Acton Institute Powerblog

Review: An Orthodox Christian Natural Law Witness

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Like many, my first encounter with Orthodox theology was intoxicating. Here, finally, in the works of thinkers such as Vladimir Lossky, John Meyendorf and Alexander Schmemann and others I found an intellectually rigorous approach to theology that was biblical and patristic in its sources, mystical in its orientation and beautiful in its language.

But over the years I have found a curious lacunae in Orthodox theology.

For all that it is firmly grounded in the historical sources of the Christian tradition, Orthodox theology often lacks what Elizabeth Theokritoff in her book Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology calls “the practical application” that is central to patristic thought. “There is a temptation [for Orthodox Christians] to say, ‘Look, it’s all in the Fathers'” as if somehow this solves all of life’s problems (p. 253). However fidelity to patristic theology requires more than simply reading the Fathers. As the Fathers did in their own time, I must wrestle with the intellectual and practical concerns of the contemporary world with an eye to redeeming the time (see Ephesians 5:16).

Theokritoff wrestles with the cosmological and anthropological implications of Orthodox theology as they apply to contemporary concerns about the environment. In so doing she sketches out what I would call a theory of natural law grounded in the Scriptures, the Fathers and the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church. For many outside the Orthodox Church, and for not a few within, the notion that there even is an Orthodox understanding of natural law might come as a surprise. But such tradition exists and while Theokritoff does not use the term, her work is very much a work concerned with natural law.

Following St. Maximus the Confessor, Theokritoff argues that as a “‘bond of unity’ in creation,” humanity’s vocation “is progressively to unite the disparate aspects of the created order, and ultimately to unite the whole with God” (p. 31). For this reason, “It is necessary to accept that human beings are the cause of the world’s plight.” Unlike many in the environmental movement however, the author does not  take this to mean that humanity is a blight or a cancer on the enviroment. Rather she argues “that we are also God’s chosen instruments through which all things are to be brought to fulfillment in Christ” (p. 32).

That said, it is not all together clear to me what, if anything, are the author’s specific environmental goals. What, in other words, does she hope us to accomplish as we work to bring all things to fulfillment in Christ? And how, in a practical way, are we to accomplish this?

These are not trivial questions. And to assert, as she does, that it is “not the task of theology to come up with such solutions” is less than satisfying. This is doubly the case given that she thinks policies such as fair trade, population control, and reduced consumption and production in the West are appropriate Christian means of caring for the environment (p. 30).

On the last page of the book there is a trivial illustration of the author’s uncritical identification of the tradition of the Orthodox Church with her own preferred environmental policies. Rightly, as the author reminds us, “there is no path to the Kingdom except through a thousand ordinary, humdrum decisions.” But is it also true to say, as she suggests, that “recycling a sheet of paper . . . is a practical assent to [God’s] plan of salvation. . . . [and] signals our willingness to be co-workers with the Almighty in bring his creation to the fulfillment for which it was made” (p. 265)? Maybe, but not necessarily.

While I disagree with author’s progressive politics and policies, it is important to note that Theokritoff offers her suggestions in a spirit of humility. As she writes, “there will sometimes be genuine differences among Christians about the practicalities of remedying various ills” (p. 30). True enough, but I do wish that the author had left her own politics completely out of the book or, having included them, she engaged those who disagree with her.

While we certainly ought not to minimize the seriousness of Theokritoff’s policy suggestions, — especially what I would argue are her misguided and very dangerous flirtation with population control — the real strength of the book is in her articulation of an Orthodox approach to natural law grounded in Scripture and the Church Fathers and embodied in Christian worship and the lives and witnesses of the saints. Living in God’s Creation offers us a rich cosmological and anthropological vision that has implications not only for the environment but also economics and politics and it raises themes worthy of further exploration and study.

Rev. Gregory Jensen The Rev. Gregory Jensen is a psychologist of religion and a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. (Orthodox Church in America). He also blogs at Koinonia and The American Orthodox Institute. Fr. Gregory was a Lone Mountain Fellow with the Bozeman, Mont.-based Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC) during the summer of 2013.


  • Father, I’ve just found the Acton Institute and I’m happy to have found another Orthodox Christian.

    Thank you for reviewing the book in a charitable way that nevertheless expresses your misgivings. I for one don’t need tripe about population control ala Margaret Sanger in the guise of Orthodox theology or philosophy.

    To me, environmentalists need to make their case in a way that exonerates their policies as a cover for needless expansion of state power.

    I’m also really skeptical when the only Orthodox stuff on ecology comes from SVS and writers on the modernist fringe of the Church.

  • Roger McKinney

    Environmentalists would help the debate enormously if they would refrain from asserting that anyone who disagrees with their solutions is anti-environment and wants to see everything covered in concrete. Socialists (progressives) do the same thing with poverty: if you oppose a minimum wage, then you must hate the poor and want them to starve to death. I get that over and over from socialists. It’s really tiring and I suspect their goal is to silence any disagreement.

  • Isaac and Roger,

    Thank you both for your comments.

    There is always a temptation, not unique to environmentalists by the way, to seek to exempt one’s positions from criticism by laying claim the moral high ground. Whether this caring for the needs of the poor, protecting the environment or preaching the Gospel the idea is that because I am doing a good thing, my motives and actions ought not to be questioned.

    Comforting as this is to my ego, it is a recipe for moral and spiritual disaster. It is also, not incidentally, to work for the failure of the very project I would exempt from critical analysis.

    Anyway, thank you both for your thought provoking comments.


  • Nathaniel

    Father Gregory,

    A wonderful review; thank you! I am interested in “environmentalism” in Orthodoxy, and this book is on my list to read. I’m not sure if they’ve been published, but I know that Seraphim (Bruce) Foltz has written on Orthodox environmentalism specifically through the lens of Dostoyevsky’s writings. He has presented papers on this topic at a couple of SOPHIA conferences. I just thought you might be interested in case you want to look him up (he’s at Eckerd College, I believe).

    in Christ,

  • Nathaniel,

    Thanks for the kind words and for letting me know about Foltz’s new book. I will keep an eye out for it.


  • Due to some combination of vanity and prudence, I periodically conduct a Google search using my own name, and this time I discovered that I was mentioned with regard to what I think is overall a fine book–which does not mean that I do or do not endorse any practical conclusions it may suggest. If anyone is interested in seeing my own views, a fairly accessible talk is posted on the blog of Vatopedi Monastery on Mt Athos:
    As a convert of some ten years, I can say that Orthodoxy has been a great haven for me from seeing the work of the Church appropriated for political ends, either of the left or of the right. (Which is just to say that it is traditional Christianity, concerned with the pursuit of holiness, rather than the Ersatz pursuit of salvation within the political sphere, one the most noxious heresies of modernity.) At the same time, I am increasingly distanced from environmentalism, with whose philosophical formulations I have been associated for some thirty years. It is being gradually appropriated by neo-pagan sensibilities on the one hand, and statist zeal on the other. Anti-environmentalists, however, should remember that some of the great environmentalist successes have been associated with conservatives (T. Roosevelt and R. Nixon, as well as numerous Sierra Club founders, come easily to mind. And Thoreau and Muir would surely have to be seen as libertarians.) And if such critics are theistically inclined, they should take another look at the keen appreciation for what St Isaac the Syrian called “the glory of God revealed in creation” that is everywhere on display in the Psalms. I have long held (not infrequently to hostile audiences) that our care for creation (if I may put it in theological terms) is too important to yoke it to partisan agendas of either the right or the left.

  • Bruce Foltz,

    Thank you for your comments and the link to your presentation,

    Thinking about what you wrote, I realize that I was not precise in my review. As you point put, the Gospel cannot be placed at the service of politics–whether those of the left or the right. At the same time, and I think you suggest this in your comment, not all public policies are equal relative to the Gospel.

    I appreciate the balance with which you approach the issue, I am stymied by your last comment that the environment is an issue to important to “yoke it to partisan agendas of either the right or the left.” As a practical matter what does this mean?

    In politics, or so it seem to me, there are winners and losers in policy debates. Assuming what you mean by not wedding our policies to a partisan agenda is that we should work toward a broad consensus, how do we do that? I don’t expect you to have an answer (though I’d be great if you did!)–but it seems to me that even if we agree on the theology of Creation, we still need to give that theology form in our policy decisions.

    While theology should be part of the public debate about the environment, I think it has negative, though salutary, role to play. It can tell us what not to do, but I am not sure that theology as such can tell us what we are to do