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247. July 3/16, 1977 St. Nicodemus of Kozhe Lake

Dear Father Ioannikios,

Christ is in our midst!

Glory be to God, Brother Makarios arrived safely and is getting into the rhythm of our life here. Please pray that his summer stay will be fruitful—for him and us.

About “evolution”—we were glad to have your comments. If you really want to see them so much, and Dr. Kalomiros has already distributed his letters, we could sent you copies, after we’ve made our reply to his second letter. But really, this correspondence has not been very fruitful at all. At first we were encouraged by the fact that he was willing to discuss the matter at all (which few Orthodox seem to want to do), and we responded to him in a tone that we thought was roughly the same as his own, not fearing to be corrected on any mistakes we might make, but hoping that— although starting almost poles apart—we might in the end “work out” this question in friendly debate and come rather close together by the end of it. But we see now that our reply seems only to have offended him (perhaps most of all he disliked our strong implication that he is probably just as much under “Western influence” as the rest of us poor mortals!), and his second letter offers almost no chance for an extension of the debate. Our reply will probably be short (whenever we get a chance even for that!) and will have to begin by pointing out some of the contradictions he had fallen into himself, with little hope of even getting him interested in some of the more basic questions which (as I recall) haven’t even been mentioned yet by either of us.

But for now (leaping at the chance to chew this question a little more!) I will only give you a few of my own observations, not on “evolution” itself, but on the approach to it, which seems so difficult but is so essential.

First of all, we were very disappointed in all the three Boston letters on the subject which we have seen. There is very little there that we would disagree with—save for the flippant tone in some places—but they never really get to the question of evolution at all, and they are certainly not the Orthodox answer or approach to the question which Fr. Ephraim had promised to give. In fact, these letters reveal a distinct attempt not to approach the question at all, but rather to stay above it, with a rather superior air. Symptomatic is Fr. Ephraim’s confession (either there or elsewhere) that he has never read T. de Chardin and doesn’t need to, as also his evident ignorance of the whole scientific side of the question. (The “funny cartoon” he included has nothing to do with any “new findings,” for example, but was old news 80 years ago.) Likewise with Dr. Kalomiros: he prides himself on knowing nothing at all of Western teachings on evolution (apart from what he regards as “scientific facts”) and insists that we pay attention only to what he teaches on the subject, which is “patristic.”

1. This brings us to Axiom no. 1 in our approach to the question (not the most important one, but first in order of discussion): the question of evolution can’t be discussed at all if one doesn’t have a basic grasp of the scientific side of it (the “scientific proofs” of evolution) as well as the broader philosophy of evolution based on it (T. de Chardin, etc.). This is precisely what the Boston Fathers seem to be afraid of, and in general our Orthodox theologians also (including Fr. Michael Pomazansky if I’m not mistaken): once you get into “science,” the theologian is out of his depth, there are endless fruitless debates, etc. I think this is why Dr. Kalomiros’ evolution articles in the Greek religious press stirred up uneasiness but no distinct protests: because “theologians” in general just don’t know how to handle the scientific side.

By this I don’t mean that one has to be a scientific specialist in order to discuss the scientific side of the question—the scientific side is not the most important one, and specialists usually trip themselves up by concentrating too much on it; but if one isn’t sufficiently aware of the scientific side one won’t be able to grasp the question in its full scope. One can’t say with assurance, for example, whether man has been on earth some seven or eight thousand years (“more or less,” as the Fathers often say) if one is totally ignorant of the principle of radiometric dating, geologic strata, etc., which “prove” that man is “millions of years” old. And such knowledge is not esoteric at all—the basic principles of radiometric dating (enough to know its strong and weak points) can be explained in a rather short article. And the question of whether man has been on earth for some thousands of years or some millions of years is one that certainly touches on some basic Orthodox questions—whether the genealogies of the Scripture are actually genealogies (as all the Fathers certainly believed) or just sketchy lists with many long blanks in them; whether some of the Patriarchs of the Old Testament (if these are not genealogies) might not be “symbols” instead of concrete people; whether Adam himself ever existed (especially in view of what seems the prevailing theory now among evolutionists—“polygenism,” that new species begin in many pairs simultaneously); etc. This is just a sample to show that to get anywhere in this question one must have a basic, layman’s awareness of the scientific evidences for and against evolution. If one is reasonably objective and not out to “prove ones point” at any cost, such questions need not arouse passionate debates. As a basic principle, of course, we must assume that scientific truth (as opposed to various opinions and prejudices) can not contradict revealed truth, if only we understand them both correctly.

Your point—to start with basic theological principles—I think is good, and these should always be fundamental. And one must always be well aware of the different modes of knowledge and not mix them up. The trouble is, the question of evolution is so complex that one isn’t always aware which aspect of it has ceased to be scientific and has intruded on theology or philosophy, or exactly where the real conflicts arise. There, I think it is very important, as a second axiom:

2. To be aware of the basic philosophies underlying or derived from evolutionism and various other views of origins. The evolutionary philosophy of “up from the beasts” certainly seems irreconcilable with the Christian view of “fall from paradise,” and our whole view of history will certainly be determined by which why we believe! The Catholics used to solve this problem with a deus ex machina: when the body had evolved sufficiently, God “specially created” a soul for it—there evolution is correct, and so is Genesis, broadly interpreted. Kalomiros has basically the same view, though he has more patristic vocabulary to describe it—but such views are very artificial and contrived: the Christians wait for the latest evolutionary hypothesis and twist the text of Genesis to fit in with it. This won’t do! An awareness of how evolutionary philosophers (such as T. de Chardin) view the whole question of evolution, while it may not solve any specific question, will still give a broader view of the whole intellectual background behind evolution.

Axiom 3: The whole question of Genesis can not be well approached by Orthodox people without appealing to the basic Orthodox sources: the Holy Fathers. Especially valuable: the Hexaemera of St. Basil and St. Ambrose; commentaries on Genesis by St. John Chrysostom and (perhaps less important because they are more “fundamentalistic” and easier to “dismiss”) St. Ephraim the Syrian; Homilies on Adam, paradise, and the first-created world by St. Simeon the New Theologian ( especially homily 45 in the Theophan the Recluse edition of 1894 or so), St. Gregory the Sinaite (in the Russian Philocalia), St. Abba Dorotheus (Instruction I); commentaries of various Fathers on related passages of Scripture (for example, Romans 8:19-22 concerning the “vanity” or “corruption” of the post-Adamic world) or St. Gregory the Theologian on the Genealogies of Christ); Homilies on the subject of the Resurrection, or whenever the question of “seed” or “growth” is discussed; treatises on the origin of man (St. Gregory of Nyssa); patristic discussions on reincarnation and the pre-existence of souls (which are philosophically related to the question of evolution); etc.

About Dr. Kalomiros: our second reply to him will point out where we think he went astray in his patristic interpretations. But our general impression of his two letters (which we won’t write him directly for fear of offending him again) is this:

1. He is very unprepared to discuss the question either scientifically or philosophically. He is unaware of Western discussions of the subject and is only concerned to stand “superior” to them— which one can’t do if one isn’t aware of them. It is abundantly obvious from his two letters that he (and probably Greek scientists in general) is far behind the West, and he is holding to scientific and philosophical positions long abandoned or in process of revision by Western scientists themselves. As one example: his defense of Haeckel’s “recapitulation” theory of the human embryo: today’s evolutionary textbooks of embryology dismiss it as a 19th century fantasy, but Kalomiros not only clings to it as an “obvious proof” of evolution, but even forbids us to discuss any scientific questions with him until we get advanced degrees in the physical sciences (a typical refuge of someone who doesn’t want a free discussion of the subject)! He is not aware, either, of the less dogmatic spirit which many evolutionary scientists now have, nor of the immense number of scientists (with advanced degrees!) who now have abandoned evolution entirely or are skeptical of it.

2. He is theologically unprepared for such a discussion—something which surprised us most of all. Even after promising us that he was going to reply only after reading all the basic patristic texts on the subject, he still bases his whole argument on two or three patristic texts, very one-sidedly interpreted, and does not even answer a number of our patristic citations (which are only a small part of the patristic passages we have found). His St. Gregory of Nyssa quote says nothing whatever of evolution unless you read it into the passage; and the St. Seraphim quote certainly does not sustain his interpretation, wherein he does precisely what he accused us of doing—taking “chronologically” words which are “ontological” in reference.

When I say that Dr. Kalomiros is “unprepared,” I do not of course mean that he is incapable of discussing the question—merely that he is so prejudiced in advance (with a complex about being “inferior” to “Western wisdom”) that he does not view the question at all objectively.

Still, despite all this, we are not at all pessimistic of the possibility of viewing the question of evolution fairly objectively. I would say that a good Orthodox approach to the subject is that of I. M. Andreyev—a man well-equipped scientifically, as well as philosophically, who is not afraid of coming to conclusions that most scientists (being in step with the intellectual fashions that generally govern science) might not agree with. But he has said only a few things on the subject (in his Apologetics)— that mankind can not be more than 8000 years old, that the laws of nature before the fall were different than those now in force, and therefore are not subject to Reliable scientific interpretation, etc. I would say that his simple equation of “day” with “periods,” however, is too loose—in fact, this question of “days” seems to be deeper than either fundamentalists or liberals have made it, and unfortunately it is one of the evolutionary questions that is still emotionally charged for some people (you mean 6 24-hour days!?—I quoted St. Ephraim’s very “fundamentalistic” view of this question to Dr. Kalomiros, without precisely agreeing with him—and Dr. Kalomiros dismissed it by saying “he was using the science of his time.” But since the science of St. Ephraim’s time most certainly did not teach that the world was created in six 24-hour days (with 12 hours between each creative “moment”), I can only assume that Dr. Kalomiros is not prepared to examine patristic evidence very objectively, using any excuse to dismiss whatever doesn’t agree with his one views.)

I would strongly suspect that Fr. Michael Pomazansky would prefer not to make any general comments on the question of evolution—however, if you gave him specific questions touching on theology, you might get answers. But then again, he might be so afraid of the scientific side that he might hesitate even here.

This letter is already too long. Unfortunately, I just won’t have time for some while to set down the patristic quotes I have found up to now. But some time perhaps I will get the time. You might be interested in some of the publications of the “Institute for Creation Research” in San Diego, especially books like Scientific Creationism (public school—i.e. non-religious edition) which present only scientific evidence without reference to religion. Their presentation of the “Creation Model” is a promising approach to a more objective view of the whole question. Their religious views, of course, suffer from the general short-sightedness of fundamentalism (in particular, their unawareness of the whole patristic field of commentary on Genesis—but most Orthodox people have a similar lack of awareness!). I’m enclosing two of their pamphlets, with their address so you can order some of their books if you want.

I would like to keep up this discussion, a little at a time, if you wish to.

Please pray for us.

With love in Christ,
Unworthy Hieromonk Seraphim

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