The relationship between science and religion has been debated for centuries and it's not going to end anytime soon. But what could possibly be left to say about it? As a beginning scientist and Orthodox Christian, I think the debate continues because science is related to religion – especially Christianity — a lot more than we think. We need to study that relationship not only to understand science better but also religion. It will also reveal the paradoxical nature of Orthodox Christianity.
At the outset, an important distinction needs to be drawn: science in this essay refers to the pure sciences (e.g., biology, chemistry, and physics) that deal with empirical explanations of natural phenomena. This is different than the applied sciences (e.g., engineering, medicine, and pharmacology) which seek to provide models for natural phenomena for the creation of new technologies. More simply, in this context science refers to technical fields that ask the question of why. The ethics surrounding new applications of scientific technology (e.g., regenerative medicine, embryonic stem cells, or organ transplants) will not be addressed.
In popular discourse three camps on the relationship between science and Christianity have emerged: 1) atheists who argue science is as far removed from religion as the east is from the west; 2) liberal Christian apologists who attempt to show through simplistic reductions of fundamental theology the two are easily reconciled; 3) hard-line evangelicals who assert that science refutes Christian beliefs and should be discouraged.
On the surface all three stances appear unrelated. On closer inspection we see that they all share this assumption in common: that science and religion are discrete entities without shared origin or inherent connection. It creates a kind of Mexican stand-off where each camp has their guns drawn in a conflict where they are actually united in mutually reinforcing ideas.
But is their shared assumption correct? Is science as unrelated to religion (and religion to science) as the atheist or skeptical Christian apologists believe? I would disagree.
From Genesis we learn that God in His infinite wisdom and love for us His lowly creatures gave us the gift of free will. This ability to choose is extraordinarily powerful and is chief among our traits which delineates us from all other animal life. Furthermore, this free will gives rise to the idea that as humans we have the ability to selectively modulate physical objects and to observe some subsequent effect.
This is the basis of empirical science: manipulation of some independent variable and measurement of some response in a dependent variable. We are also able to create mathematical equations of the relationship between these two variables, giving us some ability to describe a phenomenon. With this logic it is reasonable to say that the gift of free will gives rise to the fundamental principle of empiricism. This is the link between the two entities which are commonly discretized. In practice, many Christian (Orthodox and not) scientists will testify that an intensive study of the sciences within the context of theology can be a source of inspiration and insight. However, these testimonials are often trivial examples of God’s fingerprint. Beyond this, there are examples of phenomena which do more than simply prove the existence of a divine creative force, rather they serve as powerful illustrations of Christian theology. We will examine two such instances (a third examples follows at the end of this essay). In each case, we will avoid an exhaustive analysis of scientific theory, but present only core ideas.
Cellular Genetics Facilitates the Understanding of Christ’s Relationship with the Church
The first illustration is drawn from the field of cell biology. Orthodoxy teaches that all the members of the temporally and spatially universal Church compose the body of the Church with Christ as the figurative head. Moreover we believe that every local church and its members compose and are they themselves composed of the Church. That is to say that every parish in the world is in full participation with the saints, the persons of the Trinity, and every other Orthodox church and its local members. This statement presents a logical Möbius strip. How can something both contain the whole and compose the whole, especially when each component carries out a unique function?
Through examining the underlying genetics of the human body one can gain a better appreciation for this paradox. Our human bodies in their most reduced sense can be understood as a collection of trillions of cells. Each of these cells carries out a unique function, and among cell types there can be a great variation in structure. Together these cells compose the whole of the body. Classical biology teaches that each cell also contains a nucleus which dictates cellular structure and function. Each nucleus not only contains the genetic information necessary to carry out unique processes, but it also possesses all of the genetic information necessary to create a whole human body. No matter what type of cell or its function, every cell contains the information to create the body which it composes. Individually each cell contains the whole.
What a great and marvelous mystery! The body of Christ is composed of units which contain that which they compose as do our physical bodies made in Christ’s image and likeness. Without studying science and its discoveries a deeper understanding of this revelation is lost to mankind.
Wave-Particle Duality Illuminates the Nature of Christ
One of the fundamental teachings of the Orthodox Church that has been challenged even since the early days of the faith, is that of Christ’s nature. As Orthodox we believe that the person of Christ is fully God and fully man. This is quite a confusing principle of our faith as it presents a paradox which is difficult for our feeble minds to reconcile. It is in fact so confusing that people like Nestor, Arius, and the Monophysites ventured into heresy trying to explain how such a contradiction can exist. How is it that Christ can be fully God and fully man?
In the world of science there was a similar paradox that was debated for centuries, the nature of light. Some argued that light was composed of particles (Newton) while others asserted that light was composed of waves (Huygens). In the early 20th century experiments by Maxwell, Planck, and Einstein showed that in fact light behaves both as a particle and a wave. We cannot say that is partially one or the other, it is in fact fully a particle and fully a wave. This fundamental paradox in science has yet to be explained.
In John Christ says, “I am the light of the world.” How extraordinary that both theologically and physically light has a paradoxical dual nature! This key concept of quantum physics helps us understand a key concept in Christology.
In conclusion, empiricism and science are gifts from God by way of our free will. The two fields are linked and help to support one another. By studying the natural sciences one can gain a deeper appreciation of complex Christian theology. Orthodox persons should be encouraged to learn more about science and to pursue scientific careers. Through science we gain a new appreciation of our faith but we can also develop important critical thinking skills that allow us to ask deeper questions about the mysteries of Orthodoxy.
A Third Example
Let us turn to the field of mathematics for another illustration. Orthodox theology teaches us that God and His Kingdom exist outside of our concept of time and space. In God’s Kingdom there is no beginning or end, infinity is occurring in an infinitely small period of time, for all infinity1. However, we also see in the texts of Orthodox services and in the teachings of the Fathers that through the Divine Liturgy we can experience God’s Kingdom now. But how is it possible that we can participate in something beyond our physical comprehension of space-time?
In mathematics the concept of n-dimensional hypercubes exists. We are familiar with n-dimensional hypercubes for n = 0, 1, 2, 3. They are the point, line, square, and cube, respectively. However, there also exist hypercubes of higher dimensions for which we have no physical corollary2. Each increasing dimension leads to a new object with a new name (n=4 is termed a tesseract3), but each higher dimensional object is itself composed of objects from lower dimensions. For example, a 3-D cube is composed of 8 points (n = 0), 12 lines (n = 1), and 6 squares (n = 3).
Let us suppose that God’s Kingdom exists as a hypercube of infinite dimensions. We cannot describe it, quantify it, or measure it, yet even an infinite dimension object must itself also contain objects of lower dimensions. As humans we exist in a 3 dimensional world and can interact with other 3 dimensional objects. Therefore we participate in God’s Kingdom through our everyday existence since an infinite dimensional hypercube must contain within it an infinite number of objects from lesser dimensions. Beyond this we can understand contemporaneous participation in God’s Kingdom (as achieved by various holy persons) as the ability of our soul, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, to participate in the infinite dimensions of God. Through this better understanding of mathematics we arrive at a useful illustration for understanding our created relationship with God.
- The fact that as humans we can conceptualize and name infinity yet never comprehend it is itself an illustration of our relationship with God.
- The proponents of string theory and other untenable theories try to assign these higher dimensions physical corollaries in an attempt to remove the need for God in the creation of the universe. This venal understanding of higher dimensions should not be inferred.
- Time is frequently attributed to be the 4th dimension, however this is purely arbitrary. Readers of Madelaine L’Engle will appreciate the term tesseract and its connection to a real mathematical concept.
Nicholas Metrakos graduated from the University of South Carolina Honors College with a degree in Biomedical Engineering. He will begin his PhD in Bioengineering in the fall. He works as a public relations specialist and research assistant at USC. His research interests include microfluidics and lab-on-a-chip design.