Tuesday, June 22, 2010

ecology, evangelicalism, & big 'o' orthodoxy

Briefly departing from our discussion of the Epistle to the Hebrews, this post is a reaction to a separate post by Father Andrew Damick (pastor of Saint Paul Orthodox Christian Church in Emmaus, Penssylvania), which was itself a reaction to another blog post by Dr. Russell D. Moore (Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky). If you're confused at present, at least this gives us an appreciation of the nexus of weblogs! But enough with bad jokes; below are links to the two posts, listed in order of chronological appearance:

-Ecological Catastrophe and the Uneasy Evangelical Conscience (by Dr. Moore at Moore to the Point, June 1, 2010)

-Deepwater Horizon: Why Evangelical theology is helpless in the face of a catostrophic oil spill (by Fr. Andrew at Roads from Emmaus, June 17, 2010)

(I also recommend some additional readings and/or broadcasts by each of these authors. For Dr. Moore, see his Global Warming Testimony before the U.S. Senate, and for Fr. Andrew, listen to This Holy Earth: Ecological Vision In the Cosmic Cathedral, Part 1 and Part 2, from his Roads from Emmaus broadcast on Ancient Faith Radio, as well as reading his various posts related to ecology on his blog.)

Now that you've done the necessary reading, let me attempt to justify (or excuse, depending on your viewpoint!) my contribution to this discussion. I wish to mainly treat some of Fr. Andrew's arguments, which of course relate directly to those of Dr. Moore, by adding another component that I feel crucially impinges on the ecological issue(s). Essentially, there are two main aspects of Damick's arguments that I wish to highlight: 1) the priesthood of all believers, and 2) the holiness of creation. In case you haven't read his blog, here are some relevant portions, quoted at length:

"Evangelical theology really does stand helpless in the face of ecological disasters like the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, because it has no cosmic vision, and it has no cosmic vision because it has no sacramental vision. In Orthodox Christian theology, the goodness of God’s creation is not simply as a nice backdrop and useful set of natural resources for human beings to use in getting on with their lives. God’s creation certainly does have man at its center, but the creation does not exist for essentially utilitarian reasons. Rather, creation’s true purpose is to convey divine sanctification, to manifest the divine energies of God. And man’s proper relation to creation is as its priest. But there are no priests in Evangelical theology, except the “priesthood of all believers,” which certainly has believers, but not really any priests."

"Without any sense of any thing or any place at all being holy, then how can one see the whole earth as holy? With the absence of the particular, the universal is even more elusive. As such, Evangelical theology can only retreat into its limited anthropocentricism with its emphasis on disincarnate, legal arrangements. Salvation in most Evangelical theology is in terms of a “status,” and so the theological language of “justification” (what gets you your ticket to Heaven) is precisely in those terms. One is either saved or not, and one gets saved by fulfilling certain requirements."

The first of these quotes pertains to the notion of universal priesthood, and I take this to relate directly to the sacramental emphasis in Fr. Damick's writing. That is, and here I assume (perhaps incorrectly) that Fr. Damick relies on Alexander Schmemann's argument in For the Life of the World that God created humanity to live in and among His good and holy creation as priests by offering the world to God through eucharistic sacrifice. The second quote is positioned in opposition to the Evangelical emphasis of the world in its present state of having been marred by sin, and therefore not necessarily holy in the sense that the Orthodox define it (the reader should note that I will not enter into any discussions about panentheism, which Orthodoxy maintains, though it is indeed relevant to the present topic). While I would not agree that Fr. Damick has represented the core of Evangelical theology in an entirely accurate manner, he does bring up some crucial differences that relate to our understanding of cosmology and ecology, as well as note a problematic aspect within the Evangelical framework as far as ecology (and ecological responsibility) is concerned.
However, as I see it, we need to take even a further step back in order to understand the root of the issue with regard to ecology and Evangelicalism, and how Evangelicals are not necessarily poised to uphold a biblical ecology. By doing so, we can actually get at something that can be viewed as common to both Evangelicalism and Orthodoxy, though the former has, I argue, departed from a biblical view. That is, rather than speaking of sacrament, priesthood, and the sanctity of creation, I wish to emphasize the essence of the created realm as it derives from the relationship inherent to the most basic ontological distinction for all that is: that between 1) the Creator and 2) the created. Note that even this basic division implies relationships that hold not only between the two categories, but, for the focus of this post, this implies a special relationship among all members of the second group. When we view the creation account in Genesis 1-2, we read that God created all things, that God uniquely created humanity in His own image, that God gave a singular command to humanity with regard to their "rule over" the created realm, and that God declared the finality of His creation to be "good" (Genesis 1, especially vv26-28, 31). But how we ought to manifest such "rule over" is, I feel, the critical issue in the present discourse. For Evangelicals in America, this has largely been interpreted eisegetically from the Modernist/Western notion of "stewardship" and its expression surrounding the Enlightenment movement. Fr. Damick hints at this in saying that "God’s creation certainly does have man at its center, but the creation does not exist for essentially utilitarian reasons." This Modern conceptualization does not reflect properly the intended relationship that should hold between members of the that-which-is-created category.
The so-called Enlightenment was indeed a movement and, in many respects, it was one both away from ecclesial authority (along with abuses of such) and toward secularism, and perhaps, we might add, the predecessors of humanism. What originally started then as strange bedfellows (Christian theology/philosophy and secular philosophy/theology) is often, from our point in history as Americans, taken for granted as a natural and beautiful union. The result is that Western theologies, of which Evangelicalism is but one expression, and their adherents fail to discern between the biblical principles held and/or popular during the Englightenment and the various ideologies that arguably do not resonate with sound Christian doctrine. This much-needed discernment is especially difficult now because of the philosophical foundations of Western American culture and society, consisting of both Christian and secular components, which are perceived as having become "one flesh" for a large portion of the American mind.
So then, the guilt of the Evangelical, if existent, is guilt by association. This association, that is, the nonseparation of secular philosophies from biblical philosophies and theology, is not, however, intrinsic to Evangelicalism, or so I claim. The indiscernability (or, rather, failure to discern) of potentially contrary ideologies does not inhere to Evangelicalism, regardless of how much it does or does not pervade the American Evangelical conscience. This, then, is the point that I wish to enter in the dialogue with regard to ecology. For, I argue, Fr. Damick rightfully observes the continued association between those Western philosophical frameworks (e.g., Utilitarianism) that are non-Christian with Evangelical teachings, but he fails to recognize the nature of this relationship, which is not inherent or necessary. If I am correct, then the problem may well lie with Evangelicals, but not Evangelicalism per se. That is, the root is to be found in shifting and pluralistic identities among American Evangelicals that need to be delineated and, at times, rejected (e.g., instead of 'Christian and Utilitarian', perhaps we might consider 'Christian or Utilitarian'). An analog to this in Orthodoxy could be, for example, to (when necessary) separate nationalistic movements within predominantly Orthodox nations from Orthodox theology itself.
For the American Evangelical and, in addition, many other Christians in Euro-American traditions, the notion of "stewardship" has found a narrow and exclusive definition situated within the Modernist discourse and related notions, such as private property and ownership, labor, discovery, utility, inalienable rights, the pursuit of happiness (which itself was often wed to the aforementioned concept of private property), etc. The earth and other nonhuman aspects of God's creation (and, at times, many humans falsely and racially conceived as either nonhuman or not "fully human") are viewed almost exclusively as objectified resources within an anthropocentric understanding. Perhaps it should not surprise us that, for example, the Industrial Revolution with its impressive ability to exploit peoples and resources followed (relatively) shortly after the Enlightenment. And, though we ought to be ashamed, it should not surprise us that, within the last several centuries, the nationalistic/imperialistic/colonialist powers that have had the most devastating effects with regard to almost all aspects of creation on Earth have been by and large of American and European stock.
By uncritically emphasizing and not distinguishing Modernist (or any other) ideologies that can run counter to the Christian worldview, we in America (and everywhere in the world) fail to understand what is really and singularly Christian. We must take care that we do not implicitly support the proposition that the Gospel is/was somehow perfected (thus entailing that the Gospel has such a need in the first place) by, say, the American Constitution. Or, in a similar fashion, we should not favor an argument that such documents are a perfect expression of the Gospel. I doubt that any (or, perhaps many) Evangelicals today would even explicitly agree that this is what is believed, but is not this the outcome or at least the latent ideology behind the common argumentations that are so tied to notions of progress and American modernity? We have become, as Fr. Damick puts it, so "anthropocentric" in our mindset that the means by which "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are achieved are justified by their utility, even if this results in the destruction of God's creation by the drive for excessive consumption as the created realm becomes exploited to satisfy our every desire (and this, too, as Dr. Moore notes, will neither be for the good of humanity).
We have become deaf to the dissonance that is produced from attempting to hear from both biblical theology/philosophy and secular philosophy/theology simultaneously, and ecology is but one realm wherein today this is strikingly evident, especially for American Evangelicals. It is not the lacking of cosmic vision or sacrament that leads to failure among Evangelicals to approach ecological issues effectively; it is our failure to interpret exegetically the relationship between humans and the entirety of creation. This ought to be primarily theocentric, not anthropocentric. Furthermore, our actions toward creation should be defined by the parameters set by having been made in the image of God. Our "rule over" and "stewardship" should mirror His; our actions should reflect His nature and perfections. Consequently, by doing so we will cease to approach creation irreverently, that is, in an exploitive manner which views it purely as an objective (or objectified) resource whose purpose is understood solely by utility and a selfishly defined, maleable notion of "for our good."


  1. I just found your blog today through Fr. Damick's blog, "Roads from Emmaus." I just love the name of your blog...John Dunne is one of my favorite poets.

  2. Sorry, but I really think you misrepresent evangelical theology here. "Popular" Evangelical theology does always represent evangelical theology anymore than "popular" Orthodox theology represents Orthodox theology. Critique popular evangelical theology to your heart's bidding, but don't say that's what the evangelical viewpoint is.

  3. Brett,
    First of all, thanks for the comment, and I would love to hear more of what you mean by "popular" vs. standard(?) Evangelical theology. But, for clarification, I am not necessarily trying to "represent" Evangelical theology in this post, especially when considered as a whole. For example, I'm mainly discussing an aspect that I believe primarily concerns American Evangelicalism (and really only certain American Evangelicals within such an entity that may or may not be in line with Evangelicalism as a theological framework). So, depending on what you mean by "popular," we may be closer to agreement than first imagined. In any event, I apologize for any confusion or misrepresentation (which would be unintentional); but in my critique I was arguing against not Evangelicalism itself, but popular manifestations within "Evangelicalism." Hope to hear from you again!

  4. Brett,
    One more quick point. I don't think that what I said (if my arguments are correct) applies only to individuals within Evangelicalism. The reason I limited it to this particular theology was due to the scope of the original discussion, which was begun by Dr. Moore and Father Damick.

  5. A few thoughts:

    1. When I referenced "Evangelical theology," I of course have no particular "standard" in mind. After all, where would one find it? One can argue that Evangelicals are departing from Evangelicalism, but on what basis? What is orthodox Evangelicalism, and how does one find it? (Answering "the Bible" begs the question, since the Bible must be interpreted.)

    So, I will indeed plead guilty to misrepresenting Evangelical theology, but only because I'm not really sure that there is such a thing. When I used the term, I was referring in broad, deliberately provocative strokes to the overall theological enterprise (by which I mean actual Christian life, not just what is in books) of the communities generally defining themselves as "Evangelical."

    2. The idea that man is the priest of creation is not original to Schmemann. It is certainly true that in the 20th century, this idea was elucidated by Orthodox writers in perhaps more detail than had been done before, but it is an essentially Biblical/Patristic idea. For more on this, I recommend Theokritoff's referenced book.

    3. The critical problem is really sacrament, i.e., whether created matter has anything at all to do with salvation. If it does, a proper Christian ecology is possible, based on a proper cosmology. If it doesn't, the only thing left to us is "stewardship" (property management).

    Your identification as the basic problem (instead) being a lack of understanding the kinship between all created things does not address the sacramental issue which I believe is really at the heart of the question, but it does reach toward cosmology, something which I don't see Evangelicals do very often.

    Okay, let's say I do recognize that man and all creation are akin to each other. But where does that put man? Is he really any different than beasts and stones? If so, how?

    If there's one thing we've learned from modern materialism, it's precisely that we really are no different from cows or trees or helium. This revelation hasn't translated into a greater reverence for creation, but rather a denigration of the dignity of man. This theology is the basis for rabid environmentalism, which puts trees and puppies on the same level as or above man.

    So, yes, there really are only two kinds of existence: created and Uncreated. But what gives the creation its hierarchy and inherent dignity is how the Uncreated and the created interact. Once we ask that question, we get back to sacrament. Simple "Theocentrism" doesn't really take us anywhere, because it leaves the creation and the Creator disconnected.

    If you're interested at all in a more focused treatment of all these issues, you're welcome to give a listen to the lecture I gave at Bucknell University.

  6. Fr. Andrew,
    Thank you so much for taking time to comment on the post (I know that you must be quite busy!). And, thanks for the link to the lecture at Bucknell (I have not yet had time to listen to it, but intend to soon). For now, I wanted to offer some quick clarifications:

    1) Yes, I am indeed aware that the idea of man being the priest of creation is not unique or original to Schmemman. I referenced it because (i) I had recently finished reading this book and, (ii) for any readers who are not familiar with the concept as man as priest (in this regard) I hoped it would provide a lucid introduction. However, I am glad that you pointed this out because it is rather significant that Schmemman is not introducing a new concept mid-20th century, but rather treating one that has been long held by many.

    2) Also, I have read (& thoroughly enjoyed!) Theokritoff's book. (Note: for anyone not familiar with this, see Theokritoff, Elizabeth. (2009). "Living in God's Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology." Crestwood, NY: St. Valadimir's Seminary Press)

    3) I don't think that the "non-sacramental" view (if it should even be called such) reduces to stewardship as "property management." However, I do concede (& this is what I argue for) that an understanding of stewardship in recent times has by and large been relegated to this reductionist viewpoint.

    4) By making a two-fold ontological distinction/categorization between Uncreated and created, I do not intend to disregard any significant differences between, say, humans and beasts or stones, etc. What I think this basic distinction imlplies (to some degree or other) is that there a very broad notion of "equality" (perhaps a better term should be sought) among all intercategorical entities by virtue of our relationship to the Uncreated in this sense. However, humanity has been given by God a unique role among the created realm, and this is evidenced in the opening chapters of Genesis. So, this indeed results in a hierarchy on the basis which we can further differentiate among the created by "how the Uncreated and the created interact," to use your phrase. I wish I had time to elaborate on this further (and, perhaps I will later), but I agree with you wholeheartedly that if we only take a materialist view that is exclusively and purposely nondistinct in its view of humans or beasts or stones or what have you, this in no way "translate[s] into a greater reverence for creation, but rather a denigration of the dignity of man."

    5) If I may reference Schmemman again, the crucial element that he sees (again, this is not original to him) as the distinguishing attribute of humanity is that man alone is in a position to bless God (I don't have my book with me to provide a reference, but I believe this is found in chapter 1). This conceptualization is one that I would like to consider further, and please feel free to elaborate on this (if you agree), as I feel it relates directly to our discussion.

    Anyway, again thank you for the comments. I hope to hear from you again if you have more time.

    God bless you,