Discerning the Spirit in Creation: Orthodox Christianity and Environmentalism1
Professor of Philosophy
St. Petersburg, FL 33711
The major problems facing our world today are increasingly connected to environmental issues: pollution, population, energy, climate change all call into question our relation to nature, a relation that seems to many to have become deeply problematical. And it seems likely that environmental issues will continue to occupy center stage throughout this new century. But can Orthodox Christianity teach us anything important about the natural environment and our relation to it? We live in a modern age, an age of science and technology, where even very traditional problems of birth and life and death are given scientific formulations and technological solutions. Surely problems explicitly involving nature itself should properly be defined and analyzed by the natural sciences, and addressed by the technologies that science has made possible—not pondered over using traditional ways of thinking that, according to many environmentalists, have not just been scientifically discredited, but that bear much of the blame for generating the very problems themselves. More troubling yet, it has long been common in environmental circles to place much of the blame for our present-day environmental woes specifically upon Christianity and its attitudes toward nature.
Traditional Christians, however, will find this indictment to be surprising and counter-intuitive, and they will want to know how it can possibly be justified. The criticism typically makes three charges:
First, it is argued that Christianity envisions God as a distant being who completely transcends the world—who subsists in some other dimension, or resides perhaps in a faraway place called “heaven.” This, in turn, is seen as demeaning to the earth and to all that is visible and nearby: the tree outside my window, the ground beneath my feet, the sky overhead. Better, it is countered, to follow the counsel of John Lennon who (following Nietzsche) exhorted us to “Imagine there’s no heaven. Above us, only sky.”
Second, it is believed that since Christianity affirms that human beings are created “in the image of God,” therefore we too, like God, must essentially transcend the visible world, leading us to feel alienated from earthly reality, superior to nature, and therefore entitled to treat earthly things in a careless, insensitive, or selfish manner. Better, argue some environmentalists, to see human beings as one more animal species among others, nothing special except perhaps for our arrogance and destructiveness.
Thirdly, it follows that when nature is seen to have an inferior status, lacking in meaning and deficient in reality, we are bound to mistreat it, especially in comparison to most other cultures and religious views, which have seen nature as in one sense or another sacred. Better to assume a materialist worldview, along with a materialist religion. If there is nothing but matter, if the earth is all there is, then perhaps we need to worship it for things to get better. Some new kind of paganism, it is thought, will restore better attitudes to the natural environment.
Is there some truth to these charges? Or is this just another example of the fashionable tendency to blame Christianity for everything that is unfashionable? And are the modern prescriptions, the fashionable alternatives, themselves sound, or do they present their own, unanticipated, dangers?
I think there is little doubt that some versions of Christianity, in certain times and places, have lent support to some of these charges, especially in Western modernity. But things are quite different with regard to traditional Christianity, the undivided Church of the first millennium—and particularly the tradition of Byzantine Christianity and its heirs in Greece and Cyprus and the Balkans, in Russia and the Slavic Lands, and in the Middle Eastern traditions of Antioch and Alexandria, all of which are very much alive, not just in the “Old Country,” but in North America today. If we look carefully at the understanding of creation in Orthodox Christianity, we will find not just that all three of these charges unfounded, but that it was in fact through a departure from the traditional understanding of creation by the modern West that our environmental problems were first generated—that the problem begins not with the Christian tradition, but with leaving it behind. It would therefore come as no surprise that within the teachings and practices of the Ancient Church, we can find the resources not only for an astute diagnosis of our environmental problems and an insightful etiology of their causes, but a powerful prescription for healing as well— a therapy for treating what has arguably become in the West, and increasingly worldwide, a chronically dysfunctional and adversarial relationship between humanity and nature.
I am proposing, then, a re-appraisal of much of what we take for granted about nature and environment and how we speak about them. An ambitious task that can only be outlined tonight. But even this rather brisk overview will require a certain amount of intellectual and spiritual exercise—a bit of “heavy lifting”— to see things freshly. For our usual modern concepts and sensibilities have been shaped by a one-dimensional worldview that is profoundly secular, one-sidedly modern, and exclusively scientific—a myopia that I will maintain is itself a primary cause of the very problems we seek to understand.
Let me suggest a concrete example of the difficulties we face in understanding these issues, difficulties that are rooted in everyday linguistic usage. When we try to define what we will be discussing here in these sessions, the main topic of our conference, we spontaneously look to the English word “environment,” a term that sounds harmless and neutral. It is handy, so we take it up and use it. But this word has all kinds of presuppositions attached to it that need to be questioned. To think of the natural world as an “environment” carries a wealth of conceptual baggage, including a thoroughly materialist view of humanity. Its current usage has been strongly influenced not just by Darwinian science—which I do not wish to challenge—but by a Darwinian metaphysics, which understands all life-forms as essentially adaptive to their surroundings, and thus as shaped entirely by those surroundings or environments. The concept of environment has been further molded by the German notion of “Umwelt,” literally the “surrounding world” or “environing world”—a term popularized by the German ethologist Jakob Von Uexküll, who saw each life-form as occupying its own, unique perceptual universe that is closed off to others: the bee lives in an ultraviolet Umwelt, for example, and the rudimentary environment of the common tick (both blind and deaf) correlates to nothing more than its sensitivities for the odor of butyric acid (emitted by hair follicles) and the temperature of 37 degrees Celsius (the blood temperature for mammals). Thus, to see the world as “environment” carries a host of assumptions not just about nature, but about human beings as shaped and determined only by their surroundings, and perceptually limited by them, just as much as the tick, even if more complexly. And the later, cybernetic understanding of the environment as a self-regulating system, composed of information bits within feedback loops, is if anything even more reductionistic and depersonalizing, if assumed without qualification. (Indeed, environmental writers often exult in a sense of oceanic immersion and absorption into a larger “system” that is felt to exhibit a homeostatic “intelligence” higher than human intelligence—a very dubious Ersatz or substitute for the genuine reverence displayed in the traditional experience of divine wisdom and providence in nature.) Thus, if this way of looking at the world as an “environment” is taken as the last word, as reality itself—rather than a limited, provisionally useful frame of reference—we will undermine some of the most basic assumptions not just of traditional Christianity, but of all three great theistic traditions: that human beings are created by God (not by their environment), that in some important sense they transcend that world not only by their relation to God, but by their ability to know the world, and to act freely in relation to it, and not just blindly react to environmental stimuli.
So perhaps we should use the term “nature” instead? This term is even more problematic, its history much longer and more complex, but it conceptually draws upon the Greek concept of physis, from which we get the words physics and physical. For the early Greeks, physis was generally a blind and impersonal force, indifferent to humanity—brute necessity to which we must conform, and which always threatens to overwhelm us. As with the concept of “environment,” there is an important truth here as well, and we can indeed experience the world in this way—especially during storms and other catastrophes. But for the Christian, it must be contextualized by the more inclusive concept of creation, ktisis in Greek. To see the world as ktisis, as creation, is to see it as having an inherent taxis or order that has been divinely appointed, and that is therefore both intelligible and more generally commensurate with human existence Creation is not just blind and unintelligible, ultimately absurd as the existentialist Sartre asserted: it also makes sense in a way that resonates with human existence. (It has been argued by intellectual historians that Western thought required the concept of creation for the rise of natural science to be possible). And more importantly, creation is deeply coordinate to human beings, to their needs and hopes and dreams—not just overpowering like the Greek concept of nature, but an inherently benign abode provided by a beneficent Creator. We are ultimately, even if not at every moment, at home in the world as creation, for we were created as coordinate to it, as were all living things, for whom God has in each case has provided in his Providence. The Psalmist sings this with beautiful simplicity: “The eyes of all of all look to Thee with hope, and thou gavest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand and fillest every living thing with thy favor.” (144) Nor is this providential order of creation limited to what we can consciously grasp. Its ineffable beauty and unfathomable magnificence quietly provide us with our initial and indeed, our baseline knowledge of the Creator. The world understood as creation always points beyond itself, if only we have eyes to see.
Yes, we can see the world as an “environment,” and this way of understanding can be helpful for certain purposes of “environmental management.” (Answering questions about how to control the deer population next season.) And yes, we can regard creation as mere “nature” as well, as we work to master its potentially overpowering forces, reinforcing buildings in San Francisco and levees in New Orleans. But it is important not to loose sight of the more important, deeper, more inclusive view of the world as creation, as God-given legacy, and of ourselves as God-gifted, gifted not simply by the gift of creation, but even more by the way that God gives Himself by means of the gift.
It is important to see, then, that words matter, that ideas have consequences, that it is not just an academic affectation to try our best to speak and think clearly, choosing our words carefully. Let me give an example of why this is important. During the Latin Middle Ages, scholastic philosophers began to base their understanding of creation on pagan Greek concepts of “nature,” originally drawn from Aristotle. Creation was seen as a self-contained reality (the natural) that could be understood on its own terms, even apart from a higher reality (the super-natural), which could nevertheless be “infused” into it from outside. By the end of the scholastic period, with William of Ockham, nature had been entirely cut off from the realm of grace and holiness and divine wisdom, and from a deity who was largely otiose anyway. The great Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky expresses how alien was this conception to the traditional, Orthodox view—the view of ancient Christian spirituality and theology: “The Eastern tradition knows nothing of ‘pure nature’ to which grace is added as a supernatural gift. For it, there is no natural or ‘normal’ state, since grace is implied in the act of creation itself. . . ‘Pure nature,’ for Eastern theology, would thus be a philosophical fiction.” (MT 101) The Western Church, and along with it Western philosophy and science as well, has subsequently suffered from innumerable confusions whose source lies in the uncritical appropriation of an essentially pagan concept of nature.
The ancient Christian experience of the world of earth and sky, of plants and animals and landscape, was something very different. This difference is rooted in an affinity for creation that is articulated eloquently in the Psalms, where the world around us is everywhere seen to be upheld by God, guided by the divine wisdom, everywhere offering us a visible display of the Divine Goodness and Glory—a world that stands attentive to the divine command, reaches out to the divine hand, gives praise and prayer to its Creator. And in contrast to the nature or physis of the ancient Greeks, its existence is by no means something obvious and taken for granted. Rather, its very being—the fact that it is at all—is seen as wonderful; it is not experienced as brutally obvious, as overwhelming, but as delicate and wondrous in its being, rising up miraculously from the abyss, marvelously created before our eyes from out of nothing, ex nihilo. The ancient Greeks and Romans could not imagine that the cosmos had not always existed, so forceful and overbearing did it seem to them. But the spiritual freedom that derives from Jerusalem, rather than from Athens, sees the cosmos as so dazzling and delightful and glorious that the faithful could only be dazzled and awestruck that it existed at all.
Thus, it is not philosophical speculation, but concrete experience—mystical experience to be sure, but poetic experience too—that forms the basis of Orthodox theology. And neither is this a rarified mode of experience—accessible only to those who had mastered Hesiod and Virgil, or Euclid and Archimedes—but the kind of heedful wonder that could be lived and articulated by a shepherd boy, such as David, or a merchant, such as Job, blessed by a marvelous vision of creation. Its prerequisites were, and remain, not cultural and intellectual, but spiritual. This can be easily illustrated through recent examples in great saints and holy people, to whose reflections on nature we have access: people such as St Seraphim of Sarov, or more recently, the Geronda Porphyrios.
The Elder Porphyrios, who passed into life in 1991, was one of the great holy men, sages, and wonder-workers of twentieth century Greece. His experience of creation is typical of the tradition of the Orthodox East, and can be found represented everywhere from the fourth century Desert Fathers of Egypt to the modern monastics in the deep forests of the Russian taiga. “Take delight in all things that surround us,” he exhorts. “All things teach us and lead us to God. All things around us are droplets of the love of God—things animate and inanimate, the plants and the animals, the birds and the mountains, the sea and the sunset and the starry sky. They are little loves through which we attain to the great Love that is Christ. Flowers, for example, have their own grace: they teach us with their fragrance, and with their magnificence. They speak to us of the love of God.” (WL, 218) The chapter called “On Creation” in Wounded by Love, a collection of Porphyrios’ writings, and from which this quote is taken, represents a perfect expression of this experience of creation, one that stands in a rich continuity with the Psalms, the final passages of Job, with the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus exhorts us to “consider the lilies of the field.” And I want to emphasize that it is this living element of spirituality, this experience of creation as revealing the divine providence and the divine glory, that is primary and fundamental.
But at the same time, it is important also to see how this living and essentially poetic experience of creation can be grasped conceptually and put into prose, without being led astray by modern terms and concepts. To accomplish this, however, we will need to undertake some of the heavy lifting I warned you about earlier. The understanding of the world as “creation” in ancient Christianity, which I believe has been preserved intact in Eastern Orthodoxy, can be summarized in seven points, which I will present very briefly in the remainder of my talk tonight. I hope to further develop several of them during my talk tomorrow afternoon.
First, the Byzantine tradition has preserved the cosmological scope of ancient Christianity, viewing both the fall and its redemption as cosmically extending to all creation, to humanity and “nature” alike, and insisting that Christ’s redemptive work was undertaken not just for the sake of human beings, but for the renewal of all creation, to reconcile heaven and earth. That is, Orthodoxy has preserved the patristic teaching that through the fall of humanity, creation became disturbed and distorted as well, with suffering and death and corruption introduced into the world. As put by the Orthodox theologian George Florovsky, “man’s apostasy estranges the whole creation from God, devastates it, and as it were, deprives it of God. The fall of man shatters the cosmic harmony.” (GF III, 106)
Meanwhile, the eclipse of this ancient truth has paralyzed much of Western Christianity, leaving it speechless and impotent whenever it is faced with cosmic evil: earthquakes and tsunamis and hurricanes. How could God create such a suffering world, we ask reflexively? But the traditional Christian answer, now starting to seem increasingly plausible in the West, even to the most secular, is that God didn’t create it this way, that it is not working as it was intended to work, but that it is malfunctioning due to human misdeeds. (I note in passing that whatever the actual degree of human influence on global climate change turns out to be, its possibility was long ago understood in the ancient Christian notion of how human sinfulness disturbs and deranges creation.) And unlike the Western view that Christ’s redemptive work is meant only for mankind, the East has always affirmed that it was intended to restore all creation to its authentic state—to its primal beauty and purity and perfection—to bring it back into the total transparency to God for which in the words of St Paul, it continues to “groan.”
Creation is not, then, just a stage or backdrop for the human drama. Rather, the struggle against darkness and evil has cosmic dimensions. Yet at the same time, the Orthodox East has remembered that there remain abundant goodness and purity even in a fallen world: that as Elder Porphyrios reminds us, if we are properly prayerful, we will discern with our own eyes and ears that all creation is praying along with us. And let me state boldly that the claim, found throughout scripture as well as the patristic writings, that all creation prays to God, worships and praises Him, is not just a metaphor, even if we are not meant to believe that inaudible sub-vocalizations are taking place. “All beings turn toward Him,” says Porphyrios, “ albeit unconsciously.” (Ibid. 113)
Second, Orthodoxy understands man’s place in creation to be neither wholly immanent (as does the materialism typical of much environmentalism) nor wholly transcendent (as do the Gnostics and certain Western Christians). Rather, it understands humanity on the one hand to be very much a part of the created order, but on the other hand as a uniquely pivotal part, the central part, the microcosm within the macrocosm, and above all as the nodal point through which God chose to unite creation to Himself by the entering into it in Person. Indeed, it is only because humanity is so essential to creation that its fall could entail the fall of the entire created order. And conversely, it is our charge to unite ourselves with the Risen Christ, that we may serve as a Royal Priesthood of Creation, uniting its divisions, consecrating its existence, and raising it up to God as an offering of love and thanksgiving. This is surely an anthropocentrism—and a decisive rejection of “deep ecology” and all kinds of environmental misanthropy, which insist that humanity is merely an undistinguished part of the whole—but it is a most noble anthropocentrism, for our centrality consists in serving and consecrating and blessing, rather than in exploiting or ravaging. A tender and moving token of this role we are meant to perform can be found in the countless tales of holy ascetics of the Eastern Church (and in the West, with St. Francis) from the earliest times to the present, consorting with wild animals, now tamed and unafraid, as if they were dear friends and family—St Seraphim with his friendly bear and Elder Paisius with his genial snakes. It is, then, through us—united with Christ in whom the divisions have already been implicitly overcome—that the earth is to be healed.
Third, Byzantine thought and spirituality have preserved the ancient awareness of a higher kind of knowledge, a superior sort of rationality, than the calculative, inferential rationality that the modern West has one-sidedly embraced. The belief in such a higher mode of knowledge is common to all humanity apart from Western modernity, which rejected the very possibility of this contemplative or noetic rationality. The only way to understand nature or anything else, we have long believed in the West, is through the discursive, inferential rationality that characterizes mathematics and the sciences. Or rather, this contemplative knowledge was abandoned by Western theology and philosophy. For in the arts, and especially in poetry, we find through the mid-twentieth century a sustained attempt to preserve this way of knowing nature: Goethe in his theory of colors, William Blake in valorizing the imagination, the sympathetic knowledge of nature found in European Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. And it is important to recognized that environmentalism itself—as a movement, and even more as a sensibility—was initially founded not upon scientific writings—for these came later and lent support to what was already felt—but literary and poetic portrayals in writers such as Emerson and Thoreau, John Muir and John Burroughs, Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez. Moreover, all of these writers arrive at a very similar conclusion: that the aesthetic appreciation of nature leads beyond itself into an experience of transcendence—that the glow of earthly beauty is the holy trace of transcendent realities. In the visual arts we need look no further than the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe, or the photographs of Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, to see a similar dynamic. And even scientists such as Also Leopold were the most persuasive in their most lyrical and intuitive writings.
But this retrieval of a sacred, aesthetically charged aspect of creation, I believe, is largely a secularized (and partial) rediscovery of what in the Byzantine tradition has since the fourth century been called theoria physike, the contemplation of nature. (We will, I think, hear more about this tomorrow from Professor Bradshaw) We should not, however, make this way of experiencing creation into just a technical term, something rarified and academic and exotic, for to one extent or another it is a capacity that we all share. We listen, once again, to Elder Porphyrios:
“For a person to become a Christian he must have a poetic soul. He must become a poet. Christ does not wish insensitive souls in His company. A Christian, albeit only when he loves, is a poet and lives amid poetry. Poetic hearts embrace love and sense it deeply. Make the most of beautiful moments. Beautiful moments predispose the soul to prayer; they make it refined, noble, and poetic. Wake up in the morning to see the sun rising from out of the sea as a king robed in regal purple. [And then] go beyond this to give glory for all beautiful things so that you experience Him who alone is comely in beauty. All things are holy—the sea, swimming, and eating. Take delight in them all. All things enrich us, all lead us to the great Love, all lead us to Christ.” (Ibid. 218)
Fourth, it follows that the Orthodox life, when lived fully and richly and authentically, is characterized by a profoundly sacramental relation to the visible, material world, leading us to be deeply, indeed mystically, attuned to the divine energies in the art and ritual of the Church (where the very re-union of Heaven and Earth is enacted in the Divine Liturgy) but also in our everyday awareness of God’s presence within the created order. Creation then spontaneously, effortlessly becomes apprehended as an image, an ikon of God. And just as Orthodox Christians see written icons as windows to the invisible, so too creation is for us then a transparent window. To the same degree, and with the same intensity? For the most part, I think not, nor would the kind of veneration owed to blessed and sanctified written icons normally be appropriate to plants or birds or meteorological events. Yet we would do well here to remember how the presence of God was manifest to Moses in a bush and to Job in the whirlwind, to recall “the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove,” hovering high over the River Jordan—each one of them reminders that God can make Himself manifest anywhere, not just in the human face but in shrubs and breezes and birds, for nowhere is he ever absent. It is also true that human beings are icons in a privileged sense, and it is explicitly asserted by Holy Scripture that we are expressly created as icons or images of God—even to the extent of being able to manifest, in the words of St Paul, “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor 4:6) Yet the Orthodox Church does not limit its understanding of sacraments, or rather mysteries, to some particular number: Baptism, Chrismation, Eucharist, and so on, up to the number seven or more. Rather, it understands that the Spirit of God can be discerned, and encountered, everywhere at work in creation.
We experience the goodness of nature on a fine, crisp autumn morning or a gentle summer evening. But what is this goodness? What’s so good about nature, or creation, or environment that we should concern ourselves with thinking much about it at this conference? Is it good just because we find it useful or pleasant? “What is good in nature,” writes Porphyrios “is a mystery. Isn’t a tiny flower that attracts you with its variegated colors and makes you love it beautiful? You approach it and it has such a delicate fragrance that it awakens your love even more. That is ‘the good.’ Of course it is, but isn’t it also a mystery? How did these colors come about? How did that fragrance arise? The same can be said of the birds, the animals and sea creatures. All express the goodness of God.” (191f) How did these things come about, the mysterious goodness of creation ever prompts us to ask? Yet aren’t these really problems better answered by biologists and chemists? How easily we in the modern West, educated products of a purported Age of Enlightenment, forget the difference between a problem and a mystery—between a problem we work to solve in order to move on, and a mystery that we strive to enter into ever more deeply, unto ages of ages! How marginalized has become the mystical consciousness which sees into and “through” creation contemplatively, reaching toward the mystery at play within it! Yet this incapacity for mystery, or perhaps refusal of it, is deeply rooted in Western philosophy and theology, which long ago came to assert that this kind of seeing was nothing more than a product of human fancy, and which can no longer even consider the possibility that this contemplative knowledge might be truer, deeper, and indeed more “environmentally” salutary than the detached, objective knowledge of the sciences. Too often, “environmentalism” exhibits not the warm heart of the contemplative soul, but the cool comportment of scientific rationality, thereby misconstruing the very object of its study, just by considering it neutrally, indifferently as an object—even when the most heated passions, the most strident calls to action be added on later, once the data is sifted and processed. But is it not possible that creation is not primarily data at all, and that to apprehend it as such is already to distort what is seen, to retreat from what is given in (and to) experience, even if what science calls “values” are amended, as it were, “after the fact”?
Fifth, it must be added that this knowledge of God through creation is by no means reductionistic, as the sciences themselves are required to be by their very definition, which mandates that they analyze and reduce the rich complexity of creation that offers itself to our living experience, into its simplest components: subatomic particles and ultimately bits of information. Nor does the sacramental, mystical, contemplative consciousness of traditional Christianity reduce the sparkling particularity of created things to an undifferentiated, pantheistic puree, i.e. into some all-enveloping cosmic soup. Rather, it allows each created thing to display its own unique mode of manifesting the divine goodness. These modes have been from ancient times called the logoi, the particular essences of things, each of them reflecting unrepeatably the Eternal Logos of which they are images. The Son of God, “through Whom are things were made,” the Eternal “Logos is,” as Lossky puts it, “the divine hearth whence fly the creative rays, the ‘logoi’ peculiar to creatures, these causative words of God which at once raise up and name all beings.” (OT, 56) Yet Western theory of knowledge has maintained that what can be truly known is not particulars, but universals alone—not this tree, for example, but the botanical laws of trees in general. The understanding that individuals do, in fact, have an intelligible, irreducible core that makes them unique—prior to all generalization—and that there is a way this can be known, is characteristic of Byzantine thought from Evagrius to Maximus to the present. In the West, however, it is represented mostly among some of the poets (Hopkins comes to mind here), who in their own ways have tried also to understand the wonderful detail, the exquisite particularity of the dappled creation God has granted us.
Sixth, by distinguishing between the inherently mysterious essence of God and the all-encompassing “energies” or “activities” of God, Eastern Christianity has insisted that we must emphatically affirm both divine transcendence and divine immanence in creation—affirm both the deep, transcendent mystery of the divine essence, and at the same time embrace the divine energies as infiltrating and infusing and animating all creation, whose beauty should thus be appreciated and celebrated as a revelation of the eternal Word of God through Whom it was created. The Eastern distinction between essence (ousia) and activity or energy (energeia), never well understood in the West, allows fidelity both to the scriptural injunction against idolatry, along with the insistence that no man has seen the invisible God, while at the same time embracing the equally persistent affirmation that God is everywhere—closer to us than we are to ourselves—and that the Spirit of God “fillest all things.” We can know God through his activity in the world—the divine energies that are always at work everywhere, if we have eyes to see—while preserving the radical transcendence of the divine essence, God as He knows Himself, forever mysterious even to the angelic orders. Lacking this distinction of essence and energies, the West’s complementary dangers, its Scylla and Charybdis, have always been pantheism on the one hand and abstract transcendence on the other: either God as totally present in the world, in His very essence—as a pie is present in each of its pieces—or completely absent, deus absoconditus and ultimately deus otiosus, God distant and removed from the world, and ultimately superfluous to it. Orthodox thought and spirituality, in contrast, can powerfully affirm that God is present, and can be always experienced, everywhere in creation through His energies or activities, while at the same time insisting upon the mysterious integrity of the divine essence.
Finally, seventh, there is a triadic relation—largely forgotten by modernity— between humanity, God, and nature that the sciences cannot acknowledge, that environmental literature reflects with no more than a fragmented vision, but that can be grasped deeply from within Orthodox theology. This triadic relationship is elusive for the modern mindset, yet it may be the most important element of the traditional Christian understanding of creation for us to retrieve and understand. As noted already, creation is above all taxis or order: the providential order of the created world. And many of the founders of modern science, often pious believers like Isaac Newton, believed that unlike all previous generations, they had finally discovered exactly what that order consisted in. The true order of creation, they believed, was the mathematical order of the science of mechanics. A powerful new idea. And in an age of incipient democracy, an admirably egalitarian idea as well, promising access to no less than the divine intellect, to anyone who bothered to learn the mathematical language spoken by the Creator. But do the abstractions of mathematics and mechanics really correspond to the same order of creation celebrated by the psalmist, the order that enraptures Job, the order that the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament seek to articulate with careful and circumspect and often elliptical language?
I want to maintain that the mathematical order of nature pursued by the natural sciences bears only a shadowy resemblance to the order of creation experienced by the ancient faith, which was first of all an aesthetic order, an order of beauty, an order that everywhere proclaimed the glory of God to all who had eyes to see. And it was an order of goodness, where God’s love for creation was manifest in its smallest details. Moreover, it was an order of truth, revealing everywhere the invisible reality that is visibly expressed in creation. Above all, it was felt to be an order of love, an order that is itself a gift of love, a gift whereby God offers something of Himself—a loving gift that culminates, but by no means begins, with the Incarnation. And it is thus an order that can be glimpsed only in the most fleeting ways by the disinterested, calculative rationality of the natural sciences. Rather, to understand this deeper order of creation—to see it and experience it—requires a corresponding order within the soul of the knower. Prior to the contemplation of nature, theoria physike, the ancient ascetic tradition has always prescribed the purification of the heart, a restoration of inner peace and order. Hence the truest knowledge of creation has not two poles, knower and known, but three: the soul’s understanding of creation—i.e. its ability to see it for what it truly is—is dependent on its relation to God. Only to the degree that the soul is itself ordered can it see and celebrate the genuine order of creation as love, as goodness, as truth, and as love.
Is it possible, then, that the Western view of nature as a self-contained mechanism, self-subsistent and operating on its own—without need of anything beyond it either for its being or its functioning—and the companion view that knowing nature therefore requires nothing more than the indifferent, “objective” attitude that we would bring to understanding a purely artificial, mechanistic system—that these assumptions are not only questionable, but that they constitute the metaphysics (or theory of reality) and epistemology (or theory of knowledge) that underlie the environmental crisis we currently face? And what if the very substance of creation was infused with love, if the natural world was essentially, before all else, not just one divine gift but the first gift that God offered humanity, which like all true gifts would consist in the offering not of the given but of the giver, in this case God himself? And what if the only way to receive—to “take in” or understand this gift—were in a loving, thankful, appreciative, contemplative responsive? Indifference here would be not just incomprehension but ingratitude.
The implications of this insight are far-reaching. However helpful the objective, scientific analyses may be—and I do not for a moment wish to suggest that we can dispense with them—they cannot by themselves lead to a healing of the earth without a healing of the soul—cannot restore the good and true and beautiful order of creation, before our own hearts are restored to their original created order.
Who will believe that there is a deeper, truer grasp of nature than objective scientific and technological knowledge— believe that an ancient poet writing god-intoxicated psalms, or a half-educated hermit living an obscure life in some cave on Mt Athos, might understand nature better than a Nobel laureate at Stanford or MIT? Perhaps only someone who has, in his or her heart, already begun the process of purifying the soul, of restoring it to the original order of creation—of making the soul not just the image but the likeness of God, so the divine image may henceforth be discerned everywhere in creation. That this kind of understanding is the thing most missing from our approach to the problems that we call “environmental”—and that anything short of this will distort not just the possible solution but the very problem itself, that we must first of all come to spiritually see nature as creation—these will not be easily grasped by people outside the Orthodox fold. Except, perhaps, for the poets, and those whose souls are poetic. . . .
But a final word in parting. No, I am not going to reveal in a flash of insight how all this connects with political controversies over drilling in ANWAR or developing nuclear power or combating global climate change. The theological principles and spiritual practices I have outlined can prayerfully address them, without further assistance from me—although I am confident that they will lead to neither the rapacious exploitation of creation nor to a self-loathing that is ashamed of human needs and embarrassed at raising children beyond some politically correct number. The last word I want to leave with you is not even my own, but is borrowed and freely paraphrased from Fr. John Panteleimon Manoussakis—a word of both humility and of hope. This last word is that it is not up to us to save the world, for it has already been saved by the Eternal Word through Whom it is ever created, and Who has already promised us that “creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom 8:20). That is, as Orthodox Christians, we are allowed neither the arrogance of believing that we are the saviors of nature, nor the despair that there is nothing we can do. We must, rather, humbly and hopefully lay claim to our ancient legacy as heirs to innumerable generations of loving communion with, and heedful obedience to, the God who always already loves creation more than will we ever know.