The Patriarch, the Environment and the Enlightenment

His All Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew recently published an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal (“Our Indivisible Environment,” 26 October 2009) in which he argues that “just as God is indivisible, so too is our global environment.”  He asserts that as the “molecules of water that comprise the great North Atlantic are neither European nor American” so too the “particles of atmosphere above the United Kingdom are neither Labour nor Tory.”

On the surface, his words reflect a cultural and intellectual tradition with deep roots in classical, pre-Christian Greek thought (especially Aristotle) as well as Holy Scripture and the teachings of the fathers of the Church (East and West).

His observations also owe much to Scholasticism, those Medieval Catholic scholars wrestled who the relationship between Greek philosophy and Christian faith, as well as the relationship of Christian faith to Judaism and Islam.  To his credit, the Patriarch is also in a discussion with scholars of different faith and intellectual traditions.

There is a difference here worth noting, however, and it is the difference between Christian scholars and scholars of other faith and ideological traditions. At the core of biblical faith lies the “scandal of particularity,” the notion of God’s election of a particular people, the Jews. This notion also lies at the heart of the Christian Gospel.

Particularity is an irreducible tenet that sets Judaism and Christianity apart from other faith traditions. It has been a source of tension in human history, but also a well-spring of great insight. This difference is so critical to the self-understanding of Jews and Christians that it must remain in the forefront of any project that seeks to embrace the entire human community.

The Medieval Schoolmen undertook the encounters they had with the traditions of their Jewish and Muslim neighbors with deep seriousness and deliberation. Contrary to Patriarch Bartholomew’s call for practical agreement that will “transcend doctrinal differences,” the Scholastics developed relationships with their non-Catholic neighbors that affirmed the common ground that united them in a manner that did not discount or diminish the differences that separated them.

Sometimes the relationships that grew out of their conversations were collaborative. Other times they were combative. Rather than construct a false peace, medieval thinkers – Christian, Jewish, and Muslim – accepted the conflict and disagreement as the cost of being faithful to their respective teachings. For them, it meant they were being true to God.

The Patriarch’s call to “transcend doctrinal differences,” does not follow the practice of the Medievalists. In fact, it runs counter to the notion of particularity that runs strongly throughout all of Christian tradition. It draws, I contend, from the secularism of the Enlightenment rather than biblical or patristic thinking.

At the heart of the Enlightenment project is the criticism (sometimes accurately, sometimes overstated) of the harm that religion in general and Christianity in particular have at times inflicted on humanity. The long term result of this criticism is that, for better or worse, an intellectual tradition developed that fosters a critical distance from all received wisdom, both cultural and religious.

I am not saying that the Ecumenical Patriarch is teaching heresy; he certainly is not.  But it does appear that he accepts uncritically the Enlightenment’s skepticism of religion when he says that the “survival of our planet…unites us in ways that transcend doctrinal differences.” If he is correct in his assessment of the environment, then his words are nothing less than an appeal to the self-interest of both persons and nations. To be sure, the appeal is intended as enlightened self-interest since it fulfills the “common good.” He says, “Climate change will only be overcome when all of us—scientists and politicians, theologians and economists, specialists and lay citizens—cooperate for the common good.”

Missing in the appeal however, is the recognition that self-interest is never abstract and always personal. While men and women from different faith traditions can and often do agree on practical matters, they do so for reasons particular to themselves. The Patriarch however, is encouraging us to seek an agreement in ways that require us to ignore and perhaps even negates the particularity of our traditions.  By his implicit counsel that we level our differences of doctrine and faith, he repeats one of the great failures of the Enlightenment: the exchange of deep personal and communal motivations for those of abstract reason which invariably causes us to replace community with bureaucracy and ultimately freedom with tyranny.

Our differences are important reflecting as they do what is unique about us as persons and communities.  Our disagreements, if honestly faced, can be sources of moral and practical wisdom which can in turn enrich our shared commitments to work for the betterment of the whole human family. It is within our differences and disagreements that we can find what His All Holiness calls the “spiritual dimension” of practical projects. This is an important insight and one that the Church must preserve and teach. If our focus is only on transcending differences however, we risk losing the wealth gained through them.

As an Orthodox theologian, Patriarch Bartholomew knows that the human heart seeks not abstract unity but personal communion, not bureaucracy but communion, not the tyranny of sin but true and lasting freedom.  In Orthodox theological terms all of this rests in the Most Holy Trinity itself although not on the level of ousia, that is, through the shared divine nature, but by the hypostasis, that is the union of Divine Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Whether in the Holy Trinity or in the human family, personal communion is radically different then the union possessed by “molecules of water” or by “particles of atmosphere.” The union of the physical creation is impersonal. There is no communion between molecules of water or particles of air.

Thus the comparison of the human to the non-human world in these terms makes all conversation about what is in our best personal or national interest meaningless. When particularity is subsumed into an abstraction, the differences between people ultimately have no meaning.

A press release from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America describes Patriarch’s Bartholomew’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal as “a powerful statement for the Orthodox Christian view of creation and the need for the protection of the environment.”   I respectfully but firmly, disagree.  His words owe more to his uncritical adoption of the secular thought than to Christian theology.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


  1. George Michalopulos :

    Fr Gregory, well put. I fear that the end-result of this “universalism” –no matter how well-intentioned–is syncretism and not a healthy dialectic.

  2. Thank you George.

    I don’t think that universalism will result in syncretism. Rather, if my time in California is any clue, it will result in indifference for all religions on the one hand, and a strident and aggressive response from the ever smaller group of equally theological illiterate believers.

    Hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.

    Thanks again for the kind word and comment!


    • I also liked the piece Fr Gregory. I think it helps flesh out what we all feel – this borrowing of secular categories.

      Could you expand on what you mean by “…a strident and aggressive response from an ever smaller group of theological illiterate believers”?

      Do you mean some sort of “fundamentalist” ghetto?

      • Christopher,

        Thank you for your comment and question.

        In part I think what I’m referring to might be called a fundamentalist ghetto. But what I’m getting at are Christian groups that look to their social status as a sign of their fidelity to Christ and the Gospel. For example, when I first arrived in Redding (the small city where I was sent to start and Greek Orthodox parish), I was approached several times by Evangelical ministers who wanted to know what was my “target ministry group.” At the time I frankly had no idea what they were talking about and said I was there to serve whomever God brought to me.

        Over time I can to realize that many of the Evangelical ministers had targeted particular demographic groups with the hope of securing one or two prominent members “for Christ” so that they could influence the larger community.

        There was no sense of service here–just of power politics. In fact, I think many had simply given up on evangelism in the proper sense and were almost wholly concerned with acquiring influence. Again, the goal was politics and nothing else.

        With influence as the goal, doctrine and theology, even the Scriptures, became superfluous, even a distraction. What mattered was power pure and simple. Again and again I met a most peculiar animal, the evangelical Christian relativist. Accepting Jesus as personal Lord and Savior was the only constant–and there was no content to this–and once a person was “born again” his or her goals were sanctified and beyond criticism as long as they advanced the influence of the Gospel.

        This may sound unbelievable to some, but it was for 6.5 years my daily experience. While I had a good relationship with the Roman Catholic community, such a relationship was impossible with the vast majority of the mainline Protestant and Evangelical Christian pastors and congregations. Their goal was to capture some measure of social/political/culture power and influence. And let me be clear, this wasn’t a “fundamentalist” thing–it was as much an addiction of the so-called liberal Protestant groups.

        Once jealous and envy and the love of power and prestige took hold, the Gospel (and everything that goes with it) goes out the window.

        I fear that if the Orthodox Church in ths country isn’t careful, we could go down the same road. This doesn’t mean we should give up our social witness (so AOI is still good in my book!) but what we do must be done with dispassion and not simply as a power grab to bolster our sagging personal and corporate egos.

        Make a little sense maybe?

        In Christ,


  3. Wesley J. Smith :

    This is the section that caught my eye:

    Climate change, pollution and the exploitation of our natural resources are commonly seen as the domain not of priests but rather of politicians, scientists, technocrats or interest groups organized by concerned citizens. What does preserving the planet have to do with saving the soul?

    A lot, as it turns out. For if life is sacred, so is the entire web that sustains it. For if life is sacred, so is the entire web that sustains it.

    Does he mean human life is sacred? Does he mean salvation would cease in a polluted environment? I’m not sure. In any event, it seems to me, that the EP’s assertion quoted above could be construed to create a moral equivalency between human life and that of fauna, flora, and ecosystems.

    Many of the EPs allies in radical environmentalism would certainly not object to that view. They don’t see any meaningful distinction. Worse, for some, humans are the enemy of earth, the vermin species infecting the planet, whose numbers must be dramatically reduced.

    Many of the people the EP is hanging out with have turned environmentalism into a quasi religion. Some are calling for one child policies like that in China–which is the worst oppression and tyranny. Some have said we must give up all meat. Some have said we have to give up our dogs and cats. Some, as I mentioned, view humans as the enemy.

    Maybe I have missed it, but I haven’t seen the EP distinguish his views, from the anti-humans. I think he should. Otherwise, there could be confusion about where the OC stands on such matters.

    Certainly, we have a moral obligation to treat our environment responsibly. But the earth is not sacred in a metaphysical sense. Human beings are.

    • Wesley,

      I have noticed time and again that the EP’s visits to America follow a very tight script. We do not see interviews or the EP taking questions. Genuine pastoral activity is very limited.

      Let me give you an example. The EP visited a Greek Parochial school in New York this week. Instead of following a tight script here and giving yet another pre-pared text and do and question and answer session with the kids. In other words, why not spend a few hours teaching and being a father?

      I always love how Pope Benedict will throw the vatican press office off track and take impromptu questions from groups. Likwise, the image of a young Pope John Paul II wisking his red papal cape over the heads of children on the stage is a image that lasts a lifetime.

      One thing that really touched me lately was a short video about JP2 and Children. You can find it here:

      Imagine if the Orthodox World did not have a Green Patriarch but a Patriarch who made it his unique vocation to overturn human trafficking, child soldiers, and the degradation of children throughout the world.

  4. “Certainly, we have a moral obligation to treat our environment responsibly”

    Please define Wesley. What actions are required by our “moral obligation”?

    Where exactly does the EP advocate for radical environmentalism and anything resembling a “one child policy”?

    Your critiques concedes a moral/religious case for responsible environmental stewardship but make that statement only as a red herring. The substance of your statement is denying a moral case.

    Even Fr. Gregory’s treatise did not really get to the heart of the issue. So, you think you have proven that the EP did not present an Orthodox Christian view on environmental stewardship? Bravo, proud of you. Tell us what the proper view is.

    Wesley, you accuse the EP of promoting a quasi-religion, when at the same time it seems that you adhere to a science-fiction based reality that environmentalism is anti-human and that a polluted planet does not harm humans.

    At least don’t get cute with words, admit it — you don’t think there is a moral case for environmentalism and you don’t care what happens to this planet when you’re gone from it. Just remember, you are leaving this damaged planet to other human lives that will have to pay for our irresponsible behavior.

  5. Geo Michalopulos :

    Fr Gregory, this indifference to truth can be even more insidious than full-blown syncretism. It will be (as Fr Hopko said) the “appearance of religion,” and not its reality. Under such a regime, I could easily see how the false religion of the Antichrist could be enacted. after all, nobody will really “have” to believe in him, just go along to get along.

  6. George Michalopulos :

    Fr Greg, what you describe regarding these Evangelical pastors is no different than the Orthodox “capture” of Frank Schaeffer. By hitching our wagon to his star (because let’s face it, he was a biggie and he was right), the GOA has now had to follow him to the fever swamps of HuffPo land where the only sacrament is Kool-Aid.

  7. Hi George,

    Thanks for the observations.

    The in the absence of the Gospel what else do we have but power politics and in bondage. I am always tempted to return to this way of life or worse to twist the Gospel toserve my own desire for power. When I do pevert the Gospel in this way, I am living a life with the appearance of religion but the substance of that life is envy and jealous.

    This is why I most always examine myself in light of the Tradition of the Church. I must root out my own love of power. Doing so is, I think, central to the ascetical life of the Christian.

    To root out my love of power, I must commit myself to think a life of daily prayer and Scripture reading, of fasting, almsgiving and stewardship, regular (WEEKLY AT LEAST) Holy Communion and regular confession with a priest who I trust and respect and (and this is more important) who I know trusts and respect me.

    But none of this will save me, none of this will heal me of my love of power. But I cannot be healed without these remedies and it is worse than foolish to think a cure is possible–it is self-deception.

    Finally, as for who or who hasn’t in the Church hitched their wagon to power, let me say that the last 5 or so years has provided us with an enough illustrations of this to make me confident that no jurisidiction or individual Orthodox Christian has cornered the market on the love of power.

    In Christ,

    And thanks again.


  8. George Michalopulos :

    Fr, one of the silver linings of the scandals within the OCA (pre-+Jonah) has been to humble ourselves and not to seek power or bang our own drum. I pray that we never fall into that abyss. I fear for those jurisdictions that are on a triumphalist kick because “pride goeth before a fall.”

  9. For those interested, here is my response to Rod Dreher’s criticism of my essay on the EP’s WSJ op-ed piece.

    First, thank you Rod for noticing my post on AOI I do appreciate it.

    To be clear upfront, a personal matter, I do not agree with the climate change science or the policy that seems (to me at least) implicit in the Patriarch recent op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. But his science and politics are not the subject of my comments. His secularism, his failure to proclaim Christ in his essay, is.

    Forgive me but in failing to acknowledge this, I think Rod you have badly, and unfairly, represented my criticism of His All Holiness’ op-ed piece. I took great care to commend the Patriarch for entering into conversation with not only Christians of other traditions, but all religious believers as well as though without any particular religious faith. I would commend him as well for seeking to find common ground between science and religion. All of these are good things. Unfortunately, I think the essay falls far short His All Holiness’ laudable goals.

    As I said in my original response the Ecumenical Patriarch’s argument owes more to the Enlightenment than it does Orthodox theology. Yes, as Tony D points out here, the Holy Spirit “is everywhere present and fillest all things.” Would that the Patriarch had made that argument. Unfortunately he did not.

    Nor was he clear what he means when he says that “Just as God is indivisible, so too is our global environment.” On the surface this seems true but on closer examination it isn’t. The unity of God is a communion of Persons. The unity of the environment is impersonal. More over, this unity is momentary; in the end the creation is subject to a variety of changes and divisions. In other words, creation is not indivisible in any sense that resembles the indivisibility God.

    Yes, “molecules of water that comprise the great North Atlantic are neither European nor American. The particles of atmosphere above the United Kingdom are neither Labour nor Tory.” But human beings are, and must necessarily be personal. And as in the Holy Trinity, it is our personal uniqueness that makes love not only possible but essential — both to personal happiness and the collaborative efforts that comprise human endeavor. Lose sight of those differences and love becomes impossible.

    Moving to the specific criticism offered here, the contention that Orthodox Christianity is panetheistic is at best, a matter of theological speculation rather than dogmatic truth. But even granting for the sake of argument the legitimacy of seeing Orthodoxy in these terms, this was not the argument His All Holiness made.

    Truthfully, I think that the statement by Pope Benedict XVI on the environment presents a significantly better theological argument for the care of the creation. Yes, as was pointed out, the Orthodox Church has a sacramental view of creation. However, His All Holiness, unlike Pope Benedict, does not make this argument. Nor did he make, again as the Pope did, the connection which for Christians is essential: “Is it not true that an irresponsible use of creation begins precisely where God is marginalized or even denied? If the relationship between human creatures and the Creator is forgotten, matter is reduced to a selfish possession, man becomes the ‘last word’, and the purpose of human existence is reduced to a scramble for the maximum number of possessions.” None of this is found in the Patriarch’s op-ed piece. For that matter he does not even use the word “creation” much less suggest that turning away from sin toward faith in Jesus Christ is essential to the proper care of the creation. Unpopular though it has been since before St Paul preached at the Mars Hill, this is still the heart of the Gospel.

    Of course His All Holiness is free to make whatever type of argument he wishes. He has chosen, in this instance, to make an argument that is secular in nature his passing references to the New Testament notwithstanding. In doing this, however, I think he has missed an opportunity to proclaim Christ. Absent from his words , as Anie rightly says of herself, is any hint that humanity and our relationship to creation can, and must, “be revolutionized by the church.”

    For record, I was ordained to the holy priesthood in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and served there for 10 years (I am now in the Orthodox Church of America). This makes me, I say with no small sense of gratitude, a priest of the Ecumenical Throne. I thank God for my time of priestly service under the spiritual fatherhood of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. During these years I learned more about the Gospel and the nature of the priesthood then I ever imagined possible.

    I am not, if it matters, an ex-Evangelical Christian conservative with an ax to grind against the Ecumenical Patriarchate. I was until my wife and I joined the Orthodox Church in 1991, Catholic and the product of a fine Catholic education from high school, through college (University of Dallas for both my BA and MA), and graduate school (I took my doctorate at Duquesne in Pittsburgh). My criticism of the Patriarch’s op-ed piece, though pointed, are not the result of any Evangelical theological baggage or personal disappointment with the lack of any public opposition to abortion on the part of the Ecumenical Throne. If anything my argument owes as much to Catholic education as to my Orthodox faith.

    Finally, one clarification. Like the Pope Benedict, Patriarch Bartholomew does have a local jurisdiction, he is the Archbishop of Constantinople just as the Pope is the Bishop of Rome. What Bartholomew does not have in the Orthodox Church and what the Benedict does in the Catholic Church, is a universal jurisdiction, that is a direct an authority over the whole Church.

    In Christ,

    +Fr Gregory

  10. Photini Henderson :


    He asserts that as the “molecules of water that comprise the great North Atlantic are neither European nor American” so too the “particles of atmosphere above the United Kingdom are neither Labour nor Tory.”

    Water molecules don’t have to be Hellenized like those in the diaspora he claims fatherhood over, whether Russian, Ukrainian, Dominican, or Chinese …

    In Christ,


  11. Geo Michalopulos :

    Photini, touche!

  12. George Michalopulos :

    Fr, Rod, I was always under the impression that panentheism was a heresy. Am I wrong? Is there not a distinction between God and His energies being in all of creation and God in His essence (personhood) being in all of creation? If not, what’s the difference between pantheism and panentheism?

    Please advise…


  1. Crunchy Con says:

    One environment, indivisible…

    Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church (sort of like our Archbishop of Canterbury — he’s the figurehead, but he has no local jurisdiction, as the Pope does for Catholics), has long been called the “Green Patriarch” for his……

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