Orthodoxy and the Environment
May 25, 2014 Length: 1:34:57
Kevin Allen talks with guest Father Michael Butler about how we might address the environmental issues that confront us today by appealing to the authentic Orthodox Tradition. Fr. Michael is the co-author of Creation and the Heart of Man.
Mr. Kevin Allen: Christ is risen! Good evening, and welcome to Ancient Faith Today, where we discuss the issues of the day from the perspective of the Eastern Orthodox Church and her holy Tradition. We’re streaming live, and we’ll be opening the lines and taking your live calls. I hope you’ll join the conversation tonight. The call-in number is 1-855-AF-RADIO, 1-855-237-2346.
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I just want to make a disclaimer. We were having a little bit of audio trouble with my esteemed guest this evening, so hopefully he will keep blessing his telephone and we won’t have any, but if we do, just hang with us.
Tonight our topic is an important one. It’s “An Orthodox Perspective on Environmentalism,” and notice that I didn’t say, “The Orthodox Perspective on Environmentalism,” because environmentalism has become a politically charged and passionate policy debate, even within Orthodox circles, and we have Orthodox on both sides of the political and economic spectrum. My guest tonight, the Very Rev. Dr. Michael Butler, and his co-author who is not able to join us tonight—he’s traveling—Andrew P. Morriss, just released a book—an excellent book, by the way, published by the Acton Institute, titled Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism. We’ll be discussing tonight how we might address the environmental issues that confront us today by appealing to the authentic Orthodox Tradition.
My guest, Fr. Michael Butler, is an independent scholar and an archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), serving at St. Innocent Orthodox Church in Olmsted Falls, Ohio, near Cleveland. He blogs on environmentalism and other subjects at frmichaelb.com. That’s frmichaelb.com. Fr. Michael Butler, welcome to Ancient Faith Today. It’s great to have you as my guest.
Fr. Michael Butler: Thank you, sir. I appreciate being here.
Mr. Allen: It’s so great to have you; thanks so much. I really enjoyed your book, by the way, as I said off air. It’s such a clear and articulate book theology and points out things we’ll be discussing tonight that people who are both interested in environmentalism but also in our theology and how we get there will really want to read this.
Father, your book has one of the best opening lines, bar none, I’ve read, and I’d like to read it to our listeners and then have you comment or expand on it as you like, especially as it relates to the subject of environmentalism. Here we go:
There is a way of living in the world that promotes and sustains right relationships between God and man, between man and his neighbor, and between man and the rest of the created order. The Orthodox Church teaches this way.
Fr. Michael: Well, first, thank you for your kinds words. I’m glad you like the way we started the book. It took me a little while to get up to that. The way of living in the world that promotes and sustains right relationships between us and God, between us and our neighbor and the rest of creation I think flows fundamentally, simply, from living the two great commandments: from loving God and from loving our neighbor.
The effect that we have when we love our neighbor extends beyond our neighbor to the rest of the world. When we live authentic, observant Orthodox Christian lives, when we strive to follow Christ, when we follow the Gospel, when we fast and we pray and we read the Scriptures and we venerate the icons and we receive holy Communion and we do all of the things that the Church asks us to do, it cleanses our soul. It helps to overcome the passions: anger and lust and greed and envy and that sort of thing. Part of the fruit in overcoming these passions is to be able to see the world more clearly, without the distortion of those passions. So when we can begin to see the world as it really is, we can begin to see God in and through the creation. And eventually, if we begin to become saints, we can begin to see creation as God sees it. And so once we have clearer view of what the world is about, then we can begin to relate to the world in a way that’s consistent with God’s design and with his intentions.
Mr. Allen: Boy, I hope we have some New Age and some Hindu and some Buddhist listeners tonight, because that will very much resonate, Father, the idea of being able to see clearly and without the lenses that we have from our fallenness. It’s just so beautiful and very well said. Thank you.
A question specifically, though, on environmentalism and on the environment: I actually had one of our listeners Facebook me this question, and I think it’s a good one to start with. Did any Church Fathers, East or West, write specifically, Fr. Michael Butler, about the environment, that is, about caring for or abusing or desecrating nature? We know a lot’s been written by the current Ecumenical Patriarch, called “the Green Patriarch,” but I’m curious and she’s curious about whether there’s anything clearly about environmentalism and ecology by the Church Fathers.
Fr. Michael: Not really in the modern sense, and that’s simply because sort of what we call an environmental consciousness such as we understand it today was not the way that the Fathers in the ancient Church viewed the world. That doesn’t mean that they don’t say anything about our relationship with nature or our relationship with animals or anything like that. So with that qualification in mind, just a couple of quotations which I very much like. St. Maximus the Confessor says that it is according to whether we use things rightly or wrongly that we become either good or bad, and that includes, obviously, the things in the world. Probably the most famous quotation that turns up a lot when Orthodox Christians discuss the environment is the passage from St. Isaac the Syrian. It goes on for just a few lines, if you’ll indulge me. He asks:
What is a charitable heart? It is a heart which is burning with a loving charity for the whole of creation: for men, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, even, for all creatures. He who has such a heart cannot see or call to mind a creature without his eyes being filled with tears by reason of the immense compassion which seizes his heart, a heart which is so softened and can no longer bear to hear or learn from others of any suffering, even the smallest pain being inflicted upon any creature.
This is why such a man never ceases to pray also for the animals, for the enemies of truth, and for those who do him evil, that they may be preserved and purified. He will even pray for the lizards and reptiles, moved by the infinite pity which reigns in the hearts of those who are becoming united with God.
Mr. Allen: Yeah, so I can see how we can certainly extrapolate, then, if not say that the Church Fathers specifically spoke about environmentalism, as you point out, in the modern sense, but we can certainly extrapolate from the ethos of the Church Fathers. Would that be correct, Father?
Fr. Michael: Absolutely. And that’s really what anybody nowadays among the Orthodox who are writing on the environment do. We all acknowledge that.
Mr. Allen: My guest, by the way, is Fr. Michael Butler, who, with his co-author Andrew P. Morriss, is the author of Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism. Our lines are wide open; please give us a call. The number is 1-855-237-2346, 1-855-AF-RADIO.
Father, I love again how you connect theological principles of the Orthodox teaching with your conversation in your book on the environment and environmentalism. In a particular one, you connect a key theological principle with how we should regard the created realm, including the natural world, and that is that, while God is radically transcendent, as you put it, “not circumscribed by anything,” that is, radically transcendent to the created order, while at the same time he is immanent in the realm of nature and the created order as well, while of course remaining transcendent to it, because we’re not pantheists where God and the created order are one. So what does this say about nature and then about any creature?
Fr. Michael: What is says is that there is really nothing that is simply an object at hand, just something that’s inert or meaningless. That God is present everywhere in the natural realm means that it is possible to see God through nature. Yeah, it’s one thing to affirm that God is omniscient and omnipresent in a vague sort of sense, to say, “Yeah, we all sort of believe that about God.” That’s sort of like Santa Claus: He sees you when you’re sleeping; he knows when you’re awake.
But it’s another thing to articulate a clear understanding about how God is present in the world. For that, in the monograph I looked to St. Maximus the Confessor in his Theology of the Logoi of Creation to explain how God can be immanently real in the world without being the world, and so how by looking at the world and seeing through the world. It’s rather like the difference between looking at an icon and looking through an icon towards the person represented. We can see God’s intention in having created any given thing, and when we can perceive God’s intention for it, then it’s possible for us, then, to relate to that object in a way that’s appropriate and that’s fitting with God’s intention as well.
Mr. Allen: Is this idea, briefly—this idea of immanence and transcendence at the same time… Some of our Evangelical listeners might think this is an exclusively Eastern Orthodox theological concept; is it?
Fr. Michael: No, no. No, it’s not. It’s a classical Christian understanding. I think in the monograph I cited Thomas Aquinas to that effect as well. Forgive me: I don’t keep up much with modern theology, so I really don’t know what contemporary Catholic or Protestant thought has to say about the immanence of God. I’m sure they affirm it, but in what terms I don’t really know.
Mr. Allen: But I wanted to just point that out, that it’s not just an innovation, and Eastern Christian innovation.
Fr. Michael: Heavens, no.
Mr. Allen: You know, some environmentalists—again, carrying on our conversation about the environment—have criticized the classic Christian doctrine of the centrality of man in the created order for the exploitation of the earth. That is, they argue that the ecological crisis is the direct consequence of human-centric or anthropocentric worldview, which they would claim provides humans with a philosophical carte blanche if you will to dominate and exploit the earth for our own interests. And I think we’d have to agree, Fr. Michael Butler, that Christianity is anthropocentric. So how, then, do Church Fathers view man’s role in the cosmic worldview? Is it a dominator, an exploiter? How does that work?
Fr. Michael: Well, there are several of the Fathers who comment, for example, on the beginning of Genesis about what’s often called the “dominion mandate” in Genesis 1, where man was given a dominion over all the birds of the air and the fish of the sea and all the land creatures. St. Basil the Great talks about that in his Hexaemeron; St. Gregory of Nyssa does the same. What we find there is very often a balance of the dominion mandate given with what’s also given in the next chapter of Genesis, where we are commanded to tend to the earth and to keep it. So we find a balance of what those roles are supposed to be.
The place of man in the created order, among the Fathers, is not in the modern sense. Nowadays we tend to think of man or humanity as somehow set over against the rest of the created order, so we have mankind and we have nature, and somehow never the twain seem to meet. For the Fathers, mankind is, of course, a part of nature, always, and, as it says in the Genesis account, man is the pinnacle of creation. In fact, the Fathers, in developing this notion—and here, only because I wrote my dissertation on St. Maximus the Confessor and he’s sort of my go-to guy for everything—St. Maximus will describe mankind as a microcosm, that is, human beings are the only creatures that have a rational, spiritual soul, and so are like the angels and the bodiless powers, as well as having a physical reality, which makes us like the animals and the rest of what we call “nature.”
So because of that, we are the only creatures which embody the full aspects of creation, both the angelic creation and the material world. And, of course, because we have free will, we’re able to transcend the limitations of that, but because we are a microcosm, we sum up in ourselves all of the created order.
In fact, the contemporary Romanian theologian, Fr. Dumitru Stăniloae, who passed away in 1993, even went so far as to point out that we are not a part of nature; rather, it’s the other way around: nature is a part of us, because we are incomplete without nature, and nature is incomplete without us, because we’re the pinnacles of creation. Since we stand at the top, not only do we have a role as a microcosm embodying the whole creation, but we fulfill a function as a microcosm, and that function is to be a mediator. It is our place to stand at the head of all of creation and to offer that up to God. Like we say in the Divine Liturgy, “On behalf of all and for all.” So thus offering up to God, receiving his blessing and receiving back the world better than it was before, renewed and created.
Mr. Allen: I’m speaking with Fr. Michael Butler, who’s the author of Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism, and our number is 1-855-AF-RADIO. So if you have any questions about theology as it relates to ecology or just plain and simple ecological concerns or comments or questions, give us a call. Phone lines are open. I’ve got one holding. I just want to ask one more question, then we’ll take John from Maryland in a minute or two.
Father, following up on that question, as you know, there has developed an anti-anthropocentric or anti-human-centric counter-position by some in the ecological but also in the bioethics fields, where they take the position that all life, whether it be mineral life, whether it be animal life, whether it be whatever, has equivalent value, and that the notion of human exceptionalism is in fact misguided and destructive for these very reasons we’ve been discussing. So my question would be: Must an anthropocentric view, that is, a human-centric view as we understand it, of creation, does it necessarily lead to a human-domination view of creation? I think you’ve already answered it, but maybe let me just come at you directly on that.
Fr. Michael: No, and here is where I go back to maybe my original remarks. Just because we have been given dominion over the earth doesn’t necessarily mean that we have license to abuse it. I don’t know why there’s always this sort of either-or kind of thinking here. Yeah, there is an ordering to creation, and we do stand at the top of it, but, again, if we can relate to the world dispassionately, we can relate to the world in a way that’s good for it and good for us as well. The only thing that makes things wrong is our misuse of it: the misuse of human freedom and our human will. The Fathers say this. So long as our actions are informed by grace, so long as they’re informed by reason, then we ought to be able to treat with the world in a way that, like I say, does it good and does us good as well.
Mr. Allen: Yes, so this is really part of our spiritual ascesis, in a sense. We’ll start talking about that a little bit later, but I’m seeing this as kind of being integral to how we view our spiritual relationship with God and everything around us, as you pointed out.
Fr. Michael: Exactly.
Mr. Allen: It’s a very organic view, no pun intended. Or maybe pun intended.
Fr. Michael: You’re absolutely right, and maybe that’s why I hesitate just a little bit to say that we have an anthropocentric view of creation. Dr. Morriss and I struggled a bit in the monograph to find some kind of word or way of describing the fact that we have to take a sort of theocentric view, but it also places man at the pinnacle of creation, but that doesn’t… We sort of have to hold creation, so what if we have a theo-anthropo-cosmo-centric… You end up with this hideous monstrosity of a word. We just could find one simple way to describe it except to say that, like everything else in Orthodoxy, we have to consider things as a whole and see the fully integrated parts of all of it.
Mr. Allen: It’s organic. Yeah, I like it.
So I’ve got John from Maryland holding. John, good evening. Welcome to Ancient Faith Today.
John: Hello. How are you?
Mr. Allen: I’m fine. Please direct your question to Fr. Michael Butler.
John: Fr. Michael, I became an Orthodox Christian; I’m a convert.
Fr. Michael: So am I.
John: There we go. And it really got me thinking about our treatment of the environment, especially since I’d become a vegan for about 30% of the year, right? And as I understand, not just eating meat but just the way that Americans, which I am, use the environment, our carbon footprint is larger than in most places of the world, and then we compound it by eating meat, which I do do. My question is: Is that something that we need to repent of?
Fr. Michael: Of eating meat? Well, I hope not.
John: Yeah, and of taking a larger portion of the environment to ourselves than the rest… I mean, not just that, but just the carbon footprint, taking, using fossil fuels much more than the rest of the world uses. Is that something that we need to—I and we need to repent of?
Fr. Michael: I see. Thank you, John. A couple of things: I hope I understood you correctly. No, I don’t think we need to repent of eating meat. God gave us animals to eat. You see that after the flood. You can go back and read about Noah, and you’ll see that after that time we were allowed to eat meat, and the Church has never forbidden that to us. In fact, I’m not sure about this, but I believe somewhere among the canons we get in trouble if we deny it to everybody. It’s sort of among the canons: don’t say that you can’t get married; if you say that you can’t get married, that’s wrong. There may be something in there about eating meat as well.
With regards to the amount of resources that Americans use, yes, we do use a larger portion of the world’s resources vis-a-vis some other countries and some other cultures. We also produce a great deal more than a lot of other cultures as well. So there’s a little bit deeper issue here than simply saying, “Oh, we’re consuming too much.” If we cut back on what we consume, then we’d probably also have to cut back on what we produce. If I understand… If I recollect correctly—forgive me—a conversation I had with Dr. Morriss before he went off to Asia, he had pointed out that the carbon footprint in America, or the amount of CO2 that was released into the environment over the last few years has decreased a little bit in America.
Mr. Allen: Actually, Father, 11% over five years.
Fr. Michael: 11%, okay. Thank you, thank you. I’m glad someone has numbers at the fingertips. I’m not the best with that.
Mr. Allen: You’re welcome.
Fr. Michael: The reason that it has is not because of any government policy. The reason is because of the economic downturn. So if you want to reduce the carbon footprint and you’re willing to throw people out of work and close factories and cause economic hardship for people, then I think you need to own that. But that’s the downside of it. So long as the benefits that we receive from the economic activity that we have exceed the costs—and certainly released carbon is one of the costs—we have a net good. So I just, I think we need to be careful about these sorts of things. There’s a little more to them than we often think of at first blush. When we begin to massage the realities, to massage the concepts a little more, we find out that things are a little more complicated than at first, and easy answers are not always forthcoming. If that’s anything I’ve learned from my exposure with Dr. Morriss, it’s certainly that, that when we begin to push through to look at these things in greater depth, they become much more complicated. It’s why I also had a co-author on this monograph who specialized in those sorts of things. I got to do the theology, which I find easy, and Dr. Morriss got to do the economics, which he finds easy. So if I’m not entirely clear on more economic things, I apologize.
Mr. Allen: And Dr. Andrew Morriss, by the way, as Fr. Michael Butler mentioned his name, is the co-author on the book that we are discussing, Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism. John from Maryland, thanks for your call; appreciate it.
Fr. Michael: Did I answer your question adequately, sir?
John: Yeah, it’s still… It’s the classic economic benefit versus environment issue that you’re getting into, and I think that we as Americans too often fall into a lot of economic benefit. I’m not… I think we fall back on that a little bit too easily.
Fr. Michael: I would say further, though, sir, that when we think of economic benefit—economics is not just about money and about material things. Clean water and clean air are also goods, and these are things which factor into people’s economic calculations. I mean, this is why you can buy recycled products, why we can buy organic foods, why people advertize their businesses as eco-friendly: this is a value to a lot of people. I understand it; I value it myself. We are willing to pay for that as well. I don’t think it’s so much a matter of economics versus environment; I think it’s all simply a matter of weighing out the costs and the benefits of it.
Mr. Allen: But in fairness, though, Fr. Michael, there are a variety of views. In fact, I’ve got a caller whom I’m going to pick up in just a minute who’s going to ask us something about this issue, so we’ll continue on this, because I think it is a concern. People are concerned about the balance between a radically productive-oriented, industrialized world versus the impacts on the environment. So thanks very much, John, for raising the issue. We’ll continue to use it as a touchstone as we continue discussing this issue this evening. Thanks.
I do have a call from Catherine from Virginia. Catherine, welcome to Ancient Faith Today. Thanks for your call!
Catherine: Hi! Thank you.
Mr. Allen: You’re welcome.
Catherine: For my question… I actually have two, and they’re both completely different. The first one would be: How does asceticism relate to environmental stewardship from an Orthodox perspective?
Mr. Allen: Great question. And just before Fr. Michael answers—and he knows this because we’ve had some conversation about this—the Ecumenical Patriarch, in his book, speaks about asceticism and connects Orthodox asceticism with the ecological question. So, Father, take it from there.
Fr. Michael: Thank you, Catherine, for your question. Let me give it in two parts, my answer. In the first part, in living an ascetical life as we’re called to as Orthodox Christians. We will reduce our consumption, and it may be that, in following the Gospel, we find that we don’t want so many things, that we’re content with doing with less, and that’s perfectly fine. Those are our choices and we can live with them. Part of the benefit in our asceticism is that it’s a voluntary thing, and we choose to do these things or we choose to give up certain things or we choose to live in a certain way because it brings the benefit of following Christ and following his Gospel, and that’s beautiful. More people need to do that.
If we’re going to be ascetical or, say, give up eating meat or practice some sort of other asceticism simply for the sake of being environmentally conscious, I have a little bit of a problem with that from an Orthodox perspective. The problem I have with it is this, that asceticism is a spiritual discipline. We fast, we pray, we confess our sins, we receive Communion, we do all of those things in order to draw ourselves closer to God, to cleanse our souls and to save our souls. When we use those means and say asceticism and turn them towards another goal, say, “Oh, I shall be ascetical in order to save the planet or to be environmentally conscious,” we have taken a spiritual discipline and we have turned it toward another end. As an Orthodox priest, I need to take some issue with that. So long as, in our spiritual struggle, so long as we’re pursuing Christ, if that involves asceticism that is environmentally friendly or helpful, I’m all good for that. If you want to do other things for environmental reasons, that’s fine, too, but don’t confuse it with Orthodox asceticism. Does that make sense?
Catherine: That makes perfect sense. Thank you.
Fr. Michael: Okay, all right, good.
Mr. Allen: What’s your second question, Catherine?
Catherine: Okay, the second question was just a clarification that earlier, talking about the anthropocentric view about how we’re not a part of nature but nature is part of us, for clarification on that, as well as… You mentioned how in the Liturgy we offer nature to God on behalf of all. So if you could clarify for what that means as an offering perspective, and kind of how that relates to the environment, offering the best to God.
Fr. Michael: Okay, I think there are a couple of questions in there. Are we good with a couple of questions?
Mr. Allen: Absolutely. Please.
Fr. Michael: Okay. Let’s see. First off… Oh, gosh, my mind has gone blank. Oh, yes, that we are not part of creation, but creation is a part of us. Yeah, that’s always a line that seems to get people and get people to thinking. It goes back, again, to the notion that we are the microcosms of creation, that we stand at the pinnacle of creation. So as the microcosms, we include in ourselves all the other aspects of creation that, if you will, stand below us. Our bones are made of minerals; we have mineral aspects to our being. We have vegetative aspects to our being. We have animal aspects to us. All of those things that are found in the natural world are also found in human beings, but we also have a rational nature that’s rather like the angels.
So we’re the only creatures that God made that are like little worlds that have all of the aspects of creation embodied in ourselves. So for that reason, we sum up in ourselves all of the rest of the created order. What we do, when we as the microcosms of creation, when we save ourselves, it has a rippling effect, if you will, out to the rest of the world. This is why, I think, St. Paul says in his epistle… You remember where he says, “All creation groans in travail, awaiting the redemption of the Son of man” (cf. Romans 8:22). So when human persons are saved, the rest of the created order will be saved along with us. That goes back to the centrality of human beings in the created order and also in God’s concern for our salvation as well. When Christ saves all of us, the rest of the world will be saved along with us. So perhaps that addresses that question a little bit more.
With regards to the Liturgy, Dr. Morriss and I went a little bit out on a limb, I think, at one point where we looked and we saw that in the Liturgy when—I don’t know if you have a deacon at your church; I have a deacon at my church—but when the deacon elevates the Gifts at the Liturgy, when he lifts up the chalice and the diskos, the priest says, “Your own of your own we offer unto you, in behalf of all and for all.” We’d like to suggest that what is offered up is not simply the bread and wine of the Eucharist and not simply ourselves as human persons standing there in the Church—because the Liturgy also asks us to do what before that point? to lift up our hearts, and we say, “Let us lift them up unto the Lord.” So we lift up our hearts together with the Gifts that are on the altar, and what is in our hearts but everything that we hold dear? And it’s not just us: it’s our family, it’s our friends, it’s our departed, it’s our loved ones, it’s everything that our lives touch.
So Dr. Morriss and I suggest in the book—and I think the Liturgy will bear this interpretation—that when we lift up our hearts and join it with the offering on the altar, that in point of fact this is how everybody in the Church lifts up the whole world, and we offer up everything to Christ, or everything to the Father in Christ, and offer it up to him: everything offered in behalf of all and for all. Having offered it up to God, he then returns it to us—blesses it and returns it to us better than we had it before. So even by the simple fact of attending Liturgy and doing so with the consciousness that we are lifting up our hearts, that we are lifting up everything to God, I think can have a positive effect on the rest of the world. Does that make sense?
Catherine: That makes sense. It’s a very different perspective than I’ve seen in the Liturgy before.
Mr. Allen: Good.
Fr. Michael: Ah, well, I hope it’s not contradictory to whatever you’ve seen before. I hope we’ve…
Fr. Michael: Okay.
Mr. Allen: Great, thanks for your call, Catherine. Appreciate it so much.
Catherine: Thank you.
Mr. Allen: You’re welcome; thanks for calling. And our number, by the way, is 1-855-AF-RADIO, 1-855-237-2346. My guest this evening is Fr. and Dr. Michael Butler, the author, the co-author with Dr. Andrew Morriss of Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism. We’re going to take a short break, and when we come back I will follow up with Fr. Michael about the Incarnation of God and Christ and how it affects not only human nature but the created and natural realm as well. So stick with us; we’ve got a fascinating conversation unfolding. Thank you for joining us.
Mr. Allen: Well, welcome back to Ancient Faith Today. We’re having a fascinating conversation with both my guest and with you, our live listeners, about the environment, environmentalism, and the authentic Orthodox Tradition. My guest this evening is Fr. Michael Butler, who is the co-author of Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism, published by Acton, A-c-t-o-n, Institute. It’s a really good read. Our lines are wide open, so give us a call if you have any questions or comments about our subject this evening and/or comments, and we’ll bounce those off of our guest this evening.
Fr. Michael, just to follow up on what we discussed prior to break time, in your book you equate the Incarnation of God in Christ with the healing not only of human nature but of the created and the natural realm, too. That is, that salvation constitutes a cosmic, not merely a human, view. We see that in Romans 8:19-22, as you pointed out. This is a very important but subtle point, and one I would say many Western non- or anti-sacramental Christians don’t hear a lot about. So perhaps you could kind of amplify that concept a bit for our listening audience.
Fr. Michael: That the whole of the created order is saved along with us?
Mr. Allen: Yes, that the whole of the created order… And that it’s really a therapeutic process, not simply an atonement of our evil and fallen and sinful nature.
Fr. Michael: Yeah. What we do… If I can I’ll give somewhat of a liturgical answer to this, and that is that everything that we bring to Christ… Let me back up. The way that the Church functions is to use the material order and to raise it up and to sanctify it and to recreate it. So, for example, in today’s Gospel even: It was the Sunday of the Blind Man; we read about the man who was blind. Christ spits on the ground and makes mud and either anoints the man’s eyes or, in some ancient understandings, formed little eyeballs out of mud and plopped them in, and sent him off to the pool of Siloam to wash. What Christ did was he re-created the man’s eyes; he re-created the man and re-created his soul, because, of course, the washing is a symbol of baptism as well.
But look at what we do in the Church: we bring bread and wine in, which by itself is simply food, but we offer it up to God and we receive it back as the Body and Blood of Christ. We take the ordinary water, we put it in a font, and through the prayers and the blessings of the priest it becomes not simply cleansed and exorcised of anything fallen, but it becomes life-bearing; it becomes a bearer of the Spirit. It’s more than simple water. It’s pronounced good, the way that water was that God first created it before the fall. We take olive oi—we take wooden boards and paints and pigments: we create icons—we create unction. Many things in the created world are brought into the Church; they’re all referred to God, they’re offered up to him, and they come back to us in ways that are stronger and more spiritual and life-bearing in ways that they were not before.
Mr. Allen: Talk a little bit, if you will, because I think we have discussed this idea that God’s purpose for the realm that we are in is not simply to save us but to save the entire created order, and that’s why many theologians speak of Orthodox Christianity as being cosmic, not just anthropocentric in its emphasis.
Talk a bit maybe about the relationships many saints have developed—like my patron saint, St. Seraphim, and there are others as well—with animals. How does that fit into all of that? Is that an idealistic, ideal view? How does that tie in with our conversation about the sanctification of the material realm and the healing of the order and so on?
Fr. Michael: Yes, the animals are always popular. I like them, too. Yes, St. Seraphim and his bears. What happens is, as we grow in holiness, as we grow closer to Christ, as the passions are diminished in us, and as our egos become diminished, and we grow closer to God, we are filled more with his grace. What happens is that as our relationship with God is healed and our relationship with our neighbor is healed, meaning we don’t relate to our neighbor through anger or through envy or we don’t use people for whatever we can get from them and we allow… we simply love people for who they are, so likewise our relationship with the rest of the world is also healed. As we grow closer to God, we begin to see the world as God sees the world, and to relate to it in a more godly way.
Creation seems to respond to that, and so what we see in the lives of many saints is a healed relationship with the rest of the world. No, I don’t think it’s an idealization, and I don’t think the older stories of I forget which one of the Desert Fathers used to ride across the Nile on the back of a crocodile, oh, and St. Mamas riding to his execution on the back of a lion. These aren’t just fanciful stories. What they point to is… Or Francis of Assisi is commonly known, preaching to the birds or whatnot. St. Jerome had his lion. I think St. Sergius of Radonezh also had a bear.
There are marvelous, marvelous stories about contemporary monks on Mount Athos and in other places who live with wild animals all the time. I remember one particular story: some Athonite monk had a bunch of snakes in his cell, and some novice came in and saw the snakes. As the book put it, “he gave way to disordered flight,” which was a polite and pious way of saying, “He ran away screaming,” because he just couldn’t deal with that, but the old abba didn’t care at all, and whenever the snakes got in the way he picked them up and put them outside. These are poisonous things, but they didn’t harm him at all. Why is this so? It’s because the animals no longer perceive the human person as an enemy. They no longer perceive us as passionate creatures who very often are bent on the destruction of animals. So the relationship between us and the created order is manifested in the way that nature responds to us. So the animals respond to us in a way that reflects a healed relationship.
Look even at Christ. There on Palm Sunday, what does it say? He rode into Jerusalem on what? A donkey on which no one had yet ever sat, meaning it’s unbroken; it’s a wild animal, and yet it was docile in the presence of Christ. And that’s paradigmatic for us. Yes, that simply points… We see in the lives of the saints and the relationship with nature, either with, like Joshua praying and the sun stopping in the sky or any of the other things that the saints do, we see that it’s possible for human beings to live in a healed relationship and a sacred relationship with the rest of the world.
Mr. Allen: I like that.
Fr. Michael: This is a beautiful thing. I think, to speak in a fully Orthodox way, then to pursue our own sanctification, to pursue our holiness, our divinization in Christ, is the best thing that we can do in order to heal our relationship with the rest of the world.
Mr. Allen: And so it seems to me—and correct me if you disagree—that this cosmic dimension principle of Orthodox Christianity by which the whole world will be saved and transformed, it should obviously affect our attitudes and our behaviors when it comes to the use of our God-given natural resources. So I guess my question is: Does this… Because often we’re seeing modern ecology turn nature, Fr. Michael Butler, into almost an idol… Or we see people like the Jains, J-a-i-n-s, in India, who sweep insects from their pathways for fear of stepping on them. How do we, where do we draw that line and that balance between, again, recognizing the sacred nature of all things because of the immanence of God, and at the same time not turning everything into Mother Nature, Gaia, an idol that we worship as pantheists tend to? Where is that line?
Fr. Michael: I think, well, for Christians the line is fairly clear. We understand that there is a clear distinction between the uncreated God and the created world and everything that is created, be they angels, humans, dust motes or cosmic clouds. All things that are created are contingent created beings, fundamentally unlike our uncreated God. Failure to recognize that the world is a creature of God, a failure to recognize the transcendence of God over the created world is what allows people to deify nature itself. If you don’t acknowledge that God is up there, then it’s very easy to simply deify nature and to begin worshiping Gaia.
I’ve found this, if I can tell a little personal anecdote.
Mr. Allen: Please.
Fr. Michael: When one of my boys was I think in fourth grade, they had some big section on environment or ecology or something at the elementary school, and all of the children in the classrooms, they made a book, and each child painted or drew a picture, a little statement, and they were all reproduced, and all of the children’s pictures were put together in one book, and each child brought it home. I tell you what: I never saw anything closer to nature worship in all my life as what those fourth-graders came up with. Now, in the public schools, of course, we cannot worship God or mention him publicly, but I think even in children we recognize there is a hunger and there is an innate desire for God, and if you do not fill that desire with God, you’re going to fill it with something else.
Mr. Allen: Right.
Fr. Michael: And that’s what I found in these children. It was really very upsetting to have read that, but this is kind of what St. Augustine says to us at the beginning of his Confessions. He says, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Mr. Allen: Yeah, and it’s easy to make many, many things into idols, as we all know, and we all struggle with.
Let’s move on to some of the trickier areas that we’re going to discuss tonight…
Fr. Michael: Bless you.
Mr. Allen: [Laughter] ...because we’ve been talking about some of the more elevated theological principles that may guide our understanding of ecology, but, you know, environmentalism and environmental policy, as I mentioned in my intro, even within the Orthodox Church, have become highly politicized. Think of climate change and whether human activity and industrialization is its cause. Think of Keystone Pipeline and all of the above. And it seems to have become in some quarters—again, even in the Orthodox Church—almost an anti-industrialization, anti-business movement. So, two questions: One, do you find that some Orthodox environmental advocates kind of conflate or attempt to conflate Orthodox Tradition with kind of left-leaning liberal policy recommendations?
Fr. Michael: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. That is regrettably almost a default position. Whether or not that’s to be expected, I don’t know. Very often we find persons who are interested in the environment and are vocal about it tend to be more on the political left, so in that respect it’s not surprising. Where I find it more difficult is particularly from those authors or those public figures from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, for whom it seems that, well, basically their politics tend to be a little more socialist. And it was often said, even at the very beginnings of the “green movement” that “the green movement has red roots to it.” Of course, you sort of see that it’s scarcely a caricature at all. That sort of all environmental issues would be solved if we simply redistributed Western wealth to the Third World, and somehow that would take care of everything.
See, the difficulty is the same difficulty which Dr. Morriss and I encountered in writing the monograph. It’s very difficult to take sort of the broad strokes of a good high Orthodox theology and to apply it into a concrete contemporary issue without a lot of intermediate steps. Here is where Dr. Morriss and I found that a collaborative effort worked. When we spoke theology and economics, when we look at theology and public policy, when we bring in some considerations of law, as well as a very healthy respect for science and an understanding of where climate science really is, then we began to make some progress, but it’s very difficult to say, “Man is a microcosm, therefore we must, you know, enact this policy or act that way.”
Mr. Allen: Act this or that way.
Fr. Michael: Yeah, that’s a really, really big leap. Where I found most Orthodox writers to be lacking is precisely that they are willing to make that kind of leap. Okay, maybe St. Isaac the Syrian would not use styrofoam cups at coffee hour after Liturgy, but how you get from St. Isaac the Syrian to no styrofoam cups, there’s a whole lot of steps in there in between, and I haven’t seen anybody yet who has mapped all of that out.
Mr. Allen: But let me just press you a bit on this—and I’m speaking again with Fr. Michael Butler; he is the co-author of Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism—let me just press you a bit here, Fr. Michael, because, speaking of political biases, you openly acknowledge in your book your own bias “in favor of market-based approaches to environmental problems.” I’m assuming by “market-based,” you mean voluntary as opposed to governmental-imposed policies.
But, you know, some people would argue that a market-based approach to environmental policy is inherently incompatible with environmental stewardship, because market-based approaches, as this argument would go, tend to be dominated by special interests, corporate interests, all the big bad bogey-men out there, whose goals are to foster rampant consumerism and economic benefit, regardless of the ecological impacts. So how do you address that?
Fr. Michael: Well, I will attempt to do it a little bit of justice. Would that Dr. Morriss were here to speak directly to that, as that’s more his realm! A couple or three things I might say. In the first place, a market-based approach simply means that we recognize that incentives matter, and if we can focus on making incentives for voluntary transactions, we can produce some desired outcomes. That is, instead of simply taking people’s property, maybe we can buy their cooperation.
Maybe you’ve heard of the group Ducks Unlimited. There were some hunters, they liked hunting ducks, ducks were becoming depopulated, they weren’t able to hunt as much—what can we do in order to protect the population of ducks so that ducks flourish and we’ve got plenty of ducks and hunters can be happy as well? What they did was, they looked and they saw that as ducks migrated from north to south that they stopped in certain marshy places and they’d hang out there a while, then they’d continue the next leg of their journey. Ducks Unlimited went to people who owned this land, to farmers, to other folk, and said, “Listen, you have this wet place on your land. You can’t farm this. This is no good. How about we pay you a little bit of money just to leave it alone so that when the ducks fly through they can stopover here?” The farmers said, “Hey, that’s a swell idea. You pay me not to develop my land? I’m cool with that.” So who benefits? The ducks benefit because their migratory route is protected. The hunters benefit because the ducks are flourishing and they have ducks to hunt. The farmers benefit because they’re getting a little money for their undeveloped land. Everybody wins. That’s an example of how we can do things that encourage people to do the right sort of thing that has a good, positive impact and allows people to do things in this moral way.
Moreover, though, if we’re going to talk about special interests, running the economy, I don’t know, I assume, then, that special interests are doing what? advertizing to us and dangling goods and services before our eyes that they think that we want. Well, if we don’t want them, we don’t buy them, on the one hand. And, secondly, if it’s special interests that are running the economy, how [are] coercive methods from the government going to be any better? And are there not special interests that lobby Congress in order to get preferred policies?
I think… I don’t know. Perhaps someone might know the statistics, but I think General Electric was very much involved with the ban on incandescent light bulbs. Why? Because General Electric has a large market in compact fluorescent bulbs, so it’s in their interest to promote their own products. So is that environmentally sound? Well, perhaps it is that we use light bulbs that are more energy efficient. Does it also grease the palm of corporate interests at General Electric? Well, yeah, it does, too. Is that good or is it bad? I think you could argue both sides of that one.
Mr. Allen: Yeah, I think you could argue both sides of that one. I came out of an industry, the interior finishes industry, which was, frankly, reformed. We reformed ourselves based on the use of more sustainable materials. It actually became a key selling point, because we were selling to professional interior architects who liked the idea of having sustainability built into product development, so that was a voluntary initiative; it was not a mandated initiative, but we were using polyvinyl chlorides, and we gave up the use of PVCs. New materials were actually developed.
Fr. Michael: You see, it drives innovation. You give people what they want. It improves the quality of the product. The business is able to be responsive to people and what they do. Everybody wins.
Mr. Allen: Yeah. No, absolutely. But [there’s] certainly an option out there for market-based change. By the way, those listening, if you are interested in hearing more about market-based approaches to environmental issues, there’s [an] institute called Heartland Institute, H-e-a-r-t-l-a-n-d, and you can find it at [heartland.org], and they’ve got some really interesting material there about that, and I think it might be worth a read. At any rate, we’re going to take a short break, and then when I come back I will continue discussing with my esteemed guest, Fr. Michael Butler, this issue of environmentalism. We have a caller from Montreal, Canada, and we’ll be right back. The number is 1-855-237-2346.
Mr. Allen: Well, thank you and welcome back to Ancient Faith Today, and I’m speaking with my esteemed guest, Fr. Michael Butler. He’s the co-author of Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism, and we’re discussing various aspects of Orthodox theology and praxis as well, that really create an organic view—pun intended—of the created order and our sanctification, our theosis, our salvation. We’ll continue to discuss some of the trickier subjects here in a minute, but let’s go ahead and take a call from Joanna from Montreal. Joanna, good evening.
Joanna: Good evening. Christ is risen!
Mr. Allen: Truly he is risen! Thanks for your call.
Joanna: Yes, I’m not sure if it’s on topic any more, because I think it was about five minutes ago that you had made a comment, Kevin, about the Jain-ian worship? You were mentioning about the spiders and how they were careful about not killing anything, and I found that very interesting because it’s been a year or two years that we tend to not pay too much attention to little bugs and things like that, but I became more sensitive to the feeling of not wanting to do damage where damage is not necessary. It just made me think about Christ and God and the creation that he has around us. So in a way I kind of do the same thing where I gently take the bug out and get it out of my house, and I don’t just smash it down. I just found your comment interesting, because I think there is a Christian Orthodox perspective that we do also care about creation, and I just wanted to make that comment.
Mr. Allen: Well, let me just say, and then let Fr. Michael—we’ll bounce that off our esteemed guest as well. I was not discrediting the Jainist view. I was simply making a distinction between our view of created nature having the immanence of God within it, as opposed to the Jainist view, where, if I’m not mistaken, they believe… It’s basically a pantheistic view, that God is nature. So their reason for not killing the ant or the spider would be coming from a different theological perspective, but I do understand where you’re coming from, and we do have this beautiful, sanctified view of immanence but not pantheism. I think your view is a very elevated view. Fr. Michael?
Fr. Michael: Yes, thank you for your comment. I’m reminded of a couple of things. First of all, the quotation from St. Isaac of Syria that I shared near the beginning of the program, that indeed, as our hearts soften and we do find increased compassion for others and even for things… Sometimes perhaps for the more hard-boiled among us it may seem a little silly or trite, but I think it embodies a great truth, and there is a great compassion and love for all things.
As you described particularly insects, I remember there was a description in the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov, I think it was, and when someone came to visit him when he was living out in his hermitages, he was covered in flies. They were all sucking blood out of his face, and the guest was mortified at this. Fr. Seraphim says to him, “Oh, don’t bother. They’re only taking a little bit, and I have compassion on them. They need to eat, too.” This is more than I could do, to be sure, but it does speak to a great compassion and a consideration for all of God’s creatures. I think it’s a beautiful thing. God bless you.
Joanna: Yeah, thank you. And I wasn’t disagreeing with you, Kevin, at all. The comment that you made made me realize about how I have… It’s true, Father. The compassion, there’s something that has softened up more in me, that I just… I see God in what I see in the creation, not in the way the Jainians do. I’m Orthodox Christian all the way. But we do have that perspective, and it’s a good, I guess, way of maybe connecting with them if anybody wants to evangelize?
Mr. Allen: Oh, I agree with you completely.
Fr. Michael: It might be. And to put the idea in perhaps a little broader perspective, I remember the… What was it? Last Wednesday? I celebrate Liturgies on Wednesdays. We had an account of the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus says at the end, “Gather up the fragments, that nothing may be lost,” and they gather up twelve baskets full. I’ve never seen anybody comment on it, but even our Lord himself says: Don’t be wasteful. Don’t be careless with stuff like that, that even the crumbs are worth gathering up. I think that’s a fairly powerful verse there that could be used perhaps, applied toward the environmental ethics.
Joanna: And it could even go towards us. We can say: Don’t be wasteful of our own energy when we confront something, like a spider. Make the effort and grab that shoe and just bang it down. It’s like: Don’t be wasteful of our energy, of what God has for us, in front of us.
Mr. Allen: Yes. Thank you for that insight, Joanna. Appreciate that very much.
Fr. Michael: [Inaudible] Thank you.
Mr. Allen: I’m speaking with Fr. Michael Butler. He is the co-author of Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism. We’re starting to descend a bit and so please give us your calls if you want to chat with or pose a question to our esteemed guest.
I do have a caller from Lake Forest, California. John, good evening and welcome to Ancient Faith Today. Thank you for your call.
John: Good evening, men. Thank you for taking my call.
Mr. Allen: My pleasure.
John: My question is: In the book of Revelation, where St. John sees a new heaven and a new earth, I’m a little confused as to what that exactly means. Does that mean that our present earth and heaven will be reformed, reshaped, or will it be just a complete destruction of what we currently have? Will an entirely new thing be created and whatever answer to that is, how will that… how does that inform us in how we steward our current resources?
Fr. Michael: Well, gee, I’m not sure that I can give a clear answer to that, whether or not… I have not done that much work on the Apocalypse myself, nor have I read that much among the Fathers who have commented on it. I think waiting for a new heaven and a new earth, whether it be the re-creation of the current world or whether it be something entirely new, is probably a little bit more of a long-term solution than most people would be comfortable with in addressing environmental issues. Most want to be able to do something in the here and now. So, trying very carefully to tiptoe around answering your question directly…
John: I guess the reason why I had this question is because I know that part of the argument that’s used against Western Christianity is that, oh, Western Christians, they believe that God’s going to just destroy the earth and it’s going to be remade, so what’s really the point of being so careful with all our resources if in the near future everything’s going to be remade anyways? I don’t even really know what the Orthodox Church’s position is on the return of Christ. Is that going to happen as the earth… As we restore the earth through our good use of resources and the offering up of the earth, as you mentioned before, to God, and in that come and be healed and through that process Christ will return, or is it just going to descend into chaos and Christ returns and it’s just completely reformed. For me, answering that question has a big impact on how I view the earth around me and also what I do as a Christian.
Fr. Michael: I see. Okay, thank you for the clarification. Yeah, in some Evangelical circles, particularly among those who hold to dispensationalist views, that are looking for an imminent return of Christ and also the Rapture and whatnot, yeah, there is… I have read among some of the people in that school of thought, who say, “Why bother caring for the environment? When Christ comes back, all Christians will be raptured. We will not have to worry about the environment any more,” or “When Christ comes back, he’ll establish the new heavens and the new earth, so we don’t really have to worry about anything. We can improve it now, or it can go to hell in a hand-cart; it doesn’t really matter. Once Christ comes, he’ll fix it.”
For the Orthodox, our understanding of the return of Christ is that we don’t know when he will come. We certainly don’t hold to dispensationalist views of the end times, but Christ has always told us in the Gospel, we never know the day or the hour, and we’re encouraged simply to watch and to be ready for the coming of the Lord. I suppose what I might say is that how do we treat the environment, how do we treat anything, I think is the way we would live the rest of our Christian life if we were waiting for the imminent return of our Lord. “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.” Okay, if we knew the Lord was returning, how would we use the world now? Would we be wasteful for it? I mean, I remember… I think there can be a great irresponsibility sometimes. I remember stories of… When was it? 18—... 1843, someone predicted the imminent return of Christ, and people quit planting their crops, quit caring for their animals. The effects were terrible. Even our Lord says… Where is it? Matthew 25: “Two are working in the field. One will be taken, one will be left.” So I think we’re required to live our lives as best we can and to pursue our flourishing as much as we possibly can so that we are shown to be good stewards when Christ returns. Is that fair?
John: Yeah, that’s definitely fair. And do you think that Christ’s return is somehow linked to our stewardship of the earth anyway?
Fr. Michael: As a cause and effect, no, I really don’t.
John: Yeah, I mean that’s a little nebulous of a question. I guess I’m trying to ask: Do we as Christians seek to restore the earth that we’re currently living in through whatever means, including environmental stewardship, and in some sense are we going to help this planet, this community of people that we live with… [Are] our efforts going to help restore the earth in a way?
Mr. Allen: You mean to re-create paradise in a sense, John?
John: Yes, that’s what I mean.
Mr. Allen: Because I don’t…
John: And somehow that is going to be linked to the return of Christ, or is it simply that no matter how hard we try to re-create paradise it’s still going to end up with evil overtaking it and eventually Christ will return?
Mr. Allen: And corruption.
John: Yeah, exactly. Is there a tradition…
Mr. Allen: I think Fr. Michael could answer that one.
John: Yeah, okay.
Fr. Michael: Gee, thanks. Let me see. How best to put this?
Mr. Allen: I mean, we’re not about creating utopias and re-creating physical paradise.
Fr. Michael: No, we are not. On the one hand, though, I think the parable of the talents applies here. We’ve been given talents and we’re expected to develop them so that whenever the Master returns, we can say, “Look, you gave me ten talents. See, I have made ten more.” So I think we are to develop our own talents and our gifts and also to develop the world and its resources in ways that are beneficial to human flourishing and also give glory to God.
I think, furthermore, at least from an Orthodox perspective, I think part of the re-creation of the world is in fact what we do at every liturgical service. So, while it’s not a full re-creation of the world, just like in the Eucharist or the Liturgy, we have a foretaste of the kingdom, we have an earnest given of the Spirit, the fullness of the kingdom comes to us through the ten-dollar word proleptically. We get a taste of future glory. I think it’s possible, even in this world, to have a foretaste of the re-created order, and I think it happens liturgically. I think it does happen in the Church, so I don’t think it’s simply something that we have to look forward to that’s coming “someday.” I think we can see what that will look like now in Liturgy.
When we take the material elements of the world and offer them up to God and receive them back, blessed and life-bearing, when we can practice with each other the relationships of the kingdom, when we stand in Liturgy together with one heart and with one voice and with one mind praising Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, when we exchange the kiss of peace, when we practice mutual forgiveness and we find the harmony of all things in Christ—I think we can get a taste of it and we can see what that fullness will be.
I hope that’s a lens and a hopeful thing for you.
John: It is. Thank you. I appreciate the answer.
Mr. Allen: Thanks, John.
Fr. Michael: Sorry. It’s a good question. I really had to think about that. I appreciate it.
Mr. Allen: Okay. Well, thank you. Thank you, guys.
Mr. Allen: Thank you, John. I just realized that was my godson, so thank you for that call.
Fr. Michael, the most visible Orthodox environmental advocate, as we have discussed, is the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, media-labelled the “Green Patriarch,” although his views on ecology do not rise to the level of dogma. He in his book, for example, Encountering the Mystery, writes this, and I’ll have you maybe comment a little bit on it.
The West has persistently encouraged the exploitation and abuse of nature through greedy market consumerism which has destroyed the planet’s ecosystems and depleted its resources.
We hear a lot of Western-bashing within the Orthodox Church, and I’m not surprised to have read that. You claim in your book, on the other hand, though, and this is a direct counter-point to that sort of quote… Let me quote you back to yourself, that quote:
Highly developed countries are among the cleanest, least polluting, and most energy efficient societies in the world.
That comes from your page six. But let me just challenge you a bit, because when I did some research on at least one parameter, if that’s the right word, or one [criterion] would be better, of the pollution issue, that is, CO2 emissions, it seems to me that the Ecumenical Patriarch has a point, that the most highly industrialized and up-and-coming economies are, in fact, at least in terms of their CO2 emissions, the most polluting countries. China is number one, U.S. is number two, European Union is number three, India’s number four, Russia’s number five, Japan’s number six, Germany number seven, Iran number eight, South Korea number nine, Canada number ten. When you look at the U.S., we’re talking about almost 27% of the world’s carbon, CO2 emissions. China, by the way—and only surpassed by China—which currently is the most polluting in terms of CO2 emissions is 100% of the world’s emissions. I guess I just want to challenge you on that and see how you can make the statement that highly developed countries are among the cleanest and least-polluting when we have this sort of data.
Fr. Michael: All right. A couple of things. First off, as you point out, one of the complaints that Dr. Morriss and I have had with many environmentalists and, as I mentioned earlier, with many Orthodox leaders in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, is the refusal to see anything good coming out of the West.
Mr. Allen: The West, right.
Fr. Michael: It seems to be always “greedy market consumerism.”
Mr. Allen: Right, and bad theology.
Fr. Michael: Yes, and I’m just curious to know what kind of economy His All-Holiness the Patriarch would substitute for the one he calls “greedy market consumerism.”
Mr. Allen: Good point.
Fr. Michael: Would he care to propose the Greek or the Turkish economies? I don’t, I honestly don’t know: has he ever proposed an alternative or a reasonable correction to market economies? What he calls “greedy market consumerism” has lifted billions of people—that’s “billions” with a B—billions of people out of abject poverty and want in the last two decades alone. I’m talking about China and India. People have been lifted out of abject poverty, and you cannot tell me that that is a bad thing. With regards to developing countries, there is something which I refer our listeners to perhaps if there are some who are sitting at their computers, they can do this, they can very carefully open a second browser window and not disconnect from the program here and open a search engine and put in “Kuznets curve.” That’s “K-u-z-n-e-t-s curve,” and what it is is a curve that shows that, yes, as economies develop, they are dirty, and pollution increases, but only up to a point, and after a certain level of economic development, pollution begins to decline. I think, without going back and looking at it myself, it’s somewhere around the average of $5,000 per capita per year is the point at which economies begin to clean up.
Now, with regards to carbon emissions, well, let’s assume that carbon dioxide emissions are a problem. They’re a problem that’s only recently been identified, and it’s a problem related to energy use. So the more energy we use, the more carbon dioxide is emitted. So a recently identified problem, about which there is actual substantial controversy, and for which there is no near-term solution, is the measure of success in addressing environmental problems? I’m not sure that that really holds water. Now, if CO2 emissions really are a serious problem, then we have a complete breakdown on the political process, and His All-Holiness, the Green Patriarch, wants to rely upon political process and international treaties in order to correct or to reduce carbon emissions. What has the European Union or the United States done on carbon emissions? Absolutely nothing. It’s not a market problem; it’s a political problem, and running to politicians and governments and the U.N. and all of that is not going to solve it, because it hasn’t solved it yet.
And then we look at other kinds of environmental problems. Where do we find solutions? We find solutions in rich countries, like in the U.S. and Canada and Western Europe; and we find problems in poor countries. What’s the biggest air quality issue, for example, in the United States? It’s hard to think of one, because we’re talking about really small concentrations of polluting stuff in the air. What’s the biggest air pollution in most developing countries? You know what it is? It’s indoor air pollution from burning biomass, and by biomass I mean dung—animal shit. That’s what people, for example, in sub-Saharan Africa, are burning in their stoves to cook their food and heat their homes. They’re burning dung. And whom does that affect? Women who stay home, children, the elderly who don’t go out to work: that’s whom it harms.
You would think that building a few power plants, even if they were coal-powered, in places like Niger or Myanmar might be a good thing, that it would save lives, that it would improve people’s quality of living. What’s the biggest air quality problem in the world? It’s China. Why? They’re building a—what is it?—one new coal-powered power plant every day, I think, or every week. There’s a whole lot of them. And why does China have bad air? They have dirty coal plants. Why do they have dirty coal-powered plants? Because they can’t afford clean ones yet. They’re using coal-powered plants. This is off-the-shelf technology that we’ve used in the U.S. and in the European Union. Once China can afford it, they will clean up. Why? You think people like living in all that smog in Beijing? No, they don’t! They would like to have clean air; they would like to have clean water, but right now they would prefer to have a higher quality of living, they prefer to have protein in their diet, they prefer not to live subsistence lifestyles in the Chinese countryside. So they’re willing to pay the price of having foul air in order to improve the rest of their quality of life.
That’s the kind of thing that’s there, and, as I said, the problems… I’m not saying the problems are not there; clearly they are. What I’m saying is sort of facile responses to it, simply criticizing the West as a bunch of greedy consumerists when in point of fact it is the West that has produced most of the solutions to the environmental problems which, granted, we’ve also created, but at least we’re producing the solutions to them. And in addition, it’s precisely the West and our productivity and our innovation in places like the United States that produce a great many of the world’s goods.
His All-Holiness is now in Jerusalem. How did he get there? He took a European Airbus or an American-made Boeing jet. Does he use a smartphone? Well, that wasn’t invented in Turkey. I hope His All-Holiness and doesn’t need an MRI or a CAT scan or an action requiring third-generation cephalosporins or any of the other modern marvels. This is what innovation… This is the kind of thing that market economies produce. So there’s a great deal of good that help people and further human flourishing and human productivity and make people’s lives better, and, forgive me—I get passionate about this—but I’m tired of hearing all of those good things be ignored and bashed. I don’t see people beating down the doors to get into Greece or Turkey for economic advantage over there, but we have people swimming the rivers and crossing the borders, even illegally, to get into America. Why? Because it’s so much better here.
Mr. Allen: I have to say that the sometimes virulent anti-Westernism that is in our churches is quite annoying to me as well, as if nothing good has come from the West, and that’s clearly not the case, as you’ve just pointed out very passionately, and I appreciate that.
Fr. Michael: Forgive me if in anything I give offense in saying that.
Mr. Allen: No, no, no. That’s fine. So as we conclude, my final question, using your words, would be this:
How should we live in a way that is conscious of our place in creation, and how can this Orthodox perspective speak to environmental issues?
Kind of a wrap-up question for you, Fr. Michael Butler.
Fr. Michael: How do we live it? Well, I think, first off, we don’t live it as slaves. We don’t live it in fear of imminent environmental collapse or catastrophe. I think we can rise above that kind of emotionalism. Stewardship, good Christian stewardship, I think, has a great deal to offer, and I think there are a lot of resources available for people who want to look at that, but I think there is an even higher calling for us, which is to live not as slaves or as servants, but as sons of the Most High. And if we can exercise in our own life and imitate the same thing that Christ did, and Christ came to us as king and prophet and priest, and I think that if we can live as kings and prophets and priests in our own world, we can have a fundamental impact on the world.
What do I mean? We can live as kings on the earth, yes. We are called to have dominion over the earth, but as St. Gregory the Theologian said, yes, we are kings on the earth, but we are subject to the King above, and we remember always that we are subject to God and we live godly lives, and our lives oriented towards him. We can live prophetic lives, as faithful Christians pursuing our own sanctification and our own holiness, if we can overcome the disordered passions in our own heart so we can see more clearly God’s intentions for our life and for the rest of creation, we can then live according to God’s will and his intention.
And finally, to lead priestly lives, to bring everything in our little corner of the world, wherever we are, whatever influence we have—whether it’s large or small, it doesn’t matter—but to put everything in our lives under the headship of Christ so we can, as we say in the Liturgy, commend ourselves and each other and all our life to Christ, and we can offer up to God his own of his own, in behalf of all and for all. And then, having offered it up and received it all back as a blessing, we can use it for our own flourishing and for the flourishing of the rest of the world.
Mr. Allen: Well said. And you know, it ties back into that wonderful call from Joanna from Montreal who spoke about the growth of compassion that she has had, and also I think it ties in—and we’ll close with this and you can comment—on a very Orthodox practical approach, which is called nēpsis or watchfulness. If we are fully conscious, and we link our full consciousness, that is, our awareness of where we are, with the compassion that develops in us as we understand who we are and by whom we are created and the immanence of God, we will naturally and normally be compassionate about the use of our resources, won’t we, Father?
Fr. Michael: Indeed we will. Indeed we will, and nēpsis or attentiveness also grows, again, as the passions decrease in us, as we’re no longer bothered by rancor or by anger or we don’t look at things with jealousy or greed. We are able to sit in stillness and our concentration and our awareness then does grow. It’s true.
Mr. Allen: Well, Fr. Michael Butler, thanks so much for being my guest. It’s been a pleasure to have you on this evening. Thank you so much.
Fr. Michael: Thank you, sir. Thank you.
Mr. Allen: The book is Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Perspective on Environmentalism. Again, it’s published by Acton Institute. It’s a very impactful short book, and one I suggest everybody take a look at.
Please join me on June 8 for a program about a very significant but largely unknown series of contacts and correspondence in the sixteenth century, between early Lutheran reformers and followers of Martin Luther at Tübingen University in Germany with Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremias II of Constantinople. I bet many of you never knew that this exchange and this event or series of events occurred. Could there have been a German Orthodox Church rather than the formation of Lutheranism and its many offshoots, and how might that have influenced the future of Christianity after the Reformation? Well, this is what my guest, Dr. Eve Tibbs, and I will be speaking about.
Many thanks to our production team this evening: to our engineer, John Maddex; our producer, Bobby Maddex; our call screener, Troy Sabourin; our chatroom moderator, Fr. John Schroedel; and my production assistance, Jennifer Trenery.
Please tune in next week at the same time for the live call-in program, Orthodoxy Live with Fr. Evan Armatas. Christ is risen!
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