It is becoming increasingly common for theologians to recommend asceticism as a more eco-friendly lifestyle, as Fr. Michael Butler and Andrew Morriss note in their recent monograph, Creation and the Heart of Man. And that, no doubt, it can be.
However, as Butler and Morriss point out, it is very important, from an Orthodox perspective at least, to understand precisely what asceticism is. Rightly understood, they note, “to be ascetic is to learn to live rightly on the earth with God, our neighbor, and creation.”
The ascetical tradition of the Orthodox Church includes many practices: prayer, fasting, almsgiving, keeping vigil, inter alia. They are the active part of the spiritual life, our voluntary cooperation with the grace of God. As such, it is important that we not be tempted to use the ascetical practices of the Church for ends they were not designed to serve. Thus, we need to be careful of “environmental consciousness” masquerading as authentic spiritual practice.
Similarly, at The Federalist today Jordan Ballor warns of the dangers of having a misconstrued view of the natural world: “The natural world is not, on the Christian view, simply a wilderness to be preserved but is instead both a garden to be cultivated and a city to be constructed.”
Again, Butler and Morriss emphasize that true asceticism transforms our relationships to God, our neighbors, and the world. But how does it do this? What would an authentically ascetic outlook toward the world look like?
Asceticism, as I have written elsewhere, follows a logic of life, death, and resurrection. That is, we first must know ourselves, then deny ourselves, then we find ourselves transformed, risen to new life.
As Pope St. Leo the Great put it in a sermon on Easter,
when a man is changed by some process from one thing into another, not to be what he was is to him an ending, and to be what he was not is a beginning. But the question is, to what a man either dies or lives: because there is a death, which is the cause of living, and there is a life, which is the cause of dying.
The ascetic and sacramental life of the Church is that “death, which is the cause of living.” Crucified and risen with Christ through the sacraments, through asceticism we put our own wills to death daily that we might rise daily to new heights of love.
“[W]hoever loses his life for my sake,” says Jesus, “will find it” (Matthew 16:25). There is a sort of spiritual self-destruction involved in asceticism, a denial of every thought, conception, desire, fear, and so on, in order that they all would be rightly ordered toward God and what is God’s will of love for our neighbor and the world. As a result, we are better able to approach our neighbors in loving service and better able to approach the world with a disposition of thankfulness and a desire not simply to preserve it, as Ballor has noted, but to be cultivated for both the kingdom of God and the common good.
As such, if we are to apply the logic of asceticism to our engagement with the natural world, it ought to mirror the way in which we cultivate our own selves. As scandalous as it may sound, in order to make the world a better place, we must destroy it as it is. That is, to quote St. Leo again, just as “when a man is changed by some process from one thing into another, not to be what he was is to him an ending, and to be what he was not is a beginning,” so also to make the world better, we must not fear its destruction but rather destroy it, so-to-speak, in such a way that it rises anew.
For example, think of all the materials used to make a single solar cell:
Industrial photovoltaic solar cells are made of monocrystalline silicon, polycrystalline silicon, amorphous silicon, cadmium telluride or copper indium selenide/sulfide, or GaAs-based multijunction material systems.
Silicon, to look at only the most commonly used material, is mined from sand. Sand mining has its own ecological consequences:
Sand mining is a direct cause of erosion, and also impacts the local wildlife. For example, sea turtles depend on sandy beaches for their nesting, and sand mining has led to the near extinction of gharials (a species of crocodiles) in India. Disturbance of underwater and coastal sand causes turbidity in the water, which is harmful for such organisms as corals that need sunlight. It also destroys fisheries, causing problems for people who rely on fishing for their livelihoods.
This, of course, does not even factor in the tools and vehicles used in the mining process, which likely run on fossil fuels. Furthermore, silicon must be refined to be usable. We could add as well numerous opportunity costs and the ultimate net cost of solar panels compared to other forms of energy, many of which are far more affordable for the worlds poor, as I have noted in the past.
The point of this, however, is not to say that solar panels are actually ecologically evil. As Ballor pointed out, “Not all fuels are created equal, but there is a continuum rather than a dichotomy between more or less clean, sustainable, and affordable sources of energy.” Rather I simply point out that all cultivation of the earth requires some destruction of the earth and its ecosystems.
This Earth Day, as many no doubt will amp up their activism for their favorite method of environmental care, I would pose the following ascetic question: Is our destruction of the earth transformative — for the glory of God, the good of our neighbor, and the care of creation — or is it ultimately wasteful or, worse, harmful?
This does not leave us in a place to make simplistic pontifications in the rhetoric good vs. evil, but, asked continually, it would make us more prudent stewards of God’s creation. As Butler and Morriss write,
A steward’s task is much harder than either digging up every last lump of coal or refraining from touching any of it. In entrusting us with responsibility for the natural world, God gave us opportunities to exercise judgment, not a simplistic recipe. While life would surely be simpler if he asked less of us, it would leave us as less than he intended us to be.
Christ is risen! May we, and the earth with us, die and rise with him daily to newness of life.