(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.
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.” 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.” 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.” 
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.” 
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.” 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. For Bartholomew, the inspiration for Christian earthkeeping is “human-centered, just as in fact all of creation is anthropocentric.” 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.” 
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.
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.
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.
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.
May we realize that they live not for us alone
but for themselves and for thee,
and that they love the sweetness of life.
-St. Basil, 4th Century
The largely unexamined view of creation that exists within much of Evangelicalism is that nonhuman creatures and the rest of creation do not have intrinsic value, but derive their value from human usage. This view towards creation goes hand in hand with traditional theism’s understanding of the dominion language of Genesis 1, and the hierarchical divides outlined in Part 2 of this series. In his book, For the Beauty of the Earth, Steven Bouma-Prediger examines seven realms of ecological thought on a continuum ranging from the “Conservation Movement” to the opposite end in the “Deep Ecology” movement (which we will look at another time). It is my presumption that the “Conservation Movement” is the prevailing position of Evangelicalism. It is also my presumption that faithfulness to God and to the earth requires Christianity to move beyond this realm of “Conservation,” the basic outline of which Bouma-Prediger states thusly:
“Nonhuman creatures do not have intrinsic value. Their value is derived exclusively from their usefulness for humans––trees are for lumber, water for human consumption, the prairie for grazing cattle. The natural world is valuable only as a means of serving human interests. The scope of what is morally considerable is relatively small––only humans count morally, and usually only humans here and now.” 
What are your thoughts and reactions to this position? Do you see it reflected within the Christian community today? Does this position seem too human-centered? Also, do you see it as a biblical position? The questions raised by this ethic are: What is the value of a tree? Of a wetland? A mountain? A spider? Do they have value? If so, how much value do they possess and at what point does the human community sacrifice its power for something nonhuman?
I purposefully made quite a jump from exploring the intrinsic value of nonhuman life to the competing interests between human and nonhuman life. That logical jump is firmly rooted within the anthropocentric view of creation espoused by the “Conservation Movement,” assuming that valuing nonhuman life is a slippery slope towards the impediment to human progress and growth.
When we begin to examine these questions from just outside of our traditional Western (and dualistic) worldviews, we can evaluate them in a new light. Recognizing the influence of modern science on the way we think, we often fail to process the individual entities listed above within their ecological contexts. They remain isolated and examined within the realm of substance. Stated another way, we fail to comprehend the relations that each of these entities engage in because we tend to extract individuals and valuate them apart from the community they exist in. John Cobb asserts that,
“The effort to study things in abstraction from their relations is based on a misunderstanding. This misunderstanding is that things exist as independent entities and only incedentally are related to one another. This is the misunderstanding that lies at the base of the materialistic view of nature (which is shared by both the dualistic and the materialistic worldviews).” 
Cobb joins in the critique of Western dualism and its difficulty in viewing things in relation to one another. The relational vision of all creation proposed here is what is precisely what is meant by the term ecology. Ecology deals explicitly with relationships within ecosystems. Everything is in relationship. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Once we remove objects, people, animals, or other components of creation from their relational context, we strip them of life. Relationship is the language of creation. Therefore, developing an ecological theology is in a sense, to borrow from St. Basil, part of enlarging our “sense of fellowship.” This requires a shift from our understanding of nature and creation as the backdrop for human history to an understanding of nature and creation as intimately and indispensably related to human history.
As we finish our look at this ecologically minded poem from St. Basil, his final stanza places an intrinsic value on the nonhuman community. His hope is wrapped up in a vision of an earth community that embraces all of life, eschews dominion as domination, and sees all of creation as possessing great worth because it was made by the hand of God. Animals, plants, and the earth exists not for humanity alone, but for all of life in a great web of relationship. Throughout history many prominent theological voices have proclaimed the beauty of creation as witness to God’s glory. This is not merely an aesthetic beauty experienced upon creation as it is pleasing to the human eye, but the inherent beauty in the systems and cycles of creation that occur in transcendence to human experience and participation. This is nothing new or radical. However, the implications of recapturing an inclusion of the greater earth community (human and nonhuman life) within our enlarged sense of fellowship requires a shift in not only our environmental ethics, but also our political ethics, and our economic ethics as well.
Our attendance to the world’s current environmental situation is deeply connected to both our theologies of creation and anthropology. These prophetic words of St. Basil that we have explored over the past three weeks speak arguably more loudly to us today than to their original audience. Over the past three weeks, Basil has been the avenue through which I have laid down some statements, ideas, and thoughts that I am currently seeking to work out and explore in my own personal academic and spiritual journey. I feel that these issues of ecology are deeply important to the Church today as it seeks to curate hope in a world desperately seeking purpose, community, and answers. They are also intimately tied to our views of God, the Incarnation, and the restoration we hope for in Jesus, which makes wrestling with an ecological theology even more important for us today.
Dialogue, feedback, criticism, and amens are welcomed and encouraged. Thanks for reading.
1. Bouma-Prediger, Steven. For the Beauty of the Earth: A Christian Vision for Creation Care, 2nd Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 128.
2. Cobb, John B. “Ecology, Science, and Religion: Toward a Postmodern Worldview,” in Readings in Ecology and Feminist Theology. Edited by Mary Heather MacKinnon and Moni McIntyre (Lanham: Sheed and Ward, 1995), 241.
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.
This second stanza from the poem of our Cappadocian father, St. Basil, is one of repentance, humility, and vision for a better reality. Before continuing the exegesis of St. Basil’s poem where I left off last week, I’d like to share a little bit of the perspectives from which I am writing. One of the major threads that has woven itself into our theology – and which I wish to unravel and deconstruct – is dualism. Its absorption into Christianity has much to do with our Western thought processes of either/or instead of being able to hold a both/and in tension and embrace mystery and paradox within our faith. The most prominent way in which dualism manifests itself is the separation between the spiritual and material. The blending of the spiritual and material to form the adam from the adama in Genesis 2 presents us with a wild pattern for creation that ultimately finds its culmination in the Incarnation. Secondly, our dualism also locks us into limited metaphors for God. None of our language for God is completely adequate, nor can our metaphors and images of God be taken literally in ways that bind God because they all break down at one point or another. Thirdly, because of this dualism, Christianity has prescribed an anthropocentrism that sharply divides between human and non-human based on an understanding of the imago Dei as located within the human soul and equated with rationality. Recognizing and breaking free from these dualistic tendencies allows us to enter into paradox in a way that enables us to see God, creation, and ourselves afresh–enabling us to see God in all people and in all things, and in ourselves as well.
Returning to St.Basil’s poem, we are confronted with the notion of the “high dominion of humankind.” Bound up in this language of Genesis 1 are the dual ideas of privileged relationship and tremendous responsibility. It’s striking to imagine what St. Basil meant by such ruthless cruelty in his pre-Industrial Age, fourth-century context while we read from our own twenty-first century era of ecological unrest and strife.
The first chapter of Genesis is our source for this dominion language.
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth. (Gen 1.27-28 NRSV)
This notion has been the justification for centuries of harm to the earth, to animals, and to other humans in the name of Christianity. The misinterpretation of this dominion language is a result of our previously mentioned dualism. “Dominion” has not been tempered by servanthood. Basil aptly laments that humanity actively silences the song, life, and fecundity of the earth, God’s creation. Dominion has been understood to mean ours for the taking, for our benefit, power to manipulate, absolute sovereignty over. While these concepts do speak to dominion, they fail to capture the fullness of dominion. They promote ownership without responsibility; leading without serving; consuming and not refilling. Those are not the traits of healthy, fulfilling relationships. Our understanding of dominion has been constructed outside of the Gospel. For God, dominion entailed not strength and power, but weakness and servanthood. It meant becoming human. The incarnation–the blending of the material and the spiritual says something about God, and it says something about the way in which we live our lives in reflection of God. A dominion that is not lived out through a servanthood that tracks with God the worth, value, and beauty of the creation is illegitimate and has failed to enter into the radical reversal of the Gospel: everyone and everything matters.
Our vision of dominion establishes a hierarchy from creation that denies that everyone and everything matters. It looks like this:
This hierarchy plays out in the following ways. Closeness to God is about spirituality, which means becoming less human and more divine so as to escape the physical obstructions that stand between us and God. God is understood to be intimately close to humans, but not intimately close to the rest of creation. Male is over and above female. Male and female both are over and above the animals. The feminist critique recognizes a line between Male and Female, denoting Female association with nature and maternal processes within non-human life, dividing the hierarchy between God and Male, and the rest of creation. Animals sit below humans. Lastly, the earth – consisting of all non-animal life – sits at the bottom of this hierarchy. With such sharp separations between humanity and the earth, and between the earth and God, we lose a sense of God within all of creation. Dualism yields separation, and separation results in enmity. This separation and enmity has caused us to remove God from the very foundational elements of creation, life, and sustainability: arable soil, adama. When we remove God from something or someone, it doesn’t matter what we do to it, or him, or her. Is God present in the dirt? Is God the dirt (which is different than asking “is the dirt God?”)? What are your reactions to these notions?
Is this observed hierarchy God’s construction? The biblical authors’ constructions? Genesis 3 is often appealed to as the source for this hierarchy vis-a-vis the fall, but here is the question we must ask ourselves: is this hierarchy prescriptive or descriptive. Is this the way things will be ordered in a fallen world in which sin is chief? Or is it a description of how humanity fails to live in proper relationship to one another, to God, and to creation, from which we strive to evolve?
Basil sees that the self-sustaining and self-regulating fecundity with which God has created is being systematically interrupted by dominion. Within the framework I have outlined, dominion and fellowship are in opposition. Our fellowship is limited by anthropocentrism, preventing us from seeing God alive and present within non-human creation. This desacralizes both human and non-human life, rendering us unable to see the thread of God stitching all of life together within creation’s interdependent ecosystems.
Given the global consequences of our disassociation with creation, removal of God from creation, and subsequent abuses of nature, it is our responsibility to reconcile dominion and fellowship if we wish to be faithful to the earth, to humanity, and to God. We must come to realize that there is no environmental injustice that is not also a social injustice, that is not also painful to God.
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.