In 1997, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople coined the term “ecological sin” and since then his idea has come to influence a number of thinkers both within the Orthodox Church as well as others; the most prominent of which has been Pope Francis, who cites Bartholomew in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (sections 7-9) and who, in 2019, called for the inclusion of “ecological sin” within the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, what precisely does it mean to commit sins against nature? What exactly does sin have to do with the natural environment? Isn’t sin about breaking God’s laws? And, since there are clearly no explicitly ‘environmental laws’ to be found within the scriptures or historical canons of Christianity, or even the other Abrahamic faiths for that matter, how can it be possible to transgress a law that does not seem to exist?
Well, this all depends on how one understands the ideas of “sin,” “transgression,” and “law.” The idea of “sin” is commonly thought of as entailing a transgression and, “transgression” is commonly thought of as violating a command. Yet, a “transgression” may also be thought of as exceeding a limit, or overstepping a boundary. Further, in religious contexts “laws” are often thought to connote divine “commands.” However, as we came to understand in the first part of this essay, St. Maximus Confessor had articulated an understanding of divinely authored “natural law” that was itself to be found not within scripture but within the “book of nature” itself. When trying to wrap our heads around the idea of “ecological sin,” rather than think of sinful acts solely in terms of disobeying scriptural commands, one way in which we might make sense of ecological sinfulness is for us to think about the notion of “transgression” in terms of the various planetary boundaries scientists have discovered by studying the natural world itself.
Today, it is reasonable to suggest that most people understand that climate change is real and that it is dangerous. Our level of consumption and misuse of the natural world have negatively changed our atmosphere, weather patterns, oceans, environments, and the lives of the creatures within those environments. As Fr. John Chryssavgis reminds us, “We are at a moment of crisis and consequence. The Greek word for crisis (krisis) indicates a sense of responsibility and accountability for the way in which we respond to the unique and universal problems that we have created and face.” Our misuse and abuse of God’s gift threatens all forms of life, including our own. “For the church Fathers, it is clear that insofar as creation is a gift, it is a gift to all creatures in common” (Theokritoff, Climate Crisis and Sustainable Creaturely Care, 356).
With children to grandparents demonstrating on the streets in countries across the world, there is at last an acknowledgment that we can no longer prevaricate or leave promises unfulfilled—the time has come for urgent and decisive action. Many of these people are people of faith and part of our congregations, yet sadly, there is still a gap between the teachings of faith leaders and participation at the local/parish level. Yes, many will know that we should move away from “what we desire to what we need”—to create a lighter footprint on the earth—yet many will not, because little time is given at parish level for them to hear the teachings of our hierarchs or to discuss how to accommodate them. Bishops in every diocese and their priests are, therefore, essential for creating real change in individual behavior because few people read journals of theology or view metropolitan websites.
While the Orthodox Church has gained a reputation internationally as a “green” church, largely due to the environmental initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the reality is much more complicated on the ground. The science behind the human causes of climate change and its catastrophic consequences is settled, but the issue unfortunately remains a sharply divisive one among Orthodox Christians in the United States. American Orthodox acceptance of climate change falls largely along familiar dividing lines—liberal and conservative—as they have come to be defined in 21st-century US politics.
The political divisions among us are toxic, not only for church unity, but also because they allow us to be complacent, remaining stuck in intractable debates about the legitimacy of scientific data and the shadowy powers supposedly funding climate science, hurling accusations of “fake news.”
But the Orthodox tradition does not permit us to stand on the sidelines of the climate debate. Rather, it demands that we accept responsibility for the plunder of creation, work to restore equilibrium to our environments, and hold accountable those responsible–ourselves included–for the current crisis. Continue reading →
On September 1, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew issued a joint statement in commemoration of the ecclesiastical Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. As has become typical, this statement expressed concern for the well-being of the poorest of the poor while simultaneously overlooking the primary means by which their poverty has been and is being alleviated: development through industrialization and liberalization.
The hierarchs warn, “The human environment and the natural environment are deteriorating together, and this deterioration of the planet weighs upon the most vulnerable of its people. The impact of climate change affects, first and foremost, those who live in poverty in every corner of the globe.” Indeed, if trends continue, many project that climate change could increase the spread of disease, famine, water contamination, and so on in the developing world, which is currently most vulnerable to such dangers.