Science and Religion

An exclusive interview with fr. Alexei Nesteruk

Fr. Razvan Ionescu: Dear father Alexei Nesteruk, can you tell us a few words about your carrer path (professional background) ?

Fr. Alexei Nesteruk: I was lucky to receive education in three fields: physics/mathematics, philosophy and theology. Then I was lucky of working together with famous philosophically-oriented scientists Ilya Prigogine (in Belgium) and Roger Penrose (UK). In my theological studies my teachers were Metr. Kallistos of Dioklea, Fr. Andrew Louth and others. All this determined my field of research in cosmology and theology, and Orthodoxy and science which resulted in three books in English and numerous articles. I work in England, University of Portsmouth, by teaching mathematics, physic and history and philosophy of science. I also teach in Moscow the course on Cosmology and Theology for the St Andrew’s Theological Institute.

Rep.: How did your passion for the investigation of the relation between theology and science start ?

Fr.A: There were two major factors: first, my deep philosophical interest in the foundations of the sciences, in particular the insights from phenomenology that science is the human articulation of the world; second my deep interest in spiritual experience of living in an attempt to relieve anxieties of existence and the feeling of solitude and homelessness in the world. This brought me to mystics and Greek Fathers, in particular St Maximus the Confessor. Briefly all started from my deep personal experience and wonder of living being later synthesised in my research activity and writing.

Rep.: What can the believer learn from a mathematician ?
Fr. A: First, I am not a mathematician, but a philosophising and theologising physicist. I usually try to explain to my students that mathematics and physics are, first of all, about clarity of thinking and diversity of forms of subjectivity in its interaction with the world. Still mathematics and physics are gifts from God through our Divine image. We cannot disregard them in the context of faith, for faith has its own reason – the Logos, that, by whose name Christians call themselves. Faith must know how to defend itself and argue for itself. Here the sciences and mathematics, in particular, give an excellent exercise. If a believer knows history of Christianity, he must know the history of the surrounding culture, including science. History of mathematics is an interesting example of the fight between realism and anti-realism, nominalism and Platonism. All of this is closely related to the history of religious ideas and the stance on the sense of creation.

Rep.: There are specific features of Orthodox theology inside the Christianism. They are also manifest in its relation with sciences. Can you suggest several elements of this specificity ?
Fr. A:The specific features of Orthodoxy in Christianism are: 1) its existential orientation, 2) its experiential essence related to communion with the Divine, and hence 3) its Eucharistic foundation. Correspondingly Orthodox theology never is detached from communion and Eucharist. This predetermines the specific features of the dialogue with science. 1) This dialogue is human -centered rather than nature centered, that is the essence of this dialogue is human being and the split in its subjectivity between two attitude to the world: objectivistic on the one hand, and imbued with the presence of the human-Divine interiority on the other hand. 2) Clear understanding that any knowledge is the Divine gift, so that science must not be dislodged, but theologically “critiqued” and its meaning for the saving telos of humanity identified. 3) The question of truth. Science is socially constructed depending upon the objectives and economic capacities of societies. Then the question of its proper name, or truth of what it predicates. Does it predicate the world of the human perception of the world in the state of Fall? If the consequence of the Fall are understood (theologically) then any scientific knowledge must be treated as disclosing the rubrics and dimensions of this Fall, uncovering thus the limits of knowledge and the presence of the impetus for the restoration of the lost Divine likeness. 4) Practically this means that the clarification and elucidation of scientific activity demands a certain asceticism and metanoia through Ecclesial experience. Thus the dialogue does not have sense without participation in Church’s mysteries. 5) Ultimately the most difficult issue is the question of the Spirit. Unlike the Logos whose presence is manifested in the world, the indication of the Spirit in the structure of the world through human apprehension demands from the faithful to remember of His invocation in order to have the sense of creation in the “Spirit of Truth”. Here one can say that a serious theological work must be yet done.

Rep.: What it means the normalisation of the relation between science and the Eucharist ?
Fr. A: I would not say of normalisation. The question is on how to reconcile the Eucharistic (thanksgiving) attitude to the world as sacrament with the mundane and consumerist relation to all creation? The Eucharist attitude is the thanking the Creator for the gift of disclosure of the sense of creation in relation to the destiny of humanity. This exactly what is missing in science: it does not understand either the very possibility of its facticity or its goal and final end. In other words, the Eucharistic attitude to science assumes the disclosure of its truth and meaning for humanity in the perspective of the Kingdom, that is eschatologically. The Eucharist becomes a real motto in this, for it is only in the Eucharist we live through the realised eschaton. In other words, to reconcile science with the Eucharist means to subject science to the Eucharistic understanding as pointing towards the restoration of the Divine likeness in humanity.

Rep.: Which are the mains ideas of your science and theology volumes ?
Fr.A: In a way, I have already identified these ideas above. But repeat briefly: the dialogue between theology and science demand not only the employment of the reason as the Divine gift of the Logos, but of the capacity of discernment in the Spirit. This is achieved through subjecting the whole dialogue to the Eucharistic scrutiny. The dialogue requires a heavy input of modern philosophy which advances our understanding of the human condition. Human person is the central theme of the dialogue which, as such, explicates all ambiguities and anxieties of the human condition. However the important this that this dialogue contributes to our experience of God, thus advancing theology proper.

Rep.: In conclusion?

Fr. A: There plenty of work still must be done, in particular in the area of phenomenological expression of the foundations of science in human subjectivity being a Divine gift. As I said above, it is the human being who is in the centre of the dialogue and the question is about the destiny of humanity in the technological world and its relation to the promise of God for salvation