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Interview: Fr. Michael Butler on Environmentalism and Orthodox Christianity

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Kevin Allen, host of a weekly call-in show on Ancient Faith Radio, interviewed Fr. Michael Butler over the weekend “about how we might address the environmental issues that confront us today by appealing to the authentic Orthodox Tradition.” Fr. Michael is the author, with Prof. Andrew Morriss, of the 2013 Acton monograph Creation and the Heart of Man: An Orthodox Christian Perspective on Environmentalism.

In their April 23 commentary “Christian Environmentalism and the Temptation of Faux Asceticism” the authors note:

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. Moreover, we must keep in mind that it is the believer’s practice of asceticism, not asceticism qua asceticism, that is important.

For example, fasting out of ecological conviction, or eating “lower on the food chain” (i.e., avoiding meat or eating a vegan diet) is spiritually useless for the Christian. Fasting is not dieting; neither is it an ecological statement. For a Christian, fasting is a spiritual discipline that is fruitful when it is joined with prayer and repentance, a discipline that is oriented toward God to effect the purification and transfiguration of the heart. What is more, for Orthodox Christians to use the ascetical discipline of fasting for any other purpose undermines its real purpose. If we do not use ascetical disciplines to grow in a right relationship with God, we will not grow in right relationships with our neighbor or with creation either.

Listen to Orthodoxy and the Environment, a conversation with Kevin Allen and Fr. Michael Butler, recorded May 25 and now available as a podcast on Ancient Faith Radio.

While you’re at it, listen to the AFR recording of a recent talk by Deacon Dr. John Chryssavgis, the theological advisor to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (The Green Patriarch) on environmental issues. His “Creation Care and Spirituality” lecture was posted in January.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Tom

    If we eat meat in our times, are we not essentially saying that we neither care about Gods creation, our brothers & sisters, or the workings of our own bodies which God created in such a way that the excess or abundant consumption of animal flesh & by products has proven to disturb, hinder, & lead to illness, disease, & death?

    You write that abstaining from meat eating is not ascetic in its nature, but is it not true that by doing this we stand for the principle that we do not deserve to take more than our share of Gods resources? Since the production of meat is so incredibly resource intensive, & given that studies now reveal that we could feed all the people now on the earth plus an additional 2.7 billion with the grains & food stuff we currently feed to the animals we eat, is it not an ascetical act of self denial out of love for our neighbor that we acknowledge this reality & by abstaining we stand up for our poor neighbors right to eat?

    In addition, since it is now come to light that animal agriculture is the number one source of environmental destruction, by abstaining are we not rightly denying our own lusts for flesh in order to refrain from participating in the destruction of our neighbors environments & homelands that God has given them to dwell in?

    Lastly, since it is also now known & becoming ever more clear that the over consumption of animal products is the main factor in a host of the most common diseases & causes of death of man in our age, is it not right to abstain from this act? If we abstain, & in doing so add years to our lives, & healthy ones at that (God willing of course), are we not doing both God, the Church, & our neighbors a great service of asceticism? If in such an act we remain alive & healthy for longer, it will be an occasion to both serve others & spend more time in repentance & service. It also to me seems apparent that if in over eating animal products we end up with heart attacks, strokes, & other horrid disease, we cannot rightly say that it is Gods will. It seems that if God so intended the health of man to be brought about by eating so much animal foods, such disease would not be about among all the populations who eat in such a rich manner.

    Perhaps I am sincerely mistaken, but this issue weighs on my mind greatly these days. It saddens me tremendously to think of the illness we find ourselves in so unbelievably often that could be altogether avoided if we would correct our diet, & that in doing so we could also render a great act of love to our own bodies which God has created & ordered, & to our brothers & sisters whose lands are ravaged by animal agriculture & its effects on climate, as well as honoring Gods earth by not being so arrogant as to destroy it on the account that we love & need meat & dairy products, which science is ever more conclusively showing to be false. Is there any greater arrogance than to refuse to correct our ways on this matter when we are “willing to change” in other areas of our life which are far less impactful than this? It seems pertinent as it is written in James 2:16 , “If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” Yet, in eating meat more than a few times a week at most, we are guilty of this.

    In my perhaps foolish mind, I can truly think of no think greater that we can do in our age to love our neighbor, & in so doing loving God, than to remove ourselves from the participation in this industry that deals more destruction than war! Oh what will God say to us if we ignore such an easy opportunity in the name of tradition. Woe unto me if I am wrong, & woe unto us if we continue to participate in the destruction of our bodies, our neighbors, & Gods creation. Lord have mercy.

    Lord have mercy on my soul & on all Orthodox Christians & on all the world. Forgive me the sinner.