Orthodox America

Is Knowledge a Force? Several Problems of Modern Energy Science from an Orthodox Viewpoint   

By Priest Lev Lebedev

  "After years without seeing a man, St. Mark the Ascetic was visited by Abba Serapion, and he asked him:'Are there to be found in the world today certain saints whoare able to work miracles and wonders? And who have works according to the faith of Christ, as it is written in the Gospels, that if you have faith as a mustard seed you will say to this mountain,'Move from your place and fall into the sea' and it will do so?" And as St. Mark was saying this, the mountain which was above them moved and went toward the sea. And the Saint picked up his head, and seeing the mountain moving, he hit the stone with his hand and said, "I did not say to you to move, soulless mountain, which art more obedient than man. Remain in your place!' And it stood in its place."

(The Orthodox Word, March-April 1966)

A Rather Nightmarish Fantasy

Let us imagine that one day humanity awakes to discover that electricity has disappeared, that there is no gas; elevators, cars, factories are inoperable; plumbing does not work, planes cannot fly, trains do not move, communications are down.  The whole technosphere has ceased to be, forever.

For "civilized" countries, especially the cities, this would be a catastrophe about whose scale and consequences we could only speculate. Yet, were we to ask if all humanity would perish, including the strongest nations and governments, the answer would probably be no, not necessarily. From the cities and other great technological centers people would return to the villages and start farming, living and feeding themselves as people did thousands of years ago, just as millions of peasants are still doing on all continents. People would adapt to the situation, and in the end would manage without the technosphere.  (Supposing, that is, that this catastrophe struck anytime soon.  Should this happen ten or fifteen years from now, environmental pollution might be so severe as to make a return to rural life impossible.)

The technosphere is simply not a vitally necessary condition for human existence; moreover, it has become a threat to our physical survival.  The Tower of Babylon of industrial-technological civilization is, to a considerable extent, an artificial, unnatural structure, although we have grown used to it and indeed, millions of people have come to depend on it.

Omna Vivax

For some time, especially since the seventeenth century when Francis Bacon postulated the laws of modern science and the motto "knowledge itself is power" was proclaimed, there arose a blind faith in human reason, its limitless potential, and its right to assertively enter any area of reality, particularly to discover and utilize various energy resources in the world as it saw fit.  We now know to what end this line of thinking has brought us, i.e., to the monstrous absurdities of atomic bombs and ecological catastrophe, largely due to the undisciplined development of modern energy policies.

 For millennia before the Industrial Revolution humans lived without scientific-technological progress.  There developed agriculture and various trades which underwent various changes, but nowhere did anything like the current concept of progress develop, i.e., the relentless perfection of production through technology.

There were wars, commerce, and greed, but no scientific-technological progress.  Beautiful homes and palaces were built, masterpieces of jewelry were crafted, great works of literature and philosophy were composed, Archimedes and Pythagoras developed their theories, yet scientific-technological progress did not occur.  This was not because people were not intelligent enough to invent kerosene, or something similar.

Modern research has given us a huge volume of data on the life, customs, work and psychology of so-called "backward peoples," e.g., several African tribes.  One important discovery was made. Any type of work or art was considered by these "backward" people as serving higher spiritual forces (gods or God), and production was viewed as sacred, not rational.  Of course, this does not mean that the rational side was totally absent.  The whole sphere of human activity represented a unique Divine revelation.

Consequently, the technology of all human activities turns out to be not a purely economic process, but also a process of sanctification or theurgy. From this we can see that the destruction inherent in a technological process, seeking to maximize output while minimizing input, would be considered a sin or a crime.  It was preferred that everything be done as one's forefathers did, and indeed this was the way all peoples thought before the beginning of technological progress.

Such a concept we call sacred, and it is bound to a general religious view of the world, independent of any specific religion.   This perception was the main reason why scientific-technological progress did not begin thousands of years earlier. And in order to destroy this concept it was necessary to develop an opposite feeling, usually described as "rationalism."

It is not hard to see that where everything is viewed as essentially apart from religion, profit becomes a "god". This rationalism invaded seventeenth-century Europe when, after the Renaissance, the European branch of humanity moved away from religion in general and from Christianity in particular. Rationalism does not recognize the sacred in technological methods and processes. Anything that can maximize profit is considered good. Usury became the pivotal driving force of rationalism.  Loans, interest, and usury had existed for centuries. However, they were almost unilaterally condemned, especially in the Bible.  But in seventeenth-century Europe this condemnation of usury and interest was lifted and replaced with a "religious" justification for the accumulation of wealth.


The Greek word for "energy" simply means a force of any type. It can mean the force of a human muscle, the force of the soul, the force of a spirit, of steam, of electricity,  of a nuclear chain reaction...

In the Bible energy is viewed in concrete terms as forces of God or of the devil.  Often these forces (i.e., energies) are seen as persons, such as the angels of God or of Satan, for examplem (II Thess. 1:7; Matt. 24:29; I Peter 3:22).  The Archangel Michael was called the commander of the Lord's forces, i.e., angelic warriors.  Christ defined faith as a force capable of transforming the physical environment (moving mountains-Matt. 17:20, transplanting trees-Luke 17:6).  He said, He that believeth on Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do (John 14:12).  Moreover, we know that many saints walked on water, healed the incurably ill, and raised the dead....There are instances of mountains being moved in accordance with the Gospel.  Here we are not interested in the external results, but rather in the way in which faith can be seen as a huge force  or energy source.

There is also the remarkable teaching of St. Gregory Palamas about the "uncreated energies of God."  In this sense uncreated means that they do not belong to the material world but rather to God. These uncreated energies are not God Himself, and are not related to His ineffable Essence, but they assist His actions in the material and immaterial (angelic) worlds He created.  One of these Divine energies is light, for example, the light with which the entire human substance of Jesus Christ shone forth at the moment of His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor (Matt. 17:2, Mark 9:2).  One can perceive God or this light on a spiritual level and sometimes even with the eyes of the body, as Sacred Scripture describes.  Such light is seen by itinerant monks engaged in strict spiritual podvig.

The image of the uncreated Divine light in the created material world is the physical sun.  Although modern science still has not learned to utilize the sun's energy for utilitarian goals with sufficient effectiveness, scientists are well aware of the sun's tremendous force.  Imagine, then, what can be said about the force (energy) of Divinity, whose power is so great that it is simply beyond description.  However, modern science is based on principles of atheism, i.e., science a priori excludes any admission of the presence of anything "supernatural" or Divine.

We can now delineate a type of hierarchical scheme of energies, as they are perceived in Orthodoxy:

1) the uncreated energies of God
2) the energies of God's angels
3) the energies of "earth" or matter
4) the energies of the human being
5) the energies of the fallen archangel, the devil, and his angels, the demons.

In Sacred Scripture, "earth" is not only a planet with dry land and soil, but an all-embracing concept of the entire cosmos, "the material of the world" (Blessed Augustine), from which everything was created in the beginning.  It is this way that Genesis 1:1-2 is interpreted by Augustine, Palamas, and other Fathers of the Church.   Modern science presents such matter as fully lacking a soul ("inanimate nature").  However, in the Bible there is a different concept: And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping things, and beast of the earth after his kind....And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth... (Gen. 1:20-25).

In answer to God's command, the land and water bring forth the souls of all beings, plants, herbs, etc. thus, "worldly matter" is not without spirit and possesses even a relatively independent ability to create.  It was from a "finger" of such living earth that man was created.

After the fall of our first parents man himself fell under the power of the elements and forces of the earth, having destroyed the harmony of the earth and having forced the earth itself to suffer from such disobedience.  This is because the devil and his angels were turned into the earth and received relative and temporary power over it (until the Second Coming).  Moreover, they were hurled into the "innermost reaches of the earth," i.e., into its most profound depths.  Therefore, when man probes deeply into the structure of the atom or the space of the cosmos, he is approaching the "innermost reaches of the earth," where forces hostile to man reign supreme.

In the final analysis, everything is subordinate to God, but only in the final analysis.  By God's allowance (not by His blessing) "the earth" and man are under the power of the devil and demons. The only possibility for man to pull himself away from this power is by true faith in Christ.

However, it is important to emphasize that man's utilization of the energy (forces) of the "earth" (matter) is not safe, because the forces, especially the hidden, deeper ones, are in the relative power of those spiritual beings who are man's worst enemies. Aren't we convinced about this through the practical experience of utilizing "profound" sources of energy, especially atomic energy, both for military and peaceful purposes? Or do we need another ten or a hundred Chernobyls to be sure of what we are dealing with?

The question can be put another way: to what extent can man use various energy sources of the "earth" safely under the conditions of modern life? We cannot yet answer this question.  Evidently, it depends on a combination of theology, the spiritual experience of the saints, and modern science. But already, all of us, believers and atheists, are falling into a precipice of economic catastrophe.

Why do We Need Modern Energetics?

We have still not examined one extremely important question: how modern civilization arose and developed to help people enjoy a fuller measure of comfort.  In spite of the "noble" and "beautiful" words of civilization's apologists, civilization gave and gives almost nothing to the hungry, the naked and the homeless, because these people cannot afford to buy anything in a civilized society: they have no money. As we explained, the heart of scientific-technical civilization is profit through interest.  This means that the fundamental goal of industrial civilization is the creation of greater comfort for those able to purchase it.

What is "comfort"?  It is the existence in everyday life of conveniences and things which are not only unnecessary but often are harmful.  It is possible to go to any museum where furniture is displayed that belonged to wealthy (even very wealthy) people of the Middles Ages, i.e., to Russian tsars, patriarchs, and boyars. The hard chairs and benches, scarcely more comfortable for the tsars, are far from the armchairs of the modern middle-class family in a civilized society, where a person practically drowns in pillows!

The Experience of Orthodoxy

The Orthodox Church teaches the faithful that the purpose of human life on earth is to grow closer to God and to remain united with Him through pure love for Christ.   Therefore, the content of life is the relentless daily struggle to plant or strengthen in the soul those things helping us to grow closer to him and to separate ourselves from those things which hinder this.  Orthodox asceticism long ago proved that for all believers nothing distances us so much from God as do pride and pleasing ourselves, especially through the flesh. Therefore we should not seek to maximize our satisfaction of the senses, but rather maximize our abstinence.  This is based on Christ's words: Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth...But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven....For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also....No man can serve two masters. Ye cannot serve God and mammon (wealth).  Therefore I say unto you, take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for the body, what ye shall put on....for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Matt. 6:19-33).  Therefore we should not always strive to lighten our workload or to make it more comfortable...

All this does not mean that Orthodoxy ignores or negates science and technological achievements. For example, in Orthodox Rus' people were often fond of clever technical inventions, original constructive ideas, scholarship and literacy!  This was considered a sign of God-given abilities, glimpses of human perfection on this still "sinful" earth.  The integration of culture and church life and the transformation of all types of work into God's work and the striving to build an earthly image of heaven were the forces behind all of this.  They were against the idea that external (scientific, business, or other) activity should develop at the expense of spiritual life. They sought first of all "the Kingdom of God and His righteousness."

The experience of Russian Orthodoxy shows that within a specific worldview man can get along with a much smaller quantity of industry and energy than seems necessary today.

In light of what we said about the various types of energies, it is especially interesting that Orthodox churches, monasteries, miraculous icons, and saints make up a powerful mass of accumulators and sources of Divine energies, energies of grace being poured out upon the world.  We are talking not only about their moral influence but also about their abil-ity to change the energies possessed by people and nature in an extremely positive way.  A non-religious person cannot understand this.  However, just because a person does not understand the principle of energy flow, it does not mean that a light bulb will not burn in his house if he turns on the switch.  The more man uses the energies (forces) of Divine, heavenly-angelic origin, the less he needs energies derived from industrial devices.


A religious perception of the world sharply lowers the demand for technological progress and the utilization of various industrial sources of energy.  In the modern world there is not yet any talk about destroying industrial-technological civilization. There is only talk about changing the character of "energy policy", trying to take advantage of energy either by stressing its intensive development over its expansive development or in other words by emphasizing the importance of energy supplies.

For the long-range existence and secure development of science and the technology built upon it, it is vitally important to reexamine several fundamental scientific positions. We have already talked about one of them, involving the a priori exclusion of any concept about God's presence in the world and its processes from scientific cognition.

The second paradigm of modern science is that when a researcher studies an object and experiments with it, the object does not experiment with the experimenter.  If we admit that the same energies of the earth (and its "most profound depths") are governed by spiritual persons or the angels of God, or the angels of the abyss, then where is the guarantee that they in their turn will not perform experiments on those who are performing experiments on them? Much can then be changed in our ideas about the world and also in the direction of the development of science.  Blind faith in human reason and its "right" to become enmeshed in any area of our existence without punishment should be resolutely abandoned, for human reason in this earthly reality-besides its natural limitations-is still strongly marred and darkened by sin, the result of the Fall. This has already driven man to a number of obviously crazy schemes, such as weapons of mass destruction.  What  unexpected absurdities can man now bring forth through "genetic engineering"?

We need a certain skepticism about the mind and about scientific creativity.  Science itself cannot work out the rules of this skepticism; the pathos of "all-powerful" human reason has gone too far.  Here, as in many other areas we need to combine science with religion. Therefore it is necessary to put an end to the seeming contradictions between science and religion.  They need to begin friendly, cooperative, serious work on the basis of profound faith and respect for general welfare, for the sake of simple human survival on earth for as long as possible.

Translated by Michael Meeks from Literaturni Irkutsk.  Abridged.