Category Archives: Environmentalism

Paradise and the oikoumene

One of the more intriguing passages in St Maximus the Confessor is found in Ambiguum 41, in which the Confessor lays out humanity’s role in sanctifying the world by mediating five pairs of distinctions inherent in the created order. Because of the fall, mankind was not able to effect these mediations, but Christ, through His Incarnation, was. The five distinctions are:

1. Between the uncreated and the created;
2. Among created things, between the intelligible and the sensible;
3. Among sensible things, between heaven and earth;
4. On Earth, between paradise and the inhabited world (the oikoumene);
5. In humanity, between man and woman, or the masculine and the feminine.

Now, the distinctions are given here in order from top to bottom, but in the order in which they are mediated, they are made from the bottom up; that is to say, the first mediation is between male and female, the second between Paradise and the inhabited world, etc.

What interests us here, in a discussion of environmentalism, is the fourth distinction, the second one to be mediated, that which takes place on earth between paradise and the inhabited world. Please note that for St. Maximus, paradise is an earthly reality, not a transcendent one. Questions naturally arise: where then does paradise lie? (Is it really just outside of Austin, as all Texans are convinced?) How can paradise and the inhabited world be reconciled or mediated? Once they are mediated, what effect does paradise have on the inhabited world?

The Confessor himself, in other places in his writings, suggests some answers to these questions. (Those who are really desperate to know can read Lars Thunberg, Man and the Cosmos, pp. 83-85).

If we can avoid “reaping wholesale returns of speculation on a trifling investment of fact,” to quote Mark Twain, I’d like to suggest that this notion in St. Maximus might be a fruitful one to explore for persons interested in the application of patristic ideas to environmental concerns.


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.

Living in God’s creation, 2

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

I want to make a few comments about the Introduction to Theokritoff’s book in this post. I need to preface my remarks by saying that I am not an economist, and that I don’t intend to play one on WordPress. Nevertheless, the author makes a number of statements in her Introduction that I find simply astonishing, and so I feel compelled to wade into the shallows of economics and fish for a response there.

The author herself raises the question of “why we need to concern ourselves with practical measures to address environmental problems” (p. 20), and quickly passes to “the question of remedies” (p. 21). She says,

Now, there is no doubt that technology in various forms has played an important part in solving human problems since the dawn of civilization. But when we look at the true potentials of various technologies (whether we are talking about improving crop yields, producing cleaner energy, energy efficiency or other areas), it quickly becomes apparent that few are without their drawbacks; almost none will produce a net benefit if they are not combined with difficult decisions to give up some of the things we have grown accustomed to doing. We need to entertain the possibility that “technical fixes” will not be sufficient. (p. 21)

I agree with the author that technology has its drawbacks. I don’t think that’s really the question, however. Lack of technology has very real drawbacks, as well. The question is rather whether the benefits of the technology outweigh its drawbacks. Take for example the new Chevy Volt. Running a car on electricity is cleaner, and it would cost about $1.47 in electricity to go the same distance as a gallon of gas would take you, so the operating cost is lower; however, it has a range of only 40 miles and a price tag of $41,000. For most people, the drawbacks outweigh the benefits, and I expect few Volts will be sold. The only way for new technology to become widely adopted is for “technical fixes” (in which the author seems to have little faith) to continue apace and make emerging technologies economically viable.

She goes on to say,

It is hard to escape the conclusion that with an ever-growing human population, it is not enough for humanity as a whole to do more with less; individually, we must also learn to do less with less (p. 21).

This statement is astonishing. It is a call to reduce our quality of life, and I find it hard to square with her concern for the poor and the weak, for whom learning “to do less with less” is a recipe for catastrophe. She says, on p. 19, “most environmental problems take their toll on the poor and weak long before they affect those who can afford to live far from the landfills, upwind of the factories or power plants, and well above sea level”. If the poor and the weak suffer in our current economy, their suffering in a reduced economy will be unspeakable. A vibrant economy helps everyone; poverty in the United States, for example, is incomparable with poverty found elsewhere in the world. The poor and weak will not be helped by making everyone else poorer and weaker.

The author spends some time describing a “culture of control,” which is “a way for us to arrange the world for our own convenience, with no reference to some higher will for the world or for us” (p. 22). She goes on,

Many people regarded it as quite normal, for instance, to have strawberries to eat in mid-winter, relax and a cool house in mid-summer in a subtropical climate, or sit on a well-watered lawn beside the swimming pool in a semi-desert. (p. 23)

I freely disclose that I eat strawberries in midwinter. My winter strawberries come from Mexico and Chile. What is for me an “indulgence” (Theokritoff’s term) is probably not an indulgence for the Latin American farmers who grow the strawberries and depend upon their sale for their livelihood. Taking to task people who live in the South for air-conditioning their homes strikes me simply as mean-spirited. She might as well take northerners to task for presuming to heat their homes in the winter. I don’t have a swimming pool, so I won’t comment on that part.

She says further,

[Such indulgences] reflect an expectation that nature should not be allowed to restrict us. That if I happen to feel like doing something, then neither season, nor climate, nor distance should be allowed to stand in my way (p. 23).

But, in fact, season, climate, and distance, do stand in the way. We see that they do in the higher prices we pay for some goods and services. The Latin American strawberries which I eat in winter cost a lot more than the local strawberries I buy from my neighbor’s fruit stand in the summer. Some people will choose not to pay the higher price for winter strawberries, and will wait for summer to eat them. Where there is a high demand for electricity to air-condition homes, the price of electricity goes up. In the face of higher prices for electricity, some people will choose to open their windows rather than run the air conditioner. This is how season, climate, and distance stand in our way and affect our decisions.

These are enough examples for one post. Next time, I’ll look at some of the more positive things that Theokritoff says in her Introduction.

Living in God’s Creation, 1

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

In the Foreword, Peter Bouteneff says, “… if you want to live a truly Christian life, you must inhabit the earth in a way that is mindful of the whole of creation… This is the utterly convincing argument of this book” (p. 9). If Dr Bouteneff is correct, then Living in God’s Creation is going to be an interesting read. I say that because I have assumed, until now, that living a truly Christian life meant being mindful of God, not His creation. I am curious to see how Theokritoff handles her theme, because there isn’t much on the market about Orthodox takes on ecological subjects. I’ll be commenting as I read.

On stewardship, particularly the environmental kind

I was privileged to attend Acton University 2010 in Grand Rapids, MI, last month, thanks to the kindness and generosity of the good folk at The Acton Institute. It was a 4-day intellectual feast, the likes of which I had not participated in, in a very long time. While there, I took a series of 3 lectures on environmental issues. I chose those lectures for a few reasons: one, because I am interested in the subject; two, the more I read Orthodox statements on environmental issues the less my heart is at peace about them; and three, I am invited to participate in a conference this coming September in Montana, sponsored by the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, which will present free market ideas on environmentalism to religious leaders. I felt it would be good preparation for the FREE conference to attend the environmental lectures at Acton. My time was very well spent.

There are many particulars from my time at Acton University on which I could comment, but in this post I want to think out loud about one recurring impression I got from the lectures, from one of the after-dinner speakers, and from a variety of casual conversations. I was struck, repeatedly, by how often it was said that God owns the world.

Now, I don’t dispute that God owns the world. Ben Phillips, whose lectures on “Biblical Theology and Environmental Ethics” and “Evangelicals and the Green Movement” I attended, laid out very clearly the Biblical basis for God’s ownership of all of creation, and I believe both Dr Phillips and the Scriptures.

At the same time, I kept remembering a distinction which I recollect from SS Diadochus of Photike and Basil the Great (it’s probably a patristic commonplace drawn on a verse of Scripture, but I can’t remember other references off the top of my head). The distinction is this:

There are 3 relationships we can have with God:

  • that of slaves, in which we are motivated by fear of punishment/hell;
  • that of servants, in which we are motivated by desire of reward/heaven; and
  • that of sons, in which we are motivated solely by love of the Father.

It is this distinction in relationships that gives me pause about the idea of stewardship, for stewardship is a function of a master-servant relationship. Therefore, it seems to fall short of the more perfect relationship, that of sons.

(Perhaps stewardship is precisely “economic” in both senses of economics and oikonomia and it can’t be expected to function in a Father-son relationship.)

I am less at ease when I think of environmental stewardship, for the presumption of the stewardship model is that the earth, and everything in it (and everybody in it?), belong to God as a possession or a property. On the other hand, I can’t help remembering that the end of the Apocalypse is not a Master calling in His chattel (slaves) or his property (servant/stewards), but rather it is the marriage feast of the Lamb.

And here I don’t know where to go. My sense is that the emphasis on God’s ownership of creation shows a lack of imagination, a failure to take into account other metaphors that describe the relationship between God and his creation.

Perhaps it is a simplification that, to my mind, isn’t adequate precisely because it over-simplifies what is, in fact, a complex reality.

Perhaps stewardship is the governing idea and Scripture has been made to serve that idea via a sort of “proof-texting.”

Again, I don’t know where to go. I hope my dis-ease makes sense. I invite your comments.