Orthodoxy, Hierarchy, Ecology: A Reflection

By Alfred Kentigern Siewers*

It’s often assumed that, because Orthodox Christianity is a traditional faith, it must be conservative in a current American political sense, and sometimes then that its adherents as conservatives, in that current American political culture, must be hostile to environmentalism.

Of course it’s understood that concern for what are now called environmental causes has been in the past a bipartisan affair in America. For example, two key figures in governmental environmental programs, Pres. Theodore Roosevelt (the key political leader in the National Parks movement) and Pres. Richard Nixon (founder of the Environmental Protection Agency) were Republican. Democrats since the 1960s have often led environmental efforts.

But confusion in the political terminology can cloud the relation between a traditional way of life and outlook, as found in Orthodox Christianity, and approaches to environmental issues (in which there is no requirement to have any kind of lockstep view anyway, with quite a spectrum of views existing among American Orthodox).

Current conservatism often looks with suspicion on environmentalism as a kind of secular liberal ideology, regardless of whether it’s practiced by Democrats or Republicans. Environmentalists often view conservatives with suspicion, considering conservative Christian Americans in particular likely to be opponents. Meanwhile the older term “conservationism” itself has become ambiguous (technically being in opposition to “preservationism” as understood in Environmental Studies today), and “environmentalism” arguably has become harder to define.

The University of Virginia moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s new book The Righteous Mind (summarized here in the British magazine Prospect) offers a moral perspective on the tags “liberal” and “conservative” in the U.S. today.  It may help to explain from an American cultural viewpoint why Orthodox Christianity provides a unique basis for approaching environmental issues on a different basis. Haidt, who self-identifies as liberal, argues that those like himself often address two moral dimensions: Suffering and fairness. He says that ignored in that spectrum are additional moral dimensions that engage conservatives beyond liberal concerns: Community (or “in-group loyalty”), authority, and the sacred.

Yet all five of those moral dimensions can be seen as of concern to Orthodox Christian theology in one form or another. In fact, the Orthodox understanding of hierarchy, as found in the patristic writings attributed to St. Dionysius the Areopagite, perhaps can help in translating environmental issues among the binaries of liberal and conservative cultural perspectives today.

The Christian Dionysian writings, which emphasized an apophatic theology of process rather than essentialism, coined the spiritual term hierarchy, in fact. Yet they did so in a different way than the term is often used today, when it often is understood outside Orthodoxy as a code word for oppression or repression of various types.

Rather, St. Dionysius wrote of hierarchy as a web of energy, in which any being within the ranks of hierarchies enjoyed a direct personal relationship to God, through Christ’s incarnation and the uncreated energies or willings of God in Creation, as well as through the ranks of angels and intercessors and the Church.

This emphasis on direct personal relationship in energy that is grace, together with a sense of an interlocking web of life spanning with dynamic orderliness the seen and the unseen (echoed in the inter-generational Orthodox sense of tradition), provides an especially dynamic sense of both hierarchy and interwoven lives. It can help us to appreciate at a much deeper spiritual level how Haidt’s “moral dimensions, across the spectrum, can relate to environmental concerns.

Attunement to suffering or harm, and the need to ameliorate the sufferings of others; the need to recognize fairly the absolute value of all persons and indeed all Creation; focus on the importance of obligations to community (from the local to Creation at large); appreciation for the authority of contexts larger than ourselves (rather than trying to play God with Creation); respect for the mystery of the sacredness of God’s grace and theophanies in His Creation—these all flow from the ancient Christian sense of hierarchy, which helps overcome the limitations of “conservative” and “liberal” pigeonholes in contemporary U.S. discussions of the environment.

This sense of dynamic energies in hierarchy, as flowing through the human and the non-human, also engages one way of defining the modern word “ecology” (based on its Greek etymological roots) as “the story of home,” or the living story of community in whose energies and logoi (words or harmonies of God) we all engage. As St. Nikolai Velimirovich noted, the gospel’s Logos is the “moral of all stories,” including all the stories of our lives, which we weave every day upon the Earth in both material and immaterial forms.

The etymological roots of “hierarchy” in Greek (involving a sense of high priestly rule) themselves evoke the role of human beings as not so much stewards but transformative priests of Creation through grace and Christ’s Incarnation. And the term “Creation” or ktsis, with its meanings of gift in a personal yet hierarchical relationship of God and man, can help us engage with renewed focus on helping to heal as Christians the desecration of that gift by fallen men, just as we would work to restore and safe-keep the sanctuary of a temple devoted to the worship of God. Orthodox theology thus helps encourage a sense of dynamic balance in life, as on a deeper level in ascesis and hesychasm, based in God’s uncreated energies rather than any static materialism. This in turn encourages a care for Creation not based in sustainability of a status quo, or a chiliastic vision based upon it, but upon St. Isaac the Syrian’s definition of mercy as “the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation…for every living thing.”

*Alfred Kentigern Siewers is a Steering Committee Member of the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration and its Web Editor, who teaches and researches medieval and environmental literature. His views are his own.

This and other OFT blog posts represent personal reflections or links of information on Orthodoxy and the environment, which do not necessarily represent any official position or views of OFT or other Church organizations.