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The Orthodox Church and Ecology

“To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin.” – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew1

His All-Holiness Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew uttered these words on November 8, 1997 at Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in Santa Barbara, California. This statement came as a shock to many in the media having never heard such bold environmentalist language from a religious leader, much less a Christian one. It is common in our Protestant-dominated culture to assume that Christians simply do not care for the environment and are only concerned with saving souls. Are the soul/body and mind/matter dualisms not inherent in Christian thought? The answer is an unequivocal “No.” These dualisms would have been recognized as heretical by church leaders prior to the modern era. In this article, I would like to briefly introduce the ecological vision of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

“Nothing created by God is evil. It is not food that is evil but gluttony, not the begetting of children but unchastity, not material things but avarice, not esteem but self-esteem. It is only the misuse of things that is evil, not the things themselves.” – St. Maximos the Confessor2

An Orthodox Christian worldview is essentially an ecological worldview. Rather than shunning materiality, Orthodox Christians embrace it, albeit within what is deemed an appropriate Christian perspective. The world and the body are not seen as irrelevant matter from which we are to escape in order to ascent to heaven; rather the belief in the resurrection of the body along with the belief that the entire earth will participate in the final salvation of the world show that what God creates matters. God creates nothing in vain. Every blade of grass, every ant, every single living and non-living thing was created by a loving God. Thus, Orthodox Christians see inherent goodness in everything that God creates. God does not create evil; therefore, the earth cannot be bad or even inconsequential since it was created by God. The earth and all matter it contains are inherently good, yet matter can be used by humanity in a way that dishonors God or goes against the nature or purpose in its design. In the very first chapter of the Bible, we hear God proclaiming His work “good” over and over again (Genesis 1). Orthodox Christians embrace matter in all aspects of worship; using their bodies to make the sign of the cross, lighting candles and burning incense, and decorating homes and churches with icons which serve as reminders to those monumental events in the Christian story and to all the saints who led exemplary lives in Christ.

“An Orthodox Christian perspective on the natural environment derives from the fundamental belief that the world was created by a loving God…so the entire world contains seeds and traces of the living God.” – Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew3

It is because God created all that exists that Christians should use all that exists with mindfulness of God and with thankfulness to God for the great gift that is creation. Elizabeth Theokritoff refers to this as living according to a “eucharistic ethos.”4 When living eucharistically, it becomes difficult to be reckless and wasteful when dealing with scarce natural resources. When we say our prayers at mealtime we are living eucharistically. When we recycle, we are living eucharistically. And when we live eucharistically, we treat the natural world as a sacrament or mystery (the Greek word for sacrament is mysterion). Approaching the environment eucharistically and sacramentally keeps us mindful of God at all times and preserves our proper relationship to the world and to others through Christ, in whom all things are held together (Col. 1:17). According to Theokritoff, the metaphor of the Church as the body of Christ illuminates the “relatedness” and “interdependence” of all that exists.5 The writings of the Church Fathers contain numerous statements reflecting on the harmony and interconnectedness of the universe.6

“The Incarnation of God the Word marks the entry of the Holy Spirit into matter, while His transfiguration manifests the consequence of the Incarnation, namely, that matter is renewed and filled with the Holy Spirit. If at the creation of the world the first organic life springs from matter at the Word of God, the Incarnation testifies to His participation in matter.” – Anesti G. Keselopoulos7

It is this sense connection to everything in the cosmos, this sense of communion, which seems lost in the modern world with our focus on individuality and rationality. We have lost our sense of mystery and awe in relation to God’s brilliant handiwork. According to Andrew Louth, Orthodox Christian cosmology “provides a basis for developing a response to the ecological problems that press upon us, for here we have a view of the cosmos that finds intrinsic meaning in the cosmos, and prevents any understanding of it as inert material to be exploited by human ingenuity.”8 Just as Christ, through the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, serves as the bridge uniting humanity to God, humanity serves as the link between God and His creation.

“What is a merciful heart? It is a heart, which is burning with love for the whole of creation: for human beings, for birds, for beasts, for demons – for all of God’s creatures.” – St. Isaac the Syrian9

The Orthodox Church thus understands the cosmos as a communion. The Holy Trinity itself is a communion. God’s design for the world is communion. For Orthodox Christians, Christ is the glue that holds this communion together. Humanity enters into communion with God by way of the Incarnation and the world enters into communion with God by way of humanity. Just as Christ became the bridge between God and man, man must become the bridge between God and His creation. It is the destiny of humankind to restore community whenever it is broken. Where communion exists, one finds man restoring the image of God. Where one finds fragmentation and broken community, one finds sin and man turning away from God. God created the world as a perfected balanced communal system. Man has disrupted this system through sin starting with Adam and Eve’s misuse of creation.

This cosmology provides the basis for a Christian environmental ethos. “From the Christian point of view, there is no such thing as a discrete ideology of environmentalism separate from love of God and love of neighbor,” says Theokritoff.10 The Orthodox Church would view the Scientific Revolution theme of “dominating nature” as heretical and antithetical to God’s design for the world. Dominion meant something very different to the Church Fathers. It implied a sense of responsibility and care. Dominion should be exercised along with asceticism to ensure a proper use of creation. Much more could be said about this subject, but my hope here is to have outlined the basic ecological worldview of the Orthodox Church.

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Chris Smith

Chris Smith

Chris is a former aircraft mechanic and USAF veteran now pursuing a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He holds a M.A. in Religion from Wake Forest and a B.A. in Global Studies and Religious Studies from UNC-Chapel Hill.

  • Great article! Thanks for writing it.

  • Sarah Elizabeth

    Really loved this, Chris. As someone who has always enjoyed God’s natural world, I had always felt it was important to care for God’s creation but grew up in a Christian culture that mostly spoke out against environmentalism because of conservative politics. Now that I’m becoming Orthodox, I’m so thrilled to enter into a Christian worldview that actually embraces respect for this beautiful earth instead of saying, “it’s all going to burn anyway.” I would love to know if you or anyone else is aware of a book(s) that speak to this topic of ecology from an Orthodox perspective.

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  • Ian Attila

    I enjoyed this article Chris. Thanks. Well done.

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  • Definitely enjoyed this, Chris. The one thing that struck me, was how Protestantism seems to give off an air of making a dichotomy between the physical and spiritual. This, from what I can tell, is rather foreign to the Bible and proper Protestant theology. Strictly speaking, that dichotomy has at least echos of the Gnostic heresies. It’d be interesting to see a piece from someone on where this spiritual/physical differentiation entered Protestant culture.

    • Good point Jeff. I probably could have elaborated more on the fact that the dichotomy is not even inherent in Protestant thought. I’ve read some great stuff on creation care from Protestant theologians who outright reject the spirit/matter dualism. I think it tends to be assumed at the level of laypersons, those who may be less well-versed in Christian theology. I would absolutely love to see someone speak to how it entered Protestantism. Maybe the origins of the current strand of this dichotomy can be found somewhere in fundamentalist and/or dispensationalist movements? That seems to be where I see it the most from Christians, I could be off-base here. But it is true that this dualism seems to originate in Gnostic heresies that keep reemerging over and over throughout the history of Christianity. We just have to keep reminding our fellow Christians that God became man, thus became matter, proving that matter matters. It should be our goal to seek the sanctification of the whole of creation through Christ.

  • Love this article!