Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
If you follow the news, you know that this past week and in this coming week, the city of Copenhagen, Denmark, is hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference. During this conference, representatives of dozens of world nations are gathering to discuss Earth’s climate and to propose potentially sweeping changes in reaction to claims that the world’s climate is negatively changing, and especially that these changes are the result of human behavior. And of course you may also be aware of the recent leaking of a series of emails from a climate change study facility which has been the source of some controversy, the so-called “Climategate” scandal.
What you won’t find at the UN’s conference is discussion of the theology of the ecosystem. It is an altogether secular conference, focused on data analysis and deeply entwined with the interests of politicians, competing nation-states, great corporate powers and environmental celebrities.
Whatever your opinion might be on the veracity of the claims of anthropogenic global warming made by some scientists or the counter-claims of others, we should note that the Orthodox Church actually does have something to say about the environment, or, as we might more properly say, God’s creation. As it says in the Psalms, “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Ps. 23 (24):1).
From this basic theological affirmation, that God created this world and that it still belongs to Him, we can say a number of things. First, despite what you may read on some bumper stickers, we do not belong to the world. Of course, it does not belong to us, either. Rather, the world and all of us belong to God. We are His children, and He created us, this planet and everything in it as an expression of His love, along with the whole of the glorious cosmos that surrounds the Earth.
Some Christians take this affirmation and conclude from it that the Earth has been given into our hands by a model we might call “stewardship,” that we are to use the Earth wisely, managing it like we would our money or other possessions, but still with a sense that God has handed it over to us and that negative things we might do to the Earth should be understood only as mismanagement or simply as inefficiency. If we couple this model with a sense that the end of the world is imminent, we can see how a rather reckless approach to the natural world might result. The Earth is ours to do with as we please, but since Jesus is coming soon, we don’t have to worry too much about tomorrow.
Yet we Orthodox Christians do not see the Earth in this manner. Rather, we have experienced and continue to experience the incarnation of Jesus Christ, that the Son of God took on material, physical form. From this experience we know that the created world does not constitute a grand utility building, whose contents are just tools to be used “wisely.” This creation is not a toolshed. No, it is a temple. And, as a temple, it is holy.
The Psalms also tell us that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 18 (19):1). The same Psalm says “in the sun He set His tabernacle.” The same is true for all elements in creation, including mankind, for even our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). Where we as mankind sin is when we use either our own bodies or the body of this Earth as something other than a temple.
And if this world is a temple, a church, then the cathedral of the cosmos presupposes certain kinds of behaviors, and it also says something about what man is. Man is not simply a “steward” of creation. Rather, he is its priest. And what priest would desecrate his own church? Rather, mankind as creation’s priest offers up the created world to God, Who in turn blesses it and uses it for man’s healing and sanctification. This is the Orthodox Christian image for a true ecological vision.
Thus we can see that this world is not merely something to be “used,” as the “stewards” would have it. Nor, however, is it something to be worshiped, as certain environmentalists seem to prefer. A priest does not worship the temple. Rather, he worships the one true God within the temple.
When someone enters into a church, he understands that the church building, with its architecture, ornamentation, and beauty, is not an absolute in itself. That is, we who worship here do not do so in order to serve the temple. Rather, we serve God, in Whose temple we are. Those who say that Earth is our mother are thus encouraging us to idolatry, to turn our worship away from God Who is our Father to serve another purpose. The ancient Jews and the Christians who followed them quite deliberately did not cast the Earth as our mother. Rather, if we have God as our Father, it is the Church who is our mother, to echo the words of St. Cyprian of Carthage.
Throughout all the ages of mankind, the temptation to idolatry has always been present. In our own time, this idolatry manifests itself in a number of ways. There are two forms that are most prominent in our culture. The first is the idolatry of material possessions, which has been highlighted for us in many Gospel readings lately and is so visible before us at this time of year. The second is the idolatry of ideology, and it is this idolatry which we see so prominent in all our political culture, including the ongoing climate conference, and also in much of our religious culture.
Make no mistake that ideology is a kind of idolatry. It is not the same as philosophy or faith, which are guides and motivations for living in certain ways. Rather, ideology is a thought system which makes itself prevalent over all. Ideology demands obedience, not through freedom and persuasion as faith or philosophy do, but rather through force. Worst of all, ideology places the freedom and wellbeing of human persons beneath its own concerns.
With the ideologies of Communism and Nazism, the 20th century saw horrifyingly how absolute systems of thought—even based on ideas which are in themselves good, such as patriotism or economic well-being—necessitated the slaughter of many millions. What was important for Stalin, Hitler and others was that people served the ideology, not that they were loved or free. In the name of creating utopian paradises, millions were murdered. The depth of the irony would be laughable if it weren’t so tragically awful.
We can see this same dedication to ideology when certain environmental activists put spikes in trees, which can easily kill someone trying to cut them down with a chainsaw. These people have put their thought system ahead of human life. And though usually not as deadly, we can see this same approach even in religion, when people tear each other apart in service of their preferences and ideas. But of course there have been the Roman religious persecutions, the excesses of the Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms against Jews, the Jihads, and the regular fist-fights between clergy and monks in the very Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
If we are to live as Orthodox Christians, our service should be to God and to His children, not to any thought system. We worship the one true God within this temple, His creation, the cosmic cathedral. And what is worship? It is to give ourselves freely and fully to Him, and in so doing, commune with Him. And as we commune with Him, we commune with each other.
We do not serve an ideology, whether political or otherwise. We do not worship a thought system, and we have no absolute, rigidly-defined, systematic theology. We have the revelation of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Paul tears down these walls between us when he says today, “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.” When you approach this creation and the persons in it, consider that each place and each person has Christ mystically present within.
So as we see the news unfolding and wars of blood, rhetoric and economics being fought over ideology, let us remember the God Whom we worship. And in so doing, let us remember that this world and all of us are pillars in God’s holy temple. And not one of them should be desecrated.
To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.