Ethics in the Book of Nature
The Climate Crisis and Ecological Sin, Part 1

by Chris Durante

Book of Nature
Image: iStock.com/Matt_Gibson

With another season of creation care upon us, we should take heed of the fact that the most recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) respectively affirm, for the first time, that climate change is in fact the result of human activities and that the catastrophic climactic events that the world has been enduring the past few years are indeed occurring with greater frequency. On 6 June 2022, Dr. Hoesung Lee, Chair of the IPCC, described its sixth and most recent report as “a dire warning about the consequences of inaction,” stating:

“climate change is a grave and mounting threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet. Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future. We are not on track to achieve a climate-resilient sustainable world.”

As the years pass, the IPCC’s reports grow more and more dire, yet humanity continues to fail to take the appropriate actions to alleviate our ecological crises. Back in September 2021, our global ecological reality had grown so severe that, despite the theological and doctrinal differences of their churches, the hierarchs of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican branches of Christianity came together for the first time in history to issue a joint statement to address the world’s Christian oecumene with a single moral voice. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, Pope Francis, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, called for the protection of creation claiming that the “current climate crisis speaks volumes about who we are and how we view and treat God’s creation” (A Joint Statement for the Protection of Creation, 1 September 2021, p. 3).

Almost foreshadowing our current era, the patristic theologian Maximus the Confessor, a saint recognized and revered by the Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican churches, had claimed that “Creation is the accuser of the ungodly” and even went as far as to say “that by means of the visible [natural] world we should understand whence we came, what we are, for what purpose we were made and where we are going” (Fifth Century of Various Texts, in the Philokalia, vol. 2). If natural creation is indeed accusing us, as Maximus claimed, what is nature saying to us? Ultimately, if the human-induced climate crisis does indeed reveal moral truths regarding who we are as a species, as the three pontiffs seem to suggest, how should theologians interpret the data garnered by environmental scientists? I raise these questions because I believe that part of getting on track to a more sustainable future is not simply getting the public policies right and inventing new technologies—which are both without a doubt necessary—but must also entail changing how we value the natural world, including our understanding of what natural creation inherently is as well as what we may learn from studying the natural world itself.

St. Maximus believed that humans are to live in accordance with nature, and in order to do so, humans must acquire an understanding of the divine order that inheres within, and which vivifies, structures, and organizes, the natural world. In a manner that almost foreshadows modern eco-theologians, Maximus suggested that in addition to receiving divine wisdom from reading scripture that humanity can also receive divine wisdom from being attentive to the teachings found within the natural world itself (On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios, 13.2-15.2, trans. Maximos Constas). Ultimately, Maximus held what me might call a “two-book approach” to revelation, wherein the divine will is revealed through both scripture and nature. From such a perspective, it is not simply from the rational constructions of our own subjective minds where we will discover the moral precepts that will lead us toward an authentic state of flourishing. Rather, it is toward the natural world that we must turn for our moral guidance on how to live in such a manner that we can simultaneously attain wellbeing for ourselves, our fellow creatures, and the planet we are called to care for.

Maximus presents us with a drastically different understanding of “natural law” than that which developed in the medieval and modern Western intellectual tradition insofar as, for Maximus, the “natural laws” are actually the divine logoi, or divine “words” and “principles,” immanently incarnate in the natural world. Yet, how is this possible? As is the case with other forms of monotheism, the Orthodox Christian tradition believes that the natural world is divinely created, yet, unlike some forms of monotheism and other types of Christianity, the Orthodox tradition also maintains that the entirety of the natural world is permeated by divine energies that are living and active within every biotic and abiotic existent in the cosmos. Rather than viewing the “transcendent” and the “immanent” as polar opposites, from this panentheistic perspective, divine transcendence is immanently present within all of created existence and is that which perpetually imbues the natural world with its regenerative vitality. Consequently, from this perspective, it becomes easy to understand how the “book of nature” may also be seen as revelatory of the divine will.

The notion that there are in fact two sources of revelation, one scriptural and one natural, is a profoundly important, yet under-examined, aspect of early Patristic thought, especially as it pertains to the engagement between Christian theology and the environmental sciences. If, as Maximus claims, the natural law is to be found within the principles and processes of the natural world itself, it would appear that the natural law is, at least in part, discovered through analysis of, and reflection upon, the natural world itself. Consequently, we may come to realize that what ecologists and climate scientists discover may not simply be scientifically important but that their data may also be conveying ethical insights into the precepts prescribed by the “natural law.” If this is true, which I believe it is, then environmental scientists may have a crucial role to play in helping theologians read the book of nature, and therefore, we ought to seek to enlist science as an ally in theology’s quest to discern the divine wisdom revealed within the natural created order to formulate a viable vision of human flourishing for our current and future generations.


Chris Durante,  Ph.D.,  M.A.,  M.Sc., is an Associate Professor of Theology at Saint Peter’s University in NJ, a Fellow of the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics & Human Rights in Rome, Italy as well as a Fellow of the New Visions in Theological Anthropology initiative of the School of Divinity at St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, UK. Dr. Durante has also been involved with the “Greening the Orthodox Parish” initiative of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.