"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Authorial Interview: George Tsakiridis

As I have previously noted more than once, interest today in Evagrius of Pontus is at what we could regard as an all-time high. Another recent book on him was published by George Tsakirdis, Evagrius Ponticus and Cognitive Science: A Look at Moral Evil and the Thoughts

I asked the author for an interview and here are his thoughts:

AD: Please tell us about your background:

I currently teach philosophy and religion at South Dakota State University. I hold a PhD from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in religion and science/theology. My research focuses on both the patristic period as well as broader religion and science dialogue. I have lectured in the past at Saint Xavier University, Chicago, and been an active participant in the Pappas Patristic Institute at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Brookline, MA.

Tell us why you wrote this book:

This book is a slightly revised version of my dissertation. I am very interested in both the ancient church as well as the modern sciences, and this project was a chance to integrate my many interests while also doing constructive theology. To be honest, I started with the notion of writing a dissertation that combined patristics and religion and science, and had (and still have) a great interest in sin and evil (don’t we all?) so it was a natural progression to combine these topics in a constructive way.

For whom was the book written—did you have a particular audience in mind?

As I mention in the text itself, it is written for those who may be believers in Christianity and the supernatural, but who also hold the sciences in high regard. Unfortunately the conversation in many fields of religion and the sciences divides people into those that hold to science or those that hold to the supernatural. There is a middle ground that may be attained. That is probably my target audience, but it is really my hope that it appeals to a broader reading group, as it presents connections between the ancient and the modern. Still, the conclusions one draws still are somewhat open-ended in large part because the science itself is not conclusive. The interesting thing about the science and religion dialogue is that often the final conclusions are open, and philosophy still becomes the lens through which one makes one's own decisions.

What about your own background led you to the writing of this book?

My undergraduate degree is in electrical engineering, and from a young age I had a great interest in the sciences. Although I shifted my program of study to religious topics, that love for the sciences has not disappeared. Throughout my studies, I have found myself torn between many different areas of research and this interdisciplinary interest lent itself well to this project. My Greek heritage also played a role in specifically choosing Evagrius to study. My educational background is reflected in the diversity of the text, so in some ways the text is a reflection of me.

Were there any surprises you discovered in your writing?            

Yes and no. When I undertake a project that puts different voices in dialogue, I am trusting that in the end I do find a common link in the conclusions. It is sort of a “faith seeking understanding,” so I suppose Anselm would be proud. In that sense there are always surprises, as I take a line of thought and let the conclusions and connections emerge for me. In another sense, the surprises appeared more in the process of research leading up to the text. Pierre Hadot was a recommended author, and his work was a pleasant surprise. For anyone looking at ancient philosophy/theology I think he is an essential source.

Are there similar books out there, and if so, how is yours different?

That is a tough question. When looking at the combination of patristics/eastern orthodoxy and science the work of Alexei Nesteruk is similar in that he is one of the few authors that is doing religion and science work in an Orthodox context that isn’t focused on the environment. In addition, a volume co-edited by Gayle Woloschak is due out this fall: Science and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

From the perspective of Orthodoxy and psychotherapy, books by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos (Orthodox Psychotherapy) and Archbishop Chrysostomos (A Guide to Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science, Theology, and Spiritual Practice Behind It and Its Clinical Applications) are useful texts, both of which I reference in my own book.

To answer the question, what makes my text different is that it engages authors in cognitive science within the religion and science dialogue, and uses Paul Ricoeur as a bridge. The combination is unique to my knowledge, and brings together patristic thought, philosophical theology and the cognitive sciences and melds East and West together in ways that are typically not explored. The religion and science dialogue does not engage patristic thought often, so this alone makes it unique.

Sum up the key ideas and insights of Evagrius Ponticus and Cognitive Science: A Look at Moral Evil and the Thoughts:

I think the blurb on the back cover may say it concisely, so allow me to quote it here:
This study puts the thought of Evagrius Ponticus, a fourth-century theologian, into dialogue with modern cognitive science in regard to the topic of evil, specifically moral evil. Evagrius, in his writings about prayer and the ascetic life, addressed the struggle with personal moral evil in terms of the eight "thoughts" or "demons." These "thoughts" were transmitted by John Cassian to the Western church, and later recast by Gregory the Great as the Seven Deadly Sins. Though present understandings of evil appear to differ greatly from those of Evagrius, his wisdom concerning the battle against evil may prove to be of great help even today. Using the work of Pierre Hadot to recover Evagrius' context, and the work of Paul Ricoeur to discuss how we construct descriptions and myths of evil, Evagrius is brought into dialogue with the cognitive sciences. Using current research, especially the work of Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg, this study reveals the contemporary relevance of Evagrius' approach to combating evil. In addition, the interdisciplinary study of patristics and cognitive science opens the pathway to a better understanding between Christian tradition and the modern sciences.
With that said, the book is meant to show that the eight thoughts of Evagrius have relevance for today, while also showing that sin and evil can be connected both in theology and science. Still a lot of the questions are open, but the work of d’Aquili and Newberg give us an opportunity to explore further. The text also works as a nice summary of the eight thoughts, the work of Ricoeur on the symbols of evil, and on some of the cognitive science positions, so it is an introduction to a variety of authors that are not always at the fore of many people’s theology.

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