Christian Books

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Evagrius Ponticus and Cognitive Science by George Tsakiridis

Evagrius Ponticus and Cognitive Science: A Look at Moral Evil and the Thoughts
George Tsakiridis
Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010
124 pages

Who might this book interest? While the author desires to address a broad audience of devout believers with doubts about the Christian life, this work is most applicable to psychologists and spiritual directors as well as those interested in a specialized study of Evagrius Ponticus’, a fourth century Patristic Father, work in relation to current cognitive science.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Quick Summary: Dr. George Tsakiridis wrote this work as his doctoral dissertation at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  He is currently an Assistant Professor of Religion at South Dakota State University and a faculty member of the Christ School of Theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.  His work is a creative assemblage of the Patristic spirituality of Evagrius Ponticus and cognitive science with a hint of Ricoeurian philosophy for additional seasoning.  For the most part, it reads in a fairly simple, straightforward way, especially for having been a dissertation.

The obvious question for most is, “Who is Evagrius Ponticus?”  He was born in 345 A.D. in the Roman province of Pontus.  He became an Eastern Patristic Father, who was trained by the Cappadocian Fathers.  After joining Gregory of Nazianzus in Constantinople, he fell to temptation due to his own vanity and a developing attraction to a married woman.  During this trial, he had a vision which made him leave for Jerusalem and experienced a later sickness which sent him to the Egyptian desert.  Evagrius was a highly intelligent and prolific author on the Christian spiritual life.  Unfortunately, he endorsed doctrines of the Early Church Father, Origin, which resulted in his later being declared a heretic.  Regardless, Evagrius' influence is widely seen in later Early Church Fathers, but he is often not mentioned because of his condemnation as a heretic.

Tsakiridis describes his book, “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” (  This is an accurate, succinct description of this work.  In reading it, I felt that he provided a fair, well-balanced evaluation of the parallels between Evagrius’ spirituality and the various works consulted.  The author conceives of this work as an apologetic for the Christian life, and I think that he generally provides a competent effort.

With great insight, Evagrius provides a model of the Christian journey which moves from outward spiritual disciplines to inward contemplative prayer.  All along this journey, believers are assaulted by demonic thoughts which must be fought against and defeated.  Tsakiridis’ work shows the parallels of Evagrius’ model of the spiritual journey and warfare with evil with the current discoveries of cognitive science.

Evangelical Assessment: A few of comments are in order here: a criticism, a compliment, and an observation.  First, Tsakiridis seems completely unaware of Evangelicalism’s re-appropriation of the Early Church Fathers.  This has been going on for over a decade and is especially found in the theological and spiritual works of Thomas Oden and Robert Webber.  Oden has done extensive work in the psychological and pastoral appropriation of the Patristics.  At times, I found it to be an amazingly annoying oversight and felt that it would have complimented his work. 

Second, it is obvious that Tsakiridis possesses a high regard for both prayer and Scripture while attempting to bridge the gap with cognitive science.  At times, I wondered if he was going to “give away the house” to cognitive science when reading certain of his lines of thinking, but when it was all said and done, his dialogue opened up the possibilities of orthodox Christian belief for the current age.  I applaud his restraint from making absolute pronouncements.  Like the evidence, he points out the possibilities without stating unqualified pronouncements.

Lastly, Evagrius Ponticus was not a figure that I was familiar with before reading Tsakiridis’ book.  Yet, I found myself repeatedly impressed by Evagrius’ depth of insight into the Christian spiritual journey and the foreshadowing of modern cognitive psychology.  This is certainly a case where his heretical teachings must be taken into account, evaluated, and assessed in light of his teachings on the Christian spiritual life, and while rejecting that which is heresy, we need to further extract the knowledge and insights from his work that apply to Christian spirituality and psychology.

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George Tsakiridis’ description of the book:

Tsakiridis, George. Evagrius Ponticus and Cognitive Science: A Look at Moral Evil and the Thoughts (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010).

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