04 January 2018

Œcology as revelation – a meditation for Theophany

I just finished reading Dr Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s 1967 collection of essays, Man and Nature, which discusses – as one might suppose – the current œcological crisis: man’s (and in particular Western man’s) constant urge to dominate and conquer his natural environment; his state of war against that environment; and how that war began, having its roots in the nominalists’ emptying the natural world of all but its measurable, material content. It is a fascinating read in its own right. I have a feeling that Dr Nasr is a bit unduly harsh on the biological sciences and has something of a naïve understanding of evolutionary theory, but his take on the intellectual history of science and on the history of philosophy of science is intriguing. It runs parallel in certain ways to John Milbank’s later history of social theory, and they tend toward the same ends, though they have slightly different reads on the ‘turning point’. In Nasr’s reading, as far as I can tell, it’s William of Ockham, rather than his fellow Franciscan and intellectual rival John Duns Scotus, who plays the primary rôle in sparking off the materialist turn in the approach to nature.

However, this was somewhat beside the point: Nasr’s argument is a plea for Western Christendom – a plea which is answered in part by Milbank and his associated scholars – to rediscover and reappropriate metaphysics, and weave metaphysics back into the spiritual disciplines of mainline Christian communities. Only in this way can the relationship between man and nature be repaired, and restored to a state of peace from a state of war. It is particularly interesting to note, however, that Nasr cited Orthodox theology as having stronger and more ‘visible’ links to classical metaphysics – and thus being more amenable to understanding that œcology has a sacred dimension.

As such, it’s understandable that Œcumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is dubbed ‘the Green Patriarch’, even by my fellow Orthodox. This isn’t to say that Vladyka Bart’s advocacy for the environment is an aberration or, worse, sui generis in our religious tradition: he is neither. Indeed, in the present day he is joined, gladly, by Russian churchmen such as Fr Vsevolod Chaplin, who spoke at length on the œcological need to curb our consumption and stifle our urge to conquer nature. And his advocacy was echoed in the Basis of the Social Concept, which not only speaks of an œcological crisis, but also places the onus of that crisis squarely on the shoulders of man, and most importantly understands the crisis as having a spiritual dimension!

The spiritual illumination of the entirety of the created order suffuses Patristic writings. In particular: Saint Irenæus of Lyons, Saint Basil of Cæsarea, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Gregory the Theologian and Saint Maximos the Confessor, are cited by Nasr as religious philosophers whose metaphysical bent led them to an appreciation of the sacred within what we would now call œcology. ‘A single blade of grass,’ writes Saint Basil, as he is quoted by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ‘is enough to occupy your whole mind as you contemplate the skill that produced it.

It should not take us aback that Saint Basil adores the created order in the Hexæmeron, in which work the above is far from the only panegyric toward nature. We should not be taken aback either by the affinity Saint Irenæus has for œcology. His theology is not only a populist theology insofar as the deepest truths of Christ’s Gospel are accessible to all alike, regardless of knowledge or social status: that formed only a part of his rationale for attacking the Gnostics of his day. Saint Irenæus refused to countenance the idea, popular in his time, that bodies are dirty and somehow unworthy of gnosis. (No, Plato was not a Gnostic either.) For Irenæus, it is important that human beings are biological creatures of flesh, and that we are saved by Christ’s having taken on our position and essence as just such a biological creature. We human beings partake in the created order, and are subject to the created order, and are saved through the created order by Christ:
And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a corn of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ; so also our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time, the Word of God granting them resurrection to the glory of God… (Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter II, Section 3)
And here, too, is Saint Gregory the Theologian, in his twenty-eighth Oration:
Peering in I saw not the nature prime, inviolate, self-apprehended (by “self” I mean the Trinity), the nature as it all abides within the first veil and is hidden by the Cherubim, but as it reaches us at its furthest remove from God, being, so far as I can understand, the grandeur, or as divine David calls it the “majesty” inherent in the created things he has brought forth and governs. All these indications of himself that he has left behind him are God’s “averted figure.” They are, as it were, shadowy reflections of the Sun in water, reflections which display to eyes too weak, because too impotent to gaze at it, the Sun overmastering perception in the purity of its light.
The reason to value and cherish œcology – the created order entire, both living and non-living – is that it is precisely an ‘averted figure’ of the Divine. For Saint Gregory the Theologian, the created order entire, as it exists, is translucent with the light of ultimate Being. In fact, for Saint Gregory, we can understand the Divine in no more expedient way than through œcology, because it would overthrow the senses, to say the least, to look even in the slightest degree on the Divine Himself without mediation through a human, or indeed a non-human created, nature.

This is particularly relevant for Theophany, in which we are shown the Triune nature of the Divine, as mediated by the natural element of water. Indeed, we ought not to wonder at Saint Gregory the Theologian’s use of the language of ‘reflection in water’ to describe the figure of God as it can be understood by us: the Blessing of the Waters that takes place on the Feast of Theophany is just such a reflection, as it commemorates the appearance of the Triune God within the waters of the Jordan, and sanctifies the entirety of the life-giving compound through the appearance of the Holy Spirit within it. Water is a translucent compound – light can pass through small quantities of it without being absorbed or diffracted. In just such a way is all of nature translucent with regard to the Creator if we know how to look. And only by so looking can we overcome the urge to treat nature as so much ‘material capital’ to be acquired, so many ‘resources’ to be depleted, so many ‘phenomena’ to be grasped by the calculating faculty, so much ‘living space’ to be conquered.

The Orthodox view of œcology, as expressed in the Theophany Liturgy most prominently, is not nominalist. We are participants in and members of that Liturgy which blesses the waters and is in turn blessed by them. The natural element is both the medium through which the Trinity is revealed, and itself a participant in that revelation. We are not there as conquerors or capitalists, not as ‘sophisters, œconomists and calculators’. We are coparticipators with the waters, observers and partakers of the revelation unfolding through nature. So too must we tread outside the liturgical setting.


  1. How would the view you are articulating inform one's view on whether fracking should or should not be permitted?

  2. I believe it was Chesterton who said: ‘Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.’

    I happen to think that Fr Vsevolod Chaplin is right: if we become aware of the sacramental nature of nature, then it is a just and reasonable thing to curb our desires - including that for cheap energy, or profit from shipping it abroad (as we do with much of the natural gas we get from hydraulic fracturing).

    1. Thanks for that answer. But presumably that conclusion rests upon the assumption that fracking is bad for nature, a question which must presumably be determined by empirical evidence?

      I suppose what I am getting at is that your Sacramental/ Oecological perspective does not tell us whether fracking is bad for the environment or not, but on the evidence that fracking is bad for the environment it cannot be justified on the basis of economic benefits.

      Perhaps I am stating the obvious, but I'm not as smart at dealing with these abstract ideas.