Does the Bible teach environmental exploitation? The publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ sparked an international discussion among people of faith on ecology. Some argued that the Pope was presenting a vision of ecology that was more political than biblical. The Pope’s desire to influence the Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21) through his encyclical gave this accusation fertile soil to spread. On the other end of the spectrum, many argued that Pope Francis’ encyclical did not go far enough. Given the Church’s pro-life stance on abortion and euthanasia, the Pope was criticized for not sufficiently addressing population control. Further, many environmental groups argue that the Bible promotes environmental exploitation through its language of subduing the earth and having dominion over creation. Between these extremes rests the answer to a question worth reflection: What does Scripture and Tradition teach us about ecology?
We must admit that certain modern expressions of Christianity do promote environmental exploitation. A more literalist understanding of the Bible can lead to viewing creation as something to use instead of protect. This reading of Scripture leads to the accusation that Christians are overly anthropocentric, focusing so much on humanity’s ability to have dominion over creation that we have little concern for the impact these decisions have upon our environment. However, this is only one approach to Scripture. When we explore the way early Christians viewed creation, we find the clear intellectual and spiritual seeds of a “Biblical Ecology.” In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis makes reference to this vision.
Modernity has been marked by an excessive anthropocentrism which today, under another guise, continues to stand in the way of shared understanding and of any effort to strengthen social bonds. The time has come to pay renewed attention to reality and the limits it imposes; this in turn is the condition for a more sound and fruitful development of individuals and society. An inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology gave rise to a wrong understanding of the relationship between human beings and the world. Often, what was handed on was a Promethean vision of mastery over the world, which gave the impression that the protection of nature was something that only the faint-hearted cared about. Instead, our “dominion” over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship. (Laudato Si’, 116)
One of the clearest voices in the early Church that promoted the vision of biblical stewardship Pope Francis speaks of was Saint Maximus the Confessor (580-662AD). Maximus was seen as a bridge figure between Eastern and Western Christianity and was highly regarded as a theologian. Of his many contributions to Christian thought, one of his greatest was the relationship between God and creation known as “The Cosmic Liturgy.” This vision of creation affirms that all of creation gives praise to God and seeks to be restored to its intended state with God.
In an insightful article entitled “Maximus and Ecology: The relevance of Maximus the Confessor’s Theology of creation for the present ecological crisis,” Radu Bordeianu lays out Maximus’ view of the fall not only from the perspective of the human person, but of all of creation. To go right to the heart of the question about anthropocentrism, Maximus argues that one of the core lessons of the fall of Adam is that humanity became increasingly focused upon self to the point of wanting the world to revolve around us apart from God.
Therefore, for Maximus, an anthropocentrism that views the human person as the center of creation is at the heart of Original Sin and the radical obsession of self that sin creates is the cause of an anthropocentric worldview. Therefore, to view creation in a way that exploits nature for personal gain is not an expression of authentic Christianity for Maximus, but is an embrace of the sinful disposition of heart that led to the Fall in the first place. Bordeianu then connects this view of the fall with our modern question of ecology.
Maximus’s insight is relevant to ecology because he specifies what happens when we look at the environment from the perspective of our selfish passions. Humans see it simply as a material reality, without any trace of the divine logoi in it. Moreover, they try to find pleasure in something limited, something that cannot offer them stability. Human persons exhaust natural resources only to realize that they did not find the satisfaction they were looking for in them, but that they have instead caused more damage to the environment. More and more they fall under the illusion that they will find the fulfilment of their passions in the universe, and thus they only worsen today’s ecological crisis by persisting in Adam’s sin. (“Maximus and Ecology: The Relevance of Maximus the Confessor’s Theology of Creation for the Present Ecological Crisis,” The Downsville Review. Radu Bordeianu, 2009. PDF)
This reflection of Bordeianu points to an important aspect of reading the Books of Nature and Scripture properly: The human person is a part of creation and what happens to creation impacts both the environment and humanity. Bordeianu reflects beautifully on Maximus’ view that the human person is a kind of “universe” in ourselves. Maximus also refers to the universe as a type of “person” made of those things that are seen and unseen. Therefore, for Maximus, a fall in the “cosmos” that is the human person is also a fall for the entirety of creation. Therefore, all of creation, not only the human person, is in need of “re-creation.”
Central to this vision of restoring all of creation is to view the human person not as ruler over creation, but as “Priest of Creation.” Maximus explains that one of the errors of Adam was to reject the call to be priest of creation and chose, instead, to gain pleasure from creation, rooted in the corruption of human passions (which we can also call exploitation). For Maximus, the heart of being a priest of creation is to offer all of creation, including humanity, to God so that God, in turn, can sanctify creation, returning the offering completely transformed.
This vision of being a priest of creation as one who offers to God for the sake of sanctification is at the heart of the Sacramental Life of the Church. Through the Sacraments, we offer gifts from creation (bread, wine, water, oil, etc.) so that through their transformation all of creation may be restored to and in Christ. To put this another way, creation itself has a role in the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation. Bordeianu reflections beautifully on this point in regard to Maximus’ understanding of the tree in the garden.
Maximus does not see the universe as a hindrance to our salvation, but as the environment of our spiritual growth… If the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden was actually a symbol for the entire Cosmos, which could be regarded either passionately or dispassionately, and Adam’s salvation depended on it, then creation is the environment for our spiritual growth. Thus, the relationship between humanity and the world is mutual: humans sanctify creation, and creation helps us in our salvation. (“Maximus and Ecology: The Relevance of Maximus the Confessor’s Theology of Creation for the Present Ecological Crisis,” The Downsville Review. Radu Bordeianu, 2009. PDF)
Bordeianu cites three main points of emphasis in the writings of Maximus to help us understand this relationship between humanity and creation in this process of sanctification: 1). No created reality has a meaning in itself, pointing to our ultimate dependance upon God; 2). The beauty of creation reveals God to us; and 3). We are to listen for the “hymn of creation” being sung to God through all of creation through the Cosmic Liturgy.
What is affirmed in these three points is that the mere acquisition of material things for the sake of acquiring them does not give the human person a sense of meaning and purpose. Rather, it only breeds a desire to acquire more things. True meaning is found in a reality beyond the created world. The way we come to know this is through the self-evident beauty of creation, which points to something beyond us. The beauty of creation reflects and reveals the glory of God, but not completely since creation is not God. It is this revelation that brings the heart to an act of praise, reducing humanity to Awe and Wonder in the beauty of God’s creation and God’s Presence. It is only fitting, from this perspective, that we are attentive to the “sounds of creation,” listening for their quiet hymn, to borrow an image from Hans Urs Von Balthasar, so we may add our voice of praise to this chorus of creation.
In light of these reflections, we can see that care for creation is well within the spiritual language of the Christian tradition. Our Sacramental life alone points to a profound connection between the gifts of the earth and the gifts of God given through this good earth. To be a good steward, we desire these gifts to be accessible not only to current generations, but also those who come after us. Therefore, to embrace the role of being priests of creation means that we also need to be attentive to how creation should be cared for in its natural state so it can participate in the restoration of all things in Christ for years to come. This priestly disposition of heart has many dimensions, calling people of faith and people of science together to tend the garden of the Lord. It is in this garden that we find nourishment, healing, and rest in the process of allowing Christ to restore all things in himself.
As we begin this week, reflect on how God is calling you to embrace a “priestly” role in and toward creation. How are you to care for our common home? Are you willing to offer yourself to God for healing and restoration? Let us all embrace our call to be priests of creation, removing from our hearts the anthropocentrism that poisoned our first parents in the Fall. Let us be outward focused in our disposition toward creation, seeing all as gift from God that we are to treasure and care for.