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

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.

In a February 10 wire story by ANSA, it was reported that Benedict XVI has once again exhorted economists and leaders to place “people at the center of [their] economic decision-making” and reminded them that the “global financial crisis has impoverished no small number of people.”

For those who follow Benedict closely in Rome, one might wonder why the Holy Father’s words, delivered during his February 10 general audience, even made national headlines. To be sure, it is not the first time we hear the Holy Father expressing his views on the price the world is still paying for not placing the human person, along with and our God-given freedom, innovation and basic dignity, at the core of economic models and financial choices.

The pope is perhaps sounding like a broken record, criticizing and admonishing the “same-o, same-o” regarding the global financial crisis and the Church’s social teachings. Why so?

No doubt, a wave of recent woes in the European financial news have caused Benedict grave concern.

The robust euro currency has experienced a precipitous fall since January 1, and especially so since emergency meetings were held in Brussels last week to save Greece — one of Europe’s most corrupt nations and lowest-ranking economic performers — from Euro-zone fall out; while earlier this week, in an unprecedented move, Germany and France threw on their red capes to rescue the cradle of Western civilization from the brink of financial disaster. Then there were the corrupt public officials in Spain who finally received severe sentencing for illegally boosting a once-thriving Spanish housing market. And the local financial reports became even more bleak in Italy, when in late January two of the country’s “too-big-too-fail” production plants (at Fiat and Alcoa) announced imminent closure, and thousands of their incensed employees rallied in union-led strikes to save their jobs in early February.

It was these same very worried plant workers who appeared under Benedict’s apartment window during a January 31 Angelus and heard the pope’s anger: “The financial crisis is causing the loss of many jobs and this situation requires a great sense of responsibility on the part of all: entrepreneurs and government leaders [alike].”

hard-of-hearing1Hence the pope’s sermonizing against the continued causes and effects of the financial market’s moral failings certainly still do have concrete realities to draw upon. The aftermath of corporate and political leadership’s deafness to the Church’s basic social teachings seems endless and with no sign of turning around.

So we should rightly ask ourselves whether we have become a little too hard of hearing, rather than thinking the Holy Father is not saying anything new.

The Holy Father, a patient and loving university professor at heart, knows that he should not worry about the needle skipping on his turntable of teaching: After all, he knows all too well that repetition is the best form of learning.

Sooner or later, our human hearts are bound to embrace the repeated Truth that continues to call us home during this dark period. Its final acceptance and application will be our only way out.

It’s not easy being a global warming alarmist these days, what with the cascading daily disclosures of Climategate. But if you are a global warming alarmist operating within the progressive/liberal precincts of churches and their activist organizations, you have a potent option, one that the climatologists and policy wonks can only dream about when they get cornered by the facts. You can play the theology card!

Over at the National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Program blog, writer “jblevins” is troubled by a lot of the skeptical talk about global warming in the wake of serial East Coast blizzards. Not to worry, if you’ve bet on the Atmospheric Apocalypse, because right away “jblevins” throws down the trump card [emphasis mine]:

… our call to care for God’s Creation is not contingent on weather events or even on scientific proof. We are called as people of faith to live in relationship with all of God’s People and all of God’s Creation. Part of that means addressing the way we have been living that has caused unbalance amidst that Creation. For us, this is not an issue of politics, or even necessarily of science. It is a call of our faith, as our principles again state, “as people of faith we are guided by the value of sustainability. Sustainability requires that we enable biological and social systems that nurture and support life not be depleted or poisoned.

There you have it. Global warming (note the semantic shift to climate change as the activists dig out their driveways) is not about the science, it’s about the “call of faith.” Now, I happen to think this is pious nonsense, but let us ask for the sake of asking: If your global warming alarmism is not based on sound science, then it is based on … what? Divine Revelation? Or is it simply a feeling, a mood, an emotion? As in, “I feel like Creation is poisoned.” (more…)

Blog author: jballor
Friday, February 12, 2010
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When it comes to energy policy, there is no perfect fuel. But in these debates, as elsewhere, the imaginary perfect fuel cannot become the enemy of the good.

And for the first time in recent memory, this means that nuclear energy, by all accounts a good alternative for the scale of demand we face, might be getting a seat at the table. Coal, which still provides more than half of the energy for the American grid, is cheap and plentiful, but environmentally and politically costly. And according to Popular Mechanics, it can only be “cleaned” up so much. That leaves a huge gap for other sources to fill.

As James B. Meigs writes,

Coal will never be clean. It is possible to make coal emissions cleaner. In fact, we’ve come a long way since the ’70s in finding ways to reduce sulfur–dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions, and more progress can be made. But the nut of the clean-coal sales pitch is that we can also bottle up the CO2 produced when coal is burned, most likely by burying it deep in the earth. That may be possible in theory, but it’s devilishly difficult in practice.

The rest of the piece goes on to argue how we’re really talking about “cleaner” coal, rather than “clean” coal. Remember that debate over whether it was appropriate to call sex with various forms of birth control “safe” or “safer”? We might well see a similar shift in language about coal from “clean” to “cleaner.”

But what about so-called “alternative” energy sources, like geothermal, wind, and solar? Well, as John Whitehead over at the Environmental Economics blog concludes, “…potential supplies of wind and solar don’t appear to be large enough to completely replace oil and coal in the foreseeable future. If that is the purpose, then no, alternative energy can not effectively replace fossil fuels.”

So for the foreseeable future what we’re looking at in terms of the sources of our energy, in the face of growing global demand, is a mélange; coal, oil, natural gas, and yes, wind and solar, all have their place. But so does nuclear, and that’s one of the positive takeaways from President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he commended “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”

The challenging for existing energy firms will be to adjust to providing the right sources in this mixture. One way to do this is to be cognizant of the alternatives and their relative costs and benefits. ExxonMobil’s “Energy Outlook” released at the end of last year predicted that the growth of some of the newer sources, like wind and solar, would grow faster than some of the conventional sources, like oil and coal.

This means that a focus on innovation and efficiency will move some surprising players to fill the demand for cleaner energy, and the vision of increasingly transient reliance on fossil fuels might indeed come to pass.

As I wrote in 2006, “The human stewardship of oil and other petroleum-based fuels entails a responsibility to use the economic opportunities they afford to find and integrate other renewable, sustainable, and cleaner sources of energy, especially represented by the promise of nuclear power, into our long-term supply.”

polyp_cartoon_corporate_social_responsibilityIn a private audience held this past weekend with Rome’s water and electrical company, ACEA, Benedict XVI expressed to local business leaders his priorities for improving true corporate social responsibility within business enterprises.

Prior to the pope’s speech, there was the usual protocol, fanfare, and flattery.

First was the thematic gift-giving. Benedict received a copy of the book “Entrepreneurs for the Common Good ” (published by the Christian Union of Entrepreneurs and Managers as part its series of short monographs “Christian Entrepreneurs for the Future of Europe“). ACEA’s board of directors then presented Benedict with special editions of the company’s “Values Card” and “Code of Ethics,” documenting the corporation’s written promises to promote “responsibility, transparency, fairness, spirit of service, and cooperation.” Then came the brief verbal exchanges between the pope and the corporate representatives, immediately followed by the precious and much-awaited handshakes and individual photo opportunities with the Holy Father, destined to become silver-framed trophies hung on ACEA’s boardroom wall and perched on the CEO’s desktop.

Finally, Benedict took a few spontaneous moments to congratulate ACEA on its centennial anniversary and offered a few kind words about its illumination of Roman and Vatican monuments and particularly about its corporate social responsibility program to improve water and electrical supply in developing countries.

All seemed like a perfect meeting between executive business and religious leadership. Surely ACEA’s board of directors and CEO were pinching themselves: They could not have expected anything better for their company’s public relations program. They finally got the “blessing” the wanted on their good enterprise.

But it was at this time that Benedict took advantage to sermonize and offer cautious words of advice to these proud corporate leaders, that is, on how businesses and their leaders should be truly socially responsible.

While presuming that Christian spirit may inspire any CSR program (instead of perhaps a company’s hidden agenda of image enhancement), Benedict underscored that any good social intentions and actions must be effectively rooted in allowing man to freely “produce, innovate, think, and build a future” for himself and his community. This is how we begin to be responsible for fostering a better, more dignified society.

These few words must be part and parcel of any corporate program and culture. They are to be truly lived — from the largest corner offices to the smallest cubicles, unlike the corporate personalities portrayed in the cartoon of this blog. These simple, core human values must gain priority over resolving external social concerns on much wider scales.

In addition, true social responsibility must be other-directed and gains its inspiration by nurturing “interpersonal relationships” within our own very work environment and immediate surroundings. In Benedict’s words, it must be rooted in “fair consideration of the expectations of our own workers, clients, suppliers and the entire (local) community”. Otherwise, behind the façade of a good CSR program may lay a selfish, individual-centered, profit-only seeking corporate mentality.

Oftentimes, while not necessarily so at ACEA, secularized corporate leadership is one that “exacerbates the concept of the individual” in which, consequentially, both workers and management end up “closed to themselves, retreating into their own particular problems.”

This is the very moral breakdown that brought about the great economic crisis. Certainly any good CSR program will fade away once the utilitarian need for a good public image recedes and if there is no true Christian inspiration behind the corporate mission in the first place.

As Benedict rightly says, even if ACEA executives have done much to act as good stewards while managing precious natural resources in a chaotic and ever-expanding Roman metropolis and have even done a fine job of providing valuable services for the environment and communities in poor countries abroad, they have really done nothing if they have not yet first promoted a dignified “human ecology” among their own thousands of employees, suppliers, clients and members of their local community.

My recent Acton commentary, Latin America: After the Left, has been republished in a number of Latin American newspapers. For the benefit of our Spanish speaking friends, Acton is publishing the translation of the article that appeared today in the Paraguayan daily, ABC Color. The translation and distribution to Latin American papers was handled by Carlos Ball at AIPEnet.com. Commentary in Spanish follows:

Fracasos de la izquierda latinoamericana

por Samuel Gregg

La izquierda confronta grandes problemas en América Latina. La reciente elección de Sebastián Piñera como primer presidente chileno de centro-derecha en varias décadas se debió a la incapacidad demostrada por la coalición de centro izquierda que gobierna en Chile desde 1990. Y en toda América Latina se nota el desmoronamiento de la izquierda que por mucho tiempo sostuvo las riendas del poder.

Los futuros historiadores probablemente determinarán que esta transformación comenzó con la negativa del Congreso de Honduras, de su Corte Suprema, del Defensor del Pueblo, del Tribunal Supremo Electoral, de los dos principales partidos políticos y de los obispos católicos a que el ex presidente Manuel Zelaya violara el orden constitucional, al estilo chavista. (more…)

Distributed today on Acton News & Commentary:

Human Dignity, Dark Skin and Negro Dialect

by Anthony B. Bradley Ph.D.

Black History Month is a time not only to honor our past but also to survey the progress yet to be made. Why does the black underclass continue to struggle so many years after the civil-rights movement? Martin Luther King dreamt about an America where women and men are evaluated on the basis of character rather than skin color. The fight for equal dignity, however, was derailed by a quest for political clout and “bling.” The goal of equality measured by outcomes, sought by means of government-directed racial inclusion programs, overshadowed the more challenging campaign for true solidarity based on widespread recognition of the inherent dignity of all people.

Beginning in the 1980s, many civil-rights leaders began to identify justice on the basis of social cosmetics, including how much “stuff” blacks did not have compared to whites—size of homes, number of college degrees, income disparities, law school admissions rates, loan approvals, and the like—instead of whether or not blacks were treated as equals in our social structures. Equal treatment by our legal and social institutions may yield unexpected results, but it remains a better measure of justice than coercively creating results we want.

When Democratic Senator Harry Reid spoke the truth about President Obama being particularly electable because he neither had “dark skin” nor used “negro dialect,” it served as a prophetic signal that Americans still struggle to embrace the dignity of many blacks. Reid’s comments expose what many know but would not publically confess: namely, that having a combination of dark skin and “negro dialect” is not only undesirable but also damages one’s prospects for social and economic mobility. After all—some would ask—are not the stereotypical dark-skinned folks with bad English skills the ones having children outside of marriage, dropping out of high school, filling up America’s prison system, murdering each other, and producing materialistic and misogynistic rap music?

Civil-rights leaders would do well to restore the priority of fighting for black dignity so that having dark skin is respected and improving one’s syntax is encouraged. Theologian Nonna Harrison in her 2008 essay, “The Human Person,” offers a clear framework for unlocking human dignity by stressing human freedom, responsibility, love for neighbor, excellence of character, stewardship of creation, and human rationality. Imagine an America where resurgent civil-rights energies were dedicated to creating the conditions that support the life-long process of formation and transformation into citizens who know and love our neighbors, regardless of race or class. Imagine a resurgence of dignity that orders our passions, impulses, and reason to excel in moral character; a resurgence that elevates good stewardship to the status of a social norm; a resurgence that entails sustaining human life in terms of what is good for nature and human society; a resurgence committed to cultivating practical reason, enabling women and men to creatively contribute to the arts and sciences, to economics, politics, business, and culture.

A movement dedicated to fostering dignity in those engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors would have positive spillover effects everywhere: from homes to schools, from streets to the criminal justice system. For example, if freedom, responsibility, and dignity became the new platform for the “advancement of colored people,” black marriage rates would be redirected back to their 1950s levels, when the percentages of white and African-American women who were currently married were roughly the same (67 and 64 percent, respectively). An emphasis on practical reason would foster a return to the notion that education—not sports and entertainment—is your “ticket” out of “da hood.” Imagine an America where what it means to be a black man is to be a morally formed, educated “brutha,” ready to contribute to making the world better.

Decades ago, when the black church was at the center of the black community, these values were deposited from generation to generation. Today, in an era when “justice” means obsession with redistributing wealth rather than restoring dignity, character formation has been abandoned. Disadvantaged blacks are generationally doomed until we recognize that social mobility for those with “dark skin” and “negro dialect” flows from the expansion in tandem of dignity and freedom, not from pursing the siren songs of riches and power.

Distributed today on Acton News & Commentary:

Pope Benedict’s Defense of Authentic Equality

By Michael Miller

Once again the mild-mannered but intellectually fierce Pope Benedict XVI has provoked criticism over remarks that challenge the secular establishment’s provincial understanding of the world. In his speech to the bishops of England and Wales in Rome last week, during their ad limina visit, the Pope encouraged them to fight against so-called equality legislation. He argued that such legislation limits “the freedom of religious communities to act in accordance with their beliefs” and in some cases “actually violates the natural law upon which the equality of all human beings is grounded” and guaranteed.

Critics immediately jumped, claiming that the pope’s critique undermined protection of women and homosexuals in the workplace and promoted discrimination. Yet as usual, the critics not only mischaracterize, they miss the larger point. Benedict’s vision goes beyond provincial English politics. His concern is to preserve real freedom by revitalizing reason and respect for truth—not to pander to current fashions of ideological equality.

One of the more contentious parts of the equality legislation requires that religious adoption organizations end so-called “discrimination” and allow homosexual couples to adopt children. In practice this means that Catholic adoption agencies will be forced either to shut down or to act against their conscience. This is clearly a loss of religious freedom, but Benedict realizes there is a lot more going on.

First, Benedict’s remarks reflect one of the consistent themes of his papacy: to revitalize reason and a respect for truth in the West. In his famous homily before his election to the papacy, when he spoke of a “dictatorship of relativism,” and throughout his writings and speeches, he has challenged the limited and ultimately irrational notion of reason that dominates Western intellectual life.

Second is his defense of authentic equality. The current legislation transforms equality from a question of justice and fairness before the law to an ideological weapon to further secularist social policy and discriminates against religion. This pseudo equality manifests a vitiated concept of reason. The equality laws in Britain reflect less the British tradition than they do Rousseau’s notion of radical equality, which has been the source of much socialist and liberal thought. Radical equality now has become praiseworthy as something good in itself, separated from any question of truth, common sense, or even biological realities. This is what happens when we lose a rich concept of reason: Anything goes—whatever is currently politically fashionable among the elite, or is supported by consensus. Pope Benedict understands that justice based on consensus is capricious and unstable.

Third is Benedict’s awareness of the need to protect the natural right of free association and freedom of religion within a pluralist society. The current equality legislation prevents religious and other peaceful groups within society to live according to their conscience. It also smacks of totalitarianism. The right of association has been a hallmark of free and prosperous societies, a protection for the weak and a guardian of justice. When it is undermined for ideological reasons, society suffers. Not only does it prevent people from living out their beliefs, it also reduces the power of civil society to check the state. Benedict’s critique of the equality law is a defense of people’s right to join together for some project that benefits the common good.

Benedict has been harangued for claiming that certain parts of the legislation violate the natural law. What does this arcane Medieval concept have to do with modern legislation? Well, everything. The genius of English freedom has been to base its society on law, not on ideology. English legal culture is rooted in the natural law tradition. A Guardian editorial on February 3rd argued that churches have as much to gain from the legislation as they do to lose because it protects Catholics from being discriminated against when they look for jobs—and accuses Benedict of being protected by the laws he is criticizing. But Benedict realizes that if law is not grounded in reason and truth and becomes unhinged from reality, then justice gets reduced to power—Might makes right. As a young man in Nazi Germany, Joseph Ratzinger experienced a society where power was separated from reason and justice. He knows what violations of the natural law mean in practice. Critics miss that Benedict is the one promoting real equality and equal protection against a theory of justice guided by whatever happens to be the fashion at the time.

Andrew Brown—also at the Guardian—writes, “Just when it seemed that Roman Catholicism was a normal and natural part of the English religious scene, Pope Benedict has to come out with a statement that raises every residual Protestant hackle in the country.” Brown conjectures that the pope didn’t expect to be heard. But of course he did. And precisely because the last thing Benedict wants is Catholicism to be a normal part of the current English religious scene. This may be what Mr. Brown wants, but a church that does nothing more than sway with the prevailing winds neither inspires nor draws people—nor does it have the strength to stand up against injustice and abuse.

Politics, Liberty, Beer

Politics, Liberty, Beer

Those of you within striking distance of West Michigan won’t want to miss the inaugural Acton on Tap, a casual and fun night out on Feb. 25 to discuss important and timely ideas with friends. And then there’s the beer!

The topic for the evening will be “The End of Liberty” and will draw on Lord Acton’s claims about the relationship between politics and liberty. Discussion leader Jordan Ballor, associate editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality, will start it off by briefly discussing how politics and liberty relate to human beings’ greatest ends.

Here’s some Food for Thought from Lord Acton: Liberty and good government do not exclude each other, and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.

Where: Derby Station (formerly Graydon’s Crossing). 2237 Wealthy St. SE, East Grand Rapids 49506. (Thursday special: $2.50 pints). No admission fee or registration required.

When: Thursday, Feb. 25, at 6:00 p.m. (casual start). 6:30 p.m.: Jordan speaks!

About Jordan Ballor:

Jordan J. Ballor is a Ph.D. candidate in historical theology at Calvin Theological Seminary and a Doktorand in Reformation history at the University of Zurich.

He graduated in 2004 with a Master of Theology (Th.M.) in systematic theology from Calvin, with a thesis entitled, “Barth, Brunner, and Natural Theology in Bonhoeffer’s Middle Period (1931-1939).” His previous degrees include a Master of Theological Studies (2004-Calvin Theological Seminary) and a Bachelor of Arts in English (2000-Michigan State University/Honors College).

Jordan serves as associate editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He has authored articles in academic publications such as The Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, and Journal of Scholarly Publishing, and has written popular pieces for newspapers including the Detroit News, Orange County Register, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In 2006, Jordan was profiled in the book, The Relevant Nation: 50 Activists, Artists And Innovators Who Are Changing The World Through Faith. His scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and economics, and research methodology. Jordan is a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC).

Topic: Does Capitalism Destroy Culture? A talk by Michael Miller.

When: Thursday, February 18, 2010. 11:45 a.m. Registration; 12:00 p.m. — 1:30 p.m. Lunch & Lecture

Cost: $15 Admission $5 Students (including lunch)

Where: Water’s Building — 161 Ottawa Ave, Grand Rapids, MI 49503

Map it.

Register online today!