Just How Useless is Orthodox Environmental Thought?

Posted by on October 24, 2013 in Environmentalism, Scholarly | 4 comments

Useless #3

Pretty useless, if we believe John Chryssavgis and Bruce Foltz, the authors of the Introduction to Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration. Their Introduction, entitled “’The Sweetness of Heaven Overflows onto the Earth’: Orthodox Christianity and Environmental Thought,” establishes the authors’ bona fides as environmental thinkers in the default liberal mode and illustrates just how useless Orthodox environmental thinking can be. I am not surprised, but I am disappointed they advance this position.

How do they show the uselessness of what Orthodoxy has to offer? They do it step by step. They


Begin with a statement of liberal environmental ideology.

Not with a statement of Christian Orthodoxy nor one rooted in Orthodox thinking. The Introduction starts out,

“During the past few decades, the world has witnessed all alarming environmental degradation — the threat of anthropogenic climate change, the loss of biodiversity, and of the pollution of natural resources — along with the widening gap between rich and poor, as well as the increasing failure to implement environmental policies. We are reminded — in a painful way — of this crisis, when we learn of the cruel extinction of flora and fauna and of irresponsible soil degradation and forest clearance, as well as when we endure unacceptable noise, air, and water pollution” (p. 1)

  • We are treated to  a sampling of scary words from the environmental alarmists: “alarming,” “threat,” “loss,” “pollution,” “widening gap,” “failure,” “painful,” “crisis,” “cruel extinction,” “irresponsible,” “degradation,” etc.
  • “[T]he widening gap between rich and poor” is taken right out of the radical theory of climate justice that tell us that “the gap between rich and poor and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change are not simply unfortunate circumstances that demand our attention and action, but rather the result of active efforts on the part of rich nations, wealthy elites, and powerful corporations to profit on the backs of the global poor and the environment” (On Justice Movements).
  • And, “the increasing failure to implement environmental policies” is assumed to be a bad thing, as if any given environmental policy is invariably a good thing or that any given governmental or trans-national action is a step forward in the fight for environmental justice and the alleviation of global poverty. (Should we do something, right, even if it’s wrong?)

Have Orthodox Christians no reflection on the real extent of anthropogenic climate change (Anthropogenic Global Warming being passé now)? No critical thought about any of the other claims? No consideration of bias in their sources, funding, agenda, method or conclusions?

Are we so certain of these presuppositions that we are willing to stake the Church’s reputation on them?

And, more to the point, does Orthodox environmental thought stand on claims made by non-Orthodox, Western activists and scientists? This last question would be silly, if not offensive. But the authors of the Introduction, having uncritically accepted the statements of Western activists and scientists about the horrors of environmental degradation, proceed to launch an attack on the very Western science they presuppose.


Continue with an anti-Western, anti-technological bias.

Chryssavgis and Foltz say, “Western thought in the modern age has not been kind to the created world” (p. 1). Noting the “unkind” work of Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, the general Enlightenment, Hegel, Max Weber, Feuerbach, and Nietzsche in “disenchanting” the world (as against “the quiet, largely unheeded voice of Gerald Manley Hopkins,” p. 2), they arrive at Lynn White Jr.’s notorious claim that “Christianity was singularly responsible for the present environmental crisis” (p. 2).

What we have here is a rejection of the entire technological project of the Western world since the Renaissance. Western thought (because it was cut off from the “enchanted” Orthodox East?) strayed into harmful and unfortunate paths. The whole project is suspect; indeed, all things Western are suspect, too. And there is not a single word of affirmation about the benefits of Western science, technology, medicine, or the global trade that has raised billions—billions—of people out of abject poverty in the last two decades alone. (See this or this.) Moreover, technological advancement is the very best means we have to alleviate the environmental problems that the authors bewail.


Indulge in a little Orthodox triumphalism.

But there is hope. Lynn White Jr., whose “On the Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” is environmentalist scripture, absolves the Christian East of guilt, which Chryssavgis and Foltz are eager to point out: “yet of those who actually read his essay… few stop to notice that at the decisive points in his argument, White explicitly exempts the Christianity of the East from his critique, commending rather than censuring its view of creation” (p. 2). The passage which they quote from White is this:

In the early church, and always in the Greek East, nature was conceived primarily as a symbolic system through which God speaks to men…. This view of nature was essentially artistic rather than scientific. While Byzantium preserved and copied great numbers of ancient Greek scientific texts, science as we conceive it could scarcely flourish in such an ambiance. However, in the Latin West by the early 13th century, natural theology was following a very different bent. It was ceasing to be the decoding of the physical symbols of God’s communication with man, and was becoming the effort to understand God’s mind by discovering how his creation operates. [Lynn White Jr., Ecology and Religion in History, ed., David Spring and Eileen Spring (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 26. Emphasis added by Chryssavgis & Foltz.]

So, the environment is a wreck, and it’s all the West’s fault, in particular the Western Church’s fault, but we’re not the Western Church, so it isn’t our fault. See? Lynn White wasn’t talking about us. We’re sorry about all the Western technological progress that caused the mess, but we’re not responsible for it. We’re from the enchanted East. We’re with the good guys.

Can science flourish in a contemporary Orthodox ambiance?

Offer nothing practical.

For myself, I wonder whether the wrong passage from White was emphasized. I would have emphasized the text this way: “While Byzantium preserved and copied great numbers of ancient Greek scientific texts, science as we conceive it could scarcely flourish in such an ambiance.”

The question begs for an answer: why not? Why couldn’t science flourish in a Byzantine ambiance? A better question to ask is whether or not science can flourish in a contemporary Orthodox ambiance. Science and other hard and soft disciplines—like technology, politics, public policy, business and economics—can apply our fine Orthodox theology in useful, practical ways that can improve people’s lives and positively impact the environment. Yet the authors don’t say so.

Instead, the authors maintain that, “For Orthodox Christian philosophers and theologians, the concern for the environment is not a form of superficial or sentimental love” (p. 1). But they go on to describe that concern as “symbolic,” “essentially artistic,” (p. 2), seeing creation “not mechanically but aesthetically,” “the personal revelation of a loving Creator,” “an endless love poem” (p. 3). Nothing superficial or sentimental here. More to the point, there’s nothing useful either.

There are real environmental problems that deserve study and resolution. Which of them will a “symbolic” approach resolve?

How many of the world’s poor will an “essentially artistic” approach feed, educate and raise from poverty?

Set “an endless love poem” against “alarming,” “threat,” “loss,” “pollution,” “widening gap,” “failure,” and tell me it’s not “sentimental.”

It seems Orthodox philosophers and theologians have desperate need of Orthodox scientists, engineers, public policy analysts, businessmen, economists and ethicists. Maybe a few books by these people, to balance those of the philosophers and theologians, would be good to have.


Undercut Orthodox strengths.

If the Orthodox philosophers and theologians can’t articulate useful, moral action to improve the environment, can they at least articulate some useful, moral principles to guide other people in their work? Maybe not, because, as the authors point out, nobody in the West accepts what Orthodox theology presupposes, namely the essence-energies distinction and the Logos-logoi theory (p. 3). While these are important, I’m not sure the whole edifice of Orthodox theology collapses if these two ideas aren’t front and center all the time. Indeed, if I have my history right, St. Maximus the Confessor (architect of the Logos-logoi theory) and St. Gregory Palamas (of the essence-energies distinction) weren’t widely studied, even in Orthodox countries, prior to the Neo-Patristic revival of the 1940’s. So emphasizing their contribution to Orthodox thought is a recent development. Surely there are other Fathers, with other perspectives, who have something to contribute, that the West might accept?

How about the Orthodox ascetical and spiritual tradition? Does that have anything to offer? Chryssavgis and Foltz tell us the Western world doesn’t need that either, not even its practice of natural contemplation, since “nature poets and naturalists such as [Henry David] Thoreau and [John] Muir” discovered it “to some degree, independently in the West,” and achieved their insights without it (p. 3).

So where does that leave us? An Orthodoxy that is holy but useless and a Western technology that is useful but unholy. Is that really the choice we are left with? Even if the situation is not as stark as all that, it does underscore the need for Orthodox Christians competent in practical fields to find creative ways to apply the insights of Orthodox theology in ways that not merely pretty, but useful.


Addendum: Some early responses to this blog post took me to mean that I am criticizing the whole book and discouraging people from buying it and reading it. Far from it. The comments above concern the “Introduction” alone, with which I am disappointed. As I noted in an earlier blog post, Toward an Ecology of Transfiguration is a large collection of essays by thirty-one different authors, most of them new, but some of them classics of Orthodox thought on the environment. Having the classic essays collected together is alone worth the price of the book, and the new essays promise great insight. If you’re interested in Orthodox environmental thought, this is probably the handiest single resource you can find. My apologies if I was unclear.

Further note: Welcome Real Clear Religion readers! Dr Bruce Foltz has responded to this blog post in an article on RCR, Holy Green Orthodoxy, published on 4 November. I invite you to read it, if you haven’t. Also, I comment on Dr Foltz’s article in another blog post, which can be found here.


  1. Martin Luther would have a few choice words for these guys:


    • Why do you say that?

  2. I read your review on the intro of this book. I have a couple of points to make regarding your review:

    1. A very good commentary to read regarding the environment is St. Basil the Great’s commentary on the Hexaemeron. He writes an exegesis of Genesis Chapter 1. It’s very enlightening about the environment.

    2. St. Gregory Palamas was a Hesychast. He believed that the prophets were closest in their knowledge of God as opposed to philosophers. This is a very important point in Orthodox Christianity because it stresses the importance of faith in God and not knowledge in God. Also, without St. Gregory, we may not have had the Jesus Prayer.

    3. St. Maximus the Confessor as you well know suffered greatly for his opposition of the Monothelites during the Monothelite controversy. To say that Christ’s Personhood would not impact the Orthodox Church is a misstatement. The Nicene Creed was written to combat heresies about Christ’s Personhood.

    4. God created this world and us but we are fallen in nature. But having said that, He has made us caretakers of His creation and what have we done with taking care of our world? Nothing really. As a library patron, I’m entrusted with the library’s property. Would I throw it on the ground, destroy it? No.

    5. Science is science. In my opinion, the whole science v. religion debate is overrated.

    Thank you for listening. I hope you take it easy on me if you decide to respond to my comment.


    • Thank you kindly for taking the time to write. I do appreciate it, and I think all that you say is true.

      You ask, what have we done to take care of our world? I ask the same thing, and that is the root of my disappointment with the book’s Introduction. I want to know how to apply all of our fine Orthodox theology in ways that speak to environmental issues and help us to live our Faith daily, in ways that honor God’s creation.

      There can be a very big gap between our theology and some of the problems of contemporary life (like environmental issues). How do we bridge that gap? I would like to think that it can be bridged, and I would like to suggest that it can be bridged when our Faith informs other disciplines—like environmental policy or business practices—that are closer to the problems we face and can deal with them in practical ways. What does Orthodoxy have to say to other disciplines, like science, business or technology? Does Orthodoxy have anything to say? Surely it must. (The essay in the book by Dr. H. Tristram Engelhardt speaks directly to these problems and possibilities. It’s called “Ecology, Morality, and the Challenges of the Twenty-First Century: The Earth in the Hands of the Sons of Noah.”)

      I was disappointed with the authors of the Introduction because they did not speak of the good things that science and technology have done to help address environmental issues. It is true, as they rightly point out, that Western thought has not be kind to nature in the modern era, but it is also true that Western thought has done marvelous things to help the environment as well, and to overcome disease, and to raise billions of the world’s poor out of poverty. There are things to be criticized, true, but there are things to be celebrated, as well. I thought that the author’s criticism of Western thought was too broad and, because of that, people in the West who might be open to what Orthodox Christians have to say would be offended and conclude that we had nothing worthwhile to say to them. That would be unfortunate.

      I do believe that, fundamentally, the authors of the Introduction and I are in agreement on most things, certainly in our Faith in Christ and faithfulness to Orthodoxy, but we are also probably in agreement about most things concerning the environment, too. I suspect that we differ only in approach and emphasis, and that through further engagement and discussion we will all come to greater understanding of each other and of the world in which we live.

      If we are passionate about what we write, it is only because we care. If we generate more smoke and heat than light, then our sinfulness has gotten in the way, and that doesn’t do anybody any good.

      Forgive me if in anything I have given offense. Thank you again for writing and giving me the opportunity to clarify my own thoughts further.

      May Paradise consume us.



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