Monthly Archives: September 2010

Living in God’s Creation, 4

Thoughts on reading Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2009).

Chapter 1 of Theokritoff’s book, running to almost 60 pages, is entitled “Themes in the Church Fathers.” I think the author has done an exceptionally fine job in summarizing the teaching of the Fathers on a variety of subjects that lend themselves to application to environmental issues. Among other of the Fathers, she cites SS. John Chrysostom (vairous of his homilies), Ephrem and Isaac of Syria, Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil the great (particularly the Hexaemeron, On the Six Days of Creation), Gregory of Nyssa (On the Making of Man), and John of Damascus (On the Orthodox Faith). Pride of place, however, goes to St. Maximus the Confessor, whom she cites extensively on a variety of topics.

Now, St. Maximus is dear to my heart, ever since I was acquainted with his writings in the early 80s and wrote my dissertation on him in the late 80s, and I have always thought that St. Maximus had something significant to say on environmental issues. Theokritoff has found exactly the same thing in the Confessor.

The themes which Theokritoff derives from the Fathers are these:

1. “The body and matter,” which discusses the importance of the Incarnation, the bodily resurrection, and eschatology in defining Christian attitudes towards the material world.

2. “Matter and the mystery of salvation,” which refutes the “low view of matter” among the Gnostics and affirms the sacramental view of matter, which the church holds.

3. “Seeing God in creation: wonder, Word and wisdom.” Here, the author treats the sense of awe toward the world, the “depth” of created things, the intelligibility of the world, and the embodiment of the Logos in creation.

4. “The glory of God hidden in his creatures,” which deals with the presence of God in creation, the notion of creation as a theophany, and the spiritual reality of material things.

5. “God in the universe and the universe in God,” deals with the transcendence and immanence of God.

6. “St. Maximus and the ‘word’ of things.” Here, Theokritoff gives an overview of the Confessor’s notion of the logoi of creatures, that principle which defines what a thing is and is it’s cause of being, and how each of the logoi is related to the one Logos. Books have been written on this subject. And, if I may speculate off the top of my head, I think the notion of the logoi as St. Maximus defines them may be an Orthodox equivalent to the medieval scholastic notion of natural law.

7. “Spelling out God in creation,” continues the discussion of St. Maximus and deals with his notion that God the Word is embodied three ways: in creation, in Scripture, and finally in the flesh. From the embodiment of the Word in creation, Theokritoff finds a basis for reverencing the “book” of creation, and in this I think she’s right. She goes on to summarize St. Maximus’s view of how the fall affected creation. Here, she might have gone a little further in spelling out St. Maximus’s distinction between the logos physeos and the tropos hyparxeos, that is, what a thing is vis-a-vis the way it exists, but that is a large subject, and perhaps beyond what she needed to say in this context.

8. “God, properly speaking, is everything,” deals with the idea of participation in St. Maximus.

9. “The divine energies in the world,” again deals with the idea of creatures’ participation in God.

10. “Man’s place in creation” looks at man’s place in creation, and his role as a microcosm.

11. “Images of man’s place in creation,” points out what Theokritoff believes is the classic statement of man’s place in creation, which is found in a homily by St. Gregory the Theologian, which points out that man is a microcosm and a worshiper of God, whose oversight of creation is bound up with discerning God’s wisdom in the depths of created things.

12. “Divine image and dominion,” looks at reason, free will, human freedom, and dominion over creation.

13. “Dominion and use,” deals with the notion that creation exists “for man,” and here Theokritoff abandons the more objective presentation she has been making throughout this chapter to counter the “disturbingly utilitarian, as well as distinctly simplistic” (p. 75) statements the Fathers make on this subject. She reaffirms that the goodness of creation is axiomatic in the fathers, the interdependence rather than self-sufficiency of all created things, and notes that, “the responsibility that goes with our dominant position is not primarily administrative but doxological” (p. 79).

14. “The world of the fall,” makes a nice distinction between the common phrase, “the fallen world,” and a more accurate Orthodox phrase, “the world of the fall.” The section also points out the eschatological view, of seeing the world for what it was created, not simply for what it is.

15. “The Commandments in paradise and use of the world” presents a rather spiritualized reading of the Commandments given to Adam and Eve in paradise.

16. “Cursed is the Earth”? This is a very interesting section in which the author looks at the effect of the fall, not only on man, but also on the rest of creation. She presents various opinions of the Fathers about the use of animals for food, the extent of the corruptibility of nature as a result of the fall, the original immortality of man, and an eschatological reading of Paradise. I found the discussion and dissection fascinating.

17. “The fall and the abuse of creation,” looks at the way the fallen world no longer refers to God, but becomes an end in itself, an idol.

Again, an excellent summary of the fathers on these topics. The whole of more could be said about any one of them, of course, but as a summary, this one works very well.

Living in God’s creation, 3

Thoughts on reading Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2009).

After having talked in my last post about some of the problems I see in the introduction to this book, I had promised to look at some of the positive things I find. I’ll do so in this post.

In the first place, I am very encouraged to see an Orthodox writer bringing the wisdom of the Fathers to bear on a contemporary issue. As a student of the Fathers myself, I appreciate not only the great treasures available in the patristic tradition, but also the difficulty one has in translating their wisdom into a contemporary milieu and bringing it to bear on a new context which the Fathers themselves never addressed directly. To be sure, issues of Christian life, theosis, and morality don’t change, and patristic teaching on these issues is easily fungible across the centuries. But issues like environmentalism, which the Fathers never addressed directly, are not so easy. I think Theokritoff gets major kudos for undertaking her study and a contributing something Orthodox to the discussion.

Secondly, she frankly acknowledges this difficulty and speaks to the limits of theology. She says,

It is vital to come to a deeper theological understanding of God’s creation and our own place in it; but this on its own will not show us how to address specific social and environmental problems. It is not the task of theology to come up with such solutions, and there will sometimes be genuine differences among Christians about the practicalities of remedying various ills. (pp. 29-30)

Thirdly, I was happy to see her make a simple but helpful distinction between the “environment” and the “creation” (p. 26). As she points out, the “environment” means something around us, and is defined in relation and in contradistinction to humans, whereas “creation” is defined in contradistinction to the Creator alone. I think it helpful to distinguish humans vis-à-vis the environment who are nevertheless creatures in creation vis-à-vis their Creator.