John Chryssavgis and Bruce V. Foltz eds. Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Environment, Nature, and Creation. New York: Fordham University Press, 2013.
How would it change the way you live if you believed that God could be found in everything you could touch and see? If, in the words of Maximus the Confessor (580-662), the soul “uses the senses properly, discerning by means of its own faculties the manifold logoi [inner essences] of beings, and if it succeeds in wisely transmitting to itself all the visible things in which God is hidden and proclaimed in silence, then by the use of its own free choice it creates a world of spiritual beauty within the understanding.” And what if you thought, as Pseudo-Dionysius (5th-6th century) did, that all of creation was united in a continuous chain of being, organized according to how much of God’s life each contains? “Perfection for each of those appointed in hierarchy,” he wrote, “is to be led up according to its proper analogy to the imitation of God, and … to become a co-operator of God and to show the divine activity revealed in itself as far as possible.” Our purpose as stewards of creation, then, would be to raise the rest of the created order up so that it might participate more fully in God: “The purpose of hierarchy, then, is likeness and union with God as far as possible … making the members of his dancing company divine images, clear and spotless mirrors, receptive of the original light and thearchic ray and sacredly filled with the granted radiance, and ungrudgingly flaring it up again to the next, according to the thearchic ordinances.” Maximus the Confessor tells us that we have an awe-inspiring responsibility towards creation. As reasonable beings who name and care for the cosmos, Maximus sees humans “as a kind of natural bond mediating between the universal extremes through their proper parts, and leading into unity in itself those things that are naturally set apart from one another by a great interval.”
The contributors to Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration (2013) are some of the most celebrated and erudite scholars in the Eastern Orthodox world and they use their brief chapters to explain how the vision of the Church Fathers and of leading twentieth-century theologians should cause us to approach the earth differently. “The problem facing theologians,” Savas Agouridis writes, “is that all environmentalists, irrespective of their school of thought, are “biocentrically” and not theologically oriented.” This volume sets out to change that, putting God at the center of an Orthodox eco-theology. But why do we even need theology when we have science to tell us that the earth needs saving? John Anthony McGuckin reads Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) to be saying that “there is not, in this world, a single given reality that can be taxonomically ordered and exhausted by any single given method of analysis, but rather insight into reality is gifted in the degree of the perspicacity of the one who sees. The Fathers would call this a prophetic and priestly charism; on a wider ecumenical front we might also describe it as a poetic and spiritual insight into truth.” Beauty is thus a key epistemological tool by which we see with Gregory that:
All things pray to you, that comprehend your plan,
And offer you a silent hymn.
In you, the One, all things abide
And to you all things endlessly converge
Who are the end and goal of all.
You are One, and All, and None of these.
The world, therefore, is not precious as an end in itself, but because it opens our minds and hearts up to God, so that we might cry with Isaac the Syrian (613-700), “the world has become mingled with God, and creation and Creator have become one!” As we fall in love with God, Isaac says, we find our hearts “burning for the sake of all creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears.” Seeing with God’s eyes and feeling His heart for the world means that we feel pain when we see the earth suffering as it is.
But God is not only the Alpha and Omega of creation, Maximus the Confessor says that He is also its only hope for renewal: “The Logos of God is like a grain of mustard seed: before cultivation it looks extremely small, but when cultivated in the right way it grows so large that the highest principles (logoi) of both sensible and intelligible creation come like birds to revive themselves in it.” In one of his sermons from Holy Week, John Chrysostom (349-407) argued that “when the great Jesus breathed forth His divine spirit, saying, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46), all things shuddered and were shaken in the earthquake, reeling from fear; but His divine spirit ascended, giving life and animation and strength to all. Creation stood firm once more, as this divine extension and crucifixion unfolded and spread everywhere, penetrating all things, through all and in all. O Thou who art alone among the alone, Paradise Thy soul, and the earth Thy blood. For the indivisible has been divided, so that all things might be saved.”
I like the way these Orthodox leaders think! I understand this concept on the simple level of Isaac the Syrian – “The world, therefore, is not precious as an end in itself, but because it opens our minds and hearts up to God.” The world and everything in it is thus a gift to me, a reflection of the character of my precious Creator, to be treated with love and respect. Seems like so many American evangelicals treat Creation and each other like bubble gum machines – if they put a little something in, they’re entitled to get a lot out. Keep pointing out this disconnect – if enough of us harp on it, attitudes may change… 🙂