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A woman at the heart of the dialogue between science and faith

· The Interview ·

We are not always aware of the variety and the new leavens that stir up the Orthodox world, especially that of women. One example is Gayle Woloschak, a scientist and theologian who has been President of the American Orthodox Theological Society for several years.

You are a very high level scientist, you direct a laboratory and at the same time you are a theologian and an expert in bioethics. What spurred you to develop this double field of activity?

Vladimir Tatlin “Composition with Transparent Surfaces” (1916)

At the beginning of my career I worked for a government laboratory and my colleague taught religious sciences. Since I am Orthodox, practising and interested in what is going on in my Church, he suggested that I give lectures. When he retired, I took over his course. The course was at the Zygon Centre for Science and Religion. While I was discussing sciences with some theologians, I realized that they did not understand the subject and this saddened me. They were talking about it but as if they had had no scientific training; they were making mistakes, something that invalidated their discourses. Moreover, the opposite was also true, given that scientists did not understand theology! I therefore decided to deepen my theological training.

You are a scientist, is living your faith in this professional environment as difficult as people say?

It is very difficult. The world of science is so profoundly distrustful of the world of religion that believers are truly reluctant to speak of their faith. I worked side by side with a colleague in a clinic for seven years, but I had to wait for the week of my departure to discover that he was a deacon in the Presbyterian Church. We had even worked together and published articles together! This gives an idea of how wary scientists are with regard to their spiritual life. Talking about it is sometimes badly viewed. A short time ago a department director refused my candidacy because I had – supposedly – given lectures against the theory of evolution at the Templeton Foundation. This wasn’t true! My lecture was about people who found this theory problematic for religious reasons. The director did not know much about this subject but this did not prevent him from taking decisions concerning the lives of others. There is enormous tension between science and religion and I do not know how we will manage to overcome it. Nevertheless, in the scientific sphere we are seeing the development of interdisciplinary research groups. These groups must open themselves sufficiently to integrate philosophy, history and theology, but this will take time because of prejudices.... Scientists do not quite see what theologians could contribute and religious circles are somewhat intimidated by scientists.

What can theologians specifically contribute to the scientific debate?

Scientists scrutinize and analyse the material world. They seek to understand it but they do not see what is behind the general framework. However, scientists experience love, they have an affective life, they live in relationships with other people and they feel emotions: consequently they know that other dimensions of being exist. Science is also nourished by creativity and intuition, and the more one deepens one’s research, the more clearly one perceives that not only does the material dimension exist but that there is also the dimension of the other. Theologians can help scientists to improve themselves, in the sense that they can prevent them from remaining cut off in their laboratories.

What contribution can Orthodox theologians make to the evolution of bioethical research, technological research and ecology, which are three of your main fields of interest?

Orthodox reflection has made real progress in the area of bioethics and ecology. But there are points on which it is slower, such as in its reflection on technology. What Orthodox theologians can put on the table are the riches of their history and their approach to subjects, which does not consist of making systematic responses to problems but rather of broadening their perspective by integrating a plurality of approaches. Having long been involved in the dialogue between science and faith, I have frequently faced scholars of every denomination.... When we discuss the content of faith, tones can heat up a bit; but when we speak of a subject external to us, such as the sciences, we usually reach an agreement. Thus I often think that dialogue should begin with themes external to us before dealing with internal arguments. In fact unity among believers already exists on a certain number of topics.

And what place do women have in the Orthodox theological debate?

At the moment research is under way in order to understand which path has been followed by the women who have succeeded in taking part in theological debate. It has emerged that many of them have been through hidden doors. That is to say, they have not been trained at the most prestigious theological institutes. Indeed many women have taken a route similar to my own: they come from the fields of scientific research, communications, education.... This shows that theological institutions have remained closed to women, not because they have refused women but because only future priests have had the time and means to devote themselves full time to these studies. I teach at an Orthodox theological institute and for some time I have been noticing a new openness to women and also to diversity of opinions.

Kazemir Malevich, “Morning in the Village after Snowstorm” (1912)

Might this be because women have a specific voice by virtue of being women?

I work in a research laboratory. I know that women and men each bring specific skills. I observe that women have a more holistic approach than men. The experience of women is different: they are wives, mothers, they conceive of the world in a very different way. Excluding women from theological reflection weakens the Church. In general, the refusal of diversity weakens the Church and this is not only a question of the presence of both sexes but also of a mixture of generations and cultures…. In my laboratory we have taken on a deaf student. At the outset I saw this as a problem, but I then discovered that he compensated for his deafness with an extraordinary visual acuity: he saw things in the microscope that none of us could see and thus made new discoveries.

Do you share the fear expressed by a certain number of people concerning the increasing incursion of technology into our lives and the development of transhumanism?

I understand you perfectly. I love technology, the fact that we can do this interview on Skype as if we were in the same room; there is something good in the use that can be made of it. However, we must fix limits. But fixing limits is difficult, especially in the context of transhumanism and the technique of “cutting and pasting DNA”. There is currently no means of regulation to prevent a broader development. We will find ourselves in the position of having to regulate a posteriori rather than looking ahead and this worries me deeply. Transhumanism is becoming a real social challenge. Some technologies already make it possible to move a cursor across a screen merely by thinking. For disabled people this is a means of communication previously unimaginable. However, when one becomes able to move a cursor by thought, one also becomes capable of sending a bomb by thought, which is more terrifying. Reflection on the way in which to regulate the applications of technology is urgent and crucial. Molecular scissors can, for example, correct a defective gene: carrying out the operation on the cells of our bodies might perhaps constitute a positive medical act but doing so on gametes could have irreparable consequences on the whole of humanity. The Church in a broad sense must involve herself in a dialogue on these subjects. In the discussions on molecular scissors, at least in the United States, the Church has been influential: when she said “let us not play around with embryos”, scientists sought different ways of embryonic research in order to work on molecular scissors.

You mentioned the notion of limits: how can these be established and who must establish them?

I think this is an opportunity for theologians to involve themselves in these subjects. Scientists can intuit what limits are but it will not be they who decide on them. It will be the corporations, the businesses, the market! And these groups are very hard to control since they aim first and foremost at profit. If there is a possibility of fixing limits, it is by establishing a constant dialogue that influences society as a whole so that it is society as a whole which can in turn influence businesses. The margin for manoeuvring is very narrow, hence great wisdom and discernment are required; and it is here that the Church can intervene because she is expert in this field.

In secularized societies which, furthermore, are those in which research is carried out, how can the Church be considered once again as an interlocutor in the forefront?

She must initiate a dialogue which includes scientists, business directors, philosophers and theologians and must generate interest. For ever since the time when the Church showed how society should not remain imprisoned in its citadel and how it should become involved in the fields of science and culture, society has been interested in the Church. In the United States this works.

You have written that ideological rigidity is particularly harmful to certain challenges. Why?

Having a spiritual life presupposes being open to the things that surround us, to others and to their ideas. Christ confronted the rigidity of the Pharisees and of other groups. Ideological rigidity prevents spiritual growth because when we think we know everything we no longer make progress and others no longer hear us. Christianity is not a concept, it’s a way of being, a process of conversion. If one thinks one has arrived, one has no possibility of becoming a better person. The same thing applies to scientists. If they think they know where the solution to their research is to be found, they will discover nothing more. At times we must consider trails which seem to us to be crazy. 

Marie-Lucile Kubacki

Gayle Woloschak

Gayle Woloschak, born in the United States in 1955, is a lecturer in Radiation-Oncology, Radiology and Molecular Biology at the Feinberg School of Medicine of Northwestern University in Chicago, and adjunct professor of Religion and Sciences at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago and at the Pittsburgh Institute of Theology. A scientist of world renown, she directs a research laboratory. Orthodox and an expert in bioethics, she is interested above all in biological evolution, stem cell research and ecology. From 2014 to 2016 she was President of the Orthodox Theological Society in the United States and is currently Vice-President of the Zygon Centre for Religion and Science. 




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 29, 2020