Rivers are powerful symbols for both religion and society. In the Bible, rivers and water contain both a healing, redemptive quality (often referenced in the New Testament as “living waters”) and an ominous, deadly quality of sin and death (referenced primarily in the Old Testament as the abyss). We encounter both symbols when Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River. Since Jesus is in no need of the forgiveness of sins, scholars have often read his baptism as a theological statement of how Christ enters into our human condition, voluntarily takes on our sinfulness through his crucifixion, and offers us a pathway to salvation through his resurrection. Therefore, Baptism carries the symbol of Jesus blessing the “waters” of our lives, leading us from death to new life.
Broader society, too, often sees rivers as powerful symbols both good and bad. Thinking back to my childhood, the main stream that ran through my hometown of Amherst, Wisconsin is called the “Tomorrow River.” Though this river (more of a trout stream) would not rival some of the great rivers in the world, it is key to the identity of the small village of which I grew up, being the subject of local poets and songwriters. The very idea of the “Tomorrow” river often evoked in my young mind a forward thinking vision of hopefulness for our small collection of 793 souls (now over 1,000).
Moving from trout streams to main waterways, I was always interested in the writings of Mark Twain from when he was a Mississippi Riverboat captain. Having one assignment in which the Mississippi River was within biking distance, I was reminded of Twain’s shifting view of the Mississippi from being a river of beauty to one of constant danger amid the changing currents of its waters. In many ways, Twain’s reflections are metaphorical of how, in one breath, our world can see creation as something beautiful and mystical, while in another breath, these same waters can be viewed in more functional terms or, at worst, something simply to be used. Twain nicely points out this shift of heart toward the Mississippi in his brief work, “Two Ways To See A River.”
… a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, in this fashion: “This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark?” (Mark Twain, “Two Ways To See A River.”)
These reflections came to mind as I tried to grasp the major themes of the Religion, Science, and Environment (RSE) Symposia on both the Amazon River and the Mississippi River. Both rivers, in very different ways, are significant to the cultural identities of the peoples who live upon their banks. Ranging from spiritual interpretations of the Amazon to folksy Americana tales of the Mississippi, these rivers are a rallying point for lore of all types. However, the post Industrial Revolution world has seen these rivers as means of economic gain and social development, reflecting both the positive aspects of human development, but also an exploitive nature that has led to greed and a fundamental change in the environments of which the people live.
In regard to the Symposium on the Mississippi River, I was struck with how a major theme of the Symposium was the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. My recollection of this hurricane from 2005 was the devastating toll it had upon the people of New Orleans combined with the lingering question of whether or not this 200 year storm was made more likely because of global climate change? When reading and watching the presentations of the RSE Symposium, these questions were explored in-depth. However, what struck me most was the intense focus upon the man-made levees that failed during Katrina, exacerbating the crisis. One presentation cited that many scientists believe it was the levees themselves that allowed for greater destruction of the city and high death tolls.
The response of city officials and military engineers to these criticisms was a clear, “If we knew then what we know now, we would have created the levees in a different manner.” When listening to this back and forth between criticism and clarification, I was reminded how many times, in both big and small ways, even when the intention is not to harm the environment, but to find a way for industrial growth and creation to co-exist, industrial alterations to our common home often led to longterm consequences with the final assessment being, “What were we thinking?” These moments bring me back to the ethical and moral questions of care for creation, asking how a post-Industrial Revolution society that needs to use creation to continue technological advancements can approach the environment in a way that doesn’t devastate our common home in the process?
In regard to the Amazon, the themes of human industrialization and its impact upon creation were prominent. The core focus was upon deforestation and how this practice has adversely impacted indigenous peoples and created long-term environmental problems both locally and globally. When colonization nearly destroyed the native population that was dependent upon the Amazon, the river was transformed from being the sacred life-blood for people to being a “useless region” that was both an obstacle and opportunity for economic develop.
This shift of mentality has led to a disregard for sound laws meant to protect the local environment in favor of economic development that is hurting the environment and the people of the region. Metropolitan John of Pergamon reflected powerfully in his presentation on the impact of deforestation upon indigenous peoples by pointing out that ramped consumerism and industrialization divorced from sound care of the environment develops a worldview in which humanity is something separate from creation. This disjointing of humanity from creation begins to blind us to how our actions do harm to the environment. This was also a central theme in Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’, calling all people of good will to remember that we are a part of creation and not caring for the environment ultimately is not caring for the human person.
Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the RSE Symposia, reflected eloquently on how the theological understanding of God’s Economy points to God’s unfolding plan of salvation and how our response to that plan calls us to reflect upon our impact upon creation.
Every product we make and enjoy (from the paper we work with, to processed meat and the soy beans that sustain its industry), every tree we fell, every building we construct, every road we travel, definitively and permanently alters creation. At the basis of this alteration – or perhaps we should characterize it as abuse – of creation is a fundamental difference between human, natural, and divine economies. In the Orthodox tradition, the phrase “divine economy” is used to describe God’s extraordinary acts of love and providence toward humanity and creation. “Economy” is derived from the Greek word “oikonomia,” which implies the management of an environment or household (oikos), which is also the root of the word “ecology” (oikologia). Let us consider, however, the radical distinction between the various kinds of economy. Our economy tends to use and discard; natural economy is normally cyclical and replenishes; God’s economy is always compassionate and nurturing. Nature’s economy is profoundly violated by our wasteful economy, which in turn constitutes a direct offence to the divine economy. The prophet Ezekiel again recognized this abuse of the natural eco-systems when he observed:
Is it not enough to feed on good pasture? Must you also trample the rest with your feet? Is it not sufficient to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? (34,18) (Patriarch Bartholomew, Opening Address by His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, RSE Symposium on the Amazon. July 14, 2006)
When I reflect on the lessons to be learned from these Symposia, I am reminded of some of the ongoing scientific questions that have yet to be answered about global climate change. For example, in my post Seeing is Believing: The Role Astronomy Plays In Understanding Global Climate Change, I offered a video from NASA that discussed the impact that deforestation has had upon global levels of Carbon Dioxide. There has been a clear increase in the levels of Carbon Dioxide in both our atmosphere and the world’s oceans. The video explains that the oceans act like an “air scrubber” to keep the CO2 levels from increasing at an even higher rate in the atmosphere. The unclear question is whether or not there is an ultimate saturation point, similar to a sponge that can no longer soak up water, in which the world’s oceans will no longer receive CO2, forcing more of this gas to remain in our atmosphere? This is one of many troubling questions about our climate that illuminates one of the more difficult aspects of climate science: Much of the answers we seek are unknown with only time as the ingredient to reveal the answers.
In Laudato Si’, a clear response is given to the tension between what we know and what we don’t know about climate change: Inactivity risks more damage than good – therefore, error on the side of protecting creation. Often I hear people argue that since we don’t know what will happen in the future with the environment that we don’t have to change our actions toward creation. To me, this sounds less like a rational moral argument and more like someone who is struggling with an addiction, caught in the mindset of, “This isn’t killing me, so it must be okay.” I often wonder if this mentality brings us dangerously close to committing social sins of omission in which we know what we ought to do, but freely choose not to do it.
With this post, I have offered reflections on all the RSE Symposia hosted by the Greek Orthodox Church. I pray these reflections have given insight into the relationship between faith and science and how care for creation can become a logical and powerful point of agreement. We live in a world that can treat environmental issues like a political football, caring more for the “sport” of the rhetoric in favor of a sober treatment of the facts. An important insight I have gained through putting these reflections together is to remind Christians that even if global warming is not happening, Scripture and Tradition calls us to care for creation anyway. We are to adopt practices in our daily lives that promote human dignity by ensuring access to natural resources for current and future generations. To fall into the trap, as I have caught myself doing from time to time, of falsely thinking it is only in times of crisis that we should care about good ecology is a grave error. Together, let us learn from these Symposia and use them as inspiration to care for God’s creation and reclaim a sacramental view of the world we live.
(The last three paragraphs were edited after some errors were found in the information about global carbon dioxide levels. Those errors were corrected along with a redo on the paragraph on sins of omission)