TOWARD AN ECOLOGY OF TRANSFIGURATION: ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVES ON ENVIRONMENT, NATURE, AND CREATION
Edited by John Chryssavgis and Bruce V. Foltz
Published by Fordham University Press, $125 hardback, $35 paperback
Every year on or around Epiphany, a group of Eastern Orthodox Christian faithful from Denver forms a carpool caravan and drives three hours to the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass, Colo. They make this trek to bless the snowpack because they know that the spring melt will flow east and west down the Rockies to feed the life-giving streams and rivers of the lands below. It's a holy feast and a community celebration for the priest and parishioners who attend. They make an altar out of snow (with a few occasional snowballs tossed), and sometimes have to shout their prayers over the January winds that blow hard and icy on these high peaks.
It is common worldwide for Orthodox Christians to bless local lakes and rivers on this feast they call Theophany. They've been doing this for centuries, long before "green" was in. They do it because it simply makes sense in their Orthodox worldview, which sees a strong, Christ-healed connection between creation and the divine. Orthodox Christian theology embraces nature as a divinely written icon, an intricately crafted window to God.
In evaluating the place of Christian theology vis-à-vis the environment, critics and apologists both have tended to focus on Western theology and traditional interpretations of the creation story in Genesis. The broadest spectrum of Western Christianity has taken the creation component of their beliefs toward a relatively negative view of human nature, a material-spiritual dualism, and a somewhat irrational terror of paganism and pantheism. This has left Western Christianity stuck in a theological rut as adherents struggle to find an ideological foundation from which to participate in global efforts to heal creation. [my emphasis - Fr David]
This is starting to change, in part due to the worldwide spiritual leader of the Orthodox churches, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, archbishop of Constantinople. He is also known as the "Green Patriarch." Since his 1991 installation, Bartholomew has spoken loudly and clearly on the matter. He has even gone so far as to call global warming a sin.
In their introduction to Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation, editors John Chryssavgis and Bruce V. Foltz note that this book is the first substantial collection of essays to address environmental issues from an Orthodox Christian perspective. Inspired and supported by Bartholomew, Chryssavgis and Foltz have gathered a stellar collection of articles from Orthodox Christian scholars and philosophers.
The articles in this 508-page tome range widely from those that discuss complex theological ideas to those that share very accessible spiritual concepts. Readers who are completely unfamiliar with Eastern Christianity will want to scan the book to find the more accessible articles first.
Here's something to keep in mind when looking at environmental issues from the Orthodox Christian perspective: The concept of pantheism doesn't scare or inhibit Orthodox theologians nearly as much as it does Western religious leaders [my emphasis - Fr David]. In fact, many Orthodox thinkers heartily embrace pantheism's monotheistic cousin, panentheism.
This is explained most clearly in "Through Creation to the Creator," by noted Orthodox author Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia. He writes, "I cannot accept any worldview that identifies God with the universe, and for that reason I cannot be a pantheist. But I find no difficulty in endorsing panentheism -- that is to say, the position that affirms not 'God is everything and everything is God' but 'God is in everything and everything is in God.' God, in other words, is both immanent and transcendent: present in all things." [my emphasis]
In this compilation, readers learn that Orthodox theology describes God as the transcendent essence, but asserts that every particle (alive or inert) of the material world was created and is sustained by the divine energies of this transcendent, uncreated essence. Orthodox Christian leaders don't spend much time doctrinally arming their flocks against the evils of pantheism because they don't think that creation is easily confused with God the transcendent creator. Here's a metaphor: We can enjoy the warm rays of the sun and know that it sustains life, but a reasonable person would never confuse a warm rock or tree for the sun.
The Orthodox faithful also believe that because Christ the Word, who is Creator and Logos, took on a material form to redeem creation, every material thing has a deep inner meaning (logoi) that reflects the word of God for those who seek divine wisdom. For this reason, Genesis is always read through the lens of the New Testament. The Orthodox faithful believe that when Jesus stepped into the Jordan River, all of creation was sanctified. This includes humanity.
The Orthodox view of humanity and our place in creation could leave some conservative Western theologians aghast. In "Man and Cosmos in St. Maximus the Confessor," Andrew Louth explains the concept of deification or theosis. Put simply, theosis is the process of a person participating so deeply in God that he or she unites with God. St. Maximus believed that because we were created in God's image and redeemed by Christ's human suffering, humanity now has an unlimited ability to participate in the divine.
This belief might lead to human arrogance and a true exploitation of nature if it weren't balanced by another Orthodox ideal, kenoticism, which is a self-emptying, Christ-like love. Jesus, the paradigm for kenoticism, made himself a servant for the sake of our suffering creation.
What does scare Orthodox theologians is dualism. Orthodox teachers and theologians have railed for centuries against what they believe to be the errors of Augustine, his successors and dualistic Western philosophers.
This is addressed very nicely in Jurretta Jordan Heckscher's contribution, " 'A "Tradition" That Never Existed': Orthodox Christianity and the Failure of Environmental History." She argues that traditional critiques of Christianity and environmentalism fail to take Orthodox theological perspectives into account. She notes this was especially true of Lynn White Jr.'s widely disseminated 1967 article, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," published in the journal Science.
Heckscher says White's article was most damaging because it helped convince academics of a "particular, and particularly pernicious, impact of Christian belief on the natural world." White's famous critique argued that Christianity established a dualism of humanity and nature, and set humans up as rulers and exploiters of nature. He actually noted in his analysis that the Eastern Christian view was different, but did not bother to investigate further. Heckscher laments that White's version of the Christian vision of nature is now accepted in academia and has "become the story accepted by the general public also."
Heckscher says the dualism that underlies so much of Western thought is impossible in the Eastern Orthodox worldview and suggests that revisiting our shared history could lead all of Christianity to new thinking and action about the environment. She reminds us that many Eastern theological ideas are "very much a part of the intellectual heritage of the Western world." Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration will help Christians learn to care for nature, God's divinely made icon, with a unified voice.
[Melissa Jones is an adjunct professor of religious studies at Brandman University in Irvine, Calif. Her doctoral studies examined the influence of Augustine on Russian Orthodox thought.]
Fr Georges Florovsky once said that Eastern Orthodox Tradition and Roman Catholic Tradition are not two tradition but two versions of the same Tradition that have become opaque to each other. Nevertheless, he said, they belong to each other.
For a very long time now, I have never given a western, Latin view on any theological subject without bringing in an Orthodox perspective; and, in general, I have found each point of view as shedding light on the other, as you would expect if Fr Georges Florovsky is correct. Even when teaching young people, they have often heard Orthodox teaching, without me saying "St Gregory Palamas says this," or, "St Gregory of Nyssa says that." It normally just fits together, and the differences between Latins and Greeks are those between theologians sharing the same faith, but who have lived different histories. I once confessed to a Russian Orthodox archimandrite friend of mine that I believe that even where we differ most profoundly and bitterly, it has more the character of a domestic family quarrel, one that we will eventually resolve by recourse to our common Tradition, and seems to me to be different in kind from our disagreement with Protestants on the Real Presence in the Eucharist.
In this same direction, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev and the Moscow Patriarch suggested to the Pope Benedict - and I am sure that Pope Francis concurs - that we shelve our differences for the time being and, leaving them unresolved for now, concentrate on winning back a secular Europe to the Faith, joining our efforts in projecting our Christian faith to a western world (including Russia) that has, quite simply, forgotten or rejected the faith that formed it. This means looking for common ground so that we may act together; and this implies kicking the habit of sniping at each other.
We belong to the same basic Tradition, and dualism has been a persistent heresy in both East and West, with Bogumils and Albigensians and other groups down the ages, on both sides of the frontier, which were opposed by the Catholic and Orthodox establishments. Nevertheless, dualism influenced even orthodox Orthodox and orthodox Catholics. Moreover, there was another kind of "dualism" in Catholic neo-thomism in the post-Tridentine Catholic Church which made "nature" and "supernature" into two mutually watertight levels of being, where massive changes at one level could take place with little or no change on the other. This was not according to Tradition and was opposed by what has come to be called "theologie nouvelle" group that had a major influence on Vatican II and has given us two popes.
The classical position of the Catholic Church on the relationship between God and his creation is expressed in Aristotelian terms by St Thomas Aquinas: God is "Ipsum Esse Subsistens". "Esse" means "act of existing" and is a verb. "Ens" is "being"
as a noun. Every "ens" exists because it receives its being from God: God is the Act by which everything exists; He is the act of being by which everything is an "ens". Every "ens" receives its act of existing from God, who is thus the source of everything and the source of the meaning of everything.
Let me get off my high philosophical horse and listen to what R, R.Tolkien has to say. Joseph Pearce summarizes Tolkien's thought:
Since we are made in the image of God and since we know that God is the Creator, it follows that our creativity is the expression of the imageness of God in us. As such, all myths, as the product of human creativity, contain splintered fragments of the one true light that comes from God. Far from being lies they are a means of gaining an inkling of the deep truths of metaphysical reality. God is the Creator, the only being able to make things from nothing, whereas we are sub-creators, beings made in God's creative image who are able to partake of his creative gift by making new things from other things that already exist. Put simply, we tell our stories with words, God tells his story with history. The fact that facts serve the truth is another way of saying that Providence prevails. In essence, Tolkien believed that Christianity is the "true myth," the myth that really happened. It is the archetypal myth that makes sense of all the others. It is the Myth to which all other myths are in some way a reflection, a myth that works in the same way as all the others except that it exists in the realm of fact as well as in the realm of truth.
For Tolkien the pagan myths — far from being lies — were in fact God expressing himself through the minds of poets, using the images of their "mythopoeia" to reveal fragments of his eternal truth. Most astonishing of all, Tolkien maintained that Christianity was exactly the same except for the enormous difference that the poet who invented it was God himself, and the images he used were real men and actual history.
Hence, just as Tolkien is nowhere in the Lord of the Rings, in the sense that he is not a part of that novel, yet everywhere, in the sense that it is the product of his pen; so God is nowhere in this world in that he is not part of any scientific process, and everywhere because everything in the world, including the scientific and historical processes, is his creation and is subject to his Providence.
When it is said that God is "Ipsum Esse Subsistens", it is a precise but Aristotelian way of saying that the whole of creation is sacred because it is only kept in existence by a direct act
of God. There is no profane area where God is absent: sacredness is at the root of everything that is, both in nature and history. That means that Divine Love is at the root of everything. Mother Julian of Norwich put it this way:
In this Revelation, he showed me something else, a tiny thing, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of the hand, and round as a ball. I looked at it, puzzled, and thought, "What is it?"
The answer came, "It is everything that is made."
I wondered how it could survive. It was so small that I expected it to shrivel up and disappear.
Then I was answered, "It exists now and always because God loves it." Thus I understood that everything exists through the love of God.
In this small thing I saw three truths: first, God made it; second, God loves it; and third, God looks after it. But what he really means to me as Maker, Keeper and Lover, I cannot tell. (Revelations of Divine Love, ch. 5)
There is no sign of dualism in Mother Julian's revelation. Everything that exists is loved by God.
The result is that every place, every event in history, and every situation in our own lives, is filled with the presence of God. This realisation has had an enormous influence on western Catholic spirituality. For example, without it, the Jesuit order would never have come into existence; and there is absolutely nothing dualist about it. It is the starting point of Jean-Pierre de Caussade's spirituality, found in "Abandonment to Divine Providence". He writes:
The divine activity permeates the whole universe, it pervades every creature; wherever they are it is there; it goes before them, with them, and it follows them; all they have to do is to let the waves bear them on.
As God's will can be discerned at every moment and God is actively present in every moment, each moment is a kind of sacrament. The kind of life we are leading and our kind of present activity are of secondary importance: the big question is, are we doing what God wants us to do at that moment. As Tolkien says, facts must be subjected to truth and must express it; and truth is Divine Providence working through history, even through my particular history. Eastern Christianity puts it another way: Christian life is the product of the synergy between our will and that of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit that enables It is in this way that Mary the virgin could become Mother of God.
This is interpreted by Jean-Pierre de Caussade to mean that we must obey the will of God revealed in every moment, wherever we are, so that the Holy Spirit can enable us to be saints. He writes:
The order established by God and His divine will are the life of the soul no matter in what way they work, or are obeyed. Whatever connexion the divine will has with the mind, it nourishes the soul, and continually enlarges it by giving it what is best for it at every moment. It is neither one thing nor another which produces these happy effects, but what God has willed for each moment. What was best for the moment that has passed is so no longer because it is no longer the will of God which, becoming apparent through other circumstances, brings to light the duty of the present moment. It is this duty under whatever guise it presents itself which is precisely that which is the most sanctifying for the soul. If, by the divine will, it is a present duty to read, then reading will produce the destined effect in the soul. If it is the divine will that reading be relinquished for contemplation, then this will perform the work of God in the soul and reading would become useless and prejudicial. Should the divine will withdraw the soul from contemplation for the hearing of confessions, etc., and that even for some considerable time, this duty becomes the means of uniting the soul with Jesus Christ and all the sweetness of contemplation would only serve to destroy this union. Our moments are made fruitful by our fulfilment of the will of God. This is presented to us in countless different ways by the present duty which forms, increases, and consummates in us the new man until we attain the plenitude destined for us by the divine wisdom. This mysterious attainment of the age of Jesus Christ in our souls is the end ordained by God and the fruit of His grace and of His divine goodness.
This ability to find God fully active is every situation and to sense God's call when confronted with any problem, however secular it may seem, is the reason why Gerard Manley Hopkins could write poetry and Teilhard de Chardin study and investigate science with a sense of wonder and adoration. It is also the reason why Father Damian went to live in a leper colony and Catholic Sisters of Mercy stunned English Anglicans and German Lutherans by their work with wounded soldiers in the Crimean War, so much so that both Anglicans and Lutherans founded their own "Sisters of Mercy" and even their foes, the Russians, were later inspired to found a community of "Sisters of Mercy", thanks to the Royal Martyr, St Elizabeth Romanov; and this tradition lives on in Minsk and the Ukraine. It is all down to "Ipsum Esse Subsistens". According to Josef Pieper, the German Catholic philosopher, Communism didn't take root in the West because Christians were already trying to tackle the social problems of ignorance and poverty with various levels of success, and this because of "Ipsum Esse Subsistens" and its consequences which had entered into the collective Christian psyche of Western Europe. He also said that Communism entered an Orthodox nation because it didn't take its non-dualism seriously enough. It concentrated on liturgy amidst the most dreadful poverty and suffering, as though "religion" has nothing to do with children dying in the street in sub-zero temperatures.
Having said that, I am now ready to comment on the above article. Firstly, I am totally in agreement that we must tackle the ecological problem together
and not separately. I am also sure that Orthodox theological insights will widen and deepen our western response: they have always helped me in my own studies. Unfortunately our western society has forgotten much of its rural past. I am a priest in the Peruvian Church and, when I was parish priest, we followed the custom to bless the sea on the feast of SS Peter and Paul, and they probably still do. Anglicans still have harvest festivals in England, but Catholics don't usually have them , perhaps because of a lack of a theological understanding. The Reformation concentrated on the salvation of individuals, and, in our arguments with them, we too tended to concentrate on this aspect of Christianity, to the detriment of a wider, more cosmic view of salvation which, however, we did not deny. The idea of creation as an icon of God's presence is a very good way of putting the Catholic - Orthodox Tradition, a sacramental view of reality which is expressed by St Thomas in Aristotelian language; but most of us are not Aristotelians any more, and will not understand what St Thomas is saying. Moreover, icons are becoming more and more understood and accepted.
I accept the following passage of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware is an excellent expression of Catholic/Orthodox Tradition. I wish I could have put it so well:
"I cannot accept any worldview that identifies God with the universe, and for that reason I cannot be a pantheist. But I find no difficulty in endorsing panentheism -- that is to say, the position that affirms not 'God is everything and everything is God' but 'God is in everything and everything is in God.' God, in other words, is both immanent and transcendent: present in all things."
This is ordinary Catholic and Orthodox teaching; and neither side will have any difficulty accepting it as a basis for discussion and collaboration. I am sure that we will learn a lot from the Orthodox; but many of them will be unable to learn from us while they look at us and our theology through spectacles constructed out of their prejudices. All that about our theology being "stuck in a theological rut as adherents struggle to find an ideological foundation from which to participate in global efforts to heal creation." is a load of cobblers. Our theology is in good shape, and the fears of pantheism have been expressed within a dialogue of theologians between people of opposite tendencies in our own church, but all will accept the religious sense of "Ipsum Esse Subsistens", even if they may have trouble with the philosophy.. That means there are other Catholic theologians who, just like their Orthodox colleagues, do not see any danger of pantheism.
It is typical of some Orthodox writing that they look for Catholic texts that they can disagree with, and then say these texts are typical of Roman Catholic theology, which shows that they don't know anything about Catholic theology except that they disagree with it.
Of course, we are only beginning our collaboration and hardly know each other yet. Perhaps working together will help heal our prejudices. A friend of mine spent some time working on the London buses. Many of his comrades were members of the National Front, a racist movement. However, although they were against "blacks" in general, they were not against the blacks that worked with them on the buses: those blacks were "good blacks". It did not occur to them that their own personal experience was at odds with their ideology.
The policy of the Patriarch of Moscow of putting collaboration before theological dialogue is probably right because the Church is held together by ecclesial charity, which is the outward manifestation of the presence of the Holy Spirit who is the true source of Christian unity. Theological agreement without a corresponding growth in this charity would achieve nothing and could do harm. When we really get to know each other by working together, we may stop seeing each others theology in caricature. Eventually, we may even love each other: then will be the time for theological agreement.
To end with a thought: the above article is published in the National Catholic reorter, a Catholic newspaper; and the book under review is published by Fordham, a Catholic university. I believe that this indicates the closeness we feel towards our Orthodox brother and sisters as we prepare to begin our campaign in favour of Mother Earth.
ON ORTHODOX - CATHOLIC RELATIONS
ON THE EASTWARD MOVEMENT OF WESTERN THEOLOGY
A MONASTERY IN ARGENTINA, "CRISTO ORANTE", WITH A STRONG INFLUENCE OF EASTERN SPIRITUALITY
ORTHODOX SISTERS OF MERCY IN MINSK