Orthodoxy and the Environment

The recent meeting between the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Pope in Jerusalem culminated in a joint declaration that in one significant section, less noted than it should have been, addressed the environment from Christian perspectives:

“It is our profound conviction that the future of the human family depends also on how we safeguard–both prudently and compassionately, with justice and fairness–the gift of creation that our Creator has entrusted to us. Therefore, we acknowledge in repentance the wrongful mistreatment of our planet, which is tantamount to sin before the eyes of God. We reaffirm our responsibility and obligation to foster a sense of humility and moderation so that all may feel the need to respect creation and to safeguard it with care. Together, we pledge our commitment to raising awareness about the stewardship of creation; we appeal to all people of good will to consider ways of living less wastefully and more frugally, manifesting less greed and more generosity for the protection of God’s world and the benefit of His people.” (Text from Special Section of The Orthodox Observer, June 2014)

The statement is in line with earlier statements by both leaders, particularly by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, known worldwide as “the Green Patriarch.”

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, other Orthodox hierarchs, and Orthodox scholars have worked to articulate in great detail approaches of our faith to care for the environment in recent years.

Fruits of those labors are represented in particular by two excellent studies published last year by Fordham University Press, which would make great and socially relevant summer reading for Orthodox Americans.

The first is a comprehensive collection of writings by Orthodox Christians on the topic, co-edited by Archdeacon John Chryssavgis and Prof. Bruce V. Foltz, Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Creation, and Nature (as full disclosure, this includes an unworthy contribution—among many contributions from far better thinkers and writers—by yours truly). The second is a monography by Prof. Foltz, The Noetics of Nature, which provides an intellectual history of the idea of Nature from a patristic perspective. Fr. Dn. Chryssavgis is environmental adviser to the Ecumenical Patriarch and Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Patriarchal Throne, and former dean of Holy Cross Seminary, and Prof. Foltz is a Heideggerean scholar and environmental philosopher who converted to Orthodoxy.

The collection includes a prefatory letter by His All Holiness, a foreword by environmental writer Bill McKibben, and an endorsement by Prince Charles. Together with Foltz’s monograph, both provide a treasure trove from recent efforts to articulate Orthodox traditions of cosmology, ascetics, and theology of Nature in relation to modern environmental concerns.

A third smaller book published last year by the conservative Acton Institute, co-authored by Fr. Michael Butler and Dr. Andrew P. Morriss (a business and law professor), entitled Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism, offers an excellent concise discussion of St. Maximus the Confessor’s writings on the logoi as a basis for Orthodox approaches to Nature. However, its critique of statist approaches to the environment is more explicitly political than the above two volumes, although potentially engaging politically conservative Orthodox Americans with the topic. The conservative Anglican philosopher Roger Scruton’s recent book Green Philosophy also offers perspectives on Christianity and the environment that many Orthodox Americans would find helpful.

Interestingly, the brief joint declaration by the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch and the Catholic Pope covers in essence the approaches discussed in all these books.

The appearance of these books, however, and the inclusion of the statement in the joint declaration, all indicate the tremendous importance of Orthodox perspectives on Creation to Christian witness and practice on the environment. They provide a foundation for approaches to the issue that include the spiritual and the moral, and that recognize how meaningfulness is an important part of any efforts toward environmental sustainability–in motivating, satisfying, and establishing disciplined self-limits for human activity, indeed in transforming desire from possessive materialism to relational intercommunion.

Those looking for more information on Orthodoxy and the environment may also wish to contact the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration (OFT), a pan-Orthodox group on whose Steering Committee I serve. Its website can be found at orth-transfiguration.org, and also under Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration on Facebook.

Last fall, the OFT sponsored a conference “On Earth as it is in Heaven” at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, DC. While most of the speakers were Orthodox Christians, they included climate scientist Dr. James Hansen. Hansen advanced his idea there of a “fee and dividend” system for reducing climate emissions (Scruton, mentioned above, also has advocated on conservative traditional Christian grounds a carbon tax). Such a system would charge fees on production and importation of carbon fuels, while paying dividends from those fees to every American, which in turn could be used for transportation and equipment lowering carbon emissions, if desired.

While such a proposal remains controversial, along with issues about climate change, it did show how Orthodox teachings about Creation as God’s gift can engage views of natural resources as a public resource that is not reducible to either private or government possession. Related views are expounded in efforts to combine the ecological economics of Herman Daly with “geo-libertarianism” derived from Henry George’s old single-tax idea as applied to natural resources. The discussion of Hansen’s proposal at the OFT conference provides just one illustration of how Orthodox-related perspectives could help Americans think outside the box of partisan politics on environmental issues in future. Please consider the resources mentioned above, and how you can get involved.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

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Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers has a Ph.D. in Medieval English…
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