“Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better everyday. And you will come to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.” – from The Brothers Karamazov, 1880
Recently several events have stimulated renewed thought about our relationship with nature. Ongoing discussions about coal seam gas extraction; the tragic destruction of nuclear reactors in Japan with resulting radio active emissions jeopardising the health of our earth; an extremely early onset of the bushfire season in eastern Australia; recurring extreme weather events; continuing problems from seal level rise now becoming acutely manifest in such places as Kiribati and Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea; continuing exploitation and devastation of the world’s rain forests for logging, palm oil cultivation and crude forms of agriculture; growing disparities and inequities amongst the world’s peoples; continuing desertification and loss of valuable top soils.; and, the list goes on.
As an Orthodox Christian I understand both humans and nature as God’s creation. I’m both comforted and challenged by the notion of Adam and Eve, as radiant immortal beings, living in a state of Grace and in perfect harmony with all of God’s creation. I’m comforted by God’s love and the opportunity that His life amongst us, through Christ, extends to us; the opportunity to embark on a journey of the restoration. Although hazardous, this is a journey that offers the prospect of a return to the radiant immortal state once granted to the beings Adam and Eve, a state that was lost through the Fall and restored through the Anastasis.
The problem of mortality
My challenge, in the face of my mortality, is to look beyond a natural tendency to seek compensation for my inevitable death in the satiation of my passions. Such passions can take many forms and I’m speaking of myself as ‘every man’ in this case. They are often manifest in a desire for immediate satisfaction, quick fixes, ego centred behaviour, a pre-occupation with material wealth and little practical regard for the sacramental nature of our relationship with both follow humans and the natural world.
Most of us if pressed, will pay lip service to the fundamental principle ‘love thy neighbour’ but, on the other hand, while we might appreciate the iconic nature of specific sites and locations within the natural world our understanding of this relationship isn’t based on a thorough insight into our impact on this world, from microcosm to macrocosm. We frequently undertake the most simple tasks, without awareness of their environmental significance. How many people are blissfully unaware of the presence of palm oil in common consumer goods like biscuits or hair shampoo and the impact of oil palm plantations on the biodiversity of rain forests in Kalimantan? For many, living in an urbanised developed world represents an estrangement from nature and natural processes.
To my mind this presents us with a problem. In contemplating this problem, I have an entire tool kit of scientific insights and solutions at my disposal, but the point of this offering isn’t to explore the scientific, technological or economic, rather I’d like to reflect on the problem from a theological standpoint.
Partiarch Bartholomew – the ‘Green Partiarch’
Some of my recent reading has been in Orthodox Christian understandings of our relationship with nature. Amongst all of the current writers on the environment I’m drawn to the commentary of Patriarch Bartholomew, he writes:
“Our original privilege and calling as human beings lies precisely in our ability to appreciate the world as God’s gift to us. And our original sin with regard to the natural environment lies, not in any legalistic transgression, but precisely in our refusal to accept the world as a sacrament of communion with God and neighbour”
In this era not everyone is attracted to the Eden account of our origins. It represents a pre-scientific explanation of these origins, but more particularly of our relationship with God. This estrangement, this lack of accord with our creator is typically understood as arising from an act that drew us away from the natural equilibrium of Eden. In essence this was the first environmentally unsustainable act since up to this point all was in complete environmental balance. It had immediate ontological consequences expressed in terms of our relationship with God and neighbour. Whatever you as a reader might believe, whether you approach the story as truth or metaphor it draws us to the heart of profound environmental and social problems.
Film makers such as Pria Viswalingam ‘Decadence: The Decline of the Western World’ and Tom Zubryiki ‘The Hungry Tide’ have been assiduous in their balanced chronicling of the environmental, social and economic challenges facing the planet.
Environmental consequences of the loss of Eden
When people are reluctant to address the loss of Eden, because they see it as God’s punishment, and as some sort of ongoing redemptive challenge, they often fall into a trap. They seem to conclude that there’s something punitive in the whole equation, and either avoid the matter seeing destruction of the environment as God’s punishment or they turn their back, reject God completely failing to comprehend the deep spiritual responsibility that we all have. Our estrangement from God’s creation, from both nature and human kind, is not so much a cause for despair as an opportunity to reflect. In the resulting state of disequilibrium, marked by exploitation of nature and conflict amongst people the governing forces are crude human passions. We are governed by passions and not by Grace. In his commentary on the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ St Maximos the Confessor explores this dilemna, he observes man’s tendency to express a preference for dishonorable passions, whose sower is the devil, to nature, whose creator is God. (Maximos Confessor Selected Writings. pp. 117)
Maximos comments that God doesn’t prevent us from becoming absorbed in the pursuit of the passions of the flesh. He writes:
He does not prevent him from voluntarily directing himself to the passions of the flesh nor ransom him from the habit which carries out this passionate disposition in act, because in paying less attention to nature than to formless passions out of his ardor for them, he has ignored the principle of nature. In the movement of this principle he should know what is the law of nature and what is that of the passions, whose tyranny comes about by a choice of free will and not by nature. He should safeguard by reason the nature which of itself is pure and spotless, without hatred or dissension. He should on the contrary make free will a partner of nature which does not involve itself in anything beyond what the principle of nature gives out, and thereby to reject all hatred of and estrangement from the one who is akin to him by nature.From a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer in Maximos Confessor Selected Writings. Translated by George. C. Berthold. Paulist Press New York. Mahwah, New Jersey. 1985
Our challenge is that our relationship with nature (human nature and the natural world) is not in a state of Grace. We are estranged from God who is like us in nature. In this state, as a species, we tend to seek what we can. We seek to exploit nature, to profit from it, neglecting the real costs of our graceless acts.
Yet this isn’t necessarily a cause for despair. This estrangement leaves us with an ongoing struggle to achieve a state of Grace. Through this struggle we have an opportunity to enter into a constant process of strengthening our Faith, our Hope and our Love. It is failure to act that is sinful.
“One of the tasks before us as human beings is to preserve the integrity, but also the diversity of God’s creation. No one among us has the right to reduce the scope of God’s presence in the natural world; rather, each one of us has the responsibility to embrace the breadth of God’s grace in every person, every animal, and every plant.” Fr John Chryssavgis in Christian Orthodoxy