Living In God's Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2009)
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.