CEE has significant untapped potential to produce innovative research on Big Questions at the interface of science and religion. Several disconnects contribute to this situation. There are shortfalls of crucial kinds of funding, as well as cultural factors that hinder Big Questions work. There is also a lack of intra-regional academic networks, hampering collaboration among the many like-minded scholars. This page explains the main obstacles to Big Questions research that the IRC has identified.
(a) Financial disconnects
CEE research and higher education institutions continue to be largely state-funded. Day-to-day funding is generally good, with sites, infrastructure, administration, and teaching costs satisfactorily provided for. Academic salaries are adequate, although there are issues regarding their competitiveness with Western European levels. The teaching and administrative components of higher education in CEE are largely sound.
The situation for research funding is more complex. Improvements in government research funding in the early twenty-first century have been unbalanced across disciplines, with science and technology receiving most attention. Funding for humanities research, including theology and philosophy, is more limited and has been especially scarce for postdoctoral researchers. With rare exceptions institutions in CEE to not offer dedicated junior research positions, and the lack of funding for discrete projects means that there are few postdoctoral positions associated with these institutions. Instead, young researchers typically support themselves solely through poorly remunerated teaching posts.
The absence of adequate postdoctoral research funding in CEE has been a consistent focus of attention both in survey responses, and in face-to-face meetings with CEE researchers. This absence puts young researchers at a severe disadvantage compared to their colleagues in the West, whose situation is already widely recognised to be difficult. Even those who are able to obtain university posts are hampered by heavy teaching loads, at a stage when their Western counterparts are consolidating their research profiles. As a result, some of the most talented persons leave the region or the research sector altogether.
A second financial disconnect, identified by the IRC, is that government funding tends not to reach research projects that address Big Questions or themes with a clear religious dimension generally. Those with an interest in carrying out work on religious themes report a perception that this is an abnormal or even an inappropriate focus for academic research. This means that there is a tendency for aspiring researchers to focus on other interests, which are more likely to help them to secure support for research, either through discrete grants or (more commonly) academic posts.
These disconnects interact. Early-career researchers frequently have research interests with a Big Questions connection. (Again, CEE contrasts sharply with Western Europe in that people generally report being more religious than their parents.) Because early-career researchers have to compete for scarce resources in an environment that does not have an established culture of Big Questions research, however, pursuing these interests represents a career risk. As a result, the existing research culture perpetuates itself.
The absence of grants for discrete research projects in CEE is not a result of these grants being unavailable in principle. In fact, most CEE countries are now eligible for European Research Council funding. However, their lack of experience in framing applications in the highly specific terms sought by the European Research Council (ERC) means that relatively few CEE applications are successful: since 2007 just 174 ERC grants have been made in CEE, compared to 9840 in non-CEE countries and 884 in the Netherlands alone. Most grants were in fields remote from Big Questions.Source: erc.europa.eu/projects-figures/facts-and-figures
It is sometimes possible for CEE researchers to attract funding for Big Questions work from local non-governmental research foundations: for example, the World Congress for Logic and Religion received a grant from the Foundation for Polish Science in 2017. However, since all private research foundations in the region were dissolved in the 1940s and prohibited until the 1990s, this option remains limited. A handful of CEE institutions have also succeeded in attracting grants from international research foundations for Big Questions work, like the Copernicus Center in Cracow or the European Humanities University in Vilnius. Limited awareness of international opportunities and limited experience in framing grant applications still constrain CEE institutions in this area, however.Source: erc.europa.eu/projects-figures/facts-and-figures
Finally, some institutions are developing capabilities in private fundraising. One of the best examples is the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, which now covers most of its costs this way, relying especially on the Ukrainian Greek Catholic diaspora in the United States and Canada. Such initiatives can offer opportunities for Big Questions research that would not otherwise be possible. But a culture of private donations to higher education is only just beginning to re-emerge in CEE, so this option still has limited scope for most institutions.
Generally, then, CEE institutions are satisfactorily funded so far as normal operating costs are concerned, but more patchily funded for research in particular at postdoctoral level, and poorly funded for research on Big Questions. In some ways this situation offers an opportunity. For it means that the background academic infrastructure is already in place, but that low-hanging fruit remain to be picked in terms of Big Questions research opportunities.
Two final funding disconnects deserve mention. CEE researchers persistently report a lack of funding for international collaboration. Many are keen to raise the profile of their institutions internationally and would like to bring major international thinkers to lecture and collaborate; many would also like to send their best young academics for temporary research stays elsewhere in CEE or in the West. Funding for this is seriously limited. Many CEE researchers also stress the need for more funding to cover translation and publication costs, both from CEE languages into English (or, less often, French or German) and vice versa.
Finally, little funding is available for public engagement. A small number of CEE institutions have accessed international funding for dissemination or have received it from municipal governments or government cultural funds. But these are the exception. This is important because the religious vitality of CEE is likely to make the region especially receptive to public engagement with Big Questions research. This is confirmed by the scale and popularity of the Copernicus Center’s annual festival in Cracow.
(b) Disconnects in academic culture
It is relatively unusual to find the same kind of conflict narratives about science and religion in CEE that are familiar in the North American context. On the one hand, anti-scientific views are rare among religious people in the region. The forms of Orthodox and Catholic Christianity that predominate in CEE have usually had a favourable view of natural science. This is also true of the traditional Lutheranism of the Baltic and the former East Germany and of both the Sunni and Shia Islam present in the Balkans and Azerbaijan. Virtually without exception, the clergy and religious thinkers with whom the IRC has spoken in CEE have had positive and open views about science and its relationship with religion.
On the other hand, straightforwardly anti-religious views are relatively uncommon among scientists and other scholars. A very intense conflict narrative was formerly promoted by the communist authorities as part of orthodox Marxist-Leninism, but that is now widely regarded as discredited. The “new atheism” of the UK and North America has had some influence in parts of CEE, but it remains marginal. Continuing high levels of religious belief and the role that church organisations often played in the anti-communist movements mean that religion is normally viewed with respect. This situation is somewhat different in the small number of countries with lower levels of religious observance, notably Estonia, Latvia and Czechia, but even here indifference to religion is much more common than hostility.
The key cultural disconnect in CEE is not, then, a conflict narrative. It is, rather, what might be called a separate spheres narrative. Although most citizens of CEE have a positive view of both religion and science, there is a tendency to regard these as distinct domains with nothing to say to one another: religion is traditional, private and subjective, and science is modern, public and objective. This separation leads to a tendency to regard Big Questions research as something approaching a category mistake. Some CEE scholars have told the IRC that Big Questions research can be seen as rather like writing poetry or autobiography: that is, as valuable, but as having no place in universities.
This disconnect has complex sources. In part it is a legacy of communism. As discussed above, the communist period saw the near-complete suppression of academic theology and the extirpation of religious thought from universities. Although CEE citizens now reject the anti-religious paradigms that originally motivated this suppression, it has nevertheless had the effect that most CEE people have no experience of academic engagement with questions of spiritual significance, and may be barely aware of it as a possibility. Religion survived through the communist period as something intensely private and personal. Religion thus experienced is not necessarily felt to be an obvious candidate for academic study.
This separate-spheres disconnect has been compounded by an association of Westernisation and secularisation. This association has old roots in CEE culture, and an opposition between Eastern spiritual depth versus Western technical sophistication is recognisable in the literatures of many CEE countries even in the nineteenth century. Since the fall of communism this association has re-emerged and now constitutes a major obstacle to Big Questions research. A perception that Western academia is secular and unconcerned with spiritual questions, coupled with an aspiration to emulate supposed Western standards and to integrate with international academia, creates a disincentive to engage with Big Questions work within CEE universities. While there is now growing awareness of the existence of distinguished and rigorous Western research on Big Questions, such as analytical theology, this is recent and mainly confined to religiously oriented institutions.
One result of this is a tendency to engage with Big Questions only in the format of historical scholarship: that is, considering how historical figures have answered these questions. A tendency towards circumscribing Big Questions work to exegetical or philological scholarship thus emerges. Willingness to consider how canonical philosophy or theology is relevant to original work on these questions is more limited, as is willingness to do fresh original work on them without direct historical reference points.
The separate-spheres narrative is the main academic disconnect that is special to Big Questions research. It is worth noting a second disconnect in academic culture that is relevant, though not peculiar to Big Questions research. This is the lag in the quantity of internationally influential research publications from CEE in relevant fields, compared to the West. In part this is the result of factors that operate in many parts of the world, such as Latin America or Asia, including limited funding, linguistic hurdles, and ongoing integration of local researchers into the international discussion.
A more CEE-specific factor is a research culture that until recently, has promoted quantity over quality of publications. As in the West, the research and higher education institutions in CEE reward researchers for producing publications. But in many countries, the systems for gauging quality have been inadequate, and this has resulted in a system that encourages researchers to bring out large numbers of underdeveloped papers. There are signs that this situation is improving, however, with CEE researchers like Mieszko Talasiewicz pressing for new quality-focused approaches to assessment.
(c) Network disconnects
The countries of CEE share important intellectual and religious heritages and are often subject to common influences today. However, the relative lack of intra-regional academic exchange often means that individuals or small groups of researchers are working in isolation from one another, and sometimes in ignorance of one another’s existence. The IRC team have thus become aware of the existence of patterns of work across the region, of which CEE scholars themselves may sometimes be unaware. One important impediment to Big Questions research in CEE is thus that Big Questions researchers are not collaborating with one another to the degree warranted by their common interests and approaches.
This disconnect has several sources. The historic academic networks in Central Europe, the Balkans and the Baltic were closely integrated with those of the German-speaking countries, and many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century CEE thinkers studied in German universities, like Edith Stein, Jan Patocka and Jan Łukaszewicz. The rise of the Nazi regime and then the Cold War destroyed these networks. During the communist period CEE states were encouraged to develop academic links with Russia, which have tended to atrophy since the fall of communism. Today there is a tendency to focus attention on developing links with Western countries, sometimes to the neglect of links within the region. Funding for large intra-regional academic events tends to be unavailable.
Historically there have also been linguistic difficulties. CEE has more than twenty official languages and many more unofficial ones, most of which are mutually unintelligible and some of which, like Estonian, Hungarian, Georgian and Azeri, are not Indo-European. Contrary to what might be expected, CEE citizens seldom learn other CEE languages in school. A sustained attempt was made during the communist period to impose Russian as a common second language for the region, but this attempt has been discontinued since the fall of communism. Until the rise of English in the last generation, CEE has thus lacked an academic lingua franca, hindering the development of a pan-regional academic culture.
There are thus important opportunities for the creation of powerful academic networks in CEE. Three potential networks are outlined here.
Analytical philosophy and theology. Analytical philosophy is likely to become the dominant kind of philosophy practiced in CEE over the next generation, but it remains uncertain what form it will take. There is much interest in the region in those strands of the analytical tradition that are more open to Big Questions research: Richard Swinburne, Peter van Inwagen and Alvin Plantinga are all admired figures in circles of younger CEE scholars. But there is also pressure to adopt a thoroughly secularised model of analytical philosophy, represented by figures like Daniel Dennett or AC Grayling. There is an important window of opportunity for funding bodies here: if they can create and support networks of analytical philosophers open to Big Questions research, they could decisively influence the character of analytical philosophy as it develops in the next generation. Some key individuals include Daniel Kodaj (Eötvös Loránd), Janko Necic (Belgrade), Slobodan Perovic (Belgrade), Alin Cucu (Romania), Bruno Mölder (Tartu) Heidy Meriste (Tartu) Stanislaw Ruczaj (Cracow), Vojko Strahovnik (Ljubljana), and Monika Walczak (Lublin). (for further information see the scholars in section 3.3 above).
Eastern Christianity. CEE is home several strands of Eastern Christianity, including several Orthodox Churches, the Greek Catholics and the Armenian Apostolic Church. These have their own traditions in Big Questions, which tend to be little known internationally. These traditions are however of immense richness and interest, tending to reject conflict narratives about science and religion and to emphasise the possibility of coexistence and cross-fertilisation between them. Since the fall of communism there has been increasing interest in these traditions in the region, and many CEE theologians and philosophers are seeking to draw on them as sources for original work on Big Questions. Work of this kind can generally only be done in CEE, where the necessary linguistic and historical expertise exists. Key researchers in this area include Diana Tsaghikyan (Yerevan), Nikoloz Aleksidze (Tbilisi Free University/Oxford), Jan Ciglenecki (Ljubljana), Borut Skodlar (Ljubljana), Ljubomir Maksimović (Belgrade), Bojana Pavlović (Belgrade) and Filep Ivanović (Podgorica).
Personalism and Lublin Thomism. During the communist period the Catholic intellectual tradition survived underground in CEE, or in the limited institutions in which it was allowed to continue openly. A unique strand of this tradition developed known as Lublin Thomism, which synthesised the phenomenological tradition of the region with Thomistic philosophy and theology. The best-known exponent of this was Karol Wotyła, later Pope John Paul II. Lublin Thomism is closely connected to Wotyła’s Christian personalism, a tradition that continues to be influential in intellectual circles in CEE today. Since the fall of communism, the Catholic tradition has flourished in the region, and there already exist quickly growing networks of thinkers workinging in these traditions, usually in Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, and the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Centres for this kind of work include the Ukrainian Catholic University (Lviv), the Centre for the Thought of John Paul II (Warsaw), the Thomistic Institute (Warsaw) and the Comenius University (Bratislava); the Pontifical Universities in Warsaw, Cracow and Lublin; and the Faculties of Catholic Theology in Prague, Ljubljana and Kaunas.