On Science and Orthodoxy


St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, contrasts the mind set on the things of the flesh and contrasts it with the mind set on things of the Spirit, and concludes “The mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace.” Romans 8:6 (EOB).  When addressing the current issue around the reception of the Eucharist in the Orthodox Church, we must be careful that we don’t have our mind so focused on earthly, fleshy things, that we ignore the deeper reality of the Spirit. In particular, we must be cognizant of this when we are involving science in the discussion.

To begin, it is important to describe what we mean by “science”.  Science is a method.  We look at information that we are able to observe, we propose an explanation (hypothesis, from the Greek meaning, essentially a foundation).  We then perform experiments to test the validity of that hypothesis.  Typically, the experiments do not entirely validate the hypothesis so we refine it and test further.  That is the nature of the process.  Along the way, we hopefully have enough data that we feel comfortable relying on the hypothesis to make other decisions.  However, we must remain mindful of the limits of any hypothesis based on the scientific method.  I want to discuss three limitations to science that are important in the context of this discussion.

  The first limitation is that science can be wrong sometimes. One could argue that it is in the nature of science to be wrong, at least a little bit. We then take what we learn, develop a new hypothesis. More specifically, though, sometimes science creates a bigger set of challenges because of the errors. One is the now famous war on fat and cholesterol, with eggs being a major target. However, it turns out that science had got it wrong. However, it wasn’t just wrong, the war on fat led to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. We listened to what scientists told us, perhaps without an appropriate level of inquiry and created a public health disaster. More recently, we listened to what scientists told us and shut down studies on a drug that might actually be beneficial in treating Covid-19. One of the tendencies we need be aware of is that of elevating science to a religion, and its practitioners to that of priests and bishops. We must challenge its findings. Scientists are human after all. Intelligent for the most part, but prone to ego, narcissism, politics, etc.

Science is also not capable of informing us on ethical issues. Science, as a matter of fact, was used as the basis of one of the most horrific movements of the last century, that of Eugenics. Eugenics was based on the science of the day, but without any question of the ethics involved. Yes, much of the science was ultimately proven incorrect (see the previous paragraph), but at the time it was thought to be correct. To fully understand what occurred at the time, I recommend this book.

The most important area where we need to understand the limits of science is in regards to the miraculous.  Science is concerned with repeatable phenomena that follow some form of law, specifically natural law.  It cannot deal with things that don’t conform to natural law.  This, then, brings us to the question at hand.  Many things that we hold dear, both in Scripture, and in the life of the Church, have to do with miraculous events that defy the laws of nature.  Much of the Gospels has to do with miracles performed by Jesus.  If we eliminate all of the miraculous, we have a much reduced set of Gospels.  In fact, we more or less would end up with the revised New Testament of Thomas Jefferson.  A very rationalistic individual, Thomas Jefferson didn’t see a need for the miraculous.  It simply didn’t fit his scientific world view.  If it didn’t comport to natural law (as understood by the science of the time), it must not be true.

This view of the universe did not die with Jefferson in 1826.  It is a common perspective held by some who are active in the field of science (a most notable exception is John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest and physicist), and by some who style themselves modern intellectuals.  A notable example is John Spong, a retired Episcopal bishop in the United States, who fundamentally disagreed with the vast majority of Christian doctrine because it didn’t agree with his view of the world.  Given his age (born in 1931) and when he received his science education, he seemed largely confined to a Newtonian world view.  Absent some of the very unusual finding of quantum mechanics, he could not see how such things as the resurrection could possibly be true.  It disagrees with natural law and science.

We see this perspective very clearly in this article by Cyril Hovorun, described by another theologian as being filled with a slew of heresies, as he states that those who believe that the body and blood of Christ cannot cause disease are mistaken and that “Their mistake, firstly, is docetic, because, like ancient docetists, they believe that the Body of Christ is exempted from the laws of nature”. Christ’s body is subject to the laws of nature, period, and to believe otherwise is to be a heretic. To be correct, he does assert the Christ’s body cannot be damaged by microorganisms, like ours, but at the same time must have them present. Why they must be present isn’t entirely clear. Fundamentally, though, he seeks to restrict the operation of Christ’s body to only those things possible within the constraints of the laws of nature. Hovorun’s article was posted to Public Orthodoxy on March 23rd, just two days before the feast of the Annunciation.  On the feast of the Annunciation, I had the privilege of chanting the Orthros service that day – absent a congregation as we were at the beginning of the Covid lockdown.  When we go to the ninth ode of the canon, I chanted the following (I used a different translation, but the same text)  “Having conceived God in ways past understanding, O Maiden, thou hast escaped from the ordinances (laws) of nature.[1]”  What? Christ’s conception defied natural law?  How could that be?  Based on what Fr. Hovurun tells us, this is not at all correct.  The doctrine of the Church, as expressed in our hymnography, is incorrect because it posits that Christ and the Theotokos somehow defy natural law.  Let’s go further, Christ rose from the dead, walked through walls after that.  His Saints died and left bodies that would not undergo corruption.  Some of their bodies streamed myrrh.  Some icons, made simply of a block of wood, do the same thing.  An article of clothing belonging to St. Nektarios when he reposed, was placed on the bed of a paralyzed man (over part of his body) while the Saint’s body was being prepared for burial.  The man was instantly healed from his paralysis. How is any of this possible?  It defies natural law.

As noted above, Hovurun seeks to have it both ways. Christ acts outside the laws of nature in that He can’t become sick from the pathogens He apparently hosts, but He must host them. In another article, I’ll address Hovorun’s assertion that all aspects of what now exists in nature is inherently good. That, and his understanding of the origins of viruses are both tried and found wanting.

Much of modern Christianity has come to follow Jefferson’s lead.  It is only Christ’s moral teaching that is true and of value.  The miraculous events, and the demands that places on us from an intellectual perspective, can easily be discarded.  The general sense that we get from much of our hierarchy on this subject, seems to support the same view. 

I understand that people struggle with this.  On the one hand there is a the risk from a very real and, for some people, a very deadly virus.  On the other hand, there is the conviction that Christ’s body and blood would not serve as a means of our death.  That takes a leap of faith (images of Indian Jones comes to mind at this point).  If some can’t overcome the fear for a period, that is okay.  It’s part of our ongoing struggle.  If you are struggling with the supernatural nature of the Eucharist, what is the point of receiving it now anyways?  Pres. Eugenia Constantinou remarked recently that one key aspect of Christianity and its sacraments is that the recipient has to receive them.  A priest can’t simply impart them.  They have to be consciously received.  If we currently struggle with what the Church tells us, that Christ’s body and blood are somehow present supernaturally, then we can’t truly receive the body and blood.  Yes, we can consume the physical elements, but we can’t truly receive.  In that situation, isn’t it best to refrain anyways?  Until you are in a place where you can?


[1] The Festal Menaion by Mother Mary and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

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