Why Orthodox Christianity is the Best Answer to Environmental Degradation

Study the literature long enough and you will discover something curious about most discussions of environmentalism—there is a strange lack of effort to define human nature. I believe this is why most attempts at solving our massive ecological problems are going nowhere fast.

Without a shared paradigm concerning what a human is, the whole environmentalist enterprise falls apart. The reason for this is simple. Ecology is the study of organisms and how they interact with their environment. As organisms, we humans are a big part of this equation; however, “human” is not so easily defined.

If left undefined—if half of the equation is missing—then any solution is, at best, temporary.

The following discussion will argue that Orthodox Christianity is the best answer to our environmental woes, as it presents at once the loftiest yet most ecologically responsible view of human nature possible.

In articulating a concise Orthodox view of mankind, I take Alexander Schmemann’s summary in his work, For the Life of the World: “The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God.”

At first glance this statement smacks of the worst kind of anthropocentrism imaginable (“He stands at the center of the world”), differing very little from the worn out “dominion” theology that many Protestant ecotheologians have tried to avoid. But in the care of the Orthodox this focus on humanity as the center of creation is anything but a destructive approach to nature. Schmemann explains:

“In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God. The world as man’s food is not something ‘material’ and limited to material functions, thus different from, and opposed to, the specifically ‘spiritual’ functions by which man is related to God. All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and…this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good.’”

Far from giving humanity carte blanche to do with nature as they please, the role of priest, if taken seriously, becomes the very glue needed to fix a believer to nature in a relationship that far exceeds ethical restraint. Note that Schmemann speaks of “all creation” as a means of God’s presence, not merely that which is aesthetically pleasing or those things which are vital for humanity’s survival.

One finds early Orthodox teaching on the interplay between humanity and nature laced with similar ecclesiological language. Maximus the Confessor spoke on many occasions of creation as an image of the Church and of the Church as an image of creation:

“The holy Church of God is an image of just the sensible world by itself; the sanctuary reminds one of the sky, the dignity of the nave reflects the earth. Likewise the world can be thought of as a church: the sky seems like a sanctuary, and the cultivation of the land can make it resemble a temple.”

Maximus did not embrace the modern tendency to treat so-called “images” as mere abstractions. Just as icons are not treated as simple images with no value beyond aesthetic appreciation, the image of nature as a holy Church is not to be treated as an abstraction but as something real.

Clement of Rome used similar language when linking the reality of the flesh as an antitype of the spirit, saying: “For the flesh itself is an antitype of the spirit; no man, therefore, who has defiled the antitype shall receive the real…guard the flesh that you may partake of the spirit.”

If nature is to be considered an antitype of God’s sanctuary, as expressed by Maximus, then it is plain to see that to “defile” nature is, in a very real way, to defile the God’s sanctuary.

What Schmemann states above is, again, a major theme of Orthodoxy in denying any dualistic treatment—in the sense of dividing rather than distinguishing—of the material world being at odds with the spiritual world. Orthodoxy does not allow one to imagine oneself as a “plain citizen of the biotic community,” (as Judith N. Scoville put it) nor as an alien force that should stay away from nature (as many secular environmentalists would have it). Instead, it calls men and women to engage nature as a medium of communion with God.

Ignatius reminds his readers at Ephesus that, “even the things you do in the flesh are spiritual, for you do all things in union with Jesus Christ.” One’s natural reality and spiritual reality are brought together in the great act of communion with Christ. Hence humanity is neither equal with nature, nor above nature, nor below nature; they are not dominators of nature, nor merely stewards of nature, but first and foremost priests of nature. Their “responsibility” towards nature is not limited to an abstract ethical mandate imposed on them, but rather their very communion with God is a stake in their involvement with nature.

Christ as the Eucharistic Being

The identity as priests is not a new role for humanity, but rather the role they were created for in the beginning; a role restored to them through Christ. But that Christ fulfilled this role, and how He restores this role to humanity is the critical issue. For whether or not Jesus Christ is the primary reference point for ecotheology depends on demonstrating that Christ, during His earthly life, was Himself a Priest over nature and that He purposes to restore humanity to this same role. In an effort to describe this Christological insight many Orthodox theologians have identified Christ as the perfect “Eucharistic Being.”

It is necessary to sidetrack momentarily in an effort to eliminate a major source of confusion for many who are outside the Orthodox tradition, that is—a prevailing loss of understanding as to what is meant by the term ‘Eucharist.’ Since the Eucharist is of foremost concern for the Orthodox, and since a thorough treatment of the subject cannot be given here, a synopsis account will be attempted. By way of summary, Nicholas Cabasilas provides an excellent introductory statement of the Orthodox position:

First, the sacrifice is not a mere figure or symbol but a true sacrifice; secondly, it is not the bread that is sacrificed, but the very Body of Christ; thirdly, the Lamb of God was sacrificed once only, for all time…The sacrifice at the Eucharist consists, not in the real and bloody immolation of the Lamb, but in the transformation of the bread into the sacrificed Lamb.

The idea of transforming a base element like bread into the very presence of Christ is formative for much of the Orthodox view of Christ’s ministry in general, which is captured in the identity of Christ as the Eucharistic Being. Expounding further on the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, Kallistos Ware uses the text of the Liturgy itself when it states, “Your own from Your own we offer You, in all and for all.” Wares explains that the Liturgy is to be understood as proclaiming Christ as (1) the One offered, (2) the One performing the offering, and (3) the One to whom the offering is made. In short, the offering of bread and wine is assumed into Christ’s offering of Himself and is, in a profound and mysterious way, transformed into His very presence. This event of transformation is evidence of the broader ministry of Christ to transform all of creation into a ‘meeting place’ of divine communion. Christ’s very incarnation—God putting on humanity—is the perfect joining of flesh and Spirit.

“It is in the Eucharist,” writes John Zizioulas, “understood properly as a community and not as a ‘thing,’ that Christ is present here and now as the one who realizes God’s self-communication to creation as communion with His life, and in the existential form of a concrete community created by the Spirit.” Here Zizioulas relates the Eucharist to both Christ Himself and to the “concrete community” of believers, or the Church. This lack of understanding is what Schmemann found to be “the main defect of Christian theology,” as it developed since at least the time of the Reformation, saying, “the theology of the Eucharist ceased to be Eucharistic and thus took away the Eucharistic spirit from the whole understanding of sacrament, from the very life of the Church.” When the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ’s presence here and now, is understood to extend into all activities of the Church’s life—in particular, believer’s activities within the natural environment—their role as priests of creation is realized.

As alluded to earlier, Christ’s incarnation is indicative of His nature as a Eucharistic Being, as Schmemann explained:

“He became man and lived in this world. He ate and drank, and this means that the world of which he partook, the very food of our world became His body, His life. But His life was totally, absolutely Eucharistic—all of it was transformed into communion with God and all of it ascended into heaven. And now He shares this glorified life with us. ‘What I have done alone—I give it now to you: take, eat…’”

Christ’s incarnation which assumed all of human nature is found to have an even broader context which embraces all of creation on account of Christ’s own flesh and blood having been composed of the natural environment. Consequently, this calls the believer to recognize all of creation, particularly the environment in which one lives, as a potential meeting place with God; potential in the sense that all sacramental events are communal events which require one’s participation. Schmemann continues, “and now when we receive this bread from His hands, we know that he has taken up all life, filled it with Himself, made it what it was meant to be: communion with God, sacrament of His presence and love.”

That Christ fulfilled the role of the perfect Eucharistic Being is evident in the event of His life as recorded in the gospels. It seems that every moment, every physical location, and every human being in which Christ encountered was made subject to a transforming—sacramental—act of the His Eucharistic life. Where there was sickness, He brought healing; where there was death, He brought life; where there was disorder, He brought order; where there was autonomy, He brought communion. Though one cannot exegete from His life any specific actions to take in saving the planet from human degradation, it is through His example of living the Eucharistic life that one finds the proper foundation on which to build an explicitly Christian environmentalism; motivated not by any exterior ethic, governmental legislation, or even any particular biblical text (such as Genesis 1:28), but from an understanding of the original plan of the Creator for His creation as demonstrated through Christ’s life.

The last item of discussion is how it is that Christ’s Eucharistic life is given to believers? It is first important to know that the Eucharistic life is given and cannot simply be chosen, as one can readily choose between ethical approaches. If it was as simple as making an intellectual commitment there would be no need for Christ to play any active role in the matter except the role of role model. For the Orthodox, the Eucharistic life is quintessentially the gift of salvation and not merely an aspect of salvation.

A full account of Orthodox soteriology cannot be presented here, but in short the Orthodox see salvation as a process in which the believer’s very mode of existence is transformed; a transformation from an existence of alienation and death to an existence of communion and eternal life, a process generally known as deification or theosis.

In the words of Clement, the Nativity of Christ is “a secret re-creation, by which human nature was assumed and restored to its original state.” By assuming the human condition and conquering death, Christ made it possible for humanity to “put on imperishability” (1 Cor 15:54) and allowed humans to once again become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), as was the case with Adam and Eve prior to the fall.

Adam and Eve’s communion with God was realized in their full involvement with their natural environment. It is no coincidence that the tree of life in the garden is a picture of communion with God captured in the medium of nature. Hence, the original state of humanity was Eucharistic—receiving from God the gift of nature, offering nature back unto to God in thanksgiving, and again receiving nature spiritualized, as it were, from God in a continuous sacrament of communion. The gift of salvation is a return to this original communal existence. In summary, the gift of salvation itself–in its fullest sense–is the answer to our man-made environmental issues.


 

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