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Christianity, Orthodox, Issues in Science and Religion

Christianity, Orthodox, Issues in Science and Religion


Historically, Orthodox Christianity dates back to the ancient Church, which was established by the apostles, powerful bishops, and seven Ecumenical Councils (from Nicea in 325 to Constantinople in 727). Orthodox Christianity considers itself as the "right" belief and "right glory," whose Church guards and teaches the true belief about God and represents the Church of Christ on Earth.

The divisions and fragmentation of the initially united Church led to the split of the Orthodox Church with Western Christianity, which is conventionally dated 1054 c.e. The Orthodox Church itself is divided into what can be called Oriental churches (mainly in Iraq and Iran), five non-Chalcedonian churches (in Armenia, Ethiopia, Egypt, and India; sometimes called monophysite ), and the Eastern Orthodox churches proper.

In modern usage the term Eastern Orthodoxy is usually applied to those Christians who are in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which historically became restricted to the Greek-speaking world and later to other Slavic countries in Eastern Europe. There is no centralized organization in the Orthodox Church (unlike Roman Catholicism); it is a family of self-governing territorial bodies that are called Patriarchates. There are four Ancient Patriarchates and nine other autocephalous churches (the biggest one is the Russian Orthodox Church). All churches are in sacramental communion with each other. The territorial arrangement of the churches does not coincide with the formal boundaries of the states.


View of nature

Orthodox theology has a positive attitude towards the natural world as a good creation of a good God. Nature is never worshiped; it is God-creator who is worshiped through creation. The Fathers of the Church loved nature, but were never captured by the imagery of nature, which could prevent them from having a spiritual life in God. Thus nature was never considered an end in itself; its meaning and purpose can only be revealed in the perspective of Christ who, through the incarnation, recapitulated nature. The Fathers saw nature in the perspective of the hierarchy of the orders of creation, which proceeds from the natural law established by God. This "platonic" approach to nature could not provide any methodology of its investigation. The attitude to nature was speculative; it was interpreted in terms of laws that govern nature, but not their particular outcomes, which are displayed in a variety of phenomena. Nature, however, was never excluded from the general view of communion with God, so that the theology of the Greek Fathers was cosmic in its essence. Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662) articulated that it is through communion with the Logos (Word) of God in Scriptures, through contemplation of the underlying principles of creation in nature, and in sacramental communion with Christ in Church that the fullness of communion can be achieved. Nature itself as the medium through which and by which communion with God can be established is seen as sacrament. Human being as microcosm and mediator participates in the cosmic Eucharist, which aims to renew and redeem the material world. Science then is treated as a tool to articulate the world in terms of its relationship with God.

Interaction with the sciences

In the first centuries of Christianity, the attitude to the sciences was established in the context of its encounter with classical Hellenistic culture. Since Clement of Alexandria (c. 150215), philosophy and the sciences were considered human activities cooperating in ultimate truth, as useful tools in order to defend faith and make it demonstrable, and important for Christian education. The Greek Fathers asserted that scientific knowledge is incomplete in itself and must be supported by wider views of reality, which are accessible through faith. Knowledge and the sciences thus have their foundation in faith. Carried out through the centuries this attitude to science did not change, excluding any open conflicts between science and theology, with one exceptionthe seventy years of "scientific atheism" in Soviet Russia.

There is a perception among leading modern Orthodox theologians that science cannot be excluded from the theological vision of God and creation. The task of Orthodox theology is to reconcile the cosmic vision of the Fathers with the vision that grows out of the results of natural science. The split between science and religion can be overcome on the grounds of their reinstatement to communion with God. Scientific work can be interpreted as "para-eucharistic" work ( John Zizioulas). Scientific progress must be taken into account only in the context of the progress of human spirit and the deepening of human experience of the reality of the divine, which cannot be reduced to a physical or chemical level (Dumitru Staniloae). New conceptual tools for mediation between religion and science must be developed. The most important and urgent problems in the science-religion dialogue are not cosmological (e.g., creation of the universe) or philosophical (e.g., the meaning of evolution), but ecological and bioethical.

The Orthodox Church understands the modern ecological crisis either in terms of the misuse of science or utopian reliance on the power of progress. The Church consequently treats the crisis as essentially anthropological and spiritual. The message of the Church is to be cautious with scientific discoveries and technologies because they are handled by spiritually disorientated human beings, who have lost their roots in the divine. The loss of vision of the unity of the whole creation and human priestly responsibility for nature leads to abuse and degradation of the natural world, which threatens the very existence of humankind. It is in the context of love for nature, inner vigilance and chastity towards nature, and self-restraint in the consumption of natural resources that scientific activity can acquire some "eucharistic" features and nature can become reinstated to its sacramental status.

The Orthodox Church is deeply concerned with the possible moral and social implications of the fast advance of biology and medical science in terms of control and regulation of human life. For Orthodox Christians, life is the gift of God, who creates and preserves human personality. When biology and medicine interfere with human existence on the natural level, and threaten human integrity and personality, Orthodox theology opposes this on moral and social grounds. For example, the official position of the Church, expressed by the Council of Bishops of the Russian Church in 2001, with respect to cloning human beings is strongly negative on social grounds (the "printing" of people with specified parameters can appear welcome to adherents of totalitarian ideologies), as well as personal grounds (a clone can feel like an independent person, but it is only a "copy" of someone who lives or lived before). However, the cloning of isolated cells and tissues does not threaten the personality and can be helpful in medical practice. Genetic engineering is admissible with the consent of the patient in the case of some hereditary diseases, but the genetic therapy of germ cells is considered dangerous because it involves a change of the genome in the line of generations, which can lead to mutations and can destabilize the balance between the human community and the environment.


See also Cloning; Ecology; Genetic Engineering; Medical Ethics


Bibliography

breck, john. the sacred gift of life: orthodox christianity and bioethics. crestwood, n.y.: st. vladimir's seminary press, 1998.

cavarnos, constantine. biological evolutionism. etna, calif.: center for traditionalist orthodox studies, 1994.

gregorios, paulos mar. the human presence: ecological spirituality and the age of the spirit. new york: amity house, 1987.

nesteruk, alexei v. "patristic theology and the natural sciences." sourozh: a journal of orthodox life and thought 84 (2001): 1435 (part 1); 85 (2001): 2238 (part 2).

sherrard, philip. the rape of man and nature: an enquiry into the origins and consequences of modern science. suffolk, uk: golgonooza press, 1991.


staniloae dumitru. theology and the church. crestwood, n.y.: st. valdimir's seminary press, 1980.

vucanovich, v. science and faith: order in the universe and cosmic evolution motivate belief in god. minneapolis, minn.: light and life press, 1995.

ware, timothy. the orthodox church. london: penguin, 1997.

ware, kallistos. through the creation to the creator. london: friends of the centre, 1997.

zizioulas, john. being as communion: studies in personhood and the church. crestwood, n.y.: st. vladimir's seminary press, 1997.


alexei nesteruk

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