Pilgrims from Paradise:
God desires, as Saint Paul teaches us in Ephesians 1, to enter into loving unity with all His creation. I pointed out last time that human beings play an essential role in elevating all things to union with their creator, themselves, as well as the animals, the plants, the earth, the waters and all else that exists.
We have this blessing, this privilege, this responsibility, by right of the position God has given us in the created order. Humanity, after all, is the pinnacle of creation. We are, as Psalm 8 tells us, made a little lower than the angels and are divinely crowned with glory and honor. In truth, we are the image of God (Genesis 1:26).
But what does it mean to bear the image of God? Perhaps we can get a better idea by looking at some other scriptures that speak of the image of God.
1 Corinthians 4:3-4 reads:
But even if our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, whose minds the god of this age has blinded, who do not believe, lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them.
Colossians 1:15-16 tells us:
He (that is, Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the first born over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.
In Hebrews 1:1-4 we are told:
God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds, Who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.
Christ, we hear in these passages, is the image of God. That is, He is that member of the Godhead who reveals the incomprehensible God to us in a comprehensible way.
In light of this, what does it mean to say that we are created in the image of God? Well, I think we could say that it means we have been fashioned by God as creatures who can be like Christ. Because we bear His image, we may become one with Him. Our God-intended destiny, the church boldly declares, is to become Christ. Saint Paul’s experience must be ours. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20).”
We understand, of course, that we are, and will always be, creatures. As such, we can never become divine by nature. But through divine transformation, Christ may live out His life in us so completely that we become indistinguishable from Him.
And what is the essential nature of Christ’s life? It is self-denying love for His creation. With humble and obedient condescension He joins His divine life to our human life. Emptying Himself for us, He destroys the wall of separation that death and sin raise between creature and creator. In granting us the gift of His indwelling Spirit, Christ completes all that must be accomplished in order to bring us into oneness, into full participation, in the life of the divine.
But as I said last time, we have been given the freedom to choose whether or not we will receive this great gift and live this glorious life. And even if we do decide to embrace it, as creatures who have lived in a world of death and selfishness and separation, and who have grown accustomed to its tragic ways, there is much in us that must be transformed before we can truly share in the life of God.
In the language of the ancient Church’s theology, Christ needs to change us into people who not only bear His image, that is, who have the potential to be like Him, but also share His likeness, that is, who really do live His life.
Alright, but what does all this have to do with how we relate to the environment? Simply this: The world around us is either the stage on which we live a passionate, self-loving existence, or it is the pathway on which we journey toward godly transformation. We either employ the environment as a resource for satisfying our sinful desires, or as a resource for becoming Christ, for becoming one with God.
Let us consider this carefully. After He created Adam and Eve, God gave them a commandment:
Then God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill then earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28).
Now a lot of people take that verse to mean that God gave Adam and Eve, and all of us, their descendants, the right to do whatever we want with the natural environment around us. They take “having dominion” to mean that we can exploit nature and use it to fulfill whatever we desire.
But when we understand that God’s desire is to transform us into creatures who are one with Him, we realize that the dominion God gives us over the rest of the created world must be a dominion like God exercises. Christ’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection teach us that He rules the universe by sacrificing Himself for its redemption and restoration. He rules with the intent of transforming His creation into something beautiful, pure and holy—a world capable of sharing His life.
If we are to be like Christ, then our dominion over our environment must be just so—loving, nurturing and above all transforming.
We begin to treat the world as God intends when we seriously commit ourselves to being transformed by Christ. Only when we see the connection between the environment and our own spiritual development will we truly understand how we need to act toward the rest of creation.
As human beings, we are the connecting link between physical existence and spiritual reality. Our bodies are joined to the animals, the plants and the rocks, but in our Spirits, we transcend this realm of dust. In our hearts, as Saint Paul teaches, “we sit in heavenly places with Christ (Ephesians 2:6).”
In the words of Saint Gregory the Theologian, God set this hybrid worshiper on earth to contemplate the visible world and to be initiated into the invisible, to reign over earth’s creatures, and to obey orders from on high. He created a being at once earthly and heavenly, insecure and immortal, visible and invisible, halfway between greatness and nothingness, flesh and spirit at the same time, an animal en route to another native land, and most mysterious of all, made to resemble God by simple submission to the divine will (Oration 45 for Easter, #7).
Remember the apostle’s words in the first chapter of Ephesians, that God desires to make all creation one with Himself? Perhaps now we can begin to see just how that is accomplished. We human beings become one with God as we are transformed by Christ and assimilated into His life. But how does the rest of creation achieve oneness with God?
The rest of creation becomes one with God as we, the hybrid worshipers, as Saint Gregory says, in whom the spiritual and the physical are joined, incorporate nature into our transformation process. When we interact with the environment this way instead of using its resources as a means for fulfilling our sinful desires, we make it spiritual. We elevate it to a relationship with God that it cannot attain otherwise.
The Scriptures, the liturgical tradition of the Church, and the Holy Fathers all recognize this symbiotic relationship between humankind and its physical environment. As humanity descends into sin and corruption, so does the world around it. As human beings draw near to God, so does creation.
When Adam and Eve became separated from God, so did all of creation, and in some mysterious manner, according to Saint Paul, the physical creation feels that severance. As he says:
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope, because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now (Romans 8:20-22).
In the Church’s special prayer for deliverance from earthquakes—I love Orthodoxy, it has a prayer for everything—we are also reminded that as we humans go, so goes the environment. It states:
The earth is without words. Yet it groans and cries, “Why, all people, do you pollute me with so many evils? The master spares you, but chastises me entirely. Understand, and propitiate God in repentance.”
With humanity’s fall, the environment suffers degradation. But with the return of the children of God to their maker, creation experiences deliverance. So it is, through human beings, refashioned by the Spirit through the work of Christ, that the created world achieves its exaltation. Through sanctified human beings, the environment finds the voice to praise its creator. Through sanctified human beings, creation transcends its physical boundaries and finds its spiritual essence.
Saint Leontius of Cyprus put it beautifully:
Through heaven and earth and the sea, through wood and stone, through all creation visible and invisible, I offer veneration to the creator and master and maker of all things. For the creation does not venerate the maker directly and by itself, but it is through me that the heavens declare the glory of God. Through me, the moon worships God. Through me, the stars glorify Him. Through me, the waters and the showers of rain, the dews and all the creation, venerate God and give Him glory (Minutes of the 7th Ecumenical Council).
To understand that it is us who force creation to moan in its corruption, or give it life and voice in the heavenly Kingdom—this is the foundation for a truly Christian environmentalism.
In this light I think it is plain that the environmental crises we face today are the result of our exercising the wrong sort of dominion over creation, the kind of rulership that bends, and tears, and beats nature for the sake of our self-love, our self-comfort, and greed.
I remember how distressing it was, as a child, to drive among the chopped-off mountaintops of my home state of West Virginia, along creeks and rivers that run rusty and yellow with the strip mine drainage. It brought angry tears to my father’s eyes as he recalled childhood days fishing and swimming in those same waters.
But we do not have to be that unkind to creation to do it disservice. We demean it whenever we treat it as an inert mass of resources that exists only for making our life comfortable, rather than a living system that seeks to become one with its creator through our compassionate assistance.
From an Orthodox point of view, this is the fundamental environmental problem, and we will examine it more closely next time.