Environmental ethics

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Environmental ethics is the part of environmental philosophy which considers the ethical relationship between human beings and the natural environment, according to the Wikipedia definition (28 February 2007). This article will attempt to describe environmental ethics from the perspective of Orthodox theology, by exploring patristic and contemporary thought together with scriptural and liturgical evidence regarding a theology of creation. In order to present the theological foundation of environmental ethics, we begin by examining the place of material creation within the whole of created order. From that foundation, we continue with theological consideration of the relationship between man and material creation, and conclude with some practical aspects of this relationship.

The Place of Material Creation in the Created Order

Christianity is often blamed for the environmental problems that the world is facing today. The accusation hinges on a particular understanding of Genesis 1:26 and 1:28:

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. [...] God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."

In one interpretation, the two verses above are understood to say that man has been given power over the earth to modify it according to his will. Some support for this world view can be gathered from the writings of some Church Fathers. Origen in the East and St. Augustine of Hippo in the West each held the view that the material world would not be a part of the Kingdom of God. For St. Augustine, this meant that in the Kingdom only human souls would be present. In contrast to the eternal soul, a temporary material creation is diminished in importance, resulting in an anthropocentric relationship between man and nature. This approach has also, at times, been predominant in Orthodox countries. In Eastern Europe, for example, under communism the lack of oversight led to high levels of air and water-pollution (e.g., the Black Sea - cf. "How to Save the Black Sea", http://www.undp.org/gef/new/blacksea.htm, United Nations Development Programme), as well as overexploitation of land resources (e.g. in mining. Today, as we shall shortly see, Orthodox theologians are recovering the fullness of their theology, recognizing the presence of God in the whole of creation, and outlining the responsibilities we have towards that creation.

The understanding of material creation as illustrated above is, at the very least, incomplete. Several Fathers, including Methodios of Olympus and St. Maximus the Confessor, affirmed the value of creation and the cosmological dimension of the Kingdom of God. Anestes Keselopoulos, in his study on St. Symeon the New Theologian, makes a powerful statement about the participation of nature in the Kingdom: "Belief in the ultimate transfiguration and renewal of the world offers a real possibility for extending the theology of holy relics to the rest of creation. At the Second Coming, [...] the whole of material creation will be renewed as well. Material objects that surround the saints participate in sanctification. (Keselopoulos, "Man and the Environment: a study of St. Symeon the New Theologian")

Psalm 104, read at every Vespers service, speaks of God's continued work in creation:

"You are clothed with honour and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers. You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken. You cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. At your rebuke they flee; at the sound of your thunder they take to flight. They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys to the place that you appointed for them. You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth. You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills, giving drink to every wild animal; the wild asses quench their thirst. By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches. From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart. The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. In them the birds build their nests; the stork has its home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys. You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting."

Scriptural, patristic, and liturgical evidence also provide a much richer picture of the role of material creation. This role includes praise of the Creator and joy at His work: "Let heaven and earth praise Him, the seas and all that move in them" (Ps. 69:34); "The heavens praise your wonders, O Lord, your faithfulness too, in the assembly of the holy ones" (Ps. 89:5); "Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad" (Resurrectional apolytikion, tone Pl. 1); "let all creation bless and extol the Lord and let it exalt Him supremely to the ages" (Eirmos of the eighth ode of the katavasiae for Christmas). Archimandrite Vasileios in "Ecology and Monasticism" states that the Paschal hymns represent reality for the Orthodox: "all the trees of the forest are rejoicing today; their nature has been sanctified because the Body of Christ was stretched upon a tree."

Material creation also helps provide the means by which God interacts with, sanctifies and heals the world. Old Testament examples include the snake made by Moses (Numbers 21:8-9) and Balaam's donkey (Numbers 22:21-30) while some relevant New Testament passages are the stirring of the waters at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-5), Jesus' baptism in the River Jordan (Matthew 3:13-17), and St. James' exhortation that the elders anoint those who are ill with oil to aid in their healing (James 5:14). The hymnography of the Church also portrays creation as a co-worker with God: "the earth offers a cave to Him Whom no man can approach" (Christmas kontakion).

The Seventh Ecumenical Council

The issue of the nature of material creation and its role within the cosmos - in the form of the debate over the acceptability of icons - was the main concern of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The iconoclast party argued that matter, "found in a 'fallen' state and alienated from God, cannot possibly become a means expressive of truth, and especially of saving and divine truth." (Giakalis, Images of the Divine). The iconophile position, affirmed in the documents of the council, stated that essentially matter is "God's creation" and "very good" (Gen 1:13), but after the fall it can be either honored or abused. In the latter situation, "[t]he iconophiles observe that in these cases matter is truly unable to co-operate in the business of man's salvation and cannot become a means and instrument of expression of truth. Nevertheless, nothing is capable of alienating matter entirely from its original divine provenance and making it essentially "evil."" (Gialakis, Images of the Divine, p.65). An illustration of this comes from the second volume of the acts of the sixth session: "Thus, the art of painting, if used in order to depict obscenities, is despicable and harmful. [...] But if we want to paint the life-stories of virtuous men, the narratives of the contests of the martyrs and the explanation of their sufferings, as well as the mystery of the dispensation of God almighty and our Saviour, and if in these cases we use the art of the painters, we find ourselves doing something which is wholly proper." (Sahas, "Icon and Logos").

Thus, we see that the Orthodox tradition affirms that creation has value in itself, by virtue of its being created by God, praising God, and working together with God. In this context the Orthodox tradition regarding the relationship between man and nature falls mainly along two related and somewhat overlapping lines of thought. The first bases this relationship on the idea of man as a microcosm, while the second identifies man as the "priest of creation."

The Relationship between Man and Material Creation

Man as a microcosm

The idea of man as a microcosm is most commonly associated with St. Maximos the Confessor. In his Mystagogia he speaks of an indissoluble relationship and unity between man and world: "[St. Paul] put forward another suggestion, along the lines of the same imagery, that the whole world of visible and invisible things can be thought of as a man; and man, made up of body and soul, as a world" (Mystagogia, Chapter 7). Lars Thunberg, in his "Man and the Cosmos" describes St. Maximos' understanding of man as a microcosm by virtue of his constitution and for the purpose of mediation. Being both material and spiritual, all things in the world are reflected in man, who then has the vocation to bring together mortal and immortal creatures, rational and non-rational beings. However, St. Maximos does not view this vocation of man in separation from God. Rather, he states that it is Christ who achieved this unity. Again Thunberg, analyzing the Ambigua, says that man needs to leave the sphere of creation behind and be united with God beyond his own nature. Thus, man's mission in relation to creation can only be fulfilled in and through Christ: "Man created in the image of God is thus, according to Maximus, a key to understanding creation not only in order that he may understand it as it is, but also that by actively understanding it in his process of divinization he may elevate it to the supreme level of its full soteriological comprehension (Ambigua 10)." (Thunberg, "Man and the Cosmos, p.76)

St. Gregory of Nyssa also uses the image of man as microcosm, though his use of the expression is rather less uniform than for St. Maximus. In his conception, the parallelism seems to be limited to a common praise of God: "as the cosmos continuously lifts up a hymn of praise to God, so it is the duty of man to engage in continual psalmody and hymnody." Metr. Paulos Gregorios postulates that St. Gregory's reservation regarding a more in-depth parallelism stemmed from a concern that man's high standing within creation not be attributed to his similarity to the universe (Gregorios, "Cosmic Man"). However, St. Gregory also views man as a mediator between creation and God whose mediation is made possible by the incarnation: "in Christ, Man, and through Man the whole creation, directly and without intermediaries participates in the creative energies of God Himself" (Gregorios, "Cosmic Man, p.103).

Fr. Stanley Harakas summarizes the Orthodox position thus far: "[t]he creation exists for the use of humanity; but humanity exists as a microcosm to sanctify creation and to draw it into the fullness of the life of the kingdom of God, to bring it into communion with its maker." (The Integrity of Creation: Ethical Issues, in "Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation," p.73)

While both St. Maximus and St. Gregory note that the mediation of man is directly related to Christ's incarnation, the details of that mediation are filled in by modern day theologians.

Man as Priest of Creation

The Genesis passage which started this article is open to other interpretations. An interpretation which gives man a certain responsibility towards the environment, presents the commission which was given to man as a stewardship. K.M. George in his essay "Towards a Eucharistic Ecology" points out that good stewardship, in the sense of the Greek 'oikonomos:'—manager or administrator of a house,—requires trustworthiness, dependability, and wisdom. He goes on to add: "[w]e offer the creation as a thank-offering to God in liturgy" (George, Towards a Eucharistic Theology, in "Justice, Peace and the Integrily of Creation", p.46) This statement contains within it the seed for the idea of that several contemporary theologians, among them Vigen Guroian, Metr. Paulos Gregorios, and Metr. John_(Zizioulas)_of_Pergamon, consider as the most important in defining man's relationship to creation: man as 'priest of creation.'

Metr. Paulos Gregorios of the Orthodox Syrian Church of the East, who was one of the most ardent advocates of Christian ecology wrote, "Nature, man, and God are not three disjunct realities on the stage with a space-interval between their respective boundaries. [...] Christ has become part of creation, and in his created body he lifted up the creation to God, and humankind must participate in this eternal priesthood of Christ" (Gregorios, "The Human Presence") Metr. John Zizioulas adds: "The priest is the one who takes in his hands the world to refer it to God and who, in return brings God's blessing to what he refers to God. Through this act creation is brought into communion with God himself. [...] This role of the human being as the priest of creation, is absolutely necessary for creation itself, because without this reference of creation to God the whole created universe will die." He goes on to argue that ethics, as commonly understood, cannot provide a solution for the environmental problem; this is the place of the Church. Metr. John argues that the solution to the environmental problem cannot be based on a set of impersonal principles. What is needed, rather is a particular way of life based on relationships with one another, with the material world, and with God. Specifically, the Metropolitan mentions fasting, respect for the material world and acknowledgement (within the Liturgy) that creation belongs to God, as specific means by which the Church can effect change (Zizioulas, Man the Priest of Creation: A Response to the Ecological Problem, in "Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World").

The exercise of this priesthood encompasses both our lives within the church temple (the Liturgy) and outside of it (the liturgy before/after the liturgy).

Man and Material Creation: Practical Aspects

Within the liturgical context, the Church provides prayers for the blessing of material goods such as homes, crops, vehicles. There are prayers asking for rain and for deliverance from earthquakes and other calamities. We see the presence of God everywhere in creation and we ask for His help in every endeavor. Partially in acknowledgment of that fact and partially in response to the ecological crisis, Monk Gerasimos of the Skete of Saint Anne has composed a Vespers for the preservation of creation. ("Suppliant prayers offered the Author of all creation for the protection of the environment", Ecumenical Patriarchate 2001) Even earlier, in 1934, Metropolitan Tryphon Turkestanov had composed an Akathist in Praise of God's Creation.

Additionally, the prayers of the Lesser Blessing of the Waters include the following petitions:

  • That this water might be hallowed by the might, and operation, and descent of the Holy Spirit; let us pray to the Lord.
  • That there may descend upon these waters the cleansing operation of the supersubstantial Trinity; let us pray to the Lord.
  • That this water may be to the healing of souls and bodies, and to the banishment of every hostile power; let us pray to the Lord.
  • That there may be sent down upon it the Grace of Redemption, the blessing of the Jordan; let us pray to the Lord.

In the prayer of sanctification of the same service, the priest asks: "Do You, the same Lord and King Who loves mankind, Who has granted to us to clothe ourselves in the garment of snowy whiteness, by water and by Spirit: send down on us Your blessing, and through the partaking of this water, through sprinkling with it, wash away the defilement of passions."

These services and prayers illustrate one necessary aspect of our relationship with creation: prayer for the well-being and sanctification of the world. It is our role as mediators between creation and God to ask for God's action in behalf of the world which "not of its own will" has been subjected to corruption. (Archimandrite Vasileios, "Monasticism and Ecology", cf. Romans 8:20)

God's action in creation and creation's role in our journey towards God culminate in the gifts of bread and wine which are brought forth to be consecrated to become the Holy Body and Blood of Christ. In the Eucharist, man, as the priest of creation, offers creation back to the Creator and then receives it back sanctified and transformed into the very God to Whom it was offered. As Orthodox we believe that the Eucharist sanctifies the whole creation. As Fr. Emmanuel Clapsis has said, in the Eucharist we embrace in prayer the whole creation and no longer seek our salvation apart from the world. (Dogmatics I class notes: http://vandrona.xwiki.com/xwiki/bin/view/Main/dogmatics101705)

In practical terms, needs to be analyzed in connection with other, related ethical issues. While there are several actions which have a direct effect on the environmental problem (e.g., recycling, re-use of materials such as plastic bags), the greater issue of the environment encompasses many facets of life.

The problem of pollution is not new (Diamond, "Guns, Germs and Steel"). However, in the past, local circumstances were directly connected to pollution (e.g., cities in antiquity often had to contend with water pollution) and therefore the overall incidence of pollution was relatively small. (Rodney Stark, "The Rise of Christianity", chapter 4) Contemporary environmental problems, on the other hand, have led to a generalization of the problem. Currently, the main cause of the environmental problem is the increase in the consumption of goods in Western society over the last two centuries, coupled with economic development without a corresponding concern for the disposal of resulting waste and the care and renewal of the natural raw materials needed to create the goods. For a true solution to the environmental crisis, both sides of this main cause need to be addressed and progress is being made. Indeed, recently the relationship between environment and economy has begun to be viewed as symbiotic. Jane Jacobs, for example, states that "ecology is the 'economy of nature'" and that "it's important [that economists] learn from nature and apply the knowledge to what they do." (Jane Jacobs, "The Nature of Economies", p.10). This view change, however, is only in its beginnings and the Church has an important role to play in its continuation.

On the one hand, the Church needs to support efforts which are aimed at finding better waste-management system, more efficient technologies and at the replenishment of natural resources (e.g, reforestation efforts). In this spirit, Anestis Keselopoulos states: "The slogan of a return to some pre-scientific civilization is today not merely a utopia, but may be a disaster for humanity. When man loses his ability to overcome nature, he does not attain to a true relationship with nature, nor does he preserve its purpose; he simply achieves a vegetative' state. This word does not denote man's return to nature, but his identification with nature in the realm of decay and death." (Keselopoulos, "Man and the Environment: a Study of St. Symeon the New Theologian," p.60-61)

On the other hand, the biggest contribution of the Church is her understanding of the need for an ascetic component to every person's life. In terms of material goods, the Church has never embraced the slogan that "more is better." While not dismissing material possessions, she has always stressed that the true treasure is spiritual in nature. Thus, another responsibility of man in relation to creation is the implementation of this understanding into daily life. For the Church as a body, the responsibility translates into educating the world about the true value of possessions as a part of her ministry to God's creation.

The report "Orthodox Perspectives on Creation" states that "the contemporary world must repent for the abuses which we have imposed upon the natural world. In this context, we need to remember the Orthodox concept of repentance (metanoia), which implies a complete change of heart. We need, therefore, not only to acknowledge our past mistakes, but to take action first to stop further abuses, and then, wherever possible, to revert the damage already done. As Fr. Stanley Harakas states in "The Integrity of Creation: Ethical Issues:" "[h]umanity must come to see itself as intimately related to the non-human creation, to see itself as one with it in deep and profound community with it." (Harakas, The Integrity of Creation: Ethical Issues, "In Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation," p.79)

We started this look at an Orthodox perspective on environmental ethics by looking at the accusation that Christianity bears a great share of the responsibility for the current environmental problem. However, we have seen that the sanctification of creation is part and parcel of the mission of Christianity. Our attitude towards creation is well summarized by St. John of Damascus "I worship the Creator of matter who became matter for my sake, who willed to take His abode in matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! I honor it, but not as God... [but] because God has filled it with His grace and power." (On the Divine Images 1.16)

Articles on Environmental Issues


  • The Church, the Liturgy, and the Soul of Man : the Mystagogia of St. Maximus the Confessor, by St. Maximus the Confessor, (St. Bede's Publications 1982)
  • Cosmic Man: The Divine Presence : An Analysis of the Place and Role of the Human Race in the Cosmos, in Relation to God and the Historical World, in the Thought of St. Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 330 to ca. 395 A.D.), by Paulos Gregorios (Paragon House, 1988) (ISBN 0913757918)
  • Ecology and monasticism by Archimadrite Vasileios of Stavronikita (Alexander Press 1996) (ISBN 1896800025)
  • Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • The Human Presence : An Orthodox View of Nature, by Paulos Gregorios (WCC, 1978) (ISBN 2825405752)
  • Icon and Logos by Danel J. Sahas (University of Toronto Press 1986) (ISBN 0802056458)
  • Images of the Divine: The Theology of Icons at the Seventh Ecumenical Council by Ambrosios Giakalis (E.J. Brill 1994) (ISBN 9004099468)
  • Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation: Insights from Orthodox, Gennadios Limouris, Ed.(WCC Publications, 1990) (ISBN 2825409790)
  • Man and the Cosmos : the Vision of St. Maximus the Confessor, by Lars Thunberg (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press 1985) (ISBN 0881410195)
  • Man and the Environment: a Study of St. Symeon the New Theologian, by Anestes Keselopoulos (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001) (ISBN 088141221X)
  • The Nature of Economies by Jane Jacobs (Random House, 2000) (ISBN 0679603409)
  • On the Divine Images, by St. John of Damascus (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1980) (ISBN 0913836621)
  • Vespers for the Protection of the Environment, by Monk Gerasimos of Little St. Anne (Narthex Press 2001)

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