22 April 2009

An Orthodox Response to 'Earth Day'

Felix Culpa has posted a great piece on Earth Day over at Ora et Labora, one that I highly recommend other Orthodox read (I've stolen this icon from him!). It summarises well some of my own misgivings about the environmental movement and actually enlightened me about such things as 'Earth Day' in particular, but, on the other hand, it also takes the opportunity to affirm the proper Orthodox sense of respect for creation and to point to some sources on this issue. Christopher Orr as well has quoted from and linked to a few such sources in his own affirmation of the Orthodox support for environmental concern per se.

I would like to add three things to what they have already cited in pointing out the genuine Orthodox concern for creation. The first is a brief, but quite appealing statement of Elder Amphilochios of Patmos (one which I believe Met. Kallistos has quoted in one of his pieces on the environment): 'Whoever plants a tree, plants hope, peace, and love and has the blesssings of God' (Precious Vessels of the Holy Spirit: The Lives & Counsels of Contemporary Elders of Greece, Herman Middleton [Thessaloniki: Protecting Veil, 2003], p. 51). Although I, like Felix Culpa, feel that the 'reactionary stance' of many conservatives to 'environmental issues' is 'quite understandable', we Orthodox who identify with aspects of conservatism must recall that the above statement was made, not under the influence of fashionable post-1960's environmentalism, but as an expression of the genuine Orthodox veneration of God's earth.

Second, I would like to excerpt a couple of representative paragraphs from a book by my own professor, Anestis Kesselopoulos, Man and the Environment: A Study of St Symeon the New Theologian, trans. Elizabeth Theokritoff (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary, 2001), pp. 181-2:

In order to approach the inner principles [logoi] of things, it is necessary first to be using the world in accordance with nature; whereas any discord in man's relations with his natural surroundings indicates that something of the unnatural and irrational has infiltrated these relations. But if irrationality and an unnatural state are manifested in misuse of the world, then respect for the inner principles ('rationales') of things and a natural state is expressed in the ascetic, non-consumerist, and eucharistic use of the world. Dominant in the first instance are the hedonistic demands of the senses, which inform man about creation in a manner which doess not correspond to the truth of things. In this way they change the beauty of creation and oblige it to submit to the service of human individuality and autonomy. In the second instance, we ahve a renunciation on man's part of the demands of the senses, which constitutes the ascetic-eucharistic use of the world, the sole way of true life and knowledge. In St Symeon's writings, especial stress is laid on the ascetic use of the world which, in contrast to the consumerist use, saves not only the world but man too. For this reason, 'absolute necessity for the body' is held up as the measure and 'better way' in use of the world, a way which also works toward social justice.

Especially for the present age of incalculable exploitation and violation of the environment, the ascetic and non-consumerist ethos promoted by the Fathers is particularly salutary, since it shows man the way to restrict his greedy appetites towards creation in order to be connected with it in a more real and harmonious way, as God created him to be. This is the ethos embodied by the charismatic monks (not that they are the only expression of it) who by their life preserve truth, authenticity, and respect in their relations with the nature that surrounds them. Their asceticism is not to be interpreted as abhorrence of matter and the natural environment, but as the transcendence of human individualism. The true monk does not maltreat material things or the environment, but takes care of them and respects them. Thus in the life of the monk and the way he uses things, matter and the environment are elevated to their original beauty.

Finally, in my own master's thesis (a work 'in progress'!), I have drawn on Keselopoulos's book in one paragraph in particular in expressing some thoughts relevant to today's focus:

In his study of the theology of St Symeon the New Theologian, Keselopoulos notes that St Symeon, referring to the Lord’s parable about making good use of our ‘talents’,[1] holds it to be necessary to our salvation to engage in the right use of the material world.[2] This obviously precludes the sort of exploitation that in the West is often blamed today on a vague ‘Judeo-Christian [strand of] earth dominance beliefs’.[3] But on the positive side, it calls for an understanding, indeed, ultimately, a literal ‘vision’, of what are known to the Fathers as the logoi spermatikoi[4] of created things themselves, their inner principles or essences which are imparted to them by the creative activity and indwelling in creation of Christ the Logos. In the words of St Maximus the Confessor, ‘For all the works God has made, when contemplated by us wisely, in accordance with nature and with the proper science, mysteriously proclaim to us the principles according to which they were made.’[5] By using the material world in accordance with these logoi, by fashioning in such a way that they are preserved and even realised, created things cease to be understood as ‘impersonal objects of use, but [rather as] works and creations, the results of action and creation by a personal God.’[6] For man in a state kata physin, creation itself is stamped with the personal imprint of the Creator.


[1] Cf. Matthew 25:14-30.

[2] Anestis Keselopoulos, Man and the Environment: A Study of St Symeon the New Theologian, trans. Elizabeth Theokritoff (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 2001), pp. 113-4.

[3] Don Ihde, Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth (Indianapolis: U of Indiana, 1990), p. 198.

[4] According to Frederick Copleston’s magisterial philosophical history, for the Stoic originators of the term, ‘the logoi spermatikoi seem to be a transposition on to the material plane of the ideal theory [of Plato]’, and Copleston describes them thusly: ‘These active forms—but material—are as it were “seeds,” through the activity of which individual things come into being as the world develops; or rather they are seeds which unfold themselves in the forms of individual things’ (Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome from the Pre-Socratics to Plotinus [NY: Doubleday, 1993], pp. 388, 389).

[5] St Maximos the Confessor, ‘To Thalassius’, PG 90, 296A. I am indebted to Keselopoulos, Man, p. 110, for this reference.

[6] Keselopoulos, Man, p. 107. See also, Chrestos Yannaras, Person and Eros, trans. Norman Russell (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox, 2007), pp. 96-7.


Andrea Elizabeth said...


Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Very nice.

It brings to mind all the things which the world finds to represent progress, which are rather, each and every one, turning points away from what is proper, what is intended by God. Progress is regress. The machinery that has made life so frantic and dirty, the chemicals that need to be used to clean up other chemicals, the pollution of land, sea, and air, the degradation of philosophy into solipsism, the inhuman politics, the rudderless education——all of these things, touted by irrational, thoughtless, naive devotees, have made of a garden a living hell.

The Ochlophobist said...

I have a priest friend who likes to suggest that the mind of the Church reflects more a Christianized stoicism than it does a Christianized neo-Platonism or Platonism.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

That would not at all be surprising, Owen, as the Stoics discovered and first described, among other things, apatheia, this Greek word being used first in their writings. A book I'm about to start (I'm on a Cavarnos kick) is Orthodoxy and Philosophy: Lectures Delivered at St Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary, covering the relation of ancient and modern philosophy to Orthodoxy. It's arranged chronologically, in small chapters dealing with various Church Fathers, describing the deep philosophical background that would have been apparent to any even middlingly educated ancient, but which is obscured in our time through our lack of familiarity with the terminology, concepts, and personalities involved.

aaronandbrighid said...

A delightful book, Kevin. I was particularly excited to see the last chapter, on modern philosophy!

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Goody! I'm starting it tomorrow, out with coffee somewhere green and quiet.