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Creation and ecology: how does the Orthodox church respond to ecological problems?

God's creation is a manifestation of God's love

Creation is an expression of God's love towards humankind and all creatures--so the church fathers believed. The prevailing theological attitude of the church from the beginning to the 8th century, and the view which became the foundation of the Orthodox church, was that creation is good. God's free will lies at the foundation of creation, and of the existence of all creatures: "God is the Creator from all eternity, and he creates when He wills, in his infinite goodness, through his co-essential Logos and Spirit," writes St Maximus the Confessor. (1)

God by his infinite love gave order to the world and creation, and He is full of love towards creatures. The love of God fully reveals itself in creative activity; therefore love lies at the basis of creation. By means of this love the world will be united with God, since "love is a salvation for the whole history of creation" (St Isaac the Syrian). Out of his Love God's concern reaches all: angels, human beings, other-worldly creatures. The Fall could not affect, neither has it reduced nor annihilated, the love of God for creation. (2)

Creation ex nihilo: God's creation came out of nothing

Creation took place outside of God's domain and resulted in producing a different realm, different "not in place but in nature". (3) If creation came into existence as a willing of God, the purpose of this creative activity was to let creation participate in the fullness of the divine life; (4) for creation is meant to be in harmonious relation, unceasing communion, with its creator.

Following the Epistle to the Romans ("...the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" [Rom. 8:20-21]), the Orthodox church asserts that the world is a result of God's will which brought it into existence out of nothing, therefore subjecting it to annihilation. On the other hand, the creation has the capacity to have eternal life, and that for the same reason, namely because it is God's will. Thus the Orthodox supplicate for the preservation of that which was given to them out of love:
 O Christ, who out of nothing brought all things into existence and in
 ineffable wisdom, O Loving One, granted each and everyone to precisely keep
 the purposes which You set for them in the beginning, bless all creatures
 which You have brought into being, for You are a mighty Saviour. (5)

Every day at vespers the church prays by reciting Psalm 103: "O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all..." which is praise to God's creation. The church blesses the waters at the feast of Epiphany, and blesses the fruits at the feast of Transfiguration as a sign of the recognition of the transformation of all creation through salvation and glorification. By the blessing of material things we are reminded that God's creation is sanctified, and that each part of this creation is of utmost importance: nature is sanctified, the world is a dwelling place of divine powers. Here we face the paradox of the Triune God being at the same time transcendent and immanent to his creation.

The human being is a crown of creation

The Orthodox church has preserved as freshly as it was understood in the early church the belief in the transformation of matter; following the resurrection of the Lord, humanity became viable to divinization. The Greek fathers developed in depth the concept of the deification of the human being--God became man so that man may become god (6)--and some of the fathers also spoke about the deification of all creation.

The basic conclusion of all the works developing the patristic understanding of deification is that it was prescribed by the divine will as the end of created nature, and thus is anticipated and begins in our earthly life but is fully realized only in the future consummation. (7) Deification involves the whole of man (human nature), both soul and body: "The deified man, while remaining entirely human by nature, in body and soul, becomes wholly God in both body and soul, through grace and divine glow of the blessed glory that permeates the whole person." (8)

God created the human being as a microcosm, a bridge between heaven and earth, a natural bond and mediator between extreme divisions. (9) God endowed humanity with both natures, the visible and invisible; in a way, in the face of the human being God created a new universe, both small and great at the same time, and set mankind on earth "to reign over earth's creatures, and to obey orders from on high". (10) Here is a clear message for human beings to reign over the created world--but at the same time to obey the will of the one who created all. If human beings are to reign over creation, this should be in resemblance to Christ who "emptied himself", who "humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death" (Phil. 2:7-8). If we, as Christians, remember that the natural order is a sign and a sacrament of God, this memory will prevent us from a destructive reign over creation, from exploiting natural resources, from all the challenges posed by a material progress pursued for the sake of luxury.

A non-exploitative understanding of human dominion

"As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them" (Luke 6:31) teaches the gospel, and so it is also true about the environment. Human beings should treat the rest of creation with love and reverence: this is our common ministerial role. The task of humankind is to go further than the mere preservation of creation; it is to purify creation, and elevate it to the level of its Creator.

When, in the 1960s, the accusation was made against Christianity that it was responsible for the ecological crisis throughout the world, the Orthodox church took a definite stand on this issue: it shared the view concerning Christianity's contribution to the ongoing ecological crisis; however, it gave a coherent explanation as to how Orthodox spirituality, and the teaching of the Orthodox church, convey a message which opposes the impending ecological disaster.

At the heart of the Orthodox treatment of current ecological problems lie the conclusions and recommendations given by the inter-Orthodox conference on environmental protection on Crete in November 1991. These include the following:
 II (a) The Orthodox church shares the sensitivity and the concern of those
 who are distressed about the increasing burden on the natural environment
 due to human abuse, which the church names as sin, and for which it calls
 all human beings to repentance. There is a tendency to seek a renovation of
 ethics, while the Orthodox church believes the solution is to be found in
 the liturgical, eucharistic and ascetic ethos of the Orthodox tradition.

 (b) The Orthodox church is not to be identified with any ecological
 movement, party or organization either from the point of view of ideology
 and philosophy or from that of the method or programmes to be applied for
 the solution of the ecological problem. The Orthodox church, being the
 church, constitutes a presence and a witness to a new mode of existence
 following its specific theological outlook of human beings' relationship
 with God, with one another and with nature.

The current ecological crisis is a sin, states the above-mentioned report. The Orthodox church continues to treat the ongoing ecological crisis in terms of the Fall and sin: it is "a problem of the polarization of individual sin against collective responsibility". (11)

Following the statement from Crete, the Orthodox church gives several suggestions:

-- to honour the date of 1 September as a day of special prayers and supplications for all creation--as a day for the protection of all God's creation;

-- to emphasize the church's relationship with nature in terms of the eucharistic and ascetic ethos, and seek for a renewed asceticism for the sake of creation;

-- to develop programmes of Christian environmental education.

Ecological issues were first raised by the ecumenical patriarchate in the 1980s through patriarchal encyclicals, messages, homilies, reports of pre-synodal pan-Orthodox conferences, seminars, studies and books.

Among the very first achievements in this area on the part of the Orthodox church should be named decisions of the third pre-synodal pan-Orthodox conference at Chambesy in 1986; the ecological conference on the Greek island of Patmos, in the monastery of St John the Theologian, in 1988; and the patriarchal encyclical at Christmas 1988. In 1990 a group of theologians and environmentalists gathered in the monastery of the Annunciation at Ormilia in northern Greece, and drafted a document on "Orthodoxy and the Ecological Crisis" which conveys the essential message of the Orthodox church concerning creation and the Christian responsibility towards it.

From the statement from Crete we learned that, in relation to ecological problems, the Orthodox church does not seek a new identity--since "being the church constitutes a presence and a witness to a new mode of existence"--rather, the church offers its own distinct perspective on the basis of its teaching on cosmology and anthropology.

A way out of this crisis

A way out of this crisis is repentance and the restoration of that mentality which sees the world as something to value and love, rather than to value and exploit. Choosing this way is also an active response of humankind to God's creative activity, performed out of love.

The concept of repentance, as we will see later, has affected the whole treatment of the issue on the part of the Orthodox. Therefore, in order to understand the position of the Orthodox church in relation to the creation being in crisis, one must grasp the meaning of repentance in the Orthodox tradition.

Repentance (metanoia) is, according to Orthodox tradition, a call for changing the mind, a change of attitude. In the particular context of the ecological crisis, it implies changing one's mind from a purely utilitarian view to a more sensitive or ministerial position. This kind of change of mind (repentance) is sought for the sake of the survival of humankind and of all creation.

At this point it will be reasonable to trace where the Orthodox church has found the spiritual and theological roots of the present ecological crisis.

In 1968 Lynne White, an American historian, attributed the historical roots of the ecological problem to Christianity. Orthodox theologians have agreed that it was the rationalistic conception of humanity nurtured by some trends within Christianity which has developed into the present ecological crisis.

First it was Platonism, then Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism, which developed the concept of the supreme divinity as the absolute goodness, emanating and distributing its essence in the cosmos. In this hierarchy of the "distribution of the divine goodness" the material world stood at the bottom. Therefore the material world was inferior to incorporeal beings; it was identified with evil and was not thought to be related to the final destiny of humankind.

Some very influential authors of the early church, such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen, were considerably affected by these ideas. In the first centuries in the East a "refutation of Origenism" took place through the monastic tradition, so that the later Eastern Christian tradition preserved the Origenist heritage selectively. In the West, however, things developed in a different way because St Augustine, the most influential author in the early Western church, became affected by Gnosticism.

St Augustine's theology emphasized the rationalistic aspect of the human being: the privilege of man among the other creatures was found in his ability to think. Consequently, the sacraments of the church, baptism and the eucharist, did not imply sanctification of the material creation but aimed at preservation only of the soul.

Thus the roots of Cartesian philosophy, as well as of the Enlightenment, lie in Augustinian theology. The assumptions that the purpose of science is utilitarian, and that the material world exists for personal satisfaction and for attaining sensory pleasure, have also resulted from the Augustinian understanding of the human being.

The Protestant church of the 17th and 18th centuries interpreted the biblical passages of Genesis 1:26 and 28 ("Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth... Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it") in a utilitarian way, and encouraged the unlimited exploitation of the material world. Influenced by this teaching, Western economies based on the pursuit of gain fostered the modern technological development, which is utilitarian and exploitative.

The Orthodox church finds a direct link between today's ecological crisis and the belief that the imago Dei consists in the rational element of human beings, that reason means an intellectual activity which allows us to "use" nature as an object. This belief lacks the capacity for seeing the world as a harmonious whole; it sees it as a collection of "useful" things. But nature is meant to "serve" human beings only on the condition that humanity protects nature and respects the relevant laws regarding its use. We are to use but not abuse nature.

The roots of the extreme individualization of modern civilization should be seen in this same light of an estrangement from God's creation: the relations between creatures are reduced, or lost altogether, and human beings fail to look for their identity in relationship with other beings.

The Orthodox tradition sees the human being more as a minister than as a ruler. It is a privilege to be a priest and to offer back to God, with gratitude and humility, what He has given to us; this is a privilege of one who was created in the image and likeness of God.

Human beings have a crucial role to play in the survival of creation: only through our priestly attitude towards creation is it going to survive. As priests offer bread and wine to God on behalf of all the people, similarly human beings should offer gratefully to God his own creation, offering back with love what is given with love. Our responsibility before God's creation gives full credit to the limitations placed upon our exploitation of the material world. Humanity's role as mediator is even more clear when we become a cause of the destruction of God's creation. The human being has a unique place in creation in terms of manifestation, mediation and taking a leading place in praising God.

The Orthodox perspective on the sanctification and transformation of the material world brings us to the liturgical dimension of creation, and its expression in the eucharist. God's constant giving of the world, and the world's constantly being referred back to God, has been expressed very well liturgically: "Thine own, of thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all, and for all," proclaims a priest; and then a deacon, crossing his hands, lifts up the holy paten and the holy chalice and, making with them a sign of the cross, he himself makes a humble reverence. (12)

In this eucharistic prayer we are offering back to God fruits of his own creation, bread and wine, the elements that, through the invocation of the Holy Spirit, the Orthodox church believes are changed into the body and blood of Christ. Through the liturgical action, the fruits of nature are offered back--not in their initial form, but as they have been changed by human labour: wheat is transformed into bread, grapes are transformed into wine. The ability to change the material world "towards good" is another unique characteristic of humankind. Every form of matter which passes through the hand of a Christian is harmonious with the natural environment, and is transformed into a means of communion with one another and with God. By teaching that the eucharist is a foretaste of the age to come, the Orthodox church proclaims a strong eschatology: it is through the eucharistic celebration that human beings attain their ultimate destiny of becoming divinized.

This offering back to God of the fruits of his creation takes place with a great sense of gratitude. Indeed, thankfulness is, in general, one of the dominant themes of all Orthodox services: to praise God and give thanks to him.
 What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sake was seen on earth as
 man? For every thing created by Thee offers Thee thanks. The angels offer
 Thee their hymns; the heaven, the stars; the Magi, their gifts; the
 shepherds, their wonder ... (hymn from Christmas vespers service).

The heart of the Orthodox worship lies in the eucharist.
 The eucharist is also the most sublime expression and experience of
 creation transformed by God the Holy Spirit through redemption and worship.
 In the form of bread and wine, material from creation moulded into new form
 by human hands is offered to God with the acknowledgment that all of
 creation is God's and that we are returning to God that which is his....
 Just as the priest at the eucharist offers the fullness of creation and
 receives it back as the blessing of grace in the form of the consecrated
 bread and wine, to share with others, so we must be the channel through
 which God's grace and deliverance is shared with all creation. (13)

When celebrating the eucharist a priest speaks the language of offering together ("we offer" and not "I offer"), implying that offering is a collective action, a result of a certain relationship between individuals. According to "an agreement" between those who together offer the sacrifice, it is a reverential action completed with thankfulness.

"Ethos replacing ethics; culture replacing legislation"

Let us now spell out what has been expressed by the words of one of the greatest Orthodox theologians of our time, Metropolitan John (Zizioulas). The call to move from ethics to ethos, and from legislation to culture, is a formulation found in one of his works. What Metropolitan John seeks to communicate here is the notion that by repentance, by changing our mind, human beings disregard the dominant view of seeing "man" as the most important being in creation (which leads to our seeing ourselves as gods). Indeed the human domination over nature, as expressed in today's technological ethos, is not going to be helpful for the future of creation.

Through repentance, human and natural problems become "the objects of a caring and creative effort. But repentance must be accompanied by soundly focused initiatives which manifest the ethos of the Orthodox church." (14)

As was stated in the report of the WCC inter-Orthodox consultation held in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1987, "humanity must learn to treat creation as a sacred offering of God, an oblation, a vehicle of grace, an incarnation of our most noble aspirations and prayers". (15)

The misuse of the freedom given by God to humankind has resulted in the present ecological catastrophe, as seen in global warming, drought, the spread of deserts, vanishing forests, pollution of the seas, the extinction of species, destroyed hydrological cycles and a depleted ozone layer. The Orthodox response to this crisis is found in a change of mind, in a Christian understanding of self-discipline which will change our ethic-oriented legislation into a Christian ethos-oriented culture. In other words, our concern for creation should be an indivisible part of our way of life, of our Christian mode of existence. The ethos of this mode of existence is thankfulness, moderation, self-control. In this context it is important to point out the Christian ethos of hospitality, almsgiving and love of one's neighbour. Under the ethos of sharing with, caring for and loving other human beings we will exercise self-control and show love and concern to all creation, and thus ecological problems will be reduced.

The idea behind all ascetic abstinence from the material world is the respect for matter and a desire not to exploit it. Sensitivity towards the material world is a sign of love and appreciation and gratitude. It seems that early Christian asceticism is not entirely irrelevant to our modern life; indeed, it may be a good source of ways to resolve some modern problems.

Thus, for about the past 25 years, the Orthodox church has shown a consistent approach towards problems related to the ecological crisis, and the church has sought to raise awareness of the urgency of taking steps to deal with this ongoing crisis. At the same time, the church has been trying to make some practical applications of its approach to the situation. An illustration of this is an environmentally conscious agricultural method used in some of the monasteries (for example Ormilia, Chrysopigy). Another illustration would be the church's active participation in taking political decisions to address particular ecological problems.
 O Creator of the Universe, who from the beginning of time has set each and
 everything in its appropriate place, do not despise the works of Your
 hands, but look down from Heaven upon this vineyard, O Lord, with a
 merciful eye, and restore it according to Your will, deflecting every
 destructive contrivance and corruption. (16)

The Orthodox supplication to God almighty, maker of heaven and earth, awakes in us a certain responsibility: since God created the world out of love, and loved this world so much that gave his only begotten Son to it, love--extended from humanity to all creation--should be a defining motive of our Christian ethos. "Science can describe what is going wrong, describe what technologies are needed, but what is essential is that people love the environment--we cannot save what we do not love." (17)


(1) Fourth Century on Love, 3, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, compiled by St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St Makarios of Corinth, vol. 2, translated from the Greek, G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware, eds, London, Faber & Faber, 1981, p.100.

(2) St Isaac the Syrian, quoted from the book by Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev), Mir Isaaka Sirina, Moscow, 1998, pp.39ff.

(3) St John of Damascus, De Fidei Orthodoxa, I, 13, PG XCIV, 853C.

(4) See a discussion in Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Cambridge, J. Clarke, rep. 1991, p.112.

(5) Stichira on "O Lord, I have cried unto you" from The Holy Office of Vespers composed by Gerasimos, a monk of Little Saint Anne's on the Holy Mountain, translated into English by Spencer T. Kezios, proto-presbyter.

(6) See especially the works by St Athanasius of Alexandria, St Gregory the Theologian, St Maximus the Confessor.

(7) Myrrha Lot-Borodine, La deification de l'Homme selon la doctrine des Peres grecs, Paris, Editions du Cerf, 1970, p.21. See also Jean-Claude Larchet, La divinisation de l'homme selon Maxime le Confesseur, Paris, Cerf, 1996, p.25. There are certain biblical passages which were taken as the scriptural foundation of the patristic doctrine of deification (Ps. 81:6; Gen. 1:26-7; Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18; 2 Pet. 1:4). At the same time, theosis was firmly linked with the incarnation of the Son of God.

(8) Amb. PG 91, 1088C. See also 1 Th 88, PG 90, 1168A.

(9) Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua, PG 91, 1305B.

(10) Gregory the Theologian, Oration 45 on Easter, PG 36, 632Af.

(11) His All Holiness Bartholomeos the Ecumenical Patriarch, address on 1 Sept. 1994.

(12) Service Book of the Holy Orthodox-Catholic Apostolic Church, compiled, translated and arranged from the Old Church-Slavonic service books of the Russian church and collated with the service books of the Greek church, Isabel Florence Hapgood, New Jersey, Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archidiocese of North America, 1983.

(13) His All Holiness Dimitrios the Ecumenical Patriarch, message from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Phanar, 1 Sept. 1989.

(14) His All Holiness Bartholomeos, address on 1 Sept. 1994.

(15) Orthodox Perspective on Creation: Report of the WCC Inter-Orthodox Consultation, Sofia, Bulgaria, Oct. 1987, par. 46.

(16) Stichira of Lity from the Holy Office of Vespers, op.cit., on Psalm verse 79/80:15.

(17) Metropolitan John of Pergamon (Zizioulas), from the presentation at environment symposium, Aegean Sea, 1995.

* Tamara Grdzelidze, from the Orthodox Church of Georgia, is a programme executive in Faith and Order.

This paper is based on some other writings which have not been directly quoted in the text: addresses of His All Holiness Bartholomeos the Ecumenical Patriarch; articles by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas), Bishop Kallistos (Ware), Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios, Bishop Irineos Pop, Sister Theoxeni, Fr K.M. George, Alexander Belopopsky, Dimitri Oikonomou, Elisabeth Theokritoff, and proceedings of the above-mentioned international meetings.
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Author:Grdzelidze, Tamara
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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