Doru Costache

Christopher C. Knight: “Eastern Orthodoxy and the Science–Theology Dialogue”

Vol. 3
8 February, 2024

Book Review by Doru Costache

Eastern Orthodoxy and the Science–Theology Dialogue
By Christopher C. Knight
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Elements, Cambridge University Press, 2022; 74 pages
ISBN 9781009107761, 1st edition, paperback
AUD 32.95

Until recently, Orthodox Christianity has not shown much interest in the science–religion conversation, at least from the articulation of this field in Ian Barbour’s 1966 classic, Issues in Science and Religion, and during the field’s evolution thereafter (summarised by Knight at pp. 1–3 and referred throughout). As the reader gleans from the book under consideration, Orthodox impassivity about science and religion originates in different presuppositions from the Western Christian matrix of this field. In short, traditionally, Orthodox Christianity considers reasoning and research integral to the lifelong process of maturation of one’s faith. Research and knowledge are as useful to the progress of faith as sound scriptural hermeneutic, asceticism, the practice of compassion, and prayerfulness. But Knight, surprisingly, does not tackle this matter upfront, nor does he mention the fact that only very few Orthodox scholars embraced, alongside him, a career in science and religion. And this despite the worthy undertakings he lists, from the Russian philosophy of the nineteenth century to the funded research projects led by Basarab Nicolescu in Romania, in the 1990s, and by Efthymios Nicolaidis in Greece, from the 2010s to date, with the latter being the framework of Knight’s own research towards the present book (pp. 4, 74; see pp. 3, 4, 38, 46–47, for other examples). To my knowledge, not many Orthodox participants in these projects define themselves as science and religion experts, although some of them are deft users of the tools of this trade. One wonders whether the traditional outlook of their tradition, as sketched above, is what prevents them from developing an interest in this field, and how productive this is against the backdrop of the conflict narrative. Anyway, Knight’s little book tries a different tack.

Truth be told, Knight is the most significant Orthodox contributor to science and religion, others following at a distance. A convert to Orthodox Christianity and a priest, he is doubly trained, as astrophysicist and theologian. After a lengthy career in university chaplaincy and theological research at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and as Executive Secretary of the International Society for Science and Religion, currently he is a Senior Research Associate of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, UK. He has published numerous articles and book chapters, as well as three monographs, the most recent being Science and the Christian Faith: A Guide for the Perplexed (2020). I chose to mention the latter given that he refers to it as a counterpoint to the short book of interest here (pp. 5, 62). The two works discuss the same matters—namely, Orthodox Christian attitudes to science—but for different audiences, complementing each other. Specifically, while the 2020 monograph is aimed at the Orthodox grassroots—giving an elegant response to those who adopted the conflict paradigm, foreign to the Orthodox ethos—the scope of the present book is to translate the information for expert Western readership (p. 5).

It is this scope that explains why this book addresses only certain questions and not others, and why Knight’s is “an Eastern Orthodox approach, not the Eastern Orthodox approach” (p. 2). In the absence of a consensus, he communicates the Orthodox attitude to science and religion from his viewpoint. And he does so skilfully, given his rich interdisciplinary experience. As a result, Orthodox readers whose awareness of science and religion is limited might puzzle over the author’s approach (e.g., his discourse on divine action, a topic that does not pose difficulties to them), but not so the expert Western readers. The latter would readily understand matters such as critical realism (pp. 16–21), divine action (pp. 40–47), natural theology (pp. 5–16), naturalism and supernaturalism (pp. 47–51), theism (pp. 1, 26), etc. Other topics would seem closer to home for Orthodox readers, such as panentheism (pp. 34–40) and eschatology, the latter presented in trinitarian perspective (pp. 51–61). Nevertheless, appearances are misleading. Orthodox readers soon realise that Knight, in tackling familiar matters, brings into the conversation patristic classics, classics of science and religion, and a plethora of scientists. Western readers, likewise, find the grand masters of science and religion soldiering alongside patristics scholars, contemporary Orthodox theologians, and Orthodox philosophers and historians of philosophy.

One might wonder why Knight chose to invite everyone to the party. His rationale, again, relates to the scope of his book—one addressed to expert Western audiences but aiming to communicate what he considers significant about the Orthodox stance on faith and science. And so, at every step, known tropes become pretexts for conveying uncommon ideas. Because, as Knight points out, Orthodox Christianity sings a different song, as it were (pp. 2–3, 62–63). It conceives of philosophy, science, and theology as holding together, not in antagonistic terms (pp. 15–16); it believes in the suitability of concepts for conveying truths, but remains convinced that no language can exhaust reality, whether divine or cosmic (pp. 19, 21); it has a realistic view of fallen humanity, which cannot save itself by reasoning and researching when its spiritual aptitude fails, but which, in God’s grace and through ascetic reformation, can reawaken its noetic insight, namely, its capacity for transcending epistemological limitations and for experiencing reality directly (pp. 11–12, 14–15, 22–23); it holds the view that spirit and matter, natural and supernatural, intersect continuously within God’s bosom, within a God who is continuously active in and through the infrastructure of the world, so that it does not have to reconcile them (pp. 36–37); it proposes a Christological view of the creation (pp. 43–44, 46–47), with the Logos incarnate gesturing towards the shape of things to come, so that the nature of reality will be fully manifest only eschatologically (pp. 8, 32–34, 37, 46, 51, 58), regardless of our past, current, and future scientific discoveries and theorisations. No wonder, in this light, the staple of the conflict culture, creationism versus evolutionism, does not even feature in this book. It has no place within the Orthodox tradition.

This is heavy food for thought to chew, requiring a prolonged siesta to grasp it all. Knight explains everything and quotes the best sources, but does so unobtrusively, easing comprehension. There is no Orthodox triumphalism to his discourse. He proposes a different solution for the “blindspots” of science and religion (pp. 7, 62) from the viewpoint of his Orthodox background. But he presents this solution as an opportunity for relaunching the conversation as well as to invite other Christians to consider their own contexts, instead of going by the usual nondescript “religion” or abstract “theism” (pp. 1, 63). Implicitly, he extends the same invitation to his Orthodox confrères. But the most significant contribution of his book is having engaged relevant channels for translating Orthodox Christianity’s particulars for expert Western readers. This is a tour de force for which the author should be congratulated.