You alone are unutterable,
From the time you created
all things that can be spoken of.
You alone are unknowable,
From the time you created
all things that can be known.
All things cry out about you;
Those which speak
and those which cannot speak.
All things honor you;
those which think,
and those which cannot think.
For there is one longing, one groaning,
that all things have for you.
All things pray to you
that comprehend your plan
and offer you a silent hymn.
In you, the One, all things abide,
and all things endlessly run to you
Who are the end of all.
St. Gregory the Theologian, Prayer to the Creator
When we recall the Genesis account of creation, we tend to forget our connection to the earth itself. Perhaps this is a natural reaction; perhaps it is a sign of arrogance. But truth be told: we overemphasize our creation “in the image of God” and overlook our creation from the “dust of the ground.” Most of us are unaware that we humans did not get a day to ourselves in Genesis, that we shared the sixth day with “creeping things,” with all those creepy-crawlies we don’t want in our bed at night. So our “heavenliness” should not overshadow our “earthliness.” If, as Gerard Manley Hopkins said, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God,” it behooves us to claim solidarity with the earth and its living creatures, its vegetation, its darkness and its light.
In October 2009, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians and affectionately labeled “the Green Patriarch” by Al Gore, organized an interfaith and interdisciplinary symposium in New Orleans, entitled Restoring Balance in the Great Mississippi. It was the eighth such gathering to highlight the state of the world’s main bodies of water – a sacred symbol for most religions and a natural resource covering seven-tenths of our planet’s surface.
Yet even as over the past two decades perhaps no other worldwide religious leader has persistently proclaimed the primacy of spiritual values in determining environmental ethics, during the same period, the world has witnessed alarming ecological degradation. Think back for a moment on the Genesis story. When we consider the oil spill on the Gulf, likened to cancerous lesions on the ocean’s skin, can we repeat like God: it is “good”? Can we say on this page of the world’s history: it is “very good”?
So it would be fair to say that the hallmark of the Patriarch’s initiatives – as, indeed, the efforts of any of us – is not success, but humility. A sense of modest realism is what ultimately connects us with creation. For, in its own distinctive way, the earth – first – unites us: beyond individual or collective efforts, beyond religious or racial differences. We may not share political convictions; but we do share an experience of the environment: the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, and the ground that we tread – albeit neither equally nor fairly. By some mysterious connection that we do not always understand (and sometimes choose to ignore), the earth reminds us of our interconnectedness.
So our prayer in this splendid building should not serve as disassociation from the world, but as commemoration of the innate connection between God and people and things. It is a celebration of communion. When we enter this inter-dependence of all persons and all things – this “cosmic liturgy,” as the seventh century mystic Maximus Confessor described it – then we can begin to resolve issues of ecology and economy.
This is surely the deeper connection between religion and environment. The Ecumenical Patriarch recognizes that he stands before something greater than himself, indeed something greater than his (or any) faith. He was the first to dare broaden the concept of sin – beyond individual and social implications – to include environmental abuse! Some fifteen years ago, he declared:
To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For human beings to cause species to become extinct or destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; … to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing climate change, to strip the earth of its natural forests or destroy its wetlands; … to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – all of these are sins.
Religion clearly has a key role to play; a spirituality that remains uninvolved with outward creation is ultimately uninvolved with the inward mystery, too. The environment is not primarily a political or a technological issue; it is a profoundly religious and spiritual issue. And whenever we narrow life to ourselves – to our concerns and our desires – we neglect our vocation to reconcile or transform creation. Remember: Our relationship with this planet determines our relationship with heaven. The way we treat the earth is reflected in the way we pray to God.
You see: We call this crisis “ecological,” which is fair insofar as its results are manifest in the ecological sphere. Yet, the crisis is not first of all about ecology. It is about us; it is a crisis about the way we imagine our world. We are treating our planet in an inhuman, god-forsaken manner because we perceive it this way. Before we can effectively deal with environmental issues, we must change our worldview. Otherwise, we are dealing only with symptoms. In the eighth century, John of Damascus claimed: “The whole earth is a living icon of the face of God.” So we are less than human without God, less than human without each other, and less than human without creation. In the early 20th century, Fyodor Dostoevsky embraced the same truth in The Brothers Karamazov:
Love all God’s creation, the whole of it and every grain of sand. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things … more and more every day.
Yet in the wake of the April 20th explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon off-shore drilling, it was difficult to perceive the divine mystery in things. Given the magnitude of the Gulf Coast disaster, it was easier to blame British Petroleum. Heck! We’re Americans; let’s blame the British! But once we’re done with pointing fingers, we should start looking in the mirror. Is what we have what we need? Do we use oil to fuel how we live? Did I travel here on a plane to speak to you this morning? Why are human beings the only animal that cannot stop when “enough is enough”? Do we feel guilty for our part in the BP spill? Probably not; especially if our cars are hybrid and our homes insulated. How is it our fault if the world’s thirst for oil is destroying the planet? It is compelling that the earth reminds us of our denial. Still, we stubbornly refuse to accept that our comfortable lives, dependent as they are on cheap oil, are in any way responsible for the Gulf of Mexico being polluted by millions of gallons of oil. The Yellow Sea in China is safely distant for us even to consider! Yet how can we, as intelligent human beings, believe that a century of pumping oil-fired and coal-fired pollution into the atmosphere has no bearing on the natural environment? Trust me, no politician will get elected by telling us not to keep living this way! But my advice: let’s look in the mirror!
Habitually, we search for alternative solutions without pausing sufficiently, without being still to listen to the earth we have so burdened. It helps to recall that it is our actions that led us in the first place to this predicament. The aim is not to conceive formulas, whether political (such as cap-and-trade) or institutional (such as carbon offsets). In some ways, such remedies resemble medieval “indulgences,” comprising neither any radical response nor any real change; they merely create a sense of complacency.
We must reorient our lives in line with spiritual ethics: simplicity or humility, sharing or sacrifice, and gratitude. And here, I think, lies the heart of the problem. For we are unwilling – in fact, violently resist any call – to adopt simpler, humbler lives. Paradoxically, ecological correction begins with environmental in-action. First, we must stop what we are doing. We need a discipline of voluntary frugality. That’s the way of humility, of treading lightly on this planet. We’ve learned not to treat people like things; it is time we learned not to treat also things like mere things. Pride – you know – is a uniquely human attribute. It belongs to Adam; it originated in Genesis. Humble simplicity can reconcile a world divided by pride; it can preserve a planet exploited by greed. If we are guilty of relentless waste, it may be because we have lost the spirit of simplicity as sharing.
The challenge is: How do I live in such a way that promotes harmony and not division? How can I acknowledge – daily – “the earth as the Lord’s and all the fullness thereof” (Ps. 23.1)? How can I affirm that creation is not under my control, to be exploited selfishly? Learning to sacrifice is learning to share; it is learning to give and not simply give up. It is not denying, but in fact connecting. It is breaking down barriers, recognizing in other people faces – icons, we would say in my tradition – and recognizing in the earth the very face of God. We’ve seen the connection in the Gulf Coast between ecological calamity, community disaster, and human tragedy. To paraphrase a contemporary saint: “If you don’t love the ocean, you don’t love people; if you don’t love the ocean, you don’t love God.”
To sacrifice is to see more clearly, to restore the original vision of the world. It is to regain a sense of wonder, to see all things in God and God in all things. It is to move away from what I want to what the world needs. It is to be liberated from control and compulsion. Sacrifice is the critical balance for our controlling; communion is the necessary alternative for our consumption; and sharing is the appropriate healing for the scarring we have left on the body of our world and on humanity as the body of God.
So how do we live in such a way that reflects spiritual values, that communicates gratitude and not greed? Because if we don’t, then a significant patch of the Gulf Coast will have been lost in vain. If we do, then, believe me, we will hear the ocean groan, and notice the grass grow, and feel the seal’s heart beat. Then we will see the earth as God saw it on that sixth day, when “it was good.”