The Contradictions of Scripture

John icon

We can, however, only express the Truth if we foresee the extreme expression of all the contradictions inherent in it, from which it follows that Truth itself encompasses the ultimate projection of all its invalidations, is antonymic and cannot be otherwise.

-Pavel Florensky

I wrote in a previous article about the importance of contradictions in the knowledge of God. The Orthodox faith utterly delights in paradox and contradiction and liberally salts its language of worship with shockingly antonymic expressions. This is intentional and inherent to the nature of the kind of knowledge (koinonia) that alone is saving knowledge. Remembering this is important when we come to the study of the Scriptures. Doubtless, the most devastating practice with regard to the Scriptures is ridding them of contradiction. Today, this is done regularly, and from a number of directions. Apparently, human beings dislike contradiction and have a passion-driven instinct to minimize it. This diminution of reason goes by many names – some of them being so bold as to claim that this is reason itself. It is not. True reason is at home with contradiction.

The gospel proclamation of Christ is summarized by St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

For I delivered [literally “traditioned” – it is a technical term in Greek] to you first of all that which I also received [“received” by “tradition”]:

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures,
and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve.
After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.

After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles.
Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (1Co 15:3-8)

If the opening lines of this passage remind you of the Creed, it is because they most likely come from the most primitive Baptismal Creed, one version of which was later known as the Apostles’ Creed. This is not an off-hand narrative that St. Paul is making up as he writes. He is quoting, and specifically quoting a “tradition.”

At the heart of that tradition of the risen Christ is that He “died for our sins according to the Scriptures,” and that He “rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” This does not mean “because the Scriptures said he did.” Rather it means, that His death for our sins and His resurrection on the third day are in accordance with the right reading of the Old Testament Scriptures. Indeed, we could say that the primitive Church proclaimed a message about the Old Testament itself that was as important (and new) as the news of Christ’s death and resurrection. Their radical proclamation was that all of the writings of the Old Testament were about the death and resurrection of Christ!

As I noted previously, this is simply not obvious on any reading of the Old Testament – unless you have been previously taught how to see it, look for it, and understand it, and have the ascetical discipline that allows the heart to “see.” This “according to the Scriptures” is itself part of that which is handed down. It is traditioned to us.

The treatment of the Scriptures, particularly since the Reformation, have ceased to acknowledge this dynamic, sometimes even being embarrassed by the unvarnished allegorical readings of the Fathers. The Reformation mantra that the Scriptures were the book for everyman, that each person, enlightened and guided by the Spirit, was capable of reading and understanding the Scriptures has consistently tended to privilege rationalistic schemes of interpretation. Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Protestant Restoration Movement, is said to have carried a Bible and the writings of John Locke. The “common sense” of Scottish rationalism has deeply affected the popular treatment of the Scriptures in the contemporary world.

There seems to be a general sense that the New Testament, however it arrived at its conclusions, is now the rational guide for reading the Old Testament. The Apostolic Church wrote by a miracle and we read with our reason. There is a rational paradigm that has risen in this context. It is rooted in the notion of the “authority” of Scripture (and its infallibility). How do I know that Christ is the truth? Because it’s in the Bible. How do I know that the Bible is true? Well, it says so in this verse here. That circular reasoning is actually as nonsensical as it sounds.

This also creates an anxiety of reliability. Every questioning of historical accuracy, every example of internal contradiction is met with rational explanations of how the Scriptures must be true. Extreme examples are those who insist on “Young Earth Creationism,” even suggesting that God created a universe that appeared old, but really isn’t. In Orthodox circles, this same approach is defended by citing any treatment within a Church Father that supports a literalist understanding. I have seen Fr. Thomas Hopko, of blessed memory, decried as a heretic because he suggested that Adam may not be a historical figure! There is some version of a “house of cards” in all of this. If this isn’t literally true, if this isn’t utterly reliable on a rational level, then that may not be true, nor this, nor…until faith itself collapses.

This is the tragic state of faith among many Christians, a foundation without merit, vulnerably standing on the playing field of modern rationalism. I personally believe it is the breeding ground of atheism…because it is a false position.

St. Luke has this:

Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luk 24:44-47)

This passage needs some care. In the Greek, it does not say “He opened their understanding.” Rather, it says, “He opened their nous.” The Scriptures are noetically understood. The nous and the heart are synonymous in many of the Fathers. It is by no means a synonym for discursive reason. Christ spiritually changed the disciples, such that they could see things that before had been hidden. And this change is directly associated with the encounter of the risen Lord. Christ nowhere opens the understanding of the disciples until after the resurrection. That noetic miracle is itself part of the resurrection. To be a witness of the resurrection includes the noetic understanding of the Scriptures.

And it is at this point that I direct us to the inherent contradictions within the text. I say “contradictions,” but I include within that the very “hiddenness” of the meaning. That meaning, if you will, is a “contradiction” of the letter. If the letter says, “Ark of the Covenant,” but we understand that it refers to the Theotokos (to use but one common example), then, there is a seeming contradiction between the letter and the meaning. If the text says, “lamb,” be we read “Christ,” there is an apparent contradiction between the letter and the meaning.

But the Fathers (including the Apostles) were not daunted by these seeming contradictions. There is a seeming contradiction in Christ Himself. He is a man, and appears as a man in every outward manner. But we confess Him as God, despite His death on the Cross. How can God die? His mother is a virgin, and yet she gave birth.

When we no longer see the contradiction in these things, the nous is darkened, and we begin to make of these great mysteries mere intellectual ciphers, rational objects to be manipulated in arguments, systematized and refined. True noetic perception involves great ascetic effort, in which we fast, pray and repent for the hardness of our hearts and our constant efforts to substitute an understanding that does not at every moment depend upon God.

There is a sense in which I revel in the contradictions (at least the ones I see). They are gateways into the Kingdom of God. I frequently encounter, however, an “easy” Orthodoxy, or “easy” Protestantism, etc., in which paradox and contradiction are deeply muted, explained, or simply avoided.

At every Divine Liturgy, I stand at the altar, and speak the contradiction, “And make this bread to be the precious Body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ…” Its opacity is a measure of my own heart. On those occasions in which things seem less than opaque, I do not know how to explain what I see. These are the moments of faith, a “participatory adherence to the Presence” in the words of Vladimir Lossky. And though I can proclaim, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” I cannot demonstrate it as an object. I can love it and eat it and become one with it.

The reading of Scripture should resemble this far more than we realize. For Christ is there, within every word, every space between the words, and even in the silence that frames them.

“Didn’t our hearts burn within us!”




About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





105 responses to “The Contradictions of Scripture”

  1. Byron Avatar

    Thanks for this, Father. Pray for us all, so our hearts may be opened!

  2. Margaret Avatar

    While not directly related to your blog post here, maybe, I am forever indebted to your writing the words “…creates an anxiety of probability”

    Because I have never seen this statement of truth, perhaps it is well known. Thank you, Fr. Stephen

  3. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Thank you Father,
    This post sews together many things. The Law of Contradiction, I was taught, only applies to the physical world. God can be Light and Dark, Immanent and yet Transcendent, God and yet Man, all at the same time in our eyes and all can still be truth. Now I see more than ever before how much I have changed in how I understand our faith. This is a good reminder.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have come to doubt even the Law of Contradiction.

  5. Karen Avatar

    There is a delightful example of the contradictions in the Scriptures in Proverbs 26:4-5 that I love to use as an illustration of this.

    Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
    Lest you be like him.

    Answer a fool according to his folly,
    Lest he be wise in his own eyes.

    We can’t know when we should answer a fool and when we shouldn’t apart from the Holy Spirit’s sifting of our own hearts to show us our own folly and how it is best addressed in different contexts. This is a very surface-level example of how I understand the role of the noetic in helping us discern the meaning of the Scriptures on deeper and deeper levels. Truly have you said the Scriptures cannot be rightly understood apart from great ascetic effort–apart from dying to self and rising with Christ–which is in all places and at every moment the work of His Grace in us. As someone has put it, if we want to know whether the gospel is true, what we need to do is to begin to make an earnest effort to obey the commandments of Christ. (And there we have another seeming contradiction of the Orthodox spiritual life!)

  6. Daniel Avatar

    I have become a frequent reader of your blog father. It has helped a lot, together with the various comments. Thank you!

  7. Thomas Avatar

    Father, the first paragraph makes it appear ‘koinonia’ is the word for ‘knowledge’, but you obviously know it is not. What did you mean?

  8. Margaret Avatar

    Looks like I misread the sentence and instead the words are “…creates an anxiety of reliability” Also a great blessing to my heart and mind, as is this whole blog post! Thank you for addressing these “contradictions”. Glory to God for All Things!

  9. Brianchaninov Avatar

    ‘ Extreme examples are those who insist on “Young Earth Creationism,” even suggesting that God created a universe that appeared old, but really isn’t.’

    Ironically, “Young Earth Creationism” and “Flood Geology” helped bring this pilgrim from rebellious agnosticism via several brands of Protestantism to Eastern Orthodoxy.

    Anything created “ex nihilo” necessarily must have the appearance of age.
    Adam, the remotest visible stars, all animals, etc.
    Evolutionary explanations for how our world developed are increasingly
    hard to support scientifically just my 2c.

  10. Dino Avatar

    This comment is completely off on an irrelevant tangent, but your statement Brianchaninov, that, ‘Evolutionary explanations for how our world developed are increasingly hard to support scientifically’, even though I generally don’t adhere to all the Y.E.C. stuff, reminded me that some scientists lately – so hell-bent on excluding a Creator from their hypotheses– just claimed that due to the insurmountable difficulties they are now facing with the classic evolutionary explanations are actually willing to accept that aliens must have interjected into the Earth’s history as a “far more believeable” explanation…! Go figure! In other words: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”

  11. Scott Avatar

    Amen Brianchaninov.
    The happy tolerance (or even promotion) of some in Orthodoxy of evolution may have had its beginnings in the notion that scientific truth is also God’s truth, but I think it yields too much to scientists with an agenda of removing any possibility of the miraculous in creation. But as you note, more and more “the very stones cry out” in opposition to this yielding, and science is now reversing its opinion.

    I need to read Fr. Seraphim Rose’s book about the matter, but my understanding is that, according to his studies, the Fathers were largely “young earth creationists.”

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Scott, et al
    The Fathers are not in the conversation with current science. They might very well be young earth creationists inasmuch as they had no good reason not to be. It might be quite incidental. It is quite another thing to take the incidental, inject it into current scientific conversations as though it was addressing the same phenomenon and scientific observations. And it is something else indeed to suggest that such an incidental position constitutes the position of Orthodoxy. There is no dogma in this matter.

    As for the miraculous in creation – the very existence and moment by moment sustenance of the creation depends upon God. He didn’t just start things. He sustains things. And I trust, in good Orthodox fashion, that all things are sent down from above. Nevertheless, when I have a car wreck, I don’t go looking for evidence (or expect to find it in an observable fashion) that it was an act of God.

    God’s actions in the world are according to the Divine Energies. The Divine Energies do not belong to the observable or explainable. God “causelessly causes.”

    If God used some material mechanism for the unfolding of creation, it would be no different than anything else that happens at every moment. We are not secularists. We do not believe in an independent creation.

    But simply because we do not observe God’s hand does not mean it is not there. It can indeed be noetically discerned. There is no problem, in my mind, for a universe that is extremely old – it sure looks like it’s 13.7 billion years old. And the earth certainly seems like it’s about 4 billion years old, etc.

    Even the development (I’ll stay away from the shibboleth of “evolution”) of animals, plants, humans, etc. over time is not inimical to the Orthodox Christian faith, unless it is done in a way that denies the Creator. But that denial goes for every moment everywhere, not just the development of the world.

    There are many problems, I think, in light of current science – the well-done stuff – to argue for a young creation. To make it a requirement is not only wrong – but bad Orthodox practice. And yes, I would say that to Fr. Seraphim Rose, had I the chance. Rose is many things, and a doubtlessly holy man. I do not, however, take him to be a serious scholar of the Fathers or teacher of theology. He was a good monk, zealous for the faith. I have friends who knew him well. That is my considered opinion and I have reasons for holding it.

  13. Scott Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for your comments.

    It may be that there is no dogma about it, but from my experience, it can often seem like, should one choose to hold the opinion of YEC, he is seen as some kind of ignorant rube and is scolded for “using the bible as a science textbook” or something like that. In this post they are cited as “extreme examples” of unbelieving rationalists who can’t handle mystery or paradox (which is ironic, I think, since YEC isn’t looking for a lengthy explanation, it just says “God did what the Scriptures say He did in the time they say He did it. Kind of how we understand the Lord’s Body and Blood are received in the Eucharist: We take His word for it without coming up with trans-, con-, or other- substantiation to explain it).

    And I agree that God is active in sustaining creation at every moment. I did not mean to give the impression that I didn’t.

    Please pray for me.

  14. Byron Avatar

    that some scientists lately – so hell-bent on excluding a Creator from their hypotheses– just claimed that due to the insurmountable difficulties they are now facing with the classic evolutionary explanations are actually willing to accept that aliens must have interjected into the Earth’s history as a “far more believable” explanation…!

    I would love a link to this, Dino, if you have one! How silly!

  15. Scott Avatar

    I at first thought I should apologize because my comments were a straw man having little to do with the main point, but then I thought that the topic of creation fits well with the “contradictions” spoken of in the article.

    Christ is God and man.
    The Virgin gave birth.
    The universe was created from nothing in 6 days.

    Please forgive my boldness in posting so many comments. My thoughts come as a slow train and I sometimes don’t wait for the ride to come to a complete stop.

  16. John Avatar


    Great words! Having gone to a progressive, protestant seminary, and being well-versed in the toolbox of “higher” biblical criticism, I have witnessed the detriment to faith caused by reading the Holy Scriptures with the lens of Western rationalism.

    Father, could you comment on the difference(s) between the Orthodox approach to delighting in the contradictions of the scriptures and the post-modern/post-structural hermeneutic, which, too, claims to celebrate contradiction?

    Thank you!

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Neither God nor His Creation are static. He is incarnate with all He Created. He is life after all.

    The secular evolutionists and the young earth folks are both wrong. But so are those who try to bridge the gap by what is called theistic evolution. All are trying to resolve the paradox in ways that fit neatly into the human imagination.

    Creation and God and indeed our own beings are all larger and much more than our limited imagination can begin to comprehend.

    Certainly there are militant atheists who attack anything to do with God in the name of “science” just as there are titular Christians who attack “science” in the name of “God”.

    As our friend Dee rightly explains and has experienced: there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in either of their philosophies.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, I understand. In East Tennessee, we have bucket loads of YEC of a very difficult sort. My own feeling is that it’s not a battle the Orthodox should be in, the lines often having been drawn in a thoroughly Western, rationalist manner.

    I think that my sense, why I point to mystery and paradox, is that it really doesn’t matter. The question of Young Earth, is primarily beside the point theologically and noetically. Being Orthodox doesn’t necessarily mean being “conservative,” and I hear strong strains of that in YE Orthodoxy. I’m no liberal – though I understand that I’ve been called that. These are false categories for the Orthodox.

    But in terms of the Scripture, “what He did,” and “in the time he said he did it,” really do beg the point. Such is not a particularly noetic reading, just a flat literalism, which, no matter how any Father treated creation – they were very rarely the kind of literalists that we see today (rationalist/literalist).

    When I suggest the importance of scholarship and theology viz. the Fathers, I mean that we cannot simply read a text and pronounce that so-an-so said this and meant this. I was a classical scholar before doing theology. To read something that is 1500 years old involves so much more than just reading the text (much less in translation). It involves a huge range of knowledge, culturally, theological, philosophically, etc. Good scholars are not necessarily great saints (and vice versa). But when people trot out the Fathers to defend a position, then they really need to actually have the scholarship to sustain it.

    I’ve watched good Orthodox men be called heretics and such for saying anything contrary to YE, and this by young converts who haven’t got even a fraction of their training or experience. I’m concerned that it not become or be used as a touchstone of Orthodoxy, because it isn’t. If someone holds it, fine, but not if they hold it as a necessity.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Scott, God bless your sweet spirit and kindness!

  20. Pete Avatar

    “How do I know that Christ is the truth? Because it’s in the Bible. How do I know that the Bible is true? Well, it says so in this verse here. That circular reasoning is actually as nonsensical as it sounds.”

    Ahaha…That really did need to be said!

    Your point is also well taken about the questioning of scripture or historical accuracy, that every statement has to be “interpreted” in a literalist fashion or it can’t be true, which is simply the smallest of variants in rationalistic thinking.

    These “interpretations” are of the world of the flatlander. These contradictions bring a scandal in that the Paschal reality i.e., The or Ultimate reality and that with this there is nothing rationalistic about it; it is simply radical in both its dimensions and its implications. We have been set free…but for what?

    The scandal is just that for the rationalistic mind, whether believer or unbeliever. We all fall short whether believer or not, but given both what Christ endured & the Pasha set before him and what we continually stumble upon, Christ scandalously responded – “Forgive them for they know not what we do.” It’s a scandal only because we don’t see it.

    This is our Christ – This we can know. This we can be. Will we hold onto our mere rags (Rationalistic thinking) or exchange them for true riches (Noetic, illuminated thinking which is paschal reality in all its dimensions and implications) in repentance?

  21. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    Thank you Michael. You said it better than I would have.

  22. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    Also I might add one more point that comes straight out of science: Not even time is what we think it is.

  23. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    Ok I can’t help myself. Regarding aliens and space ships: serious science that I’m aware of is looking at evidence of viruses arriving to earth in viable form on asteroids. Perhaps even some higher organisms such as certain kinds of bacteria can also withstand the heat of entry through earth’s atmosphere.

    To suppose that such evidence might be perceived as a threat to a believer of Christ and God is sad to me and upsets me.

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I have had one particular thought viz. life elsewhere. On earth, God created life and blessed the planet to bring forth life. And so it is that you literally cannot go anywhere on this planet, not even the harshest conditions at the bottom of the ocean, etc, where life is not teeming. Life, as blessed by God, has an inexorable quality to it.

    I do not, for example, think there is any life on Mars, because it’s not abundant. Life just has a way of becoming abundant, no matter what you do. As to there being life somewhere else, God only knows, and I think we’ll be hard put to find it. I do not think there’s much evidence for teeming life in our solar system, and it’s unlikely we’ll get anywhere else shy of breaking some of the current laws of physics.

    But I’m not troubled in the least if there should be. God is still God and the story is still true. If there is life anywhere else, Christ died for it, too. Here, God became a man.

    For what it’s worth, I think many scientists must be reading a lot of science fiction. There’s a very good book on Artificial Intelligence that shows how misguided our thinking is about the brain and human intelligence. It’s nothing like a computer…not even remotely, for example. Too many episodes of Star Trek. Science fiction is the primary location of theology in the contemporary world. And it’s almost all bad.

    But I love the real stuff.

  25. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I meant it to refer to “kind of knowledge.” Knowledge as communion or participation (koinonia). Hope that helps. English is so hard!

  26. Kelly Avatar

    Blessing upon blessings to you, Father! Your words have helped free Jesus from the chains of my rationalist mind!

    I walked with Jesus in my early years, but my adult “wisdom” brought about uncomfortable questions. And unfortunately, the only elders I knew to seek out for answers, were the same ones insisting I put aside my questions and doubts, lest I sin or – worse, yet- become a ‘progressive’.

    I am a rational person, but I couldn’t rationalize certain parts of the Bible, nor Jesus. So, I boxed both of them up, put the box in storage and labeled myself Christian agnostic.

    I’ve been walking in an uncomfortable darkness for several years. But you have finally allowed to me see that there is BEAUTY in the contradictions, and Christ Himself is in the blessed mystery.

    My eyes are stinging with tears, but my heart is bursting with joy…..yet another beautiful, beautiful contradiction.

    May I be so bold to ask for prayers? For me, and the other rationalists out there who have sent their Jesus to storage.

    Eternally grateful.

  27. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    You have my prayers with joyful gratitude!

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Dee, I would speculate that it is not such evidence but the unscientific secularist hyperbole that follows that such evidence “proves” that God is neither necessary or real. Followed by the incessant proclamation in the popular media that “science” has done it again.

    I find that sort of thing disgusting and am enormously thankful when I hear people like you.

  29. Adam Avatar

    Thank you for another great post, Fr Stephen. As a scientist, the subject of creation is actually the first thing I came to reject about the tradition I was raised in, and one of the first thing that got me interested in Orthodoxy. I was told that YEC is necessarily correct, but I didn’t see a compelling reason why what God revealed to us would so directly contradict our empirical observation of His creation. I came to the conclusion that the truth of Genesis is not dependent on a literal historical interpretation, and it’s true whether or not it’s literal. The first book I read on Orthodox theology said just that in a much more beautiful and thorough fashion. Your last several posts have really challenged the way I’ve been reading the entire Bible, similar to how I challenged the way I read Genesis several years ago.

  30. Steve Avatar

    According to your religious beliefs, how are you saved?

  31. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Here’s a video that says it very creatively. There is no salvation apart from Christ. We are saved by being united with Him in His death and resurrection.

  32. Janine Avatar

    Thank you Father for your article and comments, and also to the posters on this comment thread. A breath of fresh air for me here.

    You wrote: “That noetic miracle is itself part of the resurrection.” Oh yes, thank you. And to my mind, that means that ‘noetic miracles’ are a part of the “life in abundance” that we are promised. Makes me want to shout for joy.

    A wise deacon and bible scholar once told me, “Scriptures are not science textbooks, they’re not history, they’re not a novel … ” Scriptures are meant to be read and approached as Scripture. Reading your post it reminded me that the word of God is, well, the Word of God, and we have to approach it with the same “receivable” mindset (I guess that is the mind in the heart, the nous as you say). And that means that the life in abundance will keep giving us new treasures to find in it (oh another parable there 🙂 )
    Thank you all

  33. Michelle Avatar

    I’m fine with not believing every inch of the OT was literally played out in history in the strictest sense. I have a question though; how strict are we when considering the historical traditions of the Saints and Martyrs? Would it matter, for example, if St Photini was not literally the same historical Samaritan woman at Jacobs well?

    I ask this because I recently shared St. Photini’s miraculous martyrdom with my brother (a Lutheran pastor) and he suggested that such a Tradition would only be a witness to the Truth (Christ’s Resurrection) if it were historically true, and not a later fabrication or embellishment. Afterwards I Google searched to see how early in Church history the Samaritan Woman was referred to as St. Photini. Seems like there were no references of the Samaritan woman as St Photini until after the 5th century.

    So, how does the hidden Truth reveal itself to us through the traditions of the Saints and Martyrs that have been passed down to us? Can we understand them in non-historically literal ways?

  34. Mike B Avatar
    Mike B


    The hypothesis regarding the earth seeded by alien life is called “Panspermia.” It has been around a very long time and has been espoused by some very famous scientists.

    It just pushes back one level the question “How did life begin?” Instead of asking it about life on earth, the question must now be asked of the alien beings…

  35. Dino Avatar

    Mike B,

    there’s that as well, but I wasn’t thinking of that in this instance, the latest hypotheses I was alluding to have nothing to do with galactic panspermia, they are fresh speculations/solutions concerning certain evolutionary impasses which some are now trying to solve employing the ‘alien-intervention’ hypothesis… I personally find this kind of scientismic agenda (‘the magician’s twin’ of CS Lewis comes to mind here) which manages to simultaneously exhibit an extremely naive willingness to believe in the most far fetched, as well as an extremely staunch decision not to believe in a Creator simultaneously sad and laughable.

  36. Ryan Avatar


    Does this have any meaning on the so-called “biblical inerrancy”?

    I’ve seen it argued, and it’s tempting to believe thus – that the difference between God as He is revealed in the Old Testament, particularly in parts of the Law of Moses, is a concession to the hardness of the hearts of men (cf. Matthew 19:8). Jesus makes this plain in the case of divorce in the Torah, but it also seems likely to be the case with laws like that which force a young woman to marry her rapist (Deuterotomy 22:28-29), which are plainly repugnant in view of the vision of husband and wife as a loving, mutually-submissive partnership in the New Testament.

    It seems most likely to me that to some degree, the Old Testament authors were ‘grasping at straws’ – God was revealing Himself to them, but to varying degrees they got His character mixed up with their own cultural norms which were far, far from the ideal of His character. Jesus came along and showed us the true heart of God.


  37. Agata Avatar

    Mike B,

    This reminds me of something I heard Fr. John Behr speak about, that going back to investigate the origins of life we will always arrive at a place that will require us to admit there is no good logical explanation and it’s in the end a matter of Faith… Maybe someone here knows where it is in his lectures or books?

  38. Byron Avatar

    Jesus makes this plain in the case of divorce in the Torah, but it also seems likely to be the case with laws like that which force a young woman to marry her rapist (Deuterotomy 22:28-29), which are plainly repugnant in view of the vision of husband and wife as a loving, mutually-submissive partnership in the New Testament.

    Ryan, I think there’s a little of both going on (“grasping at straws” and understanding God’s Will) in the OT. The woman forced to marry her rapist is, within the existing society, being put in a position where her needs will be cared for; she will not be shunned and essentially living on the street as she has a husband to provide for her. The man himself needs to submit to God’s Will in this matter and care for his (now) wife in a repentant life. None of this makes the act of rape less horrible but it does call on man and woman to return to a proper relationship of repentance and humility before God and each other.

    In this case, Israel is essentially doing the best it can to create a repentant life under very poor (to say the least) circumstances. We have to remember that the safety nets we take for granted today did not (and really could not) exist back then. This is a way to create a safety net for the woman and bring the man back to the proper attitude of repentance before God and her. Within the historical society, this provided grace to both parties.

    To go directly back to your question, the answer, I think, is “yes”–the OT authors were indeed “grasping”. But not at straws. I think they understood God’s grace and love for humanity and spent a good deal of effort in trying to apply their lives and their society to it (Jubilee!). Please correct me, anyone, if I am off-base here. I know this is a difficult subject and I make no claim to having answered correctly. Blessings all!

  39. Janine Avatar

    Byron, thanks for your comment. I tend to see the overall theme, as a kind of framework by Moses, and as fulfilled in Christ with an emphasis on inclusion and love, as community-building. Everything is about creating and maintaining community. What you say makes sense in that light (as strange as it may seem to our ears).

  40. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Good questions. Your brother’s reaction is very telling. “Historical” truth, i.e. truth as observable fact, has its own kind of notions about the faith, the Scriptures, etc. And these assumptions are not very old in the history of Christian thought. The historical means the “flat.” It’s highly materialistic in many ways. Certainly rather mechanical. The truth of our existence and of all creation is not portrayed very accurately when expressed in materialistic/mechanical ways. And history in that vein can be misleading. It becomes “history as I can manage it.” When, in fact, the reality that we call history is absolutely so much more than the mind can fathom or contemplate. For example, let’s choose a single moment and a single decision. If I were to truly describe that moment, it would not be in isolation from every other moment and everything else that exists, because truly life is actually a communion of all things. So, our histories are always highly reductionistic.

    The gospels, for example, are “historical” in one sense. These events certainly happened. But the “telling” is not a newsreel. It is a teaching. “These things are written so that in reading them you might believe.” The gospels are “how” the Church remembers and tells the story of Christ. But our modern reductionism insists that we only tell the facts of what happened. But what is more important is the meaning of the facts that happened. The gospels, then, give us the meaning. They present the facts in a manner so that you get the meaning, the truth.

    Saints stories can be all over the place. I jokingly say that saints stories, if told by a Greek, should be divided by 10. Now, that’s my Anglo-perception. English stories tend to be very reserved and careful. Greek stories (to my ear) always sound exaggerated and “over the top.” Russian stories always seem to emphasize the suffering, etc.

    But, instead of listening to the stories and learning, we have been made anxious with the historical anxiety of the modern world that wants everything reduced to manageable facts. We can’t know for sure about many historical details in the lives of many early saints. We have stories. And that is enough – or it should be.

    But the serious modern mind thinks that if it has “only the facts” that it can then figure out the truth of things on its own. This is not true.

    When I hear Orthodox Christians getting into arguments about these things, I mostly hear them being unconsciously modern. We should in fact go after the modern mindset itself and its anxieties. Christ is true.

    The story of St. Photini is “true” in at least some possible sense, or else the Church would not preserve the story. In what sense might not be clear. But we tell the story. One of my daughters is named for her.

  41. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    Father Stephen, I agree completely that life on earth has demonstrated an inexorable quality as you have expressed it. This phenomenon that we take for granted, this life on earth, hasn’t been found anywhere else. And I do not expect to see such life elsewhere either. Thank you for your eloquent follow up.

    On the ‘billions and billions of stars and possible viable planets like earth’ quote often cited from Carl Sagan, the likelyhood of finding life elsewhere (basing ‘likelyhood’ on statistical analysis) is dependent on whether earth is in the ‘middle’ of the statistical distribution or in the fringe. I haven’t looked at the science for so long now, but if my recollection serves me, based on the actual observations that have been collected so far, earth looks more and more like it is the proverbial “fluke of the universe”– in statistical terms, in the fringe of the distribution of viable planets to have life so abundantly.

    Most of what is bantered in the media (and particularly internet) does look more like science fiction that fact. But as I said above I haven’t been reading any ‘real’ research in this area for quite awhile, now. (Got too much reading in Orthodoxy to read and the list keeps getting longer!!!)

    In science–the real stuff that is– we often deal with contradiction in data. It is not something to ignore or put under the rug or rationalize away. In my experiences among people whom I would describe as ‘real’ scientists (ie not just technicians) contradictions encourage and provoke exploration, which is what scientists love to do.

    My opinion (and it is only that–opinion): Among ‘real’ scientists, contradictions in our own data bring us joy and excitement (so long as we are assured that our methods were appropriate and that the contradictions are ‘real’ and not artifacts of sloppy work)– there is mystery and there is a love of mystery. However when our explorations serve monetary interests of corporations, contradictions get in the way of a particular purpose that has little to do with the deeper exploration of our reality. Thanks to God’s Grace, my work in science dodged that bullet.

  42. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Michelle, to take Fr. Stephen’s explanation and look at another aspect: what is a “fact”. We think we know in our empirical arrogance. Usually we don’t know and facts never speak for themselves. To determine what is a fact, how important it is in relation to other facts and what meaning to assign to a particular fact is a product of the observers point of view, his bias, his experience and what other knowledge he has.

    One has only to look at the manner in which the founding of the United States is considered now and how it was considered 20 years ago.

    One of the great tragedies of modernity is the loss of story telling as the means of transmitting culture, faith and family.

    We in the Orthodox Church are greatly blessed that we still retain story telling: in our services and in the lives of the saints. We must work hard to maintain that aspect of the faith.

    The best histories I have ever read are what is called historical fiction. Well researched stories set in a prior time using fictional characters. In doing so the truth about the time and events is often more clear than empirical histories.

    A clear example is the movie Apocalypse Now set during the Vietnam War. It is an updating of Joseph Conrad’s classic story The Heart of Darkness and is “fictional” yet it reveals much about the Vietnam War that the histories do not.

    Remember Dee’s comment that time us not what we think it is.

    My history teachers were exceptional. They allowed me to see and explore the fluidity of history and it’s interelatedness.

    I pray your brother be given the wisdom and grace to enlarge his appreciation of the mystery of history.

  43. Michelle Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for your response.

    So, more is going on than we can perceive, and the Church conveys the truth of existence by passing down its traditions. The traditions manifest 3-dimensional truth from what we normally perceive as flat and 2-dimensional. So, at face value the OT looks 2D, but the NT testifies of its 3D nature.

    And the stories and tradition of the Saints are 3D. To perceive them with 2D vision distorts the truth they convey.

    If fact, to perceive the present world around us, as well as ourselves, in 2D distorts reality. I take this to mean that the Saints who have seen the Divine Light have acquired 3D eyes.

    I think my brother’s main contention at the time was that if the numerous stories of the Saints proved to be historical fact, then he can no longer justify staying in a denomination that mostly ignores them. They can no longer be viewed as unimportant facets of the faith, with no bearing on our salvation. But if the Orthodox Church fabricated or over-embellished these stories, then they are proven to be insignificant and can continue to be ignored. His assumption is that if the facts don’t match the stories, then the Orthodox made up lies for the sake of some alternative motive.

    Alternative motives cause people to lie all the time, so I can sympathize with his concern. Thus, abandoning the “flat,” literal interpretation OT scares him. If we don’t connect the literal interpretation of the OT with the gospel truth found in the NT, then how do we prove, without a doubt, that we haven’t been caught up in a lie?

    If 3D eyes are required for “proof” of the truth, then we will always be subject to these fearful doubts, until we aquire 3D eyes to vanquish them.

  44. Michelle Avatar

    My brother is basically in the same boat as many of the atheist – the atheist cannot perceive God, so they conclude that those who claim to know Him are lying to themselves and others; my brother cannot perceive this 3D vision that us Orthodox claim to have knowledge of, so he suspects we are lying to ourselves and others. This is why he only trust the Scriptures (“Scripture alone”). In his words, even if he misinterprets all that he reads, they are still concrete reality of God’s Word in our midst. People and churches can lie, but the Scriptures cannot. This is where his faith lies. The atheist takes it a step further, stripping even this faith away, claiming that the NT authors have lied, whether intentionally or not.

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    We (the general public) should always be aware that when science stories are in the media, we’re often looking at a funding question. Only sexy science gets funding. Life elsewhere is sexy to a public nurtured on Star Trek.

    Sexy science is silly science, mostly. But, scientists have to eat…

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Justs as many German Lutherans lied when they turned a blind eye to Hitler in Germany. The darkness of the human heart has no preventative measures, only forgiveness and healing. Orthodoxy is no stranger to scandal. Christ only came to save the lost – which is why they are so prevalent. God give us grace!

  47. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Any good ways to address the lament: I can’t believe in God because people do bad things.?

  48. Dean Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    I recall reading books in the 70’s such as, The Battle for the Bible, and Evidence That Demands a Verdict. I was an evangelical at the time. These books were written with a very western rationalistic slant. We did have the fear that if one point could be refuted or shown to be false in the Bible, then all of scripture would be suspect. I remember one wise seminary professor I had who didn’t buy into this domino theory. He railed, “Does a lion need defending? We don’t need to defend the Bible. It can quite easily do that job itself!” How refreshing, indeed, Father, it is to read your articles and comments on not having to fear contradictions in the Scriptures. In like manner, my wife was only now commenting to me on the freedom she also feels in not having to try and convert all those around us. The Holy Spirit can also do that quite handily, hopefully through us, as we pray, repent, confess, obey the commandments, take the eucharist, etc. By not focusing so much on ourselves, His breath can so much easier blow through us.

  49. Brian Avatar


    I remember being struck by Lewis’s reply to a similar question. Greatly (and no doubt poorly) paraphrased his reply was:

    This is a difficult question. One can equally wonder at another question. How is it that in a world ruled solely by survival of the strongest and fittest, a world dominated by suffering, disease, brutality, war, famine, and the constant struggle for survival…how is it that belief in a God who is good and just could have arisen? How is it that the very ideas of goodness or justice arose in the minds of men in such a world? From whence could they possibly have come? And how is it that the very things (murder, plunder, thievery, etc.) that would be considered ‘natural’ and even ‘virtuous’ in such a world in that they serve the sheer purpose of survival could ever have come to be understood as evils? And this leaves aside the question of how it ever came to be believed that these evils could – or even should – be overcome?

    In Lewis’s mind the question wasn’t why there is evil; it is why there should be any notion of good or evil at all. It is beyond what we normally consider to be reason.

  50. Justin Avatar

    I would address the person, more than the lament. There’s a tacit perception (unique to the person) why he’s saying what you’ve noted instead of (for example) “I must believe in God because people do good things.”

    Consider that the lament is, in fact, correct. If you pause to ponder what kind of “god” would have to exist in order for nobody to do bad things, what kind of relationship this “god” would have to have with “people” (or, more accurately, non-people) then I think you would agree that such a monstrous “god” assumed by the lament does not, in fact, exist. The lament is, in a very real sense, True.

    Stated another way, if you address the lament rather than the person, you will necessarily have to regress into pure philosophy. Which will have you agreeing with this person about the nature of this “god.” And there is no True place in which that can telos.

    Stated another way, the lamet is rather general. But the person doesn’t mean it that way, the person means specific things. For example, there is something very specific the person means when he says “people do bad things.” Something like “I watched my dad beat the s-t out of my mom in front of me daily from the time I was born, and I couldn’t stop it.” And when the person says “god” he also means something very specific, like “the imaginary cosmic bastard who could have stopped it, but didn’t.” “Bad things” is something very specific which he has experienced, “god” is some nebulous generality which he has not. All the philosophical correctness in the cosmos will never make the tiniest fraction of impression on the person that his dad’s fist made. You’ll be assaulting a castle wall with butter. Only Love will open the door. From the inside. Only Love will go deeper than dad’s palm.

    Address the person more than the lament.

  51. Alex Volkov Avatar
    Alex Volkov

    Michael Bauman,

    I believe there is a logical gap in the question. Why God should be responsible for bad people or for people who do bad things? It is like to say that I can’t believe in physicians because people get sick.

    We not only believe in physicians but also know that they exist because we see the results of their work: they do cure people. Can we blame physicians for illnesses and infections? Can we blame doctors for they don’t punish sick people?.. I bet we can’t.

    God is the Great Physician and He is not responsible for our illness i.e. our sins. Because of Adam’s fall, man lost communion with God. Therefore, our human nature became fallen, corrupted, in other words, sick. Bad things are the consequences of the sickness. Sin/sickness is the result of our separation from God.

    Since God gave man free will, He respects our choice and doesn’t drag us into the Kingdom of Heaven. He knows that we are sick. And He patiently waits for us, giving us time for repentance. Through Jesus Christ we start the healing process and restore our broken communion with God. Life of Orthodox saints is a vivid example of this restoration. They are those people who acquired holiness, living in a close union with God in this life. Some of them had been great sinners before but the Christian faith and the Lord changed their lives and healed their souls.

    So, I believe in God for many reasons. One of them is the lives of saints. This is a proof of how a man can know God and how God can transform a sinner into a saint. Isn’t it a God’s miracle?

  52. David Avatar

    I think that an important point to take into consideration is separating the scientific theory of evolution from what I would call philosophical Darwinism (which is something that I don’t think even Darwin himself embraced). As a scientific theory, as opposed to a hypothesis, it provides a very plausible theory, based on a growing body of evidence and observation, about how life has evolved and adapted to different environments and circumstances over millions of years. As a scientific theory it provides a framework for a scientific understanding and investigation – not the answers to “why” or meaning. As a scientific theory, it says absolutely nothing about whether this is or is not a Creator, and within its limitations cannot answer the question of God’s existence. Those who embrace philosophical Darwinism, including some scientist, jump to the conclusion that this proves that there is no God and that life is just a progression of random and natural selection. Ironically, their starting point seems to be the same as those who take a fundamentalist approach to the scriptures, except in their case it is that evolution contradicts the seven day story of creation in the bible, so that proves that religion is hogwash, case closed! To add to the irony, these folks and biblical literalist seem to have a lot in common – they seem to have all of the answers, an have little tolerance for anyone or anything that challenges their “beliefs”. Yes, I did say the word beliefs – for even the philosophical Darwinist have moved outside the realm of science and developed a set of beliefs that are based on a certain “interpretation” of a scientific theory.
    It seems to me that the scientific theory of evolution (which itself continues to evolve – chuckle!!), does not present any challenge to our faith at all and should help inspire us with a sense of all and wonder at God’s creative power. Philosophical Darwinism, on the other hand, we should rightly challenge and reject. In its most extreme forms it has developed into a philosophy of Social Darwinism to justify terrible human injustices and brutality.

  53. David Avatar

    Oops!! A correction to the 2nd paragraph in the first sentence – should say “…inspire us with a senses of awe and wonder….” rather than “all and wonder”.

  54. Jeremias Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    You may already be faniliar with Chesterton’s fiction and his love for paradox, but the opening of The Ball and The Cross reminds me somewhat of this post. Here’s a telling passage from monk Michael to Professor Lucifer:

    “What you say is perfectly true,” said Michael, with serenity. “But we like contradictions in terms. Man is a contradiction in terms; he is a beast whose superiority to other beasts consists in having fallen. That cross is, as you say, an eternal collision; so am I. That is a struggle in stone. Every form of life is a struggle in flesh. The shape of the cross is irrational, just as the shape of the human animal is irrational. You say the cross is a quadruped with one limb longer than the rest. I say man is a quadruped who only uses two of his legs.”

  55. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Very well said. Quite perceptive. In the light of what you’ve said, I suggest reading this article by the late Donald Sheehan. It is both a reflection on Dostoevsky, but an extended testimony of someone who was abused by a father and yet came to faith. It is one of my favorite stories.

  56. bob Avatar

    For a very useful discussion of evolution and Church fathers (and Seraphim Rose’s reading of them ) :

    The authors are Drs. Elizabeth & George Theokritoff. He a retired geology prof from Rutgers, she an Oxford D Phil who studied with Met. Kallistos Ware. I might also ask anyone thinking they can derive some scientific insights from Genesis to keep reading as far as chapter 30. A method of getting mottled sheep is described in detail. Reproduce those results (nothing miraculous is even hinted at) and get back to us.

  57. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    David I hesitate to go any further into evolution but Darwin himself was looking for a theory to replace the Christian paradigm of creation. Perhaps not surprising given the Christianity of his time. It is simply impossible to separate the “science” from the social philosophies that form around it

    The social aspects of his theory were immediately trumpeted by folks like Ernest Haekel and H. G. Wells. The phylogenic theories of Haekel formed the basis of Mengle’s experiments while his wacky “religion” was used by Hitler too. Wells was an avid proponent of eugenics. To my knowledge Darwin did not object to their use of his theory even though they were his contemporaries and he knew them.

    It is interesting to note also that Darwin’s Bulldog, T.H. Huxley, led the attack on the Christian virtues of chastity, monogamy and marriage that have been a big part of the social message ever since.

    Modern theory or at least its popularizers from Gould to Tyson refuse to acknowledge the possibility of God and insult Him and those who believe in Him. They set a tone that, at least in some institutions, intimidates Christians who want to study biology because if their belief extending even to homosexual “rights”

    It have become an anti-scientific ideology. Something that IMO, was always inherent.

    Besides that it is not really a plausible theory when one takes the subatomic and sub-celluar worlds into account. There is so much more dynamism, complexity and life than is considered. At best it is a mechanistic theory that comports with the industrial age in which it was formed.

    But, it is and never has been solely about science. The philosophical rejection of God and untenable anthropology is at its heart. Given that premise I must deeply question any of its conclusions about the nature of creation. Their premise is wrong. The premise at the heart of creationism is also wrong, not to say some of their objections and the objections of the intelligent design community, (which uses a third premise) should not be considered.

    A far more plausible theory could be proposed and developed from the premise that God created ex nihilo and is everywhere present and fills all things. That I would love to see.

  58. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Thank you Michael for your comments, with which I am very inclined to agree. (And thank you Fr. Stephen for allowing this tangent – I think these issues are worthy of discussion somewhere!)

    I would only add my observation that if a) Orthodoxy is not about some abstract [moral or otherwise] ideal or set of ideals, but about actual reality; b) the hypostases of actual reality, however marred, reflect the image of an all-good, all-loving creator; and c) this actual reality, however marred, is one of self-giving life, not of survival-of-the-fittest-death –

    Then it seems inconsistent and possibly incoherent to me to accept that a good God created a world in which the weak perish and the strong survive by essentially selfish, self-preserving means – the heart of the process of ‘natural’ selection. That it has come to be such as a result of human sin – for we are the priests of God’s perfect creation, and thus the rest of creation imitates us – is much more consistent with an Orthodox mind than the alternative mythology of scientism.

    My point is not that Genesis 1-2 need to be taken as literal history (for clearly their deeper meaning is recapitulated in each of us), but that the Darwinian and neo-Darwinian paradigms remain very inimical to Christian faith. Forgive my syllogistic argument – the old Protestant dies hard!

  59. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    Michael I second the proposed theory you envision in your last statement. It was that kind of vision I had while studying current data, that you allude to, which led me to Christ and Baptism into the Orthodox faith through physics and chemistry.

    This last point surprises people in my parish when I tell them ‘my story’ of conversion. I honestly don’t know whether I would have become a christian if I hadn’t become a physical chemist first.

    Father Stephen has mentioned that the event of conversion can involve anything at all (if I recall his words) even a fox crossing a road.

    Physical scientists generally don’t hobnob with the social sciences and scientists. Their respective visions of what science is, is actually different. Specifically particle physicists and physical chemists are focused on the unseen world. The definition of what activities count as science is different from what I’ve read so far in the link Bob gives.

    Even between physicists and chemists there are social histories that I suppose is an explanation of why these groups of scientists prefer different models of light. Physicists like using the wave function model, and chemists like using the ‘photon’ or energy packet model. In discursive logic as Fr Stephen mentions, these two models are contradictory, but I needed to use both in my work as if they were not contradictory conceptions. This isn’t what I would call an ‘orderly’ or ‘rational’ world I worked in. But that didn’t hold us back from making useful discoveries.

  60. Gene B Avatar
    Gene B

    Michael, it is important to note that these “scientists” and “philosophers” were all members of “secret” societies (now just societies with secrets as they are all in the open now) that openly professed (and still profess) their opposition to traditional religion. Their beliefs are not just philosophies and teachings for their own sake, but philosophies and teachings whose promotion included the mission to take down traditional the traditional belief system, a mission that has sadly been well accomplished. I still don’t understand why people have not clearly connected those dots. They are self stated enemies of the Christian faith, not just simply misguided in their beliefs.

  61. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Gene, Michael, etc.
    It is beside the point to attack the scientists. Indeed it doesn’t matter what Darwin or any of them believed about God. It doesn’t matter today in evolutionary molecular biology what Darwin thought – it’s almost antique. There are, however, serious biologists (I know some), who certainly hold to some kind of evolutionary hypothesis, who do very good science. This is not 1840. We are having a very different conversation with science today, and we should. Those scientists who express opinions about God exhibit deep confusion (as do any number of people who profess theological opinions about biology).

    If the argument is “Bible science” versus “modern science,” then Bible science will lose – and should. But that is not the argument. There is nothing within our Orthodox faith that suggests a young earth and its concomitant “science” as an essential of the faith. Proper study of the fathers certainly does not (just as a proper Orthodox study of the Scriptures does not). Darwin and other atheists believe the earth orbits the Sun. That doesn’t make it untrue. They, of course, might argue that it negates the Scriptures. It does not, of course.

  62. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    For my part, I would say that it is not the age of the earth nor “Bible science” that is under question – I would leave things like the extent of the Flood, the meaning of ‘day’, etc. as something of an open question pending divine revelation (most likely in the age to come). Creation, like salvation, is a mystery. The issue I have is that the mechanism of natural selection via competition and death as a narrative describing God’s chosen method of producing the speciation of life and, ultimately, the creation of man appears to be deeply at odds with a creation that is declared by God to be ‘tov tov’, “very good” i.e. perfect.

    There are many, many assumptions and inferences made by evolutionary theory which a person can question if they are so minded; yet it is its implications concerning the character and nature of God (and not whether or not it contradicts a literalist reading of the Scripture) which are most troubling to me. If indeed that’s what He did, then that’s what He did – it just goes against all my intuition (which admittedly isn’t much) about what it means to be a God of Love.

  63. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, I am not criticising the scientists, I love science it has always fascinated me.

    I am criticising an anti-human, anti-Christian ideology that masquerades as science.

    It is quite relevant because it has come to form a matrix for modernity. Darwin and his popularizers never really practiced science IMO because they looked for and tailored evidence to fit their desired outcome-a cosmology without God.

    What allowed them to get their traction was an heretical form of Christianity that had succumbed to rationalism and moralism while abandoning any semblance of a belief in our Incarnate Lord.

    I have no respect for the peratrators of the nihilist philosophy under the banner of a false science.

    Sorry if we disagree.

  64. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    James Isaac, et al
    I think there is a mistaken notion about creation and the fall. St. Paul says that God made creation “subject to frustration” on account of us. It doesn’t mean that we cause creation to fall (or even that creation is “fallen”). It’s simply subject to frustration, i.e. death, corruption, etc.

    In the Cappadocians, as exemplified in St. Basil’s Anaphora, we fall out of paradise “into this world.” Paradise is not “of this world.” It’s clearly separated from it. Paradise is a noetic existence, that we cannot speak about at this time. It’s also important to understand that the timing of “being made subject” is nowhere indicated as being post-lapsarian. It might indeed have been created that way in view of the fall that was to come (i.e. proleptically). That is certainly how I read the texts.

    This “frustrated” creation has nevertheless been used by the good God for His purposes – towards the restoration of all things and our union with Him. I think Genesis and the Eden stories point to the truth of our being – the truth of what we and creation truly are. But fitting that in history is not necessary to the narrative. You might not have thought of this in this manner. It was new to me when I began seeing it in Maximus and others.

    St. Maximus even has Adam almost instantaneously “falling.” I do not think it necessary to reconcile the creation narrative and a science narrative in a careful way. Species clearly continue to change. The earth is filled with evidence of things that no longer exist and that existed many millions of years ago. The same is true of the flood narrative. I would not go looking for scientific evidence of a universal flood, much less trying to explain how every species on earth could fit in an ark, etc.

    These stories need only be read noetically. Any other treatment is about as useful as Historical Critical studies.

    Those who have made the faith virtually coterminous with literal readings of early Genesis do an injustice to the fathers and to the faith. It is a modern Orthodoxy, not that of the fathers. It makes that which is incidental into that which is essential.

  65. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    I have my own axe to grind regarding foolish things that scientists say about science but is actually their own personal take of the world. But attacking what looks like a personal viewpoint expressed as “science” straight on hasn’t been a fruitful experience in my work. It just got me into a lot of messy fights.

    I wish to get back to what Fr Stephen is saying:

    “Doubtless, the most devastating practice with regard to the Scriptures is ridding them of contradiction. Today, this is done regularly, and from a number of directions. Apparently, human beings dislike contradiction and have a passion-driven instinct to minimize it. This diminution of reason goes by many names – some of them being so bold as to claim that this is reason itself. It is not. True reason is at home with contradiction.”

    These words are very important to me. What I’m trying to say regarding my work experience in science was that when we embraced contradiction and welcomed it, we have had a fuller understanding of our world.

    But I had forgotten this when I tried to understand and express an experience of God which doesn’t fit the usual discursive logic. I wish to express this experience but keep getting hung up on trying to make it sound logical. Of all things one might expect that my experience in science would have prepared me to say something that seemed ‘illogical’ but I’ve been reluctant because I’m holding myself to a false measure of meaningfulness.

    Science actually accepts contradiction, at least in the areas I was in. The problem lies in my own head and likely is created by the “modernist” viewpoint.

  66. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I can enthusiastically agree with what you say here. It fits and make much better sense if the whole.

  67. Justin Avatar

    Fr Stephen: Thanks for your kind words, and the Link. That was a truly enlightening and enjoyable read. Very meaty.

  68. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil


    My spiritual father simply said (to paraphrase), “God is not concerned with history, but with our salvation. The creation story is about each one of us; each of us is ADAM, and has passionately grasped after the fruit, turning away from God.” (he is a monk far removed from any of the debate).

    I think the difficulty with the approach I have seen you take vis. the “godless origins” of the evolution theory in the past and “godless ideology” many use it for today, is that the average person has very simplistic (inaccurate) understanding of the theory. And the average person has bought into the framing of the debate established by *both* sides: it’s either Evolution (more broadly, science) or Christianity (more broadly, existence of God).

    So rather than bog folks down with the education we would all doubtless benefit from, vis. the complex particulars of the history, and the vastly complicated and scientifically sophisticated instantiations and evidences of modern evolutionary theory, I find it more helpful to simply say, “God might have done it that way or something similar. There is no conflict between science and religion in our faith.”
    I believe it was St Augustine who resisted dogmatic statements on any scientific matters precisely because science changes and reveals new things, and the faith should speak only of what is eternal (again, paraphrase from my memory 😉

    I do think we should engage in lots of in-house discussion of any intersection between science and our received Tradition. (and perhaps that’s all you’re trying to do; but I’m conscious of this being a somewhat evangelical blog open to all viewers) However- and here I find it similar to the homosexuality discussion- the issue is so politicized that “communication” with unbelievers becomes a very tricky thing. There is no such thing as “objective ideas” that can be “put out there” for fellow reasonable people to observe just the way we intend. All communication is bound to me and my passions and received by you and your passions (you and I both know this with a hotbutton word such as “nonviolence” 😉
    When pressed on the question of homosexuality by an unbelieving audience, I speak of the love of God for all people, who are all made in his image and equally treasured by Him whether gay or straight. I speak of our commandment not to judge others, and that we are called instead to see our own selves as the greatest of sinners and focus on our own brokenness. I speak of the exalted place of compassion in the Christian Tradition that makes everything else irrelevant, for God is Love Himself.
    Now, there is VERY much more to say among my brethren, but to say anything more than the above is simply to *not be heard*. If I were a pastor, I’d have to walk a gay man toward repentance before baptism- but here we’re talking of someone already convinced that life is in Christ and his Church!
    Most people believe all Christians have a hatred or fear or judgment of all gay people, and that we dont believe they can love, etc. etc. Nonsense- but it colours every word I might wish to speak. (really it reduces any of my words to a “position” that is “anti-gay”.)

    Likewise, apart from a select audience, when asked/challenged about evolution and Christianity, I prefer to share the sentiments my spiritual father shared. It is not my job to get people rightly to understand the historical origins of a ‘scientific theory’, nor to enlighten them as to holes in said theory.
    But if they hold the theory as axiomatic, I can easily give them a roadmap to union with Christ that does not require abandoning science or evolution as seemingly reasonable. There is so much room to move once we have been Chrismated.

    That’s two of my cents.
    A third for those interested in the topic: I love the analogy I heard from a Christian prof. vis. reading the Genesis story literally rather than making room for some possible genre cues we are missing (according to modern scientific and historical assumptions): Imagine two thousand years from now archaeologists dig up a school and find a book in which a mouse and a cat are having a conversation (i.e. a disney comic). They may reasonably and completely wrongly conclude, “back in the 2000’s, people believed animals could talk.”

    -Mark Basil

  69. Arnold E Karr Avatar
    Arnold E Karr

    Fr. Stephen,
    I am not so vain as to think you wrote this for me, but I feel written for: thank you. Can you expand a bit on what is meant by repentance for one’s hardness of heart? I sense it goes beyond mere sorrow or regret.
    All the best,

  70. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Sorry and regret are minimal expressions of repentance and quickly disappear. Repentance really involves a change of heart, or, at least involves the feeble efforts we can bring towards such a thing.

    When we no longer see the contradiction in these things, the nous is darkened, and we begin to make of these great mysteries mere intellectual ciphers, rational objects to be manipulated in arguments, systematized and refined. True noetic perception involves great ascetic effort, in which we fast, pray and repent for the hardness of our hearts and our constant efforts to substitute an understanding that does not at every moment depend upon God.

    It is, essentially, turning my heart towards God and actually looking for Him. When we don’t do that, we’re mostly just playing games with our own thoughts, and are separated from everything around us, with our own thoughts being our primary contact with the world. It will create loneliness and depression.

    Prayer and fasting (which can include any number of activities) are key, as is kindness and generosity to the poor (alms-giving). We slow down and pay attention, actually offering a little faith that we might see more in the depths of Scripture than our own thoughts staring back at us.

    A key element, I think, of repentance, is the “bearing of a little shame.” Look back at some of the articles I’ve written on shame and see if they are of help.

  71. James Isaac Avatar
    James Isaac

    Forgive me for finding it difficult to let this topic go. I am very aware of the false dichotomy between science and religion that is set up, often unwittingly by people who well-intentionedly seek to uphold the truth as they see it. And I sympathize with the notion that we need not demand people let go of their misapprehensions before becoming Orthodox – indeed entrance into the Church is but the very beginning of having these things stripped away from us for our benefit.

    My issue is that evolutionism is not science, but mythology – mythology not in a necessarily perjorative sense, but rather a competing mythology i.e. narrative with the Christian one. I am in no way interested in proving the Bible as some infallible textbook (the Word of God is inspired, infallible, and inerrant – and when he turned 14 or so He grew a beard). It is a mythology based on inference from select evidence, no matter how dressed up in fine-sounding words and ‘paradigms’ etc. it may be.

    I say that it is a competing narrative because it is the modernist narrative par excellence. All is justifiable in the name of progress, and progress qua “a better world” is guaranteed by the method of natural selection. Competition is to be encouraged; the weak merely hold back the human species from attaining the next level (a sort of godhood if you read what those who espouse things like “collective evolution” and other new-agey spiritualisms are saying).

    As has been said on this blog, all morality is derived from cosmology – “the way things are”. If indeed this survival of the fittest is the way things are, then why do our deepest instincts (which are obviously good and evidence of our primary nature as created in the image of God) lead us to want to care for the weak, helpless, poor, etc.? Is it not much more consistent to believe that caring for the weak, sacrificing ourselves, etc. IS the way things are i.e. the way God has created the cosmos to be and the only means by which Paradise could ever be realized?

    I mean no disrespect for I have found this blog to be probably the most edifying one I’ve ever frequented. I just find it deeply ironic and troubling that such a modernist narrative is given the time of day in a place where modernity is rightly exposed and derided for the delusion it is. Thank you and forgive wherever I may have misspoken or misinterpreted things. Glory to Jesus Christ.

  72. Byron Avatar


    I think a part of the answer is that modernity caters to the passions of the people. Currently, people have been abused by the constantly changing ideas of “freedom” and “individuality” for only several hundred years. As a race, we have not figured out how abusive these modern views are to us (even though we are continually abused by them). The modern world caters to the passions and people will suffer a great deal to have their desires met. I think a great part of that suffering is willfully disregarding what is good and true to pursue the immense self-centeredness that modernity glorifies.

  73. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not believe in progress, and any description of evolutionary theory that describes adaptation as progress is indeed mythology, not science. As a Christian, I believe that God is working all things together towards our salvation, and towards the gathering together of all things in one in Christ Jesus. That, I think, is not rightly described as progress, but as providence.

    I believe that the biological life of the universe has been providential. I think this is a correct way to think and believe about these things from an Orthodox perspective. As a classical believer, I reject the modern narrative. It has no place in science. Again, adaptation is not progress. It’s just adaptation. Providence is a statement of a faithful believer. Narratives are inherently religious.

  74. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    Hi James Isaac;

    You’ve hit some really good, key points here I think.
    First, God’s creation IS red in tooth and claw. And, humans are equally torn apart by the seemingly blind brutality of natural forces.
    This evident reality creates the existential conditions for our massive historical account of endless theodicies. There are mysterious contradictions between the way things appear and the faith I have in a God who is Love itself.
    Second the “impulse” to do good, protect the weak, etc., is very mixed evidence. Centrally this comes from an ethical system informed by 2000years of Christianity. And who/what qualifies as the weak is always re-definable: Ancient Greeks exposed their unwanted infants, we abort ours. We have a long history of ‘defining’ certain groups of humans as less than human- whether based on race, economic status, or commonly today moral standing (e.g. lock up those criminals and throw away the key!)
    Finally, push any decent civilized people and you will see the wolf within. War times; under threat; starvation, etc. all of these wipe away decency and atrocities are committed against the weak by those fit to survive all the time.
    All of these points are actually fruitful wellsprings of meaning for Orthodox who believe Christ fundamentally came to set us free from the chains of death that compel us to sin, which are expressed most demonically in our socially accepted violence: warfare, executions, etc. Man to Man is a wolf.
    Only Christ showed us through His incarnation and identification with the least, that the human icon is so infinitely precious we are never permitted to destroy it. Only Christ on the Cross shows us that we need not make our survival the fundamental goal, but rather to become Love Himself is the human telos. By this- becoming peacemakers, the highest rung of the beatitudes- we are born of spirit not of flesh, and become the very Sons of God no longer of violent Nature, through union with the only Nonviolent One.

    Setting the theology aside, I would also ask what branch of Evolutionary Biology your Masters or PhD is in? Forgive the tease– I just mean that there is an overwhelming body of evidence that points to various elements of theory along the Evolutionary hypothesis: survival of the fittest; species naturally adapting over time, etc.
    My best friend is a doctor, also with a Masters in Neuroscience. He can hold Evolutionary Theory lightly- but only because he understands that there are some problems with the theory in its wholeness. But, something very much like the theory is overwhelmingly supported by the evidence from every branch of empirical science, and he could not have understood his whole education apart from the “working utility” of the Evolutionary hypotheses.
    Additionally, I once dated an becoming-Orthodox Christian doing her Masters in genetics. She almost had a nervous breakdown trying to hold to her version of Christian faith (which she though precluded acceptance of Evolutionary Theory), while feeling blow by blow in endlessly convincing evidence her studies brought her, that Evolution (or something like it) did occur.

    Now, we lay folk, uneducated in the theory (I only took one university course in Ev. Biology), we can rightly recognize the ideological side of it and object to this. (But let’s be honest: It was a false christianity versus a ‘godless theory’. I choose neither, thank you very much).
    However There is actually *also* very hard scientific evidence for a very compelling theory with overwhelming explanatory power, underneath, or behind, or beside all that ideology.
    When you, or someone else, obtain a PhD in some branch of Evolutionary Biology, and then come back and demonstrate how the theory is flawed, etc., it will be much more convincing than opposing the theory for ideological reasons, without a thoroughgoing, top-level education in the science itself. And to so oppose it from some sort of “Christian dogma” position, feeds into the opposition of faith and reason, God and science, etc.

    I say all of this not in defense of Evolution (I actually could care less about the theory; with a beginners education in evolution, I am totally agnostic about it). I say it in defense of the Christian Faith, and how we are rightly to relate to our unbelieving/post-christian fellow people, especially those closer to educated in the sciences.
    I am saying this is the wrong fight; we dont need to be in it and we hurt ourselves and Orthodoxy by “jumping in” to the ‘christian side’ when it’s a flat, bland christianity that set the boundaries and keeps the guard.


  75. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark Basil and James Isaac,
    Actually the survival of the fittest and its brutal progressivism is a lousy narrative. As I’ve stated, adaptation and change are unarguable for me. But, frankly, the brutality of progressivism does nothing to explain the inexorable thread of kindness and goodness that run throughout creation. The explanations I’ve seen are all inadequate, I think.

    There is, instead, Providence, which we may observe and be thankful for. Christ is the only narrative that I accept. However, I do not find the sort of literalism in Scripture that some suggest to be in the least persuasive. And that is for the same reasons that I reject modernity. I think it is simply not true. Indeed, the kind of literalism that some suggest seems to me to itself be an artifact of modernity (rather than a proper following of the fathers as is claimed).

    If there seems to be some contradictions and paradox involved – then all the better!

  76. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    Father, do you not believe Nature is red in tooth and claw, then?
    Of course there is great tenderness and beauty in animals- and I can see in their logoi Christ Himself. But I also see the law of death at work and the instinct for self-preservation trumping everything else.

    In human beings I see both: I see the law of death, and the Image of God. I am with you on the “problem of Goodness”– but this is because all persons are made in the Image of the Beautiful One, not just we chosen to believe.
    I also see violence from the beginning, as the fundamental expression of the law of sin and it dovetails perfectly with the Natural world. We instinctually sin; we kill in self-defence and dress it up to look like justice. From the perspective of my Father though, all Adam is one and we must become a new creation, no longer ‘listening to’ the self-interested passions that (for the sake of argument) arise from our “evolutionary baggage.”

    A lay-look at the natural world reveals the survival of the fittest. A read through the psalms shows this same narrative too- and the call to God to save the weak, the poor, who are righteous but not powerful by worldly standards.

    I think it’s an ugly narrative but a deeply true of “the world”, that survival of the fittest is how things get done.

  77. Theo Avatar

    Dear Father, I gather from Florensky that the nature of reason is an antinomy: it leads inevitably to contradictions and paradoxes; and he goes on to see that this is something to be embraced. It is clear that Florensky’s thought here is based on Kant, or at least is inspired by Kant, and I’m wondering if Florensky’s perspective is similar to Kant’s, when he wrote: “I had to deny reason in order to make room for faith”?

  78. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, you just said what I have been trying to say and failing.

    Mark Basil: does it bother you at all that these folks you posit as the experts know all and we peons are incapable of understanding and commenting on anything in their realm?

    To the extent that such science is used to propagate a false understanding about man and the creation, we are involved. The social aspects cannot be neatly separated.

    I agree it would take great spiritual balance and discernment to walk in that world.

  79. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Mark Basil,
    I do not see nature as red in tooth and claw. It is, instead, deeply ordered. Things certainly eat one another. But here’s something to ponder. It has puzzled me for years.

    After the Resurrection, Christ eats a piece of broiled fish. I like to image a new creation in which there will be no harm. That action, though, seems not to bode too well for the eschatological hopes for fish. I think about Lewis’ imaginary unfallen planet (Malacandra) where there is hunting. His meditation on that fact is rather interesting.

    I don’t draw any conclusions about Christ’s fish-eating after the Resurrection, other than to remember that it’s there. It’s a bothersome contradiction about which I have been told nothing as yet from the Lord.

    As to the survival of the fittest…I agree there is a lot of it. But it is not utterly triumphant. There is something else at work. It is something that I think science does not bother to ponder. But it’s there.

  80. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Florensky indeed engages Kant on a very deep level, though he then goes beyond him.

  81. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    Father I have indeed thought about Christ’s broiled fish on the shoreside.
    It seems to me that this is to show his disciples he is indeed flesh and blood; still a human being. I dont think we should draw more from this- we are not told Christ caught and killed the fish (more likely he acquired it from fishermen coming to shore), and the lesson for the disciples was happening at a shore-side not in a fruit orchard. This was the food on hand. If the resurrected Christ kept a slave (to use a crass example), I would not conclude from it anything about the institution itself. He walked in the time and place he did, in the world corrupted by our sin.

    I think we are all much too quick to devour animals (note: I’m not a vegetarian or arguing for it. I do try looking at the ideal and humbly seeing how far off I am). Why did God create animals soulish? In the second of the Genesis creation stories, before Eve is created, God sees if any of the other animals might be suitable helpmates for him. This is a remarkable passage; it demonstrates that we were intended to have a partnership, a working relationship with animals (using them cooperatively for labour doubtless, etc.) We would be their masters but doubtless with holy gentleness (we see such relationships between man and beast among the saints).
    In the beginning God gave only the plants, fruits, and seeds to us for food, and animals were to be ‘friends’ of a sort- lesser and under our dominion, but a dominion imaged after the good creator who made animals because he loved them, not simply for Man’s utility. In the scriptures we were not permitted to eat meat until after Noah’s flood.
    (in fact this point is beautifully illustrated in the movie Noah. I highly recommend this amazing film for a wonderful and very informed (biblically, etc.) midrash on the Noah narrative. Violence toward my brother is not isolated from killing animals).

    Now, an attentive person can see this even without the scriptures. Go to pluck an apple from a tree and it will not resist you. Go to capture an animal and kill it, and it will resist and even fight you as its enemy! It is right and good that many of us are uneasy with doing the dirty work of cutting a cow’s throat to get at the steak. An animal bleeds like us, defends its life like us, in a way vegetation does not.
    God has created the world with an order that we can see if we open our eyes. We do not need to impose our will for God has provided.

    Also of course, in the eschaton the lion will lie down with the lamb. Something will change even in that order of creation corrupted by our sin– I believe it will become more like us in our telos, more like Christ Himself, the Prince of Peace.
    As for Lewis’s space trilogy (which I generally love), his need to create the unfallen sentient beings who have a big hunt to “make men” of themselves or whatever- well Lewis certainly didn’t study his own source material (the genesis story outlined above) for this picture did he?
    I suspect it derives from his most glaring and tragic error: he was enamored with the thought that there is some sort of virtue and even glory in warfare. He was a product of his times, and could not see the Suffering Servant forgiving his enemies from the Cross for all it meant (he also belonged to a communion rife with military cooperation and just war nonsense. He did not sing as we do that the Mother of God is our Protection).
    These things are connected.
    You notice also, he absurdly saw no problem with Ransom’s “spiritual battle” being a physical, bloody, murderous battle with a human being, possessed by the Satan? If you look at how Lewis explains this- that on our world it just incidentally happens that we do spiritual warfare through prayer, not carnal weapons, but “perhaps it’s different on this planet”- you see how impoverished was his understanding of the sanctity of *every* human life, and why we love our enemies, really is. He just didn’t get it.

    As for “nature red in tooth and claw”, perhaps I am using the phrase wrongly. i dont mean to suggest the world is disordered, but that it has an order that is fundamentally corrupted by violence for the purpose of self-preservation. I am suggesting this is the logic of the world closed in on itself; it is the logic of the flesh.
    But Christ came to birth us from above, in the Spirit. We no longer need to shed blood in self defense– not just because Heaven is our only homeland and Christ our only King, but because Christ has revealed that evil cannot be stopped by killing bad guys. We do battle *not* with flesh and blood St Paul says, but with principalities and powers. The real evil is unstopable through violent force– that’s why no war is ever “the end of violence,” but a perpetuation of it; Satan keeps driving himself out! Read Don Sheehan on this. Read Rene Girard, please.
    On his way to the cross Christ *corrects* this assumption (violence as defense) in his own disciple, telling him not to protect the Innocent One but that all who live by the sword die by the sword. (This sword-drawer was the same disciple who was himself possessed by the satan when he tried to talk Christ out of Passion of course. Again this logic is connected. Violence is demonic- the Satan is a liar and a *murderer* from the beginning. He lied to Eve. He killed Able.)

    In the Natural Order, a lion eats a lamb. In Christ’s Kingdom they take a nap together. In the Natural Order, you have heard it said eye for eye, in Christ’s Kingdom we love even our enemies– even dying for them as if they, our enemies, were Christ Himself in the flesh.

  82. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    On the fish,

    I have liked and used that story for years and, every time it comes up, the more central it seems to the Gospel. Want to know whether Christ’s Resurrection was bodily or just an illusion that was misunderstood and [at some point after the Gospels] embellished? There is the fish. Want to know about our nature after The Resurrection? The fish. Want to know if there is some moral reason—and not just a pedagogical and practical one—in fasting behind not eating flesh? The fish. Want to know if eating animals was merely a condescension after the fall, something that is actually abnormal? Look at the fish. Want to know if physical death (e.g., in evolution) is antithetical to Christ, The Resurrection Himself, and something that is opposed to his victory over spiritual and ontological death (a question being brought up throughout this very thread)? The fish! Not that cooked seafood is the key to the Gospel or completely answers any of these questions—that would be quite the fish story! But it is there, simultaneously an unlikely foe of heresy and food for The Risen Bread Of Life. That is quite the fish.

    On the topic of evolution and science,

    I switched from math and the sciences (the hard sciences—no biology for me!) to theology a long time ago, a fateful decision but one I do not regret. But the myths I see about science and scientists in this thread are mind-boggling to me. Has science been used to justify all sorts of horrible things? Sure. But it has been hijacked as much as religion has by the modern project—as Fr. Stephen has noted before, science and technology are not new nor exclusive to the modern project, as its prophets would have us believe, but existed an inestimably long time before modernity and, if modernity isn’t the last phase of our history, science and technology will continue right along past it. Are there crazy people who happen to be scientists and spout all sorts of nonsense? Sure. But again, these people are first and foremost modernists, evangelists of a brave new world for whom science is just one more tool. We have these same types of people in “Christianity”, too—that should in no way shake our faith in God. Conspiratorial thinking does us no good as ones who have committed to sobermindedness and truth in all things and it does us even worse when it comes to our witness to other people. We are fighting powers and principalities of darkness, not some quasi-political/scientistic/whatever group of people meeting in a dark room somewhere—even if it were true (and there certainly are some secrets out there of one sort of another, I do not disagree, though anything involving more than a handful of people is unlikely to be a secret for long), it is just a total distraction. Suppose you expose group A and everyone knows they’re sinners now. What changes? You see, this is all just another demonic mind game to keep us from fighting the real enemy, the one that resides in our own hearts. As for the science and the world, God created everything and He created it Orthodox; we should not be afraid of it or of learning how God may have acted. I do not think that any specific scientific theory should *ever* be a litmus test for Orthodoxy, but I certainly fall on the other end as some of the comments here. I do not want to fall into secularism when it comes to worldly knowledge: I agree with St. Gregory Palamas that we don’t need to learn all kinds of knowledge of this world to be saved or know God, but I recognize that active belief in “widgy widgy” stuff and refusing to correct misunderstandings and even innocently holding untruth most definitely affects us spiritually and harms our relationship with God, our Orthodoxy, and our witness.

    As far as scientists themselves, most of the experts I know are happy to talk about science if you show a little interest. Yes, there are a lot of concepts that are difficult if you do not have the background—it is not very easy to teach fuzzy set theory (at least not axiomatically) to someone in elementary school, for instance. But most of the scientists I know, if you stop them and ask questions, will be able to give answers fairly close to whatever level you’re at. And of all those that I know fairly well—biochemists, physical chemists, agronomists, and more, many of whom are solidly Orthodox—there is very little connection between their research and any sort of modernist philosophy. Indeed, the ones I know may be even more inoculated against modernity than the average person because they are after truth and do their best to follow the evidence, even when they get null results. In my interactions with scientists outside Orthodoxy, especially those in evolutionary biology, they are nearly always bending over themselves to remind people that evolution is not progress (and most seem to believe it isn’t gradual, either)—that is an old Darwinian myth that just isn’t scientific; they are often just as worried about linking evil concepts like social Darwinism with science as we are! Adaption, change, and the rest—yes, but they are far more cognizant of the line between science and scientism than most people realize and actively work to avoid making moral judgments (“this adaption is good” or “that adaption is worse” in some ultimate sense), mythologizing, or supporting some unrelated cosmology. Again, they just follow the evidence and, if anything, desperately *want* to publicize and tell you about their work because it is important to them, not hide it like some secret cabal. And if you don’t believe their conclusions (sometimes the conclusions get weird and contradict the very graphs in the paper, especially in nutritional studies!), you can look them up yourself and see their materials, methods, controls, raw data, and anything else you like. Not to throw anyone directly into deep waters, but you can look up both arXiv and bioRxiv—both of those are just preprint servers, technically, but they’re open access and you can often find papers that are later submitted to less-open (i.e., paywalled) journals. If you want to just read more about the basics of the science, the ever-useful and uncannily-accurate Wikipedia is a great place to start (and you can follow the citations to the full studies if something interests you and you want the raw data yourself). What I would absolutely not do is get your science from the mainstream media—that is where it gets really modernistic and twisted and all sorts of “experts” (often in completely different fields) get put on screen and say unfathomably ridiculous things. It is even worse when the news is politicized heavily like in the US: the awful, twisted, modernistic stuff gets even worse or becomes a conspiracy because “the other guys” like it or support it or one of them read about it first over coffee that morning. It is beyond insane and, I’m sure, where many of the contemporary myths about science and scientists start.

    I can’t speak very definitively on the biological side of evolution—I have read a lot about it since school but it just isn’t my specialty in any way, shape, or form. Yet all I have seen is thoroughly put together and what questions (not holes or “Aha, there is the conspiracy!”-type issues, but minor inconsistencies, things we don’t understand, etc.) I’ve followed have always, in my experience, been treated with great respect and care, with even high-sigma results being relayed soberly and almost understatedly. I can speak a *little* more authoritatively on radiometric dating—nuclear and particle physics is a bit of a hobby and I read Feynman’s QED while I was still in middle school, if that gives you an idea of where I am coming from. There is nothing suspect for me there, not at all. Carbon-14, uranium-lead, potassium-argon, you name it—what I have seen is solid science and solid results. I’ve looked at alternate hypotheses of nuclear decay, variable solar output, contamination, and much more that isn’t being touted as “the secret”—it is not and the dating still stands. And like with the biology, the more I read the more I am impressed by the soundness of the methods. The neat thing is that if one scientist messes something up, others can and will jump in and fix it—the upside to publish or perish is that if someone can make a name for themselves tearing your work apart with even better evidence, they will! So there is great incentive to get it right and a lot of self-correction within the field. And to speak from a theological angle, there is nothing in any of it—not even the smallest part—that implicitly or explicitly proves or teaches or requires modernism. Some scientists are moderns, but science is not modernism.

    Speaking to another comment about the violence in creation, I think that totally misses the point. The Crucifixion was violent—to put it bluntly, are we expecting bloodless icons and a world without suffering? Violence should not surprise us, but it is in no way the controlling narrative. If we jettison Darwinism and/or our preconceived notions of it (and no evolutionist follows that junk—as Fr. said, it is old news), what we will come to see is that survival of the fittest is really just a popular term that has gotten out of control. It is used more by creationists than scientists, most of whom dislike the hugely unscientific baggage it carries! A more accurate, current way to look at it is that reproduction is the the driver, not violence. And that is Orthodox. Those species that reproduce are the ones that survive—even if a creature kills a thousand others it, too, will die and its line will cease unless it reproduces. Think about that: only by a creature dying to itself and becoming a father or mother (or clone or whatever it may be) and giving itself to the other can it truly survive. In most(?) species, this means sexual reproduction, which means coming together with another in some form of communion to create life. Any violence, in and of itself, does nothing to create life. And no matter how much a creature learns, or builds, or does, all that will last is what it passes on, often in a kenotic manner, though union, then fatherhood/motherhood, then it’s own life-giving death, where it becomes food—bread—for even more species (scavengers, bacteria, etc.). Wow. Talk about something that is not only totally Orthodox but blows both PSA and modernism out of the water. If you read the violence or anything else in Paschal light, you’ll see the same thing. Again, Creation is Orthodox and so is all truth relating to it. We need to embrace it, not be afraid of it and accuse it of being secretly Gnostic or modernist or scientistic or Babylonian or whatever else. And we need to have enough faith in God to realize that some unscientific quack trying to claim that science or evolution is inherently athiestic or modernistic does not make it so and doesn’t mean that we are then forced to forever cower and hide from science and evolution and throw what are often very un-Christian accusations at anyone who is associated with them.

  83. Dino Avatar


    Perhaps we needn’t view Christ’s partaking of broiled fish after the Resurrection as a baffling indication of this, “life-unto-death” breaking into and continuing into the “new-life-eternal”, but, rather view the incident as the eternal Kingdom partaking of this corruptible life-unto-death again for our sakes: it’s hardly unreasonable that Jesus, the Union of the temporal, corruptible and created with the eternal, incorruptible and Uncreated [as we witness in the resurrected Christ], would partake once more of the temporal, corruptible and created for our sakes.

  84. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Thank you. I especially appreciate your point to the drive for reproduction. It is creation responding to “bring forth life!” That is the sort of thing, rather than red tooth and claw, that makes sense of much we see around us. We need to continue looking carefully at modernity and speaking to its errors. “All that is technology is not modern,” will be my new motto (apologies to JRR Tolkien).

  85. Agata Avatar

    Thank you for this amazing post, Joseph Barabbas Theophorus!

    “As for the science and the world, God created everything and He created it Orthodox (…..) Again, Creation is Orthodox and so is all truth relating to it. We need to embrace it, not be afraid of it (…..)
    And we need to have enough faith in God.”

    “we don’t need to learn all kinds of knowledge of this world to be saved or know God”

    Again, thank you so much!

  86. Agata Avatar

    Alex Volkov,
    I also have been meaning to thank you for your comment in reply to Michael…

    “So, I believe in God for many reasons. One of them is the lives of saints. This is a proof of how a man can know God and how God can transform a sinner into a saint. ”

    May God grant us also to strive to emulate the Saints….

  87. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    [oops Father! I’ve fixed the hyperlinks and will post my comment again right after this. Please delete the first post with the broken links. thank you.]

  88. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    ​[Father this is a lengthy comment. I ask your patience; I do not think it is vapid or irrelevant for all its length. The topic is worthy, and the error is so deep and old it takes time and care even for the very wise to see. Please bear with me.]

    Dear Joseph;

    I deeply appreciate your comment. Where we agree (evolution), you have said it better than I. Where you have disagreed with me (I think), you make wonderful poetic, true observations about reproduction in creation…
    I will have to meditate more on the meaning of the violence inherent in the predator-prey relationships (these, too, are with us let’s not forget), and the meaning of reproduction as death-to-self. I had never thought of reproduction in the animal world through this lens; thank you truly for this.

    However I do think you’ve missed me in your comments about violence. And I think you have missed the centrality of violence to the narrative of God with his people too. Please take the time to read Rene Girard or his interpreters to get an anthropological foothold in this (dip your toe through Orthodox essays on violence and desire by Donald Sheehan. Also try these articles: A Culture of Co-Suffering Love in an Age of Violence; Are the gospels Mythical? The Babylonian Captivity of the Gospel. For an accessible overview see The Girard Reader, or interpretive works by Gil Bailie).

    As for the centrality of violence in the Christian Narrative, here is just a smattering from the top of my head:
    – Our Judeo-Christian Creation Story was written in contrast to other Creation Myths (Please read Girard on this). You will see other ancient myths all have the world created out of violence- gods of violence (just like us) create the world through violence (this logic is at the heart of our false understanding of self-willed creation: i.e. Cain’s civilization). But in the Biblical account the world is created out of Love and for love and communion. There is no *need* for violence… So why then do we have so much of it, the text will ask?
    – as soon as disordered desire enters the world (Eve and Adam), so does murder (Cain).
    – God does not allow the murder (Cain) to be killed as an act of justice! (bye bye capital punishment)
    – The murderer then goes and is the founder of the cities. Civilization *as we know it* is founded on murder (it will be contrasted with the city in the eschaton, which has even different foundational physics, being square not circular. This is part of a deep revelation of God’s secret hand: he never ‘fights fire with fire’– though Cain will do evil, he should not be killed to prevent this evil (worldly civilization)– instead God is doing something with the End in view: He is creating the Kingdom of God which does not resist the evil doer but works even through what is evil to do a greater Good)
    I.e. without God’s provision in the garden (or agrarian derivative where our punishment- sweat and thorns from work in the field- is received contritely by Seth’s lineage (Sons of God), Cain’s lineage looks to circumvent God’s punishment through the worldly organization of the Murderer’s cities apart from God (here the Sons of God will find “daughters of Men”- and eventually birth the Nephalim, mighty in warfare. This path of the city apart from God, founded by the Murderer who rejects thorns and thistles as just and therapeutic punishment, will be perfected in Babel. See Ps. 55:9).
    – It is this tribal violence (just an expanded form of Cain killing Abel) that was the wickedness in every inclination of the human heart everywhere, that led God to sorrow for creating ADAM, and the need to destroy the world in the Flood (and start again with an agrarian). Read the Noah Story again, Gen. 6-9, with an eye for violence as the Narrative.
    – The Hebrew People were not to have a king like other nations, but God capitulates to their demand (giving them up to their desire). What will come of this lineage? Look at kingship from its beginning to end and you will see much that plagues Orthodoxy to this day (confusion of nationalism and faith). But you will also see again this deep theme that God does not resist our evil doing (wanting a king, here), but transfigures the evil to a greater Good we could never have imagined. This is why we dont need to “defend the Church” (against the Ottomans or Mongols, against ISIS, against the barbarians, against the Other. God knows what He is doing, and He is certainly not trying to build or protect or maintain a “Christian empire” of this world.)
    – King David, a man after God’s own heart, is not permitted to build the temple to the Lord precisely because of the blood on his hands. Read 1Chron. 22:8-10. A taste: You cannot build a temple for worship to me, because you have killed many people.
    (Of course the OT witness is a work in progress; David righteously kills Goliath to show God’s mighty hand in the humble servant- the righteous in the OT killed- and also had multiple wives and prostitutes lest we draw too much from it.)
    – Who is permitted to build the temple? David’s son Solomon= Shalom-man. (though we Christians know the true Son of David, the true builder of the house of God, is the Christ. He is our Shalom-Man).
    – When the Hebrew people were oppressed and enslaved in Egypt, they were not empowered by God to revolt. Instead it was the mighty right hand of the Lord who delivered them- for our God is a Warrior (“vengeance is mine” saith the Lord– it is not for us humans to take up arms). We see that God will act on behalf of the weak and the poor, but He will do it in His time and in His way. The Exodus should be paradigmatic for our response to oppressive regimes. We do not need to ally with worldly kings or unite in military power to defend ourselves.

    … I have so far not even come to the New Testament! The unveiling of all things in Christ’s Pascha, which of course is a story of bloodshed and violence, but it reveals something else entirely. I will barely scratch the surface as we’re all getting a bit tired (or is it just me :)? )
    – Think of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant on a warhorse, then the Christ coming in all humility and weakness on a donkey. We see the fulfillment in Christ and it is meaningful.
    – Nonviolence is part of the prophecy about the Kingdom- which is actually true of the Church (though obfuscated by history). Is. 2:4, they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. See St. Justin Martyr on this, who saw this fulfilled in the Orthodoxy of his time (before we allied with empire).
    – Jesus comes as the Christ, but cannot be recognized precisely because the “cultural tradition” of the Jews (much like our Orthodox cultural traditions sadly) were encrusted with socially accepted violence: They expected the Messiah to be a great Military General… And He was! But He explicitly says, ”
    “My kingdom is not of this world; if it were, My servants would fight to prevent My arrest by the Jews. But now, My kingdom is not of this realm.” (Jn 18:36).
    He is the Prince of Peace. His is an “army that sheds no blood” (to quote Clement of Alexandria, from our Tradition).
    – Indeed look at how military imagery is *co opted* in the scriptures, precisely to reveal that we who belong to Christ no longer make war for we now know who the enemy truly is (sin in me, and demonic powers at work in the world). When we are baptized (into death, therefore we need not fear death), we arise the “newly illumined warrior of Christ”. He is our Peaceful General. Our weapons are the gospel and prayer. St. Paul has a whole discourse on this, and also explicitly tells us we fight with demonic powers not with flesh and blood. (Eph. 6:12).
    St James tells us exactly where wars come from: from the passions at war in us; we want (e.g. want justice, want freedom), and we do not get. So we fight rather than submitting to God who is our Warrior; the Mother of God who will Protect us.
    The contradiction is so telling! The quiet, peaceful, prayerful *woman* is the one will protect us? This is God’s power perfected in our weakness, but only if we voluntarily remain weak and do not turn to violence to assert our will.
    – Jesus’s lament for Jerusalem is a lament for the blindness to the Narrative of Peace, a blindness that perpetuates socially accepted violence to accomplish the will of us good guys, chosen ones, etc., failing to see how fundamental this lie is to our apostasy. (Luke 19:41-44.
    Now as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For days will come upon you when your enemies will… level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” (for a closer look see, “A Farewell to Mars”
    – Jesus as our King reveals a Kingdom not of the world, founded on dying at the hands of our powerful enemies (who are they by the way? Religious and political leadership (the worldly kind that lord’s over); the established powers of this present age).
    He himself has no place to lay his head; he calls us to be nationless in this world- to make no commitments to princes and sons of men who will ask of our patriotism violent defense of the established order.
    – I already mentioned Christ disarming Peter’s defensive violence, speaking not a trite but a deeply revelatory word that all who take up the sword will die by the sword (what kind of death? It is not literally correct). Tertullian comments that “the Lord in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier”.
    … And on and on we could go. Violence is most certainly a central motif of the whole of human history, the biblical narrative, and Christ’s revelation.

    For a place to learn more, and indeed find many more moderate voices than mine who still recognize peace and peacemaking as central to the Christian Narrative, please see the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.
    For example how many Orthodox dont even know of our long and venerable tradition (among the saints) of conscientious objection to war?

    Love in Christ;
    -Mark Basil

    (PS as for the broiled fish- I enjoyed some of your insights but dont think you’ve looked at killing animals in the broader light of the the biblical tradition. Why do you suppose God did not give animals as food in the beginning? But I would still happily go fishing with you brother. 🙂 )

  89. Dee of St Herman's Avatar
    Dee of St Herman’s

    I wanted to express my gratitude to both Mark Basil and to Joseph Barabbas Theophorus for contributing to this discussion.

    In one of the first talks I had with my spiritual father, he mentioned that Orthodoxy didn’t have a problem with science. This was said in the context of a conversation I was having with him about how often I encountered condemnation from people who claimed they were Christian and condemned my work and it’s content because it was science. Before I was introduced to Orthodoxy and converted to become a Orthodox Christian, this condemnation by people who claimed they were Christian, entrenched my thinking that I would never become a Christian.

    Even while I wasn’t yet a believer, I didn’t see the reason for Christian opposition to science (I distinguish science from what is called ‘applied science’ such as the medical field). When I was actively involved in teaching science, I took my work seriously and tried to avoid getting sucked into discussions about religion, mainly because of the futility of understanding and the animosity that discussions on religion and science tended to encourage.

    I don’t know Protestant theology except for early exposure as a kid and my rejection of it at an early age. This rejection may have sensitized my perception and may have predisposed my perception that the people who seemed to be most antagonistic and attacked science as though it were antagonistic to religion in my classes, were very vocal proselytizing Protestants.

    In one specific case, a student who claimed he belonged to an Evangelical branch said that studying the formulas on entropy was an affront to his beliefs. I attempted to encourage him to consider that it is appropriate in science to examine, probe, question and eventually replace (if needed) “laws” in science and that it was not necessary to ‘believe’ them in the way that he appeared to think. He remained entrenched however in his thinking and found the course quite difficult.

    I need to state flatly here that this experience may not be the best representation of Protestant beliefs. And by far there are more Protestants than Orthodox in the places where I taught, so the likelyhood of negative encounters may have been stimulated by sheer numbers of ‘less informed’ Protestants.

    Nevertheless, I was relieved that my spiritual father found no difficulty in my being a scientist–although I’m no longer active in the lab or classroom settings. I continue to do “armchair” research. It is my hope that while I’m engaged in Orthodox theology, I may learn what it might have to say to science. I do not expect to see opposition, but it may be there. I must admit I can’t help myself in this endeavor and I seem to be doing it (science and theology) in my head no matter what I do. Whatever real knowledge in this endeavor I might attain is subject to the Grace of God, prayer and guidance by my spiritual father, spiritual elders and mothers and the Saints. With God’s Grace, my heart and eyes remain open to Christ and to God’s Creation. I take up the Cross.

  90. Byron Avatar

    I also see violence from the beginning, as the fundamental expression of the law of sin and it dovetails perfectly with the Natural world. We instinctively sin; we kill in self-defence and dress it up to look like justice.

    Perhaps the operative phrase within this statement is the fundamental expression of the law? It seems to me that the world, not just humanity, tends to wallow in legality and law and often cuts its own throat with it. If nature tends towards a “natural law” then mankind tends towards our own system of laws, which we use to overwrite and control the natural creation we are in, usually to our detriment.

    Also, I join the other in thanks for your long, but very well thought out, post, Joseph BT. Very nicely said.

  91. Agata Avatar

    Everything Christ does is “for us and our salvation”, isn’t it? We hear it in the services all the time….

  92. Misha Pennington Avatar
    Misha Pennington

    If God can create a man who can create a computer program which produces a cyber world wherein miracles occur, creation is accomplished in 6 days, a Virgin has a Child, angels descend and ascend upon the Son of Man, Christ rises from the dead and we are led to theosis . . . why could He not have engineered our Reality that way? And, shortly before the eschaton, to make our emergence into the light less traumatic, might He not lead us to “invent” an analogy (computer/cyberworlds) by which we might begin to understand His Work?

  93. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    What God could do (anything) and what He has done are not the same thing. It is not proper reasoning according to the faith to start with “what God could do.” In some ways, it’s meaningless, since He “could” do anything. But He has done what He has done – and that is not just anything.

  94. Justin Avatar

    On Nature:
    1. “Survival of the Fittest” is obviously NOT the way the world works. If that were the case, we’d have never got beyond bacteria (the most fit to survive). The most thriving species (us) is inarguably the LEAST fit to survive.
    2. Nature is most assuredly NOT “red in tooth and claw.” Very few commune with “nature” anymore, or we would know this. Y’all would likely disbelieve me if I were to relate how I routinely interact with the “apex predators” of nature.
    Not attempting to brag, just pointing out that these statements are born of DEEP ignorance of “nature.”

  95. Joseph Barabbas Theophorus Avatar

    I likely won’t be able to comment after this for quite some time, so I will try to cover everything as succinctly as I can here without reinterpreting every example you’ve provided; I don’t think that is necessary, anyways. Rather, I will cover 5 problems which I think will demonstrate why the violence/nonviolence narrative just cannot stand.

    First, we have to arrive at a definition of violence and nonviolence. I have seen too many discussions where every time [what I might consider to be] a fairly violent action was brought up, it was explained away as “not really violent” or some such thing. So if you’re going to use that as the lens which you view Scripture and the world through, it needs to be very precise or the position will be completely unfalsifiable, which is not a good thing. Some kind of definition as what constitutes violence—are we talking intentional bloodshed, accidental injury, economic violence, forceful constraint of the will?—is a must or we don’t have a position but rather will talk past each other.

    Second, I do not see nonviolence as the primary framework in the canons or lives of saints. Some of the canons from Trullo [depending on your definition of violence] can be very forceful—I am thinking of some in the early 40s, especially; canon law is pretty serious stuff so if nonviolence was the chief concern one would not expect that. More than a few saints, including monastics, took up arms to defend their lands or homes or monasteries; this is present in the Greek/Athonite tradition and the Slavic (I think there are even some more recent examples in the excellent book Everyday Saints); why do you think many monasteries are built like castles? And let us not forget the multitude of rulers and military commanders who are not just considered saints, but martyrs, who died in battle against other factions—more than a couple of those battles would be considered suicide missions, too. Yes, nonviolence is one mode of expression of the Christian life, one pattern that can point to Christ, but the life of The Church seems to paint a picture with its inverse “color” quite frequently. And this is hand-in-hand, side-by-side, with the canons and therapy that are prescribed for those who take part in the death of a human person, even accidentally—there is a great paradox here, but no “either/or” sort of contradiction. St. Athanasius says some interesting things in regards to this paradox.

    Third, nonviolence seems strongly connected to the social gospel and various other “winds” today which only intersect Orthodoxy at some points. Again, I do not not deny that many saints were nonviolent and this can be one Tradition-blessed way of action or even life. But that is not the totality of Orthodox teaching. And any movement which seeks to hijack Orthodoxy for its own ends concerns me greatly; there is a movement you have noted that is related to this subject which seems to have some level of blessing in certain dioceses but it makes me very, very wary. Why? The peace that we pray for in the Liturgy is primarily the peace of The Holy Spirit. Any peace that flows from that is good, yes. But peace for its own sake, a false peace, is condemned on more than one occasion by The Fathers. Indeed, it is such times that seem to be the greatest trial for The Church, in a way that coliseums and beheadings cannot top. While I see the idea of peace in the The Holy Spirit and other apologetics brought out any time there is criticism of the movement, my feeling and understanding (from reading a fair mount of literature from them and the site you linked) is quite different and, from my experiences, I do not believe that is as central to the movement as they sometimes claim. In seeking to overturn the ways of the kingdoms of this world and false authority, I wonder if yet another idol is not sometimes set up in its place, one with more Christian clothing but the same worldly flesh. All of that is a bit tangential to the more direct question of violence/nonviolence, but it makes me skeptical. Having councils, for example, is a good thing. But when we are in a day and age where a certain spirit makes dialog and “feeling ‘good’ together” one of the highest goods—even above The Eucharist—and pretends any subtext or trouble is absent, you must understand that any council in such a time is immediately suspect and rightly put under far more scrutiny than one held “in the middle of the night” under times of persecution; in the most recent instance, that concern was wholly justified (and probably not strong enough). Likewise, I think that our prayers for peace are a good thing. But we are in a time where that spirit (i.e., not The Holy Spirit) may be at an all time high and where we have such astounding contradictions as “peacekeepers” and clinical, suffering-free capital punishment (not at all unrelated to this ideology, I might point out), I tend to be very mistrustful of a movement that dovetails so strongly with modern ideology (and is so polarly opposed to its modern opposite, which is in reality the other side of the same demonic coin).

    Fourth, I see the OT as allegory and history *simultaneously*. No, that doesn’t mean there are not parables and visions (e.g., in the beginning of Genesis) or that the OT can be taken in some modern, literal sense. But the God of the OT is the same as the God of the NT—all of those conquests, all of those laws, and even all of those saints (like the Maccabean *martyrs*—that is a Church-given, new-covenant title) remain. Without claiming God didn’t say what He meant or wasn’t heard as He Spoke or stripping any historicity completely away, this is a big nail in the idea of nonviolence (or rather, a whole “contractor pack” of nails, if you take each instance on its own).

    Fifth, and most importantly, this is not the Paschal narrative. Other models and frameworks are not absent from Tradition, no, but when something contradicts the Paschal reading the analogy is cut short with an explanation (cf. the ongoing conversation in another thread about the ransom reading of the Gospels), or rejected, or some such thing. What this framework does is, instead of seeing instances of violence and nonviolence as part of the story leading up to and flowing from Pascha, turns Pascha itself into some piece of a different puzzle, where Christ may have come to destroy death and rise up up to live united with Him forever but what he *really* accomplished (according to an extreme reading of this model) was to teach nonviolence, or open up the way to eternal nonviolence, or something along those lines. That is, quite simply, wrong. Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection are not some cosmic backup plan because we messed up nor were they merely a pedagogical tool. They were the plan *from the beginning* and a revelation of *Who God Is*. When Adam was made *in the image of Christ*, this was not some idealized Christ sitting around feeding well-behaved lambs in some ethereal field but rather *Christ crucified*. The Father did not send Christ to die for some perverse Divine satisfaction—never!—but He did send Christ to die, He did command violence—and what a Saving Passion! We are not trying to get back to Eden—that is not the goal of the Christian life nor the “normal” state of man and it cannot be used as a reference point in the manner that you are. Actually, that is not even where we began, according to the revelation. Remember, Adam was *placed* in Eden later (Genesis 2:8). And it began far earlier than Adam. Go back to Genesis 1:2—what is this water that The Spirit hovers over? John’s Gospel speaks constantly of it, from Christ’s baptism (ch. 1) and the miracle at Cana (2), to Photini (4), all the way to the grand fulfillment, if you can see it, in John 19:34. Genesis 1:2 is predicated on violence, on The Crucifixion. You’re probably right about the narrative being careful to avoid any ancient misunderstandings—I can only imagine, seeing what happened in history anyways, what would happen if God taught about consuming His Body And Blood some millennia BC. Yet that was always the plan, always the message. It is not surprising that God started us on milk, err “fruit”, and then taught us to sacrifice and eat flesh, and only then (after much intervening teaching and prophecy) to eat The Flesh of The Man; nonviolence simply has no defining role, no meaning, here in the narrative (and I would say this is part of the answer to your fish question). I could go on and point out that Cain’s nonviolent sacrifice was rejected by God in favor of Abel’s very bloody affair (I have no problem with reading forgiveness and a rejection of human “justice” in God sparing Cain—but that isn’t the same as nonviolence), Cain’s almost-certainly violent “tatooing” by God (by almost any measure of violence you define as per point 1), the fact that The Church is the model of civilization (though I agree it it is founded on violence), restarting the world after The Flood not with farming but with *sacrifice*, and so on, but I would be here forever. Rather, I will leave you with one more point from Genesis 1: remember how we always seem to have to remind non-Orthodox Christians that days begin at sundown, not sunrise? Think about that—even woven into the very fabric of time, death and darkness (ideally kenotically, though we botched that) comes first, only then followed by light and life and resurrection. That is the controlling narrative. Violence is there. Nonviolence is there. But neither of those two things (nonviolence far less so, if I must pick, given Christ’s Death and the selfless witness of The Church) define the story. Both are tools, point/counterpoints, and means of expressing the paradoxes of The Faith: peace through violence and violence through peace, light through darkness and darkness through light, life through death and death through life, blood through water and water through blood, God through man and man through God.

    I fully agree that there are huge warnings, and serious consequences, about taking matters—chiefly the life and person of a human being—into our own hands, which violence *nearly* always does, but that is just part of one more truth, and not even a paradox: God Is The Lord and we are to serve Him and love our neighbors, not ourselves or our passions. It has nothing to do with violence being “wrong”, per se, but that we are not Creator and Ruler. So when He says “My Love Is A Consuming Fire”, we do not explain it away or expect not to be burned (or those around us to be unscathed) but rather pray that we do not forget His Unquenchable Mercy. And when The Holy Spirit comes down and says “I cover you with mercy as with oil”, we do not forget Truth and repentance but rather thank Him, bask in His Grace, and serve as living witnesses to the world. Why? Because our experiences change and, as created beings, there is a time and season for everything—the blinding white of Pascha is composed of every color except the black nothingness of sin. God, in His Divine Nature, is not so constrained by time and place and He—simultaneously fire and light, passionless violence and militant peace—can meet us in both the harsh correction and gentle touch without ever waning in His Beautiful, Selfless Love. His Kingdom suffers violence and the violent take it by force—these are the words of The Lamb. And He is the true narrative of The Scriptures.

  96. Mark Basil Avatar
    Mark Basil

    Joseph, thank you for your reply.

    I am in near-total agreement with the theology and historical observations you have written here. Strangely, I would use much of the content you have given to explicate my own commitment to nonviolence.
    So I see the main problem is in your “first point”: a definition of violence.
    Yes this is a hard task. I would say violence, as I have come to know it in myself and in the world, takes on so many different forms it is hard to capture it all with a definition.
    I would start with this: whenever a man kills another man, this is violence.
    I have spoken of “nonviolence”- a tricky term; notice I avoided ‘pacifism’ which is even more troublesome- by this what I mean is: How Jesus of Nazarus valued and treated human life, and how Jesus of Nazarus responded to threat and danger to his person and to those most dear to him (in this case collectively, his bride the Church).
    I do not mean by ‘nonviolence’ anything at all that cannot be found in Jesus’s own behaviour and teachings about human life, enemies, and immediate danger/threat.

    Pushing further I will attempt a definition here, but happily would rework it:
    Violence: cooercive, injurious force directed toward a person for reasons other than solely motivated by love for this very person and principal concern for his own well being.
    To come to this definition, I just tried to observe how Christ behaved and taught about the sanctity of human life; the sort of love we should have for our enemies (perfect, like the love of our Heavenly Father for His only begotten Son); and his response to life-threatening danger (his own, and that of his closest loved ones).

    Now, I can see from your “fifth point” that you have not yet read the article I linked to by Rene Girard Are the gospels Mythical?
    This brief, meaty article introduces just how very much Pascha has to do with violence. Indeed there is no way anyone in the whole world can rightly understand violence- its real origins, scope, and potential end- without understanding just why exactly the innocent man Jesus of Nazarus, with no political ambition or agenda, who preached and lived love for all persons, was such a threat and had to be killed the cursed death on a cross.
    It is the Passion that is the key to understanding all violence everywhere. The fact that God’s ultimate perfect act of Self-Revelation and simultaneously the final perfecting strokes in the creation of the ADAM, occurs in the event of the most horrifying act of violence the world has ever known, makes it blindingly clear that violence is indeed at the very centre of the Story of God’s relationship with man and creation.

    So long as one tries to understand or think about violence from any other vantage point (say political pacifism, secular ‘world peace’; buddhist dishonor for the individual human as a distinct person; etc.), one will fall far short of grasping what is really going on.
    Again we should know this for all the biblical revelation of the theme of violence I sketched for you, and we should know this because our Accuser, the Satan, is a liar and a murderer from the beginning.

    So, let us reason together as Orthodox, brother. Let us use our Holy Tradition, The Way of life, as our guide. Let us labor to define ‘nonviolence’ only according to what we see in Christ’s own actions, teachings, and person.
    This is how I was catechized as an Orthodox believer. It is the only way I wish to think about violence and nonviolence. Let us breathe easy and set aside any accusations or suspicious of “modern agendas” or “false worldy peace”, etc. None of this is what I am interested in or talking about.
    We may need to borrow concepts and language from elsewhere- but this is what Orthodox always do. Just as we’ve done with terms like ‘energy/essence’ in the past or “restorative justice” today, etc., so too we must be careful with our definition of nonviolence. But it would be a terribly unOrthodox attitude to think there is nothing to learn or borrow from others outside our Tradition who, for any number of reasons historical and contextual, have had occasion to think carefully about nonviolence.
    I may not go the same way as my Anabaptist brothers or the Catholic thinker Rene Girard, but I can read them and sift it like a bee visiting other flowers. This I have done and will continue to do without fear; I want an Orthodox mind, not just an encyclopedia of quotations from other Orthodox thinkers.

    Here, then, is a humble attempt at an Orthodox Christian starting point for understanding nonviolence:
    We begin with Christ and Him crucified, alone. We take our courage from our baptism with him, no longer fearing death. Neither do we need to fear the death of our loved ones or the weak and innocent in our care- their fate is no less in the hands of our Loving Father. He will not forsake them.
    Laying aside all earthly cares for ourselves, driving out fear with perfect love, and gazing at the teaching and example of Jesus our Christ alone, what do we see?
    Friend, we do see nonviolence is the way. For it was His way- His path took him to the cross, and he died for us even while we were his enemies.
    But let’s not make the mistake of turning this ‘nonviolence’ into a “moral duty” or a political aim. We are Orthodox Christians! We are certainly permitted to be soldiers, to defend our family, and even to defend ourselves. However as the Apostle says, “everything is permitted, but not everything is beneficial.” The Lord tells us that if we would try to save our life we will loose it. But how hard a word! Every day I fall short of this; in little actions I ‘save face’ for myself; how I keep up my reputation and fear looking a fool; that I preserve my “persona” like a finely cared for mask in this world. If I so often fail to die these little deaths, I dare not expect much greatness if an enemy threatened my very life.
    I am not a nonviolent man, I am not like the Christ.

    Anabaptists ‘discovered’ nonviolence in the Sermon on the Mount, but lacking Orthodox Tradition they have taken it as a sort of “moral duty” or “ethical teaching”. I love their intention and could only wish we Orthodox had a track record of good works and neighbour-loving organization like the Mennonite Central Committie, but the truth is no matter what ‘rules’ I may subscribe to, in the moment of truth whatever is hidden in my heart- that is what will define my behaviour.
    So Orthodox do not treat Christ’s teachings like “moral duties,” that can be accomplished simply by knowing what they are and applying enough will power. Instead we labour to keep His commandments to purify ourselves and show him we are serious about salvation… but we admit (since the proof is quickly shown in the pudding) we fall short endlessly. Any “right behaviour” for Orthodox Christians will only come as a gift of Grace bestowed from above, after much ascetic labouring. Short of this gift of grace I simply cannot *be* nonviolent (neither could I be a very great martyr; true martyrs of course are revealed, not made, at the time of death).

    As an Orthodox Christian, as you rightly said, I must strive to acquire the Spirit of Peace. We are given the spiritual tools: we fast, pray, give alms, cultivate the virtues.
    If I cannot control my tongue, how could I keep from shooting an aggressor? If I cannot keep my temper, how could I keep from striking back rather than turning the other cheek?
    I can identify with the murderer then; I am just like him and no better.

    Our struggle is to acquire the Holy Spirit. There will be no nonviolence possible without this; I simply cannot “rejoice and be exceedingly glad” when I am persecuted, as an act of willful obedience.
    What I must do is be a faithful Orthodox Christian. God will cooperate with my little effort and bring me along the way through daily death to self and new birth. If an aggressive enemy burst through the door tonight and started attacking my family, I can assure you whatever I would do in response would be a failure to imitate Christ’s sinless passion. But why do we always immediately think of this situation when talking of nonviolence? It is a sure sign that we have fear in our hearts, and we still are not behaving like dead men (like the baptized). When one commits himself to marry, does he think of all the most diffiucult situations that might stress his bond of matrimony? No. He simply says, “I will stay with you through it all.” Maybe he wont- for he is a sinner. But he should aim for the best. As Orthodox we should speak about and aim for nonviolence then, but allowing sin may come.

    I do not believe it is appropriate for “Orthodox nonviolence” to be understood as something that can be practiced simply through obedience. I dont even know that it would be right to do so in some most terrible circumstances. What we are called to do is our very best with what we are dealt… but the very best I have to offer is awfully far short of the fullness of the stature of the Christ I am aiming for. So I can expect under the worst situations to be a violent sinner. But I dont need to dwell on such extremes or hypothesize, “what would I do if…” Nonviolence will be a gift of our Advocate; it will not follow from my best intentions or plans for the worst scenario.

    So Orthodox nonviolence is not a rule to be followed, much less is it a standard to be imposed on all members of the Church. Orthodox nonviolence is part of the loving perfection that comes from ontological transformation of a person into the likeness of the Christ, who is the very image of the Father, who loves all of mankind equally without any distinction between righteous and unrighteous, friend and enemy.
    Perfect love like this lays down its life for its friends- it does not take up arms in defense (an old erroneous eisegesis of this text), but lays down its life even out of love for its enemies as our very model Jesus of Nazarus has done (for the very ones who hated and killed the Christ, he treated as friends).

    Orthodox nonviolence operates the way it did in St Seraphim of Sarov when he was approached by robbers in the woods: He thought of using his axe to defend himself but immediately recalled, “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword” (here is the ‘mind of the apostles’ at work; the ontological change into genuine Christ-like peacemaker). So in the face of this threat he lay down his axe. As we know he was beaten within an inch of his life, left for dead, permanently disabled…
    And what did he do? When he recovered his strength he went to his enemies’ trial and spoke in their defense.

    This is the only nonviolence I, as an Orthodox, can hope for: the peace that would flow from within my transfigured heart.
    If tomorrow I faced what Saraphim faced, I would not do what he did. Because I am spiritually weak and not capable of it. “Orthodox nonviolence” does not force it on me as a duty, but invites me into the beauty of the goal: Christ’s own nonviolence, and that illumined in all the greatest of the saints that followed him in this.

    Here is another aspect of Orthodox Nonviolence: It does not come at the beginning of our spiritual life but emerges only at the height of sanctity, witnessed only in the very greatest of our Saints.
    One can see this from its placement in the beatitudes… it is at the highest rung that Christ teaches the blessing of peacemaking (so great is this beatitude that it is the very icon of theosis: for the peacemakers are those identified with the only Son of God). We do not reach peacemaking until we have surpassed purity of heart and true vision of God!
    You see? Orthodox nonviolence is there… right where it should be: in emulation of the perfect love of the Son’s peacemaking- his great act of peacemaking that is his Pascha!
    Nonviolent love of enemies, as understood by Orthodox, occurs at the very heart of our saving Pascha. It is Christ’s nonviolence that allows his body to be broken and his blood to be shed for us. It is Christ’s nonviolent sacrifice that reconciles us to the Father, and to one another.
    Again in the mountaintop Sermon, the Lord identifies love of enemies in the most exulted position: it is this enemy-love by which we may know that we are perfected in the likeness of our Father in Heaven. Nonviolence is revealed here since Christ links peacemaking (union with the Son) to love of enemies (union with our Father). So to make peace as the Son did with his enemies is to voluntarily renounce violence as an option (both in self defense, or defense of another (as Peter was rebuked by the Lord)) and to willingly die out of love for our enemies even as they are doing their worst.

    Again, what a measure. This is too much for any man to bear. It is impossible humanly speaking.
    And this is why we have the history we do in the Church: The majority of us are not nonviolent and will never be this side of the Eschaton. But some few, some of our very greatest saints, they have attained to this nonviolent love of enemies even in the face of the most terrible test.
    Furthermore there is no more destabilizing feature for a nation than a Christian citizenship who refuses to bear arms in self-defense. Sadly then, rather than openly recognizing war as the tragedy of sin that it is while something that still must occur, it is in the interest of “Princes and sons of Men” to silence any suggestion that nonviolence is the ideal. Instead it is a constant effort on the parts of our rulers to glorify war and encourage military participation. There is endless propaganda to make heroes of our soldiers and forget the terrible harm done to their souls and their consciences through this violence. And among our saints, some were warriors though none were glorified for killing. Usually they are glorified for their courageous martyric death: this is fitting for it is what resembles Christ. The killing, as they doubtless knew in their hearts, was sinful and tragic. Like myself they found themselves in difficult situations and were not yet perfected; they did the best the could. In our violent world soldiering is often a path that good men find themselves on. It is still utterly tragic and not in any way taught by or exemplified in the Christ, the only perfect Man.
    The ideal remains nonviolent love of our enemies. This witnesses to a Kingdom not of the world. Violence in self-defense, well that’s just common sense that can be agreed to by all the other big religions (Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.). Only Christ, the fulfillment of all things and perfect image of the Father, reveals something entirely different from this common sense.
    Just as we use Christ as the lens to interpret and understand what God is really doing in the Hebrew Scriptures, so too we need to see all of the Orthodox Church’s history through the lens of Christ. Not all that has happened in the past 2000 has shone equally with the light of Christ. In particular, when one looks at the theological meaning of the Cross (i.e. Christ’s humble entry on a donkey; voluntary submission to abuse; false accusations; and finally death), and then looks at that Cross as a symbol being taken by St Constantine and put on his army as some sort of talisman than will give him carnal victory over his political and worldly enemies… Well, we maybe need to question this. And there is a whole legacy that goes with it. There was an effort at symphonia between worldly and heavenly powers that I am not sure was a success. We have to look at this. There was some confusion about the place for political empire in the Christian faith that needs to be looked at carefully, through the light of the Humble One who washed his disciples’ feet and taught them that the mighty will be humble servants of all.
    Let us recall that the scripture teaches Christ is *perfecting* his Bride, he is still removing every spot and blemish from her. Let us not shy away from a prophetic vision of the Kingdom, afraid to admit we may have some antiquated error mixed in with genuinely Holy Tradition. We can discern only by the light of Christ (the only measure of Holy Tradition), and the fruit that time has borne out.

    To sum up then: for Orthodox, nonviolence is not a rule or a necessary standard. Union with Christ is our only goal, and our way of life is the rule: pray, fast, give sacrificially, practice the virtues, attend divine services. This is how we will acquire the Peace that Christ gives, not a worldly peace. And some very few show us that this is also how an Orthodox Christian might actually become nonviolent.

    Short of this, we should treat all acts of ‘socially accepted’ violence as ‘economia’. Just as we allow divorce (as sin but in a sense unavoidable) but we preach the ideal of eternal marriage, so too violence such as defensive war should be clearly seen as sin, if unavoidable, while we preach the ideal of nonviolence. It is the ideal that we preach, it is Christ and Him crucified.
    God will use everything for the salvation of his people. This includes horrors such as war and natural disasters. Orthodox nonviolence is not about “preserving human life”, it is entirely about witnessing to Christ; loving like Christ. We know the value of even our enemies’ lives because of His incarnation. We know the heart of our Father is nonviolent love for even the most wicked because of His passion. We know that it is possible for us to do as He has done because of His resurrection, and our gift of the Holy Spirit. We know that we will fall short for we are first among sinners.
    Orthodox nonviolence is rooted in ontological change into the very likeness of Christ, so that we too may be perfected to love as our Father in Heaven loves.

    toward such a peace;
    -Mark Basil

    (PS you are mistaken in your read of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship. It is a diverse group and articles there vary in quality as well as topic and perspective; many would doubtless see nonviolence differently than I at OPF. The Fellowship includes members and articles from the likes of Met. Kallistos Ware; Fr. Tom Hopko (of blessed memory); Jim Forest; Olivier Clement; Fr Andrew Louth; and Fr John McGuckan… this is hardly your typical lineup pushing some sort of ‘modernist agenda’ in the church, or failing to grasp the distinction between a false politicized peace and Christ’s Peace, yes?

    For a balanced, mature look at nonviolence in the history of the Orthodox Church, see Fr John McGuckan’s article: Nonviolence and Peace Traditions in Early & Eastern Christianity)

  97. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Let us not forget St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki and his friend St. Nestor.

    The two seeming opposites are united in the Cross and transfigured in the Ressurection.

    Neither however has anything to do with progress.

    To be non-violent is a moral choice.

  98. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The mistake, I think, in using non-violence as a defining category is that it is not entirely accurate. It winds up asking the wrong questions. Stanley Hauerwas, a major pacifist theologian that I studied under, did not present the question as one of violence or non-violence. Instead, he treated it under the heading of idolatry. In particular, he dealt with the question as seeking to control the outcome of history – versus committing all things to God. That’s a gross simplification, but is the general drift.

    That works for me. I think, for example, that it is wrong to insist that all violence is inherently sinful. I would say that all violence is inherently traumatic and thus injures even those who employ it. But there is within the Tradition a clear distinction between different kinds of violence. Violence in war is not good, but is not treated like first-degree murder. Abortion is wrong, but not treated like first-degree murder. Etc. And though something might be traumatic and in need of healing (including repentance, etc.), there has to be a way of differentiating between various uses of violence. The canons do not treat violence as a thing in and of itself.

  99. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The trauma of violence always needs to be considered. Even realitively minor violence can create lasting trauma on both sides.

    Aggressive violence is almost always about control and the complimentary feeling of impotence.

    Joseph is correct that a definition of violence is necessary. In today’s society there are folks that say the mear mention of the name of Jesus is an aggressive even violent act.

    Even using Mark Basil’s definition it will not always be clear. Would using severe force against someone to prevent them from killing someone else be violence if one was equally concerned for the welfare of the person being stopped as for the intended victim

  100. Byron Avatar

    Would using severe force against someone to prevent them from killing someone else be violence if one was equally concerned for the welfare of the person being stopped as for the intended victim

    I recall Father stating at one point that some violence will happen, perhaps even be necessary (a statement and word that needs very careful limits), in a traumatic, sinful world. The illustration of self-defense, or even defense of loved ones, was used. As I remember, the only point was that even in circumstances that may be considered “valid” to use this level of violence, the loss of a human life is a tragedy and requires much repentance for the one who took it. It is never the goal nor anything that should be considered “good”.

    P.S. – I’m beginning to think a few of us need to self-publish; it’s getting like reading chapters in a book around here! 😉

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