in denying spiritual or demonic causes, will never be able to address the cause of the mental illness if the cause is spiritual, demonic or divine (and remember not all mental illness has a spiritual etiology).  The Fathers allow the possibility of a spiritual cause for mental illness and if that is part of the diagnosis can treat the spiritual problem.

Hinshaw SufferingAnother issue perhaps separating the modern understanding of mental illness from the ancient is that the Fathers also allowed that there might not be a cure for an illness and that all the Church could do was to care for the sick.   Modern medical ideals seem more likely to assume there is (or will eventually be) a scientific cure for everything.  The emphasis is at times far more focused on the cure of the illness than the care of the patient.   For the modern medical practitioner the inability to cure is failure, while for the ancient Christians the lack of a cure meant only that greater attention had to be devoted to the care of the sick.

By recognizing the potential for divine, demonic or spiritual causes of illness, the Fathers  had a broader view of what  it is to be human which includes spiritual dimensions.  They thus could also summon to the healing spiritual aid when appropriate.  The Fathers are simply allowing an additional level or layer of care for human sickness that modern medical practitioners cannot deal with.  As Larchet comments:

“First, with the clinical focus on psychic disorders most of the time, it can be tempting to define an etiology as purely psychological.  But this is an illusion, for it will only grasp the intermediary and organic role of the condition that is the proximal cause, and will miss the primary cause which is demonic.  Secondly, in view of the organic factors which unquestionably exist and seem to be the observable cause, it is easy for the physician/psychiatrist to be unaware that they are only secondary causes and delude himself that the etiology is purely somatic.  This allows him to apply treatments that are of a purely physiologic nature in all cases.  Such therapy can even prove to be an asset since it unquestionably affects the involved organs.  But these organs are only mediators; treatment only modifies the symptoms of the disease.  Invisible to the clinician, the primary underlying cause remains present and active (how else explain the strange resistance to extremely powerful mediciens), though often in changing ways (which might explain certain symptom shifts).”  (pp 48-49)

Larchet acknowledges that it is incredibly difficult to diagnose the presence of demonic influence in ailments.  He also readily admits that such discernment of demonic influence can only be done by those spiritually gifted and experienced.  So while modern medical practice would not consider the possibility of spiritual etiologies, even if it did, it would require men and women trained and experienced in the spiritual life to diagnose it properly.  This fact alone probably goes a long way in explaining why spiritual causes of mental illness will remain outside of modern medical practice.  Only within a spiritual tradition could a religious body recognize spiritual practitioners for diagnosing spiritual causes of illness and who would then be able to recommend curative or palliative care.