The 'Monopoly of Darwinisn': an open letter to Met. Hilarion Alfeyev

The 'Monopoly of Darwinisn': an open letter to Met. Hilarion Alfeyev

Published: Jun 14, 2010 by Maria Gwyn McDowell

Editorial note: It seems that the Reuters interview either exaggerated or outright mischaracterized Met. Hilarion's original address, in Russian.  It appears that his comments are directed towards "militant secularism", an ideology at whose hands many religious practitioners in Russia have suffered extensively.  Hopefully, clarification on his actual views regarding evolution will be offered at some point.  It is certain that there are Orthodox in both Russia and the U.S. who are concerned with evolution and take the tact identified in the Reuters article, so my post will remain.

Dear Metropolitan Hilarion,

I write as a North American Orthodox, a lifelong member of the Orthodox Church, an Orthodox theologian and ethicist, and the daughter of two educated scientists, a physician and a geologist.  I am acutely aware of the confusion and conflict generated as a result of misunderstandings regarding science, the teachings of Darwin, and the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Here, in the U.S., some Protestant Christians are fighting tooth and nail for precisely what you are asking: the demotion (or even removal) of Darwin and the theory of evolution from the classroom, and the inclusion of various other theories, usually Creationism or its new incarnation, Intelligent Design.  While these Christians are fighting a battle they believe to be in accord with their faith and their interpretation of Scripture, their views are not compatible with Orthodoxy.

I will leave it to Orthodox scientists to carefully discuss the merits of various scientific theories and whether creationism or intelligent design are viable given scientific data.  As a theologian and teacher however, I am deeply concerned that the framework you offer, one in which evolution is inherently incompatible with Christianity, forces our intelligent faithful into a false choice between science and their faith.  Science describes how the world works, the mechanism of its diversity, its change, its growth, and yes, even its evolution.  The more I read biological theories of the human person, of our genetic structure and our brain development (areas of interest and curiosity), the more awed I am at a Creator who brought into existence from nothing a world full of beauty, complexity, pattern and rhythm, chaos and order.  In other words, scientific knowledge adds to my faith.  It does not detract from it.

The reason for this is, in part, that I am Orthodox.  Orthodoxy does not posit knowledge of God against knowledge of the world.  Rather, Orthodoxy allows me to see the world as a location of God’s awesome creativity and mystery.  Through the world (informed by Orthodox theology), I see a God who created so that all humanity (indeed, all creation!) might be in communion with God.  This same God became Incarnate, bringing all matter (molecules, atoms, protons, neutrons, the waves and particles that is light!) to fullness and communion in God through Christ, by the Spirit.  The book of Genesis remains among my favorite books to read.  Unlike certain types of Protestantism, the Orthodox tradition does not teach me to read the creation stories as literal history standing in contradiction to geology, biology, or astrophysics.  Instead, the Church teaches me to see in the text a God who participates in creation, who brings it abundant life, and calls humanity to protect and care for creation by participating in its flourishing.

This point of biblical literalism is extremely important.  Orthodoxy is not, and has never been, a literalist tradition.  Our theologians approach scripture as allegory, analogy, typology, as story and narrative, poetry and prose.  Our interpretation of scripture allows room for knowledge gleaned from science, philosophy, sociology and psychology.  This does not mean that any of these disciplines override our firm belief as Orthodox that scripture reveals to us the living God who continues to work in and through the world.  But our balanced approach allows us to understand that knowledge of God and God’s creation is not limited to a single, literal interpretation of scripture.  Unfortunately, this is precisely the approach taken by defenders of creationism or Intelligent Design, that scripture must be literally true in its historical details.  This erroneous understanding of the complex texts in the bible, an understanding with little knowledge of scripture’s context, results in a false choice: faith OR science.  If we Orthodox suddenly decide that knowledge of God’s world cannot include science, then we put our children in an untenable position where they must choose between knowledge of the world God created and the study of its magnificence, and an interpretation which denies the witness of their God-given senses, their God-given mind, in the name of a narrow, literal interpretation of scripture.  

Having said this, there are certainly theories posited by scientists which are incompatible with Orthodoxy.  However, they are usually theories which also stretch beyond the bounds of good science.  Just as biblical literalists force scripture to say more than it actually says about creation, so do some scientists say more about God than actual science allows.  Any use of science by communists to "disprove" God must be addressed as a distortion of scientific research.  Such criticisms are leveled against U.S. scientists who seem to think that science proves atheism (Dawkins [a brit], Harris, Dennet, etc.).  We are privileged in the U.S. to have scientists such as Gayle Woloschak whose research is well respected among biologists, and whose Orthodox faith carefully informs the limits of her scientific claims.  These are the people we should be listening too, not biblical literalists whose view of scripture and God’s work in creation is generally incompatible with Orthodoxy.  And as any Orthodox scientist freely admits, we have a great deal of work to do in order to balance our faith with the findings of science.  But we should not be afraid of this work, hiding in comfortable biblical interpretations which blind us to the our ever-expanding knowledge of God’s creativity.  We must be unafraid to enter into the world God has made, to seek to understand and rejoice in God’s creation.

Orthodoxy does not ask us to put our brains, or our curiosity and delight in the world on a shelf, to hide our gifts under a bushel.  Please do not ask Orthodox to make a choice between Darwin and the Gospel, between science and faith.  It is a false choice.

Your sister in Christ,

Maria Gwyn McDowell
Orthodox Theologian and Ethicist