Priests of Creation

(Posted by Peter Garcia)

For the past twenty years, Eastern Orthodoxy has been carving out a place for itself within the ecological movement. Its leaders and prominent theological voices are calling for great change within the way Christianity views humanity and the earth and the implications of the Created-creature divide.

Two themes show up a lot in modern Orthodox writings about the environment and humanity’s place within it. The first one is an understanding of the universe as a sacrament, and the second is an understanding of humanity as priests of creation.

Below is an excerpt from a paper I recently wrote in which I explored some of the theological themes of modern Eastern Orthodoxy that give it an ecological vision. This section addresses these two themes. What are your thoughts on the understanding of creation as a sacrament? What are its implications for daily life and for worship? Given that Evangelicalism contains zero to very little understanding of sacrament, are these themes helpful in propelling dominant Christianity into a more ecological theology?

If you are interested in what Eastern Orthodoxy has to say about these issues, look up the works of Elizabeth Theokritoff, John Zizioulas, John Chryssavgis, Kallistos Ware, and Patriarch Bartholomew I. I have been deeply impressed by these individuals. The love they have for God, humanity, and the creation is vibrant and expressed so poetically. We have much to learn from our Orthodox brothers and sisters.

Anthropocentrism: the problem or the solution?

One of the most central features of Christianity’s entrance into the ecological conversation is the examination of its anthropocentric cosmology. The anthropocentrism derived from Christian thought and tradition––a point of attack for Lynn White Jr.––is believed to drive a wedge between matter and spirit, support dualism, and embed a strongly hierarchical view of creation that situates humanity over and above all other life. This in turn instills a utilitarian approach towards the natural world, with little duty or responsibility to actively seek its benefit and sustenance.

However, Patriarch Bartholomew intentionally upholds and seeks to redeem anthropocentrism by appealing to humanity’s privileged relationship to God in creation. In a 2002 address, he told his listeners, “We believe that the human person constitutes the crown of creation,” and that, “We believe that the natural creation is a gift from God, entrusted to humanity as its governor, provider, steward, and priest,” appealing to the agrarian calling to work and preserve the creation.[1]

The metaphor of humanity as priest of creation, popular among Bartholomew, Chryssavgis, and Theokritoff, is prominently employed by John Zizioulas, who attempts to release the concept of ‘priesthood’ from the pejorative and instead infuse it with “the characteristic of ‘offering’ in the sense of opening up particular beings to a transcending relatedness with the ‘other’ – an idea more or less corresponding to that of love in its deepest sense.”[2] Here we are again drawn into the concept of creation as sacrament. In this framework, the created world and humanity are not in “opposition to each other, in antagonism, but in positive relatedness.”[3] Expanding on what it means for humanity to be priests of creation, Zizioulas offers that it begins with recognizing that “creation does not belong to us, but to God, who is its only ‘owner’. By so doing we believe that creation is brought into relation with God and not only is it treated with the reverence which befits what belongs to God, but it is also liberated from its natural limitations and transformed into a bearer of life.” [4]

Critiquing the assumption that God requires “human mediation in order to enjoy and love non-human creation, Crina Gschwandtner is “not as convinced as most other Orthodox writers that this notion of human priesthood of creation really relieves all the problems of anthropocentrism.” [5]

However, in spite of all the talk of anthropocentrism, Bartholomew does not feel that it is anthropocentrism which poses the greatest threat, but rather “anthropomonism, that is, the exclusive emphasis on and isolation of humanity at the expense and detriment of the natural environment,” precisely because “nature is related to people and people to nature.”[6] The deflection of pejorative connotations from anthropocentrism onto anthropomonism allows the preservation of anthropocentrism as a redemptive ideal to be upheld in the Orthodox tradition.[7] For Bartholomew, the inspiration for Christian earthkeeping is “human-centered, just as in fact all of creation is anthropocentric.”[8] He continues, appealing to Christian tradition, that “the world was created for the sake of humankind and that everything is regulated so as to contribute to our survival,” and where creation is out of step with humanity’s flourishing is evidence of “the consequence of our revolt against the harmony of God, which brought with it a partial revolt of nature against our rule over it.” [9]

Within Eastern Orthodoxy, however, regardless of one’s understanding of humanity’s status within the created order, it is crucial to hold the conviction that the entire world is a sacrament. This sacramental view of the material world leads one towards a life of asceticism, the praxis emerging from the embodiment of these perspectives. An “ascetic ethos” grounds Eastern Orthodoxy in its values, giving it the legs it needs to walk softly on the earth as it seeks to lead its faithful in the care of the earth.[10]

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1. John Chryssavgis, ed. Cosmic Grace + Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew I (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans), 313.

2. John Zizioulas, “Priest of Creation,” in Environmental Stewardship, ed. R.J. Berry (New York: T&T Clark International), 274.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., 289.

5. Crina Gschwandtner, “Orthodox ecological theology: Bartholomew I and Orthodox contributions to the ecological debate,” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 10, no. 2 (August 2010): 138.

6. Chryssavgis, Cosmic Grace + Humble Prayer, 19.

7. Ibid., 314. In the same 2002 address, Bartholomew stated that humanity “preferred to pursue independence, resulting in the creation of a new order and different pattern within the natural environment – commonly referred to as anthropocentrism, but more properly identified as anthropomonism.”

8. Chryssavgis, Cosmic Grace + Humble Prayer, 251.

9. Ibid.

10. Chryssavgis, Cosmic Grace + Humble Prayer, 45-47. Patriarch Bartholomew lists an ascetic ethos alongside a eucharistic ethos and a liturgical ethos as three pillars that uphold the ecological vision of Orthodox faith and practice.