An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Ecological Justice and Change

By Fr. Alexis Vinogradov

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." (Gen. 1:1)

"Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." (Luke 21:33)

"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away." (Revelation 21:1)

How can Christians who have been separated for so long historically and culturally, articulate a coherent vision on ecology? It is admitted by most that the Bible can provide a starting point for that effort. Yet the Bible is not a neat manual for figuring out Christian principles of operating in this world. It is filled with the kinds of paradoxes quoted above. The writers of the first book extol the wonders of creation. The writer of the last book paints in maddening detail the destruction of this world and the establishment of a new Creation. If one stops at Genesis it seems clear that man's stewardship of nature, his work at restoring Eden, is the prime directive. Yet if one focuses on the eschatological accounts (the "final" things) in the New Testament, one might conclude, after all the intervening stories and events of human strife and failure, that it's all doomed for destruction, anyway, and noted paleontologists lend sobering scientific precision to that theological conclusion.

Yet if the Bible is neither a precise manual of cosmology, nor an irrevocable theological treatise, it nevertheless holds a universal key for Christians concerning the connections between humans and the created order. But it is essential to enter within the living traditions of Christianity, to learn how the Bible is lived, if we are to grasp this key. If discussion, writing and advocacy are taking place with great pathos and urgency in the domain of ecology, it is for two reasons. First, it reveals a common perception that something is tragically remiss in our relation to nature, something for which Christians themselves are responsible and in which they are implicated. Secondly, the debate proves that there obviously does not yet exist a common theology and prescription for this tragedy, and although important principles have been articulated, there is yet no consensus on methodology and priorities.

It is admirable to advocate the use of recyclable coffee cups, carpooling to reduce gas emissions and consumption, printing on both sides to save paper and postage, planting of trees to counter the ravages of lawn maintenance, and so on (the list is vintage by now!). Such advocacy touches universal sensibilities and appeals to anyone minimally conscious of the limited resources of the planet. But it does not yet address the specifically "Christian" contribution to the debate, which after all, should be the mandate of Christian churches. Having said this, I should emphasize that Christians must go about this task not simply to add "another point of view" to the problem, but articulate what they believe to be the one tenable and universally true vision. This is not the work of "theologians" as specialists, but the comprehensive effort of specialists as theologians -- those who think, act, pray, and live a true theology (in the patristic sense). This is particularly difficult in a relativistic culture which abhors absolutes and regards any vision claiming catholicity (in the broadest meaning of this word) as bordering on fundamentalism.

The result of a prevailing culture relativism is that even when the Christian vision is articulated with force and clarity, it is relegated to the "religious" domain, to that special twilight zone that one linguist friend calls "theo-speak" -- it is received by the intellectual community with patronizing civility and gratitude, and subsequently shelved among the appendices or "inspirational" works. We thus have the double task of defining precepts common to us as Christians, and secondly of communicating these precepts in a living, effective way.

"We Talk The Talk, But . . . "

The French Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov, (+1970) a man whose personal life and work are living testimony of love for neighbor, of "ecology" in the most profound sense, makes a harsh condemnation of his own family of faith, when he writes that the failure of Christianity lies with the failure of Christians to be credible witnesses of their own teaching. ("A Letter to the Churches of Christ," in L'Amour Fou de Dieu, Paris, 1973, in French). Another Orthodox theologian, martyred for his own courageous witness (+1990), the Soviet priest, Fr. Alexander Men, also wrote that Christians have ceased to bear their ministry as the leaven within a pagan society. Put in modern jargon: we talk the talk, but we don't walk the walk.

In the same collection of texts cited above, Evdokimov makes the critical point that ultimately it is not even a question of postulating a specifically Christian "agenda" to a problem, but rather that the individual Christian who lives and functions within the culture must infuse his whole activity with a particular turn of mind and heart that becomes infectious by its self-evident truthfulness rather than by a religious label or mark which brands him a specific "type." Here one discovers the radical opposition of two approaches in the Christian debate: is the Christian Church a limited, defined institution operating within the world and culture(s), or is the culture and society itself subsumed and transfigured within the Church that has no boundaries? Does the Church stand as a lonely prophetic voice outside of culture and speaking to it, or is She the "leaven" concealed deep within the measure of flour (Matthew 13:33)?

Any coherent Christian "position" on the ecological (or for that matter any other socially relevant issue) must face these questions first. Do we simply provide sanitized position papers for legislative agencies (government, corporate, or even ecclesial) or do we provide a believable living witness of what true Christian ecology actually looks like?

Unique Persons

This question places us squarely before a fundamental point of Christian life. Christ comes not to humanity in general, not to a particular culture, not to confront political ideologies, but for encounter with specific, unique persons in every age and culture ("...I do not pray for the world, but for those persons whom you, Father, have given me..." "...I have chosen you disciples out of the 'world' (meaning the nameless collective). His followers have names. These apostles in turn communicate and witness to persons and communities who have names (one has only to read their letters). What a contrast to the modern "efficient" listserver and media which reaches out to the nameless crowd. In The Brothers Karamazov, the Russian writer, Dostoyevski, reveals our contemporary dilemma through the person of one efficient doctor, "how he loved humanity, but how he couldn't stand his neighbor!"

So, too, our advocacy cannot legitimately take on collective proportions before it is demonstrated in personal, sacrificial deeds vis-a-vis our neighbor who has a name. In short, Christians have an enormous task of personal transformation ahead of them if they hope to have any lasting and meaningful impact on society at large. The communication of a Christian world view is not the presentation of ethical ideas, but an encounter with the living Christ through living witnesses -- an encounter so radical, that it provides a whole change of one's itinerary, one's usual agenda, hence the notion of repentance, change of heart and mind, metanoia. This understanding has its foundation in the very theology of the Incarnation. The "truth" about which Pilate asks stands face to face before him in the Person of Christ. The Word of God, communicated as Love, lived personally, directly. Pilate cannot see, not because the "message" is ineffective, but because his heart is closed, because he is unwilling to turn from his preset course.

Abstract Teaching Vis-a-Vis Personal Witness

This problem between abstract teaching and personal witness came into sharp relief at a conference on ecology I attended some time ago. To be sure, there were interesting and sincere papers and presentations. Most inspiring (for this participant at least) was the account by Fr. Michael Oleksa about the organic connections between faith, life, industry, and nature among the native Alaskans, the innate "ecology" of a people who live the Incarnation. Yet many of us delegates arrived at this conference one to a car, we stayed in luxurious hotel facilities, we ate what everyone eats in hotels with no regard to nutritional value or waste, we sported clothing which keep the chemical rayon and polyester industries churning out their pollution. We looked and acted pretty much like anyone else who might care little about ecology.

From this "crowd" of ecologically-minded activists (myself included), my thoughts drifted to two monks who live on a hill north of the Vermont/Canada border. The abbot is a disciple of Lanza del Vasto, who founded l'Arche, a Christian educational community in France based on principles of nonviolence. (Lanza himself was a personal disciple of Ghandi). Over many years these monastics had evolved in their life a radical version of what today is popularly called "The Simplicity Movement." Their guiding vision is rooted in a Christian understanding of man and nature, so exquisitely described in a paper by Bishop Kallistos (Ware). ("Through the Creation to the Creator," Third Marco Pallis Memorial Lecture, London, October, 1996)

As the monks happily subsist on meager proceeds from iconography, every facet of their daily routine is an act of conscious communion with the Creator, a liturgy in which man is the priest, the mediator, the one who offers. Nothing is done with speed or "expediency." Nothing is a means to get on to something "more important," the way we would wolf down a sandwich to get to an "important" meeting. Every act is a sacrament, important in itself. Everything is fabricated and consumed with the consciousness of processes involved in the production.

On a stroll through his woods, when the abbot, Fr. Gregory, recently mused, "I can't imagine how Paradise can be much better!", it was clear that he wasn't only describing the outward forms of their existence, but pointing to an inner key, to Paradise truly regained in the human heart. For me, the image of that life endures far more powerfully, and speaks volumes more than the most articulate papers and theological treatises on ecology.

The Vision Discovered

When that vision is discovered and witnessed, there is no need to break it down into its components, to ask, "What are the specific aspects that make that life particularly ecologically-conscious? How can we appropriate aspects of this particular community in, let's say, the 'urban' context?" The very point is that we have witnessed how someone lives and is transformed in relation to Christ, taking the Gospel with utmost seriousness and joy -- a life that is a complete affront to the prevailing culture and an implicit judgment on it.

It is up to each of us subsequently to give that "how" our own personal shape, not as clones of another individual, but each called to live his own unique Christ-bearing life. For the most part, we Christians appear profoundly "happy", content within the prevailing culture, for the most part we drive up in large private vehicles to our comfortable churches, we probably engage in some conscience-saving goodwill activities with little impact on our personal resources or time, and with easy conscience we consume, as do our non-religious neighbors, twelve times the world's per capita consumption of goods (so the statisticians tell us)!

"Interiorized Monasticism"

The Russian writer, Solzhenitsyn, long after his years of exile and imprisonment, continued to write in the smallest print, using every blank space on small sheets of paper. This was not a quirk, but rather the fruit of a lived experience, the imposed awareness of how infinitely precious and tenuous is each morsel of God's creation. Many who endured such deprivations ended up grateful to their captors for the transformation and peaked awareness of life which resulted. If life sometimes offers this unwitting martyrdom, the Church has historically espoused a voluntary martyrdom leading to a similar transformation -- the martyrdom of the desert. No one will intelligently argue against the impracticality of a mass exodus for the wilderness (although the monastic movement seems to be gaining adherents), but the spiritual equivalent is what several Orthodox writers have called "interiorized monasticism" or "untonsured", unofficial monasticism.

"Interiorized monasticism" means living in this world and society a life of profound Christian consciousness in every minute detail, of self-restraint in order to restore the balance, to free ourselves of the illusion of permanent private ownership, to treat every aspect and element of creation as the means of communion with my neighbor, as the sacrament of love with him and with our mutual Creator. We are sometimes tempted to drag the prophets and monks down from their holy mountains, to tell them their life is surreal, to convince them to join us in our good fight to save society. But in their silent witness it is they who lift us up, who demonstrate in concrete terms the possible impossibility of true Christian life, a life that can be lived precisely in this world.

This should not be construed as an appeal to sectarianism, which particularly as a modern phenomenon of ecology, has taken the form of many back-to-earth quasi-religious movements. For it is not a question of escape, of abandonment of the fallen industrialized world for the sake of an utopian agricultural Shangri-La. Nor is it a case that the world must be salvaged in and for itself, purely for the sake of good health, longevity, and general "prosperity." But it is a question of reorienting priorities, of heeding Christ's call to "seek first the kingdom of God," so that all these other things are added, or rather placed in their true order and meaning, as we are reminded in her excellent thesis on the environment by the Orthodox writer, Elizabeth Theokritoff. ("Orthodoxy and the Environment," in Sourozh, No. 58, Nov. 1994)

Communicants With God In His Creation

Only in this light do the apparent biblical contradictions which prefaced this article, vanish. For on the one hand, the world is indeed good and communicates to us its Creator; on the other hand, this very creation is not an end in itself, but must be transformed, perpetually renewed and recreated by those who are called to share in the creative act, by those who themselves are made in the image and likeness of the Creator.

In his landmark study, For the Life of the World (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY), Fr. Alexander Schmemann (+1983) summarizes the Orthodox perspective on man's role. He reminds us of our place in Paradise as communicants with God in his creation, of the cosmic fall of man in his becoming the "consumer," and of our personal restoration and the restoration of the world in the renewed eucharistic life, the life of offering and thanksgiving, as shown and lived in and through Christ, the perfect Man.

I write this in preparation for a conference on ecological justice in Estes Park, a place of incredible natural beauty in the heart of Colorado. Ironically, it will take considerable jet fuel and other expense and resources to assemble us there. A part of me wonders if we shouldn't be meeting in a run down neighborhood of some smoggy American city -- which context might be more sobering for our agenda? St. Basil the Great wrote in the fourth century: "the coat that hangs in your closet belongs on the shoulders of your brother who is naked, the extra shoes belong on the feet of the one who has none..." Certainly, we can complete St. Basil's list as we step back and observe our own abundance and surplus. In the end, our only effective witness will be when the world looks at us, as it did at the early Christians, and exclaims, "My goodness, look at how they live!" Then they will know indeed if we truly love God's creation, or if we just like to talk about how much we love it.

Re-examination Of Our Mode of Christian Life

If, for this writer at least, the primary mandate is clearly the reexamination of our very mode of Christian life, this should not, at the same time, stalemate our zeal and concrete efforts at ecological justice. We do have unprecedented opportunities for creative dialogue and work. A world shrunk by instant communications has erected bridges between cultures -- political, economic, and religious. We need to ford these bridges civilly, but fearlessly, speaking and hearing each other with urgency and without sentimentality, "speaking the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15).

Additional Bibliography

Orthodoxy and Ecology, A Resource Book, Syndesmos, P.O. Box 22, 11-950 Bialystok, Poland, FAX 48-543-747. Also available from National Council of Churches Bookstore, PO Box 968, Elkhart, IN 46515-0968. (800) 762-0968. Specify Book number EJ 9740, $15.00. Includes references to other resources on ecology.

Sourozh, Journal of the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate in Britain, c/o E. J. Robeson, 13 Carver Rd., Herne Hill, London, SE 24, 9LS, England. Contains the article by Elizabeth Theokritoff and others on the theme of ecology. (Copies may also be purchased from St. Vladimir's Seminary Bookstore.)

Fr. Alexis Vinogradov is pastor of St. Gregory the Theologian Orthodox Church, Wappingers Falls, NY. He is also the OCA representative to the National Council of Churches Committee on Environmental Issues.

Taken from the OCA Resource Handbook for Lay Ministries