Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

At Ecumenical Conference Orthodox Theologian Equates Pollution with Sin

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

At Ecumenical Conference Orthodox Theologian Equates Pollution with Sin

Article excerpt

At Ecumenical Conference Orthodox Theologian Equates Pollution With Sin

By Michael Howard

Last September a group of pilgrims sailed from Istanbul across the wine-dark seas of the Mediterranean to Patmos, a small, arid island in the Greek Aegean Sea where 1,900 years earlier St. John the Divine recorded the Book of Revelation. Their mission, to mark the anniversary of the final book of the New Testament by considering, in a lavish seminar, the relevance of St. John's apocalyptic visions to the impending ecological crisis.

On board a giant car ferry, or "latter-day ark" as it was dubbed by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholemew I of Constantinople, primus inter pares of the national Orthodox church leaders, was a colorful group of clerics, politicians, scientists, industrialists and environmental activists. Although not present, Britain's Prince Philip, in his capacity as president of the World Wildlife Fund, cosponsored the gathering designed to break down the barriers between science and religion and to offer glimpses of redemption for a new heaven and a new earth.

The symposium, which took as its paradigm the plight of the sea, and the Mediterranean in particular, was also intended to thaw the frosty relations between Aegean neighbors Greece and Turkey and provide an issue around which the diverse ethnic and religious communities in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East--where the majority of the Orthodox faithful reside--can unite.

Entitled "Revelation and the Environment," the conference, which called at Athens and Ephesus in Turkey, also had the backing of Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Aga Khan, U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali of the United Nations.

A Broad Church

The ferry proved a broad church. Between conference sessions, over smoked salmon and petits fours, a white-bearded Orthodox priest discussed eschatology and factory fishing with a similarly white-bearded environmentalist. To their side, a high-chieftain from Western Samoa complained to a British Euro-MP about French nuclear testing while a Zoroastrian from India denied being a fire-worshipper to an Anglican bishop.

But it was in the conference proper that the difficulty of drawing together the disparate forces of science, religion and philosophy to save the environment became apparent. In his opening address, the Ecumenical Patriarch talked of how, with the creation of the atomic bomb, scientists had managed to unravel some of the forces which lie at the heart of creation, giving mankind the power to destroy itself. But he also warned of the danger to the planet from pollution. "It may be that the choice between life and death always being put to us by the spirit is in our day being translated into a choice between one world or none. Theology and science should be partners in this work." However, he added, many have doubts about the possibility of traffic between the world view expressed in modern science and the visionary material in the Book of Revelation. "How can the Revelation's vision of hope, sustained in the midst of passages portraying terrible destruction, be distinguished from a rather unconvincing whistling in the dark to keep the spirits up in a time of danger or change?" the Patriarch asked.

Other delegates from the secular world inveighed against society's rigid adherence to scientific materialism. "Environmentalists need to appeal to moral values, to give their arguments a spiritual dimension," said Herman Daly of the University of Maryland and a former World Bank economist.

Robert Cox, president of the Sierra Club, America's largest environmental lobby group, welcomed the symposium as a much-needed attempt to build bridges between the environmental movement and the church. "The message of sustainable development and biodiversity may be crystal clear to the scientists and lobbyists, but to get the message through to the majority of people, it is the damage being done to creation which is increasingly being emphasized," he said. …

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