Patristic views on ecology
Posted 16 November 2003 - 09:22 PM
I have been really excited to find this website and chat board... I'm really happy to find a place to discuss some of the patristics questions that crop up in my mind as I read through the writings of the fathers. I'm a little bit nervous about posting a message for the first time!
Here is my question: I see a lot of books and studies coming out about "the fathers and the environment," the "patristic view on ecology" and so on. But I wonder: did any of the fathers actually think in terms of "environment" or "ecology"? I say this out of ignorance, not challenge -- I really wonder if any of the fathers ever wrote a treatise on the "environment" ... or is this something that we are interpreting backwards into their thoughts?
Thanks for your thoughts about this.
Posted 16 November 2003 - 11:32 PM
Welcome to the forum. We're glad to have enquiring guests!
Your suspicions are correct. The entire civilized (I mean "citified")world was ignorant of any links to hygiene and health, and toxicity in any minerals mined, such as lead. Agricultural practices which affected the erosion of soil were learned by experience if at all. On the positive side, everything manufactured was bio-degradable, unless it was metal.
The environment in which we live which includes so many un-degradable and toxic chemically derived products, largely invented for the sake of convenience. Profit motive is a driving force behind its production. A Patricstic life-style of simplicity ought to positively impact such consumerism, IMO.
So, as I said, you are right. As a subject "Ecology" is what we call "anachronistic" to the Fathers, meaning that it belongs to another (namely "our") time.
Posted 18 November 2003 - 05:33 AM
The ancient world was aware of the relationship between certain minerals and our health.
The Orthodox view is that we are stewards of this world and as such we have a duty to preserve it.
This means that we must simplify our lives however unpleasant and tiring this might seem.
Living moderately means that we consume less of the earth's resources.
Posted 18 November 2003 - 09:27 AM
Thanks for your answers to my question. Actually Kevin, the book you mentioned in your message, about St. Symeon and the environment, is exactly the kind of thing I'm wondering about. Have you read it? I eagerly picked up a copy, but when I had read it, all I could think was, "Is Symeon actually concerned about the environment, or has this author taken passages about the natural world, and about man's relationship to nature, but which aren't really about 'ecology,' and compiled them into a book that makes it seem like the saint is ecologically driven, when actually he wqasn't?"
I totally agree that the church is concerned about the natural world. I'm just "worried," if that is the right word, that we read our modern views on these things into the fathers.
Guest_Teo Kia Choong
Posted 18 November 2003 - 11:12 AM
I actually came across the book at my local community library. I have yet to read it though, with many commitments on hand. The point about modern ecological movements is that they are all so caught up with this "Gaia hypothesis"--the idea that the Earth is inherently gendered and hence the Mother Earth or Mother nature that is so talked of in modern ecological terms. I tend to be suspicious of this hypothesis mainly because it does not conform to the Biblical mould of how man's relationship with nature is supposed to be. When God gave Adam the garden of Eden to tend, he was of course the man who was given the stewardship over the garden, and even after the expulsion from Eden, man had to learn how to till the earth. This need to respect a balance was already existent, but not the way modern "gaia hypothesis" proponents--a small group of them being probable "Wiccans"(????), not clear here--advocate it.
Posted 18 November 2003 - 06:51 PM
Yes, I think we all ought to be suspiscious of the Gea hypothesis, it is Plato's living Earth (or universe) revivied!
There was no need of being sure that nature remained in balance though since in comparison to the earth the human population was small as was the impact of cultivation and domestication on it as a system. God works the system in such a way that all things are eventually brought into balance, even if it is at the expense of some one, tribe, or nation, and which God calls either punishment or discipline for sin, against HIm, BTW, not the environment.
Posted 19 November 2003 - 05:36 AM
Ecology as we think of it today was not an issue then, so it would be unrealistic to expect the fathers to have commented on it. What they did do though was to concentrate on man's relationship to the earth. As I said in my previous message, if we live according to the advice given by the fathers, then we automatically ensure that we are doing what we can to help the environment.
p.s. I found this on the Greek Orthodox website :
This is the first paragraph :
An Orthodox View of the Ecological Crisis
1. PROLOGUE.It seems that a great number of nïn-educated and educated people, churchmen and theologians included, have not yet realized that ecology and the ecological crisis have both a positive and a negative relationship to the Christian faith itself. Most of the above-mentioned people readily tend to ascribe the crisis tï technology, industry and politics. Consequently, they believe that we Christians have a duty as citizens to contribute to every effort aimed at avoiding ecological catastrophy. They expect from clergy, theologians and believers to co-operate dutifully in the realization of programs planned by others, i.e. nïn-ecclesiastical authorities or religiously indifferent ecological movements, aimed at providing a political solution to the problem -without, however, uprooting the deeper causes of it. It is clear that they view the ecological crisis as a purely socio-technological problem, belonging to the same order of every otber social problem of past and present.
They overlook the very fact that this problem embraces the whole question ïf man's place ïn earth and in the universe; it is a wholistic and global problem provocated by man's self-proclaimed, absolute and autonomic domination of the Earth. "
Posted 19 November 2003 - 06:11 PM
I am in your debt for the information regarding the ancients' knowledge of lead poisoning! Thank you for that. I suppose that is why mining it was a menial task.
I am also grateful for your alerting us to the essay on the Greek Orthodox site.
I thionk it is important to note the difference between the Western (Catholic/Protestant)concept of "Tradition" i.e., the compendium of all that has been rightly thought, said and taught in the past on a subject, and the Eastern (Orthodox): the continuing experience of the Church as guided by the Holy Spirit. Thus, by studying the Fathers and the Scriptures with the proper help one can gain a patristic mindset with which to tackle new and heretofore unheard of problems such as the ecological crisis we are in, whithout having to worry that no Father ever spoke that way (meaning "about that") before.
We are constantly in danger of either doing the right thing (e.g., managing resources) for the wrong reason (e.g., not hurting poor mother earth), or doing the wrong thing (such as not worrying about waste &/or pollution) for the right reasons (because the concern is idolatrous).
The Holy Spirit will lead us to do the right thing for hte right reason, I am sure, which I suppose is what the article you are citing is about, and which I shall read.
Posted 23 November 2003 - 07:19 PM
have a duty to preserve it.
This means that we must simplify our lives however unpleasant and
tiring this might seem.
Living moderately means that we consume less of the earth's resources.
I prefer the verb *transform* over *preserve.* The wicked servant *preserved* his talent.
Adam's task to guard (preserve) the Garden did not mean that the world was to remain a wilderness. His task was to transform the whole world into Paradise, with he Garden as the pattern. God's completion of the world in six days does not mean the world was to remain in the state in which it was finished on the sixth day.
Fr. Dumitru Staniloae has stated it thus: "The spiritual and physical order of the created world develop together, by a mutual influence which holds for the whole universe. Thus, each person is responsible for the development of the whole of the physical and spiritual universe. Our smallest gesture makes the world vibrate and changes its state. At the same time, the existence of every person as well as of everything is continually dependent on the convergence of the factors produced by the unfolding of the whole world." [Orthodox Spirituality]
Moderation, in our Orthodox context, is not primarily aimed towards conservation of the earth's resources, but a humility imposed upon our own lusts, which act upon our physical enviroment as if the physical envioroment were the whole creation. Creation is given to us as a means to cultivate and harvest virtures
Posted 24 November 2003 - 06:26 AM
John, I agree with the following :
"Moderation, in our Orthodox context, is not primarily aimed towards conservation of the earth's resources, but a humility imposed upon our own lusts, which act upon our physical enviroment as if the physical envioroment were the whole creation. Creation is given to us as a means to cultivate and harvest virtures "
Practising moderation in all things is for our own spiritual benefit, of course. It follows naturally though that when we live like this we consume less of the earth's resources.
Concerning the difference between "preserve" and "transform" : I can't answer now. I have to read a lot more on this subject and think about it.
Posted 24 November 2003 - 12:37 PM
Very interesting question on the nature of 'ecological discussions' in the Fathers. I think you are right to be suspicious: very few of the Fathers addressed the 'environment' in the sense that most of today's environmentalists and ecologists do. There is little, for example, on the nature of nature in its own, stand-alone right. Nature and the natural world are highly valued by the Fathers, and they do discuss (some at great length) the care of these; but this is so primarily from within the context of the unified witness to and participation in God's glory for which the natural world is seen as having been created. All creation manifests God unto itself and, ultimately, unto God's chief creation, the human person. The divine life which humanity is called to live is one in concert with the world which is the environment of salvation.
Posted 27 November 2003 - 01:36 PM
He has written a few books on this subject and I would highly recommend "the rape of man and nature". It is hard to find his books in my country so this is the only one I have read, but I also have the text of a talk he gave called "everything that lives is holy" and it is also well worth reading. here is the link -
In my opinion, everything he says is in line with the Fathers and totally patristic. But I know some Orthodox people have a problem with him, so be careful But really, I think he is very good and perhaps a doer as well as a talker.
Posted 28 November 2003 - 08:27 PM
Mr. Dunn is right in the sense that the classical Christian view of nature speaks of transformation. In the fall, a corruption has not only gotten into the individual souls of human beings, but nature itself has suffered some kind of degradation, so that the harmony intended has become subverted. So when a soul is saved (not just by believing in Christ as a personal Lord and Savior, but) through the transformation of the whole person, then a step is taken toward the restoration of the cosmos. Man, therefore, is the true cosmos, the complete cosmos. At the same time, Man and nature are not totally corrupt. We can see goodness in man, and harmony, beauty and cooperation in nature. One need only read a secularist such as Robert Ardrey to understand that nature works according to principles of harmony and cooperation, and not the survival of the fittest, as 19th Century English Victorians would have us believe.
I believe that, as Christians, we should be humble, yes, and be willing to live simply, but this is not an ideology to be imposed on others. It is man's nature to strive to improve himself and the condition of his family and society through economic endeavor. It is wrong to see this strictly as ruthless plunder. Also, we should strive to see in every thing an opportunity to understand God's purposes, and to view things in a spiritual light. In the Gospel, Our Lord does not rant against the pollution caused by the ever-burning garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, but uses this as a powerful spiritual analogy.
Unfortunately, ecclesiastical authorities today who kind of glom onto the ecology movement as a cause are evidence of how much we have strayed from the traditional Christian mindset.
On the other hand, some Christians, American protestants in particular, who view the Gospel as a kind of paean to personal fulfilment through wealth creation, are likewise missing the point.
Posted 28 November 2003 - 09:02 PM
The contemporary Gaia hypothesis or religion has nothing to do with Plato. I doubt anyone who believes in this tripe has ever read a word of Plato. The life of Reason as it was revealed to Plato results in a de-divinization of the cosmos -- that is to say, the cosmos is no longer consubstantial with divinity -- and the differentiation of reality into a Divine Beyond and a created cosmos. That is not to say that there is no animating spirit in nature, for the cosmos is iconic of the divine beyond and therefore exists in it, not totally apart from it.
The Gaia belief is a natural consequence of the loss of reason that afflicts a deracinated educated elite. When one rejects the divine beyond as the ground of the cosmos, one still has to have a ground of existence, and this is posited in nature, which is divine. This is not a continuation of Platonic theory about anything, but rather an effluvience of mass pneumopathology which Plato would have easily diagnosed as sophistry. A technical philosophical term for this specific form of sophistry is vitalism. Gaia is an even more quack version of vitalism. A recent very popular novel that commits the vitalist heresy is Cold Mountain.
Guest_Jurretta J. Heckscher
Posted 28 November 2003 - 09:16 PM
It is exciting to see this topic raised on the board, as it is one in which the world is literally dying for the life-giving truths of Orthodoxy.
To live as an Orthodox Christian is to join Christ in sacrificial love for the whole cosmos for which He died (Effie, isn’t it correct that in the passage "For God so loved the world, that He gave His Only-Begotten Son," the English "world" is "kosmos" in the original Greek?), and to offer the cosmos back to Him ("Thine own from Thine own we offer unto Thee, in all things and for all things [kata panta kai dia panta]") transformed by our love that it, like us, may live in His love for all eternity ("In his way to union with God, man in no way leaves creatures aside, but gathers together in his love the whole cosmos disordered by sin, that it may at last be transfigured by grace"—Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, chapter 5).
This witness shines from the writings of the Fathers and those who have followed in their footsteps; from the lives of the ascetics, ancient and modern, monastic or in the world; from the treasury of our liturgical prayer, such as in the service for the Great Blessing of Waters on the Feast of Our Lord’s Theophany; and from each and every icon, which presents to us an image and foretaste of the cosmos "transfigured by grace."
If Orthodox grieve over today’s global environmental crisis, then, and the vast human sin that has precipitated it; if they pray and act with heart and soul and hands that it may be healed; it is not because we are trying to keep pace with the world, but because in all humility we recognize that we have been entrusted with the "chrism" which alone can restore man to his true relationship with the Earth and heal the Earth of its wounds.
Political and social action, changes in governmental policy and in private conduct, all are necessary, just as changes in law and personal conduct will be necessary to end the scourge of abortion. But (as Elias Oikonomou points out in the passage Effie quoted), in neither case will these external changes be in the end sufficient--and that is why, even as we join with non-Orthodox in supporting those changes, we recognize that at no time in human history has the proclamation of our faith been so starkly and visibly and urgently a matter of life and death, not only for our fellow men facing starvation, poison, and pestilence in the wake of environmental degradation and global warming, but for every creature on the planet. Truly, "the Kingdom of God is within you"—and so is the fate of the Earth.
And if you want to find a true model of environmental balance and environmental awareness, look to our monasteries and the traditional monastic life they live. Here as in so many other areas, Orthodox monks and nuns are showing us the way.
There are many good Orthodox books and articles that elaborate on these themes. Perhaps it is no coincidence—in light of what Effie has said about ancient Greek understanding—that contemporary Greek Orthodox seem to have taken a particularly important role in bringing these themes into the foreground of modern Orthodox witness. In addition to the works already mentioned by others, here are some useful ones to start with that (with one exception) should be relatively easy to find in the U.S. or the U.K.:
Chryssavgis, John. Beyond the Shattered Image. Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing, 1999.
(An inspiring general introduction to the Orthodox Patristic and monastic tradition concerning man’s right relationship with the natural world.)
Chryssavgis, John, ed. Cosmic Grace + Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew I. With a foreword by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon. Grand Rapids, Mich. : W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2003.
(This has just been published and I haven’t seen it yet, but Patriarch Bartholomew has rightly become known as the "green Patriarch" because of his powerful articulation and advocacy of the Orthodox understanding of the man-nature relationship as a response to today’s environmental crisis.)
Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon. "Man the Priest of Creation: A Response to the Ecological Problem." In Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World. Ed. Andrew Walker and Costa Carras. London: S.P.C.K., 1996.
(I believe this fine book has now also been published in the United States, perhaps by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press? Here and elsewhere in other important articles, Metropolitan John draws on a deep understanding of the Fathers and Orthodox Tradition generally to write compellingly about the ways in which they summon us to transform our relationship with the natural world.)
Sherrard, Philip. The Rape of Man and Nature: An Enquiry into the Origins and Consequences of Modern Science. Ipswich, Suffolk : Golgonooza Press, 1987.
and by the same author:
Human Image: World Image: The Death and Resurrection of Sacred Cosmology. Ipswich, Suffolk : Golgonooza Press, 1993.
(As Daniel J. and Reader John have noted, Sherrard is a controversial figure, but as they have also pointed out, one need not subscribe to all that he says—such as his personal interpretation of the nature and meaning of Western science—to find much that is valuable and thoroughly Orthodox in his writings on the topic of man’s relationship to nature.)
Theokritoff, Elizabeth. "Embodied Word and New Creation: Some Modern Orthodox Insights Concerning the Material World." In Abba: The Tradition of Orthodoxy in the West: Festschrift for Bishop Kallistos Ware. Ed. John Behr, Andrew Louth, and Dimitri Conomos. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003.
(Theokritoff is another deeply learned writer who has written brilliantly on this topic on several occasions. Here she synthesizes a vast range of ancient and contemporary Orthodox writings to situate the Orthodox approach to the environment within the larger question of the nature and vocation of the material world.)
Ware, Kallistos (Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia). Through the Creation to the Creator. London: Friends of the Centre, 1997.
(A marvellously succinct summary of the Orthodox approach to the natural world and the environmental crisis, written with Bishop Kallistos’s typical combination of vast learning, gentle piety, and engaging grace. Unfortunately, being a pamphlet published by a small British organization, it is not easy to find, although the first half is available online at http://www.incommuni...on/creation.asp.)
I apologize as I find I’ve again run on at such length. But thank you, Marcus, for beginning this thread! How very appropriate for you to have started this discussion at this holy season of the Nativity Fast, for our fasting is nothing other than a way of loving self-restraint that leads us toward God’s healing of our relationship with the whole of Creation and its consummation with us in His Kingdom.
Yours in Christ
Posted 28 November 2003 - 10:37 PM
I confess that I don't share your apocalyptic vision of humanity in the face of what I consider to be an imaginary threat of an environmental holocaust. For example, there is no scientific evidence that global warming is anything but a natural, cyclical occurance. There is certainly no evidence that it is speeding up due to pollutants. Since the medieval period in Europe was warmer than today, what does that say about the models that claim to prove a current or future crisis? The science on the subject suggests a general 1 degree increase in world temparature averages over the past century. Hardly a crisis, and if you live in Siberia, it is a welcome sign!
The most polluted place I have been is Calcutta, and the pollution problem there is the direct result of a cruelly enforced poverty on the masses that has been orchestrated by a communist government.
The apocalyptic element in the pro-environment movement is really evidence of an aesthetic crisis that afflicts most educated people throughout the world. This is a spiritual problem within, not a problem that will be "solved" by passing laws that supposedly "protect" something called the "environment." These laws are not really designed to protect the environment at all. They are more like the laws of the Catholic INquisition -- designed to impose a kind of pure conformity of opinion in order to defend the politically correct social order against any questioning. By imposing these rules and regulations, the "environmentalist" believes he is serving a higher good which is making his own personal existence more meaningful and satisfying. But because the motivation is alienation, no amount of environmental regulation will satisfy the environmentalist. He will always be alientated, evidenced by the fact that as many pollution problems have improved dramatically over the years in the U.S., yet environmentalists are more radical in their demands than ever, more strident in their rhetoric, and more extreme in their fears and predictions.
So it is the spiritual environment that is the problem.
I personally believe, and I think the science backs this up, that the biosphere has much greater resilience than we give it credit for, and that human interference has minimal impact on its "health."
Should Christians try to live more simply, and not abuse the gifts God has given us? Of course. But that is not an ideology to be imposed on others by force. Most people who suffer the most from pollution care less about that than they do about earning money to feed their families and to acquire better housing. The communists in Calcutta can whip up a huge crowd to demonstrate against the "imperialist West" but I never saw anyone there protesting about the atmosphere, which is absolutely choking. But you get used to it. I caughed and hacked every day and had to stay in doors one day out of three. But the locals have gotten used to it. It's not killing millions of people. It is simply evidence of their economic stagnation that Calcutta is so polluted.
Guest_Jurretta J. Heckscher
Posted 29 November 2003 - 04:56 AM
As a fellow Orthodox Christian who has had occasion to salute the learning evident in many of your posts, particularly in the realm of philosophy, I must respectfully and with deep dismay take issue with nearly everything you say in this last posting, and suggest instead that your remarks are grounded neither in scientific knowledge nor in an adequate understanding of cultural history.
Please forgive me if I sound harsh, but this is a subject on which one might adduce an astonishing amount of evidence to contradict your interpretation, evidence that humanity will ignore only at its great spiritual and physical peril.
However, may I also suggest also that this board is not the place for this particular debate, which will quickly take us outside the realm of Orthodox knowledge and inquiry to which it is dedicated and into areas such as conservation biology and atmospheric chemistry?
If our moderator believes otherwise, I am quite willing to pursue the question further on Monachos. But if I am correct that this is an inappropriate topic for our forum, anyone who wishes to read some of the scientific or historical writings that undergird my strong dissent from Owen's remarks is welcome to contact me privately.
Yours in Christ, and asking your forgiveness, Owen, if I have offended you,
Posted 29 November 2003 - 02:56 PM
Other questions: How do we know that our "concerns" over the environment are not evidence of our own personal vanities? Is our activism an excuse to avoid the more important Christian exercises that the Church teaches us are more important? Do we really have the power to change anything fundamentally? If we do have the power, can we afford to involve ourselves with the power it would take to change behavior and opinion on a world scale? Is obtaining power in order to fix problems the Christian message? Or is that really something quite foreign to the Christian message? Isn't the activist temptation to do good really the essence of Christ's temptation in the desert?
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