Saturday, October 4, 2014

Patristic Cosmology and Scientific Cosmology

By Vladimir Lossky

The cosmology of the Greek Fathers is necessarily expressed in terms of the conception of the universe which prevailed in their own age; a fact which takes nothing whatever away from the properly theological basis of their commentaries upon the Biblical narrative of the creation. The theology of the Orthodox Church, constantly soteriological in its emphasis, has never entered into alliance with philosophy in any attempt at a doctrinal synthesis: despite all its richness, the religious thought of the East has never had a scholasticism. If it does contain certain elements of Christian gnosis, as in the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Maximus, or in the Physical and Theological Chapters of St. Gregory Palamas, the speculation is always dominated by the central idea of union with God and never acquires the character of a system. Having no philosophical preferences, the Church always freely makes use of philosophy and the sciences for apologetic purposes, but she never has any cause to defend these relative and changing truths as she defends the unchangeable truth of her doctrines. This is why ancient or more modern cosmological theories cannot affect in any way the more fundamental truth which is revealed to the Church: 'the truth of Holy Scripture is far deeper than the limits of our understanding', as Philaret of Moscow says.1 In the face of the vision of the universe which the human race has gained since the period of the renaissance, in which the earth is represented as an atom lost in infinite space amid innumerable other worlds, there is no need for theology to change anything whatever in the narrative of Genesis; any more than it is its business to be concerned over the question of the salvation of the inhabitants of Mars. Revelation remains for theology essentially geocentric, for it is addressed to men and confers upon them the truth as it is relative to their salvation under the conditions which belong to the reality of life on earth. The Fathers saw in the parable of the Good Shepherd, coming down to seek one erring sheep from the mountains where he has left the remaining ninety-nine of his flock, an allusion to the smallness of the fallen world compared with the cosmos as a whole, and with the angelic aeons in particular.2

It is the mystery of our salvation that is revealed to us by the Church, and not the secrets of the universe in general which, quite possibly, does not stand in need of salvation; this is the reason why the cosmology of revelation is necessarily geocentric. It also enables us to see why copernican cosmology, from a psychological or rather spiritual point of view, corresponds to a state of religious dispersion or off-centeredness, a relaxation of the soteriological attitude, such as is found in the gnostics or the occult religions. The spirit of the insatiable thirst for knowledge, the restless spirit of Faust, turning to the cosmos breaks through the constricting limits of the heavenly spheres to launch out into infinite space; where it becomes lost in the search for some synthetic understanding of the universe, for its own understanding, external and limited to the domain of becoming, can only grasp the whole under the aspect of disintegration which corresponds to the condition of our nature since the fall. The Christian mystic, on the other hand, entering into himself, and enclosing himself in the "inner chamber" of his heart, finds there, deeper even than sin,3 the beginning of an ascent in the course of which the universe appears more and more unified, more and more coherent, penetrated with spiritual forces and forming one whole within the hand of God. One may quote, by way of interest, the suggestion of a modern Russian theologian, who was also a great mathematician, Fr. Paul Florensky, that it would be possible to return to a geocentric cosmology on the basis of the scientific theories of our own time. It is hardly necessary to add that such a bold and, possibly, scientifically defensible synthesis has no real value for Christian theology, which is able to accommodate itself very easily to any scientific theory of the universe, provided that this does not attempt to go beyond its own boundaries and begin impertinently to deny things which are outside its own field of vision.

1. See Fr. G. Florovsky, op. cit., p. 78.

2. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, 'Catech., XV, 24', P.G., XXXIII, 904; St. Cyril of Alexandria, 'Oratio pasch., XII, 2', P.G., LXXVII, 673; St. John Chrysostom, 'Contra anom., 11, 3', P.G., XILVIII, 714

3. The expression is that of St. Isaac the Syrian: see Wensinck, p. 8

From The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (pp. 105-106).