Book Retrospective Review | Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology

Reviewed by Scot F. Martin

Flourish magazine, Spring 2011

Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology
Elizabeth Theokritoff
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009, 266 pages

What if caring for creation was not just about protecting the biosphere, serving God, or even simply keeping ourselves healthy and alive? What if our sanctification was part of the process? This idea, along with many other ancient ones, is explored in Elizabeth Theokritoff’s Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology.

Ask the average evangelical about the Orthodox Church and you might receive a puzzled look or something about the ones that put on that really good Greek festival in the fall. Isn’t that the church with the incense and icons? Sort of.

While the Orthodox Church, or Eastern Orthodoxy, can sometimes be organized along ethnic lines, there are plenty of multicultural congregations, especially in the United States. And yes, they do use icons and incense during the liturgy. For those who are unaware, prior to the year 1054 there was one church with patriarchs in Rome (the only one in the West), Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Through time, linguistic and cultural differences, theological squabbles, and Muslim conquest, the unity of the church was shattered, ending in 1054 with a declaration of excommunication that, tragically, exists through today. While there are some indicators of possible reconciliation between Rome and Constantinople, the question for Flourish readers is: Have these Byzantine Christians ever given any thought about creation, about how one ought to tread on God’s earth? You might say so. In fact, Orthodox Christians have been ruminating on that (among other issues) for nearly 2,000 years.

Theokritoff’s survey of this subject is a great gift to all Christians—not just the Orthodox. She lets us glimpse a treasure chest of thinking from many of the church fathers. What was their anthropology? How should we view and treat nature? Can matter that decays, falls apart, breaks, and is used to create weapons like swords be any good? The book is wide and surprisingly deep for a survey.

Theokritoff begins with the church fathers because they were the ones who, on authority from the apostles, collated scripture and began to interpret it. They not only interpreted scripture but created doctrines around that holy writing in order to know how to navigate through the created order. For instance, the fathers stress the importance of the Incarnation to show the dignity of matter, but also to fight against the Gnostics who claimed that matter is beneath the dignity of a Creator God and was sometimes seen as evil.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the Desert Fathers or the ascetics. We moderns can misunderstand those women and (mostly) men: Didn’t they flee human society because of the evil in the world? Didn’t they hide away with eyes closed and ears plugged? Well, no. Poemon, a Desert Father, told a visitor once, “We have not been taught to be killers of our bodies, but killers of our passions.” Disordered passions lead to theft, murder, rape, and, of course, abuse of the natural world. Asceticism is about disciplining our wants—even the simple wants such as food—and making us masters of our bodies rather than the other way around, to paraphrase Paul.

Balance is the key, writes Theokritoff: “Between our attitude to our own body and our attitude to the rest of the material world there is a close correlation. In both cases, the key is not to shun the material, but to find the right and healthy relationship.” Further, “Asceticism provides the link between our relationship to the material world and our spiritual life. It reveals to us the way we use material things is absolutely crucial to our spiritual progress” [author’s emphasis]. The material world is a gift, she explains: “Not a ‘gift’ in the sense that it is handed over to us to do what we like with; rather, in the sense that it is never ours by right.”

Most in the West know of Francis of Assisi, but few might know of the story about how he tamed a wolf that was terrorizing a small Italian town. Eastern Orthodox believers have those kinds of stories too. Perhaps the most well-known is that of the Russian monk and mystic, Seraphim, and the bear, but there are others: Paul of Obnora and the creatures of the Russian forest, Archbishop Sava and his lion companion, Makarios the Egyptian and the hyena. Theokritoff doesn’t press the literality of these stories (Orthodox opinions vary just like evangelicals’ on many subjects); the point is that through sanctification, or theosis as it’s called in the East, we “catch a glimpse of paradise, of the created order restored to its intended state.” These stories point to a kingdom without violence, without fear, without enmity between man and beast. By growing closer to Christ, we grow closer to his creation, healing the fissures of sin.

The Eastern Church’s anthropology suggests that, in essence, the story of the world is not about us (underscoring the idea that the world is not ours to use to exhaustion or to despoil). However, according to Gregory of Nazianzus, man is a “ ‘hybrid’ worshipper…a king of things on earth, but subject to the King above.” Through man, heaven and earth unite, especially through the God-man, Jesus.

Theokritoff explores how Orthodox worship incorporates creation, not as a special “Earth Day” celebration, but as the normal warp and woof of Orthodox liturgy. “Man is uniquely placed. Unlike the angels, he is a part of the material creation; but unlike other material creatures, he is an articulate creature capable of conscious awareness of God. So when he fulfils his nature by offering praise consciously, he is to do so ‘in the name of all the rest.’”

All three great feasts—Easter, Christmas, and Theophany (Epiphany in the West)—begin with the reading at Vespers of Genesis 1:1. The Psalms, with all their natural images, are incorporated in every liturgy. Water and tree imagery play a strong part in Orthodox worship, for instance, water in baptism and Theophany, and trees, as Theokritoff explains, in that “Humanity misused a tree and polluted the world: God cleanses his world by the tree of the Cross. The misuse culminates in the instrument of torture and execution, the quintessential tree of death: God’s use of the tree reveals it as the tree of life.”

At the heart of Orthodox theology concerning creation is that the world is a sacrament. The cosmos is sacred because it is a gift from God and He interpenetrates every single particle. God’s image is in the world and reflects that image back for His glory. Nature points to God, but not simply for apologetic reasons: “What we can learn above all from the Fathers’ understanding of nature is not arguments or proofs for God’s existence but a way of seeing a perception of the world around us that is profoundly theological” [author’s emphasis].

Centered in this “sacramental cosmology” is the Eucharist. God, using the stuff of earth—bread and wine—offers himself to us as we offer the bread and wine to him. “We offer back to God his own gifts (since nothing in the world is our own), accompanied by the only thing that is properly ours: our praise, blessing, and thanksgiving.” The Eastern Church would say that we only become our true selves when we are grateful to God. We can honor him and the world he’s given us by holding in tension two poles of an ethos: the ascetic and the Eucharistic. “The ascetic aspect indicates that we walk lightly on the earth as we learn to distinguish need from greed. But the Eucharistic aspect shows how this differs from a joyless Puritanism: the emphasis is not on giving up, but on giving thanks.”

Every now and again, one reads a book that is truly life changing. You want to savor its words and ideas. With literature, one wants to return to that world again and again. With non-fiction, one looks at the world differently or perhaps wants to put into practice the wisdom the book offers. Living in God’s Creation is just such a book for me. While I’m not Orthodox, this book has opened to me ancient wisdom that isn’t considered by many evangelicals. Yet much of it can enrich our lives. The ancient church has thought long and hard about creation. We display an incredible hubris when we discard all that she has taught between the death of the apostles and the Reformation.

Elizabeth Theokritoff reminds us, near the end of her book, that through Christ, “our ultimate task is not to improve the world, but to transform all creation.” I don’t think that’s possible without the prayers of saints, the wisdom of the Word and the church in our hearts, and the power of the Trinity flowing through our lives.

Scot F. Martin teaches high school English, has been published in Wayne Literary Review and Absinthe, and is 21 volunteer hours away from being a “certified” Master Naturalist. He lives in Michigan with his wife and two children.

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