I learned my first psalms in public school. As I recall, they were Psalm 23 and Psalm 100. No one looked funny at the teacher when she introduced the topic and no one objected. First, we didn’t know we were allowed to object, and, second, none of us would have known any reason for not doing such a thing. We were a diverse class of children: with both Baptists and Methodists. We were too poor to have Presbyterians and Episcopalians. A number of children in the class could have been “military Protestant,” since there was an Air Force Base nearby. This was a commonplace thing in my 1950’s and 60’s childhood. I was probably 9 or 10 before I met someone who identified as Catholic.
This obviously contrasts with our present culture. American mobility, in every possible direction, has created a far more diverse culture. The religious assumptions that once bound the nation together (Eisenhower proclaimed, “Attend the Church or Synagogue of your choice!”) have disappeared. But this diversity is only seen if the present is compared to the past. Religion is as strong as ever.
The Green Religion
The word “religion” is related to the word “ligament.” It comes from a Latin root meaning “to bind together.” It is unclear whether religion originally referred to binding a sacrifice to an altar, or binding oneself with an oath (the ancients debated these meanings). But it is clear that there is a “religion” that binds the people of a culture together. If there were nothing in common, no shared obligation, a culture would disintegrate. The question would be: what is the religion of America (or anywhere else)?
I could anticipate a long list of comments with suggestions for America’s religion candidates. “Progress” is obviously part of its theological package. The same could be said about the notions of “freedom” (meaning “autonomy”) and “rights.” I would likely throw “entertainment” into the mix. There are other more compelling candidates.
If you queried anyone under 21, you would likely hear some sort of notions about the environment and the planet, whether under the notion of “climate change” or some other perceived crisis. God is an abstraction that is considered optional. However, the “planet” has come to have a consensus, even an international consensus, that can only be described as “religious” in nature. A patriarch can proudly wear the badge of “Green Patriarch,” perhaps primarily because it reassures the world that Orthodoxy is friendly to the larger “religion.” We like the planet, too.
It is not incorrect to describe the whole creation as sacrament, as has become increasingly popular in Orthodox circles. It is, however, problematic to mistake this for mere environmentalism. That would be nothing more than saying creation is important and that we have a moral duty to care for it. The most polluted stream and poisoned atmosphere remains as sacramental as it was in its pristine state. To speak of the material world as sacrament is to say something profoundly unlike anything the various iterations of the Green movement have ever imagined.
What Do We Mean By Sacrament?
So, what does it mean to say that something is a sacrament? In Orthodox terms, “sacrament” is used for the Greek word, “mysterion” (mystery). That word, far more appropriate than “sacrament,” speaks to the true nature of things. A “mystery” suggests that something is hidden and not clearly known, at least by the casual observer. St. Paul uses the term to refer to the whole work of Christ. In the mysteries (sacraments) of the Church, created things become the means by which we have communion with God. In these mysteries, “that which is hidden” is made known to believers and becomes the very source of their life.
What seems to be overlooked in the growing popularity of “creation as sacrament” is any proclamation that the nature of created reality is “mystical” (in the sense of ecclesial mystery) or “sacramental” at its very core. What is it about creation that makes it a sacrament? Fr. Alexander Schmemann has probably the best contemporary presentation of this question:
In the Orthodox ecclesial experience and tradition a sacrament is understood primarily as a revelation of the genuine nature of creation, of the world, which, however much it has fallen as “this world,” will remain God’s world, awaiting salvation, redemption, healing and a sacrament is primarily a revelation of the sacramentality of creation itself, for the world was created and given to man for conversion of creaturely life into participation in divine life. (The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom)
Creation is a sacrament, not in and of itself, but because it only properly exists as communion with God. Creation as non-sacrament is a distortion of reality and a movement towards non-existence. Again, Fr. Alexander:
The world is a fallen world because it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. The accumulation of this disregard for God is the original sin that blights the world. (For the Life of the World)
I would amend this to say that it is not simply our loss of awareness, but our loss of communion. We live oblivious to the truth of our existence and that of the world.
What If We Cleaned It Up?
Our world thinks largely in political terms (not in terms of political parties, but in terms of the use of power to make things be what we want them to be). Conversations about the environment, climate change, and the like, are not conversations about communion. They are secular discussions of how power should be wielded.
If the so-called secular powers agreed tomorrow to massive clean-ups and climate accommodation, and every dire prediction were met with resolve and corrected, were the planet to return to some pre-industrial paradise where everything ran on solar power and the oceans and rivers became clean, plastic-free happy fish zones – none of this would mean anything in terms of the sacramental character of creation. That is not to say that any of those things would be bad, but they would not be what is intended when the Church speaks of the creation as sacrament.
The environmental troubles associated with modern industrial society are, like all troubles, indicative of sin – our broken communion with God – and particularly our broken communion with God through the creation itself. Our present global economy increases and exacerbates this brokenness. The sin that marks creation is our own abstracted, distanced relation in which the world is objectified (as are people).
In my small town, there are four or five grocery chains. If you want to eat fish, you’ll often find that it comes either from China, or some other distant supplier. It means that I have no relationship with the fish apart from a cooler in the store. I do not know the circumstances of their origin (other than the vague generalities printed on packaging). If their origin creates an environmental disaster, it is somewhere else in the world. There are no local consequences.
Globalization is life in the abstract where the only consideration is price and availability. If a city’s water supply and vacation spots were located downstream from meat-producing farms, the problems associated with farming and industrial run-off would be more obvious. You cannot be a good steward with an abstraction, much less enter into communion.
I recall the small vegetable garden of my childhood. My father nourished and cared for the soil of that 20×20 plot with true devotion. We ate fresh vegetables all summer with an attention to their quality that seemed quite personal. In late summer the plot was replanted with turnip greens, the likes of which I have never found in my adulthood.
Imagine your marriage as an online relationship. You met online, dated online, and were married in an electronic ceremony. You’ve never touched each other or seen each other in person. Perhaps, five years into the relationship, you discovered you’ve been married to an artificial intelligence program. How could you have known? Communion (as in a marriage) cannot exist as an abstraction.
By the same token, creation as a sacrament must be tasted, touched, seen, felt, heard, even digested, absorbed and breathed. St. Paul made this observation concerning the relationship between man and wife:
…husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church… (Eph. 5:28-29)
This is the proper beginning for understanding and living with creation as sacrament. It is not a “thing,” an “object” outside of myself. It is not the stage on which I act or the backdrop of history. It is not just where I live; it is my life. And it is into my life that God is incarnate and through which He continues to unite Himself to us. We do not unite ourselves to God apart from water, wine, oil – all the elements of His creation. This water is my own self, the holy meeting place in which I am united with God (and so forth). Fr. Alexander says it well:
It is only when we give up freely, totally, unconditionally, the self-sufficiency of our life, when we put all its meaning in Christ, that the ‘newness of life’ – which means a new possession of the world – is given to us. The world then truly becomes the sacrament of Christ’s presence, the growth of the Kingdom and of life eternal. (For the Life of the World)
Glory to God.