Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Response to the Teaching of Saint Paisios on Evolution

By John Sanidopoulos

Like most teenagers of his time and even of the present, St. Paisios was taught about evolution in the context that either you believe in Darwinian evolution and reject God, or you accept God and reject evolution. In his own words, he explains this is what happened to him when he was fifteen years old, when a friend of his brother tried to dissuade the young Arsenios (this was his name prior to becoming a monastic) from the "nonsense" of prayer and fasting. Arsenios saw this as a temptation that he had to overcome (read more about this here). And indeed it was, since he was presented with various theories to dissuade him from faith in Christ. As a reward for remaining faithful, even at his young age he was made worthy of a vision of Christ immersed in divine light, confirming his faith.

He, and many who read this story, automatically assume that believing in God and in the inspiration of Holy Scripture is a direct contradiction to accepting the scientific theory of evolution. After all, this is how it is often presented. In this context, even theistic evolution becomes nonsense. How can you believe in God and in evolution? To mix what seems unmixable is blasphemous. But can one accept the scientific teaching of evolution and believe in God? St. Paisios would probably respond "no", based on his experiences of it being presented as a theory in direct contradiction to his faith, and of course as a "temptation".

St. Paisios spoke about the theory of evolution in one of his recorded conversations (read it here). He viewed the theory of evolution being taught in schools as a conspiracy to get children to reject God. Though there may have been some truth to this in the communist countries of his time, this also confirms that he understood evolution as a contradiction to faith in God. He also understands the theory of evolution as teaching that man descended from the apes, which based on his observations seemed incompatible with reality. And for him, to associate the lineage of Christ from apes is a blasphemy.

Now we can't blame St. Paisios for believing such things. He had no real formal education, being raised in a poor village with basic schooling. In fact, it is amazing he knew as much as he did, and his wisdom surely proves that it was divine in origin. But God does not reveal scientific facts to his saints. There is no spiritual purpose to such revelations. Science is something that develops with the careful observations of human beings, and such great care is needed in making these observations that a field has risen around it and it is done by dedicated scientists. St. Paisios was not a scientist, but a theologian in the truest sense of the word, who was able to speak with authority in spiritual matters alone, because he had successfully ascended spiritual heights. Therefore, when anything is presented as being opposed to faith, he fought against it, and rightly so.

Seeing that St. Paisios was not a scientist and had no real authority to speak on such matters from a scientific point of view, though of course he could have his own opinion, he did speak on it in the context in which he believed it to be an enemy of faith. But is it an enemy of faith? Though it is often presented as being so, it is in fact not. This has long been rejected by many respected scientists and theologians. The problem with many theistic evolutionists however is that they try to form stories of their compatibility, but this is impossible as well, as it is based on mere conjecture. For those who accept both faith and the scientific theory of evolution, it is best to leave it as a mystery. We are called to evolve in our relationship with God and in our spiritual maturity and understanding, and this should be our sole focus.

As for St. Paisios' belief that evolution teaches humans descended from apes, this also is rejected by scientists who believe in human evolution. They would say that humans did not evolve from apes, gorillas or chimps. We are all modern species, according to evolutionists, that have followed different evolutionary paths, though humans share a common ancestor with some primates, such as the African ape. The timeline of human evolution is long and controversial, with significant gaps. But this does not mean it is not true or should be rejected. The scientific evidence points a lot more to this theory than it does to humans beings made fully formed from the beginning less than ten thousand years ago.

And if such a belief is to be considered blasphemous as being unworthy of Christ's lineage, we should remember that Christ had murderers, adulterers, prostitutes, people who committed incest, and other horrible crimes in his lineage. Are not such sins by reasonable human beings less than animalistic? And why should we consider it to be more dignified for a human being to be descended from dirt than an ape or a common ancestor? It doesn't really make much sense when you think about it.

The authority of St. Paisios in speaking on this matter lies in the fact that when something is presented as being opposed to faith, it should be rejected. If it causes too much confusion and speculation, it is a waste of time. This is agreeable. But St. Paisios was not an educated and trained scientist to be able to authoritatively speak on scientific matters. I'm sure he would humbly agree with this. He himself was an evolved human being, in the spiritual sense, and a teacher par excellence in such to help us all achieve the spiritual evolution we are all called to evolve into. It would be a disservice to him to misuse his words otherwise.