St.Basil, Ecology, and Fellowship: Part 1

As part of my academic and spiritual pursuits, I am deeply interested in reconciling a care for creation within a faith tradition that has generally ventured beyond negligence and into the realm of disdain for nature.  There is much tension within popular Christianity regarding the ecological movement and the church’s involvement in environmental issues.  It is my goal to explore and wrestle with our understandings of scripture, our relation to creation, God’s relation to creation, and how the synthesis of the three influences our theology, actions, and our understanding of the Gospel in light of ecological concerns.

I’d like to commence my blogging on GCM with a poem by St. Basil that exudes a deep care for creation, both human and non-human. This poem will serve as a foundation for exploring our relationships to God, to creation, and to ourselves–the stuff of the Gospel.

O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things,our brothers the animals to whom thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us.

We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of humankind with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of travail.

May we realize that they live not for us alone but for themselves and for thee, and that they love the sweetness of life

At the heart of Basil’s first stanza is a deep reflection upon the ministry and work of Jesus.  An enlarged sense of fellowship marked the experience of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  The socio-economic and purity barriers that dominated Jesus’ first century Jewish experience in an occupied state are torn down by Jesus’ ethic of inclusion and “enlarged sense of fellowship.”  Nowhere else is this more richly displayed than in the healing stories and meal pericopes which exemplify non-judgment and inclusion into deep hospitality, communion, and life sharing.

In the second half of this first stanza, Basil humbly asserts the equality of life amongst human and non-human creatures.  He says that our home is their home, too.  We share the common space of the earth with a vast amount of non-human creatures.  Humanity inhabits less than 2% of the earth’s surface.  Considering that there are roughly 1.7 million identified differing species living on the planet (this number includes both animal and plant species), it could be more accurately said that they share the earth with us.

The relationships envisioned by this first part of St. Basil’s poem redefine conceptions of our separation from the rest of creation by challenging himself to not simply experience and benefit from creation, but to relate to it.  This can be conceived in terms of shifting our understandings of our relationships to all of life–human and non-human–away from I-It patterns and into an I-Thou paradigm.  This is the relational model of the Gospel.

If we can humbly redefine our place within the created order (read: rethink our understanding of what dominion means in terms of theology and praxis; more on this next week) to that of sisters and brothers, servants and keepers, shepherds and shepherdesses, then does our call to love our neighbors extend to the broader earth community? Through this we can image God in the reconciliation of all things spoken of in the rich Colossian poem (1:15-29).

We’ll continue with St. Basil’s poem next week.


3 Comments on “St.Basil, Ecology, and Fellowship: Part 1”

  1. Philip Johnson says:

    Michael, I appreciate the good spirit and intent of your blog about animals and the creation viewed in a positive theological and ethical light. However, at the risk of being a mild wet blanket, I have to disappoint you somewhat concerning the prayer being sourced in St Basil of Caesarea. This “prayer” is widely cited on the net and in books and periodicals and invariably most say that it comes from St Basil’s Liturgy and that the Russian Orthodox Church uses this Liturgy including the prayer. The fact of the matter is that no such prayer exists in the Greek, Russian or Coptic versions of the Liturgy, nor does the prayer come from any of the extant commentaries, sermons or letters by St Basil. The prayer is something of a bibliographical “ghost” because nobody bothers to supply an original source or English translation from a scholarly source. Indeed a few scholars reproduce this (e.g. Laura Yordy) and some rely on the quote gained from Jon Wynne-Tyson’s book The Extended Circle (page 9) but Wynne-Tyson gives no source; others take it from Charles Niven’s 1967 book History of the Humane Movement. The prayer is a conflation of two different sources, one a prayer devised during WW1 about horses, and much of the text that is attributed to St Basil actually resembles a prayer that the liberal Protestant Walter Rauschenbusch composed in his 1910 book Prayers of the Social Awakening, page 47.

  2. Mr. Johnson,
    Thanks for the comments. A friend of mine wrote the post for discussion, just as you have done. Hopefully Peter will comment back with you about your concerns.

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