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Aristotle and the angels

by
24 April 2012

Adam Ford considers a history of Orthodox attitudes to science

Astronomer: Theodore Metochites (1270-1332), in a mosaic in the fifth-century Chora Church, Istanbul, which he restored. From the book reviewed below ERICH LESSING/ART RESOURCE, NY

Astronomer: Theodore Metochites (1270-1332), in a mosaic in the fifth-century Chora Church, Istanbul, which he restored. From the book reviewed below ...

Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the age of globalization
Efthymios Nicolaidis, author Susan Emanuel, translator

John Hopkins £28.50
(978-1-4214-0298-7)
Church Times Bookshop £25.65

THE publishers do well to advertise this book as a pioneering work: whole libraries have been written about the relationship between science and religion in the West, but virtually nothing from within the Orthodox tradition. Efthymios Nicolaidis presents us with an erudite overview (sometimes overwhelming in its detail) of an enormous subject, tracing the shifting interplay between revelation and reason from the days of the early church Fathers down through the centuries to contemporary debates about Darwinian evolution.

The history of Orthodox theology reveals it to have been inextricably entwined with politics; the Great Schism with the Latin Church and antagonism to the West that arose after the conquest of Byzantium in the fourth crusade; absorption into the Muslim world of the Ottoman empire, and later having to live under the yoke of communism in the Russian branch of Orthodoxy. Theologians sought prestige to survive, and had to watch their backs.

A recurring theme is the East’s continuing pride in its Greek patrimony. The early church Fathers struggled to be loyal to the natural philosophy of Aristotle and Greek ideas about the eternity of the material universe, while viewing the world through the lens of Genesis and a six-day creation “out of nothing”. Basil of Caesarea’s Hexaemeron was a guide on the subject for centuries.

Despite the pride in being heirs to Greek philosophy, there were some unfortunate retrograde movements, such as the teachings of the sixth-century monk Cosmas, who rejected ideas of a round world in favour of a flat earth beneath a tabernacle-shaped heaven (tilted slightly downward from the north-west, and so accounting for the fact that the Tigris, flowing south, flows faster than the Nile, which runs north). His universe — including snow and thunder — was totally run by angels.

Another anti-science tendency, a theme that keeps recurring throughout Orthodox history, came from the Hesychast (Quietist) movement, which made a point of being totally uninterested in science, taking the view that natural philosophy was both pagan and useless for salvation.

My own favourites from this Who’s Who of theologians are Simeon Seth, who in the 11th century wrote a treatise on beer and demonstrated to his contemporaries the long-forgotten discovery that the world is round; and the 17th-century Korydaleus, who believed that the happiness of man consists in study. He also anticipated some modern ideas when developing a thesis of “double truth”, distinguishing philosophical (scientific) truth from theological truth. I was also entertained to read of two 14th-century theologians who, seeking recognition at court, held a contest to see who could predict the timing of an eclipse correctly.

The Revd Adam Ford is a former Chaplain of St Paul’s School for Girls.

FOR The Polkinghorne Reader: Science, faith and the search for meaning, Thomas Oord has selected writings by the Revd Professor John Polkinghorne, and divided them into three sections: the world, God, and Christianity, with the aim of helping those who are beginning to explore the interface between science and theology, and those who wish to explore the Professor’s thought in a convenient form (SPCK, £14.99 (£13.50); 978-0-281-06053-5).

FOR The Polkinghorne Reader: Science, faith and the search for meaning, Thomas Oord has selected writings by the Revd Professor John Polkinghorne, and divided them into three sections: the world, God, and Christianity, with the aim of helping those who are beginning to explore the interface between science and theology, and those who wish to explore the Professor’s thought in a convenient form (SPCK, £14.99 (£13.50); 978-0-281-06053-5).

Explore Evolution: The arguments for and against neo-Darwinism is a textbook aimed at higher school and college students. The authors, Stephen Meyer, Paul Nelson, Jonathan Moneymaker, Scott Minnich, and Ralph Seelke, lay their material out as a dialogue; for each topic covered, the case is made, and followed by a reply in the form of an opposing view (Hill House, £15; 978-0-947352-51-6).

Explore Evolution: The arguments for and against neo-Darwinism is a textbook aimed at higher school and college students. The authors, Stephen Meyer, Paul Nelson, Jonathan Moneymaker, Scott Minnich, and Ralph Seelke, lay their material out as a dialogue; for each topic covered, the case is made, and followed by a reply in the form of an opposing view (Hill House, £15; 978-0-947352-51-6).

Francisco Ayala, who won the Templeton Prize in 2010, argues in favour of evolution in Am I a Monkey? In this short book, he explores the theory and evidence for it, DNA, natural selection, and the relationship with religious beliefs (John Hopkins University Press, £6.50 (£5.85); 978-0-8018-9754-2).

Francisco Ayala, who won the Templeton Prize in 2010, argues in favour of evolution in Am I a Monkey? In this short book, he explores the theory and evidence for it, DNA, natural selection, and the relationship with religious beliefs (John Hopkins University Press, £6.50 (£5.85); 978-0-8018-9754-2).

Brian Ridley argues that the time has come for Reforming Science. In particular, he argues, science and those who practise it must recognise its limitations rather than perpetuate the idea of unchallengeable authority (Imprint Academic, £14.95 (£13.45); 978-1-84540194-8).

Brian Ridley argues that the time has come for Reforming Science. In particular, he argues, science and those who practise it must recognise its limitations rather than perpetuate the idea of unchallengeable authority (Imprint Academic, £14.95 (£13.45); 978-1-84540194-8).

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