Orthodoxy & Science, and How We Talk with Our Kids

One day, I walked into my 7th, 8th and 9th grade Sunday school classroom and asked a simple question:  do you believe in evolution?  The room fell utterly silent. Students looked at their hands, cast little sidelong glances at one another. They fidgeted and fumbled, but not one of them spoke.

These kids attend science class, and they have teachers that they trust, and those teachers have told them that evolution is real. At the same time, they live in a nation where science and Christianity see themselves as mortal enemies: either there is a God in a heaven, or there is science. Our kids have been given the impression that they must choose between science and religion — and I’m kind of happy to say that the kids in my classroom didn’t want to choose. They wanted to study science, but they didn’t want to walk away from the Holy Church that they love.

They know that Orthodoxy is old school and traditional, and they assume that one cannot simply smile up at an Orthodox Sunday school teacher and admit one’s belief in evolution — not without getting an earful about Satan’s science.

That’s a tension they might be willing to sit with in those middle school years, and perhaps they’re ok with that tension in high school. But someday, probably in college, a large number of them will declare that they cannot simply ignore science, and will feel less and less connected to the Church, because they assume that the Church is opposed to science.

But here’s the thing:

There is no official Orthodox doctrine on evolution, except that we do assert with absolute certainty that God created everything from nothing. We could not accept a teaching that made the creation of the earth somehow free of God; we know that He created us and everything in this world. The details of that creation, however, are open to discussion.

There are many Orthodox Christians who find that evolution is compatible with the Orthodox understanding of creation, and there are many Orthodox Christians who find that it is not. It’s open to discussion.

Our kids need to know that. We certainly don’t want them leaving the Church over a misunderstanding of Church teaching.

What’s more — we need to be raising our children to be scientists. In a world where science is pushing frontiers of genetic discovery and human beings are becoming capable of things that were imaginable only in science fiction novels, we are going to need scientists with good ethics and some humility. We should be praying that Orthodox Christianity will continue to supply this world with wise scientists who want to see good works accomplished, without ever sacrificing our humanity and our humility before God.

For many reasons, we should be raising our children to see that science, when applied properly, is the study of God’s wonderful creation. Like everything else, we must use it to glorify God, to serve others, and to celebrate the gifts He has sent us.

I sat down with my friend, Alisa Rakich Brooks, who is writing a new series of Orthodox children’s books that frame science in just this beautiful way. From their earliest years, parents can present science to our children in a way that feeds faith and the intellect at the same time. We had a great conversation about these topics, and I’ve posted it on Ancient Faith so that you can join in.

Alisa’s wonderful book — the first in a seven-part series — is available at Sebastian Press.  The second book is coming out soon!

Let There Be Light! is available at sebastianpress.org

7 comments:

  1. I think it is also important, when teaching about science, to make it very clear that science is not about belief. belief applies to things that can’t be measured. Science is about answering questions about things that can be measured. Science is a tool. You would not say “I believe in my hammer”. You would use your hammer for a specific purpose. Likewise, science is used to answer specific questions about those things that can be physically measured. For instance, the theory of evolution is not something that anyone should believe in. It is simply the best guess to explain what we have discovered by observing creatures, fossils, and genetics. If we find some bit of evidence tomorrow that indicates the theory is wrong, we don’t defend that theory, we come up with a new one. Belief, on the other hand, is about understanding what can’t be measured and, in Orthodoxy, it is based on revelation. You are right that too often science is seen as a competitor to religion, but that is a misunderstanding of what science is, or sometimes a logical consequence of solo scriptura.

    1. I like that distinction, Will. Science really is not about belief — when a new fact appears, we adjust the theories. Nicely expressed. Thanks!

  2. If you haven’t already, I would suggest reading Genesis, Creation and Early Man: The Orthodox Christian Vision by Father Seraphim Rose. It puts all this in perspective in a way that we can share with our children.

    1. Funny that you mention it — I happen to have recently acquired a copy! Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. Elissa,

    I loaned Father two videos on the distinction between creation and evolution that you may want to review for possible use on the subject. The Christian scientists, almost all PhD level, do a great job of balancing the two. Essentially they show that evolution was God’s plan.

    1. Hi, Jack! Christ is risen! I wonder if it’s the same video Mike Strong was using in the Sunday School? It was a very interesting explanation of ‘Intelligent Design’. Personally, I find it very convincing — to me, it makes sense that evolution (not Darwin’s model per se, but modern theories on evolution or something like them) would be the method God used to create the world; indeed, most of what we see in nature and even in our own spiritual growth and development involves long, slow processes. These seem to be characteristic of how God works. On the other hand, I am comfortable not knowing for sure. Someday, it will all make sense — just like the prophecies make so much sense in retrospect, and just as Christ’s Kingdom is so much more clearly understood AFTER the Resurrection, I think that at the end of days, Genesis will clearly be true (of course) and yet perhaps some of these other facts will make perfect sense within it. I’m ok with the wait to see how it all turns out!

  4. Though I have loved the Intelligent Design position, and still hold it, for the most part, the materials presenting it can be laced with some Evangelical Protestant mindset and point of view that is not purely Orthodox. If we were purist about that, though, we’d read very little on anything except books on Orthodox spirituality. 🙂

    I love the broad manner in which you framed it in your brief article, above. That’s a safer framing of the subject and accommodates the ongoing dialog w/o presuming to assert an Orthodox dogma around any particular trending thoughts. The key you anchored on was God being the cause of creation. It all emanates from Him.

    Still, I believe the evidence of intelligence and intelligent design being manifest throughout in creation is beyond compelling. 🙂

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