Book Review: Teresa Obolevich, Faith and Science in Russian Religious Thought

Book Review:

Teresa Obolevich, Faith and Science in Russian Religious Thought, Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2019, 240 pp., ISBN: 9780198838173  (hardcover)

by Dr. Efthymios NicolaidisInstitute of Historical Research / National Hellenic Research Foundation

(This is an extended form of the review published in the Journal of Religion in Europe 13/1-2 (2020) pp.183–185)


Recently we are witnessing an interest of scholars in the relations between Orthodox Christianity and the sciences and books and articles are published on this subject, often challenging established ideas. The new book of Teresa Obolevich about faith and science in Russian religious thought challenges the established idea that Russian Orthodox theologians and thinkers influenced by Orthodox mysticism distrust science and rationalism as well. Obolevich is not a newcomer in the field. She has already published important articles on the subject in Polish and English and also the monograph of reference in French La philosophie religieuse russe (translated by Maria Gawron-Zaborska. Paris: Cerf, 2014). Her new book is an overview through the centuries and the schools of thought of how Orthodox Russians consider secular knowledge and precisely scientific knowledge.
Nauka (science in Russian) has not the same meaning as in English. Russian thinkers perceive nauka as any rational activity and therefore this word except natural and mathematical sciences embraces humanities and theology as well. Although the book of Obolevich concerns the natural sciences (science and religion studies), the broader meaning of nauka makes it difficult to distinguish how Russian thinkers perceive the knowledge resulting from natural sciences from how they perceive rationality in general. 
What makes the specificity of the background of Russia vis à vis Western Europe in the science-religion relationship is first the Orthodox tradition and second the fact that Russia did not participate in the creation of modern science. More, science was introduced in Russian civilization as late as the 17th century. Indeed, excepting some scarce cases of contacts with scholars that had a scientific culture as the Greek unionist Isidore of Kiev (15th c.), Russians encountered science (and precisely pre-modern science) only in the 17th c. when the Jesuit-type Kyiv-Mohila Academy was founded in Kiev, and when (towards the end of the century) the Slavo-Greco-Latin Academy was founded in Moscow.  Modern European science began to spread as late as the beginning of the 18th century when Peter the Great founded in 1724 the Western-type Academy of sciences in St Petersburg. 
Although this late encounter between Russia and science, the first chapter of Obolevich’s book tackles medieval Rus. In this chapter, Obolevich deals with the influence of the Greek fathers from Basil to Gregory Palamas on the Orthodox Rus and through them, of the Greek rational thought. “Although the first Russian translations of ancient philosophers were produced only in the eighteenth century, philosophy had already hitherto existed within the framework of theology and had a very distinct existential dimension, when compared to its Western counterpart” (Obolevich, 8). Indeed, in the Byzantine Orthodox tradition, which was followed by the Rus, theology is considered as the “true philosophy”; in fact, Orthodox theological thought finds its tradition in Greek philosophical thought but always with a holistic approach.
Chapter 2 deals with a crucial moment of Russian history, the Enlightenment period which corresponds to the period of modernization of Russia. From then on we can talk about science-religion relations in Russia. Science as it is understood today was then introduced by force into the traditional Russian society and rapidly developed. Obolevich expands on the efforts to conciliate the Bible and science by Theophan Prokopovich (1681–1736), a teacher at the Kyiv-Mohila Academy, who seems to be strongly influenced by his contemporary Jesuits. The first great Russian scientist, Michael Lomonosov (1711–1765), Western-educated, searched for the ultimate explanation of the world and claimed that the Bible should not be understood literally, but rhetorically. This chapter shows well that during the Enlightenment period the Russian scientists and secular thinkers try to conciliate the Bible and science influenced by their Western contemporaries and not following a similar Orthodox tradition based on Greek fathers for example Basil who promoted, in another context, analogous ideas. Russian Orthodox thought about science had not yet found its own discourse.
In contrast to Western Christianity, Orthodox scholarly theology in Russia was not taught in universities. Indeed, the Russian university system, as it was developed during the 19th century, did not comprise theological departments, and theology was taught in theological Academies controlled by the Church. Obolevich presents facts showing that in these Academies existed a certain independent spirit and that towards the end of the century some professors were not hostile to Darwinism. Unlike Catholics and Protestants, Russian Orthodox was very slow to react to Darwinism. Actually, the Holy Synod and the Ministry of Education were hostile to the teaching of natural sciences in the theological Academies. In the few cases that such a teaching was introduced, it was for apologetic purposes, to “draw the students’ attention to the discoveries in the field of natural sciences, and explain them in line with the teaching of the Holy Church, reconciling them with the Scriptures and weakening apparent contradictions owing to the increase of materialism.” (Obolevich, 35).
The next chapters present the ideas of specific thinkers and schools of thought and constitute the most interesting and original part of Obolevich’s book. Chapter 4 presents Peter Chaadaev (1797-1856), the first great figure of Russian philosophy. Chaadaev considered that Orthodoxy kept Russia spiritually behind the Western nations and was declared insane by the authorities. Concerning rationality, Chaadaev believed that faith and reason are two reliable paths, “one of feeling (of a temporary nature), the other of reasoning (which is more constant and stable), with both paths leading to God”.  He wrote that  “when reason tries to know God all by itself, it makes a God with its own hands.” (Obolevich, 42). 
The Slavophile movement that emerged against the westernization of Russia at the beginning of the 19th century is the subject of chapter 5. Slavophiles spoke about a “Russian soul” that should be praised and they popularised Philokalia, an anthology of patristic texts of the Hesychast tradition on prayer and life devoted to God. Slavophiles promoted humanities against sciences and thought that askésis (the spiritual and physical exercise of the Hesychasts) was more important than mathésis (secular learning) and that training the soul matters more than training the intellect. They struggled against rationalism considered “the greatest threat to inner wholeness”  but not against rationality or reason, and they did not oppose science as such. Slavophiles thought that the separation between everyday life and faith was evil and came from the West and that “Russia has its own word to say about philosophy and science that should be founded on ‘living’ faith, unlike ‘formal’ faith.” (Obolevich, 57). 
As Obolevich remarks, Russian literature is an important part of Russian philosophy, and therefore in chapter 6, she deals with Fedor Dostoevsky’s and Leo Tolstoy’s ideas on science. It is of the common belief that Dostoevsky banned any rational activity because it distorts truth which is beyond comprehension and that he distrusted science because its laws of necessity deprive us of freedom and love. For him, faith and mathematical proof are two irreconcilable things. But Obolevich remarks that Dostoevsky’s position against science is more complex. In the Brothers Karamazov, Ivan Karamazov declares: “If God does exist and if He indeed created the world, then, as we well know, He created it according to the principles of Euclidean geometry and made the human brain capable of grasping only three dimensions of space. Yet there have been and still are mathematicians and philosophers - among them some of the most outstanding - who doubt that the whole universe or, to put it more generally, all existence was created to fit Euclidean geometry.” (Obolevich, 60).  Obolevich concludes that Dostoevsky “struggled against aggressive scientism, positivism, and secularization, a narrow interpretation of the world as submitted to the necessary, against false hope in scientific progress that was supposed to replace religious tenets and values, but not against science itself. Together with the Slavophiles, Dostoevsky strove for an integral attitude embracing faith and reason in a single spiritual unity.” (Obolevich, 66-67).
Contrary to Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy believed that Christian truths could be comprehensible and rationally verified. It is why he opposed the Trinitarian nature of God and the dual nature of Christ because no rational. As Dostoevsky did, he disliked the necessity and determinism of science. He believed that “science and religion seem to be located at opposite poles of human activity. The relationship between them could be depicted not so much as a conflict (which implies that they have a common area) as an incompatibility.” (Obolevich, 70). Obolevich also discusses the attitude of Tolstoy towards Darwinism. Tolstoy opposed Darwinism for moral reasons (the struggle for existence is not compatible with Christianity) but he used its principles in his work. 
Chapter 7 presents the great Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900) who evolved from atheist and materialist to fervent believer and tried to make a synthesis borrowing from various philosophical and religious cultures. Soloviev’s aim was all-unity and integral knowledge that comprises philosophy, theology, and science. Soloviev believed in the rationalization of faith: “When Christianity is manifested as light and reason, it will necessarily become a universal conviction, or at least the conviction of all those who have something in their head or heart.” (Obolevich, 74). He also defended a “religious materialism,” distinct from “false” or “vulgar materialism” and believed that science could not penetrate the empirical phenomena without taking into account their metaphysical, ideal foundations. Obolevich presents in-depth Soloviev’s ideas about Darwinism and how he turned into one of the most eager defenders of the religious understanding of Darwin’s theory.
Soloviev’s effort of Synthesis was continued by Nikolai Lossky (1870–1965) whose thought is presented in chapter 8. Atheist and socialist, he was influenced after 1917 by the ideas of Pavel Florensky, condemned the excesses of the Revolution, and was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1922. Lossky tried to make a synthesis and reconcile physics and metaphysics, and therefore science and dogma, and justify the truths of faith by philosophical means. Especially for Darwinism, he “tried to reconcile the Christian dogma of creation ex nihilo with the theory of evolution, and thereby sought also to overcome the negativity of the Darwinian doctrine of the survival of the fittest, together with the reductively agonistic metaphysics this doctrine entailed.” (Obolevich, 93).
The seminal figure of Pavel Florensky (1882-1937), the priest who was hired by Leon Trotsky to help with the electrification of the USSR and executed by the Stalinist regime in 1937 is presented in chapter 9. Although sharing the all-unity project of Soloviev and the conviction that science and theology are complementary fields of knowledge, he did not believe in an all-explaining system but the unknowability of God. Instead of a “philosophical theology” of the Solovievists, he proposed to build a “theological philosophy” because for him faith had priority over philosophical thought. Florensky’s ideas about the compatibility of science and Christianity lead him to defend long out-dated theories as to the geocentric system.
The ideas of Semen Frank (1877-1950), an ex-Marxist who became a believer, expelled as Lossky from the Soviet Union in 1922, are presented in chapter 10. Follower of the all-unity effort he believed that philosophy must participate in the quest for religious salvation. Frank was influenced by both East and West Christianity. He followed Gregory Palamas’ doctrine of the distinction between God’s unknowable essence and God’s energies by which He manifests in the created world but also contemporary Western ideas such as the fine-tuning of the Universe.
Chapter 11 tackles Russian existential philosophy and especially Nikolai Berdyaev (1874–1948) and Lev Shestov (1866–1938). For them, “human existence, the person, freedom, and individuality were crucial categories that also regulated their model of the relationship between faith and science.” (Obolevich, 119). Berdyaev, who was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1922 with Soloviev, Frank, and other opponents to the new regime, believed that freedom is the absolute principle, pre-existing to God who cannot oblige men to accept His existence. He opposed objectivization, the transformation of a subject to an object but he did not oppose scientific progress and accepted the new theories and precisely the theory of evolution. For Berdyaev “naturalism . . . contains a degree of objective truth, but its claim to universal validity is false because it represents only the material aspect of a whole variety of Being.” (Obolevich, 123). 
Lev Shestov was more suspicious than Berdyaev to rational knowledge. He contested the “tyranny of reason” and believed that any scientific truth, even mathematical, had not absolute validity. According to him, experience is wider than a scientific experiment and science does not deliver the understanding of the most profound issues of reality.
During the 19th century was born the theology of imiaslavie (from Greek onomatodoxia that means to believe to the name). According to this theology, the name of God is not only a Holly name but the incarnation of God. The patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow condemned this doctrine, but it remained popular among Russian monks in Mount Athos. During the Balkan Wars, the Russian army entered the Russian monastery Saint Panteleιmon to arrest the heretic monks. Important Russian Orthodox thinkers were involved in this debate. In chapter 12 Obolevich examines the positions about the language of the theologian Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944, exiled from USSR in 1922) and the philosopher Alexei Losev (1893-1988) and the relation of these positions with their views about science. Bulgakov thought that imiaslavie reflected the core of Orthodox mysticism, in opposition to European rationalism and that truth is beyond reason and that the only way to it is by revelation. Obolevich examines Bulgakov’s concept of Sophia as a “medium” between God and the empirical world. Following the mysticist tradition, Bulgakov thought that science and rationality have an extra-scientific source and accused scientific knowledge of missing the Truth. Losev, who lived until he died in USSR, developed the philosophical concepts of imiaslavie. He believed that the language of scientific discourse plays merely a secondary and instrumental role and as such cannot describe the whole of reality, contrary to Logos or eidetic language which is a source of all descriptions. According to him, scientific knowledge and religious experience express the same reality approached in its different aspects but priority belongs to theology. Science cannot verify or abolish theological truths. 
Chapter 13 presents the ideas of the Russian cosmists, the most famous among them being the father of rocket theory Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.  Cosmists view the cosmos as “a higher, intelligent reality, a supernatural, transcendental existence, embracing the physical cosmos as something fallen, low, and ‘created’ (but at the same time full of symbols of the transcendental cosmos). This doctrine has a multi-level structure: religious (and even esoteric), metaphysical, epistemological, anthropological, ethical, aesthetic, poetic, artistic, and technological, as well as a methodological level concerning the relationship between science and religion.” (Obolevich, 145). Theologians, scientists and artists participated to cosmism. Obolevich examines the ideas of the philosopher Nikolai Fedorov (1829-1903) considered as the farther of cosmism, and the scientists Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), and Vladimir Vernadsky (1843-1945). Cosmists criticized the Orthodox Church and believed in universal Reason, Order, and Harmony. They were much concerned about the ethics of science, the moral responsibility of scientists, and the aim of scientific progress, and were preoccupied with ecological problems.
In contrast to Western Christianity, Orthodox theology was always based on patristic studies. The 20th century witnessed a renewal of these studies. Chapter 14 presents Orthodox Russian émigré thinkers who claimed a renaissance of Russian theology and initiated the renewal of patristic studies under the light of contemporary civilization. Fr. George Florovsky (1893–1979) promoted the idea of Neopatristic synthesis in 1936 at the First Congress of Orthodox Theology in Athens, the center of Orthodox patristic studies during that period. This synthesis comported a certain idea about science. “In Florovsky’s view, faith and knowledge are situated at different levels. Faith is unproved and unreasonable because it is given only in experience. This approach totally changed the perspective of the discourse about the relationship between science and faith and eliminated the possibility of so-called natural theology.” (Obolevich, 159).
Obolevich’s book presents the wealthy philosophic-theological tradition of Russian thought about the relationship between faith and science. But although the polyphony pf this tradition it seems that there exists a main trend over the centuries: “Generally speaking, Russian religious philosophers have acknowledged that the truth about reality always lies on the side of theology; if any scientific data contradict Christian dogma, it should be adjusted in the light of the truth of Revelation. Therefore, the most appropriate model of the relationship between faith and science is concordism….in Russian thought, the path leads not from science towards God, but God towards science.” (Obolevich, 172).

Faith and science in Russian religious thought is an excellent overview of an exciting subject. As we remarked above, Russia encountered science as late as the 17th century and modern science even later. Although this late encounter, 19th-century Russian mathematicians revolutionized this scientific field and Russian and Soviet science of the 20th century was at the forefront of scientific developments. At the same period, Russian Orthodox but also non-believers philosophers and thinkers struggled with the rationality and necessity that science implies and searched for holistic responses to knowledge.
The book comprises an important bibliography that shows the involvement of Russian thinkers in the discussion on the relationship between faith and science.



SOW Newsletter

Stay informed on the SOW project

Subscribe to newsletter feed


Project SOW is organized by the Institute of Historical Research of the National Hellenic Research Foundation.


Project SOW is funded by Templeton World Charity Foundation Inc.

The opinions expressed in this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Templeton World Charity Foundation Inc.

Zircon - This is a contributing Drupal Theme
Design by WeebPal.