The Universe as Communion: Towards a Neo-Patristic Synthesis of Theology and Science
Reviewed by Shaun C. Henson, Theology and Religion, University of Oxford
Distinction and novelty are necessarily rarer descriptors for books on the dialogue between science and religion nowadays, due partly to a thematic overlap caused by the sheer number of them in production in recent decades. Alexei Nesteruk, a senior lecturer in mathematics at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom and a Russian Orthodox Church deacon, has managed a notable move in a fresh creative direction, nonetheless, with his latest offering. This is owed largely to his principal aim of juxtaposing the conventional modern philosophical and cosmological concerns of similar books with the ecclesial ideas and methods of the early Church Fathers, along with the commonly featured select handful of contemporary church theologians.
Nesteruk’s main objective throughout is to advance science and theology discourse along an existential route. He does this by recapitulating and employing Patristic ideas toward a new synthesis with modern philosophy and science. The subtle philosophical and theological arguments employed come with a palpable lack of embarrassment at the faith and practices of the church, both specific and universal, to which he belongs. This approach differs significantly from much science and religion fare where, for example, religion can be depicted in an entirely naturalistic light, which may in the end appease those wholly scientifically inclined.1 It differs, too, from a largely historical approach lacking a central religious argument, which may conveniently sidestep—for perfectly appropriate reasons when doing history, one must add—many controversial positions and arguments by virtue of the simple distance between the writer and the aspects of history being reviewed.2 Nesteruk’s work evokes, instead, the unique mixture found in a thinker like Sir John Polkinghorne, a respected particle physicist and a practicing Anglican priest who is one of the most widely read of science and religion writers.3
Nesteruk spends the first two chapters laying the groundwork to accomplish his distinctive goals by offering a background that helps him to locate scientific knowledge and faith as twin activities of a universally shared human subjectivity. This is an existentialism of sorts not unusual to the Church Fathers, and it is found especially in the author’s own Orthodox tradition. Significantly for his thesis, the Eastern Church did not experience the sharp and discernible break with the sciences as did the Western branch. Nesteruk’s mode of working with Patristics is offered in the “Neo-Patristic Synthesis” advanced by Georgyi Vasilievich (Georges) Florovsky (1893-1979), a notable twentieth-century Orthodox theologian. The phenomenological tradition in thinkers like Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger is explored as a key aid in all of this, and Nesteruk shows how even that philosophical tradition and its concerns can be incorporated effectively by Orthodox theology.
Hence, in the third and fourth chapters, theology is reasserted as being existential in character by its very nature, as can best be found in the liturgies of the church and our experience of God in worship. The “ecclesial dimension” (or, the church, 161) and even the Holy Spirit are ultimately necessary, Nesteruk argues, for truly fruitful science and religion discourse. “The famous exclamation of Einstein that the most striking aspect of the universe is that it is conceivable at all, can be responded by saying that to conceive the universe one needs Grace,” he writes (162). Science is recapitulated as a body of work perhaps best understood in terms of its existential impact, rather than its objectivity. Bearing God and our universal subjectivity dependent upon God’s grace in mind, science can even be properly considered para-church or para-liturgical activity, in the author’s view. One can see quite clearly by these third and fourth chapters how theology and science together, in all human experience before God through the lens of the Fathers and the related considerations, give meaning to the book’s title, The Universe as Communion. There is within each human person the necessary grace, this gift of the Holy Spirit, to experience the universe rightly, the argument goes. This same grace was given to all people at creation in order that we might know God through the natural world, even if in many people this grace remains for now anonymous and impersonal at face value.
In the fifth and final chapter, all implied in the book and built through the preceding fourth chapter is brought to bear in what might be understood as a statement not only of apophatic theology, but also as a kind of apophatic view of science. Both science and theology are modes of communion through individuals who experience the world in necessarily subjective terms. And we should not be surprised that God, the creator without whom none of this perception is possible, is unobservable and irreducible not only in theological terms, but also through the strictly objective means available through the scientific method. Even so, “the internal world of human subjectivity in its contingent facticity, be it religious experience proper, or just scientific thinking, is capable of pointing towards God who shows Himself without phenomenalizing himself, that is, as being present in absent” ( 221). The reverse positive of this is that science and theology are brought together effectively in each human person. Even cosmological research, which is sometimes wielded atheistically against any notion of God, can be conceived as “para-Eucharistic” work (266), as we experience the energy of the grace of God and the universe itself in our communion with both.
Nesteruk’s interest in Patristic history and theology, and not least that of his own Orthodox tradition, can sound initially like an obscure set of ecclesial concerns to the scholars who normally ingest science and religion dialogue. I am one of those, and this was my initial impression—until I read the book with great care. Throughout it Nesteruk succeeds, in fact, in taking his attempt at using the Neo-Patristic synthesis and related ideas, and universalizing them in several ways to a very welcome effect. He does this not only via the method as described, but by simpler measures like reminding the reader of how the concerns of the Fathers bring Eastern and Western theologies together, because the historical and theological backdrop of Patristics is common ground for all Christians, despite the later diverging emphases and liturgies. He also shows the relevance of what may at first appear to be a historical fascination particular to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, by revisiting the fact that the Fathers, like Christians today, find themselves defending their beliefs and practices in a sometimes aggressively agnostic and atheistic philosophical setting. Even his assertions that science and theology find true synthesis in human subjectivity find easy ground in the straightforward fact that most who practice and read in science and religion do so for similar reasons: they have experience and interests in both science and theology, and frequently an active faith located within one church tradition or another. Often those so interested, like Nesteruk or Polkinghorne, are involved in both a professional naturalistic pursuit like mathematics or physics, while also being not only a Christian but a minister, priest, deacon, or similar. There is a fascinating assertion made by Nesteruk early on in the book, which any person so oriented and interested in science and theology would presumably welcome—that Patristic thought is not limited to those who revel in the past, in historical theological writing, or who are Orthodox in ecclesial orientation. The Patristic period, rather, can be seen as ongoing, as having never ended, since God might surely raise up another Basil or Athanasius (4n). That idea brings Patristics right into the contemporary time period, where so many in science and religion “live” intellectually. The reverse is also shown to be delightfully true by this book: that those greatly interested in the past and in theology pertaining to, say, the Church Fathers, may find science and religion dialogue a most interesting and relevant area to broach.
The Universe as Communion takes up a variety of complex subjects across a number of centuries, some of which any collection of scholars will find at turns more, and less, interesting. But this is a fairly unique and welcome book in science and religion and is well worth the reading.
See, for example, Willem Drees, Religion, Science and Naturalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
- See, for example, John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
- See, for example, John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); From Physicist to Priest: An Autobiography (London: SPCK, 2007); Theology in the Context of Science (London: SPCK, 2008); or Encountering Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible (London: SPCK, 2010).