by Robert Flanagan

"A good Christian is not permitted by conscience to destroy nature and the environment."
— Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople

"What is a heart full of charity? It is a heart that burns with love for all creation, for humans and for demons, for all creatures … The man who possesses such a heart is moved by an immense compassion … He cannot endure that any sorrow, however trivial, should be inflicted on any creature. He prays even for reptiles, impelled by the infinite pity aroused in the hearts of those who have been assimilated into God."
— St Isaac of Syria


The Orthodox Summit on the Environment was held in Baltimore on November 3rd and 4th. About 150 participants attended the event which was sponsored by the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, in cooperation with the National Council of the Churches of Christ, USA, the Orthodox Churches of the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA) and the Oriental Orthodox Churches in America. Metropolitan Theodosius of the Orthodox Church in America and Bishop Basil of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese attended, and concelebrated a blessing of water at Baltimore Harbor as a culmination of the summit.

On September 1, 1989 the Ecumenical Patriarch, Dimitrios, declared that each year that day, the Church New Year, should be kept as a day of the protection of the environment when "prayers and supplications are offered in this holy center of Orthodoxy for all creation." Since that time there have been at least two major conferences on the ecological crisis sponsored by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The summit in Baltimore represents the first attempt in America to bring the considerable wealth of the tradition of the Orthodox Church to bear on this problem.

The conference found its focus in four major presentations: ethical issues in the environmental crisis (Fr Stanley Harakas); the human attitude toward the environment (Prof. Vigen Guroian); on the confluence of science and religion in the response to environmental problems (Dr Calvin Dewitt); and the lessons to be learned from the cultural encounter of the Russian Orthodox Church and native Alaskans in the 19th and 20th centuries (Fr Michael Oleksa). Added to that were workshops on such topics as personal and corporate commitment to environmental stewardship, reflections from Alaska and other areas on the consequences of environmentalabuse, health issues and the environment, environmental issues in church building (led by Fr. Alexis Vinogradov), and Orthodox monasticism as a model of our relationship with the environment. All of this in a period of about 28 hours made for a very full agenda.

The success of the summit cannot be measured only by its content. The true measure of its effectiveness will be in how the Orthodox Church responds to the ecological crisis. The summit served as an opening burst of energy that must be taken up, enlarged and intensified in the near future. There are two directions that will prove fruitful — one at the 'macro' level of theological reflection and the other at the 'micro' level of parish practice — each as important as the other and fertilizing each other.

First, on the 'macro' scale, the Orthodox Church should continue to explore the theological issues present in the environmental crisis. It has become commonplace to lay considerable blame at the doorstep of Christianity for the current negative attitude toward the environment beginning with the interpretation of the command in Genesis that humans should "subdue the earth". There is considerable blame to be laid there, particularly in Western Christianity since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. What has been ignored, however, are the solid theological foundations for a positive attitude toward the environment found in the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Orthodox Church. The positive attitudes toward creation to be found in such theologians as St Maximus the Confessor, St Isaac of Syria and the theology of the essence and energies of God, need to be more fully and publicly explored. The opportunity for the Orthodox Church to expose the light hidden under this bushel is immense, and, even more, is an obligation that the Church dare not shirk.

At the 'micro' level — that of the parish — the opportunity may be even greater. One of the crying needs is the education of children to the presence of God in the material world. This education requires a balanced teaching of the workings of the natural world and the workings of the Spirit with the end in view that any opposition between them would be ameliorated and, even more, the confluence between them explored and celebrated. St Isaac of Syria speaks of the "mingling of Creator and creation". For too long, influenced by Western scientific attitudes, we have emphasized the separation rather than the mingling. It is almost impossible to find today a scientist or theologian who is able to credibly speak of the mingling. Through education the Church has the opportunity to raise a generation of persons aware of the mingling, some of whom would then be poised to educate the world at large to a new and necessary attitude. It can begin with watching a dragonfly mate and lay eggs at the edge of a pond , with God continuing the original act of creation, right there at that moment. It can develop into an appreciation of the periodic table of elements as an iconic representation of the energies of God.

Picking up on a theme of the talk given by Fr Oleksa, such education might include a cross-cultural component by using the wonderful stories of the natural world told for centuries by Native Americans, relating such stories to the biblical and Christian story and to the created world. Such an approach would serve the additional function of educating the next generation to the thousand year old stories about the land where they live, the horrifying effects of the dualistic approach to Reality in the treatment of Native Americans, and the ecumenical attitude more typical of the geographical expansion of the Orthodox Church.

Another important parish level activity is the enlarging of the consciousness of adults to the effects of the decisions they make on the world as a whole. This begins with small things like the use of disposable cups for the gathering time after Divine Liturgy. The suggestion was made at the summit that parishioners be encouraged to use mugs which would be stored in the church hall rather than disposable cups. While the impact of this decision may seem insignificant to sensibilities formed during the age of disposables, the repentance that is called for in this area begins with small things. From there it must expand to all areas of parish life, from the kind of building planned for a church to cooperation with local government and nongovernment organizations. It is work that goes against the grain, against the life of ease we have enjoyed at the unnecessary expense of the creation. But that's the nature of repentance, of the change of heart we are continually called to.

It is to be hoped that this summit will be the first of a series of activities undertaken by the Orthodox Churches in the Americas, at the national, diocesan and parish levels. The Orthodox Church can point with pride to its theology and current awareness of its need to focus theological reflection and practice on issues arising from the ecological crisis. It can do so providing it continually stretches itself to perform the tougher tasks of giving leadership in these areas in the future.

[Robert Flanagan, head librarian at the Camden County Library, Voorhees, NJ, is a member of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross, Medford, NJ.]

From Jacob's Well
Newspaper of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey
Orthodox Church in America
Winter 1996