September 3, 2014 Length: 1:02:55
One of the most important theologians working in the Orthodox Church today, Dr. Elizabeth Theokritoff recently lectured at St. Vladimir's Seminary on theological images describing human personhood and our role in creation.
Megan Martha Carlisle: Hello. I’ll try and keep the welcomes as brief as possible so we can get to the main event. My name is Megan Martha Carlisle, and I am the former president—because we haven’t elected a new one yet—of the St. Herman’s Society for Orthodox Ecology, and I am very pleased that Dr. Elizabeth Theokritoff has agreed to come and speak with us. This is the second time we’ve done this, and we’re hoping to make it a tradition just like the blessing of the tree and the akathist we just saw. So, to give the formal introduction, I’d like to introduce Dr. Peter Bouteneff, who has also written an introduction to Dr. Theokritoff’s book. [Applause]
Dr. Peter Bouteneff: Thank you, Martha, for the introduction and for the work you’ve done last year.
Welcome to everybody: new students, returning students, old and new friends of the seminary. It’s good that you’re here tonight. It’s a joy to welcome back to the seminary an old friend of the seminary and an old friend of mine as well, someone I’ve been happy to know and collaborate with over several decades now. Some of you know her already, either from hearing her speak here or elsewhere or from reading her many writings on ecology and other subjects. It’s also possible you’ve encountered her translations of some of the most important Greek theologians working today: Christos Yannaras, John Zizioulas, and the Athonite Abbot Vasileios, among others. Others of you do not yet know Elizabeth Theokritoff, and I’m happy that you’ll have your introduction to her.
She is one of the most learned, creative, important, and unpretentious theologians working in the Orthodox Church today. It’s a nice combination and a rare one. Dr. Theokritoff studied at Somerville and Wolfson Colleges at Oxford and earned a doctorate in liturgical theology under Bishop, now Metropolitan, Kallistos (Ware). She has taught at the Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge as well as at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland. She’s lectured around the world, especially in Greece and in the UK and in the US. She is co-editor, with Mary Cunningham, of the Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, and she’s the author of Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology, which I had the privilege of working together with her on that volume.
As I understand it, this evening Dr. Theokritoff will be raising questions about some of the images that we use to describe human personhood and the role of human personhood in creation. We like to speak, sometimes, of the universal priesthood, a royal priesthood, the priesthood of all believers, and the common human vocation to be prophets, priests, and kings. It’s not just we who use these images. These images come from the first epistle of Peter, from Eusebius of Caesarea. But the question is whether they’re useful to us today or whether they may be confusing or misleading in some of the contexts that we deploy them.
Sometimes, perhaps, we speak of the universal priesthood in order to sidestep discussions of the male-only priesthood, but does that always work? Is it appropriate? These are the kind of questions that we can reflect on this evening through the able guidance of Dr. Elizabeth Theokritoff. Her talk is entitled “Cosmic Liturgy and the Problems of Human Priesthood.” Please join me in welcoming Dr. Elizabeth Theokritoff. [Applause]
Dr. Elizabeth Theokritoff: Well, thank you, Peter, for that very embarrassing introduction. In view of the number of clergy here, I think I should start with a small clarification about my title: when I talk about the problems of human priesthood, this does not mean you. [Laughter]
When I was starting to try and put this talk together, we were staying at the Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery, and as many of you probably know, they have a wonderful guest-house on an old millpond, and the dawn and evening chorus put me in mind of that Athonite story that you’re probably familiar with about the hermit who was distracted in his prayer because the frogs from the neighboring marsh were making such a racket, so he asked his disciple, told his disciple, “Please can you go and ask the frogs to wait until we’ve finished the midnight office,” so the disciple was obedient, went and conveyed the message to the frogs, and he came back and said, “Elder, the frogs say, ‘We’ve already finished the midnight office and we’re starting matins, so perhaps you could wait till we finish.’ ” [Laughter]
If we take stories like this at all seriously, and I’ll suggest some reasons why perhaps we should, it really begins to have a profound impact on the way we view the world. The frogs may not literally be singing matins, but nevertheless we really live in a much stranger and more mysterious world than we’d ever supposed from our daily interactions with it. It’s a world of much greater complexity and depth, with unsuspected levels of awareness, inner life, and in a certain sense even spiritual life.
On the other hand, with the rise of Christian environmentalism in the 1970s and ‘80s, there was for many years a strong preoccupation with the question of man’s place in creation, the nature of human responsibility in and for the world. And in large measure it has to be said Orthodox have been reacting to this question, often very usefully, and the contribution Orthodoxy has made here is very important, very widely recognized. But we’ve largely accepted the way the question has been framed. It’s all about how we see man. Perhaps the best-known Orthodox contribution which is associated particularly with the work of Metropolitan John of Pergamon has been the proposal of priests of creation as the primary image for man’s place in nature, and compared with the otherwise ubiquitous image of steward, priest is certainly several steps forward, because it does suggest we live in a world that’s a locus of liturgy. We’re not surrounded by resources to be managed.
But I wonder: Can our role in the world really be so neatly summarized in any one image? And, more fundamentally: Is this actually answering the right question? Can we really understand how to live in God’s creation without having a very profound understanding of what that creation is? As the notion of priest of creation becomes better known, it is often used in a rather glib way, it seems to me, and to the exclusion of other metaphors. In fact, rather than being treated as a metaphor, it almost sometimes seems to serve as a definition of man’s place in nature according to the Orthodox view. And it also does carry with it a real risk of a cosmic clericalism, according to which the “human priest”—humanity as priest—controls access to God and mediates the grace of God and is, in fact, the only subject of real spiritual interest.
“Priests of creation” has been widely welcomed as doing greater justice to the spiritual value of non-human creation than does the image of steward, but ironically Christian thinking more generally is now increasingly paying much closer attention to the detail of the world and the cosmos to which we belong, whereas it’s Orthodox pronouncements that are much more inclined to be stuck in a narrowly human focus.
So what I want to do tonight is not at all to dismiss the idea that humans may have a priestly role in creation, but rather to appeal for this metaphor to be seen in perspective, as one part of a bigger picture. A full understanding of creation and what we as humans are doing here certainly requires multiple metaphors, even for man’s role, but that’s not my primary concern here. The bigger picture that I have in mind is the one I began with: that of a worshiping cosmos, the cosmos depicted so beautifully by the akathist that we’ve just sung.
We need to take a step back and ask: What is it about creation as a whole that makes liturgical metaphors seem appropriate? And then in the light of this, I’ll talk about some of the ways that “priests of creation” language is used. But by starting with the question about creation, I hope to reintroduce some complexity into a picture that risks being oversimplified, and I do think complexity is inescapable if we’re to do justice to the extraordinary world in which we’ve been placed.
I’m aware that speaking in these terms immediately leads some listeners to sense an incipient power-struggle. It’s the elevation of the non-human creation versus the elevation of man. People think in terms of this sort of see-saw: either you elevate creation or you elevate man. And it’s perfectly true that the magnitude of the cosmos and the wonder and intricacy and resourcefulness of nature are often trumpted by secularists, by materialists, as a way to put man firmly in his place: we’re just another animal; we’re a cosmic accident among so many others. And clearly this requires a response—this is not the Christian view—but not, I think, the response it often gets, which is to exalt human personal qualities at the expense of and in contrast with all other living creatures and natural processes. To react in this way is actually to allow the secularists to frame the question, as a contest between impersonal forces of nature and man’s sense—they would say illusion—of his own particular worth.
But we don’t actually believe in impersonal forces of nature. We believe in the Creator of heaven and earth, and that means that all we creatures reflect the wisdom that comes from one and the same Source. If we ourselves are created in the divine image, how can we possibly fear being upstaged by the handiwork of our own Archetype? So there’s really no need to react defensively to revelations about the secret life of plants or the extraordinary powers of animals or indeed the mind-boggling complexity of biochemical processes and processes in physics. It just shows us that cosmic worship is closer than we think. Even the most familiar creatures and objects have layers of reality, order, goal-directedness, complexity, quite unrelated to our mundane uses of them, and each of these creatures and the interactions between all of them, evince that wisdom which is a silent word.
Pre-modern Christians saw the stars as a choir whose motion is a hymn of praise, and we can see the same sort of liturgical dance we produce, for instance, in the atoms of everything we touch. The term “cosmic liturgy” is a modern one. It’s used—to the best of my knowledge, actually coined—by Von Balthasar, to describe Maximus the Confessor’s vision of the world—and we’ll return to that vision. But the underlying idea that the basic activity of the cosmos is something that can fittingly be described as worship, that’s very ancient. “The heavens tell the glory of God.” “Every breath praises the Lord.” This goes back to the psalms and is much in evidence in the early Church.
Not surprisingly, the primary sources for this vision of the world are precisely liturgical texts, or texts connected with worship, such as commentaries on the psalms. And immediately this reminds us of the need for multiple metaphors, because it’s perfectly true that there are plenty of patristic writings that talk in a very different language. There are writings that extol the wonders of nature, but primarily in terms of its usefulness to man. Man is often described as its king, creation is God’s instrument, but there’s little to suggest that it might have its own relationship, in some sense, to God. Writings of this sort describe one aspect of creaturely activity and creaturely interactions. Liturgical texts speak of quite a different aspect, but I don’t think they’re contradictory. The aspects are superimposed; they both relate to different aspects, different levels of the same reality.
So what’s the picture that emerges from liturgical texts? We’re familiar with much of this. We’re familiar, for instance, with the liturgical texts in which all creation dances and sings and is invited to do so. It participates in the joy of salvation; it suffers with the crucifixion: “All things suffer with the Creator of all.” We may not be very certain quite what to make of these texts. Clearly, they are in some way figurative, in some sense metaphorical. Are they really just applications of the pathetic fallacy, or then again can we be so certain that the pathetic fallacy is actually so fallacious?
And then of course we’re very familiar with sacramental uses of matter, matter that we offer, we relate to God, offer back to God, and then receive back again as God’s gift of himself and his various blessings—the classic instance of human priesthood, in fact. But then this is balanced by instances where the sensible world acts unbidden—that’s unbidden at least by us—to draw us to its Creator. The most famous example is of course the Christmas star, which is also—this is interesting—the classic expression of liberation from the worship of nature. That’s liberation both for us and for nature itself. The creature—star, in this case—does not become spiritually redundant, but it reveals its true position: it’s not an object but a minister of worship, and it’s pointing beyond itself to our common Creator.
What we may be rather less familiar with is the idea that we worship, we offer worship in the first place because, simply, that’s what creatures do. When we pray privately or offer prayers of the gathered Church, we’re simply joining in our own characteristic human way in the activity that is proper to all creatures. There’s a strange text from The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus which gives the following rationale for Christians to pray at midnight: because, he says:
...at this hour all creation pauses for a moment in order to praise the Lord. The stars and forests and waters stop in their tracks, and at this hour the whole host of angels that minister to him join with the spirits of the righteous in praising God.
And, note it’s all ranks of creatures, not just rational ones, who praise the Lord. What’s odd here, and to my knowledge unique, is the idea that they pause from their usual activity in order to do so. Much more commonly, it’s their habitual activity that is their praise.
Apart from that peculiarity, this pattern in Hippolytus is very typical of early anaphora prayers. It’s meet and right to offer our own praise and glory and thanks because the Lord is already being praised by heaven and earth and sea, the sun and moon, the stars and all creation, rational and irrational, visible and invisible, angels, archangels, etc. That comes from Cyril of Jerusalem, and he clearly has an anaphora in mind very similar to James.
Consistently, in the early prayers, we find these three estates of worshipers. There’s the angelic powers, there’s things visible, and then there’s us humans. But there’s still the question of what it means for creatures that are non-rational or non-verbal or even inanimate to offer praise. Chrysostom helpfully points out—this is talking about Psalm 148—that there are three ways in which creatures can be said to glorify God: through words, through appearance, or through life and actions. And visible creation, he says, uses the second method: it tells God’s glory through its beauty, its usefulness, and so forth, and these qualities lead the observer to praise and bless its Maker.
A prayer from the apostolic constitution seems to reflect this sort of understanding. It speaks of the various creatures: the choir of stars, the animals and trees and so forth, in their characteristic habit and activity, indicating, declaring, even, in the case of the heavens, knowing him who is the source of their activity. The conclusion is about the nearest thing to an idea of priests of creation that we find prior to modern times.
Therefore, every man should send up a hymn from his very soul to you, through Christ, in the name of all the rest, since, by your appointment, he rules over them.
I do want to suggest, though, that praise “in the name of” refers to our specific capacity. It doesn’t refer to the rest of creation’s incapacity. In other words, it’s not intended as a stark contrast to praise with. According to St. Basil again, the wisdom manifest in the cosmos as good as shouts out through visible things that they have their origin from God, that they have not come into being on their own, but then he goes on:
This wisdom calls silently upon its Creator and Lord, so that through it you may ascend to insight concerning him who alone is wise.
Here again the visible creation is guiding us, because there is some sort of line of communication between the wisdom in things and the One who created them in wisdom.
This communication is in a literal sense silent, but it sometimes actually becomes audible to the human ear when that ear is spiritually attuned to the right frequency. For instance, Gregory of Nyssa is in no doubt that when the psalmist talks about the heavens telling the glory of God and every breath praising the Lord, it was because David himself had heard this hymnody. What he’s saying is that these psalms record an experience of the reality of things, an experience that is accessible to the nous, the spiritual intellect, when it goes beyond the fleshly senses and is raised on high. Interesting: going beyond the fleshly senses doesn’t mean that we ignore the wisdom that is in material things.
What’s being suggested here is a direct link between the ancient liturgical language of visible creation offering praise and the experience—and there are actually many records of experience in the history of the Church—in which that praise becomes audible. There’s a very striking contemporary account of a vision experienced by Elder Aemilianos of Simonopetra. One night he has this vision of everything filled with light. The stars come down and unite themselves with earth, and everything is praying the Jesus prayer. In this state in due course he somehow finds himself going from his cell to the church and is celebrating the Liturgy. That light that he’s seen outside moves from his surroundings to his heart, and he recognizes that heaven and earth sing the Jesus prayer without ceasing and that the monk truly lives only when he, too, is animated by it.
There’s a reflection on this account by Monk Maximos of Simonopetra, that’s Nicholas Konstas, who connects it with the Elder’s own comments on Psalms 18 and 150, on the mystical speeches and words that fill the world so that you hear a single voice that speaks of God, and he talks about this vision of the praying cosmos as a kind of matins service in which creation literally responds to the call of the psalmist to praise the Lord. But we could perhaps say that that’s how cosmic worship always functions in order to… in relation to our own offering of worship. Celebrating the Eucharist may be a uniquely human offering, but it presupposes and comes out of an offering from all creation.
Staying for a moment with Elder Aemilianos, I recall the recording of a vigil from the Monastery of Ormylia which he founded, and it doesn’t quite begin with vespers; it begins with the semantron calling the nuns to vespers, or, to be precise, it begins just a few moments before that with the birdsong, and then you have the semantron amidst the birdsong. As with the frogs, the animals have got there first. It’s, I think, not coincidental that Fr. Aemilianos was one of the first Athonite fathers to embrace practical environmental work.
It’s fair to say that the awareness of cosmic worship is today preserved most intensely in the monastic tradition. In contrast with the early Church, the Eucharistic anaphoras that are still in use today, alas, preserve almost no trace of the cosmic context of our own worship. In Chrysostom, the three estates of worshipers are simply reduced to two: the spiritual powers and ourselves. In Basil, the visible creation fares a little better, appearing perhaps in the blanket statement, “All things are thy servants.”
I don’t think that’s too far-fetched, however, because the great blessing of waters prayer, “Great art thou,” is also attributed in some places to St. Basil, and that has a similar idea, that “the sun sings thy praises and glorifies thee; [...] the fountains are thy servants,” praise and service very closely connected here. They’re not distinct activities, and, indeed, the prayer concludes with reverting to the language of worship, that “by the elements, by angels and men, by things visible and invisible, thy holy name may be glorified.” And incidentally we then have a prayer of the bowing of heads, where we bow our heads, outwardly showing our servitude to God; in other words, we are servants no less than worshipers.
Turning now from liturgical texts to the writings of St. Maximus, the comparison is actually fascinating. It’s striking in one way how different his approach is from what I’ve just been discussing; not incompatible, just dealing with another aspect or level of reality. Cosmic worship, in the sense discussed, is a creaturely activity. We can’t call it static, but it is… it’s limited. It’s bounded by creation. Its movement recalls the cyclical motion of the choir of stars and any number of other natural cycles. It’s more a dance than a procession. On the other hand, cosmic liturgy as applies to Maximus really refers specifically to the Divine Liturgy, as a mystery in which God acts and God transforms.
And we’re not talking even about the Divine Liturgy as we see it externally, an act of human worship which involves certain rituals and forms and ministries, but the sacred core of the Liturgy, the event of communion in which God becomes one with us and we are united with and in him. It’s not for nothing that another Maximus scholar, Fr. Nikolaos Loudovikos, speaks even more specifically of Maximus’ Eucharistic ontology. This union with God is the goal beyond itself to which all creation is called; it represents where creation is going. If cosmic worship more generally relates to the historical level, the created level, cosmic liturgy refers to the eschatological level.
Maximus shows remarkably little inclination, however, to fit his cosmological thinking into a single Eucharistic metaphor in the way that man as priests of creation does. Rather, reading him, one has the sense that the Divine Liturgy, the service that we celebrate, itself is reflecting a pattern of God’s working throughout his creation, and when Maximus uses Eucharistic language, it seems to be alerting us to that all-pervasive, underlying pattern. If from one angle creation offers a perpetual lauds, from another it forms part of a perpetual liturgical procession, culminating in the eschaton in a Eucharistic transformation.
It’s interesting to see, for instance, what Maximus has to say about what the physical world, containing echoes of God’s majesty in proclaiming its Creator, these scriptural images that we’ve just looked at. He talks about this in the context of giving and receiving gifts. When the nous applies itself to virtue and knowledge, creation is able, through it, to offer as gift to God the spiritual principles of knowledge that are contained within it, within creation. This is how creation becomes, in a certain sense, our gift to God, but creation also bestows on a person who… the spiritual person gifts of moral example. There isn’t one simple linear process here. There are various different offerings going on. Creation brings its offering through us. Creation brings gifts from God to us. We offer to God the gifts derived from creation through our natural contemplation.
The verbs Maximus uses here are proskomizō and prospherō. The Eucharistic echoes are very obvious. And in order to be in a position to receive and convey creation’s offering, the mind must become, lest you wonder, a king: king of Jerusalem, Jerusalem meaning peace and therefore signifying the state of dispassion in which all creation becomes subject to man. If we’re looking for a sustained Eucharistic metaphor, we’re going to be disappointed, but Maximus leaves us in absolutely no doubt that the very texture of reality is Eucharistic.
Surely in the mystigogy of anywhere we should expect to find sustained liturgical imagery. Well, we do find liturgical imagery, but not in nearly as tidy a form as the modern interpreter might wish. As you know, Maximus prefaces his work with this extended discussion of the symbolism of the church building, which for him is a highly comprehensive image. It images God, because we’re all brought together in unity; the world visible and invisible; the sensible world, heaven and earth; man, with soul, mind, and body; and then man is conversely a mystical church. And the church also images the soul with its various faculties which are brought into unity. And then, incidentally, Scripture is also a man, and the world is a man, and man is a world. So we have five symbolic churches covering everything that is, including God, and three symbolic humans: the church building, Scripture, and the world.
The focal point of the church building very clearly is the mystery upon the altar, the mystery of union with God, divinization. The focus is always on God’s work that effects this union, and this mystical union is really only discussed apropos of man and the soul, but its relevance to the entire creation becomes clearer at the end of this discussion. Man and the world are both destined for resurrection, for a spiritual transformation.
But it’s interesting: Maximus doesn’t give us just one image, but, as it were, these recurring patterns found throughout creation and revelation. And the patterns are to some extent superimposed, because they exist on different levels; different level, the same congruent patterns. Thus, man and the sensible world share the same destiny because they mirror each other. Man is a world and vice versa. And certainly, in Maximus’ thought, the total cosmic movement is towards unity and God, and man is the catalyst, the natural bond through which this is achieved. It’s not that there are several independent parallel courses. Nothing is independent, really, in Maximus.
Yet this movement cannot be captured in a single linear image. I thought at one point of trying to put this in a diagram form for you, and when I wrote it out it sort of looked like a badly mangled octopus. [Laughter] It’s certainly not an image that suggests subsuming everything into our human identity. The movement towards ultimate unity is possible because all things in their distinctive natures bear the pattern of that movement. The signature of the world and the word in the world has a holographic quality.
This holographic quality might incidentally suggest that these recurring arguments in environmental thinking about whether approaches are anthropocentric or biocentric or creation-centered might actually be somewhat beside the point. Perhaps it makes rather less difference than we suppose where the initial focus is, where the point of entry comes. The point really is to discern the characteristic pattern of God at work in whatever aspect of creation you’re looking at and then follow that wherever it leads.
Turning now to “priests of creation” language, I want to give a brief sampling of the quite varied ways in which this is being used, and I’ll say a bit about the implications of various usages, intended or apparently unintended, and what I hope will emerge is some sense of the pitfalls of this metaphor as well as some suggestions of where it can be legitimate and useful. Some of the earlier uses of this language connect it with the Jesus prayer. It’s interesting, seeing it as an exercise of the royal priesthood. There’s an article by Nadezhda Gorodetsky which speaks of applying the name of Jesus to people or books or flowers, to all things we meet or see or think, and she talks about it as a mystical key to the world, an instrument of the hidden offering of everything and everyone. And this is so reminiscent of Fr. Aemilianos’ vision. Fr. Lev Gillet, who quotes from Nadezhda’s writing at length, explicitly speaks of the prayer as a spiritual Eucharist, and in Fr. Lev’s case at least it’s quite clear that the background to this priesthood idea is a vivid awareness of a world evolving towards the total Christ, a Teilhardian echo here, by the sound of it, the relatedness of all things to Christ, everything mystically speaking the name of Jesus. So he can speak quite clearly about integrating our spiritual life with the life of the universe without any pantheistic confusion. This approach seems strikingly congruent both with Maximus’ notion of offering created things through natural contemplation, but it’s not actually very typical of the way the priest metaphor has developed certain etiological thinking.
A key figure in the popularization of the priesthood language was, of course, Fr. Alexander Schmemann. In a very early exploration of themes to which he returns—this is an article from 1964—he writes about “man created as a priest, the world created as matter of a sacrament.” And again: “The world was God’s gift to us, existing not for its own sake, but to be transformed to become life to be offered back as man’s gift to God.”
On the one hand, this comes across as a highly anthropocentric emphasis, reminiscent of Staniloae, and the world, it seems, is only the matter of the cosmic Eucharist, but on the other, it’s noteworthy that the transformation which Schmemann speaks of as man’s task is grounded in a pre-human process of transformation. Our world breeds life, he says; bread is nourished up out of dead minerals. In this way he links the sacramental quality of creation with creation’s own creativity. It is a hugely important insight, I think, but I’m not aware that he ever really developed it further. Perhaps he did; I feel a little intimidating speaking here about Fr. Alexander Schmemann.
It should be noted what he understands by human priesthood, because it’s not quite identical with the usage of later writers. Priest, for him, is homo adorans; a priestly offering is, above all, praise; and it’s in this offering that man becomes himself. Clearly, a parallel with his insistence that in being offered, in being blessed—in other words, in the sacraments—created things become themselves. And there’s clearly an eschatological reference here. He says we relate created things to their original and ultimate meaning, so creation needs to become itself, not because it strayed from God’s will but because its eschatological fullness is yet to be realized.
Another influential, if idiosyncratic thinker, is Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios, who was writing about man and the cosmos at a time when very few other Orthodox were, and he’s strongly influenced by Gregory of Nyssa and by Maximus. So he speaks of man as mediator, one who unites. He does use priest language, but not extensively or exclusively, and the notion for him is closely bound up with the eternal priesthood of Christ. He says Christ lifts creation up to God in his created body, and we are invited to participate in this. This is, I think, very important; no one would deny it, but I don’t think it’s always emphasized enough. Insofar as we have a priestly role, it is in the priesthood of Christ.
And note also the nuanced way in which Mar Gregorios expresses man’s relationship to the rest of creation. Humanity has a special vocation as priests of creation, but is not totally discontinuous with creation. By virtue of the logic of the metaphor itself, a priest has to be an integral part of the people he represents. So far so good, but when it comes to exercising priesthood, well, Mar Gregorios speaks about a balance between mastery and mystery, but… so, mastery of the universe isn’t just for our own use; it’s a matter of giving nature as our extended body into God’s hands in the great mystery of Eucharistic self-offering. Again, important point.
But he also combines this with an enthusiastic embrace of technology as a way of “humanizing the world of matter,” as he says, “extending the human body to envelop the entire universe.” More understandable, perhaps, in a developing country where the potential benefits of technology are more evident than its darker side, but still… And besides, this whole question of “humanizing” raises questions that many people find troubling, and I’ll come back to this question shortly. Apart from anything else, if you’re talking about the entire universe, what on earth does it mean?
Metropolitan Kallistos, again, is a writer who likes the imagery of human priesthood. He sometimes uses it, particularly earlier on, in conjunction with kingship, and I note that he talks about the priestly role associated with praise offering creation back to God, and it’s the kingly role associated with creativity. Nevertheless, the two images are closely associated for him, and like others—we hear this so often: in the Eucharist we offer bread and wine; we don’t offer raw, wild grain and grapes—and he says it’s through man’s creative use of the world that man gives natural things a voice and renders creation articulate in praise of God. And he quotes that passage from Leontios of Cyprus, saying, “It’s through me that the heavens declare the glory of God.” Leontios, of course, is upholding the making of icons here; he has a particular reason for emphasizing human use of creation as an act of worship.
So with the greatest respect to both Bishop Kallistos and Leontios, I think this is something of an overstatement. As a yardstick for assessing our creative use of the world, it’s superb, but as a general statement of the relationship between God and the totality of his creation, I think it’s rather one-sided.
Of course, the most enthusiastic and systematic exponent of “priests of creation” language is Metropolitan John of Pergamon, John (Zizioulas). And he makes great efforts to avoid the image being understood in a clerical way, for instance, repeatedly underlining that human beings are part of the natural cosmos and thus their salvation is part of the salvation of the cosmos. And he also says: every element of the cosmos is sanctified through the sacred purpose which exists within it, that it’s the human’s responsibility to reveal that purpose. It’s an austerely theocentric view, anthropocentrism in the sense of the human creature making himself the ultimate point of reference. That’s the essence of the fall of Adam, and that’s precisely what the priestly attitude is meant to reverse in Zizioulas’ understanding and that of many others.
However, for Metropolitan John, man’s creativity, the supposed urge to create out of nothing and impatience with any given—I say “supposed” because I also have a few decades’ experience of being a human being, and I’m not sure that rings true—but to him this is absolutely central to our priestly role in creation. It’s this drive to be free of the laws of nature that makes man the only creature able to transcend the limitations which apply to all created things, precisely because they are creatures, because their grounding is, their origin is in nothing, in a sense.
And Metropolitan John does something extremely useful here, and that’s to provide a coherent explanation of how creation can both be very good and still stand in need of something further. The goodness of creation is clearly portrayed here as something dynamic; it’s part of a progress toward an ultimate goal. It’s a very important point, and this is often ignored in contemporary lines of eco-thinking, according to which all creation could possibly need to be paradises in order for humans to stop interfering with it.
However, the drawback of Metropolitan John’s position, I suggest, is an over-emphasis on man as the only link between Creator and creation. He seems to rule out any existing line of communication between God and the rest of creation. It’s actually very hard to avoid cosmic clericalism if the priest is the only actor you ever talk about. We may note the striking contrast between Zizioulas and Olivier Clément, who says quite explicitly that there is not only an anthropocosmic connection; there’s also a theocosmic connection. The world is bathed in the omnipotent glory of God, the fire of his energy. There is in each thing a divine idea, a logos, a word addressed to us. Well, I think Metropolitan John would be in absolute agreement about the divine logos in each thing and so forth, but it’s what he does with this theological datum that’s so different. Between him and Clément, it’s almost a difference between a cosmos that’s half-full and half-empty of the glory of God.
So how does man carry out his priestly role according to Metropolitan John? Again, he makes a very systematic attempt to answer. One way is literally through priesthood, through the sacraments, through the work of the Church. God is recognized here as Lord of creation. In other words, it’s a matter of setting right our attitude to God and hence our attitude to creation as part of our relationship with God, and this locates the problem in our perception and behavior, and that makes a lot of sense. But then, secondly, our priestly task involves development. Metropolitan John actually says nature must be improved through human intervention; it’s not preserved as it is. And he emphasizes very explicitly this isn’t simply development for the sake of human needs, but because nature itself stands in need of development through us in order to fulfill its own being and acquire a meaning which it would not otherwise have. And this seems to me quite a puzzling claim.
So, taking these samples of “priests of creation” language as a whole, what are the problems that I see? Well, first, the trend towards using priest imagery to the exclusion of other metaphors. This in itself is a real loss. The metaphors that we choose should be enriching our perception of the world; they shouldn’t be narrowing it down. Second, this exclusive tendency means that the role of man as bond of unity, as it were, expands to fulfill all the conceptual space; it’s the only thing we can see. And the affirmation that creation needs man in order to realize its ultimate destiny, which I would agree with, all too easily slides into the implication that God doesn’t really work in creation, nor does creation really respond to God except through man. And the third problem is this emphasis on human creativity, the idea that creation needs to be humanized or, as we’ve just heard, that it needs development in order to fulfill its own being. One may or may not like the implications of this for the earth we inhabit and the closer regions of the solar system, but for most of the cosmos, it simply seems meaningless to talk about development.
These problems I think become easier to sort out if we address the underlying problem with the imagery, and this is one that’s so pervasive that it goes largely unnoticed. It’s curious: when people use the priesthood metaphor, they usually talk as if the liturgical offering involves only two created parties. There’s the priest and the gifts. Well, speaking as a layperson, what about the fullness of the Church? The priest is not the sole offerer. The priest is the offerer-in-chief, if you like, through whose agency the offering is transformed and given back to the entire community as a gift of divine life. So if humanity collectively is priest of creation, the obvious conclusion is the remainder of creation isn’t simply the matter of the cosmic Eucharist—on one level it’s that, too—but also the body that brings the offering.
When people affirm that man can act as priest of creation because he is himself an integral part of the creation, it’s actually implicit that creation must be the cosmic laity, the laity of the cosmic Eucharist, as well as its matter. After all, the priest presents the community’s offering because he’s part of the community, not because he’s consubstantial with the bread.
So it seems we find ourselves back in the middle of what Fr. Vasileios of Iveron, whom Peter referred to, calls “a liturgy concelebrated by the entire universe,” with the word, the logoi of all existing things, concelebrating with the incarnate Word—and Fr. Vasileios is drawing on an image of Maximus’ there. Monastic writers typically do have a strong sense of this, even when they use “priest of creation” language, it doesn’t eclipse the sense of, if you like, the cosmic laity, the concelebration of all the cosmos.
But, too often, when non-monastic writers talk about human priesthood, the cosmic concelebration features little if at all, and it’s a pity because there is this line of modern Orthodox thought that emphasizes ecclesial sobornost, and this I think has much to contribute to our vision of cosmic liturgy. I’m thinking particularly of some of Metropolitan Anthony’s talks—Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh. For instance, where he emphasizes that the celebrant of the mysteries is always Christ himself. The priest, he says, is instrumental: he prays, but he prays in the name of the whole Church, the body of Christ, and, indeed, the whole created world. And this ecclesiology of Bishop Anthony’s goes hand-in-hand with the strongest possible sense of all other creatures’ connectedness to God. He says we’re surrounded not by a world of object but by matter which is free to commune with God in a reciprocal relationship. Very strong language. And as a result, he sees God relating to us through other creatures just as much as vice versa.
So here, within the Eucharistic metaphor, we could have a vision that does justice to creation as a whole. And I think this helps to sort out the business of creativity and humanizing and development. As to creativity, there’s no doubt that humans are creative, but the association of this characteristic with priesthood seems perhaps misplaced. I can’t see what’s particularly creative about the celebration of the Eucharist. What the priest does, surely, is to offer up, in the sense of anaphora, the gifts which are worked and offer, in the sense of proskomede, the community. In the Liturgy, this is indeed… that offering is a distinctly human offering. Well, it would be, because the Liturgy literally that we celebrate in church is a human activity.
But even here our human transformation of the world is something that links us with the natural transformations going on all round us. As Schmemann said in that passage I quoted: human bread-making and so forth, the breeding and growing of wheat, this is in a way the tip of an iceberg of chemical and biological working in nature, and it’s indisputable that these human activities can take place only in cooperation with that working of matter by nature itself. And of course there’s a crucial difference. Our freedom of choice vastly exceeds that of any other material creature, so this does make for a relationship between human creativity and cosmic liturgy. But I would say that creativity is not so much required for cosmic liturgy; rather, it’s conditioned by it. As Clément says, again, “the challenge is to live the great cosmic Eucharist in our transformation of nature,” our creativity in other words, “no less than in our understanding of it.”
Linking human priesthood with creativity or development can also give rise to a more serious problem, and that’s a perceived confusion between human and divine transformations. Human members of the congregation do indeed transform the world—they make wheat into bread for our offering—but the main point of the Eucharist is, of course, not that matter becomes bread, but that matter becomes Christ. And this is strictly God’s work. As Chrysostom says, “even today it’s Christ who does everything,” and again, “all the priest does is to open his mouth.”
So is there any sense in which we are responsible for fulfilling the being of other creatures? Well, I think, yes, I think there is, but I can’t see what it has to do with development. We leave creation unfulfilled if we ignore its hymn of glory and the multiple ways in which it speaks of its Creator. As Maximus and other Fathers remind us, sensible creation is a book; it’s another bible. If someone ignores Scripture in the literal sense—Scripture, in the proper sense—or treats it simply as literature or at worse uses a Bible as a doorstop, this doesn’t… it doesn’t thereby cease to be the word of God, but its purpose is frustrated; it isn’t managing to speak to us of God.
And the image that comes to mind here is really of the Church as a body. When one member suffers, all suffers. It’s not that material creation has no voice to praise God, no access to God without human intervention, but rather if we think of creation as a communion, every creature has some direct relationship to God, but no creature has an exclusive relationship with God such that the quality of everybody else’s relationship is of no importance.
And there will be cases where the word that God speaks to us through creation will call us to some sort of development, but I should have thought that this would be precisely development for the sake of human need, provided we’re talking about real need. Using the world in a way that allows the needy to join in praise of God surely is a fitting use—one of the many fitting uses—of a creation that praises God.
So in conclusion, what does this tell us about how we relate to the rest of creation? Well, in terms of specifics, virtually nothing that we didn’t already know. Our mediate role in creation, however, as a natural bond of unity, assures us that the totality of our life and our relationship with God and our growth into Christ—these all fundamentally affect all creation. If we want to think in terms of a priestly role, or, perhaps even better, a Eucharistic framework, then what we offer, what we bring to Christ to be transformed, is simply ourselves. There’s a wonderful quotation from Evdokimos which Bishop Kallistos uses, that we become “priest of our whole life.”
If we feel that we should be offering the cosmos, humanized in some way, we need look no further, because that’s what we ourselves are, as creatures of soul and body. Again, to quote Clément: “What is our body but the form that our living soul impresses on the universal dust which constantly penetrates and passes through us?” So perhaps we start to understand why it is that Maximus, unlike modern writers, favors impersonal images for our role in creation, not priest but link and workshop.
What muddies the waters here, I think, is the idea that we have to go looking for ways to put our stamp on the world of matter, ways to make it our offering, in addition to eating and breathing. And of course we interact with the world about us in all sorts of other ways—physical, intellectual, aesthetic, technological, and so forth—and I think it’s very salutary to think of all these interactions as our way of making offerings to God’s glory. In fact, man as priest makes a lot more sense on the anthropological level than on the cosmological.
But we’re not on a mission to save matter from spiritual limbo by what we do with it. Our task in the world, I suggest, is to receive gifts from our concelebrant creatures, spiritual and ethical gifts as well as physical ones. And to learn from those creatures so that our lives also offer up the wisdom and rationality that animates the entire cosmos. And if this recognition doesn’t have a profound effect on even our most mundane interactions with the world around us, I don’t know what will. Thank you. [Applause]