Apatheia and Climate Change
By Alfred Kentigern Siewers
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in his message to the conference on climate change in Durban, South Africa in November, made clear again the importance of Christians realizing their role in the Church in tending to Creation, and its relation to true charity for other human beings as well: “…we have already denounced ecological abuse as sin against God; we should recognize how it is also a crime against humanity. Blame is no solution. Instead, we must discover the resources that lie deep within the human spirit in order to develop a sense of urgency and resolve. The moral leadership that is required is a commitment to embrace and become the solutions that we advocate. We humbly invite all of you – whether delegates, politicians, activists, and individual citizens – to make a personal commitment to effect transformations in the many and minute details of daily life, especially in the way we deal with energy and relate to the poor.” His All Holiness called for moral leadership on a global level in response to climate change and its predicted serious impact on the poor, according to many scientists.
His All Holiness in his message at the start of the current liturgical year, on the Orthodox Day of the Protection of the Environment, (Sept. 1, the start of the year 7520 on the Byzantine calendar) provided further spiritual basis for Christian care for Creation: “May the Creator of the ‘very beautiful’ universe (Gen. 1.31) and the wonderful earthly ecosystem inspire all of us to treat all the elements of nature with affection, with a compassionate heart for all human beings, animals and plants, just as Abba Isaac the Syrian once replied to the question: ‘What is a merciful heart?’ ‘It is a heart burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy gripping his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or see any injury or slight sorrow in creation.’ (Ascetic Treatise 81) Through such compassion toward the natural creation we shall honor our divine dignity as stewards of creation, concerned with paternal love for all its elements, which will obey us when they discern our benevolent disposition as they realize their own commission to serve our needs.”
Many scientists and environmentalists have raised the alarm about the need for world action soon on reducing carbon emissions and the impact of global warming. But arguments, especially in America, and among American Orthodox Christians, continue about the nature of climate change, its origins, and the right role if any of governments and global agencies, as indicated by this exchange earlier this year between scientific “climate skeptics” and those scientists calling for quick global action, presented in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal, and summing up in short form many of the scientific issues.
The Very Rev. Michael Butler of St. Innocent the Apostle to America Church (OCA) in Ohio spoke of Orthodox approaches to the environment at the Acton Institute last year, a gathering of conservative thinkers, indicating how an Orthodox sense of the environmental importance of man’s “natural priesthood” in Creation is not confined to one part of any political spectrum.
Across the perspectives of views and efforts to understand the complexities of the earth’s global weather and environmental patterns, and the right role of governments in acting on environmental issues, Orthodox Christian asceticism provides all believers, especially at this time of Lent, with a virtue to rally our efforts to be better tenders of Creation, a virtue celebrated in the Lenten classic The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus, namely apatheia. It does not mean “apathy” in the modern sense, but a kind of grace-filled relational sense of desire, not based on lack, but on participation with the divine energies, and can be translated in terms of “love,” in the sense that His All Holiness quotes St. Isaac the Syrian. Rungs 27-29 of the “ladder” involve acquisition together of hesychia (“stillness)” and apatheia (“detachment” or “dispassion”). As we read this in relation to our own repentance and our relationship with our Lord, we also may take into account Christ’s saving work in all of Creation, as in Romans 1 and Ephesians 8. Apatheia suggests a deeper and more dynamic sense of psychosomatic equilibrium than materialistic concepts of sustainability alone, which can create a sense of merely sustaining some existing status quo of society.
The call to apatheia in our faith is a call to leave behind consumerist desire based on a sense of lack that objectifies others and our ecosystems, and instead to realize ourselves in a love of Christ and Creation, based in gratitude for all the gifts of God’s grace. In such asceticism, we shall also reduce our “carbon footprint” and support right directions for the environment in our regions, our nation, and the earth as a whole.
Alfred Kentigern Siewers is a member of the OFT Steering Committee and teaches and writes about medieval and environmental literature. His views are his own