January 17, 2020
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Responding Faithfully to the Ecological Crisis: The Role of Science in Orthodox Environmental Ethics


Your All-Holiness, I would like to start this
out with a quote from the Book of Revelations “Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees.”
(Revelations 7:3) The natural world surrounding us is, for most of us, filled with beauty and wonder. We are moved equally by the dignity of an old pine tree growing on a cliff edge and by the elegance of a bamboo thicket; we are in awe of a river carving a steep gorge and joyful at the sight of a clear fast brook. God has made us of matter; we are material, and our senses and organs are of this world. We are also made to engage the world and be enlivened by it; to love it, enjoy it and suffer in it. All of that is a part of God’s plan for us, while we inhabit the earth. Thus, we can say that that God has created us to love material reality, and just as any other love that is godly- this one fuels our desire to know more about the loved one and requires us to tend and care for it. Christians are instructed to revere the world, not only because
it is God’s creation, or because they have been told by God to be stewards of all other life on Earth, but also because we are supposed to appreciate the material as well as spiritual. In this context, the Church is not talking about material possessions but about the
matter that makes the created world – the world that was made
beautiful and perfect by God. Thus Christians discern echoes of
perfection in nature while enjoying its splendor and wonder, and while striving to care for it. It is difficult to care about something without knowing it intimately. While botany is the scientific study of plants, and zoology of animals, neither field examines the interrelationships of plants and animals with each other, with other living things, or with the environment that is both geological and biological. Such study is the focus of “ecology.” Ecology, as a field of biology, dates from the late 19th century, and grew from scientists recognizing relationships that are interdependent and permanently changing, similar to the relationships within a household. As His-Holiness said this morning, originally, this field of science was called “oecology” because it was derived from the Greek words “oikos” which means household and the word “logos” which means knowledge or study. This notion of ecology as the study of the
household is twofold. On one hand – plants and animals cohabiting an area on Earth are indeed like so many similar and dissimilar members of a single household. On the other hand – the earth is the household of humanity. From 1950 onwards, “ecology” became a regular part of our vocabulary. Today, the term is often associated with the political movement that seeks to protect the environment. The “ecological movement” has become the focus of studies relating to the misuse of natural resources, disturbances of natural systems, global climate change, pollution of air, soil, fresh waters, oceans, overtaxing of resources, loss of species and environments, and so much more. The most surprising fact about the ecological movement is that its primary focus for change is humanity, since many of the ills that are befalling our household Earth come from human activity. Those who truly love the world are astonished by the disregard for Earth and for life itself by those who engage in exploitative practices or simply fail to practice restraint. Ecological catastrophes caused by poor understanding and disregard of existing natural balance are some of the issues I’ll talk about next. There are many illustrations that can be used to explain the ways in which human intervention can affect the environment. One such example is the so-called “War of the Sparrows” that took place in China from 1958-1961. At that time, and perhaps today as well, politicians had strongly rooted beliefs in the manifest destiny of their programs for betterment of countries under their command. Unfortunately, because of its political association with Russia, China adopted many Russian agricultural practices. These ideas were often changing and had nothing to do with the actual science of agriculture itself. Thus, for example, the idea that deep plowing is beneficial for crops was embraced, and the seeds were planted in clay rather than hummus and were planted very close to each other. No crops came from this practice, leading to a famine in China. While some may have suspected the real cause of this disaster, it was politically more acceptable to blame the famine on the sparrows who were occasionally seen eating seeds. Posters about benefits of killing sparrows, “to reduce the famine,” were used throughout the country. Adults and children were equipped with slingshots to kill sparrows, and carts with thousands of dead sparrows were wheeled triumphantly around towns. In 1958 alone, 4-8 million sparrows were killed. However, crop yields decreased even further. The following year, in 1959, populations of locusts, who truly do feed on the grain, soared because of the absence of sparrows who eat the locusts. By 1961, grain production was only 70% of normal and in three years from 1958-1961 over 30 million people in China died from famine. The famine was artificially caused by human intervention based on a lack of knowledge about agriculture and ecology. Because humans were killing the sparrows, sparrow food – locusts flourished and ate the grain, killing humans. A more recent example of human-caused damage of ecological systems on a wide scale is the gradual replacement of pollinator
insects with non-pollinating insects. Pollinators visit flowers in order to harvest their pollen and nectar, and through this means play an important role in transferring pollen between plants and aiding in flower reproduction. At least 80% of the world’s crop species require pollination to set seed. However, because many insect species are considered pests, and because large areas of Earth surface are treated with pesticides, pollinator insects are exposed to the same toxic agents as their “non-desirable” counterparts. Many studies have documented a tremendous reduction in pollinating insects, particularly bees and butterflies, in recent years. In the UK and the Netherlands, the place in the ecosystems that was held by pollinating bees is now held by hoverflies (also called Syrphids) that are not involved in pollination at all. Moreover, these hoverflies also bring with them a virus that that kills bees and thus the result is the further loss of pollinating insects that will eventually affect agriculture across the world. Already in China there are some practices of pollination by humans through a labor-intensive and inefficient process. This is a hand process where they actually hold a dipper a cause pollination by hand. This lack of pollinators can become a threat to food production throughout the world, and it is even more seriously endangering all plant species that are pollinator-dependent but not used as food. This crisis will require efforts to reduce both climate change and the use of pesticides such as neonicotinoids that harm the pollinators. In the USA, a ban on neonicotinoids instituted by the Obama administration in 2015 was reversed by the Trump administration in 2018 Thus, we see that politicians still believe in their own “wisdom” first, dangerously disregarding the knowledge and efforts of scientists. My text topic: Examples of misplaced blame for
ecological catastrophes. For many years, members of the scientific community blamed organized religion for environmental problems. In 1967, a famous article in the journal, “Science,” blamed Christians for the environment’s declining health because Christian doctrine teaches that humans are set apart from other creation as their masters; the authors suggested that Christianity’s belief in human superiority is the root cause of ecological problems. In the USA, this article led to much discussion and new articles on both sides of the “debate” – scientists and religious leaders that refuted or supported the original claims. On the one side, radicalized views that are anti-science gained ground within some religious communities, particularly those that are evangelical Protestant. On the other side, many scientists took anti-religion stances and fought religion in general, as an area of study that is not evidence based. The confrontational attitude that exists today between religion and science viewpoints was likely strengthened, in part, by this acrimonious and never-resolved discussion of environmental issues. The Science article in question described the view that Christianity endorses the “use” (which allows for the possibility of abuse) of the Earth to serve humanity’s needs. Authors of this article considered this idea to be a core component of Christianity and expounded that this notion has led to a continual exploitation of the environment from the Middle Ages until now. As the previous examples indicate, the most frequent human issue at odds with scientific efforts for preservation of the environment is politicians’ folly coupled with cowardly citizens who do not try to protest or challenge the arbitrary (or perhaps greedy) notions of politicians by calling upon scientific data. My next topic is Examples of historical Christian attitudes toward ecology. While the scientific field of ecology did not exist until 19th century, Christianity and Christian faithful traditionally treated the Earth as their household. Instead of promoting an abuse of the earth, the ancient Christian faith emphasized a correct relationship between humans and nature. Early Church Fathers advanced a view of creation that underscores humanity’s responsibility for creation. An Orthodox interpretation of Genesis emphasizes God’s commands to humans to have “dominion” (not domination) over the world. Moreover, at God’s command, Adam named all of the animals (Gen 2:19). While this may seem puzzling at the first glance, we should remember that naming something means both an “ownership” over that something and establishes our responsibility for it. As children, we delight in naming our pets while our parents expect that we will feed and care for them. This is about responsibility. This is not very different from practice in
some Orthodox communities where the godparents are charged with naming the godchild. While it is patently clear that a godparent does not own the godchild in any way, the responsibility remains: a godparent has a duty to care for their godchild. When Adam named the various creatures on earth at God’s instigation, this act was symbolic. It established a covenant that made humanity responsible for all life on earth. Incidentally, Noah dispatched this responsibility when he took a pair of each type of animal on his ship. A good godparent’s responsibility does not end with the baptism service or with offering a token gift or communication once per year. Godparents’ responsibility has elements of protection, tender love, and nurturing throughout a lifetime, as well as keen observation of their godchild’s true character and wellbeing. Thus, the “total Adam” has to care for the Earth more often than just on Earth Day holidays or on selected cleanup days. Priests of Creation Early signs of “pro-environmental” thinking abound in the ancient Christian Church. St. John of Damascus in his defense of the
use of icons in the Church wrote “I shall not cease from reverencing
matter, by means of which my salvation has been achieved…”. St John is talking of Christ here because Christ became matter— water and chemicals— the same materials that we are made of. Moreover, these are the same materials of which the Earth itself is made. By becoming matter, Christ made matter holy. This embrace of material is Christ’s love not only for humanity but for all the world, including the living and non-living parts of the planet Earth. Because all living things are more than 90% water, all life on Earth could be seen as countless iterations of “evolution of water”. At the same time, the most “matter focused” Church feast is the feast of Theophany, of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan when we bless water in an act of turning back to God what is His. In celebrating this feast, the water that God has given us is sanctified by prayer and blessing. Next, we take this blessed water to our homes, drink it, or make ice crosses with it: we are reminded that water—our own
most abundant substance, came from God allowing us to become who we are. And again –all of the remainder of His living creation is just as watery as we are. Nothing is ours, all is God’s, and we reverence Him by taking what He has given and giving it back to Him. In celebrating the Eucharist, as we heard about today, a word that means ‘Thanksgiving’, we do not say “I offer” but rather “we offer”— because we are not acting alone but in communion with all of humanity (and perhaps all other life as well). When we offer communion to God, we ourselves are part of what we offer. We stand before God not just as ourselves but as part of nature, not above nature but within and alongside it. We are “offerers” on behalf of non-human creation rather than its rulers. There was mention made earlier today of The Holy and Great Council of Crete, and I believe that at this council the Encyclical proclaimed an ideal. Let me read from this at least a bit of a text from it. “The roots of the ecological crisis are spiritual and ethical, inherent within the heart of each man. This crisis has become more acute in recent centuries on account of the various divisions provoked by human passions – such as greed, avarice, egotism and the insatiable desire for more – and by their consequences for the
planet, as with climate change, which now threatens to a large extent the natural environment, our common “home”. The rupture in the relationship between man and creation is a perversion of the authentic use of God’s creation. The approach to the ecological problem on the basis of the principles of the Christian tradition demands not only repentance for the sin of the exploitation of the natural resources of the planet, namely, a radical change in mentality and behavior, but also asceticism as an antidote to consumerism, the deification of needs and the acquisitive attitude. It also presupposes our greatest responsibility to hand down a viable natural environment to future generations and to use it according to divine will and blessing. In the sacraments of the Church, creation is affirmed and man is encouraged to act as a steward, protector and “priest” of creation, offering it by way of doxology to the Creator – “Your own of your own we offer to You in all and for all” – and cultivating a Eucharistic relationship with creation. This Orthodox, Gospel and Patristic approach also turns our attention to the social dimensions and the tragic consequences of the destruction of the natural environment.” This is the end of the portion of that document that I want to quote. This statement is perhaps the first statement on environment that has been issued by a broad Council of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in general assembly. Such statements attest to the importance that Orthodox Christian hierarchs place on ecology. In addition, the document
emphasizes the need for asceticism, self-restraint, as an antidote to the consumerism that leads to environmental exploitation. Selected views on ecology:
St. Symeon the New Theologian The 10th-century Church Father, St. Symeon the New Theologian, wrote about environmental issues and identified a way toward
responsibility without the ownership that leads to depreciation. He wrote numerous works and was a mystic who taught about the vision of divine light and the struggle against the passions. He taught that our natural surroundings and creation cannot be excluded and isolated from a person’s life, and that nature plays a role in a
person’s spiritual struggle. St. Symeon viewed humanity as God’s
representatives in the world who must have a right attitude toward the world and use matter in accordance with nature. According to him, a right attitude toward God means having a right behavior toward the world, a view that must be restored since the fallenness of the world yielded a distorted attitude toward it. St. Symeon wrote, and I quote here: “No man can use his visual sense alone and properly comprehend the greatness of the heavens, or the extent of the earth, or the order of all things. How could bodily eyes ever manage to grasp things that transcend mind and understanding? It is only with difficulty that the mind can gain a true contemplation of existing reality, and only then after it has been purified of its own opinions, freed of its prejudices and illumined by the
grace and mercy of God. Even then, it only perceives insofar as it has been illumined.” End quote. While St. Symeon exclaimed that the material world should be used, he believed that it should be used in accordance with nature itself, that a harmonious relationship should exist between humanity and the environment. St. Symeon also notes that the things of the world belong to all: He says, “The things and possessions that are in the
world are common to all, like the light and this air that we breathe, as well as the pasture for the dumb animals on the plains and on the mountains. All these things were made for all in common solely for use and enjoyment; in terms of ownership they belong to no one.” That’s the end of the quote. Again, in this, St. Symeon is reflecting the idea of humanity as not owning the world but sharing responsibility for the world and the creation of harmony in the world. Now I want to mention some selected views on ecology from His All-Holiness
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has become known as the “Green Patriarch,” as we have been saying throughout this entire conference. It is because of the commitment he has made to environmental concerns. In a famous statement that challenged the world to reconsider what it was doing to the environment, His Holiness wrote: “To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For humans to cause species to become
extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation … for humans to degrade the integrity of Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands… for humans to injure other humans with disease. … for humans to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances … these are sins.” We are called to repent of the sins we have committed against nature and each other, so that we pursue a new journey with courage and joy calling all to dedicate themselves to a mission of environmental restoration and renewal. Long before the World Council of
Churches and the National Council of Churches took public and
obvious stands on the environment, the Ecumenical Patriarchate did so by dedicating September 1 of each year (the beginning of the Church year) to the environment, by writing numerous environmental
encyclicals over the years, by sponsoring International Ecological
symposia every two to three years in various areas of environmental fragility, and by writing books on the topic. His most recent book, which we actually have the opportunity to have him sign here, and another book he wrote on Ecology, “Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer,” is in use in seminaries and theological schools throughout the world as an example of a vision of ecological humility. Most recently on Crete, His All-Holiness drew upon the idea
that while no one is insulated from environmental problems, those that are most vulnerable and in need of support are those most likely to be affected by environmental questions. He said in his opening remarks at the most recent Environmental Conference “Green Attica” held on June, 2018 in Athens and the Greek islands the following statement: From the outset, we have underlined the interconnection between environmental and social problems, as well as the necessity to address them in conjunction and in collaboration. Preserving and protecting the natural
environment, as well as respecting and serving our
fellow human beings, are two sides of one and the same coin. The consequences of the ecological
crisis—which affect, first and foremost, the socially and economically vulnerable— are a serious threat for social
cohesion and integration. The identity of every society and measure of every culture are not judged by the degree of technological development, economic growth or public infrastructure. Our civil life and civilization are defined and judged primarily by our respect for the dignity of humanity and integrity of nature.” End quote. It is in this call for human dignity and the integrity of nature that His All-Holiness’ comments are most profound, reminding all of us that we must be concerned with showing respect and love to all cultures and societies. So, these are my conclusions. It’s about common themes. After His All-Holiness began his expression of concern for the environment, many other religious leaders world-wide took up the same mantle. Most notably, the Pope issued an Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home, “Laudato Si, mi’ Signore,” using
the words of St. Francis of Assisi that remind us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a mother who
opens her arms to embrace us. Major themes of this document
include the idea that all people are asked to embrace the mission of Ecological Care, that developed nations are called to help
developing nations in this work, and that science and that religious
dialogue can be useful for the common goal of environmental protection. Similar documents can be found from Lutheran, Episcopalian, and other Christian sources as well as Jewish, Muslim
and a few other faith traditions. In inter–faith dialogue, we see
many distances and differences as we talk about what we believe in. Nevertheless, when we start to talk about the environment we often find common ground, and when scientists are included in such discussions among faith leaders, we benefit from common language and evidence-based knowledge of material phenomena. Perhaps this is an outcome of the fact that God endowed all of us with a reverence for His creation and a capacity to grow in our
understanding of it. These commonalities, along with the many
themes pertaining to respecting and caring for the natural world shared by Orthodox Christians, our ecumenical Christian partners,
and so many different faith traditions carry the potential to unite scientists and religious traditions in one voice to proclaim the need for environmental conservation and protection. Thank you. you

Otis Rodgers

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