Category Archives: Theology

The Camel and Needle
Lessons from a Russian Orthodox Scientist, Part 2

by Christopher Howell | български | ქართული | ελληνικά

Read Part 1: Between Darwin and Dostoevsky

Headshot of a camel

Freedom mattered to Theodosius Dobzhansky. He was concerned to articulate a scientific worldview in which Darwin buttressed free will, and he felt it helped answer the problem of evil (offering an early version of the “free process defense” to natural evil, similar to John Polkinghorne’s). But he was also concerned to protect political freedom, both from totalitarianism and from hereditary aristocracy. Dobzhansky’s second synthesis was, then, to merge democracy with science (and religion) in order to defend all three from their conservative critics, whether of the religious, social, or economic bent.

A hierarchical, aristocratic, class-based society was, in Dobzhansky’s view, a defense mechanism designed to allay the fears of the wealthy when confronted with Jesus’ harder sayings. “Christ’s parable of the camel passing through the eye of a needle is too explicit to be easily interpreted away,” he wrote, “To assuage their consciences, the Creator is blamed for having made some people nobles and others commoners, some wise and others improvident, some talented and others incompetent. Different people are thus born to occupy different stations in life. Such, allegedly, is God’s will, and to go against it is sin” (Mankind Evolving, 1962, 52). Don’t blame us, say the rich and the powerful, it’s God’s fault for endowing us with superior genes. Wealth, power, influence, and so on, are simply inevitable under such circumstances, and no amount of political equality would change it. Such hereditarians, observed Dobzhansky, were often political conservatives who believed “genetic conditioning of human capacities would justify the setting up of rigid class barriers and a hierarchical organization of the society” (247-248).

Continue reading

Bulgakov’s Theological Defense of Western Religious Art
An Orthodox Minority Report

by Roberto J. De La Noval | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

Hans Holbein, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb

“Since the time of the Renaissance, the religious painting of the West has been one massive untruth.” So wrote Fr. Pavel Florensky in his Iconostasis, one of the most important works of 20th century Orthodox iconology. The heart of Western religious painting’s “untruth” was its naturalism, understood as the attempt to depict figures and scenes in as life-like a manner as possible. As Evan Freeman has shown, theological critique of Western naturalism was a staple of late 19th and early 20th century Orthodox reflections on the icon that elevated Eastern iconography in order to diminish Western religious art.

However, if we turn to the theological reflections on art offered by Florensky’s erstwhile disciple, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, we find an outlier to this dominant trend. For in the course of his lengthy 1930 essay Icons and Their Veneration, Bulgakov does not shy away from linking, linguistically and so also conceptually, artistic production as a whole with the idea of the icon, so as to ground his broader argument that the condition for the possibility of the theological icon lies in the fundamental iconicity of the cosmos, in the latter’s transparency to the ideal proto-images of being that reside in the mind of God and that grant actuality to the flesh of the world. Thus all art that succeeds in representing these ‘proto-images’ is iconic, though not every piece of religious art is a theological icon. Still, Bulgakov’s argument here places Western religious art and Eastern icons on a spectrum together, thereby relativizing the—nonetheless real—distinction between them.

Continue reading

Venerating the Transfiguration Every Day

by V. K. McCarty | български | ქართული | ελληνικά  | РусскийСрпски

Transfiguration icon

You were transfigured on the mountain, O Christ God,
revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it. Let Your everlasting

Light also shine upon us sinners.
Through the prayers of the Theotokos,
O Giver of Light, glory to You!

(Troparion for Transfiguration—Tone 7)

During my Seminary days, walking into Chapel meant walking by, detouring around, the Icon of the Transfiguration. It was open on the back of a large Gothic Lesson lectern, standing in the wrought-iron entranceway to the quire in chapel, where we all sat to worship antiphonally. Day in and day out, greeting the icon and venerating it was part of my day, twice a day—even if, in my haste, I only saw Christ’s feet most of the time, as I bow with the Apostles. This simple gesture of faith was one of the ways we witnessed to our personal piety; and even, how we discovered other like-minded friends in each new class of students. I was actually there longer than most, because I worked on staff as a librarian for fifteen years and enjoyed the Divine Office, ordering my day with Scripture and praise through all of it. The sides of the icon were closed during the season of Lent; and seeing it reappear again in Easter Week, it was surprising how sweetly exhilarating it was to be bathed in its divine light again.

The light of the Transfiguration icon teaches us, as I kiss the feet of the Savior day after day, that Jesus Christ well-beloved by His Father in heaven, is always present, radiating glory into the complicated corners of our lives—not just on the feast-day, but every day. Indeed, the true astonishment about the Transfiguration scene with Jesus is that, in that moment, the Apostles are finally able to see the glory that Jesus always radiated; they are ready now in the progress of their faith to humbly receive it and participate in it.

Continue reading

Between Darwin and Dostoevsky
Lessons from a Russian Orthodox Scientist, Part 1

by Christopher Howell | български | ქართული | ελληνικά | Română | Русский | Српски

Theodosius Dobzhansky

When he was young and Russia was in the throes of revolution, Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975) felt the “urgency of finding a meaning of life…in the bloody tumult.” But he was stuck between two poles that drew him equally: religion and science. He loved Darwin and he loved Dostoevsky. “The intellectual stimulation derived from the works of Darwin and other evolutionists was pitted against that arising from reading Dostoevsky,” he wrote towards the end of his life (Dobzhansky, The Biology of Ultimate Concern, 1967, 1). Resolving this tension became one of the driving forces of his career. In the coming decades, after he fled to America and became a “nonperson” in the USSR, Dobzhansky would emerge as one of the greatest biologists of the twentieth century, and his work would be characterized not by conflict but by the search for syntheses. There are three that stand out as lessons to be remembered: synthesis of natural selection and genetics, of democracy and politics, and of religion and science. In this post, I want to first look at the way Dobzhansky’s Eastern Orthodox background informed his science and contributed to the history of evolutionary biology.

Theodosius Dobzhansky’s unusual name was consequence of his mother’s prayers. As recounted by Dobzhansky’s daughter Sophia, “My father’s parents were childless for quite a while after their marriage and tried to remedy their condition by prayer and pilgrimage” (S.D. Coe, “Theodosius Dobzhansky: A Family Story,” Adams 1994, 13) Their prayerful journey took the Ukrainian couple to the shrine of St. Theodosius of Chernigov, and when they soon found themselves with child, they christened him with the saint’s name. Dobzhansky was thus enmeshed in Orthodox religious culture from his birth and before. He was descended from a long line of priests on his mother’s side (something he always felt important), and his affinity for Dostoevsky was as much genetic as aesthetic, for he numbered the great novelist among his maternal ancestors as well.

Continue reading