Holy Green Orthodoxy

Holy Green Orthodoxy
Story Stream
recent articles

In 1834, the poet Heinrich Heine surveyed the philosophical landscape of contemporary Germany with an eye toward religion. Maintaining that Germany had completed a philosophical revolution analogous to the political revolution in France, and anticipating by a half century Nietzsche's famous declaration that God is dead, Heine concludes his central chapter with a haunting elegy: "Hear ye not the bells resounding? Kneel down. They are bringing the sacraments to a dying god!"

Construing the situation a bit differently than Heine, we can view German intellectuals at the dawn of the nineteenth century as finding themselves so alienated from Christianity and religion in general, that they could ask themselves what it had all been about. Western modernity at large finds itself today in much the same situation.

We recall that the German philosopher Kant answered that Christianity had all along possessed ethics as its true content -- even writing a book called Religion Within the Limits of Reason that presented Christianity as essentially having been (to borrow from a popular series) "Ethics for Dummies." To the contrary, insisted the theologian Schleiermacher, religion is really, after all, about feelings, concerning not moral judgment, but the affective life. And so began the two great reductionistic tendencies of modernity: to reduce religion to ethics and its political extensions such as "social justice" on the left, or "family values" on the right -- or else to see it as arousing various kinds of emotions, a modality represented variously across the denominational spectrum, and often infusing ethical and political concerns. It was not until the twentieth century that yet another German intellectual, Rudolf Otto, rediscovered that with which religion has in fact always authentically concerned itself: neither ethics nor feelings, but the encounter with das Heilige, "the Holy."

I present this foray into intellectual history in order to contextualize Fr. Michael Butler's strikingly allergic reaction to the opening paragraphs of the introduction to a collection of essays for which I served as co-editor: Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration: Orthodox Christian Perspectives on Nature, Environment, and Creation. Amidst an indignant flurry of exaggerations, historical inaccuracies, and unwarranted extrapolations in his review, there seems to be a sense that underlying the book (which, in fact, contains essays by more than thirty philosophers and theologians, clergy and monastics of the Orthodox Church, representing all aspects of the Orthodox political spectrum) is a set of leftist assumptions regarding global climate change and the general urgency and severity of environmental problems.

Fr. Michael has, in fact, pointed out in a subsequent addendum that this was just the first in a series of blog post he would be writing on the collection as he read it. Nevertheless, why is the reviewer here already prepared to reject the book so harshly, after reading just the first three pages? First, since the early 80s, environmental views have unfortunately become polarized between the left (which vociferously champions the cause of environmental crisis) and the right (which has come to scorn this cause as alarmist, and little more than an occasion for advancing big government). And second, given that polarization, the very perception of there being an environmental crisis can seem not just to side with the left, but by that fact to politicize Orthodoxy itself, to reduce it (in Kantian fashion) to a partisan, ethico-political movement.

This second concern is of particular importance in Orthodoxy, since I believe it remains deeply committed to preserving and cultivating the most vital elements of religion itself: ascetical and liturgical practice directed toward the holy. Orthodoxy is essentially practice in search of the holy -- oriented toward the experience of the holy, as well as toward the genuine inner transformation that can realize within the faithful themselves the holiness that is needed to approach the holy in the first place. Indeed, one of its most ancient icons depicts a youthful Moses removing his sandals upon the sacred soil of Mount Sinai. This great paradox is expressed in the Divine Liturgy just prior to the Eucharist, when the priest (raising up the Holy Mysteries) exclaims: "Holy things are for the holy," and the antiphonal response follows: "One is Holy, One is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the Glory of God the Father. Amen."

However, this makes the further comments of Fr. Michael, a sincere priest of the Church, even more puzzling, for he goes on to criticize the book for not coming up with practical solutions to environmental issues, for being "useless." Surely he knows that the fundamental praxis of the Orthodox Church concerns the ascetic labor and faithful worship that leads to theosis, the union with Christ, the One who alone "is holy." Yet I suspect he is temporarily blinded to this by a concern that the book might have fallen prey to the great ethico-political reductionism of our age, against which the Orthodox Church has so far powerfully prevailed.

As he continues his reading of the essays, I am confident that Fr. Michael will find that in fact quite the opposite is the case. All these essays, whatever else their assertions, advance the underlying claim that what is most needed in our present environmental situation is a return to the prayerful stillness that will once again allow us, like Elijah, to leave our caves after hearing, amidst the noise of modern life, the "small, still voice" in creation. The various essays all articulate the great contributions of Patristic, Orthodox Christianity to our understanding of creation, ideas that are deeply "practical" in encouraging and enabling us to hear the holy voice of God, see the glory of God, in creation itself, from which a transformed relation to the environment cannot fail to follow.

Ideas such as the distinction between the divine energies that are everywhere manifestly at work in creation, even as the divine essence remains forever mysterious. Ideas such as that of the divine logoi, inhering within each and every creature -- expressing the divine will for each and accessible to the contemplation of those whose hearts have been purified. And ideas such as the insight that nature is the first great icon, written by the Creator Himself, to prepare for us a window into the eternal within the temporal, the visible within the invisible. And contrary to Fr. Michael's claim, these key insights reach back to the fourth century, while being discernable as central currents in Orthodox thought and spirituality from the beginning.

To the impatience of the modern world, rushing to reduce our encounters with the transcendent to more palpable projects and immediate emotions, such concepts are indeed "useless." But to those hungry for engagement with the holy, with the Living God who speaks throughout creation, and who may very well feel that only from within this encounter can the healing action of which the natural environment (and we ourselves) stand so desperately in need, in fact take place -- to these, my hope and belief is that the essays in this volume may come as life-giving rainfall after a long, parching drought.

Bruce Foltz is a Professor of Philosophy at Eckerd College and author of The Noetics of Nature: Environmental Philosophy and the Holy Beauty of the Visible.

Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles