Deepwater Horizon: Why Evangelical theology is helpless in the face of a catastrophic oil spill

The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan

Every so often, I think it’s okay to indulge in an inflammatory headline.

I recently read the lament “Ecological Catastrophe and the Uneasy Evangelical Conscience” by Russell D. Moore. It seems to have gotten a decent amount of circulation online, if only because it is written by an Evangelical Protestant talking about how ashamed he is that “environmentalism” has been the near exclusive realm of secularists and religious liberals, weeping over the “uneasy ecological conscience” of Evangelicals.

He goes on to explain why it is that Evangelicals should start taking notice of ecological issues: “When the natural environment is used up, unsustainable for future generations, cultures die. When Gulfs are dead, when mountaintops are removed, when forests are razed with nothing left in their place, when deer populations disappear, cultures die too.” He puts forward a highly anthropocentric theological view of the natural world, that it exists for the sake of human culture. Although this article appears new to many readers, at least in the sense that here is an Evangelical trying to talk seriously about ecological issues, the theology in it is really quite standard for Evangelicalism. It is the “stewardship” model, in which the Earth exists for man and pretty much not for any other reason. We should be nice to the Earth mainly because if we’re not, it’s not going to be a nice place to live.

Although Moore says “We’ve had an inadequate view of human sin,” he really does not break any new theological ground, except perhaps to allow for a slightly more communitarian understanding of human life. Culture and history are worth something here, and that is good. But Moore does not make the connection between human sin and the material creation. With this theology, one could theoretically justify wrecking almost any part of creation so long as doing so will not affect human culture. What is lacking here is any cosmology. The closest Moore gets to such a thing is in this passage: “Pollution kills people. Pollution dislocates families. Pollution defiles the icon of God’s Trinitarian joy, the creation of his theater.” But even with this image of creation being God’s “theater,” there is still a certain distance between the Creator and the creation.

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.

Every speck in creation is fundamentally the temple of the living God. As such, the most perfect expression of creation is the Eucharist, bread and wine which have become the Body and Blood of Christ, the Body and Blood of God.

When created matter has such possibilities, not just in the Eucharist as an “object” (which is why isolating it from communion for the sake of “adoration” as is done in the Latin church is a distortion), but in the sense that earthy, solid stuff can be the vehicle for God’s actual presence, His actual touch, then the view one takes toward the natural world is going to be decidedly different. The Earth is not just natural resources that need to be managed wisely. Rather, it is holy, and holiness is not to be “managed”:

We still build houses of prayer; we still consecrate certain material objects specifically for the worship of God. But the relationship between the “holy place” and the rest of the earth has changed fundamentally. The place of worship, and whatever belongs to it, is no longer an embattled enclave. It is now a revelation of the earth as it truly is, transparent to its Creator. Since Christ came into the world, his creation has become “secretly sacramental.” When we consecrate a place or an object, when we dedicate it to sacred use, we are showing our readiness to lift the veil of secrecy. (Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology, p. 177)

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.

It is not a terribly big leap from there to our dominant political culture, whose ecological focus is precisely on procedures, regulations, and legislation. Surely, there must be some kind of legal arrangement which could have prevented this disaster! Surely, there must be some kind of legal arrangement which will make up for it! The various fiascos with locals and internationals being ready to do some earthy work to get on with the cleanup being prevented from doing so because of lack of legal permission is yet another symptom of the anti-sacramental theology which dominates our culture, both religiously and politically. (In the end, of course, everything is religion, even politics.) What’s most important here is the System, not the Stuff.

It’s easy to sit back and make pronouncements about how all this could have been prevented, and most of them are now being worded in precisely these legal sorts of terms. Some are also saying that we somehow need to back off on our thirst for energy in general or for this kind of energy in particular. Some go more deeply and realize that the culture of perpetual economic growth is itself at the root of the problem. But I haven’t yet seen too many questions being asked about the kind of culture we might have if people saw the Earth as holy, as “secretly sacramental,” conveying through physical presence the divine energies.

Theology has consequences.

Update: One can see some slight hints of cosmological theology in this June 16, 2010, resolution from the Southern Baptist Convention (scroll to the second section), but there’s still no sense here that creation is actually holy. It really only has value because of man’s use of it and because it is loved by God and displays His glory and wisdom. There is still no theology here of material creation actually being the vehicle of divine sanctification.

14 comments:

  1. This is, in my opinion, one of your better posts. One of the things that drew me to Orthodoxy is its profound sacramentality. This is a challenge for Americans, and Americans provide a challenge for the Church-the pragmatism and utilitarianism rampant in our culture (even in Christianity), are not compatible with an Orthodox worldview. Nonetheless, they come in the door of the temple with us when we convert. It’s a poisonous world view, and it has to go-but it is such a part of being American that it is often neither noticed nor addressed. Converts coming from the leftist environs of our culture (like me), sometimes react to the errors of the left by going really far in the other direction. In order to get away from what they perceive as earth-worshipping neo-paganism, they will swing over to the idea that creation is just a dead thing for man’s use, ignoring the Church’s cosmic vision. It’s along the lines with thinking that capitalism is compatible with the Faith, full-stop, with no need for critique or purification (but that’s another screed for another day). 🙂 Good post, lots to think about.

  2. Fr. Dude

    Really nice post. I am amazed when looking at what passes for theology in the local “Christian Bookstore’, which is 90% pablum. Should be called a “Christian Head Shop”. Got some papers man?

    I really like how you can distill elements that I think about but am not as articulate in expressing.

    “Every speck in creation is fundamentally the temple of the living God. As such, the most perfect expression of creation is the Eucharist, bread and wine which have become the Body and Blood of Christ, the Body and Blood of God.”

    The biggest lack in Evangelicalism, sacrament. The Body and Blood!

  3. Father,

    I grew up with the stewardship model as I am certain you did as well, but I am so thankful for the fresh perspective of the Orthodox Faith, and you present it so well here.

    The thing that I find wonderful about all this, is that it somehow resonates with me deeply and personally. Even though I was brought up with the typical evangelical viewpoint, I had a natural tendency to work with nature to beautify it. Some natural wiring in me that desired to see all things as they ought to be… clean and cared for.

    I see this now as being in line with what you have said in the above post. Even today as I was tending to my lawn (my first piece of owned ground in the world) and had these thoughts about God’s Holy Temple. Of course you have played a role in further developing this in me, and I thank you!

    I wanted to note that my wife has expressed that she is truly with me now on my quest towards entering the Church! Glory to God!

    Blessings to you as I ask for your blessings as well,
    -g-

  4. “But there are no priests in Evangelical theology, except “the priesthood of all believers,” which certainly has believers, but not really any priests.”

    I heard this idea batted about often within Evangelicalism, and it was often used as a protest against the office of priests, esp. in the RCC. So, it was used as something in which to protest, yet there was/is an underlying implication that is far more problematic. What is being asserted is Christian egalitarianism. I have just as much of a right as a child of God to interpret the Scriptures as you do. I am just as much of a priest as you are.

    Now of course there may be those Evangelicals who would protest to what I’ve just said. Oh no, we have elders, pastors, etc. And yet, the responsibility of every Bible believing Christian within Evangelicalism is to make sure that the pastor is actually preaching true to the Word of God. So often I heard it said that I should not just trust what was being preached from the pulpit, but rather, read the Scriptures myself to test that what was being preached was indeed bliblical. And so, who is it in this paradigm that becomes the arbiter of one’s faith? Is it not the individual? And so it is that “church” is relegated to an untangible, nebulous identity. This is what happens when Apostolic Tradition is layed aside and ignored. “Do not remove the ancient landmarks which your Fathers have set.”

    So priests in Evangelicalism have little to do with offering up that with which God has deemed to bless us, and that which derives its life from the earth. Thus, sacrifice is misunderstood. Fasting,which is indeed a sacrifice, is often regarded as a rule or regulation that an overbearing church imposes on its members. Or a work of the flesh that is unnecessary. The Pentecostals in this regard at least consider that there is some benefit to fasting. And yet, Romans 12:1 instructs us to “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Recently this verse jumped out at me in a new way. “Spiritual” must indeed mean something far more than “nonmaterial” which is how I always thought of it before. Otherwise, why not say present your thoughts, or present your ideas, or present your mind. Rather, the picture here is that worship entails and involves the complete person. And so it is that Jesus’ words at the end of John 6 take on new meaning. “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

    1. I think you’re right in connecting the physical body with Romans 12:1, though I would be hesitant to assign the term sacrifice to fasting or other ascetical practices. The Fathers do not usually speak of asceticism in those terms, but rather in terms of the more literal meaning of askesis, i.e., athletic training.

      Maximos the Confessor locates the center of the Fall of man in his will, and it is the Fall which has caused us to become “choosy” people, i.e., that we waver between one choice and another. Our natural state (how God created us) is to do the good without having to make choices. As such, asceticism’s purpose is to bring the will back toward our created nature rather than in the fragmented, chaotic state the Fall gave it. It is autexousion, “self-governance,” our ability to control ourselves and be truly in charge of ourselves.

      So, yes, I do think that there is a sense in which asceticism is sacrificial, but only in the sense that our place as the priests of this world is to offer up every part of created matter to God for His sanctification and then return to us. Sacrifice understood this way (which is probably how you meant it) is truly an appropriate characterization for fasting. We just have to make sure that we’re not thinking of it in terms of “giving up” something in order to “get” something else.

  5. Father,

    Thank you for your response. I am still learning.

    You said, “Our natural state (how God created us) is to do the good without having to make choices. As such, asceticism’s purpose is to bring the will back toward our created nature rather than in the fragmented, chaotic state the Fall gave it. It is autexousion, “sef-governance,” our ability to control ourselves and be truly in charge of ourselves.”

    How would you apply the verse in Gen 4:7 to this concept? “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door, its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Here there is a picture of overcoming evil. So in some sense, are we not faced with good and evil each day, and doesn’t that involve a choice? And, isn’t God glorified when we “do well” and choose each day whom we will serve? So should it be our goal that in choosing to do what is right over time, there no longer remains so muc a “choice” but rather, a natural way of living?

    Also, in reference to fasting, it is my understanding (and I could be wrong), that the fast during Great Lent is the one an Orthodox Christian takes most seriously. So, while the Apostle’s Fast is important, it is not incumbant upon an Orthodox Christian to observe it? IOW, the Lenten Fast is more obligatory than the other fasts, and if an Orthodox Christian doesn’t observe the others, or bends the rules a bit (so to speak) and isn’t as steadfast, it’s not considered quite as serious.

    Please understand, it is not my intention to see what I can get away with. Rather, I would like to know what the general consensus is within the Orthodox Church as a whole. Which brings me to my final question. Are certain jurisdictions more strict than others, or does the rule of fasting and its adherence really come down to each individual believer and how committed they are to ascesis?

    1. God’s comments to Cain are in the context of a post-lapsarian world (i.e., after the Fall), so mankind has no choice(!) but to be “choosy.” But that is not how our nature was created. We were not created to waver between many choices. There is nothing sinful in suffering that effect of the Fall, but it is certainly an indication of our imperfection, just as the blameless passions are (e.g., hunger, thirst). Asceticism is a return of our will to will only the good, to make our eye “single.”

      Regarding the details of fasting, those are questions best brought to your father-confessor. Generally, though, yes the Great Fast preceding Pascha is usually regarded as the most important. These things have always been applied by confessors in a very personal and “customized” fashion, however, which is at it should be.

  6. Thank you, Fr. Andrew:

    “But I haven’t yet seen too many questions being asked about the kind of culture we might have if people saw the Earth as holy, as ‘secretly sacramental,’ conveying through physical presence the divine energies.

    Theology has consequences.”

    This is such natural *theology*, while Evangelical thought seems counter-intuitive.

    Non-theology has its consequences . . .

    1. Just be wary of the term natural theology, which is something like natural law, but probably worse! 🙂

      As for “non-theology,” I don’t really think there is such a thing. Everything is theological, because everything ultimately aims toward making sense of the world through transcendent virtues. Even Nietzsche couldn’t quite escape that, though he did a better job of it than most atheists have since.

  7. Thank you for a great post.. I agree that it’s one of your bests.

    One of my perspectives on the specific disaster is that illuminates how the distraction of the Eco-Apocalypse may have deterred us from the more pragmatic here-and-now tasks that we could and should be about. It’s as if we would rather be paused by a remote “the world is disappearing” issue and do a little on preventing something beyond our control than to take up our cross and do something about which we do have control – not because we’re saving the earth or something dramatic – but simply because it reflects an attitude of trying to make things better for those that follow us, or for someone besides “us”… it’s less about me and more about what’s good for God’s green earth… because it’s about being faithful and obedient. But that’d be boring, huh?

    And it also says something about us that those trying to make us see the value of doing the small things long ago gave up and shifted to an apocalyptic projection to get our attention… because perhaps we wouldn’t listen to anything of a lesser scale.

    Of course the whole of this suggests a secular need for a religious context and a desire to create a separate eco-theology in parallel rather than fuel this need with the authentic truth of the Cross also says a lot about where we are in this cultural milieu and our unwillingness to lift the cross as we find it but rather pick up another of our own choosing.

    Seems no shortage of opportunities for teaching on these matters. But who has ears? Thank you for a start.

  8. Hello Fr. Damick,
    Thank you for the great post! It is exciting to see the wealth of comments generated. I had begun a response of my own about a week back, which began to be a bit lengthy, so I put it as a post on my own blog. If you have time, you can read it at http://battermyheartblog.blogspot.com/2010/06/ecology-evangelicalism-big-o-orthodoxy.html. I hope you and your readers find it of interest, since it comes from within a more or less Evangelical/Protestant view. Also, I’d appreciate any comments or criticisms of my post on your behalf!
    Regards,
    Phil

      1. Fr. Andrew,
        Thanks for the response! I posted some initial clarifications that might be helpful, as I do agree with some of what you mentioned. I look forward to listening to your lecture at Bucknell that you referenced, and may have some further comments afterward.
        God bless,
        Phil

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