The Dialogue between Christianity and Science in the West and in the East

Juuso Loikkanen

In recent decades, the relationship between Christianity and natural science has become a popular area of research in academia. In addition to finding its way into university philosophy and theology departments, several research centres have been established dedicated solely to the study of science and religion. Owing to popular atheist authors, like Richard Dawkins and, in Finland, Kari Enqvist, the topic has also attracted a considerable amount of public attention.

Notably, the science and religion dialogue has taken place almost entirely in the context of Western Christianity. In Orthodox theology, this kind of discussion has been practically non-existent. The reasons are both historical and theological.

In Western Europe, during the Enlightenment in the 18th century, empirical science became a separate discipline from traditional holistic philosophy and theology. Phenomena observed in the world were previously explained as acts of God, but during this period nature began to be understood as separate from God, so additional justification was needed beyond attributing natural occurrences to God as a ‘supernatural’ entity with influence on nature. As a result, a contradiction began to emerge between God’s actions and the laws of nature seen as independent of God.

In Orthodox Christianity, such a distinction between natural and supernatural gained little ground during or since the Enlightenment. The reality is still seen as indivisible, and God is viewed as a force influencing the entire universe. From an Orthodox point of view, the idea of perceiving the world through science and faith as two completely separate lenses and of conceiving of nature as a research subject that can only be understood by reason is inadequate. The physical world does not operate only on the laws of nature without the presence of God.

In the Western discussion, discerning between general divine action and special divine action has become customary. Roughly speaking, God’s general action involves maintenance of the universe and the laws of nature, whereas His special action involves unique acts that occur in a particular place at a particular time. Often, God has been thought to bring about only events that occur through special divine action using some temporal causal mechanism, such as microscopic quantum phenomena, for example.

However, while some have speculated on how God influences the physical world, no concrete theory of special divine action has been developed that explains how He does this. According to some, not knowing how God brings about events in the universe poses an insurmountable challenge for Christian theology. Or could the answer be that trying to understand in detail how God works in the world does not even make sense in the first place? In considering this, the Orthodox view of the futility of the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural and the general and special action of God may be useful.

As mentioned, the distinction between pure nature and the supernatural and the idea of ​​a God who needs to intervene with nature in order to have an impact is alien to Orthodox theology, according to which God works through everything, everywhere. According to Maximus the Confessor, all that exists has been created by the power of the Word of God (logos), and the manifestations (logoi) of the Word penetrate the universe, having been planted in creation already in the beginning. The laws of nature discovered by science are interpreted to reflect logoi that draw their power from God and support the universe.

This kind of thinking is not completely foreign to Western theology, but the significance of logoi is modest: they can serve as a background for sustaining the universe, but they do not eliminate the need for special divine action to explain miracles, for example. In Orthodox theology, logoi are thought to occasionally manifest as higher-level laws of nature incomprehensible to science, which sometimes bring about events that are interpreted as miracles.

In sum, what is often seen as supernatural in the West is quite natural according to Orthodox theology, a manifestation of God’s grace and world-sustaining general action. Miracles do not happen because God momentarily overrides the normal laws of nature but because, in addition to the laws of nature that we consider normal, glimpses of deeper laws sometimes emerge. A strong teleological and eschatological dimension is present here: every now and then, God’s reality gives hints of itself beyond our normal understanding, waiting to be revealed at the end of time.

Although more concreteness is called for in terms of combining specific theories of science with the teachings of Christianity, I believe that the Orthodox tradition can contribute to the discussion on the relationship between science and religion more than it has traditionally done.

Dr Juuso Loikkanen is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Systematic Theology at the University of Eastern Finland. His main research interests lie in the area of the dialogue between science, theology, and philosophy.

Studies for whom? Eastern and Western Readership in the Age of Globalization

Serafim Seppälä

We scholars publish a lot, but for what purpose? For whom? Who reads our papers and where? This is a question which may need some consideration and elaboration every now and then.

In fact, the situation has been rather confounding. A decade or two ago, unbelievable as it may sound, most academic articles in the field of human sciences were read practically by no-one. Namely, estimations based on surveys indicated that only a tiny number of articles enjoyed wide readership; perhaps 30–40 % of published articles had a limited number of readers, but the majority remained virtually untouched by human eye. Such results were alarming, but no-one was really alarmed. On the contrary, the global publishing activity only continued to increase.

However, online publishing and open access policies have changed the informative milieu in this respect. Therefore, I share here some observations regarding the reception and readership of my own articles in the era of globalization.

As a passionate lover of traditional books, I did remain reluctant for a long time before I started to distribute my stuff in immaterial forms. I soon had to admit that my reluctance had been an imprudent mistake.

Online publishing opens even the most obscure publications to global readership. For instance, I had written a rather handy article about the emergence of Byzantine aesthetics, published in Serbia (2013) in a curious festal publication that probably nobody has ever read. Seven years later, I distributed a copy of it online, the result being that it quickly found a bunch of readers and, most unexpectedly, was adopted as teaching material in a Catholic institution in Sri Lanka.

In terms of quantity, easy access enables surprising outcomes. In a recent article, I discussed and reinterpreted the question of racism in the desert fathers of late antiquity. Published in a poorly known journal in Australia, the e-version has had up to 22 views a day, which is almost incredible for an inconspicuous academic article on a marginal topic.

Even more interesting aspect in the reception is the geographical distribution that one may observe in the analytics. As a professor in Orthodox theology, most of my articles deal with “eastern” topics and eastern corpora but are made with more or less “western” methodological approach. In geo-theological terms, my work takes place in the eastern corner of the most eastern academic unit in EU. But where does the readership lie – east or west? In other words, where is the readership for academic Orthodox theology today? What kind of publications is the “global Eastern audience” interested in?

The analytics offers some unexpected outcomes. It is perhaps not surprising that the largest audience for articles in English is in US, given the massive population. However, it is somewhat unanticipated that my keenest audiences are in India and Ethiopia. This is mainly because topics such as baptismal teaching of Ephrem the Syrian are theologically relevant for the ancient Church of Ethiopia and the equally ancient Syriac Churches on the Indian coast.

The Eastern churches, separated by vast distances, historical and cultural barriers, not to mention canonical disputes, are desperately in need of global ethos and functional unity. As the hierarchical leaders are continually struggling for prestige and canonical territories, it seems that unity and communion is realised better in the world of scholarship. This is reflected also in the geographical distribution on the readers. My papers have readers in Romania and Russia, Turkey and Armenia, Greece and Israel, as well as among certain Western countries (UK, Italy, Canada). Though for some reason, almost none in Serbia or Bulgaria.

In terms of content, the most popular articles in my output are related to the early encounter of Islam and Christianity in the Middle East. Academia and researchgate combined, the most read articles so far have been “Reminiscences of icons in the Qur’an” and “The early history of religion (dis)proving its truth”, in which I analyse the use of historical argument in the Christian Arabic apology of Theodore Abū Qurrah and his Islamic counter-polemics.

Unfortunately, the articles dealing with Armenian genocide, or Armenian culture in wider terms, seem to receive the most minimal amount of attention. The combination is somewhat unexpected. It seems that there are big academic markets for certain kind of approaches to Islam, but the topics that are existentially burdensome and challenging do not attract readers. Especially the role of Islam in the Armenian genocide is a question none wants to discuss thoroughly.

In the field of intra-Christian theology, the most popular topics so far have been a discussion on the verbalisation of deification in Syriac and Greek, and my tentatively ecumenical approach to the Byzantine anathemas.

Finally, the most thrilling detail. When Russia invaded Ukraine and tried to attack Kiev in the beginning of the obnoxious war in 2022, someone in Kiev went to academia.edu and read my article on the angelology of Isaac the Syrian. Good heavens. As others ran to bunkers, someone turned to my study on angels. Had I known in which situation someone turns to this very article, would I have written something otherwise?

What I want to say with these remarks is the following. When choosing topics and methods, perhaps scholars should at times give a thought on their potential readers in faraway lands and forthcoming eras. Or lack of them.

PhD Serafim Seppälä is a professor of systematic theology and patristics at the UEF. He has published extensively on a wide variety of topics, many of which are available in https://uef.academia.edu/SerafimSeppälä.

Revisiting the History of the Finnish Tolstoians

Rony Ojajärvi

Finland, due to its long history and shared border with Russia, has been influenced by the religious traditions that developed in the soil of our eastern neighbour. The Tolstoian tradition is historically interesting in this sense. Leo Tolstoy, after fighting in the Russian army, made an about-turn and became a strong advocate of non-violence. After he published a series of novels – most famously Anna Karenina and War and Peace – as well as numerous political and religious pamphlets, his ideas began to spread quickly across Russian borders. Around the turn of the 20th Century, he began to gain his own followers, who became known as the Tolstoians.

Tolstoy’s theological interpretations support the political engagement by religious people. Tolstoyism has, in different research studies, been defined most often as a Christian anarchist, religious-political tradition. Tolstoy viewed churches and state institutional structures very critically. He took the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount very strictly and based most of his theology on them. This was also the reason that Tolstoians were radical pacifists who aimed to give up all their property in order to live self-sufficiently in the countryside.

Tolstoian teaching influenced a variety of different social activities and movements that developed as industrialisation and urbanisation enabled and produced new kinds of social communities. Examples of this are the movements developed around ideologies such as anarchism, socialism, communism, communitarianism, vegetarianism, temperance, pacifism and theosophy; In all these ideologies, Tolstoy has been regarded as an authority figure.

A transnational perspective

Different Tolstoy-inspired political movements in diverse national and international contexts have recently been under scrutiny. In the context of Finland, Armo Nokkala wrote his doctoral thesis, Tolstoilaisuus Suomessa – aatehistoriallinen tutkimus [Tolstoyism in Finland – Research on the History of Ideas] in 1958. Using traditional influence analysis, where one traces “the chain of influences” between different thinkers, Nokkala analyses a variety of Finnish thinkers and movements in relation to Tolstoy’s teachings. The shared history and border with Russia enabled Tolstoy to become influential in Finland. The most well-known Tolstoian was Arvid Järnefelt, a Finnish writer, who kept in contact with Tolstoy and referred to his ideas in his novels and other writings. In his research, Nokkala also documented the ways in which the Finnish working-class movement and theosophists, like Yrjö Sirola, Pekka Ervast and Matti Kurikka, all depended on Tolstoian teachings, especially in their critiques of the Church.

After the publication of Nokkala’s thesis, research regarding the history of the Tolstoians took a step forward. The rising popularity of transnational history research in particular has given rise to interesting areas of focus in the research field. Lately, Irina Gordeeva, a historian, has surveyed the transnational spread of the Tolstoian tradition from Russia to other parts of Eastern Europe and around the globe. An important contribution she has made has been to survey the huge archive (about 65 000 pages) of Vladimir Chertkov, a close friend of Tolstoy and leader of the Russian Tolstoian movement. The Chertkov archive in Russia was closed for a long time, but the opening of the archives around 2010 enabled Gordeeva to deepen the knowledge of the academic community about the Russian roots of transnational Tolstoians.

Gordeeva has shown how Vladimir Chertkov, as well as Valentin Bulgakov, Tolstoy’s last secretary, networked intensively with international peace movements, most importantly the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and War Resisters’ International, which were constituted after the First World War.

Tolstoian-inspired ecumenical humanitarian aid

It is particularly through the International Fellowship of Reconciliation that new, previously unexplored research themes arise in the religious history of Finland. The most important Tolstoian in the history of the Finnish branch of the Fellowship of Reconciliation was Oscar von Schoultz, a lecturer of Russian language at the University of Helsinki. Armo Nokkala surveyed Schoultz’s biographical history in his PhD. Schoultz participated in the Russian military in the latter half of the 19th Century but resigned from the army after becoming acquainted with the teachings of Tolstoy. According to Nokkala, Schoultz ended up owning the biggest Tolstoy library in Finland. But what is not covered by Nokkala is Schoultz’s ecumenical and transnational – and even translocal – co-operation through the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in the 1920s.

After the 1917 Russian revolution, thousands of refugees poured across the border from Russia into Finland. It was a humanitarian crisis. The Russian refugees were in poor health and the unemployment rate was high. Many Russians had heard that Oscar von Schoultz had been active in Finland in fundraising for the victims of the Armenian genocide, a fundraising project initiated by the Swedish branch of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1921. Russian refugees sent Schoultz a letter asking for help, which he shared with the members of the Finnish Fellowship of Reconciliation, including Mathilda Wrede, a Finnish woman evangelist. Under the leadership of Schoultz and Wrede, the Finnish Fellowship began to allocate funds, clothes, food and work to refugees living in Finnish towns close to the Russian border.

This humanitarian aid project for Russian refugees improved transnational relations, at least between Russians, Ukrainians, Serbians, Swedes and Finns. For example, the Finnish Fellowship of Reconciliation, and particularly Oscar von Schoultz, actively co-operated with Vladimir Tukalevsky, a Russian-Czech historian, who lived in Terijoki and organised relief work and reported the results to the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. His reports, as well as the more specific documentation on the humanitarian aid project among Russian refugees, is available in the archives of Mathilda Wrede in Svenska litteratursällskapet (the Society of Swedish Literature in Finland) (SLSA 859, 2.2.). The humanitarian project was also ecumenically enriching, as Tolstoian, Lutheran, Catholic and Orthodox Christians worked together actively in order to help refugees. For example, one crucial provider of help in Terijoki was the first Finnish Catholic priest to be ordained after the Reformation, Monseigneur Adolf Carling. On Christmas Day in 1923, he distributed food, along with the local Orthodox priest, which was reported on with great joy by Vladimir Tukalevsky. Hopefully these parts of the transnational and ecumenical history involving Finnish Tolstoians will someday be studied.

Rony Ojajärvi (rony.ojajarvi@uef.fi) is an Early-Stage Researcher at the University of Eastern Finland. He is currently doing his PhD in the field of Church history on the topic “From Christianity to Atheism via Religious Syncretism? The Religious Variable in the History of Finnish Peace Movements 1919–1975”.

Academic culture, boundary-crossing and pop-up

Sini Mikkola

The cult of the temporary

In 2015, The Guardian published an article discussing the pop-up phenomenon, referring to it as a ‘cult of the temporary’. This phenomenon, increasingly adapted in our culture during the past decade or so, can be seen as one method for arranging various short-term activities and creating temporary spaces for both commercial and cultural events.

In academia, the method or culture of the pop-up has already been in use for some time – though under slightly different description, such as ‘ad hoc’. Particularly in planning and developing teaching and in administrative tasks, ad hoc working groups are constantly being created for innovating and carrying out various tasks. In research, however, the pop-up culture seems to be a less valid culture to implement – even though academic work nowadays is most often project-based, and thus based on temporariness. During their career, a scholar may lead separate and even unconnected projects, one after the other. At the same time, the temporary, project-based working culture in academia favours not only developing ever-new insights, but also the crossing of boundaries. This is evident particularly when we consult the strategies of the funders of research.

The Finnish Academy, one of the most notable funders of academic research in Finland, explicates: ‘We promote the impact and renewal of research by encouraging researchers to submit boundary-crossing funding plans that involve risks but are of high scientific quality’. Even more explicitly, the current strategy of the Kone Foundation, another notable funder, states: ‘We value multidisciplinary approaches and bringing together unexpected perspectives. Alternative viewpoints and the challenging of norms help us understand the world better. […] We encourage researchers and artists to cross the boundaries between art and research and between various areas within art and research – as well as across national borders’. Interdisciplinarity, among other factors, is thought to enhance the effects and impact of research in the scientific community and beyond academia.

For a scholar, especially a young one, the risk involved in the project culture – the crossing of boundaries and creating unexpected perspectives – may be a very personal one. As a result of the often extremely high expectations laid on scholars from the very beginning of their career, they learn to perform in ways which live up to these expectations. Thereby, the planning of research may not be guided by the genuine interests and outlook for career advancement of the researchers themselves, but rather by those of others, such as project leaders and funders. (For reference for the thoughts in this chapter and more on the risks of interdisciplinarity for young researchers, see Dr Mona Mannevuo’s blog post.) 

Crossing boundaries between past and present, east and west

Whereas jumping from one project to another is the norm for the vast majority of young scholars, a small minority work in permanent positions as lecturers or have hopes of professorships after their tenure tracks. I belong to this smaller group since, despite being a young scholar, I work as a university lecturer in church history at the UEF. In this position, far-reaching research plans can be made without having to worry, for example, about funding. However, the time available to be used on factual research is, in practice, very limited. Despite this, the pressure to get a certain amount of research published every academic year is constantly present. In these conditions, I have noticed that joint research, even if executed in a pop-up style, is one interesting and fruitful way to get research done.

During the last two years, I – as a historian – have been reorienting my research towards the present, mainly due to the explosion of the Covid-19 pandemic. From the very beginning of the pandemic, I felt curious about how the Lutheran parishes would arrange their services, and especially celebrate the Eucharist, during these exceptional times. After discussing these interests with my colleagues from different disciplines in informal coffee table discussions, I learned that several of them had thought of similar issues and were interested in doing research together. Interdisciplinarity as such was familiar to me, since I had previously combined theories and methods of, for example, gender studies and systematic theology with church historical research (as in my doctoral thesis on the sixteenth-century reformer Martin Luther’s anthropology), but I had no experience of working in an interdisciplinary group. Also, the step from the Reformation Era to this day was a rather big one to take. I have summarised some of the feelings that arose during the research process in a post published in Finnish on Akatemian jalkaväki’s blog.

Together with my colleagues from the fields of practical theology, Orthodox theology, and social sciences, we ended up forming not one but several pop-up research groups that have conducted questionnaires, written articles and applied for funding. Some research outputs have been published (in Finnish, like this article on communality during the pandemic in the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCF) and the Orthodox Church of Finland, or this article on the experiences of vicars of Eucharistic services in the ELCF), while others are yet to be published.

Pop-up research based on personal interests and existing collegiality

In the collection, Controversies and Interdisciplinarity: Beyond Disciplinary Fragmentation for a New Knowledge Model (2020),it is noted that the need for ‘real and sincere cooperation between experts from different disciplines’ is one of the key factors in investigating the complex phenomena and problems of today’s world. From the viewpoint of a historian, this notion can also be applied to investigations of the past. In the context of this writing, however, I would like to emphasise the phrase ‘real and sincere’. I believe it refers to the situation where interdisciplinary interests arise from the margins or on the fringes and are, thus, not rushed or otherwise compelled.

This is what happened in our pop-up research groups, which were created more by accident than design. I think we have had a fruitful opportunity to work together precisely because we had a shared curiosity that arose quite unexpectedly as the global situation changed. The already-existing academic relationships and collegiality, under the auspices of the School of Theology, have been vital. The crossing of boundaries has also been made possible by the working environment, which encourages boundary-crossing but does not compel it. As to whether our pop-up groups will transform into more long-term ones, this remains to be seen and depends on various factors. Even this short-term collaborative work and crossing of boundaries has, however, given me much food for thought for my further research and encouragement for using the collaborative method of the pop up in the future as well.

Dr Sini Mikkola is university lecturer in church history at the UEF. Her research interests include the Reformation era, Lutheran theology on the human being, gender history, Covid-19 and the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland. 

Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the West

Talvikki Ahonen

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For centuries if not millennia, Orthodox Christianity has maintained a complex cultural/political relationship with the “West.” The Great Schism of 1054 divided Christendom and formed the religious and cultural self-understanding of the Orthodox faithful as inherently opposed to the West. The vagueness of the term West has enabled a wide range of (often simplified) interpretations and has served a variety of political purposes. At the same time, Western interpretations of Orthodoxy have exhibited similar shortcomings. To what extent Orthodox Christian communities have internalised conceptions of Orthodoxy as anti-West, remains an open question, especially considering that a large proportion of the Orthodox faithful live in diaspora in Western societies.

Religious and cultural identities often overlap, and a religious identity does not always imply certain religious beliefs or the occurrence of religious practices. This is particularly true when it comes to Orthodox Christian devotees. Ninety-one per cent of the European Orthodox Christian population claims to believe in God. However, according to the statistics provided by the Pew Research Center, those who identify as Orthodox Christians are less likely to actively practice their religion than people of other faiths. Compared to, for example, the Catholic faithful, Orthodox Europeans are less likely to practice their faith by attending services, praying or following the lent. These statistics show what “being Orthodox” means to the Orthodox faithful of Europe: this identity is not only religious but also cultural and even political. While religious identifications are, in Western democracies, usually considered matters of personal choice and private life, this may be different for the faithful themselves.

The artificial dichotomy between the East and the West, as well as religious-cultural identity formation, involves political values and meanings, and Orthodoxy might bring additional elements into the equation. Over the last decades, the cultural position of Orthodox Christianity has been increasingly narrated in terms of “traditional values,” and the Orthodox Church has sometimes been considered, at least by some Orthodox faithful, to be the last fortress against the profanity and secularity of the so-called West. This narrative has been fuelled by Vladimir Putin’s government and its politics and has resonated among traditionalist Orthodox faithful in other parts of Europe.

Orthodox Christianity’s encounters with unfamiliar ideas and systems of thought have pushed Orthodox theologians and believers to define Orthodox theology’s conceptions of other churches and their legitimacy. The Orthodox theological tradition has both reflected and enhanced the antinomical representation of Orthodoxy and the West. One of the most influential modern Orthodox theologians, Georges Florovsky, who represents the so-called neopatristic school, argued in his book The Ways of Russian Theology (1937) that Orthodox theology has absorbed Western pietistic and scholastic ideologies, which he saw as alien to the Orthodox tradition. Florovsky’s view has been criticised and challenged by other scholars of Orthodox theology; however, it has nevertheless significantly influenced Orthodox self-understanding.

The 20th century marks an era of diaspora and oppression for Orthodox Christianity. The beginning of the 21st century seems to indicate at least two trends. First, the number of Orthodox Christians continues to decline, while other major branches of Christianity, Catholicism and Protestantism, are attracting more followers. Second, Orthodox churches have acknowledged that they need to engage in discussions on contemporary matters. This has been manifested in the Moscow Patriarchate’s document The Basis of the Social Concept (2000) and the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s document For the Life of the World: Towards a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church (2020). How the Orthodox churches reply to the most important and acute contemporary issues, such as climate change or global wealth disparity, will further influence their position on the imagined East-West scale.

Dr. Talvikki Ahonen is a social scientist with academic interest in religious groups as political actors.