Religion and Science as a Pastoral Issue

By Gayle E. Woloschak

(This essay was originally delivered as a public talk at the June 2015 Fordham/OTSA conference on the upcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. It was part of a panel on “The Contribution of the Orthodox Church to the Realization of Justice, Freedom, Brotherhood, and Love among Peoples.”)

The science-religion interface is an area that dovetails with the need for love among peoples, leading to a consideration of pastoral issues. In addition, the issue of justice is very tightly tied to technology, both through those who have availability of technology and those who may choose to limit technology because of costs and resources.

The Orthodox response to questions at the intersection of science and religion has often been to release “statements” of positions from different Orthodox Churches in the world. It is not clear what the intention of the Great and Holy Council will be in this regard, but most of these technology concerns require decisions made on a “case-by-case” basis, similar to an approach employing economia rather than a legalistic/doctrinal formulation. Perhaps every statement will be wrong because there may be one or a few circumstances when it will not be applicable. Orthodox discussion on these topics should not be based on the need to generate a consensus statement at the end; the goal of the discussion should be the discussion itself. Discussion and dialogue provide the framework for making decisions, and without this open exchange of ideas, there is little to help inform decisions that perhaps must be made on a case-by-case basis.

I would like to draw attention first to the excellent example of the environmental/ecological issue for which the Ecumenical Patriarchate has provided strong leadership to the world. Interdisciplinary discussions are sponsored periodically in order to address matters of global climate change, and the resulting statements from the Church are not formulaic outlines of “what is right and wrong” but rather are theological reflections on matters to be considered when making decisions about environmental issues. This attitude has set the stage for meaningful conversations that help shape the future of the dialogue and have a positive influence on the world.

Unfortunately, there are other areas where the Church has poorly engaged the modern world at the science-religion interface. Many divisive contemporary questions, including those related to genetics/genetic counseling, therapeutic use of stem cells, and broad uses of technologies fall into this category. A rapid movement from discovery of technology to marketing a product is a world trend that seems unstoppable. The Orthodox Church seems largely to be carried along by this trend, occasionally protesting “on principle” instead of monitoring and engaging new developments. Often, (1) the statements made by national Orthodox Churches as well as hierarchs are flawed with faulty knowledge of the science or an incomplete understanding of the situation; (2) the positions taken are based on “legalistic” approaches to the theology without consideration of such pastoral concerns as care for the individual and love for others; (3) a failure to engage a broad range of scholars in appropriate disciplines to discuss the issues pertaining to new technologies is almost universal.  I am not convinced that the Orthodox Church needs to take positions on all and any issues, but concerns about genetic counseling, early diagnosis of disease and new medical therapies, often affect parishioners who are faced with making decisions in light of conflicting information from Church leaders. This situation is likely to become even more complicated with rapid growth of genetic discoveries in an era of “big data” impacting diagnosis of mental diseases, multi-genic disorders and others. By insisting on “policy statements” and then procrastinating to formulate them, we are not doing the world service on these rapidly changing and complex topics.

Gayle Woloschak is Professor in Radiation Oncology and Radiology at Northwestern University’s Feingold School of Medicine and associate director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.