A Reflection by Alfred Kentigern Siewers*
“Christ is Risen!”
Orthodox Christians around the Earth look forward to chanting those ancient words in many languages at midnight services this weekend, as they have in past years for centuries with the light of their candles emanating from the miracle of the Holy Fire at Jerusalem and spreading around the globe.
In the sudden glow at midnight darkness we experience the wonder and power of life in God. We experience the mystery of time flowing backwards from the eschaton, in its intersection with eternity and its encounter with the everlasting, in the victory of the Cross, the empty tomb, the Harrowing of Hades, and the rescuing of Adam and Eve. In the movement of the crowd with candles around churches, on mountaintops and seashores, in deserts and forests, and in the canyons of cities, we glimpse passing generations of the Church together, moving across the past, and from the future, with the saints in His Kingdom.
Our celebration this year on April 15 itself will be a reminder of a different and otherworldly sense of time in the Orthodox calendar, with significance to the ways we encounter a Creation sanctified by the Incarnation and Resurrection of our Lord.
The Orthodox Church calendar starts September 1, commemorated as a special day to honor Creation by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and traditionally marking the start of the liturgical year. It was also the start of the year in the Orthodox Christian Roman Empire known as Byzantium in the West, the longest-lived Christian state. On the Byzantine calendar, which like the Jewish calendar calculated time from the Creation, this is the year 7520.
The Orthodox Paschal calendar, our liturgical year, and the mystery of the Resurrection amid springtime in North America, all remind us of the mystery of time. Indeed, one issue in discussions of the environment in America remains the mystery of the biblical account of Creation in relation to modern scientific chronology. Oftentimes in debates on the environment, secular environmentalists cite “anti-science” religious bias among Americans as a hindrance to progress on issues such as climate policy. They criticize the Genesis accounts of Creation in six days and the genealogies and histories unfolding from Adam and Eve to Christ and His Church. In contrast to Orthodox Jewish and traditional Byzantine (and for that matter Amish and some evangelical Protestant) “young earth” calendars, secular scientific accounts today would place us in the “billions and billions of years” range.
But to what extent is a secular scientific worldview necessary for addressing environmental issues? Can it even hinder doing so, given the past century of technological damage to the Earth?
Hieromonk Christian Damascene’s recent revised edition of Fr. Seraphim Rose’s popular Genesis Creation and Early Man raises such issues anew, setting forth patristic readings of the Genesis account. Not all Orthodox scholars agree with the Blessed Seraphim’s approach regarding the applicability of patristic views of Creation to issues of modern science. But, setting aside the controversy, let’s reflect briefly (at this time near Pascha) on how patristic readings of the Six Days of Creation and its aftermath testify to a distinctive Orthodox Christian tradition that encourages caring for the Earth, in a special and often unrecognized way, and in a different sense of temporality.
From an Orthodox perspective, there are advantages to the biblical view of time and space in terms of valuing nature. For one thing, the biblical genealogies linking the Creation to Christ and the founding of the Church involve us all in a personal sense of time, on a human scale of extended family, in a sense of Creation that also is more Earth-centered than many secular models. For another, Orthodox theology, in its teaching of the uncreated energies of God in Creation, and its liturgical and hesychastic tradition, provides a cosmic dynamic for the relationship of the Divine and man with Creation, one distinct in key respects from Protestant cosmologies of Creationism and Intelligent Design.
Yet once modern science shaped our modern Western emphasis on the “billions and billions” of years since the Big Bang, in a universe no longer centered on the Earth, nor a Creation that is a gift from God, the familial and direct connection to Creation evidenced in Orthodox readings of Genesis arguably became easier to lose. Thus, for example, the astrophysicist and atheist Stephen Hawking can argue easily today that human beings have wrecked the Earth and that we now must colonize other planets, in a kind of “disposable Earth” model, which echoes our consumer society’s approach to resources today.
Ironically, contemporary physics at the same time challenges the absolute time-grid of the modern materialistic view of the world. Concepts such as the Uncertainty Principle, quantum entanglement, and speculations about string theory and the “multiverse,” today suggest a more information- and energy-based sense of reality, rather than the objective and atomistic matter of classical physics, whose ghost still lingers in “scientistic” culture. This new “immaterial” sense of reality as communication is reminiscent of Orthodox cosmology of the uncreated energies or logoi. In addition, contemporary physics–together with renewed symbiotic insights into life in today’s biology, mind science, and environmental semiotics–bring into question certain basic assumptions about linear time in scientific materialism.
The Orthodox writer Philip Sherrard memorably critiqued the modern consensus on a massive linear time grid as essential to secular worldviews today. Meanwhile some physicists now even suggest that time may flow backward from the future, while environmental phenomenology highlights a “plexity of time” as a truer ecological sense of temporality than any linear grid.
In Orthodox tradition, patristic types of temporalities can be classified in four ways: 1. Human time (as in our modern “cell phone” time). 2. Natural time of the cycles of stars and seasons. 3. The created eternity of angels and demons. 4. The everlasting non-temporality of the Divine. All these senses of time and non-time are interwoven in Creation, not in an Augustinian “eternal present,” but in a kind of plexity, always reminding us and all Creation of our relationship with the Divine, and of the reality of memory in Orthodoxy’s sense of tradition itself. In such a “time weave,” at odds with the linear “objective” sense of time of modern scientific culture, the question of the mystery of the age of Creation becomes less important than our relation with God, and derivatively with His Creation.
The Fall according to patristic writers marked a fundamental change, perhaps in a contemporary sense analogous to switching on the power for The Matrix in the film of that name. It involved an objectifying of Earth and us of one another. And thus, the Blessed Seraphim argued, following the Church fathers, it brought a fundamental reordering of all things, including temporalities, beyond our ken. And even “new physics” suggests how the time of Creation could indeed be quite different from the linear picture that a scientistic culture has drawn of it in the past century.
How today as Orthodox Christians do we “cultivate” the restored Garden or Paradise bequeathed to us by our Lord, in the entering into of which we are aided by the intercessions of the Mother and Bride of God, the saints and the Church, and our own ascetic effort, by His grace? St. Basil the Great in his Hexameron identified the dominion over Creation given by God to Man with reason. But in Greek, logos or reason also means harmony, which suggests personal experience and mediation in love, not merely cognitive logic. At the intersection of the various patristic senses of time and non-time, man exercises such dominion by harmonizing or integrating those modes in a relationship of personhood in Christ, Who gives absolute value to all beings. Thus St. Isaac the Syrian wrote that grace-filled mercy “is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation…for every living thing.”
The Blessed Martyr Fr. Pavel Florensky wrote in his book The Pillar and Ground of the Truth that “Knowing is a real going of the knower out of himself, or (what is the same thing) a real going of what is known into the knower, a real unification of the knower and what is known.” He adds, “That is the fundamental and characteristic proposition of Russian, and in general, of all Eastern philosophy.” That proposition draws on Orthodox Christian theology.
Our tradition’s theology shows how personal relationship in Christ not only trumps time, but transforms our interactions with His Creation. It does so not in terms of neglect or abuse of Creation, but as a loving in-dwelling with Him on Earth as in Heaven, energized by God. Not knowing the day or time of His return, we know the importance of living His commandments in love for Him and our neighbor in our lives on Earth. That’s so regardless of what time it is, whether on our smart phones or on the linear scientistic matrices that would claim to find Paradise in cyberspace instead of in our Lord’s Creation.
*Alfred Kentigern Siewers is Web Editor of the OFT, and a teacher of 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. They do not necessarily represent official positions or unofficial views of OFT or other Church organizations.