A New Heaven and a New Earth: Orthodox Theology and an Ecological World View

Article excerpt

   The world is a burning bush of God's energies.
   St Gregory Palamas (14th century)
   The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
   Gerard Manley Hopkins

Introduction: The Hallmark of Humility

We have come to appreciate that the crisis we are facing is not primarily ecological; indeed, it has less to do with the natural environment and more to do with spirituality and icons. It is a crisis concerning the way we envisage or imagine the world. We require a new worldview if we pray for "a new heaven and a new earth" (Rev. 21:1). (1) Ironically, if we are honest about the task that lies before us, then the Earth, too, will celebrate; the Earth, too, will cooperate. As His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew declared jointly 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." (2)

Therefore, our concern for the environment does not result from any superficial or sentimental romanticism. It arises from our effort to honour and dignify God's creation.

It is a way of paying attention to the mourning of the land (Hos. 4:1-3) and "the groaning" of creation (Rom. 8:22). This is the reason why the Ecumenical Patriarchate has organized, among other initiatives, a number of international and interdisciplinary symposia (3) over the last decade: in the Aegean Sea (1995) and the Black Sea (1997), along the Danube River (1999) and in the Adriatic Sea (2002), in the Baltic Sea (2003), on the Amazon River (2006), as well as in the Arctic (2007) and on the Mississippi (2009). (4) For, like the air we breathe, water is a source of life; if defiled, the very essence of our existence is threatened. Tragically, however, we appear to be caught up in selfish life-styles that repeatedly ignore the constraints of nature, which are neither deniable nor negotiable. There will unfortunately be some things about our planet's capacity for survival that we will discover only when things are beyond the point of no return.

Yet, even as, over the past two decades, perhaps no other worldwide religious leader has persistently proclaimed the primacy of spiritual values in determining environmental ethics as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has done, during that same period the world has witnessed alarming ecological degradation, increasing failure to implement environmental policies, and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. This is why it would be fair to say that the hallmark of the Patriarch's initiatives--as, indeed, the efforts of any of us--is not success, but in fact humility. I believe that a sense of modest realism is what ultimately connects with creation. Yet, in its own distinctive way, the earth unites us all: beyond any individual or collective efforts, and certainly beyond any doctrinal or racial differences. We may or may not share religious convictions or political principles. But we do share an experience of the environment: we share the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, and the ground that we tread--albeit neither always equally nor always fairly. But by some mysterious connection that we do not always understand (and sometimes choose to ignore), the Earth itself reminds us of our interconnectedness.

This is surely the deeper connection also between religion and environment. For the Ecumenical Patriarch recognizes that he stands before something greater than himself, indeed something greater than his (or any) church or faith. Religion is what suggests a sense of permanence here--seeing and making sense of things beyond ourselves and our needs. This is why healing a broken environment is a matter of truthfulness to God, humanity and the created order. Patriarch Bartholomew was the first to dare to broaden the traditional concept of sin--beyond individual and social implications--to include environmental damage. …