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 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 inälä.

Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the West

Talvikki Ahonen

he free high-resolution photo of water, light, glowing, night, evening, reflection, flame, fire, religion, darkness, church, cathedral, street light, christian, candle, lighting, religious, meditation, burning, faith, prayer, christianity, orthodox, candlelight, lit, wax, sacrificial lights, spirituality

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.

Perspectives on the Study of Eastern and Western Personhood

Matti Kotiranta & Antti Raunio

Philosophers (117) by Mikhail Nesterov. 
Depicting Pavel Florensky and Sergei Bulgakov
Philosophers (1917) by Mikhail Nesterov

A commonly held view is that the Western world perceives human beings as being individualistic. ‘Individualism’ may be understood in many ways, but the main question is whether the Western view of human beings is as strongly individualistic as it is often thought (or claimed) to be. This is an interesting question because the assumed individualism influences the Western cultures’ relations with, for example, Eastern Orthodox cultures.

The Christian tradition has contributed to the conception of the human being by introducing the term ‘person’, which was first used to describe the Christian understanding of the triune God. The Christian idea of a person combines Platonic, Stoic, Neoplatonic and Aristotelian influences. Even though the relations between Western theological and philosophical notions of the person have been discussed in many contexts, the topic has not been investigated comprehensively.

Historical sources (e.g. Augustine, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, Luther) indicate that the Western views of a human being need not be interpreted solely from an individualistic sense. A more accurate view is to see the human being as a relational substance. Both the Eastern and Western conceptions are relational, but in the Eastern thought, humanity as a substance or essence is built on relations, whereas in the Western tradition, relationality is based on the unity of a substance. If this holds true, then there is a difference between the viewpoints; however, the issue is not primarily a question about alternatives between individuality and communality, but the ways in which these two aspects have been combined with each other.

As part of contemporary Orthodox contributions to the discussions on East and West, theologians such as Christoph Yannaras and John Zizioulas have given personhood a primary status from which notions of social issues, the nature of Orthodox theology and practice, and the Orthodox view of the West are drawn. However, the challenge is to formulate modern Orthodox anthropology in its own terms. Since both theologians have studied in the West, their work can be seen as constructing the Eastern Orthodox identity and personhood within what is pre-eminently a Westernised culture. Both Yannaras and Zizioulas have not shied away from Western discourses and challenges, while still adhering to shared convictions of neo-patristic and neo-Palamist theology.

In an investigation on the conceptions of human personhood, one should also consider the viewpoint of the natural sciences. The encounters between theology and sciences often reveal two fundamentally different approaches: an idealistic, theological personalism on the one side and a reductive physicalism or naturalism on the other. Theological personalism characterises the human person only by its ability to transcend its natural condition and ignores the biological aspect of human nature and the continuity between humans, non-human animals and non-living nature. Conversely, reductive physicalism shuns human uniqueness and disregards the moral and spiritual dimensions of human personhood. According to the reductive viewpoint, humans are merely biological machines determined by evolutionary history, and all mental phenomena can be explained in biological terms. However, in the discussion about the human person in the philosophy of mind, the recent trend has been towards non-reductive physicalism, where the mind is treated as an emergent property of the brain, connected with neural activity but still separate from it.

In sum, this kind of research analyses the basic presuppositions and deep structures of Europe’s Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic and Protestant cultures. The conception of person may emphasise either communality or individuality. In the discussion, the alternatives have often been presented as exclusive. However, historical sources suggest that this view cannot be considered adequate. Therefore, a more thorough analysis of the existing conceptions of individuality and communality is needed.

The described analysis contains, for example, an investigation of the different versions of Western Catholic and Protestant conceptions of good personal life or life according to ethical standards from the point of view of communality and individuality. Comparable to it is the analysis of the Eastern Orthodox conception of the person and of the relation between individuality and communality in good life as a human person.

The main question leads to additional questions: What are the theological aspects underlying Western conceptions of a person’s individuality and communality? How can we define the theological principles of the Eastern model of good personal life as aspects of communality? How do the discovered theological aspects possibly change the Western notion of a human being?

By investigating Eastern and Western European conceptions of human person, theological research can contribute to the discussion on deep cultural, ethical and religious presuppositions and their implications for the social life and cooperation between the representatives of both traditions.

Matti Kotiranta, Professor of Eastern Church History, University of Eastern Finland. His areas of interest are the history of Russian ideas and church-state relations in Europe.

Antti Raunio, Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Eastern Finland. He specializes in Reformation theology, theological social ethics, and ecumenism.

East and West from Russia and Ukraine

Teuvo Laitila & Heta Hurskainen

If the position of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) towards the West and East could be characterised by one word, it would be ‘mission’. Since the start of its missionary work, the East – Siberia, Alaska, Korea and Japan in the early 20th century – has been the ROC’s direction, with more recent efforts being directed towards Southeast Asia. The West has been a contested missionary direction. Since the Russian religious-philosophical thinkers of the 19th century, the ROC has struggled for deciding whether to cooperate with the western tradition of Christianity or challenge it by claiming the authentic interpretation of Christianity and contesting the secular beliefs and values of the West, which are the present emphases in the ROC’s western discourse.

This categorisation also encompasses the space ‘in between’, covering Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova. The Russian World concept of the last decade endeavoured to gather these areas together with an emphasis on common Slavic roots stemming from the ‘Kievan baptismal font’.

Curanovic (2018) proved how the ROC has not turned Ukraine into an object of its mission. Brotherhood between the two nations does not serve as a solid foundation for a common mission nor is the clash of two civilisations reason for the ROC to fulfil its mission in Ukraine. Rather, Ukraine is seen as a place where foreign influences are gaining space for themselves. According to the ROC, Europe’s secularised and fallen moral influence on Ukraine should be resisted; Catholic proselytism, which also takes place through the Greek Catholic Church, is foreign, misleading and not valued positively, as well as the latest but not the least confrontation. According to the ROC, the influence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its actions should not have reached Ukraine in the form of granting autocephaly for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. All the mentioned influences are not wanted in this ‘in between’ space from the perspective of the ROC, but the Ukrainian space itself does not need a mission, as it belongs neither to the West nor the East.

Finding a way to balance the perspectives of not considering Ukraine as missionary land and Ukraine as influenced by the West is not easy. In Ukraine, the ROC uses a similar tactic as in its argumentation on homosexuals: the ROC condemns the acts and inclinations but invites people to repent and connect with the True Orthodoxy in the ROC. This kind of sentiment leaves little space for dialogue with the multiformity of Orthodoxy in Ukraine. If the theological bases of ‘people of the good will’ for the Soviet times’ cooperation with atheistic authorities were strongly built, then could these bases be used in present day as well? Lines are drawn deep nowadays. According to the ROC, actions and ideology must be shared in order to cooperate. If so, how can there be cooperation with Ukraine, which belongs to this shared ‘in between’ but is influenced by the West?

If Russia pretends to be sure that Russia exists ‘in between space’ and can thus implement a policy towards the East or West, then Ukraine’s existence as a historical entity can be challenged—and has been challenged—both politically and ecclesiastically. For the ROC, the Ukrainian Orthodox are part of the Russian Orthodoxy, and all claims to the contrary border on creating a schism. Thus, the Ukrainian Orthodoxy must first establish itself prior to asserting its independence from the ROC and Russia.

The ROC’s metanarrative defending the inclusion of Ukrainian Orthodoxy into the Russian one portrays a linear transformation of Christianity, from the baptism of Kyiv people around 988 CE through the establishment of Muscovite Rus in the 14th century and the Moscow Patriarchate in 1589 to the hegemonic claims of present post-Soviet ROC over the ‘Russian World’. This narrative makes Russia the East for those Ukrainians who argue that they are a separate nation and culture, not a subdivision of the ‘great Russian’ people.

Ukrainians critical of Russia assert their dissociation from the East by resorting to Westernising rhetoric, such as defining Ukraine culturally and politically as an extension of the West, with the European Union or some older entity enabling a linkage to the West.

Separating Ukraine and Ukrainians from their Russian ‘East’ is far from simple and usually ignores the fact that from the late 17th to the late 20th century most of the territory of present Ukraine was held continuously by the Russians or the Soviets. 

During that time, several attempts to establish a separate Ukrainian identity were made, even though most of the people we now call Ukrainians did not consider such identity in modern national terms; rather, they were ‘locals’ trying to cope with the changing circumstances. Concepts such as ‘East’ or ‘West’ were of little use except for major 20th-century conflicts, Ukrainian–Russian civil and independence wars from 1917 to 1921, the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. During these events, a part of Ukrainians nationalised their history and ‘found’ their allies in the West and their enemies in the East. Notably, Ukrainian Orthodoxy was an exception; its enemy was the Moscow Patriarchate in the East, but its ‘West’ was global Orthodoxy, especially the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

After the Ukrainian independence in 1991, observers both in Ukraine and abroad argued that Ukrainian politicians and the people in general are divided between the Russophone ‘West’ and Russophile ‘East’. In other words, attitudes towards things Russian were the decisive factor in the Ukrainian conceptualisation of East and West.

This finding is only partially true. Ukrainian Orthodoxy and Ukrainian politicians are highly conscious of their audiences, and select their words accordingly, creating divisions into the ‘East’ or ‘West’ as they find appropriate. Only global politics and western media essentialise East and West, arguing that this or that statement of a bishop or a politician is indicative of his, rarely her, support to the East or the West.

This does not mean that Ukrainians are turncoats of sorts who do not care what the East and West concepts represent. However, what they mean when talking about, for example, ‘western’ values or ‘eastern’, usually Russian, menace begs further investigation. For instance, it is evident that while Ukrainian Orthodoxy dubs the events of 2013–2014 centring on Maidans as ‘revolution of dignity’ or ‘revolution of values’, dignity and values are considered from a rather conservative Orthodox perspective. ‘Values’ may include a western conception of democracy, but they do not exclude eastern, Orthodox, conceptions of, say, family and sex roles. Thus, to make sense of Ukraine and its relations with ‘East’ and ‘West’, we have to understand their variations and limits. 

Teuvo Laitila, PhD, is Assistant Professor in Orthodox Church History and Comparative Religion at the UEF. His research interests include religion-state relations in Ukraine and the Balkans, antisemitism from the Baltic to Bulgaria, and folk or ‘lived’ Orthodoxy in Karelia.

Heta Hurskainen, ThD, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at the UEF. Her research interests are in ecumenical relations of Orthodox and Lutheran churches, questions of Orthodox migrants, and in Russian and Ukrainian Orthodoxy, as well as their relations with politics.