Apostolos Nikolaïdis Professor Emeritus, University of Athens, President of the ‘Saint Maxim the Greek’ Institute
The best and most beneficial role that the natural world can play is to mediate between God and humankind in order to restore the relationship of communion.
The first question that arises is the reason for the assignment of such a role.
From the first moment of the creation of humankind, the natural world has been in a position between us and God, particularly since one of the two components of which we’re made, the body, is itself part of nature. Indeed, if we bear in mind life as it was in the first paradise, nature contributed significantly to the communion between God and humans. Saint John Chrysostom writes: ‘The sky is good, but was created so that people would venerate its Creator’.
Mediation was activated when people not only departed from God but also turned against him. This mediation is reinforced by the fact that nature follows the course of humankind from incorruption to decay, though without, at the same time, distancing itself from the Creator. It should be stressed that the intermediary role isn’t an exceptional service to fallen human but is part of its function. It should also be noted that this same role is maintained after the mediation effected by Christ, as God and human, since the consequences of the fall remain even after the Lord’s incarnation.
This mediation is characterized by being non-rational, non-optional and non-active. The reason is obvious. Nature doesn’t possess reason, has no morality and is not in a position to take initiatives. It does, however, have stable laws which function without discrimination, without guile and without self-interest. Sometimes these laws work to our benefit and at other times they’re harmful. It’s in the second case that the well-known theory of natural evil is grounded and has evolved as a theory that can justify evil only as a consequence, never as a cause. Nature doesn’t act out of wickedness nor, of course, out of goodness. It is, however, created and therefore appointed to serve the needs of us humans. This is a ministry that doesn’t depend on its own will but on that of the Creator. Any change in the quality or quantity of nature’s provision of service (for example, what is said in Genesis about ‘thorns and thistles’) isn’t due to the natural world, nor, of course, to the Creator, but is the result of a change in attitude among us people. So the crisis in our relationship with nature has to do exclusively with the crisis which our royal office has undergone because of the fall.
Given this, the only factor which acts rationally, by choice, and actively, is the human person. However, in relation to the natural environment we’re ‘allowed’ or seek to give it our own features, so that we can ‘be in touch with’ or ‘converse’ with it, to send and, in particular, to receive, messages. This is a need which is due to a variety of reasons: to the sense that we, as people, belong to nature, to nostalgia for the Creator, to the quest for a go-between to arrange our reconnection with the Creator, to disillusion with social activities and patterns of behavior, and, in general, to the sense of loneliness resulting from lack of communication, despite the increase in our numbers, despite our domination of the planet, the creation of large cities, the amalgamation of numerous organizations and alliances, as well as other cultural leaps. As a result of all of this, nature has proved to be our only sincere, unfeigned, unselfish, guileless, steady, conscientious, safe and forbearing ‘interlocutor’.
This mediation [by nature between God and humankind] involves
1) its enduring effort to mediate with God on behalf of the fallen human race, to judge by the request of exiled Adam for paradise to intercede with God through the rustling of the leaves so that he, Adam, might again enjoy the fruits of the garden (Ikos, Forgiveness Sunday)*.
2) it being the preferred locus for a divine appearance, as was the case, for example, in the flaming bush (Ex. 3, 2) or as point of reference to its Creator and his energies. Saint Basil the Great says, for instance, that those who observe carefully the beauties of nature see the providence and wisdom of God regarding all his creation, as if they were reading a book with large letters.
3) the continued provision of service and care, despite the estrangement of humankind from the Creator.
4) the creation of the necessary conditions and or stimuli which contribute to our recognition of the extent and consequences of our fall. One example of this is the cockerel which crowed three times and caused Peter to realize his betrayal, but also, at the same time, set him on the path of salvation (Matth. 26, 74-75).
5) its silent protest against human wretchedness, which replaces the godless or guilty silence of humankind, as expressed in the well known verse: ‘If they are silent, the stones themselves will cry out’ (Luke 19, 40).
6) the promotion of Natural Law as a criterion for life and action for those who are outside the Church and the Law of Grace. This is something Saint Paul hinted at: ‘Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts’ (Romans 2, 14-15).
7) the subconscious creation of extreme conditions which shake up sinful people, so that they’re brought to repentance and a change in their attitude to life. These include powerful earthquakes, eclipses of the sun and so on. The hymns of Great Week are full of such references: ‘the sun was darkened and the foundations shaken’; or ‘the heavens were astonished at this and the sun hid its rays’.
8) its use, particularly by Christ as the divine human, for our salvation, as Saint John the Damascan points out: ‘I venerate the creator of matter, who became matter and dwelt in matter and has worked my salvation through matter’. It is also used in the sacramental life as a constituent part of the celebration of a rite, especially the sacrament of the Divine Eucharist.
9) its readiness to suffer and sigh with us, escort and accompany us until the end of the ages, when, renewed, we shall all share in the rebirth, according to what Saint Paul declared when he wrote: ‘For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time’ (Romans 8, 19-22).
* ‘Paradise, share the pain of your impoverished master and by the sound of your leaves, plead with the Creator not to close you. Compassionate one, have mercy on me who have fallen’.