TOWARD AN ORTHODOX ECOLOGICAL EDUCATION
THEOLOGICAL AND SPIRITUAL PRINCIPLES
by Rev. Prof. Dr. Dimitru Popescu
During the four and a half decades for which the old communist regime in Romania held power, its policy of forced industrialization of our national economy caused great damage to the natural environment of our country. The situation further deteriorated as the old regime showed no interest whatsoever in educating the youth and citizens of our country to respect nature. That is why we find ourselves confronted today by such a difficult heritage concerning the protection of the environment, from both a practical and a theoretical point of view. The present regime in our country has signed several international agreements relating to the preservation of the environment and issued on the domestic level a number of laws concerning the protection of forests and of the Danube Delta, in order to reduce pollution in industrialized cities. We even have an ecological party and an ecological university. All of these measures are intended to reduce the burden of our past. However, during this period of transition, general public interest is centered on achieving the lasting changes necessary within Romanian society to accomplish the shift from a centralized to a market economy.
At this crucial time, the Romanian Orthodox Church is striving, at Patriarchate, metropolitanate, diocesan and parish level, to render the population of the country, which is 90% percent Orthodox, more sensitive to the problems presented by the task of preserving our natural environment. Special nationwide debates have been organized and broadcast on television, and several conferences involving priests and lay people have been held. Finally, ecology has been included in the religious curriculum in schools.
However the Church must carry out its mission within the boundaries of our society. For almost half a century it was forced to limit its activities to places of worship, while proselytism became increasingly aggressive. This obstacle was compounded by the financial difficulties caused by the devaluation of our national currency. Our hope resides in the fact that the Romanian people, after four and a half decades of official atheistic propaganda, have remained a Christian nation. Under such circumstances the Church believes that from an ecological point of view, its mission is to engage in an education capable of developing in the souls of its believers an awareness of their responsibility for creation before God, and in this way to enable them to overcome the influence of a past and present secularized culture, and to embrace a Christian attitude towards the ecological problem. I shall continue by making several remarks about this secularized culture, which is the source of many difficulties.
Modern culture has moved away from its religious spirituality, centered on God, and has fragmented into many independent varieties, all deprived of the superior meaning endowed by spiritual unity. Viewed objectively, these theories give an impression of bitter futility; they cancel each other out ñ as is always the case with autonomous intelligence, although sometimes they bear the seal of genius. The period in which we live is undergoing a visible process of secularization. This process decentralizes man's creative force and divides all the spheres of our social and cultural life autonomously. This fact is all the more significant as we are speaking not only of the autonomy of human reason, and of the spheres of social and cultural life, but of the fact that the world in its totality is being conceived of as a huge machine functioning by itself without any intervention on the part of the Creator. This results in some major consequences:
First, there is the tendency of the secularized culture to isolate God in transcendence. This tendency, known as deism, considers that God was necessary only to create the world and to set it in motion, and that since its creation the world functions by itself; like an automatic machine we might say. In the opinion of the Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann, a view that turns the world into a machine leads inevitably to atheism, because functioning by its own power, it no longer needs God. This explains also the evolutionist theory, which tries to explain the creation and development of life on earth through natural causes, without the intervention of a personal God. Secularized culture is a mechanistic culture, based on the external relationship between cause and effect; the culture of the thing itself without any spiritual significance attached.
Due to this tendency to isolate God in transcendent reality, man tends to substitute God and take His place on earth. Middle Age man felt insufficient in himself and therefore searched for wholeness in God. In contrast Modern man strikes out by asserting rebelliously his own self-sufficiency and autonomy, by refusing the divine Revelation and by his tendency to take God's place on earth. Just as scientific revolution in astronomy involves the passage from a geocentric to a heliocentric view, so in the spiritual order the great transitional process from the Middle to the Modern Age is nothing else but abandoning the theocentric concept and adopting an antropocentricism which, in its development, is one and the same thing as the de-Christianization of culture. Abandoning the dimensions of the spiritual experience and fascinated by the immensity of space, modern life has broken away from the transcendent and anchored itself firmly to the terrestrial space and age.
Modern man is no longer interested in the spiritual values of the Kingdom of God and strives to attach himself to the transient material values of this world. The main preoccupation in this secularized culture no longer lies in a nostalgic search for heavenly paradise, to which man looks by faith, but in the edification of a godless earthly paradise through science and technology. As a result man has brought about the consumer society which, at least in a certain part of the world, overwhelms him with its abundance of material goods. Nevertheless, this excessive preoccupation with the material realities of the objective world has done nothing but undermine man's inner or subjective life. The English thinker Leslie Newbigin says that
"Science achieved living theories beyond the illuministic dreams of the eighteenth century, but the world which came about does not appear to us more rational than in the previous centuries. More and more people from among the powerful nations of the world feel caught in the grip of some irrational forces."
The spectacular progress of Modern man in the field of science and technology was accompanied by a serious spiritual crisis flooding the life of the lonely man with anguish and nightmares.
One of the major consequences that interests us directly consists of the fact that the anthropocentric tendencies of the secularized culture led man to consider himself absolute master of nature, instead of God, and therefore to subdue nature. This led to an irresponsible exploitation that brought about the severe pollution of nature and the unparalleled ecological crisis which faces us. It is true that illuminism stimulated human reason to achieve greater knowledge of nature, of the macrocosm and microcosm, and in this way to improve man's living conditions. This knowledge has degenerated however, through its obsession with material goods, into a worldwide ecological crisis. It is frightening to see that the human species, which entered the scene of history only eighty thousand years ago — it was said during an ecumenical gathering — was capable of undermining the foundations of life in the two hundred years since the beginning of the industrial age. The ecological crisis springs from man's autonomy before God and perpetuates indefinitely Adam's sin. We are speaking here about unlimited confidence in the power of the individual man to raise himself above the world in order to enforce his will, and so he falls through his pride when he becomes inebriated with the illusion of natural self-deification. The world before Christ thought within the boundaries of this autonomy and the modern world, divorced from Christ, turned back to it and took up the sin all over again.
Nevertheless it would be unjust to lay all the blame for the spiritual and ecological crisis on our secularized culture, without taking into account the guilt of a certain Christian theology which separated radically the natural from the supranatural order, without paying heed to their inner connection and so ended by confusing God's transcendence with His absence from creation. Long before the illuministic tendencies, rationalistic theology overlooked God's presence in the cosmos and turned the world into an autonomous reality which functions without any intervention by its creator. Basically, the conflict between religion and science was provoked by two ideologies, a Christian and an anti-Christian ideology. They disputed over their domination of the world just because God was no longer in the world and the world had become an autonomous reality. In spite of the progress achieved by science, which began to knock at the doors of transcendency, the theology in question still contends that the world functions as an autonomous reality because of some "secondary causes," independent from God.
To save the environment we need practical and flexible political measures. But more than these there is a need to change the present mentality. We need a new spirituality capable of overcoming the secularized culture that lies at the origin of the ecological crisis. In this context, Eastern Theology has its own authoritative voice to add. It is the only theology capable of overcoming the belief in the autonomy of creation typical of the secularized culture, by asserting paradoxically both God's transcendence opposite creation and His immanence in creation. As the sun is not confused with the earth even though it is permanently present in the life of the earth through its light and heat which make life possible, so God, while He remains in His being beyond the world in unapproachable transcendence, is nevertheless present at the same time in the cosmos through the rays of uncreated energies (rays of light, life and love) by which the world was created and recreated in Christ and destined to become a new heaven and a new earth in Christ in the ages to come. The world is not autonomous, but theonomous, because it comes from God and it returns to God who preserves an inner connection with his creation through His uncreated energies. Otherwise the world would slide back into the nothingness out of which it was brought to light by its Creator.
In this theonomous perspective Christ has a twofold relationship with the world. On the one hand, He is the Creator Logos by which everything was made, and on the other He is the Redeeming Logos by which the world was recreated through His incarnation, sacrifice, resurrection and ascension to heaven. Viewed in this biblical perspective Christ no longer appears as a simple founder of religion, side by side with other similar founders. He is no longer reduced to the dimension of a wise man, as happened during the second millennium, but is a Divine Person, that of the Incarnate Logos who created and renewed the world. He is the cosmic Christ, because His work as a creator and redeemer has a cosmic dimension.
In this approach the world ceases to be regarded as a reality limited to its material dimension, and acquires a deep spiritual significance through its inner rationality or internal logical order, which has its source in the Supreme Reason of the divine Logos, as St. Athanasios the Great has so well pointed out. This rationality of creation is extremely important to human existence because of the extent to which it allows man to progress in his knowledge of the microcosmos, as is proven by science today, while at the same time it allows him to progress in his knowledge of God. In other words, the inner rationality of creation allows us to overcome the disconcerting discrepancy between the scientific and the spiritual progress of the contemporary world. Matter acquires a spiritual significance, and this is very important from an ecological point of view.
Moreover, this rationality of creation centered on the Logos offers the Eastern theology the possibility of overcoming the separation between man and nature, and of presenting man in the light of Christ, as a person able to contain the whole of creation and bring it forward to God, like a binding ring between the visible and invisible worlds. These considerations make it clear that one cannot speak of the history of man, as happened in Western culture, without speaking of the history of the cosmos. The world was always considered as a stage on which secularized man asserted his appetite for universal domination. If creation also groans and hopes to be freed from decay in order to enjoy the freedom of the sons of God as St. Paul says (Romans 8, 20), then the history of man is intimately related with the history of the cosmos. In one of his great visions, St. Maximos the Confessor says that God divided the ages into two categories; one concerns God's descent into the world, and the other the ascent of man and the world to God. Thus not only man, but the cosmos also, is meant to be transfigured fully in Christ in order to enter into the Kingdom of the Light of God. As Father Dimitru Staniloae said, the mystery of Christianity is the mystery of matter transfigured into the cosmic Christ. It is my belief that only by such a vision of the cosmos, based on the dynamic presence of God in creation and by the vision of a cosmic Christ who preserves in Himself the mystery of the transfigured universe, can we free ourselves from under the yoke of the secularized culture which has contributed to bringing about the worldwide ecological crisis, and can we instill, by means of a Christian education, into the soul of the believer and even of contemporary man, a deep respect for nature springing directly from his responsibility before God The Father, who, in His Spirit, built and renewed the world in Christ.
The Reverend Dr. Popescu is a Romanian Orthodox priest and the dean of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Romania, Bucharest. He is a respected theologian and often represents the Patriarchate of Romania at International Conferences and Dialogues.