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Eastern Christians and Environmentalism--Skeel

Some of our earlier discussion on this blog about evangelicals and the environment prompted a email from my colleague Stephanos Bibas that may be of interest to those who are following this issue. The email argues that there is a connection between evangelicals' "uneasy relationship with environmentalism" and their relationship with the Republican party, and is informed throughout by Stephanos's Orthodox faith.

Rather than trying to restate his comments, no doubt much more poorly, I'll simply quote from his email:

"Christianity should naturally (excuse the pun) embrace environmentalism. The first few chapters of Genesis make it clear that while man is the crown of creation, he is also to be a steward of it, because all of creation bears God's imprint as His handiwork; as God created each thing, he saw that it was good. Francis of Assisi, St. Seraphim of Sarov, and many other holy men and women have been so attuned to creation that they befriended wild animals, reflecting their love for His creatures.

"But the Scholastics, following Aristotle, split the universe into distinct categories, radically separating God from His creation and man from nature. (Eastern Christians continued to see God's energies pervading all of creation, but the West came to see Him as more removed and inaccessible.) The Renaissance made man, not God, the measure of all things, in Bacon's famous phrase. That paved the way for the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, which treated nature as a series of resources and commodities to exploit rather than as God's handiwork to treasure.

"Many environmentalists react against our society's indifference by embracing New Age beliefs, all the way to Gaia-worship as an alternative to traditional religion. Environmentalism became associated with the political left. And Christians, many of whom hold traditional moral values such as respect for unborn life and restraint of sexual license, react against libertinism by embracing the political right.

"Now, there clearly are affinities between many Republican positions on social values and the moral beliefs and teachings of many traditional Christians. And when environmentalism is premised on alarmist cries about ecological disaster, it becomes easier to reject if the alarms seem exaggerated. But I fear that many Christians are rejecting environmentalism ad hominem, disdaining the message because of disgust with the messenger. We have knee-jerk reactions against environmentalism because so many environmentalists seem like libertine lefties in other respects. Materialism, whether of the Wal-Mart or Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous variety, seems a natural aspiration.

"But materialism is at odds with stewardship for God's creation. Whether or not global warming is as bad and imminent as Al Gore says, we must use God's creation responsibly. Whether or not our resources are on the brink of exhaustion, we need to separate our true needs from our wants, to work on disciplining our fallen appetites and restoring them to the way God made them. Asceticism is about fixing ourselves and our out-of-control appetites, and limiting our wants while serving our genuine needs. One does not have to be a tree-hugging vegan to practice more self-denial, to trade in our SUVs for bikes and small cars and to reduce one's consumption of factory-farmed meat.

"I'm interested to hear your thoughts, particularly from an evangelical perspective. I know the Orthodox Ecumencial Patriarch Bartholomew has long spoken in favor of the green movement. I'm pleased to see Western Christians beginning to discuss the same concerns.

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Comments ( 5 )

While I have some sympathy with his views, I've heard claims like this from Orthodox Christians, and frankly I'm pretty skeptical. I have some questions:

1) Is there any evidence of concern for the environment from Patriarch Bartholomew or Orthodoxy generally prior to 1995? I know of none, and would like to know if there are. That's 25 years after Francis Schaeffer wrote _Pollution and the Death of Man_, incidentally.

2) I'm familiar with the stories of Seraphim of Sarov talking to a bear and telling him to go on errands. Admittedly I don't take these very seriously, but even if I did, are these really precursors of environmentalism?

3) Can the glib claim that the scholastics "split the universe" stand up to the scrutiny of scholars of medieval Christianity?

And fourth isn't really a question, but a correction - it was Protagoras, the Greek Sophist, who said "man is the measure of all things," and if anything, Bacon was rather critical of the notion.

The problem with any "ism" is that there are many versions of it. Environmentalism for some includes watered down or even full-blown forms of pantheistic thinking. For others, environmentalism is awareness of finiteness of resources and a general sense of stewardship toward our surroundings and all forms of life. That a Christian should embrace the latter seems to be borne out by Scripture. Depending on what "ism" you're dealing with, though, you may find conflicts and even outright antagonism toward the Christian faith.

"One does not have to be a tree-hugging vegan to practice more self-denial, to trade in our SUVs for bikes and small cars and to reduce one's consumption of factory-farmed meat."

I'm not "an evironmentalist".

But I live in a city and walk to work 5 days a week. That's just normal an sensible. I don't feel like I'm "practicing self-denial".

I'd like to give my kids a yard to play in safely, but I didn't. Sometimes I feel lousy because of that.

Why, environmentally, do i need to "reduce" my consumption of factory farmed meat?

Is it bad for the animals? The water cycle? Organic farmers? People 2000 miles away? What?

Why reduce? If it involves some kind of immorality on my part, I'd have to eliminate such consumption, not reduce it, wouldn't I? What is "factory farming"? Can any "factory" methods be used in any farms? Aren't they more 'efficient'? Isn't efficiency generally better for the environment?

I have to know what the policy issue *is* before I can figure out how to respond Christianly to it. That's why saying Christians should support any kind of "movement" or "ism" is problematic: what are the policies that the ism is actually promoting. Some are probably good and some bad. So why sign on to an ism?

These comments are all fair points. The one I want to respond to is the legitimate question of how Christians relate to an "-ism." Well, the only creed that we should follow is Christianity; parts of various -isms will fit well with it and parts won't. But that's equally true of the fit of two political -isms, conservatism and Republicanism.

I fully acknowledge that there are parts of the environmental movement that are hostile to Christian values. Most notably, the zero-population-growth types seem to view babies as a regrettable burden upon the earth rather than a blessing as Scripture and tradition describe them.

The point that the commenters, especially pduggie, do not engage with is my point about asceticism. Even if the earth is not about to implode, there is still spiritual value in restraining our fallen, out-of-control appetites--a topic addressed by everyone from the Desert Fathers to C.S. Lewis. That's part of the reason for fasting, a biblical and traditional practice that unfortunately is not as common as it should be. I do think that we unthinkingly absorb the materialism of our culture; it takes an effort, and some historical distance, to critique the materialism of our culture and the confusion of our wants with our needs.

It is not "environmentalism" that should be embraced, but "sustainable development".

Good stewardship of the environment is necessary for it to be sustainable, but development is an important driving goal. Corporations do this with profit -- orgs like Fannie Mae or Lehman Brothers are not sustainable if they're not making a profit.

Yet development is all too often materialistic/ consumeristic only. This is especially true of anti-capitalist Lefties who simultaneously complain that capitalism hasn't ended poverty, and that it also promotes excessive consumerism.

Insofar as corporations are peaceful and voluntary, while gov't is not, folk who are against corporations are against "the means justifies the ends". How can peaceful, honest, voluntary market transactions result in social injustice? By not being honest (or voluntary) -- or by the poor folk making very poor decisions.
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