Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization
Nesteruk, Alexei V., Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith
SCIENCE AND EASTERN ORTHODOXY: From the Greek Fathers to the Age of Globalization by Efthymios Nicolaidis. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. 288 pages. Hardcover; $55.00. ISBN: 9781421402987.
Judging by its title, Science and Eastern Orthodoxy is located in the field of scholarship known as dialogue between science and religion, in this case, science and Eastern Christianity. However, this book better reflects historical research in the interaction between faith and knowledge, theology and science, religion and politics in the ancient Greek-speaking Roman Empire, Byzantium, post-Ottoman Greece, and the modern Greek state.
The research by Efthymios Nicolaidis is very timely because, as is well understood in Orthodox circles and by the author himself (see pp. 197-202), Western historiography, either of the sciences or relations between the sciences and Eastern Christianity, is very poor. In most contemporary Western discussions of science and the early church, the references, in the best case, are made to Patristic sources before the fifth century AD followed by a huge gap until the time of Roger Bacon and Thomas Aquinas, through whose activities (and under the patronage of the Roman Catholic Church) the first universities in Western Europe were established. The obvious question as to why this reduced history completely ignores a nearly thousand-year-long period of Byzantine contributions to the debates on science and theology remains unanswered. This is the reason why this book by Nicolaidis is of paramount importance in our efforts to gain an understanding as to why the impact of Eastern Orthodox thought on science and its debates with theology was different and less articulated when compared to the famous clashes between new scientific ideas and church teaching in the West.
The first ten chapters of the book deal with the problem of appropriation of the sciences and science education in lay and religious institutions in the Greek-speaking part of ancient and Medieval Europe. This, I believe, is the most valuable part of the book, for it gives a detailed and well-documented account of the complicated religious and political stance concerning the sciences in Eastern Christian societies. Particularly, in chapter three, there is an interesting discussion of the role of the iconoclastic debates in terms of their impact on the perception of the sciences and science education in Byzantium. This is an example of how so mere ligious views (taken to their extreme), devoid of philosophical insights and having a disregard of historical achievements, can reduce the study of nature to a primitive and unscholarly level. On the other hand, the iconoclastic controversy, with its anachronistically narrow perception of nature, gave rise to a new impulse of learning and a certain revival of the meaning of the sciences under the influence of a humanism which reflected Hellenic roots (see chapter four and its expansion in chapters five and six). Nicolaidis masterfully outlines the apogee of the Byzantine polemics about the sciences in chapter seven, which is devoted to the importance of hesychia (the practice of silence and quiet contemplation) for all Orthodox debate.
Nicolaidis discusses the thought of St. Gregory Palamas in chapter seven. Palamas is important for historical Orthodoxy, not only because of his defense of acquiring knowledge of God through contemplation and intuition, but also for his teaching on the divine energies through which God can be known through creation. He advances an important point, namely, that the ascent to the Divine through creation is possible only if the dimension of the Spirit is taken into account. In modern parlance, this insight gives the study of nature a para-eucharistic dimension, breaking the symmetry between theology and science, which is often assumed in modern discussions. Reading this chapter will give the reader a good idea of the importance and indispensability of historical insight, so necessary for contemporary discussions of science and religion. …