A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded upon trash and waste, and such a society is a house built on sand.

- Dorothy Sayers

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Second Part of Introduction to Balaam's Ass: An Orthodox Contribution to Eco-Justice

Here's the second half of the Introduction. I'm still pretty frustrated with this piece, and still trying to weed out creeping plagiarism. This was the first section I wrote and this piece started its life as nothing more than a "correction" for my own use of several other Orthodox ecological articles - and I confess that I'm not sure I've entirely made it my own yet. I find that writing is often ethically parlous when one has such a good recall for other's turns of phrase. The passage may not make it into the book for stylistic and organizational reasons as well (the "premises" ended up being more like mini-platforms than premises, for instance), but most of it will end up being used one way or another. Let me know what you think:

With the story of Balaam’s ass as the typological subtext for what follows, let me begin this work of Christian ecological reflection with a set of five premises which I invite my readers to seriously consider as they make their own decisions about how and whether they will choose to live in a way that does or does not consent to our civilization’s ecological self-immolation.
These premises are not assumptions; for although I regard the first two as almost self-evident, and the rest as simply implications of the first two in the theological and factual context of my own Orthodox Christian religious tradition, I shall argue for them. Indeed, the remainder of this work is largely comprised of a rational, empirical, scriptural, and patristic defense of their validity. As they profoundly inform my thinking and writing throughout this work, however, it seems simplest and most charitable to begin by making these premises as clear and as transparent as possible. They are as follows:

· The world ecological crisis is real – so obviously and deafeningly real that our ongoing neglect of this issue, in both our culture and our religious community, is now utterly culpable in its nescience. We must acknowledge this crisis and take action now to minimize disaster.

· Our current ecological mess is largely a situation of modern provenance, and almost entirely of our own civilization’s making, a by-product of our Western (and now global) civilization’s love affair with a purely technological mastery over “nature” as it has, reductively and mistakenly, been re-envisioned atomistically, mechanistically, and phenomenally by enlightenment and post-enlightenment philosophy and science. In order to adequately and authentically come to grips with our situation, our understanding of nature and our relationship with it must be thoughtfully and sensitively reexamined, that we may deliver ourselves from the intellectual bondage of this peculiarly maladaptive historical misconception.

· Historical Christianity, and particularly Orthodox Christianity, affirms that God stands in judgment over and against the wasteful ecological profligacy manifested by our culture and civilization. Moreover, to the extent to which we are each personally responsible and contributory to this ecological profligacy, God’s judgment stands over and against the greed, wastefulness, imprudence and lack of compassion for God’s creation of each of us individually. We must be honest enough to recognize that the responsible stewardship and husbanding of nature is not a matter about which our religious tradition is ambivalent; and we must be resolute in our proclamation that this is so.

· The Orthodox Church, in its emphasis upon transcendence, corporate responsibility, and repentance, and in its insistence upon the necessity of personal asceticism for achieving salvation and theosis, has much in the way of practical assistance and guidance to offer to ourselves and others in the ecological struggle into which we are thrown. Our tradition has resources to assist us and traditional modes of thought and behavior which can authentically guide us in the reconstruction of a more ecologically sane and sustainable way of life.

· The Orthodox Church also has something specific to contribute to the current ecology movement itself, in that it offers it a healthier and more nuanced understanding of human beings and their relationship with the rest of nature than is often manifested by either ecological activists or their detractors. The Orthodox faith regards humans as wholly natural creatures, but as natural creatures who are answerable to a special and ecologically relevant calling that embraces even as it transcends nature. This understanding, and the many centuries of ethical reflection based upon it may offer a much-needed bridge between the human suffering of those whose immediate basic needs - for food, fuel or livelihood – may at times conflict with the interest of the environment and thus with the overarching agenda and emphases of the environmentalist movement itself. The ecological crisis is not one that affects us alone, but humanity in its entirety, including those who have come before us and those who are to come. As a minority tradition in this technological and consumer-driven society, we will need to coordinate our ecological activities with those of others in order to be effective, but our cooperation must never become uncritical in its acceptance of a world-view which is inauthentic to our own understanding of our humanity and our calling before God.

Let me briefly amplify and explain what I mean by each of these observations. To begin with the first - that the world ecological crisis is real – by this I mean simply that it now requires real effort on our part to neglect the obvious destruction of our land-base, and the very real and culpable ways in which we, as members of an industrial and technological society, continue to contribute to the ongoing destruction of the natural resources upon which we depend, and to the dissolution of the integrated biodiversity of the natural order of which we are a part. We are, as a civilization, as a nation,[9] and as individuals, over-using and wasting the non-renewal resources of the world (such as metals, petrochemical products, and fresh water) in a genuinely profligate and unsustainable spasm of over-consumption that bears almost no relationship whatsoever to real human need; and we are poisoning ourselves in the process. In behaving as we do, we are also ensuring that our descendants will be deprived of many of the legitimate human uses of these non-renewable products, even as they shall be forced to bear the cost of dealing with the unintended (but often eminently foreseeable) consequences of our acts in the abiding forms of climate change, pollution, hazardous waste, garbage, species extinctions, general ugliness and, perhaps most tellingly, in a deep and abiding shame at having descended from such wicked and profligate people as ourselves.

In addition to this excessive expenditure of non-renewable resources, we are also overusing and destroying the renewable resources of our world in a manner that has rapidly become unsustainable. We are treating our forests, fisheries, and agriculturally viable land in ways that maximize short term profits while deliberately excluding the real environmental costs of these activities from rational and economic calculation, ensuring thereby that there will be fewer forests, less fish and game, and less usable arable land for generations to come. Once again, in doing so, we are bequeathing the costs of our greed to our children and grandchildren who (because of our gross overuse of such energy rich non-renewable resources as oil and natural gas) will have even fewer resources with which to address these problems than we currently do ourselves. We are, quite literally, fouling our own nests.

Nor are the costs of this over-consumption and irresponsible stewardship of natural resources being borne only, or even principally, by human beings. We are, to put it mildly, being extremely bad neighbors to the whole order of creation, destroying, in a massive extinction event seldom superceded in either rapidity or size in natural history, a genuinely extraordinary number of the mammals, amphibians, birds, reptiles, fish, insects and plants with which we share the world—creatures which, according to the biblical account of creation, God himself characterized as intrinsically “good” when he created them to share the world with us. In our greed, ignorance, and complacency, we are impoverishing the future, making what was once beautiful ugly, and destroying the good things of creation. In the parable of the husbandmen of the vineyard, Jesus evoked from His disciples the prospect of the just destruction of those tenants and husbandmen who would seek to deprive the owner of the vineyard the just profit from its fruits. What then shall be the righteous judgment on those who burn the vineyard and salt the field?

The second premise of this book is that our current ecological mess is largely a situation of modern provenance, and almost entirely of our own civilization’s making, a by-product of human greed empowered by our western civilization’s love affair with a purely technological mastery over “nature” as it has been atomistically and mechanicalistically re-envisioned in a reductive mathematical physics. Thus re-described, nature has ceased to be a mother, whose admittedly metaphorical personhood, nevertheless, resounding in the human conscience, mythically stood in for the myriad of real personal relations into which humans may enter with the creatures and (more tentatively) with the aesthetically and structurally meaningful complexes and aggregates of their environment. In lieu of this of this fuller and richer understanding, nature has been reduced to a mere mathematical notion, eviscerated of secondary qualities, moral significance, or character, and relevant to ourselves only as the underlying “resource material” for our ever growing industrial and technological economy. This mathematicizing of nature not only de-sacralized nature, but also, and far more radically, depersonalized it, leaving within it no acknowledged centers of value with which one might reasonably be ethically, personally or emotionally engaged.

While ecological idiocy on the part of human beings is nothing new, it was given a fresh new impetus and justification when, beginning in the 16th century, and to a greater and greater extent in the centuries that followed, enlightenment and post-enlightenment thinkers came to regard the natural world as a mere collection of “things,” – inert material extensions in three dimensions - whose use, manipulation, or even destruction had no moral consequences. As Francis Bacon, one of the great progenitors of this way of thinking insisted, men now had both the right and power “not only to bend nature gently, but to conquer and subdue, even shake her to her foundations.”[10] This mathematical depersonalization of nature profoundly affected our understanding of our fellow creatures, our own bodies, and (more recently) our minds as well, as the philosophically naïve efforts to reductively physicalize (and thus, to mathematize) our mental and cognitive processes in neurobiology and cognitive science have gripped the popular imagination of our culture.[11] Our current ecological crisis is thus a disaster which principally has its roots in enlightenment prejudices, which placed the physical sciences, in the form of “technology”, at the service of human hubris, greed, and discourtesy, while all the while calling it progress.

Seen in this light, our unfolding ecological disaster manifests itself, in the most basic of all senses, as a human artifact, a genuinely free product of our human intellect and will, the disastrous consequences of which have only recently become obvious. It is our mess, and it is thus morally incumbent upon us to repair, to the best of our ability, the damage we have done. To effectively do so, however, we must reexamine the premises of our current civilization, especially in its relationship with nature and technology, and begin to make fundamental changes that will begin to repair the damage that we ourselves have made. These changes will be difficult, costly, and will oblige those of us in the first world to profoundly alter our way of life and standard of living. This will be hard, but as Balaam’s ass pointed out to his misguided rider, it does one no good to argue that one cannot go backward when the way forward has been revealed to be almost certainly lethal. We must find a way back[12] to a sustainable and sane society, and we must begin to make use of all of the beneficent cultural resources that we have at hand to do so, regardless of whether those resources are religious, philosophical, scientific, political, or ethical. A battle for our children’s future and our own survival is upon us, and we can no longer be satisfied with half-way measures that attempt to permit us to go on behaving like madmen while hoping for some quick technological breakthrough or divine rescue that will somehow render our insanity harmless to ourselves and others. Given that we have, for several centuries, both corporately and individually lost our minds, it is high time we found them again.

As Christians, we must do our part, first by deliberately and counter-culturally extracting our religious tradition from this madness and setting it aright again upon the high road of corporate stewardship and personal asceticism, so we can engage our culture on these issues with a little more credibility. As a culture, we must disengage our sciences from their bondage to an infantile corporate and mercantile technologism that continues to inauthentically insist that we can never have enough, that we cannot be happy until we have an infinite number of noisy gadgets, and until we have so surrounded ourselves with an environment of our own making that we no longer need to engage with or consider the natural world at all. This disengagement, of course, is at least partially motivated by a recognition that a scientist on the payroll of Dupont or Exxon is not always free to follow where the evidence leads, or to publish his or her genuine findings. It is also motivated by a recognition that science, as a human endeavor, is as subject to insidious cultural influences as any other institution. At a time in which we desperately need competent and reliable advice from the scientific community, we must actively engage in freeing the scientific conscience from corporate and governmental serfdom, and support genuinely independent scientific investigation as we struggle to address the potential ecological landmines that we have inadvertently buried.

Nor should we neglect the political arena. We must encourage our governments, whether local, state, or federal, to stop subsidizing bad behavior through tax credits and other politically motivated economic encouragements and demand, as citizens, that current environmental laws be enforced and strengthened. We must also, through public activism, ensure that those corporations and individuals who act in the interests of us all are rewarded and recognized, and see that moral opprobrium is heaped on the heads of those who seek to make short term profits off the long-term destruction of our water, our land, and our air. Finally, we must stand resolute, to defend with force if we must, the good things that remain.[13]

My third premise is that Christianity, and particularly Orthodox Christianity, affirms that God stands in judgment over and against the wasteful ecological profligacy manifested by our culture and civilization and, to the extent to which we are personally responsible and contributory to it, that of each of us individually. That this is so does not necessarily mean that Orthodox Christian theology has always been or even now is significantly or substantially engaged upon the subject in a critical and self-aware manner. In this, Christian ecological awareness can reasonably be compared to Christian attitudes toward slavery. That God’s judgment is (and always was) against slavery is something about which few of us now need to be convinced. It was not always so, however, and while certainly the raw materials from which the case could be constructed against slavery were always there in Scripture, in the Old Testament account of the liberation of the people of Israel from bondage by God himself, in the freeing of slaves at the year of Jubilee, and in the New Testament obligation that Christians were to show love, compassion, and kindness to all, and to consider even those who were slaves to be our brothers and sisters in Christ, it nevertheless took great insight and perspicacity on the part of those living in a world in which slavery was a social norm to truly see this “peculiar institution” as it was in all its evil and malignancy. To their everlasting credit, there were individual saints, such as St. Gregory of Nyssa (who in the 4th century railed against the institution with all of the fury and passion of a 19th century abolitionist) who did. Heroic examples aside, however, given (a) the lack of an explicit biblical condemnation of slavery, (b) the very real economic benefits of slavery, and (c) slavery’s consonance with the greed and entrenched interests of the upper classes (both outside the Church and in), it is a fact that religiously motivated Christian protests against the institution were often muted if not always muzzled, and generally ineffectual. Christianity was ultimately responsible for the elimination of the slave trade, beginning in Catholic Spain and its colonies, and ending, belatedly in Protestant America, and this is certainly to its credit. That it took so many centuries to achieve this laudatory goal, is certainly not.

In some ways, however, Christian silence on the issue of ecology may seem even more inexplicable than its silence on the issue of slavery, given that the Scriptures have always enjoined upon us the responsible stewardship and husbanding of creation, which was seen as intrinsically good even apart from its human usefulness. Presenting the issue in this manner, however, assumes something which is demonstrably incorrect, which is that Christians have always been as complicit in the degradation of the natural world as they are at the present. For most of Christian history, this has simply not been case. Most Christians, throughout much of the twenty centuries of our history, have been farmers, pastoralists, or hunter-gatherers, living a life close to the land and obviously and immediately dependant upon its renewable resources and natural fecundity.

Whatever the scriptural injunction to “have dominion over all things” may or may not have meant in the prelapsarian context in which the command was given, throughout most of Christian history, Christians have “tilled the soil, working by sweat of their brow”, and have no more been the “masters” of their environment, at least in the sense in which we have now come to understand this phrase, than any other pre-industrial people. During the first fifteen centuries of Christian existence, it is hard to point to a single unequivocal ecological disaster that can be laid at the feet of Christian behavior. Indeed, throughout Christian history until the enlightenment, the relationship that Christians had to their landbase was marked by gratitude and a sense of cooperation, as is reflected in the preservation and the continuous traditional use of the word “mother” to describe nature herself, and the Slavic etymological synonymy of the words for “land” and “peace.” Indeed, as late as the 19th century, the act of kissing the earth was seen to be an ordinary act of Christian piety in Eastern Orthodox Europe. In such a context, a man who was degenerate enough to divert, dam, or poison a water source, or greedy enough to misuse his own land or that of the commons through overgrazing or poor soil management to the detriment of his neighbors or his own children would have been met with the consternation and criticism of his neighbors, and (in serious cases) with punitive action by the ruling authorities.[14]

None of this is, of course, surprising. The number of purely agricultural and pastoral societies that unsustainably misuse their natural resources is relatively small, and the examples that do exist, such as the Polynesian Easter Islanders, and the Viking Greenlanders, are all the more notable for their flagrant exception to the rule. Moreover, the ecological degradation caused by such societies have generally resulted from a culture’s interaction with a peculiarly fragile environment to which they have been transplanted and to which they misapplied strategies that had been successful elsewhere. The admonitions of environmentalists that one should not use more resources than the land can sustain, or that one should be careful to husband one’s landbase so that it can sustain the lives of future generations, would have been so palpably obvious to Christians of the past whose livelihood depended upon the fecundity and generosity of the land as to have constituted utterly superfluous advice.

In short, although one doesn’t find many tracts on ecological awareness from the first fifteen centuries of Christian history, this is principally because these values were already exemplified by Christians in the form of common sense. Theology, like law, is generated by crisis; and for obvious reasons, it is generally written to address an actually existing problem rather than to forestall potential problems not yet arising. Thus, while Christians responded to individual problems of greedy mismanagement and absentee landlords (such as bishops residing in urban residences far from their sees) by enacting the occasional Church canon and law, and by sending individual letters of censure to those responsible, in the absence of any great ecological crisis or act of ecological degradation, the concern with what we have now come to think of as “ecology” was principally addressed practically and pedagogically. The young were taught by their elders to treat the land well, to use sound irrigation practices, to rotate crops, to let overused land lie fallow, and to avoid over-pasturage, as each of these practices was discovered by trial and error to be of benefit to the community.

Moreover, while neither the teachers of these practices nor their students would have found anything particularly theological about such generic moral wisdom, nevertheless, the peculiarly Judeo-Christian awareness of man’s dignity as the steward and responsible tenant of God’s creation did provide farmers and pastoralists with a mythic sense of their own nobility, a sense that has endured until the present day in the rural areas of many Christian nations. To be a farmer or a pastoralist, at least, was felt to be intrinsically honorable, and a participation in a sacred duty; a successful farmer or pastoralist who could hand down to his children his land and his way of life was, in his old age, worthy of honor and respect, and a ready source of wisdom to the young and unlearned. The modern notion that those who work in close proximity to the land are “hicks” or intrinsically “ignorant and uncultured” represents a veritable sea change in cultural attitudes, and has no justification in any genuinely Christian culture.[15]

For all this, in spite of this history, and in spite of the fact that no traditional historical Christian culture (whether Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Coptic) ever developed an indigenous industrial civilization, it is an almost universally accepted maxim amongst the modern environmentalist movement that much of our current ecological failings should be laid collectively at the Judeo-Christian door. More specifically, it is often argued that the biblical injunction to “have dominion” over creation is the ur-text of modern ecological destructiveness, so much so that current Christian efforts on behalf of the ecology are frequently derided as nothing more than a bad faith “jumping on to the band-wagon.” This lies in stark contrast to the (admittedly, often somewhat grudging) secular acknowledgment that Christianity and the mobilizing of Christian awareness and activism was a major factor in eliminating slavery, in the bringing about of the desegregation of the American south, and the dismantling of colonialism and apartheid. The reasons for this disparity in attitudes toward Christian commitments toward abolition, racial equality, and the ecology is complicated and will get its own chapter in due time. For now, let us simply say that the principle problem is a problem of credibility, in that professed Christians in North America and Western Europe have simply not shown much enthusiasm for environmentalist conservation or for the adoption of a more environmentally sound lifestyle, a tendency that has often been compounded, in recent times, by their mistrust of what is perceived as the anti-Christian, and often frankly pagan, culture of many ecological activists. Whatever our critics may choose to believe, however, it remains the case that the problem is not one of Christian theology – on the contrary, it is problem of Christian willful non-compliance with the environmental demands of our faith. We have not heeded the biblical injunction to be good stewards and tenants of God’s creation, or acknowledged the prior and God given value and structure of the natural order, and as such we stand under God’s judgment.

My fourth premise is that the Orthodox Church, in its emphasis upon transcendence, corporate responsibility, repentance, and its insistence upon the necessity of personal asceticism for achieving salvation and theosis, has much to offer to the world in the ecological struggle that is to come. At our best, for instance, we Orthodox have always known that all efforts to establish heaven on earth are doomed. This recognition has, from the first, unmasked the theological parody that has underlain our industrial and technological society since its inception, in both its capitalist and communist guises. Furthermore, the Orthodox know that we are saved corporately, as a church, or not at all, and that we thus have a shared responsibility for the actions of others, both the living, the dead, and the yet to be born, a conviction that, if consistently acted upon, would save us from the rampant individualism that so afflicts our current civilization and that has so materially contributed to the ecological ravages of our time. The Orthodox also know, in our bones, as it were, that we are sinners, so much so that the most basic and fundamental prayer of the Orthodox throughout the ages is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” As a consequence, the idea that we might be called upon to repent for our misdeeds and make amends to others certainly should not come as a surprise to any of my co-religionists. After all, our entire religious life is built upon the principle of continuous and unremitting repentance before God. It is our very raison d’etre.

Related to this recognition of human sinfulness and need for repentance, the Orthodox have also always stressed that the way of the cross is not easy; that grace, while free, is never cheap; and that the transformative power of God demands our cooperation in a difficult but richly rewarding life of asceticism, in which our bodies, no less an intrinsic part of our psychosomatic personhood than our minds and spirits, must be transformed by struggle into fit receptacles for God’s deifying grace. This path of divinization is hard work, and holiness is a result of cooperation with a deifying grace that departs from those who are not willing to live in accordance with God’s holy demands. Thus the demand to live simply, as free from material encumbrances as we can, while sharing such resources as we have with those who have none is, for us, as old and as basic a feature of Christianity as Christ’s observation that it is as hard “for a rich man to enter the kingdom as it is for a camel to enter the eye of a needle”, and as bluntly apparent as St. John Chrysostom’s frequently quoted observation that “the man with two coats is committing theft.”

In short, although there are a complex set of historical circumstances that led Eastern Orthodox immigrants to North America and Western Europe to often uncritically assimilate to the values of our industrial and technological dystopia, circumstances which I shall later address at length, the resources for correcting this error are richly available within our religious tradition. All the situation really calls for are hierarchs, priests, monastics, and laymen courageous enough to lay hold upon this tradition, exemplify it in their lives, and prophetically teach others to do so as well. I am convinced that such moral courage, an inheritance from twenty centuries of martyrs and confessors, is alive and well in Orthodoxy. The book that you hold in your hands is an act of faith that this is so, and is my own act of obedience to the tradition that has lovingly embraced me as an adult convert to the Orthodox faith.

My final premise is that the Orthodox Church also has something specific to contribute to the current ecology movement itself, in that it offers it a healthier and more nuanced understanding of human beings than is often manifested by either ecological activists or their pro-industrialist and pro-technology adversaries. Orthodox Christianity regards humans as wholly natural creatures, but as creature who, nevertheless, possess a special, and ecologically relevant, calling that both transcends and embraces nature. This understanding, and the twenty centuries of ethical reflection which it underwrites, can offer a much-needed bridge between the human suffering of people whose immediate basic needs—for food, fuel or livelihood—conflict with the interest of the environment and the overarching agenda and emphases of the environmentalist movement itself. To begin with, for instance, save in their conscious spiritual openness to God, which is more of a calling than a characteristic, for Orthodox Christianity, human beings are simply and straightforwardly a part of nature, or as the Bible and the Patristic fathers prefer to say, of creation. Every aspect of our nature is a part of the natural world in which (as we now know) we evolved, and there is no sense in which the human being naturally and inherently stands apart from the natural order of God’s creation. That humans have an eternal calling and destiny is for us a dogmatic truth, but it is the eternal calling and potential destiny of a wholly natural being all the same. Certainly, humans have special abilities and talents, such as speech, opposable thumbs, and abstract thinking that sets us apart from other species, but it is equally true that unique traits are characteristic of many species. Ducks have water repellant feathers, mockingbirds talented vocal mimicry, bats echolocation, and giraffes superlatively long necks enabling tree-top grazing. That the peculiar gifts of human nature make us capable of a kind of transcendence that most animals do not possess is irrelevant to the question at hand. Man, in all of his attributes, is a part of the natural order, and from this perspective, seeing the ecological issue in starkly dualistic terms as a war between man and nature is simply fruitless. The created ecology that is failing includes mankind, and human suffering is no less a part of the ecological crisis than any other. Balaam, no less than his donkey, is a natural, created being.

There are those in the ecological movement who appear to believe differently, who apparently see mankind as some kind of alien parasite, without which nature would be free to restore itself to some kind of preferable prelapsarian harmony. There are, indeed, who would go further, regarding man as a kind of malicious demon whose wholesale extermination would be a benison for the natural order. Such individuals are extremists, but they do exist, and their widely published comments are at least partly responsible for a parody of the environmentalist movement as a whole that contributes greatly to the cultural marginalization of deep environmentalism. The view, rightly or wrongly held, that many people in the environmentalist movement care more about Texas toads (a locally endangered animal whose preservation I actually support and care about) than they do about their fellow human beings is a genuine impediment to responsible environmentalism everywhere. The value that Christians rightly place upon human beings and upon humanity’s rightful role in a reasonable and sustainable ecology could function as a substantial check upon this tendency within the environmental movement, and would go a long way toward deflecting this dubious stereotype.

Of course, this in turn leads back to the frequently expressed criticism of the “anthropomorphism” of Christianity, and to the strident criticism of Christian environmentalism already mentioned. Christianity certainly stresses the special calling of man in relation to God and to the rest of creation, and sees in this special calling both the hope and the tragedy of humanity. This contrasts, of course, with simple nature worship, and with a more thorough-going secular naturalism, both of which are frequently enjoined upon us by environmentalists of one stripe or another.

Unfortunately, the refusal to recognize any distinctive transcendent vertical axis to human nature only serves to make our problematic status within the current ecological crisis all the more absurd and inexplicable. If one is unwilling to accept that humans have access to a transcendent and atemporal dimension of truth and value by which their own behavior can be judged, one is left with only biological naturalism or existentialist individualism. For the biological naturalist, humans are, regardless of their pretensions to the contrary, as biologically and instinctually driven as any other animal. If this is the case, however, our current drive to use, exploit, waste and destroy must also be grounded in our biological nature, and is thus insoluble.

The equally intractable existentialist alternative is that humans, as a sort of flawed or deviant animal, lack any kind of nature, calling, or purpose at all, while equally lacking access to any transcendent dimension of moral or ontological insight. On such an account, human beings are answerable neither to transcendent moral truths, nor to their own nature, and must literally “make it up as they go along.” As free beings, they can change, if they choose to, but no form of legitimate reason or appeal can be made to such a being except that of individual self-interest. Since, as we shall see, the problem of the commons and other such ecological conundrums result from a conflict between external duties and individual self-interest, it is hard to see how any such anthropological stance can be at all appealing to an ecologist. By comparison to either alternative, a properly Christian anthropology postulates humans who are free, rationally persuadable, and capable of being motivated by genuinely apprehended ethical and aesthetic goods – precisely the sort of audience that the vast majority of hortatory rhetoric and moral instruction of the ecological movement implicitly assumes. In short, Christianity must stand absolved or condemned on the subject of its anthropology by whether or not it offers an ecological vision that embraces and addresses the non-human and the non-utile, rather than on whether it thinks that humans have a special calling, or species specific abilities.

Nevertheless, there should be no misunderstanding of the nature, and also the limit of this special human role. As "rational animals" we are capable of making intelligent, thoughtful and creative use of the world around us, and there is no denying that this provides us, even apart from high technology, with at least a somewhat limited, form of "dominion" over our natural environment. Any authentically Christian exercise of the "dominion" that these abilities offer us, however, must begin with praise and end with self-control. For, as St. Leontius of Constantine, observed , we are obliged "through all creation visible and invisible" to "offer veneration to the Creator and Master and Maker of all things. For the creation does not venerate the Master directly and by itself" but rather it is through us as articulate human beings "that the heavens declare the glory of God."[16] Moreover, such dominion as the Christian exercises over nature should start with the "beasts" within us, as St. Gregory of Nyssa and others of the Patristic fathers frequently observed. The ascetic vision of the Christian faith insists that it is pointless to attempt to justify a human mastery over the natural order outside us while we give free rein to that which is bestial within us. Indeed, I would like to suggest that it is this self-mastery that properly defines the sense in which we must indeed find our way "back to nature" - to the true nature of man, who is creative but also created.

As the Czech personalist philosopher and Christian ecological theorist Erazim Kohak once put it: “If we are to recover the confidence of our intrinsic place in nature, we need to do so by reclaiming, not by rejecting, our distinctive moral humanity, our task of cultivating the earth, as faithful stewards. For humans, it is precisely culture, in its most basic sense of cultivation, of care and respect, not bestiality, that can be the way to reclaiming our place in nature.”[17] If he is right, then perhaps not unreasonable to argue that one of the most significant Christian contributions to the ecological movement is to be found in the historical witness of the Saints for the fact that individual human beings can be the means of restoration, for both man and nature, not by disappearing into nature as one more animal among animals, but by becoming more fully and genuinely human in our both our careful tillage and our concernful keeping of the world."[18]

Secondly, it is also important to note that this generically elevated Christian anthropology has always been tempered by the Orthodox Church's moral instruction about our neighbor. For although Christian ethical teachings have never procluded genuine neighborliness to other creatures, and the stories of the many Christian ascetics and saints who fed, healed, protected and were the companions of animals are legion - such ethical teaching may nevertheless forbid one to feed or care for an animal at the expense of one's fellow human being. This stress on the importance of human beings, not as abstractions but as a really existent brothers or sisters to whom we have responsibilities, is something that the Christian tradition will and should insist upon, in its environmental reflections as much as in any other part of its instruction.

An authentically Christian ecological vision may therefore serve as a much-needed mediator between the human suffering of people whose immediate basic needs - for food, fuel or livelihood - conflict with the interest of the environment, and with an environmental agenda which sometimes appears to put the welfare of suffering human beings behind that of snail darters, polar bears, or Texas toads. In my own experience, this perception of environmentalist priorities is generally unfair, and more frequently a product of a deliberate misrepresentation by those who seek to undermine the credibility of the ecological movement as a whole. Nevertheless, such an appearance can cause great bitterness and polarization all the same, and is the source, not only of Christian, but of much Marxist, Tory, and Paleo-Conservative frustration with the environmentalist movement. While we must all recognize and act upon our awareness that any severe degradation of the natural environment is wrong, and in no one's ultimate interests, we must always seek to reconcile this duty as closely as possible with an equally basic ethical recognition that any short-term approach to ecological repair which “sacrifices our neighbor to a principle, thereby regarding other existing human beings as inevitable casualties for the sake of a greater good" [19], is morally unacceptable.

In short, a genuinely Christian ecological approach must constantly re-affirm the significance of the real human need and suffering that negatively generate much of the moral impetus for ecological activism in the first place. While such an approach does not at all deny the legitimacy of non-human subjects or the value of conservation efforts engaged solely on their behalf, (seeing in these activities genuine acts of neighborliness and mercy to the non-human subjects whose intrinsic goodness and value have been affirmed by God himself), it also does not fail to seek out and emphasize the ways in which these efforts frequently integrate and harmonize with broader ecological concerns of relevance to human suffering and need as well. No Christian ecological vision worthy of the name will fail, through some callous narrowness of focus, to remember the genuine ethical imperatives presented to us by human suffering as well.

One final contribution that an Orthodox Christian perspective can bring to the ecological movement is, I would suggest, a profound sense of hope. Christians genuinely believe that we are not alone in our moral struggles, but rather that when we are set a ethical task beyond our resources, even our humblest efforts are, as in the miracle of the breaking of the offering of five loaves and two fishes, taken up and multiplied, and given the uncreated assistance of the Author of creation himself. To the extent that we believe that the created order is not our own, and has its own source in a creative order and power utterly beyond ourselves, to that same extent we believe that God, who loves His creation far more than we can ever hope to, is already at work in mysterious ways that exceed all human reckoning or perception. Thus while we do not believe that God diminishes our freedom by delivering us painlessly from the consequences of our deep seated greed and profligacy, we nevertheless know that He, like the good father in the parable of the prodigal, is eager to greet us with joy and assistance beyond our expectations when we obediently turn our hearts and hands again to Him.




[9] I write this work as a citizen of the United States of America, and all such references to nationhood are to be so referenced. In the face of our ever more global and uniform technological culture, however, such comments have a broader application as well.

[10] Frances Bacon, “Thoughts and Conclusions” in The Philosophy, ed. Farrington, 62.

[11] The general reductionist failure of behavioral and functional models for human (and animal) consciousness and intentionality, has recently resulted in the growing acceptance in some quarters of the so-called eliminativist model, which denies that humans are actually conscious or have intentionality at all. In a less than amusing twist of intellectual history, Rene Descartes’ immoral supposition that animals have neither souls nor consciousness nor feeling, has been applied to human beings themselves.

[12] I use the word “back” here advisedly. As the text makes clear, I do not mean to suggest that modern advances in science and technology may not be used to assist us in making this difficult transition. However, I do mean to suggest that the myth of progress is insidious and technology is far from morally neutral. Mankind’s relationship with nature was once sustainable; now it is not – and technology was the engine that powered the transition between the two. Solutions to our ecological problems which propound an even greater dependence upon the technology that got us into this mess are hubristic, encouraging us to believe that we can continue behaving insanely while we wait for technological solutions which may or may not come, and which, even if they do, we can, with reasonable historical justification, assume will bear with them their own ancillary ecological consequences.

[13] This sentence may make some Christians uncomfortable, but it is a well-attested fact of human behavior that sometimes even beneficent change comes only at the point of the sword. Orthodoxy is not now, and has never been a pacifistic tradition. If it comes down to it, and the viability of our landbase, our own lives, and the lives of our descendants who will depend upon it, can only be defended by violence, then violence may be necessary, though subject always to the same ethical strictures applied to violence by Christian ethics throughout our history. It would also be a good idea, in this context, for us to remember that Christ himself scourged the temple of its money-changers (all of whom, doubtless, had a valid licenses), and to recall that historic Christianity, East and West, has always insisted that property rights are subsidiary and secondary to genuine human need. In such a light, Christians might, for instance, lead the way in politically opposing the application of the term “terrorism” to acts solely directed at property rather than people, especially when such acts are ecologically motivated. Spiking the tires of forestry vehicles, or using road-construction equipment to sabotage an unmanned radio tower may justifiably be described as acts of ecologically motivated vandalism. They are not, however, and cannot reasonably be described, as “acts of domestic terrorism.”

[14] That this is so is revealed to us in numerous ancillary comments in the works of the fathers, like this of St. Neilos “No one without experience would go in for farming…(he would be) condemned for making good farmland barren and weed-infested.” Ascetic Discourse, The Philokalia, Vol. 1 pg. 215.

[15] Indeed, the word “hick”, corresponding closely with the Greek word for “pagan” was transformed by Christians to describe, not rural dwellers generally, but those who, not yet having received the gospel, continued to worship a plurality of gods.

[16] I have to look this up again...the quotation is from a service composed by St. Leontius.

[17] Erazim Kohak, The Embers and the Stars: a philosophical inquiry into the moral sense of nature. (U of Chicago P: Chicago, 1984) 91.

[18] St. Symeon the New Theologian, in an explication of Genesis 2:15, presents us with a traditional Orthodox interpretation of these terms, identifying “tillage” with man’s right to make reasonable use of the benefits of nature, and “keeping” with the duty to further protect and preserving it. Hymns 17, SC 174, pg 68.

[19] Elizabeth Theokritoff, "The Orthodox Church and the Environmental Movement", http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith 8024 (accessed 9/5/2009)

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