July 2010

‘Wisdom That Does Not Err’


At our Diocesan Life Conference I watched as people stopped to look at the art projects created by our children.  I heard people comment on this or that image, representation or text.  The art was prominently displayed in the main hallway off the hotel lobby, you couldn’t miss it.  Not everyone who stopped to check it out was from the conference, there was a wedding there that weekend and many of the wedding guests also stopped to look.  “Wow, look at this picture of Jesus made out of recycled material” a young man said to his girlfriend “I think he’d like that”.

The theme for the art, the essays, the orations, the sermons and indeed the whole conference was taken from Psalm 23[24]:1 – “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who live there.” It was about God’s proprietary right over everything and everyone. It was about our stewardship for God’s creation, for the earth and for everything in it, on it and beyond it.  Bishop Thomas spoke about our relationship with creation in sacramental terms as a place to experience God’s presence and grace.

Coming in the wake of the greatest manmade disaster in our country’s history, the ‘blow-out in the Gulf’, the conference theme should give us pause to consider just who we think we are, what we’re doing and for what.  As we survey the damage to the environment, wildlife, human livelihood with its long range consequences the implication should become clear that nature, along with humans, has rights. The whole affair should reminded us, yet again, that we are living in the midst of a global ecological crisis, largely of our own making, and one that has been with us for quite some time.

The conference theme makes it apparent that the protection of our planet should be evident in the message of the Church.  Unfortunately, theology has often isolated itself from reality making it difficult for the Church to respond effectively to the environmental crisis. What was once referred to as ‘the common good’ is beginning to be seen by some Church thinkers as no longer limited to the human, social, legal and political realm but extending to the totality of life on earth.  Contemporary Orthodox philosophers and theologians like John Chryssavgis, Elizabeth Theokritoff and Christopher Bender are helping guide the Church in this pragmatic thinking.

The enlightened way of seeing things calls for a sacramental understanding of the earth and her resources and justice for all her inhabitants - persons, animals and plants - and development of a spiritual relationship to matter. We must allow the planet to speak to us of God and, where we as a people have so altered it as to silence its teachings, we must restore its voice.

Nature has an integrity all its own, apart from human beings. Hopefully, the Church can help humanity recovery the aesthetic, sacramental and spiritual appreciation of God’s creation by integrating religious values into the environmental dialogue.  We may be at one of those crisis moments in human history, at a crossroads in time when we must make critical decisions and bring moral order to the public debate in ecology.  The Church can do this if she insists on a sacramental emphasis on the integrity of nature.

There is a link between ecology and theology. Up to now, the Church has been slow to focus on this. I’m not sure if the sixty Orthodox bishops who met for four days last month in New York to discuss the state of the Orthodox Church in North America addressed the current precarious position of humanity on our planet. Perhaps the oft rumored as upcoming ‘Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church’ – a modern ecumenical council of all the Orthodox of the world - plans to address the human created crisis of poverty, hunger, disease, famine and war along with the ecological crisis resulting from the rape and pillage of the planet, I hope so, and I hope the Church discovers how to bring the wealth of her long and glorious history to bear on the most central and pressing concerns of the day. If the Church can catch up, she’ll have much to contribute and she’ll do it from a different perspective. That’s important to know.

Historian Lynn White put the blame for the world’s environmental problems squarely at Christianity’s feet in an article published in Science magazine in 1967. In the article, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” White asserted that a marriage between a human-centered Christian theology deriving from the Middle Ages and Western expansionist goals had produced a ruthless attitude toward nature.  With all due deference to Dr. White, I believe the collusion predates the Middle Ages and is not limited to the West. 

For the Church, theological fundamentalism - holding fast to familiar theological approaches and formulas - will be a big obstacle in developing an Orthodox environmental theology. Theological fundamentalists refuse to grapple with the new questions that force theology to grow. They fail to reflect the breadth of the tradition. In contrast to the historic human-centered focus of Christian theology, an adequate theology of the environment understands justice, not only in human terms but of and for the whole earth.

Thankfully there are countless examples of patristic and medieval writings that provide resources for an environmental theology: the writings of Basil of Caesarea, of Augustine of Hippo, of Ephrem the Syrian, of Maximus the Confessor and Gregory Palamas for example show that we really have a treasure house in our tradition.  It’s all there at the center of our story. We only need to pull it out and convince skeptics that there is real substance to all of this.

These ‘patristic’ thinkers can provide a core discipline for environmental theology. To be ‘real’ and effective it also needs to include not only theology but science and economics, sociology, political science and other disciplines that get at the political issues and agendas swirling around environmental questions. A major task is growing in our understanding of the different ways that faith and science construe and interpret reality. We are conscious of the way that science transforms our universe, but we are less conscious of the way faith transforms it, the task of integrating faith and science gets harder as scholars become increasingly specialized.

There may be real reasons why our Church lags behind the secular world and even the rest of the Christian world when it comes to concern for the environment.  Here in America we represent a population that has only recently entered the middle class and is very involved in the consumptive culture. We also live in an increasingly religiously privatized America, so that even if people profess a religion, they are increasingly less likely to act in its name, making it harder for Orthodox Christians to mobilize around issues.  There is a perceived lack of support from bishops and priests for environmental studies and issues, which, if not coming from them will not make it into the pews. The urban, industrial and entrepreneurial base of the Orthodox population, shares fears that environmental legislation may threaten jobs and opportunities, we already see this in the ‘oil spill’ crisis.

Something so huge has happened the last 50 years on the environmental front that we haven’t yet absorbed the implications. The irony is that even as human beings recognize that we are only a part of nature, we are increasingly in control of the planet, either by commission or omission. We can create either a sign of promise, a sacramental world that expresses God’s propriety over all creatures or we can create a horror show.

The Church has the potential to become the storyteller of a new day.  We need to articulate an ethical paradigm that speaks of care for all creation. We may be at the front end of an ecological reformation. The eco-justice crisis, the link between environmental degradation and social injustice worldwide, might just emerge as the paramount problem of the 21st century; hopefully our Church will raise a loud and clear voice that contributes to making a real difference. 

One of our children recycled bits of paper, plastic, tin and other stuff into an Icon of Christ the Lord.  The atoms, the molecules the matter from which the Icon was created existed from the very beginning, as has the matter that constitutes us, and it will last forever.  “Wow, I think he’d like that”, said the young man.


“Two Trees did God place

in Paradise,

the Tree of Life

and that of Wisdom,

a pair of blessed fountains,

source of every good;

by means of this

glorious pair

the human person can become

the likeness of God,

endowed with immortal life

and wisdom that does not err.”

                   St. Ephrem the Syrian

‘Hymns on Paradise’ number 15


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