The Poet vs the Scientist: Part 1

(note: a version of this post first appeared on Orthodox Arts Journal)

Anachronistic Lives

One of my vivid recollections from my halcyon days in UC Berkeley was a class with a certain Dr. A. T. He was the quintessential absent-minded professor. Thick glasses, messy hair like he just got out of bed, unkempt mustache. He wore the same ratty sport coat every day. It had one pocket that was always just a little bit ripped off.

This disheveled appearance fit perfectly with his attitude toward the sacred.

During a “Russian, Eastern European, Eurasian Cultures” class we were reading the life of Prince Vladimir of Kiev. Dr. T. scoffed, along with all the rest of the students, at the mere suggestion that Prince Vladimir became a monogamist after his conversion to Christianity. Believe it or not, in my sheltered Orthodox existence, this was my first encounter with the idea that the Lives of the Saints are “not true”.

Of course, the fact is that stories of the saints are often historically anachronistic. They routinely contain fantastical events, hard even for some faithful Christians to accept. They repeat common motifs or “tropes.” Sometimes, they read like mythology and popular legend. Finally, some of them are, to put it bluntly, not very well written.

St. Christopher’s dog-head is a good example of the “ahistoricity” of some lives

This all seems compelling enough to suggest that there may be a pink elephant in the room. If we know that certain elements in lives cannot possibly be historically accurate, should we do something about it? If dragons appear in the Lausaic History, for example, should reading it be banned from Lenten services?

History as Scientific Reality

The problem with this sort of thinking is a presupposition that, unfortunately, many Christians hold, even if they don’t know about it. This presupposition is that “truth” is equated with scientifically verifiable, positive reality. It’s the kind of thing that rears its head whenever you hear the phrase “science proves.” Some people treat history in the same way, as though historical truth can be verified objectively, like the natural sciences.

As Fr. Andrew Louth wrote in his book Discerning the Mystery, “knowledge, truth, [is] now open to man: all he [has] to do, in any area of knowledge, was to apply the method.” So, could that be a good thing? An apologist of this historical-scientific approach to the Lives of the Saints, the Jesuit Bollandist Fr. Delehaye, puts it this way:

[Our] sole concern is to find out the true worth of the various records of the cultus of saints…to sketch the method for discriminating between materials that the historian can use and those that he should leave to poets and artists…and to put the readers on their guard against being led away by formulas and preconceived ideas.

Fr. Delehaye clearly prefers the historian (scientist) to the poet. Nowadays, maybe people do as well. They might like poetry, but they consider it not an effective vehicle for the transmission of truth. Truth being “data that can be verified.” Fr. Delehaye also thinks that the scientific-historical method is good of the Church, because it prevents “false” elements in the Lives from actually harming the faithful.

The Life of St. Abercius was completely extrapolated from existing lives of saints, since the only historical record we have of him is a fragment of a stela.

But how does this method actually work? As described by Fr. Andrew in Discerning the Mystery,this method has two presuppositions, without which the method will simply not work. The first is that objective reality can only be found if the one searching for it is free of prejudices. This is why instruments are so important in science. Apparently, they are infallible (never mind that they are human creations, and so inherently inferior, but that a different post for a different time).

The observer, then, must try to become a blank slate, ready to accept as true whatever the facts tell him.

The second presupposition is that truth can be arrived at progressively, by a collection of hard facts that slowly “fill out” the body of knowledge. The problem is that the course of history is not as straightforward as science claims to be. Perhaps one can make an argument about the progress of science, but one would be hard pressed to define exactly what is the progress of history. Still, people try.

One seductive definition of such “historical progress” is to take the cultural assumptions of the present time as “more developed” than the attitudes of the past. Since “the writings of the past reveal a world which is different from ours, they show us a past which is remote from us. The remoteness strikes us as simply incredible.” (Fr. Andrew, again)

So one way to ensure that the Lives of the Saints are free from error would be to disregard the Church’s Tradition as a prejudice clouding the objectivity of the Church historian. That this is often done is undoubted; should it be done with the Lives of the Saints is a different question. I should note that there are impressive voices among the non-Orthodox who have serious issues with this way of viewing history.

Scientific Method: Conversation or Monologue?

scientific method
Hans-Georg Gadamer

Hans-Georg Gadamer, a twentieth-century philosopher, compares the scientific approach to history to a conversation between two people. In this conversation, one person doesn’t speak with the other at all; instead, observing him silently, constantly noting various behaviors, and making assumptions about him without actually engaging in a conversation. Gadamer insists that this sort of understanding is nothing but domination, and thus fundamentally flawed.

Gadamer’s preferred approach to historical knowledge can be compared to a conversation when two people are actually involved. Gadamer suggests this is the only real way of approaching truth: “I must allow the validity of the claim made by tradition, not simply in the acknowledging of the past in its otherness, but in such a way that it has something to say to me. This too calls for a fundamental kind of openness.”

The conversation analogy is extremely apt. After all, it was St. John of Damascus who made the revolutionary claim that the saints actually do not die! How can they die, if they continue to intercede for us in such obvious ways? They are not dead, but alive, and our interaction with them is the conversation between two living people, even if the only relationship we have with them is reading their Lives, as anachronistic as they may seem to be.

What does this have to do with cultural renewal?

A lot, actually. I’m starting to illustrate how the assumptions of the scientific method have insidiously wormed their way into the mindsets of most Christians. And eradicating that way of thinking is step one in cultivating any culture that can be both traditional, yet vibrant and ready to converse with modernity, not to shout it down or dominate it, but to offer an unconsidered point of view.

But I’ll talk more about that in a future post.

This blog is dedicated to finding ways, in the past and the present, to preserve, nourish, and cultivate Christian culture for our new age of post-christian relativism. If you’d like to join me in this journey of discovery, sign up to receive my newsletter, in which I will share additional content about the state of culture today and stories of people who are laboring to make the world a more beautiful place.

And come hear me talk about creating Christian culture in a post-Christian age at the Ancient Faith Writing and Podcasting Conference this June!



  1. Deacon Nicholas,

    Wow!! I just discovered your work in some interviews you have done on YouTube and you so elegantly give voice to something that I have been pondering for months now. I ordered the first book in your series and plan to read it with some of the young people in my parish together with my own children. What a delight!

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