Reflection on Faith and Science in Light of Covid-19

by Hermina Nedelescu | български | Ελληνικά

Scientific Researcher

Science seeks truth in the natural world through observation and experimentation. Scientists are driven by curiosity, which encourages inventive thought, leading them to discover how nature works. Science is a tool to penetrate into the unknown physical world, which at first might seem incomprehensible. However, scientists know that within this perceived obscurity lies a perfected beauty, comprised of meaningful patterns waiting to be discovered. An example of this being, the brain, which remains largely unknown, is an exquisite universe of intricate, structural, nonrandom patterns, with functional implications for survival. Scientists make the assumption that nature is intelligible, bringing discovery of the unknown physical world to light. This supposition made by scientists is an ancient idea of the Church that has Scriptural resonance: “For as rain comes down, or snow from heaven, and does not return until it saturates the earth, and it brings forth and produces, and gives seed to the sower and bread for food” (Isaiah 55:10).

The perception of a disordered world, but also a well-ordered cosmos revealed by the knowledge of, but not limited to science raises a critical question: Does science ever challenge one’s faith? One way to address this question is to consider the experience-dependent changes of thought, which govern the discernment of knowing God versus one’s own preconceived notions. While Orthodox Christians implore the Holy Spirit to guide their discernment, human beings are also inevitably influenced by various earthly experiences shaping their emotions, behavior, conscience, and personal faith. Faith, for Orthodox Christians, is to know God not as an abstract theory, but to have a personal relationship with Him throughout their spiritual journey of repentance—a change of mind, stripping oneself of the habitual ways of thinking (Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way). The key determinant that may lead to the questioning of one’s faith is, therefore, a failure to discern between the genuine understanding of God’s will, as He manifests it in this world, and one’s own preconceived notions, concomitant with an inability to experience a change of thought.

When one’s own notions assert certain claims about the physical world, then such notions could be challenged by science. The reason for this is because science demonstrates the truth of the natural world through direct observation and experimentation of physical matter, which is anything that has mass and occupies space by having a volume. A relevant example is the notion that the Eucharist inactivates an infectiously active virus. Since the Eucharist’s mystical aspect retains its physical elements (e.g. it is subject to mold), science can prove whether an infectious virus is present in the consecrated Gifts in circumstances where the virus is inadvertently introduced from an infected person. A failure to discern between the true meaning of the Eucharist and one’s own preconceived notion about the physical world results in a conflict between wishful or overly optimistic thinking and the truth revealed by scientific evidence. In such cases, if the faithful individual is unable to have a change of thought, s/he will continue on a path of ongoing conflict where science presents a perceived threat to their faith.

Conversely, when one’s faith is predominantly guided by the experience of a personal Creator, leading to an ongoing “change of mind” (repentance) throughout a person’s spiritual path, then such faith is unlikely to be challenged by scientific discovery. From this viewpoint, scientific inquiry functions as a means to demonstrate glimpses and inspirations of the Creator’s well-ordered work, which ought not pose a threat to one’s faith.

Science concerns Orthodox Christians because scientific discoveries impact the Church and her people. The Wisdom of Sirach, although it refers to physicians and pharmacists designing pharmacotherapeutics, is also applicable to the entire scientific community, dedicated to discovery and good work:

Honor the physician with the honor due him, according to your need of him, for the Lord created him. The Lord created medicines from the earth, and a sensible man will not loathe them. And He gave skill to men, that He might be glorified in His wonders. A druggist making a compound of them. There is a time when success is also in their hands, for they will pray to the Lord to give them success in bringing relief and healing, for the sake for preserving your life. (Sir. 38:1,4,6,7,13)

Given this biblical directive, why might physicians and scientists dedicated to good work be ignored in a time of need? Saint Porphyrios suggests the reason is “egotism,” “selfishness,” and “thinking that God will make an exception amongst all the others to miraculously intervene for you” (Buxhoeveden and Woloschak, eds., Science and the Eastern Orthodox Church, 2011; Ioannidis, Elder Prophyrios: Testimonies and Experiences, 1997). The Saint’s words are relevant during the present pandemic for those who have limited understanding of the public health recommendations from scientists and doctors, subjecting gathered faithful to the risk of an infectious, spreading event. Having a limited understanding of the scientific evidence will lead to unnecessary harm and death, thereby negatively impacting the Church. For example, dropping the Holy Gifts in the mouth of the faithful with the single common spoon, making failed attempts to avoid touching the oral cavity, is not only a theological inconsistency but also a tacit admission that the virus can indeed be spread by the distribution of the Eucharist. But it also poses unacceptable risk due to the deposition of contaminated droplets and aerosols expelled from the communicant’s respiratory tract onto the common spoon, potentially infecting the subsequent person. The decision in support of the “drop-in” method of distributing communion provides evidence that this method is considered less risky when compared with allowing the communicant to close their lips on the spoon. Could the liturgical decision behind the “drop-in” method be driven, in part, by an inaccurate perception of risk? What if our next pandemic involves a newly recombined virus with stronger pathogenicity (e.g. Ebola, bird flu). What degree of risk are Church leaders willing to take? And does this risk assessment concur with objective scientific risk assessment? Finally, encouraging the faithful to partake in communion under such precarious circumstances by claiming that “communion is not a vehicle for the transmission of virus,” or encouraging them to approach the Holy Gifts with “great faith,” may be viewed as irresponsible, or as an erosion of one’s personal theology (knowledge of God the Creator).

Another example of the dangers associated with having limited understanding of the science is the misconception expressed by spiritual elders from Mt. Athos or elsewhere regarding the belief that a microchip could be “slipped into” the candidate vaccines for Covid-19. Based on the circulation of such misunderstood thoughts in Holy places further emphasizes the importance of a science-based dialog within the Church capitalizing on her scientific experts.  

The Orthodox spiritual journey is a path of repentance: of recognizing one’s own human “blindness” in this world (Jn 9). It is not a path of demonstrating “great faith” in the eyes of one’s self or of other human beings. Furthermore, it is impossible for an individual to determine when they have achieved great enough faith or “worthiness” to approach Communion without harm (cf. 1 Cor 11: 27-32), because the more one advances on their spiritual path, the more they are made aware of the ineffable mystery of God, as demonstrated in both His visible and invisible creation. Dismissing the science, therefore, has deleterious effects at both the physical and spiritual levels. But if science is used as a supplement to inform God’s people about the world in which we live, which is both a physical and spiritual reality, then science and faith will co-exist in harmony. Truth is one.

Experience sheds light on a new truth, whether it is scientific, artistic, or a personal experience with God (faith). Science is pursued by human beings, who are influenced by personal feelings and emotions. Therefore, science is inevitably an expression of utilitarian art. Similar to science, art is a process of illuminating what is hidden, but has always been there. Faith, through the process of repentance, also illuminates a greater knowledge of God. At the same time, both in science and in faith, the more knowledge (about God) is revealed, the more one realizes how little of everything is known. Science, art, and faith are dynamic processes characterized by experiences, which result in a change of mind. Scientists change their beliefs based on new evidence; artists—based on experimenting with a novel technique; while people of faith change their mind as they repent on their spiritual journey. In all cases, the conscience is humbled by experience, and becomes increasingly aware of a new truth, and of its own human blindness. We should be vigilant of this experience, so as to be guided toward accurate discernment, and to avoid the false sense of “seeing” embraced by the Pharisees. “If you were blind, you would have no sin,” Christ says to them, “but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (Jn 9: 41)

I would like to thank Fr. Alkiviadis Calivas, Mr. Kevin Hunt, Dr. Sr. Vassa Larin, Fr. Alessandro Margheritino, Dr. Chris Mathews, and Fr. Michael Sitaras for proving critical discussions and/or input to earlier versions of this article.  

Hermina Nedelescu, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist in the Department of Neuroscience at Scripps Research. She utilizes viruses and molecular approaches to study how environmental stimuli are represented within brain neural circuits to support motivated behaviors.