Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

“Everything that Breathes Praises God”

Author: 
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

Responses to questions submitted by Reflections to Bartholomew, the Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Christian Church

1. Over the next decade, what will be your top priority in relation to the environment?

The protection of the natural environment has long been on the top of our pastoral concern and agenda over at least the last two decades. The Ecumenical Patriarchate believes that the burning issue of the environment must be addressed at its root. And the root of this problem, just as the root of so many other problems, is humanity; it lies in the choices that we make on a daily basis in our personal lives, whether as individuals, as societies, or as nations. Human beings exploit their identity as the only rational beings and externalize their selfish attitudes, thereby inflicting significant and incorrigible damage on nature. The plain truth is that we are given the opportunity to enjoy and use God’s creation, but instead we have chosen to exploit and abuse it.

As the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christian Church, then, we have assumed the responsibility to sound the alarm of danger. We feel that we must work and walk with all those persons who see the great risk and contribute to the restraint of this evil. Moreover, we must contribute as a Church by raising the awareness and awakening the conscience of all those who remain indifferent. We are certain that when humanity in its entirety becomes truly conscious of the fact that its very existence and survival depend on the environment, then the ecological problem will diminish, if not disappear. However, the world must be mobilized; and this mobilization must occur with a sense of critical urgency. Appropriate measures must be taken in timely fashion, because we have already delayed. Should we delay still further, then the dangers for humanity will be- come greater and we shall no longer be able to turn around or hold back the current of events.

Nevertheless, at the same time, we are obliged to underline the fact that we cannot expect to save the natural environment with the same methodology or “philosophy” concerning nature with which we have destroyed it. The sad reality is that many of us, especially in more affluent Western societies, have become accustomed to lifestyles of waste and greed. Thus, we are not always willing to undergo the sacrifice required of us in order to respond to the ecological crisis, and so we prefer either to ignore it deliberately or else dismiss it indifferently. What we need is another, different worldview, a fresh perception of matter and the world. And in this discernment of a new perception and meaning, it is our conviction that religious traditions have an active role to play and that the Orthodox Church has a unique contribution to make.

2. Why have churches (with a few exceptions) been slow to grasp the ecological crisis?

Churches and faith communities can be the greatest allies in the struggle to prevent environmental degradation. Yet, at the same time, these institutions are sometimes the slowest to convince and the hardest to change inasmuch as they are entrenched in ancient traditions, which over time have unfortunately neglected the innate and intimate connection between humanity and nature.

Yet, there is a binding unity and continuity that we share with all of God’s creation. In recent years, we have been reminded of this truth with flora and fauna extinction, with soil and forest clearance, and with noise, air, and water pollution. Concern for the environment is not merely an emotional expression of superficial or sentimental love. It is a way of honoring and dignifying our creation by the hand and word of God. It is a way of listening to “the groaning of creation” (Rom. 8.22).

Unfortunately, we have been alienated from the natural world by the way we live and the priorities we pursue; at the same time, we have theologized and worshiped in a way that “spiritualized” or “de-materialized” nature. As a result, the natural world, just as our notion of the sacred, is no longer associated with the meaning of life and the wonder of creation. Yet, theology and liturgy are vital; indeed, they are profoundly related to our world and the natural environment. Of course, in order to understand this, our ecological prayer must gradually move from the distant periphery of some abstract theology or religious institutionalism to the center stage of our practical spirituality and pastoral ministry. In brief, our theology and spirituality must once again assume flesh; they must become “incarnate.” They must be closely connected to our fellow human beings as well as to the natural environment.

Thus, as religious communities gradually awaken to the wisdom of their traditional beliefs, they will also begin to recognize that the environment is not only a political or a technological issue. For, it is in fact primarily a religious and spiritual issue. Any form of religiosity or spirituality that remains disconnected from outward creation is ultimately also uninvolved with the inward mystery of all things.

3. How does Orthodox theology speak to the crisis?

Responding to the environmental crisis is a matter of truthfulness to God, humanity, and the created order. In fact, it is not too far-fetched to speak of environmental damage as being a contemporary heresy or natural terrorism. We have repeatedly condemned this behavior as nothing less than sinful. For human beings to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or by destroying its wetlands; for human beings to injure other human beings with disease by contaminating the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances — all of these are sins before God, humanity, and the world.

Unfortunately, we have tended to restrict the notion of sin to the individual sense of guilt or the social sense of wrongdoing. Yet, sin also contains a cosmic dimension; and repentance from environ- mental sin demands a radical transformation of the way that we perceive the natural world and a tangible change in the way that we choose to live.

In short, the Orthodox Church speaks of an asceticism that is required of all people and not only of monastics. Admittedly, asceticism carries with it the baggage of dualism and denial, developed over many centuries. Yet this is not the vision of wholeness that Orthodox spirituality understands by the notion of asceticism. For, the ascetic discipline reminds us of the reality of human failure and of the need for cosmic repentance. What is required from us is nothing less than an honest reflection on and a radical reversal of our attitudes and practices. There is a price to pay for our wasting the Earth’s resources. This is what is meant by the cost of self- discipline. In Christian terms, it is the sacrifice of bearing the cross. The environmental crisis will not be solved by sentimental expressions of regret or political slogans of change. The solution to our ecological impasse lies in the denial of selfishness or self-centeredness.  In this regard, the spirit of asceticism leads to a sense of gratitude and the rediscovery of beauty.

The ascetic way is ultimately a way of liberation; and the ascetic is the one who is free, uncontrolled by attitudes that abuse the world, uncompelled by ways that use the world, characterized by self-control and by the ability to say “no” or “enough.” It is moving away from what we want as individuals to what the world needs as a whole. It is valuing everything for itself, and not simply for ourselves. It is regaining a sense of wonder and being filled with a sense of goodness. Therefore, the ascetic dimension is the necessary corrective for our culture of wasting. In the final analysis, it teaches us to share and not simply to consume.

4. How did you personally come to see the urgency of the issue years ago? Do you remember the moment? Did a phrase from the liturgy, or Scripture, trigger an awakening?

Our deep appreciation for the natural environment is directly related to the Orthodox sacramental dimension of life and the world. We have always respected the natural environment as a place of encounter and communion with the Creator. As a young boy, accompanying the priest of my local village to services in remote chapels on my native island of Imvros, we would readily connect the beauty of the magnificent mountainside to the splendor of the sacred liturgy. The natural environment seemed to provide a broader, panoramic vision of the world. Nature’s beauty leads us to a more open view of the life and created world, somewhat resembling a wide- angle focus from a camera; this worldview is what ultimately prevents us human beings from using or abusing its natural resources. For, it is through this spiritual lens that we can better appreciate the broader implications of such problems as the threat to ocean fisheries, the disappearance of wetlands, the damage to coral reefs, or the destruction of animal and plant life.

It is difficult to isolate one individual moment which may have triggered our interest and concern for ecological issues. The recent environmental initiatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate date back to the mid-1980s with the third session of the Pre-Synodal Pan-Orthodox Conference held in Chambésy (1986). Representatives at this meeting expressed their concern for the abuse of the natural environment, especially in affluent Western societies. This was followed by a series of consultations and conferences, either organized or sponsored by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, one of which was held on the island of Patmos (Greece) in 1988 to mark the 900th anniversary of the historic Monastery of St. John the Theologian. That conference proved a catalyst for subsequent Patriarchal initiatives on the environment. For we realized that, whereas the Orthodox Church has always enjoyed a close connection to the natural creation — with numerous references and diverse prayers to animals and nature in our liturgical books and rites — nevertheless we were now obliged for the first time in history to pray not so much for the protection of humanity against natural disasters, but rather for the preservation of the environment against its abuse by human beings. Thus, in 1989, my immediate predecessor, the late Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios, published the first encyclical letter on the environment, formally establishing September 1 as the day of prayer for the natural environment for churches within our jurisdiction throughout the Orthodox world. Patriarch Demetrios was well known for his meekness, and so it was fitting that during his tenure the worldwide Orthodox Church was invited to dedicate a day of prayer for the protection of the environment, which human beings have mistreated so harshly.

It was a natural consequence, then, that just one month after being elected to the ecclesiastical throne of Constantinople, in November of 1991, we also initiated and convened an ecological meeting, on the island of Crete, entitled “Living in the Creation of the Lord.” That convention was attended and officially opened by HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and International Chairman of the WWF. It was the seed and starting point for many initiatives in years to come.

5. You have spoken about the power of the “spirit of the liturgy.” How does the liturgy speak to daily practical environmental concerns?

We tend to call this crisis an “ecological” crisis, which is a fair description insofar as its results are manifested in the ecological sphere. The message is clear: our way of life is humanly and environmentally suicidal. Unless we change it drastically, we cannot hope to avoid or reverse cosmic catastrophe. Yet, the crisis is not first of all ecological. It is a crisis concerning the way we perceive reality and relate to our world. And it is our conviction that the liturgy in fact offers a refreshing, alternative way of seeing ourselves in relation to the natural world.

For a liturgical worldview signifies that every- thing that lives is holy, that everything that breathes praises God (Ps. 150.6), that the entire world is a “burning bush of God’s energies,” as St. Maximus the Confessor put it in the seventh century. It also elicits a sacred response before the gift of creation, which we are called to return in thanksgiving to God as a gift for future generations. The same great theologian and saint of the early Church also observed that “we should wage war not against the natural world, which has been created by God, but against those movements and energies of the essential powers within each of us that are disordered and unnatural and hostile to the natural world.”

This is precisely the liturgical worldview pre- served in the Orthodox Church, which proclaims a world imbued by God and a God involved in this world. Our original sin, so it seems, lies in our prideful refusal to receive the world as a gift of reconciliation, in our unwillingness humbly to regard the world as a sacrament of communion. So at a time when we have polluted the air that we breathe and the water that we drink, we are called to restore within ourselves the sense of awe and delight, to respond to matter as to a mystery of ever-increasing connections. Such is the powerful message of the liturgy. And if we are guilty of relentless waste, it is perhaps because we have lost the spirit of worship. We are no longer respectful pilgrims on this Earth; we have been reduced to mere consumers.

6. What, in your opinion, would make the September 2007 Religion, Science & the Environment Symposium in the Arctic a success?

With our last symposium, held in Brazil on the Amazon River (2006), our goal was to concentrate on the global dimension of problems stemming directly from this magnificent river system, problems which have, perhaps, dropped out of view for many decision makers. We also engaged with the ancient wisdom of the indigenous people for whom these waters have always been sacred. We focused on the Amazon’s 42 billion trees and the risk inherent in their systematic destruction. As the source of two-thirds of all the greenhouse gas emissions from Brazil, the cutting and burning of the wonderful rainforest also contributes significantly to global warming.

Therefore, recognizing that we live in a pivotal moment of history, the next symposium will take place in the Arctic Ocean. The silent majesty of the Arctic will render our journey a polar pilgrimage to be conducted in awe and humility. Given the sensitivity of their ecosystems, both poles have been called an early warning system for our planet inasmuch as that is where the environmental sins perpetrated by a greedy humanity impact most severely. However, in the North Pole, there are indigenous populations which have already suffered tremendous upheavals; the sea-ice is fragile and rapidly retreating, while oil exploration continues to exploit the natural resources of the region without any international treaty offering enforceable protection. The Arctic is no longer a pristine wilderness; it is one of the first victims of human-induced climate change.

We plan to visit areas where the impacts of melting ice are already manifest, the northernmost com- munities in the world which have demonstrated extraordinary resilience in the face of change, and finally the towering edge of the ice mass, where leaders of different faiths and disciplines will join us in a fervent prayer for the future of our planet.

7. Is there something inherent to Western Christianity that makes it more difficult to come to terms with the crisis than Orthodox Christians?

Behind the ecological problem, just as behind many other contemporary issues, there lies concealed a theological stance and attitude. The alienation of the humanity in Western society from God, neighbor, and natural environment, as well as the emphasis on individualism and utilitarianism, have in many ways undoubtedly led to the abuse of sacred creation and to our modern ecological impasse. Unfortunately, humanity has lost the liturgical relationship between the Creator God and the creation; instead of priests and stewards, human beings have been reduced to tyrants and abusers of nature. Therefore, in response to your question, there are inherent impediments within Western Christianity that render it more resistant to environmental action. However, we have always considered it both inappropriate and escapist to blame one culture, religion, or society for the damage wrought on the natural world. As we observed during the closing ceremony of the Amazon Symposium (2006): “As creatures of God, we are all in the same boat, estamos ne mesmo barco!” We are, all of us, in this predicament together; and we must assume responsibility collectively if we are to resolve this crisis favorably.

We are obliged in the name of our faith and of truth to proclaim the need to change people’s life- styles and attitudes, to preach that which in spiritual terms is called metanoia (or repentance), in order for human and environmental conditions to improve. The word “repentance” is often misunderstood today, evoking a sense of guilt for sins that some people consider insignificant or inessential. By “repentance,” however, we imply those things that are more important than the transgression of law: namely, discernment and mercy, or justice and compassion.

The lack of a sense of justice leads to greed, domination, exploitation of the weaker by the more powerful, an abundance of wealth for the strong and extreme poverty for the weak. The lack of a spirit of compassion renders the soul indifferent to other people’s pain and prevents the development of those things that kindle a sense of justice. Therefore, in proclaiming a change of attitude, we are offering a kindly service to humanity and indicating a way of solving global problems of poverty and hunger.

Of course, all is not hopeless; there are numerous signs that a significant — and, it is our hope, a growing — portion of human societies throughout the world is becoming conscious of this necessary direction, although we are not ignorant of the fact that the abundantly wealthy minority continue to increase in wealth. At the same time, then, we are not naively optimistic; we recognize the resistance of the few, as well as the ongoing struggle involved in bringing about any change. However, as a religious leader, and especially as a leader of the Orthodox Church — the Church of martyrs and not of power, the Church of humility and not of wealth — we have no other way but that of proclamation and persuasion.

Our efforts for the protection of the natural environment must, therefore, be intensified. And we must broaden our notion of the environment to include the human and cultural environment. For it would be a paradox to be concerned solely for the natural environment, and yet be lacking in interest and concern for humanity and our cultural heritage. The human environment also deserves our attention and love, just as the natural environment deserves our respect and protection. It is crucial, then, that we recognize and respond to the interconnection and interdependence between caring for the poor and caring for the Earth. They are two sides of one and the same coin. Indeed, the way that we treat those who are suffering is reflected in the way that we approach the ecological crisis. And both of these in turn mirror the way that we perceive the divine mystery in all people and things, the way that we kneel in prayer before the living God.

As we stated in a common declaration with the late Pope John Paul II in Venice (2002): “It is not too late. God’s world has incredible healing powers. Within a single generation, we could steer the Earth toward our children’s future. Let that generation start now, with God’s help and blessing.”

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, residing in Istanbul, Turkey, occupies the First Throne of the Orthodox Christian Church worldwide. Elected in 1991, he is known for his perspectives on ecumenical relations and environmental issues, which has earned him the affectionate title of “Green Patriarch.”

Issue Title: 
God's Green Earth
Issue Year: 
2007