While some environmentalists claim that Judaism and Christianity have been neglectful of environmental concerns, the history of these faith traditions shows otherwise. Matthea Brandenburg looks at the patristic witness, using the recent work of an Eastern Catholic scholar who argues that prayer and a healthy, every-day asceticism can keep relations between Creation and Creator on solid footing. What’s more, we should also be cautious about secularized views of nature offered by contemporary Gnostics—technocrats with “special” knowledge. Subscribe to the free, weekly Acton News & Commentary and other publications here.
Christianity, the Environment, and Modern Gnostics
By Matthea Brandenburg
In the public square, Christianity has often been mischaracterized in the environmental debate. Many environmentalists, both secular and religious, contend that the Christian and Jewish traditions are opposed to sound environmental policies, and have been for thousands of years. In a 1967 article, American historian Lynn White Jr. argued that the Western Judeo-Christian tradition destroyed all animistic beliefs that protected the things of nature, creating a habit of exploitation and an attitude of indifference to the natural world.
It is good to be reminded, then, of the important contributions made by Christianity to a proper understanding of the environment and human beings’ relationship to it. In a recent lecture for the Aquinas College Catholic Studies Colloquium, Ukrainian Catholic priest and visiting Fulbright Scholar, Father Oleh Kindiy, offered such a reminder in his paper, “Salvation of the Creation: The Teaching of the Church Fathers on Environment.”
Through a balanced understanding of environmental principles, Christians can be great defenders of the environment, not for merely political or material reasons, but in recognition of God’s call for humans to be stewards of his creation. “The Church Fathers believed people are the mediators between God and creation,” stated Kindiy in his Aquinas College lecture. “The vision of the Church Fathers lays the foundation for a worldview, in which the environment is considered part of human responsibility, as opposed to the positivist and dualistic idea that it is a passive matter that can only be used to satisfy human needs.”
Where Do We Fit In?
An important first step in understanding the environment is to identify its contents. Humans are but one part of the environment, as are trees, plants, and soil. In the Eastern Christian tradition, particular emphasis is placed on recognizing the environment as the “whole cosmos.” Above all, a proper understanding of the environment must include knowledge of our role in this cosmos. As Kindiy observes, the Church Fathers devoted a great deal of attention to examining “the relationship between God and humanity, God and environment, humanity and environment, in very close interrelation and synergy.” This thinking has also been explained in Western Catholic thought. In Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself and vice versa.”
In terms of practical application, Kindiy offers a few suggestions of how Christians can improve treatment and understanding of the environment. Perhaps one of the simplest but most overlooked practices we can adopt is to pray for the environment. In rediscovering the rituals of the church, Kindiy maintains, “we see items of nature are used in the liturgy: bread, wine, water, etc.” The instruments are already present; we simply need to learn how to treat them. A second recommendation is to be become more prudent consumers, considering how much we purchase and throw away. This includes making purchase volume proportional to our needs, and for example, being cognizant of the shelf-life of food and not hastily discarding it when it still holds value.
A third way to become more connected with nature is through fasting, which “gives nature a break.” By consciously deciding to consume less meat or dairy products, for example, we allow nature to experience this rest. And perhaps most importantly, according to Kindiy, “Fasting teaches us how to be ascetic.”
But asceticism, a foundational practice of the early Church, is more than just fasting, denying one’s self material goods, or making a commitment to reduce pollution or human environmental impact; it is as Kindiy states, “a call to be virtuous; it is developing a relationship between people, creation, and the creator.” Kindiy continues, “It is not only about reduction, but about growth; asceticism requires nurturing, support, defense, but also discipline.”
Church Father Maximus the Confessor (ca. 580-662) describes the necessity of one’s proper treatment of nature in achieving spiritual growth. “It is according to whether we use things rightly or wrongly that we become either good or bad,” he maintains.
A call not just for monastics, but all people, asceticism allows us to more fully participate in God’s creation and life. It is also, as Kindiy explains, “a precondition for the renewal of the original image and likeness of God.” The term for this process, deification, is according to Byzantine theology, “the total transformation of the human person by divine grace and glory.” Deification returns us to the present moment, reminding us that our time of salvation is now.
A Cosmic Mistake?
However, particular visions of the world serve as impediments to deification and a healthy regard for creation. Kindiy contends that one of the biggest challenges for the development of the Christian dogma in the early centuries of the Church was Gnosticism. “Most of the Gnostic authors proclaimed that the created material world was the result of a cosmic spiritual tragedy, it was a mistake, and the sooner it disappears, or the sooner the soul is freed from the material body, the better,” he said. The Christian tradition, instead, following the Genesis account, proclaims the “goodness of the world.” In order to treat creation with respect and care, it must be acknowledged as intrinsically good.
Another shortfall of Gnosticism is the belief that knowledge saves us. Arguably, this view is also reflected in a contemporary belief that the remedies for all environmental problems lay within the power of experts, such as politicians and scientists. The Church Fathers remind us that we are not to be saved only by knowledge; we also need faith, a moral calling in our lives.
Christians, like all people, have an important role to play in the environment, the entire cosmos. Informed by the tradition of the Church Fathers and Church doctrine, Christians have a deep well of faith and history to draw from in contributing insight to contemporary environmental dialogue. It is our duty to regain a healthy appreciation for the material world, one that extends beyond secular interpretations that place nature as the highest good and criticize the faith community as being antithetical to environmental care.
Christians can bring a more holistic perspective to environmental discourse, recognizing the whole of the cosmos and our relationship with the creator of all. For when we view the earth as sacred and not as a mere object, we discover a much deeper value in protecting it, as stewards of God’s creation.