As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend.
I am generally encouraged by comments made by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in his recent speech (“A Changeless Faith for A Changing World”) delivered November 3, 2009 at Georgetown University. Unlike his recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, I found his Georgetown speech a clear presentation of the Gospel and one in which he made his case that there is a direct connection between care for the environment and the Church’s sacramental and ascetical tradition. Most importantly he clarified his earlier comments about the unity of environment; the unity of creation is not merely the result of physical forces or laws but, as His All Holiness states, the result of the personal and creative action and presence of the Most Holy Trinity.
Let me please begin, however, with where I disagree with His All Holiness.
Classical American political philosophy counsels a limited government. At our best, Americans, like St Augustine, understand that just as sometimes wars must be fought, so too the government must exercise its coercive power. But, and again like Augustine, we do not always see a substantive difference between Alexander the Great and a pirate captain (see The City of God, Bk IV, 4) and so we say governmental power must be limited and should only be exercised under narrowly defined circumstances. As asceticism is for the individual, so is limited government is for the body politic.
Given His All Holiness’ understanding of the condition of fallen humanity his unqualified call for a governmental solution to climate change is surprising. Because of Adam’s transgression “many human beings have come to behave as materialistic tyrants. “ Ironically, and tragically, “Those that tyrannize the earth are themselves, . . . , tyrannized.” Though we “have been called by God, to ‘be fruitful, increase and have dominion in the earth’ (Gen 1:28)” many, especially in the technological advanced and materially wealthy West, have closed their hearts to God’s command and instead embraced (as the late John Paul II has called it) the “culture of death.” In our age, as in every age and among all people, human relationships are often about power and control, falling far short of being an “eschatological sign of the perfect Kingdom of God, where corruption and death are no more.” This is as true for governments as it is for individuals; “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rm 3:23).
What I don’t understand in this speech is the disconnect between the sober theological analysis of the human condition and the Patriarch’s advocacy of progressive political positions. If implemented such laws would concentrate more power in the hands of fallen human beings who are just as inclined toward materialistic tyranny as those whose pollution of the natural world His All Holiness decries. In any event, my concern here is not with politics, but theology. Specifically I want to offer an appreciative but critical response to the theological content of the Patriarch’s Georgetown speech. It is his theological analysis that I think is the most fruitful foundation for a debate about a Christian response to environmental matters.
In his speech Patriarch Bartholomew returns to his concern for the environment. “Just as every human life is a gift from God, to be treated with love and respect, so is all the rest of Creation – which is why the Orthodox Church has also been a leading voice for healing the environment.” But the “love and respect” we owe to each human being is qualitatively different than what we owe to “all the rest of Creation.” In Orthodox cosmology, humanity exists as the apex of Creation and not merely as a part of it. Again, as in the Wall Street Journal opinion piece, we see in Bartholomew’s rhetoric a tendency to abstraction and moral leveling. That is to say, he uses language that lends itself to viewing the human and non-human world as having equally moral weight.
But is this a reasonable charge? I think not.
To be sure, Patriarch’s words are inelegant but I don’t see them reflecting any fundamental cosmological or anthropological error or lapse on his part. As I have said before, I don’t agree with either Bartholomew’s science or his politics; to see his environmental views as theological error however, strains against not only the plain meaning of his speech but does violence to truth and charity.
Our care for environment must be rooted in the gratitude humanity owes to the Creator for the gift of creation itself. His All Holiness invokes the memory of “the late Patriarch Dimitrios” and his invitation to “the whole world to offer, together with the Great Church of Christ, prayers of thanksgiving and supplications for the protection of the gift of creation.” Yes, he overstates the case when he says that “September 1st, the beginning of the ecclesiastical calendar . . . [is] a day of prayer for the protection of the environment, throughout the Orthodox world.” But it does seem that those who object to the secularism of the environmental movement might do well to incorporate this service into our own spiritual lives. Let me be clear, I would include myself as one who ought to do so.
The conversation that His All Holiness has undertaken is difficulty both theoretically and personally. Speaking with a highly educated and culturally sophisticated laity, more than one clergyman has wondered along the lines as does the Patriarch who wonders if there is anything beyond “platitudes, [that] Orthodox Christianity contribute to the movement to protect the environment?” In his answer, Bartholomew points us in a markedly Orthodox Christian direction. “We believe that through our unique liturgical and ascetic ethos, Orthodox spirituality can provide significant moral and ethical direction toward a new awareness about the planet.”
Where in his previous discussion, he adopted the language of a European Union bureaucrat, at Georgetown his language is explicitly Christian with a stress on soteriology. “Our sin toward the world – the spiritual root of all our pollution – lies in our refusal to view life and the world as a sacrament of thanksgiving, and as a gift of constant communion with God on a global scale. “ While we might want to debate the finer points of what is meant by “pollution” and what is meant by the assertion that humanity has sinned against the world, no Christian who has read St Paul (Rm 8:22) can deny that all creation suffers because of humanity’s lack of gratitude toward the Creator.
But it isn’t simply non-Christians who reject the sacramental character of creation. Even among Orthodox Christians we often see a deeply rooted indifference to the sacramentality of life; think for example of all the Orthodox Christians who will not be at Liturgy this Sunday; think of those who will not approach the Chalice for Holy Communion or, if they do approach, do so without preparation. The lack of a proper appreciation for the sacraments of the Church is not a secondary matter to the argument being made by the Patriarch—even if it is a matter that he does not address directly. I dare say that for many us the Gospel and the sacraments of the Church are seen as consumer goods which we expect to be there, waiting for us, like loaf of bread on the grocery store shelf.
There is a general need therefore “to raise the consciousness” of both those within the Church and those outside her. This shift in consciousness is more than the cultivation of a vague sentimental appreciation for environmental causes and requires from all human beings a real and substantive change; a conversion not simply to environmentalism but to Jesus Christ. “At the heart of the relationship between man and environment is the relationship between human beings. As individuals, we live not only in vertical relationships to God, and horizontal relationships to one another, but also in a complex web of relationships that extend throughout our lives, our cultures and the material world.”
The unity of creation rests ultimately not in the laws of physics but God. “Human beings and the environment form a seamless garment of existence; a complex fabric that we believe is fashioned by God” (emphasis added). Further it is because we are “created ‘in the image and likeness of God’ (Gen. 1:26)” that God calls us “to recognize this interdependence between our environment and ourselves. “ Though not developed in the speech, the argument is made that we have a “responsibility for the environment” because we have been entrusted by God with the ordering of creation. Or as Bartholomew says in his speech, “human beings participated in Creation by giving names to the things that God created.” Our care for creation is vocational and not merely instrumental or self-referential.
In addition to clarifying the ambiguity in his Wall Street Journal editorial, His All Holiness does something that the late Pope John Paul II did consistently and well. He articulates the anthropological implications of Christian asceticism and applies them to a contemporary concern. “There is also an ascetic element in our responsibility toward God’s creation. This asceticism requires voluntary restraint, in order for us to live in harmony with our environment. By reducing consumption – known in Orthodox theology as ‘encratia’ or self-control – we ensure that resources are left for others in the world.”
Mindful of the different (mis-) understandings that might exist among his listeners, he clarifies for them that asceticism “is not a flight from society and the world, but a communal attitude of mind and way of life that leads to the respectful use, and not the abuse of material goods.” He contrasts this with the “[e]xcessive consumption” which is rooted in the anti-ascetical spirit of a person estranged “from self, from land, from life, and from God.” An important anthropological truth is being presented and defended here. Consumption as such is not sinful; what is sinful is the “unrestrained” consumption of “the fruits of the earth” by which results in the eventual consumption of our lives “by avarice and greed.” The human problem here is with that type of “consumption [that] leaves us emptied, out-of-touch with our deepest self” and it is as “a corrective practice” to this dissonant consumption that the Church holds up “a vision of repentance,” her ascetical practice. “Such a vision can lead us from repentance to return, the return to a world in which we give, as well as take from creation.”
Where I think the Patriarch goes astray is when he says that “We must challenge ourselves to align our personal and spiritual attitudes with public policy.” Yes, certainly, ascetical effort bears the fruit of self-control (encratia) and so “frees us of our self-centered neediness, that we may do good works for others.” But this is rather different then aligning ourselves with public policy which is more often than not the result of compromise among different, and even contradictory, political interests.
It is not personal lives that need to be aligned with public policy. Rather, and to the degree that we are able, Orthodox Christians must work in the political sphere and in the public square so that public policy is guided by our “personal love for the natural world around us” and our fellow human being. Rarely, and only imprecisely, do public policy decisions embody the human vocation “to work in humble harmony with creation and not in arrogant supremacy against it.” For all that we will fall short of the ideal, we must as Orthodox Christians nevertheless work, as part and parcel of our commitment to Christ, to shape public policy in harmony with the human vocation. That said, we must also acknowledge that while the ascetical tradition of the Church does provide us with “an example whereby we may live simply,” it is an example that is often not followed even by those government officials who profess the faith of the Orthodox Christian Church.
As I said at the beginning of this essay, the theology and politics outlined in Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s do not seem to me consonant with each other. But I am willing to take the Patriarch at his word when he says “By calling Christianity revolutionary, and saying it is dedicated to change, we are not siding with Progressives – just as, by conserving it, we are not siding with Conservatives.” But as much as I appreciate his theological analysis, I wish he had clearly distinguished the Gospel from progressive politics.
But I don’t wish to end on a negative note.
It speaks well both of His All Holiness and of the health of the Church that a hierarch addresses publicly an issue such as climate change. Not only through not her bishops but her clergy and above all her laity, the Church must do this issue and others if we are to remain faithful to our prophetic and evangelical vocation. Along the way our words will engender discussion, debate, and even sharply drawn disagreements both with those outside the Church and among ourselves. This however is to the advantage of all since “iron sharpens iron” (Prv 27:17).
Whether we agree with him or not, His All Holiness, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew deserves our praise, our prayers, and our support for examining as a pastor of souls, questions pertaining to the environment, climate change and public policy. In doing so, he has proven himself profitable to all of us.