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Creation and the Heart of Man: ‘Orthodox and not Libertarian’

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Creation Heart ManToday at Ethika Politika, Alfred Kentigern Siewers reviews Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism, Acton’s recent Orthodox Christian social thought monograph by Fr. Michael Butler and Prof. Andrew Morriss. Siewers offers a nuanced and critical review, being well-read in the literature himself, and ultimately welcomes the monograph as a missing voice in the broader conversation of Orthodox Christianity and creation care.

Siewers writes,

[I]n its introductory opening chapter, the authors clearly set forth their objection to what they see as a “deep left bias” in the increasingly growing library of literature on Orthodox Christian approaches to nature. Specifically, they bemoan the following: what they see as a lack of policy prescriptions drawn directly from Orthodox tradition; “the subordination of the Tradition to preexisting political or environmental agenda”; a tendency of such writings to be overly critical of Western society; and impractical policy recommendations. In this it criticizes some of the environmental statements of Patriarch Bartholomew, as well as of the post-communist Russian Orthodox Synod, but runs the risk of falling into its own critique.

Its emphases and discussion tend toward a particular kind of American conservative perspective, with an emphasis on free markets, rather than a more paleo-conservative concern about modernity along neo-agrarian lines, or the American Enterprise Institute’s Roger Scruton’s Green Philosophy with its “Red Tory” approach. More esoteric but creative approaches—such as geo-libertarianism and anarcho-monarchism—also aren’t considered, although the monograph does in a needed way open discussion further on alternatives to statist approaches and details how the latter work against the kind of spiritual transfiguration required in Orthodox cosmic theology.

Indeed, in the end the work is Orthodox and not libertarian, excellent in its rich outline of both patristic writings and a variety of contemporary scholars as well as the writings and lives of holy saints and elders (across a spectrum of approaches and views). For example, the authors do also positively address ideas of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Russian Synod, in a tradition that relies not on papal leadership but on conciliarity.

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Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.


  • But aren’t the environmental facts on the ground the most important factor in discussing the environment? I struggle with the conservative approach here and with any group that puts too much weight on the labels it wears. The conservative approach tends to be a champion of individual liberty while trying to subject us to the tyranny of the past through an uncritical adherence to traditions–traditions here are the writings and practices of the Giants on whose shoulders we are charged to stand. This reminds one of Jesus’s conflict with the Pharisees over their traditions. And so having only read the review here the question is, will the environmental facts on the ground have to battle Western traditions for a chance to have a greater say in determining environmental policies?

  • war.critic

    I’m afraid Siewers is too kind. As the book got better as it progressed he seems to have forgotten just how bad and anti-Christian the premises set up in the first chapter are.

    As he says, the presentation of the Orthodox ethos in the latter chapters is done fairly well and there is little to argue with. The books’ attempt to wed that ethos to, though–and even to marshal it in defense of–Modernity is absurd. Only one can stand and the authors know it. The tone of the first chapter and its outright assertion that the teaching of the Fathers and the anthropology of the Church must fall in line behind the “advances” of modern economics and sociology leave little doubt as to which side they are ultimately loyal to. This volume is not to be recommended, especially to conservative-ish Americans who already have a bad case of the Libertarian croup.

    • Dylan Pahman

      I think you are missing a key distinction between principle and prudence. The authors believe that the principles of the Orthodox faith do not rule out using the insights from modern social science for prudential matters such as how best to care for the environment. Orthodox Christians can disagree about the best means to the same end without either side being heretical.

      Similarly, should we reject the insights of Copernicus or Newton because they contradict the physics of the fathers? Or should we, instead, explore what principles guided the fathers in their reflections on the natural world — such as, among other things, an openness to the science of their own day — and augment our application of these principles in the modern day with the insights of modern science?