Friday, October 1, 2010

How Does the Orthodox Church Respond to Ecological Problems?

The article which will be analyzed and responded to here is “Creation and Ecology: How Does the Orthodox Church Respond to Ecological Problems?”, written by Tamara Grdzelidzein The Ecumenical Review(July 2002; 54, 3).
Author's Position
The ethical issue at stake in this article is the nature of the Orthodox church's relation to the current ecological crisis.  The author's position is to affirm the positive conception of creation given by the Eastern tradition, in terms outlined by an attitude of  repentance, responsibility and moderation.
Ms. Grdzelidze begins by placing the issue in the context of God's love towards all of creation.  Within that love is a promise of participation indivinitywhich may be properly manifested via communion with God and among creatures.  A transformation of the created order is implicit in the immanence of God, which leads to transcendence. 
The ascent of Christ from the cradle of humanity opened the way for a deification of all humans.  However, as this is a gift, it ought not to be abused.  The author emphasizes the responsibility of humankind to be a mediator and not a dominator of creation.  Since Christ did not “lord it over” those in his care, humility ought to guide and inform our interaction with the environment.
The Orthodox church's role in the current ecological crisis is to acknowledge that it is indeed taking place, and to seek out wisdom sources from within that tradition to help shape a better future.  Some imperatives the author outlines from a conference on environmental protection held in Crete in 1991 include the need for programs of education, and a return to the Orthodox value of asceticism.  A basic attitude of love and reverence is given as the proper means of resolving the crisis.
Analysis of Position
Ms. Grdzelidze adequately identifies and addresses sources of the ecological crisis.  She traces the complicity of the Christian worldview in promulgating the values which exploit rather than love the creation.  Repentance is given as a key to shifting from a utilitarian to a ministerial approach in the tradition of the Orthodox church. 
Let us consider the author's demonstration of Christianity's role in allowing for the crisis.  Rationalism, inherited from a Greek worldview, proposed a dualistic stance on reality; the spiritual realm was separate from the material, and supposed to be superior to it.  Some of the early church fathers believed strongly in these ideas, includingOrigen.  Ms. Grdzelidze states that whileOrigenismwas refuted in the Eastern tradition, it flourished in the Western under Augustine.  Eventually, this led to Cartesian philosophy and anthropocentric science.  The Enlightenment then produced a utilitarian ethic which was based on the idea that the material world was present for the satisfaction of human desire.  Exploitation was also encapsulated in the Protestant interpretation of theimago dei, which carried notions of dominion.  Thisfuel ledto a large extent the unbridled lust for technology which hascharacterizedWestern culture for centuries.
The author defends theOrthodoxtradition from explicit complicity in nurturing those values which have ended with the current ecological crisis.  She does so by outlining several unique elements of faith and lifestyle.  First is the value of relationship.  In contrast with modern culture which emphasizes individuality, Orthodox tradition calls for interdependency.  Next is the value of humanity's ministerial role towards the rest of the world.  In contrast with the idea of dominion or rulership, Orthodox tradition has an attitude of priestly service.  Humans are to offer back to God what God has given them and to serve as mediators for the good of creation.  Along these lines Ms. Grdzelidze highlights a “liturgical dimension of creation”, which calls for a “sanctification and transformation of the material world” (p. 215).
To support these assertions of Orthodox tradition's unique values, the author makes reference to various conferences and wisdom sources.  She quotes Metropolitan JohnZizioulas, a prominent Orthodox theologian, as saying that Christianity needs “to move from ethics to ethos, and from legislation to culture” (p. 215).  This, we are told, must involve repentance and self-discipline, so that ecological concern will be integral rather than incidental. 
The author's approach in this paper is well-defended.  She correctly distinguishes between the Eastern and Western church's approaches to creation, showing clearly the evolution of utilitarianism from the latter rather than from the former.  While some within the Roman tradition are calling for reform in order to address the ecological crisis, Ms. Grdzelidze offers an approach more along the lines of renewal.  Rather than distancing ourselves from Scripture and tradition, the author suggests recovery of values inherent in Orthodox tradition. 
Additional Support
The author of the paper under consideration aptly demonstrates the link between the rationalism espoused by some early church fathers and autilitarianworldview which exploits nature.  That this rationality is based in theimago deiand led to an ethic of dominion may be corrected by an attitude of priestly service.  We are, as humans, to participate in the transformation of the material world through mediation between the transcendent and immanent aspects of divinity.  This is given in theEucharistas a type, where the priest offers back to God what God has given humanity.
Thus a reciprocity exists between our use of nature and ourresponsibilitytowards its own calling to participate in a higher purpose.  This may be predicated upon acovenantalmodel, such as the one YHWH established with Israel.  Tirosh-Samuelson argues in her paper, “Nature in the Sources of Judaism”1 that the creation is made perfect through human acts.  The achievement of this sanctification is subject to the proper lifestyle called for in Torah.  Thus, Tirosh-Samuelson writes, when Israel obeys the commands of YHWH, the land prospers and the people live in peace.  When the law is forgotten, however, YHWH curses both the people and the land.  From this we learn that the principle of stewardship carries not just privilege but responsibility.  Grdzelidze writes along the same lines:  “nature is meant to 'serve' human beings only on the condition that humanity protects nature and respects the relevant laws regarding its use” (p. 215).  Reciprocity is the key.
This attitude of responsibility, highlighted by Ms.Grdzelidzeas being fundamental in the Orthodox tradition, is also seen in other traditions.  Against the interpretation of absolute dominion often attached by some to Genesis 1:28, Pope John Paul II said that the earth is entrusted not to humanity's abuse but to its use.2   He added that the natural order is “marked by precise boundaries” and that transgressions against it are punishable by God.  Ms. Grdzelidze recognizes that the current state is indeed sinful and suggests:  “A way out of this crisis is repentance and the restoration of that mentality which sees the world as something to value and love, rather than to value and exploit” (p. 214).  The utilitarian view of gain is thus displaced by an ethos of care, as social justice extends its concern to embrace all those who are made by God.
Application of Moral Theology
Earlier we stated that Ms.Grdzelidze'spresentation offers not areformativeview but instead one of renewal, using elements already present in the Orthodox tradition.  Though the question of the New Cosmology does not arise in her paper, she aptly shifts the focus away from a purely utilitarian view, if not away from an anthropocentric one.  Creation is seen as the loving act of God, which love extends beyond humans to include “angels, human beings, other-worldly creatures” (p. 211).  This tantalizing hint of life elsewhere may in fact assume the New Cosmology.  In any case, there is evident in her thought a shift away from the object to the subject, to a communion of beings under one loving Creator.
Implicit in this line of reasoning is the idea of responsibility.  Humanity has not just the duty but the privilege of helping to transform creation in acts of presenting back to God what God has entrusted to us.  The old dualistic stance of division between spirit and matter gives place to the call todivinization, the immanent securing the transcendent.  The priestly role of humanity in this ethos recognizes our unique calling to minister in humility to the cosmos.  In the author's thesis, the autonomy of the earth and its great diversity of inhabitants may be thought to coexist with the “paternalistic” duty of humanity to help bring about the promise of transformation that is the glorification of the universe.  The unique place of humans as a “crown” of creation is not carteblanchefor so-called progress and pleasure, but rather a charge to serve the natural order in a non-exploitative manner.
Grdzelidzemakes use of Lynn WhiteJr.'sanalysis of Christianity's role in the current ecological crisis by tracing the roots of modern science back to rationalistic theology in the Western church.  She does not suggest a new religion but emphasizes traditions in the Orthodox church such as asceticism, which may help to recover older values in the battle against progress.  One is reminded ofAttfield'sapologetic response to White Jr. which reiterates the Old Testament ideals of reciprocity.
The vision given does not assume that the natural order is a fixed one, but rather one that is called to participation in divinity through an ongoing process of transformation and sanctification.  In this, humans are central but subject to principles of servitude and humility as they strive to bring about the flourishing not only of humanity but of the whole earth.  Ms.Grdzelidzewould no doubt agree with an ecologically-corrected version of natural law that included a regard for the rest of creation.
The Orthodox value of asceticism presented by the author may help to inform issues of social justice.  Luxuries are not justifiable in an ethic of self-denial and the informed soul will certainly be more responsible for cutting down on consumption so that others may flourish.  Ms.Grdzelidzementions an Orthodox monastery in Greece where environmentally-sound agricultural practices have been adopted and suggests that education is of major importance in helping to solve the crisis.
The opinions of the author are representative of the Orthodox tradition but they are not absent from others.  The Jewish tradition also proposes a model of participative transformation and of covenant.  Human acts are a primary means by which the creation is rendered sacred and presented back to YHWH.  Transgressions against the law are reason for erosion of resources and people, while faithfulness to divine precepts are reciprocal with general flourishing of land andlaborer.  In the Roman Catholic rite, elements of responsible, non-abusive stewardship may also be recovered from Scripture and tradition.  Pope John Paul II affirms our role as God's co-workers, reflecting Ms.Grdzelidze'sideal of humanity as priestly servants of a cosmic communion.
Works Cited
Grdzelidze,Tamara.  “Creation and Ecology: How Does the Orthodox Church Respond to  Ecological Problems?” The Ecumenical Review(July 2002; 54, 3):  211-18.
Pope John Paul II,Earth is Entrusted to Man's Use, Not Abuse.  The Holy Father's Address of November 11, 2000, to farmers and representatives of agricultural institutions from the five continents, as they gathered with the Holy Father as part of the Jubilee of the Agricultural World. (Nov. 11, 2000).
Tirosh-Samuelson,Hava.  “Nature in the Sources of Judaism,”Daedalus(Fall, 2001):  99-124.
1 Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, “Nature in the Sources of Judaism,” Daedalus(Fall, 2001) 99-124.
2 Pope John Paul II, Earth is Entrusted to Man's Use, Not AbuseThe Holy Father's Address of November 11, 2000, to farmers and representatives of agricultural institutions from the five continents, as they gathered with the Holy Father as part of the Jubilee of the Agricultural World. (Nov. 11, 2000).

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