Dr Aleksei Il’ich Osipov’s book, The Search for Truth on the Path of Reason, has just become one of my favourite books on applied Orthodox theology in modern times for several reasons.
First, he showcases the ways of Western philosophy going back to Leibniz and Spinoza (but also including figures like Kant, Hegel and Schleiermacher). In each case, he shows how these philosophers’ conceptions of God differed—sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes in ways not so subtle—from the Christian witness to the Incarnation and its ramifications for how we should relate to God. The ‘search for truth on the path of reason’ is one which cannot be brought to a successful completion in itself, because the reason is darkened to the incomprehensible reality of God… and yet, as he shows with several examples, those who follow on that path may come to realise that the end of their journey lies along a different one.
The second noteworthy point is the deft and penetrating critique of scientism he provides. While he acknowledges the remarkable achievements and advances of knowledge that have come from the natural sciences, Dr Osipov nonetheless openly scorns the idea that science is at odds with religion (noting that the vast majority of scientists throughout history have been religious), and also shows that the attempts to make a comprehensive doctrine out of science—bear in mind he was writing this at le nouvel athéisme’s peak of popularity, in 2009—are woefully misguided and ill-fated.
There are several dimensions to Dr Osipov’s criticism of scientism. Most importantly, science does not and cannot prove or disprove religious maxims, because science is methodologically tethered to the realm of material causes and effects. The Christian thesis of a Creator cannot be subjected to empirical testing, because the ultimate reality to which the question of first causes belong is not amenable to such testing.
Following from this, he emphasises that the practice of science itself relies on a guiding hand which gives it a leading set of values and morals, and which determines the possible scope of its use. Osipov notes that although science has given us miracle cures for diseases, telecommunications and clean and cheap sources of energy—it has also given us biological weapons, echo chambers of distraction and outrage, and nuclear bombs. Being neutral towards questions of value, the natural sciences and the technologies which follow from it can be turned either to marvels of creativity and construction and wonder—or else to cataclysmic destruction and untold human suffering. This isn’t a particularly controversial point anymore, but Osipov makes it precisely in rebuttal to those who think science is capable in and of itself of providing the values by which it can be controlled.
Despite this, Osipov makes several strong arguments for acknowledging the reality of biological evolution, and notes that several saints—including Saint Seraphim of Sarov and Saint Theophan the Recluse—have noted that evolutionary theory is not at odds either with Scripture or with Christian practice… provided that it does not deny God.
Lastly (but not least) is his critique of religion. Dr Osipov identifies several strands within religious life which are deserving of critique: paganism, mysticism and immanentism (though he doesn’t use this last word himself). Paganism, which in his view is the identification of the supreme reality with the experience of a particular race or nation of people, he cites as spiritually harmful because it leads to various forms of pride and a rush after ‘food and shows’. Mysticism, a term by which Osipov comprehends a number of different strands of religious experience from the Dharmic religions to some forms of Protestant Christianity, places the locus of religious striving on the sensory experience of the believer. I’m using the word ‘immanentism’ here to encompass Dr Osipov’s critiques of Catholicism and Judaism, which are separate but share a common theme. His view is that both of these religious traditions place an over-emphasis on building paradise in this world, or awaiting a this-worldly Messiah who will deliver comfort and joy within this life.
The vital piece of his critique of religion is the emphasis he places on humility as the core virtue which is applicable to Orthodox practice. For this, he relies particularly upon the witness of modern Orthodox holy men, in particular: Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1754-1833); Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894); and especially Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov (1807-1867). All three of these luminaries of Orthodoxy emphasised making oneself humble and acknowledging one’s spiritual poverty and reliance on God as the cornerstone of any sort of spiritual striving—from the very beginning even to the heights of ascetic perfection. (Speaking of asceticism: if done without humility or love of Christ rather than self, Osipov clearly demonstrates how it can bring great harm to the ascetic and to others.)
Dr Osipov brings to the forefront the Orthodox tradition’s deep scepticism of ‘signs and wonders’, and the steadfast reluctance to trust with which these saints and others in the tradition approached them. This reluctance was not born of any materialistic or atheistic idea, but instead from a deeply-felt sense of humility before God. There is a bit of a polemical emphasis here, which directs a certain degree of criticism at Roman Catholic visionaries like Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Ávila and Thérèse of Lisieux, whose eagerness for and reliance on visions and sensory ecstasies of God’s mysteries are treated as delusional.
However, Dr Osipov is not averse to directing these same critiques of other religions against certain aspects of contemporary popular Orthodox practice. In particular: he sees evidence of ‘paganism’ in the hyperdox over-reliance on the external forms, rituals, canons and typikons of the Church; ‘mysticism’ in the popular but dubious occasions of exorcisms (particularly mass exorcisms) and myrrh-streaming icons; and ‘immanentism’ in seeking after ‘spiritual fathers’ who exert cults of personality over their followers. The basic underlying point about treating such visions and miracles and teachers with a healthy degree of wariness in the knowledge of our fallen senses should be well taken.
I highly recommend this book—if for nothing else, than for directing the reader to the witness and spiritual wisdom of the Christ-loving Saints Seraphim, Ignatius and Theodore. There is a great deal of value within Dr Osipov’s work, value which I hope more Western readers come to appreciate.