Orthodoxy and Ecological Problems
Orthodoxy and Ecological Problems: A Theological Approach
by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon
The ecological crisis is the most serious contemporary problem facing us. To some extent the Christian tradition bears responsibility for causing it; certainly the ecological crisis has important spiritual dimensions which need to be examined. The Orthodox theological tradition in particular has important things to say on this subject.
From a historical perspective biblical thought has a positive view of the natural world and of our human bodies. Thus creation initially was seen as good and the material world as worthy of survival. But in the first century Gnosticism distinguished between the material world, which is bad, and the true and real world, which is spiritual. This approach was adopted by Christian theologians such as Origen in the East and the Catechetical School of Alexandria in the Third Century, who stressed the spiritual significance of everything material. That is, everything material is a degradation of the original creation of God and meant simply to be a symbol of higher things. Origen influenced very much the Eastern and especially the monastic tradition.
In the West similar influences appeared. Great theologians such as St. Augustine made an impact on Western theology and on the Western Church. Augustine himself was influenced by Neoplatonism. His conviction was that what matters is the spirit and soul of the human being and that even in the Kingdom of God what will survive is the soul and not the body. He believed in the resurrection of the body but regard God’s Kingdom as consisting of bodies but of souls. When we move to the Middle Ages we find a more rationalistic approach to the world and to the human being in particular. In Scholastic theology the capacity of the human being to think is regarded as the imago Dei– the image of God– in human beings. Descartes, who was himself an Augustine monk, defined this rationalistic approach with his famous saying “cogito ergo sum” –I think, therefore I am. What matters in order to exist is to be capable of thinking. The material world is to be used by us in order to develop our spiritual and mental capabilities. Although the Enlightenment was accompanied by the development of a respect and love for nature, this did not involve regarding nature as having an intrinsic value in itself.
Protestantism, and especially the Puritans, made use of the first Genesis creation story to justify human domination of the natural world. The Calvinists did the same, and this has contributed to the contemporary view that human beings have the right to exploit natural resources. Protestantism has generally fostered individual enterprise and rights, utilitarianism and the pursuit of happiness (hedonism). This pursuit of happiness was even enshrined in the American constitution and became every individual’s entitlement. Thence nature becomes simply the raw material which we use to achieve this individual happiness. It is not difficult to see the domination of this ideal in our culture today, which is centered on offering the individual happiness, either spiritual or material.
From this it becomes clear that there are spiritual dimensions to the ecological problem which confronts us. Not only has Christian theology contributed to the emergence of the problem but it has given spiritual validation to its root cause.
The belief in human superiority received a blow from Darwinism when he proved that not only humans but also animals, although to a lesser degree, are capable of thinking. So if the human is the image of God he must be so due to other capabilities than his ability to think, and it is these capabilities which we must learn to value.
Another spiritual dimension which needs to be reassessed is the individual approach, the idea that each of us can be conceived of as individuals without relation to others or to the world. This idea that we can be isolated from our natural environment and conceived of as autonomous individuals must be eliminated, because it helped justify the treatment of nature which resulted in the ecological disaster. The human being is not an individual but a person, and there is a big difference. An individual is a single entity which can be conceived of in itself without reference to other entities. A person is a unique entity which cannot be conceived of without relation to other entities, not only other humans but to nature as a whole.
We do not have a body, we are bodies. We should relate to nature not as individuals standing separately but as partakers of nature. It is only by destroying this false individualism and replacing it with personhood, i.e. a sense of being in communion with nature, that we can hope to overcome our ecological problems.
Finally, we cannot disassociate our search for pleasure and happiness from the ecological disaster. We must learn not to view the world as a means to our individual happiness. The world is not there to satisfy our desires and offer us pleasure; it is there for a higher purpose.
How can Orthodoxy and Orthodox theology help to relate creatively these spiritual dimensions to the environmental crisis?
Orthodox theology, in essence, is the way the Greek Fathers understood, interpreted and presented the biblical faith which all Christians share, but it is also shaped by the experience and reality of the church. For Orthodoxy, Christian faith is not intellectual but is to be lived. This experience of Christian faith can only be found by one as a member of the Church; it is an ecclesial and communal experience and not an individualistic one.
The basic theological dimensions of Orthodoxy which relate to our ecological task are as follows:
1. The world has a beginning in a radical sense; it was created out of nothing, and is constantly threatened by the return to nothingness. It is not eternal, rather it is fragile, like a precious vase of crystal, and must be approached with reverence, fear and trembling.
2. This careful handling was entrusted by God to human beings, as distinct from all other beings and from angels. According to Patristic theology man was created, material and spirit, to be a microcosm of creation. Angels, being spiritual creations only, cannot bring the material world into contact with God. As the priests of creation we have the unique mission and great responsibility of uniting God and the material world. Our task is not simply to preserve creation but to purify it and elevate it to the level of divine existence. This act of elevation, the referring of creation to its creator; is the essence of our priesthood; thus creation is sanctified and partakes of the blessings that participating in divine life involves.
3. The salvation of human beings which is offered by and in Christ, is for us a cosmic event. Through human beings all creation will be saved. Christ not only saves us from ourselves, he offers the redemption of the whole of creation. The incarnation of the Son of God as man was nothing but assuming human nature, not to save man in his own right, but because it carries with it the rest of creation by implication.
4. The Eucharist characterizes Orthodox theology not so much as a mental discipline but as an experience. Ever since Saint Irenaeus it has been understood that the Eucharist is not simply a memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, but is a cosmic event involving the whole of creation. Bread and wine are not just symbolic elements linking the Church to the Last Supper but are representative of the material world and of creation. Equally, human beings, by participating in the Eucharist, participate in a redeemed material world. Thus the material world has its place in the Eucharistic experience and in the Kingdom of God. The Orthodox Christian, by constantly experiencing the Eucharist, affirms that the material world must survive and be redeemed from whatever prevents it from developing into a world which will unite finally with God.
5. The ascetic experience, as affirmed by the Orthodox Church, has unfortunately often been mistaken as a negative attitude to material creation. The ascetic is seen as one who depreciates or rejects the material world. This is a Neoplatonic way of thinking and is not typical of the true asceticism of the Church. The ascetic abstains from the material world not because he regards matter as inferior but because he respects matter very much and does not want to exploit it for individual pleasure. Another often forgotten dimension of the ascetic experience is that the true ascetic participates in the suffering of the whole of creation, even to the extent of weeping over the death of a bird or animal. This sensitivity towards nature is not negative, rather it reflects a very positive attitude towards nature resulting from love and respect for the material world.
Some Christian sects regard the material world as bad and therefore conclude that the sooner the ecological crisis destroys it the better. Others regard the material world as divine and believe that we need not worry about its welfare, but should respect and perhaps even worship it. I believe that as more and more people realize that for the sake of its survival we must not regard the world as bad, this paganistic approach will soon replace the first attitude, and there are many signs of this happening.
There is however a third alternative, which is to regard the material world as fragile and precious, and to regard human beings as having the responsibility of sanctifying and referring back to God his creation, so that it may live forever. This places the responsibility for solving the problem firmly on humans. While we can achieve nothing without God’s help, we cannot pass the environmental problem over to God and free ourselves from our responsibility.
While ethics and political legislation can offer a lot they are powerless without the participation of the people. If we want to solve the environmental crisis in a democratic way people must be persuaded to sacrifice many things and to a great extent this can only be done through the right ecclesiastical experience.
With specific regard to education, I would like to make the following points:
What we normally understand as education ñ scientific and technical knowledge, convincing people through ration and logic, etc. ñ though important, will not get us very far. I would like to propose education through worship. By this I mean the acquaintance of a human being from childhood with a holistic approach to reality involving all of creation. When a child goes to church (in spite of all the distracting noises it makes to disturb us adults) it is educated to regard the material world as part of its relationship with God. All senses participate in Orthodox worship, and unless we get acquainted with our relationship with God and the material world through our senses we can not hope to understand the significance of material creation.
The value of ascetic education should not be underestimated. For example, fasting is an educational process through which we learn not to regard the world as an unlimited resource to satisfy individual pleasure. The same is true of almsgiving, hospitality, etc. If people learn these values they will learn to solve the ecological problem.
We must teach ourselves and our children that we are members of a community which regards creation as Christ’s body.
Finally, education should involve creativity and culture. We must extend the Eucharistic experience to artistic activities and everyday life.
Such an education through involvement in the life of the Church will result not just in the preservation of creation, but in bringing forth all the possibilities for a world in which man will be in perfect communion with God.
The Most Reverend Metropolitan John of Pergamon was born in 1930. He studied at the Theological Schools of the Universities of Thessaloniki and Athens, and became a Doctor of Theology in 1965. He has taught Theology at a number of universities abroad, including fourteen years at the University of Glasgow. He has represented the Ecumenical Patriarchate on many international church bodies and at international academic conferences, and is the author of many scholarly studies in various languages. He was elected Metropolitan in 1986.