Skip to content. Skip to navigation
Personal tools
Sections

The Orthodox Church and the Environmental Movement

Document Actions

Dr. Elizabeth Theokritoff

The author. Dr. Elizabeth Theokritoff is an Orthodox theologian and writer from England.

The paper was originally written for the Syndesmos Orthodox Youth and Ecology Seminar, in Neamt, Romania, April 1994.

The engagement of the Orthodox Church with environmental issues must be one of the most positive things that has happened in the past few decades. It is something to be eagerly welcomed, not only because of the importance of these issues, but also because what we are seeing here is, potentially at least, very much a two-way process. Increased awareness of the crises facing our world challenges us to find new ways of living out our faith, and often reminds us painfully of how far our own example falls short of the faith we profess. It can take a voice from outside to jolt us into a fuller understanding of our own tradition, and we need to be open to such voices with great humility. But at the same time, the concerns of the environmental movement provide so many opportunities for a witness to our Orthodox faith, to the message of life and hope in the Saviour who so loved the world that He became part of His own creation. I want to look here at some of the areas in which, according to my limited experience, there seems potential for fruitful interaction between Orthodoxy and the environmental movement. These areas can be loosely gathered under four headings:

  1. Man and his environment - a spiritual problem,
  2. Do we need to save the earth?
  3. In a global village, who is my neighbour?
  4. A way forward - or a way back?

There is one point that must be made clear at the outset. The Church does not exist to serve secular ends, even the noblest of secular ends. It cannot serve as a vehicle for putting across the message of the environmental movement, or of any other movement. The Church will always have a different emphasis from any movement or pressure group in this world because it operates on a different scale - not just global, but cosmic. As citizens, many of us will agree that environmental concerns should be at the top of the social and political agenda. But we shall also understand that the Church can never make an issue such as protection of the environment, or social justice, central to its preaching: not because we can live according to the Gospel without these things, but because these are works which will be "added unto us" as we "seek first the Kingdom of Heaven". The importance of these things is incalculable, but it is derivative. For this reason, attempts within the Church to look deeply into our own tradition and see what it entails for our use of the material world are absolutely crucial. They must never be seen as a theological distraction from the "real" task of cleaning up pollution, starting recycling schemes and lobbying politicians to stop building yet more roads.

The urgency of the environmental problems must never be allowed to obscure the Church's cosmic perspective (correspondingly, it would be a cynical distortion to suggest that this cosmic perspective is trivialized when we worry about stopping air pollution from the local factory or using recycled paper). There is a potential danger in love and concern for the earth that we must guard against: even God's creation - that creation he looked upon, and saw that it was very good - risks becoming an idol if we cherish it and value it apart from Him. To quote from Alexander Schmemann:

"Man has loved the world, but as an end in itself and not as transparent to God ... The natural dependence of man upon the world was intended to be transformed constantly into communication with God in whom is all life ... When we see the world as an end in itself, everything becomes itself a value and consequently loses all value, because only in God is found the meaning (value) of everything, and the world is meaningful only when it is a 'sacrament' of God's presence ... The world of nature, cut off from the source of life, is a dying world."

(For the Life of the World, SVS Press, New York, 1973.)

Seen in this perspective, the struggle for the mere physical survival of this fallen world is a pointless exercise, a perpetuation of death. We save a species from extinction - but all the individuals of that species currently alive will be dead in a few years just the same, and the species itself may eventually become extinct anyway. For us, therefore, protection of the environment cannot be merely a desperate attempt to hang onto the status quo, to preserve at all costs a life which is by its nature transitory. No, our love for the frail things of God's material creation makes sense only as a sign - a sign that God comes into His world to give life and not death, and that our appointed task is to preach this good news to all creation. This vitally important difference of perspective should not lead us to be dismissive or suspicious of others who care deeply for the created world. Rather, it reminds us that their care and reverence needs to be taken a step further. It is precisely the Three Children who would not worship the creation rather than the Creator who gives us our model, crying out to the earth and the mountains, the plants, the seas and rivers, sea creatures and birds and all beasts, "All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord; sing and magnify Him forever".

1. Man and his environment - a spiritual problem

One of the great breakthroughs made by the environmental movement is the recognition that the roots of human destruction of the environment are to be sought not just in actions, but in our most deep-seated attitudes. Certainly, it is possible to look at the environmental crisis largely in utilitarian terms. The ozone hole brings increased risks of skin cancer, polluted rivers and dying fish threaten people's health and livelihood, the destruction of rain forests exacerbates the greenhouse effect as well as destroying many plant species that might prove to have medicinal value. But as one thinks seriously even just about man's needs, the basic requirements for survival - breathable air, drinkable water, non-toxic food - keep shading off into other needs, harder to analyze but no less real - for beauty, for space, for contact with the living world around us. And this is already to recognize that man is more than a statistical unit: his welfare cannot be reduced to economics and technology. It is not enough for him to keep alive by consuming the world around him: he needs a relationship with it that is not purely utilitarian and consumptive. It is this relationship that has gone drastically wrong in what are ironically called "developed" societies. Increasing numbers of people are drawn to the conclusion that our destruction of the environment is merely one symptom of a whole set of human attitudes to the rest of nature which are necessarily unsustainable because they are profoundly misguided. (Examples of such attitudes are the ideas that we can alter entire ecosystems with impunity, that the world has value only as "raw material" to be exploited for economic gain, or that a catastrophe for other species will leave us unaffected). And many go a step further to see in these attitudes a serious spiritual problem.

The mess we have made of the world, then, has forced on many people a recognition that we are not the all-powerful masters of the laws of nature: we are creatures, part of the created world, and we cannot treat the rest of the world as if it is our property to use however we like. A belated recognition, to put it in theological terms, that the promise "You shall not surely die ... you shall be gods," (Gen. 3:5) is a snare and a delusion. This would not have been a revelation to many people before the "Enlightenment" and the industrial revolution; but for the modern industrialized world, it is an amazing reversal. This is an opening which we must be prepared to seize, preaching the truth both of man's creatureliness, and of his unique God-given responsibility for the whole of material creation. One way that other Christians are trying to do this is by inventing new forms of worship which "affirm" material creation. I do not believe that we have any need to do this; but we do need to make an effort to understand, and to show to others, the full implications of the way that our Church tradition already experiences the world as a vehicle for God's grace, transparent to Him.

The quest for a new environment ethic, with its radical rethinking of man's place in the world, has the potential to be truly providential opportunity for Orthodox witness to today's world. But we shall not be able to make use of this opportunity unless we realize the obstacles that have to be tackled first.

To put it bluntly, many people concerned about the environment see the Christian tradition as the source, not of the solution, but of the problem. In its most extreme form, this line of argument actually sees the root of the present crisis in the supposed "license for exploitation" provided by the commandment to "Fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over every living thing" (Gen. 1:28). This suggestion has been refuted often enough, with profound and detailed explanations of what this mandate does and does not mean in the Christian understanding. Here, I want to underline only that there is a serious historical objection to this negative interpretation of the Christian tradition. If exploitation is built into the Christian understanding of man's relationship with the rest of nature, it is very hard to explain why a Christian civilization with the expertise and sophistication to build Agia Sophia or invent Greek fire should have totally failed to develop exploitative technologies or policies as we know them today. Far from having its origins in the in the heyday of Christian civilization, the exploitative mentality seems to have gained currency only after the "Enlightenment", which marks the decline of the Christian influence on the way people looked at themselves and their place in the world.

Another variant of this argument discounts Christianity as the possible source of an environmental ethic on the grounds that it is "anthropocentric". The following summary of the views of an American lecturer in ethics is typical: "Judeo-Christian anthropocentrism must open up to a spiritual sense of our place in nature and of earth as the sacred work of the Creator," and it continues, "at present, we find it nearly impossible to grasp that we live in a world that we did not create and cannot control". But it is not easy to make a convincing link between this misconception, and faith in the God who challenges man, "Where were you when I laid the foundations to the Earth? Tell me, if you have understanding ... Have you commanded the morning since your days began ... do you give the horse his might ... is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads his wings towards the south?" (Job 38:4, 12, 16; 39:19, 26). Obviously, from the Christian point of view, the idea that man is in ultimate control of the world is possible only if you leave God out of the picture. Central to the Christian understanding of the World is not man, but God. It is in Him, the Master and Creator of all, that we relate to each other and to all the other creatures that He has made. It is in His image that we have dominion over all other living creatures. Indeed, the ancient Syriac translation of the relevant verse in Genesis (1:26) makes the connection crystal clear by saying, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, in order that they may have authority...".

Whatever "dominion" we have is in the image of God, the God "who is King forever and has wrought salvation in the midst of the earth" - which means on the Cross, in the ultimate humility of His death for the life of the world. Certainly, the teaching of the image of God in man gives man a high dignity, as well as commensurate responsibility. So that if one tries to distill from Christianity a 'world view' or theory of man's place in nature without reference to God, the result is likely to look "anthropocentric". But such a "world view" is no longer the Christian faith. The Christian faith is not actually designed, so to speak, to make sense apart from God.

Given the frequency with which the charge of anthropocentrism is made, it is hardly surprising that a number of Christians have accepted it and feel the need to apologize for it. I would suggest that, rather than apologize for the undoubted place of honour that we ascribe to man, we should be prepared to defend it and to explain why it is not to the detriment of the rest of creation.

Christianity certainly stresses the special position of man in relation to God and to the rest of creation. This contrasts with religious which are considered, in some quarters, more "environmentally sound" - such as those which identify certain animals with divine spirits, or which teach the reincarnation of the soul in various other creatures (though it is unclear to me how the dignity of an animal would be enhanced by regarding it as a potential human that failed to make the grade). There are two aspects of the Christian view of man that I want to comment on here.

Firstly, man is seen as uniquely placed to manifest and mediate the praise of God from the rest of the natural world. In the words of Leontius of Cyprus:

"... through all creation visible and invisible, I offer veneration to the Creator and Master and Maker of all things. For the creation does not venerate the Master directly and by itself, but it is through me that the heavens declare the glory of God ... through me the waters and showers of rain, the dews and all creation, venerate God and give Him glory."

This is not to deny that there is a real link between God and His non-human creation. On the contrary: if the potential for praising God were not built into the very structure of created things, we should not be able to manifest it. In fact, what we have is a kind of synergy of created beings: all creation bears the stamp of God's glory, but by His economy it is given to man to bring this potential to its fulfillment. Adherents of other religions - or none - may disagree with this evaluation of man's place in creation: but a licence for exploitation it certainly is not. On the contrary, this understanding of man's responsibility seriously circumscribes the ways in which he can legitimately use material creation. In its high assessment of man's role, it embodies a realism which can best be understood from the negative side. What I mean is this: man's crucial role as mediator becomes tragically clear when we see his unparalleled capacity to obscure the glory of God in nature, to drown God's handiwork under the debris of his own greed and arrogance.

Secondly, the teaching about man in general has always been balanced in the tradition of the Church by teaching about man in particular - that is, our neighbour. This does not exclude showing neighbourliness also to other creatures - we may recall the story of St. Sergius of Radonezh giving his last piece of bread to a bear, because it could not be expected to understand the meaning of fasting. But it might well exclude, for instance, telling a famished traveller that there was nothing to eat because the bear had prior claim. This stress on the importance of man, not as an abstract entity but in the person of the brother or sister standing in front of us, is something that we must insist on. It may be able to serve as a much-needed bridge between the human suffering of people whose immediate basic needs - for food, fuel or livelihood - conflict with the interest of the environment, and an environmental agenda which often seems to put their welfare some way behind that of whales, tigers or rosy periwinkles. This perception of conservationist priorities is often less than fair, and sometimes due to deliberate misrepresentation - but it can cause great bitterness and polarization. We recognize, certainly, that radical disruption of the natural environment is in one's ultimate interests. But any approach which sacrifices the person to the principle, seeing other human beings as inevitable casualties for the sake of a greater good, will be profoundly alien to us. Awareness of the spiritual dimension of the environment crisis, coupled with a reluctance in some quarters to take the Christian tradition as a basis for an environment ethic, creates a dangerous vacuum. This vacuum is filled all too often by eastern religions or by a "New Age" synthesis of religious and spiritual beliefs ranging from earth-mother worship to reincarnation to divination with crystals. Let me be perfectly clear: there are large numbers of environmentalists who have no sympathy whatsoever for this kind of spirituality. But the danger it poses is twofold. On the one hand, it leads some people to see any concern with the environment as neo-paganism and nature worship, and therefore a threat to our faith. On the other hand, New Age spirituality, with its very prominent emphasis on respect for the earth and all its creatures, can actually seem an obvious and attractive option for environmentally aware people looking for a spiritual home. The tragic irony of the situation is this: so many of the elements that people value in the New Age movements - harmony of man with nature, a sense of the sacred permeating creation, the dignity of the material world - are so richly represented in the authentic Christian tradition, if only they had ever really encountered it. This is all the more reason for us to recall that it was to a pagan world that St. Paul preached the identity of the Unknown God, and to take up his example.

"Love all God's creation, the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light! Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything you will perceive the divine mystery in things. And once you have pereeived it you will begin to comprehend it ceaselessly, more and more every day. And you will at last come to love the whole world with an abiding universal love. Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and untroubled joy. Do not therefore, trouble it, do not torture them, do not deprive them of their joy, do not go against God's intent. " Starets Zosima in the novel The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

"Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden, and there he put the man he had formed And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground - trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." From the book of Genesis

2. Do we need to save the earth?

If we are looking for points of contact with the environmental movement, we may well start by noting the prevailing terminology. Today, instead of hearing about "developing" or improving our natural environment - or even "protecting" it - we increasingly hear about saving - the whale, or the rain forests, or the earth itself. Of course, "to save" means many things, not necessarily closely connected with salvation in a theological sense. But all senses of saving have one thing in common: the implication that the situation is desperate. Commenting on the meaning of salvation, Fr. Alexander Schmemann writes:

"A drowning man, a man whose home is engulfed in flames, a man falling over the edge of a cliff does not pray for comfort or comforting words, but for salvation." And yet, he continues, "... we have stopped viewing ourselves as beings who are truly perishing, beings whose life is rushing inexorably towards meaningless collapse ..."

The interesting thing to note is that this is probably rather less true today than when it was written a few decades ago. "Meaningless collapse" is a fate that we can very envisage for the whole of our civilization and for earth itself as a viable habitat for ourselves and many other creatures; and the fact that this will come about, if it does, through our own fault, raises the question of salvation from the power of death in acute form. This is the point at which the Church should be offering its own view of what we have to do to "save the earth". Compared with the view of most secular environmentalists, the task as we see it will be at once more radical and less formidable.

For us, what the earth requires (along with all of creation) is indeed salvation in the fullest sense. It does not need simply to be relieved from the worst depredations of human poverty or greed and allowed to regulate its own climate and ecosystems without interference: it needs to be "set free from bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the sons of God" (Rom. 8:21). To address environmental problems on a purely functional level, without repentance, might if successful ensure the continued survival of humanity and many other species - but it would be doing no more than to control the symptoms of the malaise.

On the other hand, we can confidently affirm that, in a sense, we do not have to save the earth. This is where we can provide a desperately needed message of hope amidst the sense of doom and almost paralyzing pessimism that so often characterizes warnings about the state of the environment. It is not that these warnings are alarmist: often far from it. But they make us feel dwarfed by the enormity of the problems, the insignificance of any individual's contribution, the weight of complacency and lack of political will - not to mention the agonizing conflicts of interest when people's entire way of life is tied in with polluting industries, destructive patterns of agriculture or hunting of threatened species. In human terms, the task seems hopeless - until we realize that it is not up to us to save the earth. It is not up to us because the earth, along with all creation is saved in Christ. Of course this does not mean that we have no responsibility - because what I am talking about here is a matter of synergy. We are responsible for doing everything in our power to work out that salvation in all our dealings with the world - to work with God's purpose and not contrary to it. But we should be in no doubt that God who made the world out of nothing is able to rescue our planet from the brink of destruction, even when our most careful scientific predictions suggest that the cause is hopeless. The clear understanding that we humans are reaping the consequences of our very own actions should in no way cause us to lose heart - that would be to deny the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. We may recall that in the prayers of the Litya, we implore the Lord "to turn away from us the righteous chastisement that impends against us, and have mercy upon us". This basic confidence in God's saving power will not diminish either our sense of urgency, or our dedication to finding ways of undoing human damage to the earth and its creatures. But it does enable us to do all these things, in the words of St. Isaac the Syrian:

"... humbling ourselves always, and giving the glory to Him who works with us in everything and is the cause of our victory; and placing ourselves in His hands in the struggle, saying to God, 'Thou art mighty, Lord, and Thine is the struggle. Fight and conquer in it, Lord, on our behalf'. Because the power that works with us is never defeated."

If we need to sound a note of alarm for those who are complacent, the note of hope for those who are acutely aware of the environmental crisis is no less timely. Indeed, the programmes prescribed even to keep greenhouse gasses and other forms of pollution at current levels can seem an austere and joyless list of prohibitions. But for a very different model, we need only to look at the way we use material things in our liturgical life. The fasts certainly give us an example of a frugal - though by no means joyless - use of resources, schooling us to accept even the simplest of foods with thankfulness. But fasting is only one aspect of liturgical life; we also feast. There are times when we also learn how to give thanks for the abundance of good things, earthly as well as heavenly, that God has bestowed on us - while the awareness that these are always gifts should prevent abundance from leading to contempt. And, yes, love does sometimes involve waste in material terms: we need only think of the of the mounds of flowers brought to church for Easter, or Holy Friday, or the Exaltation of the Cross. But this lavish use of the world has nothing in common with the waste of resources that accounts for so much of the environmental damage in more affluent societies. The latter sees resources as ours by right, guaranteed to remain freely available as long as we can pay for them. By contrast, when we use flowers and branches to adorn the church we are (or should be) offering something precious back to Him who "opens His hand, and all things are filled with good". When we take first-fruits of the material world not for our own consumption, but to offer them back to God, it is an expression of our confidence that the "rich have become poor and gone hungry; but they that fear that the Lord shall not lack any good thing".

3. In a global village, who is my neighbour?

Revelations in the recent years of the ways in which we have affected our environment have made us learn the hard way something that we should know as a basic truth of Christian anthropology: we are members one of another, part of the same body, and what each of us does affects the rest of mankind. Even if we have always tried to live according to this belief, the environmental movement is in large part responsible for giving us a whole range of new examples of what it means in practice. We can now see, not only ways in which our affluence deprives the poor of their basic needs, but ways in which it inflicts on them what they need least of all, such as a toxic landfill or a power station on their doorstep. We are also made increasingly aware of the links between environmental degradation and economic pressures. These may be pressures of poverty, where people have to clear irreplaceable forests in order to grow food for a year or two, or a country is forced into the environmentally devastating monoculture of cash crops to service crippling foreign debts. Or they may be pressures of affluence, where large numbers of people are employed in the manufacture of inessentials, which have to be made less durable and sold to more and more people who don't need them in order to preserve jobs. Either way, we can no longer escape the realization that each of us plays some part in this complex economic network.

All this raises in a new and acute form the question, "Who is my neighbour?" Once we have the opportunity to learn how even our private choices of food, clothing and goods can benefit or harm people whom we shall never meet, we cannot shrug off our responsibility towards them simply because they live on the opposite side of the world. Avoiding harm to others by my choices can seem so complicated as to be hardly worth attempting, and we certainly cannot all become experts in the intricacies of international trade. But I believe that we can and should take advantage of the information available to us and act on it as best we can - not in a doctrinaire way, such as by boycotting certain products on principle whatever the awkwardness caused to our immediate neighbour, but as an expression of love and care for the neighbour whose life touches ours only indirectly. To dictate positions that should be taken in economic affairs is not the role of the Church - but to encourage awareness of the consequences of our actions is surely a legitimate exercise. When in many ways we are acutely conscious of living in a "global village", it is not honest to dismiss this awareness of our place in a global economic network as "meddling in politics" and imagine that we can be responsible only towards those with whom we are in daily personal contact.

As we learn more about the effects of our actions on others, we must expect to be challenged to live out our faith in new ways. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the question of population. We can learn very little about the pressures on our environment before realizing that virtually every problem is exacerbated by the weight of human numbers. Activities, which have been largely sustainable for millennia, such as small-scale farming, become destructive when there is no longer enough suitable land to go round. Let it be quite clear: we are not talking about encouraging a materialistic outlook in which "quality of life" is measured in terms of modern conveniences and high-tech gadgets. We are talking about saving millions of people from abject misery. If this is materialistic, it is the same "materialism" as obliges us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked instead of giving them edifying tracts about the unimportance of material things. If we accept this reality, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that one way of furthering this basic work of charity is voluntarily to limit the size of one's own family.

Recognizing the effects on others of even so intimate a matter as how many children we have is just one instance of the profound change in thinking that the environmental movement is bringing about among many people in the industrialized world. Understanding the roots of the global crisis spells an end to individualism - a recognition that cooperation, not competition, is the way forward. Nothing of the earth's bounty is "my own":

"This cursed and abominable phrase comes from the devil", as Chrysostom says with typical directness, "we cannot say 'my own light, my own sun, my own water'".

At the same time, environmental thinking takes us beyond an impersonal collectivism, with the recognition that "small is beautiful" and that problems need locally appropriate solutions that are on a human scale. Of course, I am not claiming for a moment that either of these aberrations - individualism or collectivism - is dead. On the contrary: the pressure to exploit whatever and whoever one can for profit, coupled with the terrifying power of a few multi-national companies to impose a uniform culture of consumerism on the entire world, has never been a greater threat. But in the environmental movement we find a powerful and articulate ally in the struggle against these tendencies. It provides a climate in which people may be receptive to a model of human society that is in the image of the Holy Trinity - a society of persons in relationship, neither isolated as individuals nor subsumed into a faceless collective. The historically close connection of the Orthodox Church with various national cultures puts the local Churches in a unique position to lead the quest for local solutions to environmental problems.

4. A way forward or a way back?

There is a wide measure of agreement on the problems the world faces, and on some of the practical steps necessary to alleviate them. But when it comes to principles for guiding a sustainable way of living for the future, the discussion can resemble that of a party of lost travellers at a crossroads: everyone knows they are going the wrong way, but no one can agree which road to take instead.

Some environmentalists seem to hark back to a golden age when hunter-gatherers killed their prey with respect and had minimal environmental impact. (There were fewer of them, which helped). Of course, nobody imagines that we could all return to such a way of life; but it is seen as a model, along with the nature religions that such cultures often professed.

This "back to nature" argument is superficially attractive. There is no doubt that without our ability to manipulate nature, we should not have got ourselves or the world around us into the present mess. It is not simply that we have been motivated by greed or arrogance. Even our most benign interferences with the natural order, such as the eradication or control of childhood diseases, turn out to have some negative consequences for the environment and for its inhabitants. Technological advances at work and labour-saving devices around the house manage to leave us with less, not more, time for the important things of life. They make it even harder to appreciate the worth of the task in hand, whatever it may be: we are constantly encouraged to think only of results, and to want them as quickly and conveniently as possible. Yet we seem to be locked into a cycle of tinkering more and more with the natural order. Even conservationists trying to restore "natural" habitats discover that they cannot just leave everything to nature as if man had never interfered; the most they can do is intervene judiciously to simulate natural conditions. We have created a legacy of destruction that will not go away even if we stop adding to it from this moment; in many cases, it will get worse unless new technologies are devised to ameliorate it. This suggests that the only realistic way out is a way forward, by devising more and more sophisticated ways of counteracting our own influence on the earth.

Perhaps the most striking case of such development is the new technology which some people hail as the answer to many of our environmental problems. I am not talking about genetic engineering involving humans, where grave ethical problems are widely recognized, but about manipulation of crops and perhaps of livestock. I would offer the personal view that this is an example of an inadmissible "mastery over nature" precisely because it is anthropocentric - it suggests that we can relate to nature and use it for our benefit without reference to God. What we are taught about the consequences of Babel combines with what we know about the consequences of many previous scientific "breakthroughs" to suggest that we cannot disturb the natural order to this extent with impunity. And our creatureliness is every bit as important a part of the natural order as the food chain.

Does this mean that, after all, the only way out is back? That the attempt to solve environmental problems with more technology is not legitimate, and therefore not viable in the long term? The answer, I believe, is no. The inventive and adventurous use of nature by man is not an aberration, but something fundamental to his nature.

This brings me to my final point. Some of the statements of conservationists leave us with the impression that the problem is, quite simply, man - and that the only way to protect some part of the environment is to restrict all normal human activity there. Of course, restricting certain human activities may be very necessary. But we must bear in mind that the Lord put Adam in a garden "to till it and keep it" (Gen. 2:15). He did not put him in a wilderness park with strict instructions to picnic in designated areas only and to keep off the grass. Of course, there is a vast and fateful difference between the way we use the world in our fallen state, and what God intended. But this does not invalidate the basic point: man is a part of nature, not as just another animal, but precisely as man - a creature who makes ingenious and creative use of the world around him, - and in this way gives glory to God. The "dominion" that is given to him starts with the "beasts" within himself, as St. Gregory of Nyssa makes plain, it is no use ruling over the wild beasts outside while we give free rein to those within us. This defines the sense in which we must indeed find our way "back to nature" - to the true nature of man, who is creative but also created. Perhaps the greatest gift the Church can give to those who love God's creation and are deeply ashamed of man's part in its destruction is the witness of the Saints - that man can be the means of restoration for the world, not by trying to merge in with other animals and leaving no mark on the world, but by becoming more fully human. There are few better ways to express this truth than by pointing to the icon - that extraordinarily audacious use of elements of the material world combined by human artifice to become transparent to God. In the words of Bishop Basil (Osborne) of Sergievo:

"... the icon bears witness to the fact that there is a way back for man ... that he is not condemned to an ever-increasing estrangement from God or to the creation of an ever more opaque world. There is a corner that can be turned. Man can create forms that help God to be present in this world."

It would be no exaggeration to say that the message of the environmental movement is a call to repentance. To be sure, this "repentance" begins as a change of heart for the sake of survival. But there is no reason why it should not prepare the way for us and others to heed the message to repent and believe in the Gospel. If I have spent time on aspects of the environmental movement which may be disturbing to some Orthodox, it is because these need to be confronted and dealt with openly, rather than left as excuse for some people to dismiss environmentalism as a New Age heresy. I do not believe that concern for God's material creation should be confined to a small group of Orthodox who are already involved to some extent in the environmental movement. I believe it is one of the most vital ways in which we are called to bear witness today to our faith in the living Saviour of the world.

Document Actions