Orthodoxy and the Environment

I remember in the balmy days before the pandemic struck and shoved every other news story out of the journalistic limelight that there was a lot of attention paid to the environment. Up here in Canada, for example, one day the news was dominated by the protests over the building of an oil pipeline and how this pipeline would spell doom for us all. Protestors had stopped the trains from running in Quebec (with the inevitable economic impact that brought) and demanded that the Prime Minister meet with them to discuss their demands. There was shouting, and pleading, and bargaining, and apologizing (this being Canada), and handwringing, and more shouting. Then the pandemic hit and it all vanished overnight. It is, I suppose, a lesson in how much control media actually exerts in our culture and our lives.

Concern for the environment is just and right, and conscientious people ought to take thought for such things. But it seems to me that concern for the environment has morphed into environmentalism—i.e. into a kind of religion, taking its place next to other religious “isms”. It seems also to form a staple among the “woke” left, providing ample opportunities for virtue signalling. Getting arrested at an environmental protest is now a bit like getting a merit badge: it bestows rank and haloed sanctity.

It also is a comparatively safe cause to embrace, for the environment is a motherhood issue and everyone agrees that the environment should be protected. It is quite unlike other protest causes, such as abortion or gay rights. Those protesting abortion or the normalization of homosexuality are almost certain to be pilloried in the press and publicly crucified. No such social risk attends protesting a pipeline. That is perhaps why the Green Patriarch is keen to be green: protesting pollution is unlikely to result in time spent in the pillory. In his book Encountering the Mystery His All-holiness spoke much about the necessity of protecting the environment; I do not recall any comparable words in the book about the necessity of protecting the lives of the unborn.

Anyway, the media looks kindly upon environmental causes, so that environmentalists like David Suzuki have practically been canonized. Indeed, the cause is almost beyond the reach of critique. It now attracts oddments: I remember seeing a quote ascribed to St. John of Damascus that “the whole earth is a living icon of the face of God”. It hardly needs stating that St. John said nothing of the kind. Those ascribing the quote to the Damascene were probably remembering modern author Veronica della Dora. In her book Landscape, Nature, and the Sacred in Byzantium, in a section entitled, “the earth as an icon”, she wrote, “In medieval Byzantium…both image and place were experienced as a relation between the visible and the invisible… ‘From the creation of the world the invisible things of God are made clear by the visible creation’, John of Damascus wrote”. Only sloppy scholarship misreading the text would garble the quote and ascribe it to St. John. But that is the point: environmentalism is now fashionable enough to attract such oddities.

These oddities must not tempt us into the opposite extreme of ignoring the environment or writing off present dangers and present opportunities. We must therefore ask: what does Orthodoxy have to say about the environment? We look at three texts from Holy Scripture.

In Genesis 1:26 we read, “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over everything that creeps on the earth”. The word here rendered “have dominion” is the Hebrew radah. In Numbers 24:19 it is used to describe a conqueror; in Ezekiel 34:4 it describes the power of rulers and kings. The idea here in Genesis is of mankind’s power to tame the wild and unruly, to domesticate, to turn a jungle into a garden. The world left untended is a dangerous place, inhospitable for human life. God gave us the mandate and authority to bend it to our will so that we can find a home here. One can, of course, exercise this dominion badly, exploiting and depleting, turning the jungle into a desert. But the possible misuse of authority does not cancel its proper use. Mankind is meant to exercise godly dominion over creation as God’s stewards.

Also significant for understanding our relationship to the environment is Deuteronomy 20:19, which reads, “When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field men that they should be besieged by you?” This precept refers to Israel’s behaviour in waging war, yet it contains wisdom beyond its immediate cultural context. Yahweh commands respect for the creation that He has made, so that nothing should be harmed unnecessarily—including the trees of the forest, which some would cut down as part of a scorched earth policy in time of war. Yahweh’s Law is clear: the trees are no threat to you; leave them alone.

We see this same concern for the humblest parts of creation in Deuteronomy 22:6 which reads, “If you come across a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young.” In other words, God’s people must protect God’s creation, as His stewards. They may eat the eggs, but there is no reason to harm the mother along with the eggs.

What goes for the mother bird in her nest goes for other things, such as the earth’s ozone layer, as well as all the other parts of God’s creation. Mankind was created with authority over the world, to rule and protect it in God’s Name as His co-regents. Bluntly put, we may not harm the earth, for it does not belong to us, but to God. We are creation’s steward, not its owner. We are rulers of the earth in precisely the same sense that kings were rulers over their people—viz. we are called to protect it so that it can thrive. Rulers are often called shepherds in the Bible, and a shepherd protects the most defenceless of his flock.

It is not clear how this broad principle works out in every individual situation; that is what makes politics so complex and so interesting. To build a pipeline or not to build, that is the question, and the answer is found as part of the answer to many other questions—usually very complex questions. Not having the answers to these questions, I am hardly in a position to express much an opinion on this specific issue here. But the fundamental principle involved in all such environmental issues is clear enough—we must do what we can to protect the earth upon which we live in order to show gratitude to our Creator for the gift of creation. The complexities of individual questions should not be allowed to deflect us from this fundamental task.

Angry protests and theological oddities can sometimes serve to discredit concern for the environment as the issue becomes ever more politicized. Such politicization tends to divide and polarize, so that people find it easier to shout loudly than to think rationally, to denounce vehemently than to debate calmly. A calm Orthodox head will resist such politicization and polarization, and turn instead to the Scriptures to find answers. These Scriptures teach us that loving God involves loving all that He has made, including our environment. They also teach us that shouting is rarely found in the path of wisdom. Loving creation and treating it with respect begins with that part of creation nearest to us—namely, our neighbour, whatever his political views. It is only as we treat our opponents with love and respect that we will be in a position to find the answers to the questions confronting us.



  1. Nicely stated. Protecting the priceless earth takes wisdom and wisdom will be vindicated by her children Luke 7: 35. Of course as a mother, I care about my children and when my children or the men who say they love me do not respect me and restrict my freedom, pollute my home and exploit my many gifts or use me as merely a producer ….with no say in how much I produce or when …and with whom…I cry, I shed tears and I go away with a crest fallen face. The environment like a woman needs a Bridegroom, a husband, who will be a good steward. And that husband needs to respect his Bride and all her riches including her faith and wisdom and let her develop them for profit and have a say in the size of their family and how that family is governed.

  2. Current environmentalism has become in many cases a sort of neo-paganism that seeks to protect the divine earth FROM human beings who are the disease, even a cancer on the earth rather than the Traditional Christian understanding you articulate that the earth and the rest of creation is to be protected FOR human beings and all of the rest of the divinely inter-connected life God brought out of nothingness.

    Creation is a icon revealing God. But like all icons it is designed to bring us closer to Him. It is not some weird “thing in itself”.
    Oddly the more extreme “human beings are cancer” crowd are more interested in subjecting others to their particular form of cancer than curing anything.
    If they were logically consistent, they would conduct a massive suicide after murdering every one who does not agree. Some have actually taken those steps-fortunately badly.

    This is the land that God has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.

  3. In our age, if you truly cared about the environment, you would become a vegan. If christ saw how much the forests we destroy for livestock, if he saw how we rape and torture and murder millions of animals so we can enjoy a burger and some milk, he would be appaled.

    1. Lord have mercy! The Orthodox fasting discipline followed in living obedience and thanksgiving would do more because He does see what we eat and the environmental consequences of our choices.
      Fact is good ranchers practice good husbandry.. Dressing and keeping the earth in the process. God gave us meat to eat. Try locally sourced meats. Or be a vegan, not out of guilt or shame but in thanksgiving for His bounty.
      Environmental dogmatism is not the answer.
      Everything we do or don’t do had consequences. The massive wind turbine blades are apparently not recyclable plus the turbines themselves kill a lot of birds.
      Everything is interconnected. Naturally and through the Incarnation, supernaturally which is a big part of sacramental theology and our salvation.
      We will be and are being held accountable for all we do, yet His mercy endures forever.
      The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.
      Fast, pray, give alms, repent and give glory to God by participating in His Sacraments in thanksgiving.

    2. Absolutely agree – even though God gave the commandment of mankind to have dominion over all of creation, in the same breath He also told them that it was the plants and fruits that were to be their food as part of His original design. The torture and murdering of billions of animals – sentient living creatures all capable of experiencing joy and pain – in the name of pleasure, customs, or convenience, is very appalling. One of the most thorough documentaries on this subject is called Dominion and can be viewed here: https://www.dominionmovement.com/watch

      I don’t believe it’s coincidence that monastics – not just Orthodox, but other religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism – are all vegetarian as part of their spiritual practices.

      1. Quite so. The dominion we were meant to exercise is far removed from the heartless exploitation and destruction that far too often characterizes the human race.

  4. After the Flood He expanded the mandate: Genesis 9 That is not to say that eating vegetarian is not better and it is the basis of the Orthodox fast for a reason. That being said, I have been doing environmental stuff for about 50 years now and the only way I have seen any real change is in the process of repentance. Anything else is capitalized, politicized and bowdlerized and often things get worse.
    Personally, I only have so many areas of concern I can handle and I am much more concerned with why there are so few Afro-Americans and Native Americans aka Indigenous Peoples in the Orthodox Church and why we allow Her to be still dominated by both passive and active ethnic cabals.
    It is so much easier to feel good “saving the environment” as if it is separate from us than it is to offer up all of the environmental toxins and pollutants in my own heart in actual contrition–allowing God to detoxify and rebuild the soil of my soul so that He may bring forth an abundant harvest.
    Lord Jesus Christ forgive the hardness, selfishness and judgements in my heart and reconcile me with my brothers, sisters and the rest of Your glorious creation. Lord God of Hosts have mercy on us and save us. Lighten our suffering and heal our land that there be a bountiful harvest full of all the beautiful flowers you have made: white, brown, red and yellow.

    1. As to the second part of your comment, Mr. Bauman, blacks and other ethnicities have their own “ethnic cabals” (black southern Baptists, Korean Presbyterians, all Egyptian Coptic churches). We are not the only ones with this problem.
      Secondly, if one just looks at who recently hijacked the Greek Archdiocese and is staging a coup-detat, so to speak, transforming the Archdiocese into a Turkish version of the “Greek Church–what rational minded person–regardless of ethnicity–wants to be part of that?
      Our churches our often run by those who have no concept of what the Church is, nor care. I hope we can change this with prayer and working together.

      1. Anon, no one of right mind would follow the Greeks right now precisely because they are the epitome of a conscious ethnic cabal.
        You might want to take a look at The Fellowship of St. Moses the Black. Multi-jurisdictional for one thing. Young and old and in between.

    2. Caring about racial issues is good but I don’t understand why it would be mutually exclusive from caring about what you put on your dinner plate. In fact, it’s interesting that slave owners in American history used many of the exact same excuses that people justify the abuse of animals nowadays:
      – they’re my property, I can do with them as I want
      – we’ve always done it that way
      – they’re different from us
      – it’s just a part of nature
      – it’s ok, I treat them well
      – I don’t tell you how to live your life, don’t tell me how to live mine
      – the Bible says it’s allowed

      Please note that I am not equating the two issues, although I think that both are horrible, simply that similar lines of reasoning have been used to cause untold and completely unnecessary suffering.

      A 2018 environmental study from Oxford concluded that becoming vegan was the single biggest change that an individual person could do to reduce their environmental impact with a drastic reduction in land and water use as well as pollution – changes that would have a significant positive impact not only on the environment but would also easily allow greater food production and reduce worldwide starvation. The lead researcher was not vegan before beginning the study but changed before the research was even finished due to the overwhelming evidence.

      Many of the top leading causes of death including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes all have a direct connection to eating animals or their by-products – our bodies and our physiology was not designed for this type of diet and we reap the consequences with sickness and poor health.

      To bring it back to Father’s article as well as Mark’s comment above, it just seems that as Christians, choosing to make such a simple and direct change in our own life (I would encourage everyone to watch the previously mentioned Dominion documentary) which in turn would have such a positive effect on saving innocent lives, preventing unnecessary cruelty and suffering, protecting the environment, and caring for our own health would be the better thing to do.

      People often become defensive and come up with their own list of excuses in order to continue on with their current way of life, but if we look forward to the life of the world to come, where the lion will lie down with the lamb and all of God’s Creation will live together in peace and harmony, why not do all we can now?

      1. No matter what we do individually this world won’t be saved and there will always be suffering. We want to take burden of saving the world on our own weak backs and we ponder about global issues, it is the wish for the kingdom of this world.
        Veganism as presented by you is a real secular religion.

        1. No, it’s not about saving the world, it’s about not causing unnecessary suffering. There is already enough of it, why would you want to add any more?

          People like to expound about global this or that, yet they refuse to make any personal changes in their own life. As I mentioned above, it’s easy for people to come up with a list of reasons why they will continue on with their current way of life – how can saving the lives of a few innocent animals change anything in the world? With the example of slavery that I compared it to, abolishing slaves didn’t change the world, so by your line of reasoning people may as well have kept doing it since it didn’t make a change.

          Global is so generalized as to become meaningless, it’s specific personal actions that have meaning. Victims aren’t some faceless entity, they are real and individual living beings. Ask the slave who was freed whether that made a difference in the world – they probably wouldn’t care, what mattered is that they were free. Ask an animal if saving their life changed the world – again it wouldn’t matter to them, the fact is that they want to live and their life was spared. The Good Samaritan didn’t start a global program for helping the needy, he helped the injured person there right in front of him.

  5. What I do not like is the manner in which thr first poster addressed the question. One thing we must be careful with is coming to a solution that is worse than the disease. That will happen if the environment is looked upon as something separate that we can fix without repentance and we become too emotional about it. Mostly, as I said, I only have so much energy to use. The truth is that none of the issues of modernity are separate. They all manifest because of our denial of and separation an Incarnate God. Working on one in accord with the Truth will allow the Grace of God to manifest. We will be _Dressing and Keeping the Earth as we are commanded to do.

    By all means if you feel called to address the sinful way in which human beings misuse and rape the good gift of God that is a great sin. May God guide you and strengthen you. It is needed.

    As far as the lack of participation in the Church of Afro-Americans, and Native Americans that has nothing to do with history per se but my own heart now.

  6. There is only one way for man to ‘save’ the creation: to give thanks to God for it and offer it back to Him in gratitude. No one exploits or destroys that for which one is thankful, even as one partakes of it The whole of creation is a cosmic eucharist in which we are the priests.

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